Sacred Texts  Islam  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 34


Shi‘ite revolts against Abbasids; Idrisids; Zaydites; Imamites; the Twelvers; constitutional theory of modern Persia; origin of Fatimids; Maymun the oculist; plan of the conspiracy; the Seveners; the Qarmatians; Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi and founding of Fatimid dynasty in North Africa; their spread to Egypt and to Syria; al-Hakim Bi’amrillah; the Druses; the Assassins; Saladin and the Ayyubids.

IT is not in place here to deal with all the numberless little Shi‘ite revolts against the Abbasids which now followed. Those only are of interest to us which had more or less permanent effect on the Muslim state and states. Earliest among such comes the revolt which founded the dynasty of the Idrisids. About the middle of the second century the Abbasids were hard pressed. The heavens themselves seemed to mingle in the conflict. The early years of their rule had been marked by great showers of shooting stars, and the end of the age was reckoned near by both parties. Messianic hope was alive, and a Mahdi, a Guided of God, was looked for. This had long been the attitude of the Alids, and the Abbasids began to feel a necessity to gain for their de facto rule the sanction of theocratic hopes. In 143 Halley's comet was visible for twenty days, and in 147 there were again showers of shooting stars. On the part of the Abbasids, homage was solemnly rendered to the eldest son of al-Mansur, the Khalifa

p. 35

of the time, as successor of his father, under the title al-Mahdi, and several sayings were forged and ascribed to the Prophet which told who and what manner of man the Mahdi would be, in terms which clearly pointed to this heir-apparent. The Alids, on their side, were urged on to fresh revolts. These risings were still political in character and hardly at all theological; they expressed the claims to sovereignty of the house of the Prophet. On the suppression of one of them at al-Madina in 169, Idris ibn Abd Allah, a grandson of al-Hasan, escaped to North Africa--that refuge of the politically disaffected--and there at the far-off Volubilis of the Romans, in the modern Morocco, founded a state. It lasted till 375, and planted firmly the authority of the family of Muhammad in the western half of North Africa. Other Alid states rose in its place, and in 961 the dynasty of the Sharifs of Morocco was established by a Muhammad, a descendant of a Muhammad, brother of the same Abd Allah, grandson of al-Hasan. This family still rules in Morocco and claims the title of Khalifa of the Prophet and Commander of the Faithful. Strictly, they are Shi‘ites, but their sectarianism sits lightly upon them; it is political only and they have no touch of the violent religious antagonism to the Sunnite Muslims that is to be found in Persian Shi‘ism. As adherents of the legal school of Malik ibn Anas, their Sunna is the same as that of orthodox Islam. The Sahih of al-Bukhari (see below, p. 79) is held in especially high reverence, and one division of the Moorish army always carries a copy of it as a talisman. They are really a bit of the second

p. 36

century of the Hijra crystallized and surviving into our time.

Another Shi‘ite line which lasts more or less down to the present day, is that of the Zaydites of al-Yaman. They were so called from their adherence to Zayd, a grandson of al-Husayn, and their sect spread in north Persia and south Arabia. The north Persian branch is of little historic importance for our purpose. For some sixty-four years, from 250 on, it held Tabaristan, struck coins and exercised all sovereign rights; then it fell before the Samanids. The other branch has had a much longer history. It was founded about 280, at Sa‘da in al-Yaman and there, and later at San‘a, Zaydite Imams have ruled off and on till our day. The Turkish hold upon south Arabia has always been of the slightest. Sometimes they have been absolutely expelled from the country, and their control has never extended beyond the limits of their garrisoned posts. The position of these Zaydites was much less extreme than that of the other Shi‘ites. They were strictly Fatimites, that is, they held that any descendant of Fatima could be Imam. Further, circumstances might justify the passing over, for a time, of such a legitimate Imam and the election as leader of someone who had no equally good claim. Thus, they reverenced Abu Bakr and Umar and regarded their Khalifate as just, even though Ali was there with a better claim. The election of these two Khalifas had been to the advantage of the Muslim state. Some of them even accepted the Khalifate of Uthman and only denounced his evil deeds. Further, they regarded it as

p. 37

possible that there might be two Imams at the same time, especially when they were in countries widely apart. This, apparently, sprang from the sect being divided between north Persia and south Arabia. Theologically, or philosophically--it is hard to hold the two apart in Islam--the Zaydites were accused of rationalism. Their founder, Zayd, the grandson of al-Husayn, had studied under the great Mu‘tazilite, Wasil ibn Ata, of whom much more hereafter.

But if the Zaydites were lax both in their theology and in their theory of the state, that cannot be said of another division of the Shi‘ites, called the Imamites on account of the stress which they laid on the doctrine of the person of the Imam. For them the Imam of the time was explicitly and personally indicated, Ali by Muhammad and each of the others in turn by his predecessor. But it was hard to reconcile with this a priori position that an Imam must have been indicated, the fact that there was no agreement as to the Imam who had been indicated. Down all possible lines of descent the sacred succession was traced until, of the seventy-two sects that the Prophet had foretold for his people, seventy, at least, were occupied by the Imamites alone. Further, the number of Hidden Imams was constantly running up; with every generation, Alids found it convenient to withdraw into retirement and have reports given out of their own deaths. Then two sects would come into existence--one which stopped at the Alid in question, and said that he was being kept in concealment by God to be brought back at His pleasure;

p. 38

and another which passed the Imamship on to the next generation. Out of this chaos two sects, adhering to two series of Imams, stand clear through their historical importance. The one is that of the Twelvers (Ithua‘ashariya); theirs is the official creed of modern Persia. About A.H. 260 a certain Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, twelfth in descent from Ali, vanished in the way just described. The sect which looked for his return increased and flourished until, at length, with the conquest of Persia in A.H. 907 (A.D. 1502) by the Safawids--a family of Alid descent which joined arms to sainthood--Persia became Shi‘ite, and the series of the Shahs of Persia was begun. The position of the Shah is therefore essentially different from that of the Khalifa of the Sunnites. The Khalifa is the successor of Muhammad, with a dignity and authority which inheres in himself; he is both king and pontiff; the Shah is a mere locum tenens, and reigns only until God is pleased to restore to men the true Imam. That Imam is still in existence, though hidden from human eyes. The Shah, therefore, has strictly no legal authority; he is only a guardian of the public order. True legal authority lies, rather, with the learned doctors of religion and law. As a consequence of this, the Shi‘ites still have Mujtahids, divines and legists who have a right to form opinions of their own, can expound the original sources at first hand, and can claim the unquestioning assent of their disciples. Such men have not existed among the Sunnites since the middle of the third century of the Hijra; from that time on all Sunnites have been

p. 39

compelled to swear to the words of some master or other, long dead.

This division of the Shi‘ites is the only one that exists in great numbers down to the present day. The second of the two mentioned above came to power earlier, ran a shorter course, and has now vanished from the stage, leaving nothing but an historical mystery and two or three fossilized, half-secret sects--strange survivals which, like the survivals of geology, tell us what were the living and dominant forces in the older world. It will be worth while to enter upon some detail in reciting its history, both for its own romantic interest and as an example of the methods of Shi‘ite propaganda. Its success shows how the Abbasid empire was gradually undermined and brought to its fall. It itself was the most magnificent conspiracy, or rather fraud, in all history. To understand its possibility and its results, we must hold in mind the nature of the Persian race and the condition of that race at this time. Herodotus was told by his Persian friends that one of the three things Persian youth was taught was to tell the truth. That may have been the case in the time of Herodotus, but certainly this teaching has had no effect whatever on an innate tendency in the opposite direction; and it is just possible that Herodotus's friends, in giving him that information, were giving also an example of this tendency. Travellers have been told curious things before now, but certainly none more curious than this. As we know the Persian in history, he is a born liar. He is, therefore, a born conspirator. He has great quickness of

p. 40

mind, adaptability, and, apart from religious emotion, no conscience. In the third century of the Hijra (the ninth A.D.), the Persians were either devoted Shi‘ites or simple unbelievers. The one class would do anything for the descendants of Ali; the other, anything for themselves. This second class, further, would by preference combine doing something for themselves with doing something against Islam and the Arabs, the conquerors of their country. So much by way of premise.

In the early part of this third century, there lived at Jerusalem a Persian oculist named Maymun. He was a man of high education, professional and otherwise; had no beliefs to speak of, and understood the times. He had a son, Abd Allah, and trained him carefully for a career. Abd Allah, however known as Abd Allah ibn Maymun--though he had thought of starting as a prophet himself, saw that the time was not ripe, and planned a larger and more magnificent scheme. This was to be no ordinary conspiracy to burst after a few years or months, but one requiring generations to develop. It was to bring universal dominion to his descendants, and overthrow Islam and the Arab rule. It succeeded in great part, very nearly absolutely.

His plan was to unite all classes and parties in a conspiracy under one head, promising to each individual the things which he considered most desirable. For the Shi‘ites, it was to be a Shi‘ite conspiracy; for the Kharijites, it took a Kharijite tinge; for Persian nationalists, it was anti-Arab; for free-thinkers, it was frankly nihilistic. Abd Allah himself

p. 41

seems to have been a sceptic of the most refined stamp. The working of this plan was achieved by a system of grades like those in freemasonry. His emissaries went out, settled each in a village and gradually won the confidence of its inhabitants. A marked characteristic of the time was unrest and general hostility to the government. Thus, there was an excellent field for work. To the enormous majority of those involved in it the conspiracy was Shi‘ite only, and it has been regarded as such by many of its historians; but it is now tolerably plain how simply nihilistic were its ultimate principles. The first object of the missionary was to excite religious doubt in the mind of his subject, by pointing out curious difficulties and subtle questions in theology. At the same time he hinted that there were those who could answer these questions. If his subject proved tractable and desired to learn further, an oath of secrecy and absolute obedience and a fee were demanded--all quite after the modern fashion. Then he was led up through several grades, gradually shaking his faith in orthodox Islam and its teachers and bringing him to believe in the idea of an Imam, or guide in religious things, till the fourth grade was reached. There the theological system was developed, and Islam, for the first time, absolutely deserted. We have dealt already with the doctrine of the Hidden Imam and with the present-day creed of Persia, that the twelfth in descent from Ali is in hiding and will return when his time comes. But down the same line of descent seven Imams had been reckoned to a certain vanished Isma‘il, and this

p. 42

[paragraph continues] Isma‘il was adopted by Abd Allah ibn Maymun as his Imam and as titular head of his conspiracy. Hence, his followers are called Isma‘ilians and Seveners (Sab‘iya). The story which is told of the split between the Seveners and the Twelvers, which were to be, is characteristic of the whole movement and of the wider divergence of the Seveners from ordinary Islam and its laws. The sixth Imam was Ja‘far as-Sadiq (d. A.H. 148); he appointed his son Isma‘il as his successor. But Isma‘il was found drunk on one occasion, and his father in wrath passed the Imamship on to his brother, Musa al-Qazam, who is accordingly reckoned as seventh Imam by the Twelvers. One party, however, refused to recognize this transfer. Isma‘il's drunkenness, they held, was a proof of his greater spirituality of mind; he did not follow the face-value (zahr) of the law, but its hidden meaning (batn). This is an example of a tendency, strong in Shi‘ism, to find a higher spiritual meaning lying within the external or verbal form of the law; and in proportion as a sect exalted Ali, so it diverged from literal acceptance of the Qur’an. The most extreme Shi‘ites, who tended to deify their Imam, were known on that account as Batinites or Innerites. On this more hereafter.

But to return to the Seveners: in the fourth grade a further refinement was added. Everything went in sevens, the Prophets as well as the Imams. The Prophets had been Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and Isma‘il, or rather his son Muhammad, for Isma‘il himself had died in his father's lifetime. Each of these Prophets had had a

p. 43

helper. The helper of Adam had been Seth; of Noah, Shem; and the helper of Muhammad, the son of Isma‘il, was Abd Allah ibn Maymun himself. Between each pair of Prophets there came six Imams--it must be remembered that the world was never left without an Imam--but these Imams had had no revelation to make; were only guides to already revealed truth. Thus, we have a series of seven times seven Imams, the first, and thereafter each seventh, having the superior dignity of Prophet. The last of the forty-nine Imams, this Muhammad ibn Isma‘il, is the greatest and last of the Prophets, and Abd Allah ibn Maymun has to prepare the way for him and to aid him generally. It is at this point that the adherent of this system ceases to be a Muslim. The idea of a series of Prophets is genuinely Islamic, but Muhammad, in Muslim theology, is the last of the Prophets and the greatest, and after him there will come no more.

Such, then, was the system that those who passed the fourth degree learned and accepted. The great majority did not pass beyond; but those who were judged worthy were admitted to three further degrees. In these degrees, their respect for religious teaching of every kind, doctrinal, moral, ritual, was gradually undermined; the Prophets and their works were depreciated and philosophy and philosophers put in their place. The end was to lead the very few who were admitted to the inmost secrets of the conspiracy to the same position as its founder. It is clear what a tremendous weapon, or rather machine, was thus created. Each man was given the amount of light he

p. 44

could bear and which was suited to his prejudices, and he was made to believe that the end of the whole work would be the attaining of what he regarded as most desirable. The missionaries were all things to all men, in the broadest sense, and could work with a Kharijite fanatic, who longed for the days of Umar; a Bedawi Arab, whose only idea was plunder; a Persian driven to wild cries and tears by the thought of the fate of Ali, the well-beloved, and of his sons; a peasant, who did not care for any family or religion but only wished to live in peace and be let alone by the tax-gatherers; a Syrian mystic, who did not know very well what he thought, but lived in a world of dreams; or a materialist, whose desire was to clear all religions out of the way and give humanity a chance. All was fish that came to their net. So the long seed-planting went on. Abd Allah ibn Maymun had to flee to Salamiya in Syria, died there and went to his own place--if he got his deserts, no desirable one--and Ahmad, his son or grandson, took up the work in his stead. With him the movement tends to the surface, and we begin to touch hard facts and dates. In southern Mesopotamia--what is called the Arab Iraq--we find a sect appearing, nicknamed Qarmatians, from one of their leaders. In A.H. 277 (A.D. 890-1) they were sufficiently numerous and knew their strength enough to hold a fortress and thus enter upon open rebellion. They were peasants, we must remember, Nabateans and no Arabs, only Muslims by compulsion, and thus what we have here is really a Jacquerie, or Peasants' War. But a disturbance of any kind suited the Isma‘ilians. From

p. 45

there the rising spread into Bahrayn and on to south Arabia, varying in its character with the character of the people.

But there was another still more important development in progress. A missionary had gone to North Africa and there worked with success among the Berber tribes about Constantine, in what is now Algeria. These have always been ready for any change. He gave himself out as forerunner of the Mahdi, promised them the good of both worlds, and called them to arms. The actual rising was in A.H. 269 (A.D. 902). Then there appeared among them Said, the son of Ahmad, the son of Abd Allah, the son of Maymun the oculist; but it was not under that name. He was now Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi himself, a descendant of Ali and of Muhammad ibn Isma‘il, for whom his ancestors were supposed to have worked and builtup this conspiracy. In A.H. 296 (A.D. 909) he was saluted as Commander of the Faithful, with the title of al-Mahdi. So far the conspiracy had succeeded. This Fatimid dynasty, so they called themselves from Fatima, their alleged ancestress, the daughter of Muhammad, conquered Egypt and Syria half a century later and held them till A.H. 567 (A.D. 1171). When in A.H. 317 the Umayyads of Cordova also claimed the Khalifate and used the title, there were three Commanders of the Faithful at one time in the Muslim world. Yet it should be noticed that the constitutional position of these Umayyads was essentially different from that of the Fatimids. To the Fatimids, the Abbasids were usurpers. The Umayyads of Cordova, on the other hand,

p. 46

held, like the Zaydites and some jurisconsults of the highest rank, that, when Muslim countries were so far apart that the authority of the ruler of the one could not make itself felt in the other, it was lawful to have two Imams, each a true Successor of the Prophet. The good of the people of Muhammad demanded it. Still, the unity of the Khalifate is the more regular doctrine.

But only half of the work was done. Islam stood as firmly as ever and the conspiracy had only produced a schism in the faith and had not destroyed it. Ubayd Allah was in the awkward position, on the one hand, of ruling a people who were in great bulk fanatical Muslims and did not understand any jesting with their religion, and, on the other hand, of being head of a conspiracy to destroy that very religion. The Syrians and Arabs had apparently taken more degrees than the Egyptians and North Africans, and Ubayd Allah found himself between the devil and the deep sea. The Qarmatians in Arabia plundered the pilgrim caravans, stormed the holy city Mecca, and, most terrible of all, carried off the sacred black stone. When an enormous ransom was offered for the stone, they declined--they had orders not to send it back. Everyone understood that the orders were from Africa. So Ubayd Allah found it advisable to address them in a public letter, exhorting them to be better Muslims. The writing and reading of this letter must have been accompanied by mirth, at any rate no attention was paid to it by the Qarmatians. It was not till the time of the third Fatimid Khalifa that they were

p. 47

permitted to do business with that stone. Then they sent it back with the explanatory or apologetic remark that they had carried it off under orders and now sent it back under orders. Meanwhile the Fatimid dynasty was running its course in Egypt but without turning the people of Egypt from Islam. Yet it produced one strange personality and two sects, stranger even than the sect to which it itself owed its origin. The personality is that of al-Hakim Bi’amrillah, who still remains one of the greatest mysteries that are to be met with in history. In many ways he reminds us curiously of the madness of the Julian house; and, in truth, such a secret movement as that of which he was a part, carried on through generations from father to son, could not but leave a trace on the brain. We must remember that the Khalifa of the time was not always of necessity the head of the conspiracy, or even fully initiated into it. In the latter part of the Fatimid rule we find distinct traces of such a power behind the throne, consisting, as we may imagine, of descendants and pupils of those who had been fully initiated from the first and had passed through all the grades. In the case of al-Hakim, it is possible, even, to trace to a certain extent, the development of his initiation. During the first part of his reign he was fanatically Muslim and Shi‘ite. He persecuted alternately the Christians and the Jews, and then the orthodox and the Shi‘ites. In the latter part, there was a change. He had, apparently, reached a point of philosophical indifference, for the persecutions of Christians and Jews ceased, and those who

p. 48

had been forced to embrace Islam were permitted to relapse. This last was without parallel, till in 1844 Lord Stratford de Redcliffe wrung from the Porte the concession that a Muslim who apostatized to Christianity should not be put to death. But, mingled with this indifference, there appeared a strange but regular development of Shi‘ite doctrine. Some of his followers began to proclaim openly that the deity was incarnate in him, and it was evident that he himself accepted and believed this. But the Egyptian populace would have none of it, and the too rash innovators had to flee. Some went to the Lebanon and there preached to the native mountain tribes. The results of their labors are the Druses of to-day, who worship al-Hakim still and expect his return to introduce the end of all things. Finally, al-Hakim vanished on the night of February 12, A.D. 1021, and left a mystery unread to this day. Whether he was murdered, and if so why, or vanished of free-will, and if so again why, we have no means of telling. Our guess will depend upon our reading of his character. So much is certain, that he was a ruler of the autocratic type, who introduced many reforms, most of which the people of his time could not in the least understand and therefore misrepresented as the mere whims of a tyrant, and many of which, from our ignorance, are still obscure to us. If we can imagine such a man of strong personality and desire for the good of his people but with a touch of madness in the brain, cast thus in the midst between his orthodox subjects and a wholly unbelieving inner government, we shall perhaps

p. 49

have the clew to the strange stories told of him.

Another product of this conspiracy, and the last to which we shall refer, is the sect known as the Assassins, whose Grand Master was a name of terror to the Crusaders as the Old Man of the Mountain. It, too, was founded, and apparently for a purpose of personal vengeance, by a Persian who began as a Shi‘ite and ended as nothing. He came to Egypt, studied under the Fatimids--they had established at Cairo a great school of science--and returned to Persia as their agent to carry on their propaganda. His methods were the same as theirs, with a difference. That was the reduction of assassination to a fine art. From his eagle's nest of Alamut--such is the meaning of the name--and later from Masyaf in the Lebanon and other mountain fortresses, he and his successors spread terror through Persia and Syria and were only finally stamped out by the Mongol flood under Hulagu in the middle of the seventh century of the Hijra (the 13th A.D.). Of the sect there are still scattered remnants in Syria and India, and as late as 1866 an English judge at Bombay had to decide a case of disputed succession according to the law of the Assassins. Finally, the Fatimid dynasty itself fell before the Kurd, Salah ad-Din, the Saladin of our annals, and Egypt was again orthodox.

Next: Chapter III