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The Shī‘ah and ‘Alawī Uprisings during the Period of ‘Abbāsid Caliphate

Ghulam-Husayn Muharrami

The uprisings during the period of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate up to the first half of the fourth century AH can be divided into two—the well-organized and programmed Zaydiyyah uprisings and the earlier unplanned and sporadic uprisings.

1. The Uprisings of the Zaydīs
The Zaydīs who constituted a large portion of the Shī‘ah population during the first, second and three centuries AH and regarded the right to caliphate and Imamate as belonging to the descendants of Fāṭimah (‘a) and the ‘Abbāsids as usurpers, staged well-organized, cohesive and preplanned uprisings some of which had led to the establishment of governments in places such as Ṭabaristān, Maghrib and Yemen.
The Zaydīs regarded Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah and Ibrāhīm as among the Zaydī Imāms because Yaḥyā ibn Zayd had designated them as his successors. It is here that close relationship emerged between the Zaydīs and the descendants of Zayd, on the one hand, and the offspring of Imām al-Ḥasan (‘a), the so-called Banū al-Ḥasan, on the other. Ibrāhīm ibn ‘Abd Allāh, who was his brother’s successor, Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah and hoisted the banner of revolution against the ‘Abbāsids in Baṣrah, introduced another son of Zayd, ‘Īsā, as his successor. ‘Īsā fled after the assassination of Ibrāhīm and died in secrecy during the caliphate of the ‘Abbāsid caliph Mahdī. After the death of Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah and Ibrāhīm, the Zaydīs failed to agree on the leadership of a particular person and they were always looking for a brave and pugnacious Imām from the descendants of Fāṭimah (‘a) who could lead them. But until 301 AH they were not able to agree on the identity of the Imām until such time that Ḥasan ibn ‘Alī al-Ḥasanī, known as Aṭrūsh, staged an uprising in Khurāsān in that year, went to the regions of Gīlān and Māzandārān, and succeeded in settling the task of the Zaydīs. It is for this reason that the ‘Abbāsids were harsh against the Zaydīs and were trying to eliminate the individuals who were capable of leading them, particularly the descendants of Zayd among them. To this end, the ‘Abbāsids hired spies and set up rewards for the capture of such individuals. For instance, when ‘Īsā ibn Zayd passed away secretly, Hārūn arrested and imprisoned his son, Aḥmad ibn ‘Īsā merely on the basis of suspicion.
Of course, the distinguished men among the Banū al-Ḥasan who were regarded as leaders of uprisings did not follow the Zaydī way and modus operandi and were not much attached to Zaydiyyah fundamental beliefs. For this reason, when conditions during battles became unfavorable and defeat seemed probable, the Zaydīs would abandon their leaders in the battle arena and ending their uprisings in failure (similar to what happened to Yaḥyā ibn ‘Abd Allāh).
Idrīs, Yaḥyā’s brother, was the only one among them who was able to achieve relative victory and that was because he fled to Africa which was far from the ‘Abbāsids’ reach. He campaigned against the Abbasids there and succeeded in forming a government.
Among the leaders of the uprisings who did not accept the fundamentals of the Zaydī belief and follow the way and method of the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) was Yaḥyā ibn ‘Abd Allāh, brother of Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah, who went to Khurāsān after Muḥammad’s defeat and from there he headed toward the land of Daylam— present day Gīlān and Māzandarān—but the ruler there, who was not a Muslim yet, wanted to arrest Yaḥyā and turn him over to the agents of Hārūn on account of his threats. At the time, Yaḥyā was compelled to seek the protection of Faḍl Barmakī, Hārūn’s vizier. Faḍl also offered him protection, but instead of protection and security, he was imprisoned in Baghdad until his death. He was one of the students trained by Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (‘a) and whenever narrating a ḥadīth from the Imām, he would say: “My dear Ja‘far ibn Muḥammad thus said…”
Finally, since he was following the way and method of the Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) in terms of jurisprudence [fiqh], the Zaydīs opposed him and distanced themselves from him. So, he was forced to surrender himself to Faḍl ibn Yaḥyā, Hārūn’s vizier.

a. The Uprising of Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah
The zenith of the ‘Alawī uprising was during the second century AH. One of the most noted of these uprisings was during the time of the ‘Abbāsid caliph Manṣūr which was led by Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah. His activity had started prior to the victory of the ‘Abbāsids and with the exception of Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (‘a), the Banū Hāshim generally pledged allegiance to him. Even the Sunnī scholars and jurists such as Abū Ḥanīfah, Muḥammad ibn ‘Ajlān, the jurist of Medina, Abū Bakr ibn Abī Sabrah, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ja‘far, Hāshim ibn ‘Urwah, ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Umar, Wāṣil ibn ‘Aṭā’, ‘Amrū ibn ‘Ubayd, among others swore allegiance to him, attributing to him the transmitted Prophetic sayings about the uprising of al-Mahdī (‘a). But his uprising during the period of the ‘Abbāsids was defeated because it was launched prematurely. In Baṣrah his brother Ibrāhīm’s uprising also ended in failure due to the treachery of the Zaydīs, but his brothers were scattered and this state of affairs continued up to the time of Hārūn. Idrīs ibn ‘Abd Allāh fled to Maghrib and he was accepted there by the people. Yet, he was in the end poisoned by the agents of Hārūn. After him, his followers installed his young child to replace him naming him “Idrīs ath-Thānī”. For sometime, the government of the Idrīsīs flourished in North Africa. Yaḥya, another one of Muḥammad’s brother, went to Ṭabaristān after his death.
Yet another one of Muḥammad’s brother named Mūsā ibn ‘Abd Allāh fled to the north of Iraq and Mesopotamia. Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah’s sons, named ‘Alī, ‘Abd Allāh and Ḥasan, went to Egypt, India and Yemen, respectively, and were for some time the source of concern for the ‘Abbāsid caliphate.

b. The Uprising of Ibn Ṭabāṭabā’ī al-Ḥasani
After the death of Hārūn and the conflict over the issue of succession between his two sons, Amīn and Ma’mūn, the Shī‘ah taking advantage of this opportunity staged more uprisings with the uprisings of the ‘Alawīs reaching their climax at this time. During that period, the whole of Iraq (with the exception of Baghdad), Ḥijāz, Yemen, and south of Iran were detached from the ‘Abbāsid control owing to the existence of competent military commanders such as Abū’s-Sarāyā on the side of the ‘Alawīs. The army of Abū’s-Sarāyā shattered every contingent they encountered and overrun every city they visited. It is said that in the battle fought by Abū’s-Sarāyā two hundred thousand soldiers of the ‘Abbāsid caliph were killed although the interval between the day of the uprising and the day when he was beheaded was not more than 10 months. Even in Baṣrah which was the demographic concentration of the Uthmānīs, the ‘Alawīs earned support such that Zayd an-Nār staged an uprising in the mentioned city. In Mecca and the districts of Ḥijāz, Muḥammad ibn Ja‘far known as Dībāj who was called “Amīr al-Mu’minīn” [Commander of the Faithful] staged an uprising. In Yemen Ibrāhīm ibn Mūsā ibn Ja‘far revolted against the ‘Abbāsid caliph. Muḥammad ibn Sulaymān ibn Dāwūd ibn Ḥasan rose up in Medina. In Wāsiṭ where most of the people inclined toward the ‘Uthmānīs, there was the uprising of Ja‘far ibn Zayd ibn ‘Alī as well as that of Ḥusayn ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Ḥasan ibn ‘Alī. In Madā’in Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl ibn Muḥammad launched a rebellion. In sum, there was no place (in the Muslim territories) where the ‘Alawīs by their own initiatives or at the request of the people did not revolt against the ‘Abbāsids. It went to the extent that the people of Mesopotamia and Shām, who were known for having cooperation with the Umayyads and the descendants of Marwān, gathered around Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-‘Alawī, the intimate friend of Abū’s-Sarāyā, and in a letter to him they wrote that they have been waiting for his envoy to deliver his message.

c. The Uprising of Ḥasan ibn Zayd (the ‘Alawīs of Ṭabaristān)
In the year 250 AH during the caliphate of Musta‘īn, an ‘Abbāsid caliph, Ḥasan ibn Zayd, who was formerly residing in Rey, went to the districts of Ṭabaristān, called on the people to seek the pleasure of Prophet Muḥammad’s (‘a) progeny, took control of the regions in Ṭabaristān and Jurjān after a series of skirmishes, and founded the government of the ‘Alawīs in Ṭabaristān which lasted up to 345 AH.
Throughout his two decades of rule, Ḥasan ibn Zayd overran the regions of Rey, Zanjān and Qazwīn many times. During the same year of his uprising, he dispatched one of the ‘Alawīs named Muḥammad ibn Ja‘far to Rey who after sometime was captured by the Ṭāhirīs. In 251 AH he sent Ḥusayn Aḥmad al-‘Alawī who rose up in Qazwīn and expelled the agents of the Ṭāhirīs.
Similarly, Ḥasan ibn Zayd’s brother, Ḥusayn ibn Zayd overran the regions of Lārijān and Qaṣrān, north of present day Tehran, and earned the allegiance of the people there for his brother. As Ṭabarī says regarding the events in 50 AH, “In addition to the government in Ṭabaristān, the government of the region of Rey extending roughly as far as Hamedān was under the control of Ḥasan ibn Zayd.”
As such, in addition to the northern regions of Iran which were near the sphere of influence of Ḥasan ibn Zayd and in which uprisings took place in his name, the ‘Alawīs in Iraq, Shām and Egypt found courage too, gathering the people around them and staging uprisings, until such time that in 270 AH Ḥasan ibn Zayd passed away. After his death his brother, Muḥammad ibn Zayd succeeded him and ruled Sāmān until 287 AH. Finally, in that year (287 AH) he attained martyrdom in a battle between him and Muḥammad ibn Hārūn, a Sāmānide commander.
In 287 AH, after the martyrdom of Muḥammad ibn Zayd, Nāṣir Kabīr know as Aṭrūsh in the region of Gīlān and Daylam rose up in the midst of the people, calling them to Islam and ruled there for 14 years until such time that he went to Ṭabaristān in 301 AH and took control of government there.

d. The Uprising of Yaḥyā ibn al-Ḥusayn (the Zaydīs of Yemen)
In 288 AH Yaḥyā ibn Ḥusayn al-‘Alawī, known as “Al-Hādī ilā’l-Ḥaqq” [The Guide toward the Truth], staged an uprising in Ḥijāz and the Zaydīs gathered around him. On the same year he entered San‘ā with the cooperation of Yemeni tribes, and was addressed as the Zaydī Imām. Although he had skirmishes with Yemeni tribes, in the end he was able to take control of the region and establish a government. Yet, in 298 AH he died from poisoning. He had been remembered as one of the greatest Zaydī figures. In terms of knowledge and learning, he also had an excellent station. As such, the Zaydī sect in Yemen became known with his name: “Hādawiyyah”. His sons were Zaydī Imāms and rulers of Yemen. The leadership and rule of Zaydiyyah in Yemen continued through the children and grandchildren of “Al-Hādī ilā’l-Ḥaqq” until 1382 AH when Arab republicanism in Yemen was established.

The Zaydīs during the first three centuries AH constituted a large number of the Shī‘ah, and they staged regional uprisings which led to the formation of governments.
The leadership of the Zaydīs was transferred from the line of Yaḥyā ibn Zayd to the grandchildren of Imām al-Ḥasan (‘a). As such, they were always leading the uprisings in spite of the fact that they did not believe in the Zaydī fundamental beliefs.
One of the highlights of the ‘Alawī uprisings took place during the time of the ‘Abbāsid caliph Manṣūr and was led by Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah. The second one was during the time of Ma’mūn when on account of the existence of military commanders such as Abū’s-Sarāyā, the ‘Alawīs attained success after success. The third one was after 250 AH when the ‘Alawīs of Ṭabaristān were able to set up a government, with which other ‘Alawīs found courage to stage uprisings in various regions.

1. Describe the Zaydī uprisings.
2. What is the basis of the uprising of Muḥammad Nafs az-Zakiyyah?
3. When did the uprising of Ibn Ṭabāṭabā’ī take place?
4. In what year did the uprising of the ‘Alawīs of Ṭabaristān happen?

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