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Sahib az-Zanj, the Kharijite

Compiled by: Syed Ali Shahbaz
On 17th of the Islamic month of Shawwal in 257 AH, the Godless Ali bin Mohammad, a person of obscure origin and said to be a descendant of slaves, who styled himself Sahib az-Zanj or Leader of the black-skinned people of East African origin, entered the Iraqi port city of Basra, after his sedition met with failure in Bahrain, and launched a general massacre of the populace, burning entire localities including the Jame’ Mosque, where he killed the eminent grammarian Abbas bin Faraj Riyyashi while in prayer.
He is said to have lived for a while in the Abbasid capital, Samarra, where he mixed with some of the influential slaves of Caliph Muntasir and saw the deep financial discrimination among Muslim citizens as a result of state policy. He then moved to the Persian Gulf island of Bahrain, where he pretended to be Shi’ite or follower of the household of Prophet Mohammad (SAWA), in order to rouse the people into rebellion against the caliphate.
His following grew so large that land taxes were collected in his name, but the rebellion eventually failed, and he relocated to Basra. Here he claimed himself to be a Kharijite (renegade from Islam) and started collecting around him the bonded labourers of the marshlands. Soon, supported by the Arab Bedouin as well as black-skinned people, he styled himself Emir and embarked on plunder, death and destruction.
His rebellion, which coincided with the secession of Egypt by Ahmad ibn Toloun and Yaqoub bin Laith Saffar’s uprising in Iran, lasted 14 years, during which he seized southern Iraq up to Waset and parts of Iran’s Khuzestan, defeating several armies sent by the Abbasd caliphs, until he was defeated and killed in 267 AH.
He left a trail of destruction and famine, with agricultural lands desolate and as many as half-a-million people killed. It is interesting to note that the Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali (AS), prophesied the revolt of Saheb az-Zanj two centuries earlier, citing the Holy Prophet Mohammad (SAWA) as his source of information, as is evident from the following passage in Sermon 127 of the Nahj al-Balaghah: “O' Ahnaf! It is as though I see him advancing with an army which has neither dust nor noise, nor rustling of reins, nor neighing of horses. They are trampling the ground with their feet as if they are the feet of ostriches.”

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