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The Shī‘ah during the Period of ‘Abbāsid Caliphate

Ghulam-Husayn Muharrami

Shī‘ism from the beginning of the ‘Abbāsid period (132 AH) up to the end of the minor occultation [ghaybah aṣ-ṣughrā] (329 AH) was a longer period compared to the Umayyad period. The Shī‘ah were scattered in the furthest points of the vast Muslim land. For example, a complaint was lodged to (the ‘Abbāsid caliph) Hārūn (ar-Rashīd) against Imām Mūsā al-Kāẓim (‘a) for receiving khums from east and west. When Imām ‘Alī ibn ar-Riḍā (‘a) arrived in Nayshābūr, two ḥadīth keepers named Abū Zar‘ah ar-Rāzī and Muḥammad ibn Aslam aṭ-Ṭūsī came to the Imām (‘a) along with innumerable groups of knowledge seekers and requested that he face them. The Imām (‘a) faced them, in the presence of various classes of people, to narrate the silsilah adh-dhahab ḥadīth. This ḥadīth was recorded in 20 thousand books by different writers.
Similarly, Imām ar-Riḍā (‘a), in reply to (the ‘Abbāsid caliph) Ma’mūn who had many expectations from him after his (forced) acceptance of the heir-apparency, said: “…This affair (heir-apparency) has never added favor to me. When I was in Medina, amputation of the thief’s hand was used to be implemented in the east and west.”
Also, the admission of the Sunnī jurist [fuqih], Ibn Abī Dāwūd, who was himself a stern enemy and adversary of the Shī‘ah, is significant. Following the ‘Abbāsid caliph Mu‘taṣim preference of Imām al-Jawād (‘a) view to that of the Sunnī jurists regarding the amputation of the thief’s hand, Ibn Abī Dāwūd privately reminded the caliph that in the presence of the courtiers, governors, ministers, and scribes he preferred the view of a person whose Imamate is acknowledged by half of the ummah to the view of all ‘ulamā’ of his assembly. Shī‘ism had even penetrated the ranks of the governors and dignitaries of the ‘Abbasid rule. As Yaḥyā ibn Harthamah narrates, The ‘Abbāsid caliph Mutawakkil dispatched me to summon Imām al-Ḥādī (‘a) to Medina. When I arrived along with the Imām in Baghdad, I went to Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm aṭ-Ṭāhirī, the governor of Baghdad. He said to me: “O Yaḥyā! This man is the son of the Messenger of Allah

#7779;). You also know Mutawakkil. If you would incite Mutawakkil to kill him, it is tantamount to declaring enmity with the Messenger of Allah

#7779;).” I said: “I did not see anything in him but goodness.” Then, I proceeded to Sāmarrā. When I arrived there, I went first to Wāṣīf Turkī. He also said to me: “If even a single strand of hair is taken from this man, I shall call you to account.
In the first volume of his book, Sayyid Muḥsin Amīn has identified as Shī‘ah a number of ‘Abbāsid statesmen such as Abū Salmah Khalāl, the first vizier of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate who was called the Vizier of the Prophet’s Progeny [wazīr āl Muḥammad]; Abū Bukhayr Asadī al-Baṣrī, one of the prominent governors and emirs during the time of (the ‘Abbāsid caliph) Manṣūr; Muḥammad ibn Ash‘ath, the vizier of Hārūn ar-Rashīd, about whom there is a story during the detention of Imām al-Kāẓim (‘a) which demonstrates his being a Shī‘ah; ‘Alī ibn Yaqṭayn, one of the viziers of Hārūn; Ya‘qūb ibn Dāwūd, the vizier of the ‘Abbāsid caliph Mahdī; and Ṭāhir ibn Ḥusayn Khazā‘ī, the governor of Khurāsān on behalf of Ma’mūn and conqueror of Baghdad on account of which Ḥasan ibn Sahl did not dispatch him to the Battle of Abī’s-Sarāyā.
Among the Shī‘ah judges were Sharīk ibn ‘Abd Allāh an-Nakha‘ī, the judge of Kūfah, and Wāqidī, the renowned historian, who was a judge during the time of Ma’mūn.
Shī‘ism was so widespread even in the ‘Abbāsid spheres of influence that it was considered a threat for them. For example, during the burial procession for Imām al-Kāẓim (‘a) Sulaymān ibn Manṣūr, Ḥārūn’s uncle, participated in the procession barefooted in a bid to tone down the wrath of the Shī‘ah who formed an impressive assembly. Also, when Imām al-Jawād (‘a) attained martyrdom and they wanted to bury him secretly, the Shī‘ah were informed of it. Armed with swords, twelve thousand of them went out and buried the Imām with due respect and dignity. During the martyrdom of Imām al-Hādī (‘a) there was also a large number of the Shī‘ah and the extent of their weeping and wailing was such that the ‘Abbāsids were forced to bury him within the confine of his house. After the period of Imām ar-Riḍā (‘a), the ‘Abbāsid caliphs were so meticulous in respectfully treating the pure Imāms (‘a) so as not to face the wrath of the Shī‘ah. As such, during the reign of Hārūn, Imām ar-Riḍā (‘a) enjoyed relative freedom and he was able to attend to the scientific and cultural activities of the Shī‘ah, to even declare openly his Imamate and desist from practicing dissimulation [taqiyyah], to discuss and converse with the followers of other schools and religions, and convince some of them. As Ash‘arī al-Qummī narrates, “During the time of Imām al-Kāẓim and Imām ar-Riḍā (‘a) a number of Sunnī and Zaydī divines embraced Shī‘ism and recognized the Imamate of these two Imāms.”
Some of the ‘Abbāsid caliphs had strived to monitor the pure Imāms (‘a) with the aim of controlling them. When the Imāms (‘a) were asked to move from Medina, the caliphs had tried their best not to allow the Imāms (‘a) to pass by the Shī‘ah-populated regions. Along this line, pursuant to Ma’mūn’s order, they brought Imām ar-Riḍā (‘a) to Marv through the Baṣrah-Ahwāz-Fārs route and not through the Shī‘ah-concentrated Kūfah-Jabal-Qum route. As narrated by Ya‘qūbī, when Imām al-Hādī (‘a) was brought to Sāmarrā at the order of the ‘Abbāsid caliph Mutawakkil, the ‘Abbāsids who accompanied the Imām made a sojourn so to pass Baghdad by night to get to Sāmarrā because as they arrived near Baghdad, they learned that a large group of people was waiting to meet the Imām.
Since the Shī‘ah were mostly scattered across different regions and far-flung places during the ‘Abbāsid period, the pure Imāms (‘a) founded the proxy institutions of representation, appointing respective deputies and proxies in the different regions and cities to serve as a means of communication between them and the Shī‘ah.
This affair commenced at the time of Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (‘a). When the caliph’s apparatus gained a firmer grip over the pure Imāms (‘a) making Shī‘ah’s access to the Imām of their time more problematic, the institution of proxy and the role of the Imām’s deputies gained more prominence. It is thus recorded in the book, Tārīkh-e ‘Aṣr-e Ghaybat [History of the Minor Occultation]: “The most important of all is the enhancement and spread of the covert institution of deputyship—an institution which was founded during the time of Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (‘a) and further developed during the time of ‘Askariyyīn.”
In this regard, Professor Pīshvā’ī thus writes: The critical conditions of the Shī‘ah Imāms during the ‘Abbāsid period prompted them to look for a new means of establishing and maintaining their contact with their followers. This new means was nothing but the communication network of representation and the Imām’s appointment of deputies and trustees in the various regions. The main function of this institution was the collection of khums, zakāt [alms-rate], nadhr [vow endowments], and gifts [hadāyā] from the various regions through the deputies and remitting the same to the Imām as well as for the Imām to reply to the ideological and juristic questions and issues of the Shī‘ah and their political justification through the Imām’s deputies. This institution had pivotal role in advancing the objectives of the Imāms.
The places where the infallible Imāms (‘a) had deputies and proxies are Kūfah, Baṣrah, Baghdad, Qum, Wāsiṭ, Ahwāz, Hamedān, Sīstān, Bast, Rey, Ḥijāz, Yemen, Egypt, and Madā’in.
Shī‘ism during the 4th century AH was spread from the east to the west of the Muslim world and was at the peak of its spread and growth as it had never experienced before such a magnitude of growth. The list of the Shī‘ah-populated cities of the Muslim lands during that century presented by Muqaddasī points to this fact. Thus, we shall cite the facts from his book. Somewhere in his book, he says that many of the judges in Yemen, coast of Mecca and Ṣaḥār are Mu’tazilites and Shī‘ah.
Accordingly, Shī‘ism is so widespread in the Arabian Peninsula. Regarding the inhabitants of Baṣrah, it is stated that “Most of the inhabitants of Baṣrah are Qadirī, Shī‘ah, Mu‘tazilites, and then Ḥanbalīs.” During that century, the people of Kūfah, with the exception of Kināsah, have been Shī‘ah. There are also a few Shī‘ah in the Mūṣul district. The people of Nāblus, Quds and most of Oman are Shī‘ah. The people of the upper village of Fusṭāṭ and that of Ṣandfā are Shī‘ah. In the region along the Indus river the people of the city of Multān are Shī‘ah, and this fact is evident in their adhān and iqāmah. In Ahwāz the conflict between the Sunnīs and Shī‘ah would lead to war.
By pointing to the rule of the Būyids and that of the Fāṭimids in Egypt, Maqrīzī also writes: The rāfiḍī (Shī‘ah) madhhab [school of thought] spread in Morocco, Shām, Diyār Bakr, Kūfah, Baṣrah, Baghdad, the entire Iraq, Khurāsān, Transoxiana, as well as Ḥijāz, Yemen and Bahrain, and there were conflicts between them (Shī‘ah) and Sunnīs as a result of which those who were killed were countless.
During that century, there was a large number of Shī‘ah even in Baghdad, the capital of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate to such an extent that they could openly perform their mourning ceremony on the day of ‘Ashūrā. As Ibn al-Kathīr says, “The Sunnīs did not have the courage to stop this ceremony on account of the large number of the Shī‘ah and the support of the Būyid government for them.”
During that time, the ground for the struggle of the Shī‘ah was paved to some extent as many Muslim territories were under Shī‘ah rulers. In the north of Iran, Gīlān and Māzandarān, the ‘Alāwīs of Ṭabaristān were ruling. In Egypt the Fāṭimids, in Yemen the Zaydīs, in the north of Iraq and Syria the Ḥamdānīs, and in Iran and Iraq the Būyids were in the helms of power. Of course, during the periods of some ‘Abbāsid caliphs such as Mahdī, Amīn, Ma’mūn, Mu‘taṣim, Wāthiq, and Muntaṣir, the Shī‘ah had relative freedom of movement. At least, during the time of these caliphs the past repressions were mitigated. As narrated by Ya‘qūbī, the ‘Abbāsid caliph Mahdī had released Shī‘ah and Ṭālibīs (descendants of Abū Ṭālib). The government of Amīn unconsciously relaxed its suppression of and hostilities toward the Shī‘ah, for a five-year period, mostly because of Amin’s pleasure-seeking and his war with his brother Ma’mūn. The ‘Abbāsid caliphs Ma’mūn, Mu‘taṣim, Wāthiq, and Mu‘taḍad had Shī‘ī tendency, but Mutawakkil was one of the sternest enemies of the Prophet’s descendants and their Shī‘ah. Although the Shī‘ah were out of control during his reign, he used to prohibit nevertheless the visitation to the tomb of Imām al-Ḥusayn (‘a).
Ibn Athīr says: Mutawakkil used to regard as his enemies the caliphs preceding him such as Ma’mūn, Mu‘taṣim and Wāthiq who used to express affection to ‘Alī and his descendants. Persons such as ‘Alī ibn Juhm (a poet from Shām), ‘Umār ibn Faraj, Abū Samṭ—one of the descendants of Marwān ibn Abī Ḥafṣah and sympathizers of the Umayyads—and ‘Abd Allāh ibn Muḥammad ibn Dāwud Hāshimī who were regarded as Nāṣibīs and enemies of ‘Alī (‘a), were his boom companions and associates.
During that period the Nāṣibī nonreligious poets had earned courage reciting poems against the descendants of the Holy Prophet (S)in order to get closer to the (political) establishment of Mutawakkil. But Mutawakkil’s successor, Muntaṣir, adopted a contrary policy and gave freedom of action to the Shī‘ah, renovated the tomb of Imām al-Ḥusayn (‘a) and removed the prohibition on visiting it. Hence, Bahtarī, a poet during his period has thus said:
Åäø ÚáíÇð áÇæáì Èßã æÇÒßی íÏÇð Úäßã ãä ÚãÑ

Verily, ‘Alī compared to ‘Umar is nearer to you and he is purer.

‘Abbāsids Control over the Shī‘ah Leaders
Up to 329 AH the ‘Abbāsid rule in general experienced two periods: ascendancy of Iranian viziers and officials, and prevalence of the Turkish army. Although during the period of the Turks the caliphate’s apparatus was weak and most of the times the ‘Abbāsid caliphs were tools in the hands of the Turkish commanders, the government’s general policy was anti-Shī‘ism. Owing to the great quantitative increase of the Shī‘ah during the ‘Abbāsid period, the policy of the ‘Abbāsid caliphs was to exert control over the Shī‘ah leaders although the caliphs differed in terms of treatment of the Shī‘ah. Some of them such as Manṣūr, Hādī, Rashīd, and Mutawakkil were despotic, cruel and bloodthirsty. Others such as Mahdī, Ma’mūn and Wāthiq did not have the stringency of their respective predecessors, and during their caliphate the Shī‘ah had relative breathing space. When Caliph Manṣūr sensed the danger posed by Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah and his brother Ibrāhīm, he apprehended and imprisoned his father, brothers and uncles. Manṣūr summoned Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (‘a) to his court many times with the intention of killing the Imām (‘a) but the will of God was other than that. The ‘Abbāsid caliphs tried their best to remove the Shī‘ah leaders who were their rivals. Manṣūr even gave money and dispatched to Medina a certain Ibn al-Muhājir so as to go to ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Ḥasan, Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (‘a) and a number of other ‘Alawīs, and to say to them that the sum of money comes from the Shī‘ah of Khurāsan, remit the same and take a receipt. Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (‘a) reminded him that the Imām knows that he was sent by Manṣūr and asked him to relay to Manṣūr, thus: “The ‘Alawīs have been recently relived from the rule of the Marwānīs and they are needy. Do not deceive and dupe them.”
Asad Ḥaydar says: “In order to have a pretext in eliminating Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (‘a), Manṣūr resorted to various means; he wrote letters to the Imām by using the names of the latter’s Shī‘ah and sent goods to the Imām under the names of his Shī‘ah. Yet, Manṣūr did not succeed in any of these ways.” When Manṣūr heard the news of the martyrdom of Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (‘a), he wrote a letter to the governor of Medina, Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān: “In case Ja‘far ibn Muḥammad designated a certain person as the implementers of his will [waṣiyy], arrest him and cut off his head.” In reply to the caliph’s letter, the governor of Medina thus wrote: “Ja‘far ibn Muḥammad designated these five persons as the executors of his will: Abū Ja‘far Manṣūr, Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān, ‘Abd Allāh, Mūsā, and Ḥamīdah.” Then Manṣūr said: “They cannot be killed.”
Caliph Mahdī did not have his father’s callousness toward the ‘Alawīs and Shī‘ah. Ya‘qūbī narrates: “As soon as Mahdī assumed the caliphate, he ordered for the release of the imprisoned ‘Alawīs.”
As such, no ‘Alawī uprising took place during his reign. Abū’l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī has mentioned only two persons who died during the period of Mahdī; one of them was ‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās while the other was ‘Īsā ibn az-Zayd who transpired clandestinely and who used to live in hiding from the time of Manṣūr.
During the reign of Caliph Hādī, intense pressure was exerted on the ‘Alawīs and Shī‘ah figures. As Ya‘qūbī writes, Hādī persisted on treating the Shī‘ah and Ṭālibīs harshly, terrifying them extremely. He curtailed the right granted to them by Mahdī and wrote to the governors and rulers of the regions and cities to pursue and arrest the Ṭālibīs.
In protest to the caliph’s wrongdoings, Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī, who was a descendant of al-Ḥusayn (Shahīd Fakh), staged an uprising. In that battle apart from Ḥusayn a large number of the ‘Alawīs were killed. This battle brought severe pressure to Imām al-Kāẓim (‘a). Caliph Ḥādī threatened the Imām and thus said: “By God! Ḥusayn (Shahīd Fakh) staged an uprising against me at the order of Mūsā ibn Ja‘far and he has followed him. It is because nobody could be the Imām and leader of this family except Mūsā ibn Ja‘far. May God kill me if I let him live.”
Yet, the caliph failed to execute this threat due to the arrival of the time of his demise. During the second century hijrī, Hārūn ar-Rashīd was considered the most cruel caliph toward the ‘Alawīs and Shī‘ah leaders after Manṣūr. Hārūn was despotic in relation to the ‘Alawīs and treated them cruelly. He mercilessly killed Yaḥyā ibn ‘Abd Allāh, Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah’s brother, inside the prison after granting him amnesty. Similarly, there is a story recorded in ‘Uyūn Akhbār ar-Ridā that illustrates the extent of Ḥārūn ar-Rashīd’s cruelty. Ḥamīd ibn Quḥṭabah aṭ-Ṭā’ī aṭ-Ṭūsī narrates:
One night Ḥārūn summoned me and ordered me, thus: “Take this sword and carry out this slave’s order.” The slave took me in front of a certain house whose door was closed. He opened the door. There were three rooms and a well in that house. He opened the first room and asked twenty sayyids (or sādāt) (descendants of the Prophet

#7779;)) who had long and woven hair to go out. Young and old could be seen among them. He tied this group with chains and manacles. Ḥārūn’s slave then said to me: “The order of the Commander of the Faithful is for you to kill them.” They are from among the offspring of ‘Alī (‘a) and Fāṭimah (‘a). I killed one after the other and the slave threw the corpses with heads to the well. Then I opened the second door. In that room there were twenty other people from the offspring of ‘Alī and Fāṭimah. I did to them what I had done to the previous twenty persons. Thereafter, the slave opened the third room in which there were twenty other sayyids. They also met the fate of the previous forty persons through me. Only an old man was left who looked at me and said: “O sinister man! May God annihilate you! On the Day of Judgment, what excuse do you have in front of our forefather, the Messenger of Allah

#7779;)?” At that moment, my hands trembled. The slave looked at me furiously and threatened me. I killed the old man and the slave threw his corpse into the well.
Finally, though acknowledging the station of the Imām, Hārūn ar-Rashīd arrested and imprisoned Imām al-Kāẓim (‘a) and in the end martyred him through poisoning.
After the martyrdom of Imām al-Kāẓim (‘a) Hārūn ar-Rashīd dispatched to Medina one of his commanders named Julūdī so as to assault the houses of the descendants of Abū Ṭālib, plunder the clothes of women and leave only one dress for every woman. Imām ar-Riḍā (‘a) stood in front of the door and ordered the women to take their clothes.
Ma’mun being the most clever of the ‘Abbāsid caliphs devised a new method of controlling the Shī‘ah leaders and Imāms and that was to monitor the pure Imāms (‘a). It was precisely one of the main motives of Ma’mun in superficially designating Imām ar-Riḍa (‘a) as his heir-apparent. In the same token, Ma’mun adopted this policy in a different form in dealing with Imām al-Jawād (‘a). He gave his daughter in marriage to the Imām so that he could monitor the Imām’s activities in Medina. The caliphs after Ma’mun adopted the same method and compelled the infallible Imāms (‘a) to live in the capital of the caliphate. Even the tenth and eleventh Imāms (‘a) became known as ‘Askariyyīn [soldiers] for living in Sāmarrā which was a military city.

Shī‘ism spread more during the ‘Abbāsid period than during the ‘Umayyad period. During that period, the Shī‘ah were spread in both the east and west of the vast Muslim territory. During that time, Shī‘ism had found its way among the statesmen, judges and military commanders. Even in Baghdad which was the capital of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate and influence, the Shī‘ah, on account of their great numbers, were deemed a serious threat to the ‘Abbāsids.
It was for this reason that the caliphs tried their best to monitor and control the Shī‘ah Imāms. As such, from the time of Imām ar-Riḍā (‘a) onwards they compelled the pure Imāms (‘a) to live at the caliphate’s capital.
On account of the scattering of the Shī‘ah in the various lands during this period, the pure Imāms (‘a) utilized the institution of deputyship [wikālah].
Finally, Shī‘ism reached the height of its growth and spread during the fourth century. It was during this period when the Zaydī and Ismā‘ilī states of the Būyids and Ḥamdānīs were set up.
Of course, the ‘Abbāsid caliphs differed from one another in their treatment of the Shī‘ah. Manṣūr, Ḥārūn and Mutawakkil were among the most cruel caliphs in dealing with the Shī‘ah.

1. How was the spread of Shī‘ism during the ‘Abbāsid period? And what role did the institution of deputyship [wikālah] play?
2. Briefly describe Shī‘ism during the fourth century.
3. Did the ‘Abbāsid caliphs differ from one another in dealing with the Shī‘ah?
4. What was the policy of the ‘Abbāsid caliphs in controlling the Shī‘ah?

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