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The Qarmatians (Arabic: قرامطةQarāmita "Those Who Wrote in Small Letters";[1] also transliterated "Carmathians", "Qarmathians", "Karmathians" etc.) were a Shi'a Ismaili group centered in eastern Arabia, where they established a utopian republic in 899 CE. They are most famed for their revolt against the Abbasid Caliphate; the city of Mecca suffered great indignity by the sect’s leader Ṭāhir Sulaymān[2], particularly with their theft of the Black Stone and desecration of the Well of Zamzam with Muslim corpses during the Hajj season of 930 CE.

The Qarāmaṭah were also known as "the Greengrocers" (al-Baqliyyah) because of their strict vegetarian habits.[1]



Under the ‘Abbāsids, various Shī‘ī groups organised in secret opposition to their rule. Among them were the supporters of the proto-Ismā‘īlī community, of whom the most prominent group were called the Mubārakiyyah.

Imām Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq designated his second son, Ismā‘īl ibn Ja‘far "al-Mubārak", as heir to the Imamate. However, Ismā‘īl predeceased his father. Some claimed he had gone into hiding, but the proto-Ismā‘īlī group accepted his death and therefore that his eldest son, Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl, now was Imām, who remained in contact with the Mubārakiyyah group, most of whom resided in Kūfah.

The split among the Mubārakiyyah came with Muḥammad's death. The majority of the group denied his death; they recognised him as the Mahdi. The minority believed in his death and would eventually emerge in later times as the Fāṭimid Ismā‘īlī, ancestors to all modern groups.

The majority Ismā‘īlī missionary movement settled in Salamiyyah in what is modern Syria and had great success in Khuzestan (southwestern Persia), where the Ismā‘īlī leader al-Husayn al-Ahwāzī converted the Kūfan man Ḥamdān in 874 CE, who took the name Qarmaṭ after his new faith.[1] Qarmaṭ and his theologian brother-in-law ‘Abdān prepared southern Iraq for the coming of the Mahdi by creating a military and religious stronghold. Other such locations grew up in Yemen, in Bahrain in 899 CE and North Africa. These attracted many new Shī‘ī followers due to their activist and messianic teachings. This new proto-Qarmaṭī movement continued to spread into Persia and then Transoxiana.


The Qarmatian Revolution

A change in leadership in Salamiyyah in 899 lead to a split in the movement. The minority Ismā‘īlīs, whose leader had taken control of the Salamiyyah centre, began to proclaim their teachings - that Imām Muḥammad had died, and that the new leader in Salamiyyah was in fact his descendant come out of hiding. Qarmaṭ and his brother-in-law opposed this and openly broke with the Salamiyyids; when ‘Abdān was assassinated, he went into hiding and subsequently repented. Qarmaṭ became a missionary of the new Imām, Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah, founder of the Fatimid Caliphate.

Nonetheless, the dissident group retained the name Qarmaṭī. Their greatest stronghold remained in Bahrain, which at this period included much of eastern Arabia as well as the islands that comprise the present state, was under Abbasid control at the end of the ninth century, but a slave rebellion in Basra disrupted the power of Baghdad. The Qarmaṭians seized their opportunity under their leader Abū Sa‘īd al-Hasan al-Jannabi who captured Bahrain’s capital Hajr and al-Hasa in 899, which he made the capital of his republic and once in control of the state he sought to create a utopian society.

The Qarmaṭians instigated what one scholar termed a "century of terrorism" in Kufa.[3] They considered the pilgrimage to Mecca a superstition and once in control of the Bahraini state they launched raids along the pilgrim routes crossing Arabia: in 906 they ambushed the pilgrim caravan returning from Mecca and massacred 20,000 pilgrims.[4] Under Abu Tahir Al-Jannabi they came close to raiding Baghdad in 927 and sacked Mecca and Medina in 930. The assault on Islam's holiest sites saw the Qarmatians desecrate the Well of Zamzam with corpses of Hajj pilgrims and take the Black Stone from Mecca to Al-Hasa.[5] Holding the Black Stone to ransom they forced the Abbasids to pay a huge sum for its return in 952.[6]

The revolution and desecration shocked the Muslim world and humiliated the Abbasids. But there was little that could be done; for much of the tenth century the Qarmatians were the most powerful force in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, controlling the coast of Oman and collected tribute from the caliph in Baghdad as well as from a rival Ismaili imam in Cairo, whom they did not recognize.

After their expulsion from Iraq by the Buyids in 985, a group of Qarmatians also settled in Multan.

Qarmatian Society

The Qarmatians' goal was to build a society based on reason and equality. The state was governed by a council of six with a chief who was a first among equals.[7] All property within the community was distributed evenly among all initiates. The Qarmatians were organized as an esoteric society but not as a secret one; their activities were public and openly propagated, but new members had to undergo an initiation ceremony involving seven stages. In an echo of cyclical Mazdean thought, the Qarmatian world view was one where every phenomenon repeated itself in cycles, where every incident was replayed over and over again.

The land they ruled over was extremely wealthy with a huge slave based economy according to academic Yitzhak Nakash:

The Qarmatian state had vast fruit and grain estates both on the islands and in Hasa and Qatif. Nasiri Khusru, who visited Hasa in 1051, recounted that these estates were cultivated by some thirty thousand Ethiopian slaves. He mentions that the people of Hasa were exempt from taxes. Those impoverished or in debt could obtain a loan until they put their affairs in order. No interest was taken on loans, and token lead money was used for all local transactions. The Qarmathian state had a powerful and long-lasting legacy. This is evidenced by a coin known as Tawila, minted around 920 by one of the Qarmathian rulers, and which was still in circulation in Hasa early in the twentieth century[8]

It has been argued that the desecration of Mecca and the stealing of the Black Stone was to symbolise the ‘end of Islam’.[9] And one western scholar argues that “they may not have been Ismailis at all at the outset, and their conduct and customs gave plausibility to the belief that they were not merely heretics but bitter enemies of Islam.”.[10]

The sack of Mecca followed millenarianism fervour among the Qarmatians (as well as in Persia) over the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 928 – an event which happens every 960 years. The date of the conjunction, 27 October 928 CE, was interpreted in light of Islamic revelation, which they saw as heralding a new period as a return of Persian dominance.

The Mahdi-Caliph

After this episode the Qarmatians reverted to their former beliefs and Abu Tahrir was soon back to raiding southern Persia and Iraq.


After defeat by the Abbasids in 976 the Qarmatians began to look inwards and their status was reduced to that of a local power. This had important repercussions for the Qarmatians' ability to extract tribute from the region; according to Arabist historian Curtis Larsen:

As tribute payments were progressively cut off, either by the subsequent government in Iraq or by rival Arab tribes, the Carmathian state shrank to local dimensions. Bahrain broke away in AD 1058 under the leadership of Abd al-Buhlul who re-established orthodox Islam on the islands. Similar revolts removed Qatif from Carmathian control at about the same time. Deprived of all outside income and control of the coasts, the Carmathians retreated to their stronghold at the Hofuf Oasis. Their dynasty was finally dealt a final blow in 1067 by the combined forces of Abdullah al-Uyuni, who with the help of Seljuk army contingents from Iraq, laid siege to Hofuf for seven years and finally forced the Carmathians to surrender.[11]

In Bahrain and eastern Arabia the Qarmatian state was replaced by the Uyunid dynasty, whilst it is believed that by the middle of the eleventh century Qarmatian communities in Iraq, Iran and Transoxiana had either been won over by Fatamid proselytising or had disintegrated.[12] The last contemporary mention of the Qarmatians is that of Nasir ibn Khosrau, who visited them in 1050, although Ibn Battuta, visiting Qatif in 1331, found it inhabited by Arab tribes whom he described as "extremist Shi`is" (rafidiyya ghulat),[13] which historian Juan Cole has suggested is how a 14th Century Sunni would describe Ismailis.[14]

Religious beliefs

There is a general tendency in the Sunnite and Shiite sources, when referring to the Ismailis, often erroneously call them Qarmatians without perception of the distinction between them. The Qarmatians have been discredited invariably as the extremist and opportunistically nihilist, and their extreme activities have been wrongly conflated with the Ismailis. Syed Abid Ali writes in "Political Theory of the Shiites" (cf. "A History of Muslim Philosophy", ed. by M.M. Sharif, Germany, 1963, 1st. vol., p. 738)[15]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Glassé, Cyril. 2008. The New Encyclopedia of Islam. Walnut Creek CA: AltaMira Press.
  2. ^ Mecca's History, from Encyclopædia Britannica.
  3. ^ Al-Jubūrī, I M N (2004), History of Islamic Philosophy, Authors Online Ltd, p. 172  
  4. ^ John Joseph Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam, Routledge 1978 p130
  5. ^ The Qarmatians in Bahrain, Ismaili Net
  6. ^ "Qarmatiyyah". Overview of World Religions. St. Martin's College. Retrieved 2007-05-04.  
  7. ^ John Joseph Saunders, p130
  8. ^ Yitzhak Nakash, Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World, Princeton 2007
  9. ^ Farhad Daftary, The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma’ilis, IB Tauris, 1994, p21
  10. ^ Saunders p130
  11. ^ Larsen, Curtis E, Life and Land Use on the Bahrain Islands: The Geoarchaeology of an Ancient Society, University Of Chicago Press (published 1984), p. 65  
  12. ^ Farhad Daftary, The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismaʻilis, IB Tauris, 1994, p20
  13. ^ Ibn Battuta, Rih1a ibn Battuta, Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Sadir (published 1964), pp. 279–80  
  14. ^ Cole, Juan, Sacred Space and Holy War, IB Tauris (published 2007)  
  15. ^ The Ismailis and the Qarmatians
  • Kathryn Babayan 2002: Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran, ISBN 0-932885-28-4
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • Slavoj Zizek 2009: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, p. 121 references this Wikipedia page on the Qarmatians.

External links


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