Features May 14, 2013
Feature: A Tale of Two Rebellions

Our Hip Deep edition “A Tale of Two Rebellions,” produced in August, 2007, recounts the stories of two remarkable military campaigns in early Islamic history.  Both uprisings take place in the late 9th century, both involve Africans as key players, and both set the scene for the crystallization of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide in Islam, which of course continues to this day.,  The Zanj rebellion comes first, an uprising of East African slaves in southern Iraq.  Led on by a charismatic, Shi’ite leader, the Zanj defeat their Abbasid masters, who rule from Baghdad, and establish a “slave republic,” which lasts fourteen years before it is crushed by the powerful Abbasid state.

A few decades later, near the end of the 9th century, a secretive sect known as the Fatimids attempts to seed rebellion across the Abbasid Empire, from India to Morocco.  The Fatimids are also Shi’ites, claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad, via the line of his son-in-law, Ali.  The Fatimid, Mahdi—or “rightly guided one”—sends emissaries far and wide.  Most of these Fatimid communities or “islands” fail to seize power in their regions.  The one exception comes in North Africa, in the present border region of Algeria and Tunisia.  The victorious Fatimids then move east, founding the city of Cairo as their capital, and ruling North Africa for roughly a century. 

Our program was conceived and co-produced by Joseph Braude, author of The New Iraq (Basic Books, 2003). Braude also writes a column for The New Republic on arts, culture, and politics in the Middle East. He has a longstanding passion for these particular stories, and in our broadcast, he tells them using provocative and illuminating references to popular cultural touchstones, including Star Wars, The Godfather, and the Da Vinci Code. The program also includes sometimes skeptical commentary by Richard Bulliet, a professor of history at Columbia University. After all, this is far from settled history, and its keepers on various sides have interests to protect. What follows is Joseph Braude’s synopsis of the two related stories, with comments by Professor Bulleit. This text is adapted from the program script. Among the images, you will find materials from two key texts, The Revolt of the Zanj (Al-Tabari, translated by David Waines) and The Empire of the Mahdi: The Rise of the Fatimids, by Heinz Halm, translated by Michael Bonner. At the end, you will also find links to further sources.

Here’s Joseph Braude’s account…

Episode 1: The Zanj Rebellion

It’s 868 and the Abbasid Muslim Empire has been ruling from its capital, Baghdad, for over a century. This is a time in Islamic history when the Middle East is in flux. The Abbasid empire is the largest in the world. It stretches from North Africa’s Atlantic coast in the West to the borders of China in the East. The capital Baghdad is a sprawling metropolis of a million people, a center of innovation in science, philosophy, literature, and music.

But for all its power, the Abbasid empire in the 9th century is now passing its prime, and it has an Achilles heel: manpower. The expansion has been arduous and exhausting. The Abbasids cannot maintain their empire without help. So Turks are brought in as soldiers, and many Africans are imported to the Middle East as slaves. Because most of these Africans come from East Africa, often via the Island of Zanzibar, they become known as the Zanj. They are put to work in southern Iraq, clearing the marshy topsoil of a rock hard layer of sun baked salt, several feet thick covering the land. Southern Iraqi farmers brought in thousands of slaves to pick off and carry away tons of salt before they could cultivate the land. The work is brutal and grueling, and inevitably, thoughts among the Zanj slaves turn to rebellion.

Richard Bulliet: In the history of slavery around the world, one of the commonplace fears and occasional happenings is that you’ll have a large number of slaves that generates a sufficiently potent force and leadership to stage a revolt. The revolts will take place in a few ways. One of them is for slaves to flee the land and to go into a remote area. So we have this in Brazil and Guyana, and you usually have to be proximate to some sort of wild land. Some of the so-called slave republics that you have in South America do last for periods of years … because it’s not worth anyone’s trouble and risk to bring them down, and they successfully go off and live on their own. Then you have another type, of which the classic example would be the revolution in Haiti, where the slaves seize dominion, kill the owners who are dominating the land, and set up their own republic in situ in the spot where they have been working.

Like other slave revolts that became slave republics, the Zanj need only the spark of a revolutionary message from a charismatic leader. It’s the clarion call that rouses the oppressed in every time and place, but the language and symbols take different forms in different settings, and in the medieval Muslim world, the language is religion. A mysterious man, not an African himself, comes to the Zanj and promises them a better life in this world, and the next. He says God had commanded him to lead the Zanj into war. His name is Ali Bin Muhammad and he claims lineage to the Prophet. “A cloud cast a shadow upon me,” he says, “Thunder crackled and lightning flashed. A thunder clap resounded in my ears and a voice addressed me, saying, ‘Head for Basra.” Ali Bin Muhammad is the archetype of a 9th century, Shi’ite revolutionary.

Richard Bulliet: Shiite is an easy term to define. Muslims who believe that the leadership of the community at any given point in time rightly belongs to a member of the family of Muhammad, through his son in law, Ali. These people are Shiites.

For the Abbasids ruling from Baghdad, the Shiites are rebels to be suppressed. Shiites are rebelling in many parts of the Abbasid empire at this time. But the Shiite led army of the Zanj—now that is something new. Ali Bin Mohammed promises his African troops that he will never turn them over to their masters, and while the leader says he himself does not crave earthly goods or glory, he promises to improve the lives of the Zanj. “They should have money and homes to possess for themselves,” he says, “and even slaves of their own.”

Thousands of Zanj troops cross the salt flats into Basra, and ferociously attack their masters. They kill five hundred in an afternoon. They loot the spoils of battle and press north beyond the marshes. Over the next fourteen years, the Zanj win battle after battle and build up their own slave republic that includes at its height six towns, reaching within 70 miles of Baghdad. The Zanj army grows ever more self assured. Arab historians remember the infamous “day of the barges,” when the Zanj leader seizes 14 ships. The boats’ owners try to bind their boats one to another, so as to form a kind of island, but the Zanj send reinforcements to ensure a mighty victory. They overwhelm the boats, kill the men on board, capture slaves, plunder treasure the extent of which cannot be estimated, and fight on three days straight, occupying a city and killing many of its inhabitants before burning it to the ground.

The Zanj rule from their capital city, al- Muktara, which means “The Chosen One.” The Abbasid army is busy putting out fires all over the empire, but now, the Zanj become enemy number 1. The ruling caliph in Baghdad orders his army chief to concentrate his fire power on the African rebels, and it’s only a matter of time. The army besieges the Zanj capital, and in the final assault, the Zanj are routed and forever dispersed, and the leader Ali Bin Mohamed, is killed, his head skewered on a pole and paraded through Baghdad.

Of course, we know about these events only through the writings of Arab historians, in particular al-Tabari. It’s an example of the old maxim that history is always written by the victors. The Zanj never got to tell their side of the story. Looking back, it is natural to feel sympathy with the oppressed and courageous Zanj. But for the medieval Arab historians, the slave-run republic is remembered only as “the enemy”—the Zanj leader Ali bin Muhammad bitterly cursed and dubbed “the abominable one.”

Richard Bulliet : In medieval Arabic historical writing, it is extremely difficult to find a narrative that grants any sort of historical agency to groups except under the leadership of a religious figure who can be classified according to Sunni or Shi’ite or some other straightforward fashion.

In other words, Arab historians failed to see the Zanj as oppressed people fighting for their rights. In their histories, the Zanj are merely tools of a Shi’ite insurgent. What is sure is that The Zanj sent shock waves throughout the Muslim world—even if the details of their story will always be partly shrouded in mystery. But the story of Shi’ite-African alliance against the Abbasid empire is not over. Just a few decades later, a new rebel group turns mystery into mastery.

Episode II, The Fatimid Revolution

You’re a Shiite insurgent and you want to rule the Arab east. The Zanj are defeated, and imperial spies are everywhere. Time to go underground and spin a new web, a transcontinental, mutigenerational conspiracy so vast it could topple an empire. The year is 882 and the Abbasid empire is seething with civil unrest: Bedouin tribes out of power, subjugated peoples, slaves with weapons. All it takes is a spark to ignite a revolution. And the spark in this case is a riveting story—the story of a royal bloodline called the Fatimids, the living descendents of the prophet Muhammad.

Richard Bulliet: The Fatimids claim to be a branch of the family of the prophet Muhammad. The other members of the family of Muhammad claim that they were impostors. In order to defend themselves, the Fatimids make the claim that various members of their family went by different names and therefore there’s a great confusion as to who actually was a descendant and who was not. But they also have this penchant for secrecy, because they explain, well, we have always been in danger. We’ve always had to live in hiding, we’ve always had to use noms de guerre because our enemies would destroy us.

There are a lot of believers in every faith who yearn to have a genuine divinely inspired person in their midst. They’re drawn to saints, they’re drawn to prophets. They’re drawn to manifestations of god and so forth. And the Fatimids offered that.

But let’s assume for the moment that the Fatimid story is true—that they really are the prophet’s descendants. Fatimid historians claim that by the 9th century, a living descendant of the prophet Muhammad, through the Fatimid line, has set up an underground revolutionary headquarters. He is the Mahdi—the rightly guided one—and he can work miracles. He’s only waiting for the right moment to reveal himself and bring glory and perfection to the world. From his secret hideaway somewhere in Jordan, the Mahdi has been sending his own personal emissaries to every corner of the Abbasid empire to spread the good word and prepare a legion of followers for his triumphant return. An emissary of the Mahdi will go anywhere—to any family or tribe that will give him a place to stay and a flock to preach to. And when he gets to preaching, his message is that the followers of the Mahdi should bond together and get ready to fight and kill and overthrow the Abbasid empire.

Emissaries of the underground Fatimid leader travel to the most volatile regions of the empire, where the authority of Baghdad is weak. One preacher settles among the Aramaic-speaking peasants by the ruins of ancient Babylon. Another journeys to the deserts of eastern Arabia, where camel-breeding warrior tribes stand ready to fight for a holy cause. For 25 years, the Fatimid network spins its web far and wide—into Yemen, Iran, and India to the east, and a new frontier—North Africa—to the West. Any time a Fatimid preacher builds a critical mass of followers, it’s called a jazeera—an island for God in a hostile land. Some of these Fatimid islands, it is claimed, have a communal egalitarian ethos, where fruit and grain grow alongside a culture of sharing and the people’s commitment to the Fatimid cause. And while these islands flourish, the people give a fifth of their earnings to the mysterious Mahdi, who gets the money delivered to his Syrian hideout through a secret courier service. With Fatimid communities flourishing, each local preacher now awaits the order from the mysterious leader to take up arms against the empire.

Instructions might arrive by carrier pigeon. Long distance letters are reportedly carried between Fatimid islands to the underground base in Jordan on the beaks of Fatimid homing pigeons. But as to which Fatimid community will finally spearhead the revolution, the Lord only knows. Preachers in Syria, Yemen, Iran, and the Arabian Gulf will all be surprised to learn that when decisive war finally breaks out, the army isn’t Arab or Iranian or Indian–-but African. Once again, the engines of radical change in Islamic history are an African people, in this case a group of Berber clans between modern-day Algeria and Tunisia who are known as the Kutama. If Fatimid history is to be believed, an Arab emissary of the underground Fatimid Mahdi journeys all the way West to Berber land in North Africa from Yemen, and preaches to the disaffected Kutama. The Kutama Berbers don’t like the pro-Abbasid Arab rulers in Tunisia any more than the preacher does—and they detest the other Berber families that have allied with the empire. So the Kutama reportedly embrace the Fatimid preacher and his ideological message. They accept him as their ruler, guide, and military commander.

Richard Bulliet: In medieval Islamic history we have many sources that tell wonderful stories, but they’re stories that historians today are very unsatisfied with. What we have with the Mahdi wandering off into North Africa and finding a group of people who are accepting him as a divine leader is a recurrent phenomenon in the narrative of early North African history by Arabic writers. But all these writers are writing sometimes 2 or 300 years after the events. And it makes the stories very, very hard to believe and in fact they’re rather reminiscent of the stories that you have at a certain point in European exploration, where somebody goes off to central America or south America or somewhere else and is treated as a god because he is a white man. What language is he speaking in? This is a completely Berber-speaking area, and this is a man who has had, so far as we know, no prior exposure to Berber.

And I think that the West, the Maghreb in North Africa, in the imaginary of the medieval Muslims, was sort of like the new world in the minds of Europeans in the late 1400s or the 1500s. It was full of natives that they didn’t know anything about, and they believed stories about them that were stories in which the foreign interloper always ends up as the king, and the local people end up as the subjects, as if they’d just been waiting for some Arab or Persian to come along and take the role of being a prophet or a leader. This is a wish fulfillment kind of frontier story that makes a good narrative, but it doesn’t make good history.

Maybe so, but a story well told can inspire a massive movement, then as now…

It’s 893, and imperial Arab lords who rule in North Africa with their Berber subjects have heard the news: There’s a mysterious Fatimid preacher in their midst—a Shi’ite rebel, himself from the Arab East. The empire wants him dead, along with his radical ideas. But as we have learned, the Fatimid preacher has his own Berber allies—the Kutama coalition—and they’re ready for a rumble. The Fatimid rebellion draws first blood. Kutama Berber muster 700 infantry and 2000 cavalry against their imperial adversaries. They’re fast, they’re battle-ready, they know their own terrain—and in a four-day attack, they knock out the enemy’s units before the empire can even form a line. The Kutama draw a rich haul of booty: horses, weapons, military equipment, even the banners and drums of imperial troops. It would seem obvious to the medieval mind that the cause of Shi’ism—in this case, a Fatimid-Berber alliance—is favored by God.

They say nothing succeeds like success. And in the medieval Muslim world, nothing attracts followers to a holy cause faster than victory on the battlefield. More Kutama Berber join the Fatimid coalition—the Ijjana clan, the Lataya and the Jimala, the Malusa, the Danhaja, the Urisa. The numbers grow, and one victory follows the next. The Berber and their preacher have begun to build a North African Fatimid state. Now there’s a Fatimid prophecy out there saying if one of the Mahdi’s preachers builds a sovereign state, the Mahdi will emerge from his secret hiding place in the east and come to you, wherever you are, and claim his rightful throne. For the preacher who commands the Berber, it seems that joyous time is close at hand. Imagine the passion of this preacher’s faith in the holiness of a powerful but mysterious man he has never even met, but for whom he fights, day after day, year after year. And his loyalty makes a big difference. By comparison, the preacher’s enemies—the vassals of the Abbasid dynasty—have no such loyalty to their boss in Baghdad. Their soldiers fight for cash. The soldiers’ commander, the local prince, is self-interested, self-absorbed, detached from the Abbasid family, and weak.

Maybe North Africa will become more than just a Fatimid island. Maybe it will develop into a Fatimid state. Maybe this preacher and his Berber allies will be the founding soldiers of a new empire. And maybe all the other Fatimid communities will soon be taking orders from North Africa.

As for all the other Fatimid islands in Arabia, Syria, Iran and elsewhere, every island has its story. But all those stories end in a Fatimid defeat. A rebellion in Iran flames out. A fighting preacher in tries to attack Damascus but he ends up dead on a skewer. In , a Fatimid preacher loses faith in his underground Mahdi. Who is this mysterious man, anyway? Nobody has ever met him. Is he really a descendant of the prophet Muhammad? The preacher wonders. Does he even exist? Maybe he’s a fraud. The preacher starts doubting his faith and can’t stand the uncertainty. The only thought that will cheer him up is the prospect of meeting the hidden leader face to face.

So he goes off, leaving his little island behind, on a journey to where the pigeons fly. He tracks down the Mahdi’s underground hideout in and bangs on the door. He demands to see the all-powerful man. He says he wants to see him now. The response he gets from the Mahdi is disappointing. The Mahdi doesn’t even show his face. He hides behind a set of drapes. The Iraqi preacher has his answer. Devastated, he goes back to his flocks and says the Mahdi is a fraud. His island keeps on fighting, but no longer for a fraudulent wizard. They secede from the Fatimid franchise. Soon enough, another Fatimid island follows suit and secedes near the Arabian Gulf. And before long, there is only one island left. Only the Berber and their Arab preacher still believe. And the man behind the curtain is starting to feel a little unsafe in his underground hideout in . For the so-called Mahdi in the Arab east, it’s about time to get outta Dodge and make his way to Berberland.

Now admittedly, at this point, the history begins to sound a little fanciful. But if you don’t buy the story, you have to start imagining other reasons why the Kutama Berber would be motivated to fight other than an inspiring Fatimid preacher.

Richard Bulliet: Let us suppose just hypothetically that the Kutama Berbers of northwestern Tunisia hated the Berbers that were supporting the main government in Tunisia. And they were willing to fight against them. And they do fight against them, and win, and now they become the dominant Berbers in Tunisia. If you didn’t know the story of the emissary and the secrets he told and the story that these Berbers were going to do this in the name of a leader whom they had never even seen and who was in fact living in Jordan. If you didn’t know that story, you would say, well this must have something to do with the political, economic, and social, ethnic relations within Tunisia. What we have is the story, and the story serves the interest of the elite leadership of the Fatimid movement.

That’s a historian’s critique of the Fatimid myth. But for many people, just because a myth isn’t factual doesn’t make it a lie. For those who believe, even the most improbable Godly myth can survive a historian’s critical gaze. As Joseph Campbell once put it, “God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought. And it’s as simple as that. So it all depends on how much you want to think about it–whether it’s doing you any good, whether it’s putting you in touch with the mystery that’s the ground of your own being. If it isn’t, well, it’s a lie. So half of the people in the world are religious people who think that their metaphors are facts. Those are what we call theists. The other half of people who know that the metaphors are not facts, and so they’re lies. Those are the atheists.”

Coming back to our story, the Mahdi makes his journey west to Berberland—through Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and into North Africa. Imperial soldiers chase him across the empire, but the Mahdi has a network of moles in the government who give him advance warning, so at every turn he manages to evade the empire’s agents. In the year 902 he arrives in Berberland triumphant. A meteor shower lights up the North African sky like a fireworks display. Thanks to his loyal supporter the preacher, and an obedient Berber army, the Fatimids conquer the provincial capital of Qayrawan in Tunisia, and the Mahdi at last ascends the throne. Kutama Berber reportedly swarm into the city “like a plague of locusts” and loot everything in sight. Victory is marked by the joyous, tearful moment, 25 years in the making, when the loyal preacher and his Kutama minions finally meet the Mahdi. They spread out a carpet for him before the tent, and everyone surrounds him, to hear him speak. They weep, they cheer, and they praise God for having let them see the Mahdi with their own eyes. The Mahdi, in turn, praises them. But then, to everyone’s surprise, he declares that he won’t be sticking around North Africa for very long. He appoints his Berber supporters to be the official Fatimid governors of Tunisia and its North African provinces. Then he marches back east with enough Berber troops to conquer Egypt, whence he came, and founds the city of Cairo. Cairo, and not Tunisia, becomes the new Arab capital of the Fatimid empire, where the leader sticks around to serve as ruling Caliph.

Richard Bulliet: And so, when the Fatimid movement goes off to Cairo, it takes the story with it and abandons Tunisia. We don’t even hear much about Tunisia after that, because the Fatimids don’t care. They’re only interested in their story.

In a way, this marks an end to the age of miracles in the Fatimid story and the beginning of a new dynasty’s real-life political record. The pious preacher in North Africa who made victory possible does not even survive this transition. He’s arrested by the Mahdi he had followed blindly all these years, accused of treachery along with his brother, and then executed by the very regime he’d given his whole life to build. And in a stunning twist, the Mahdi invites his former enemy, the ex-spymaster of the fallen regime, to serve as his own new Fatimid spy chief.

It’s the beginning of a medieval Islamic cold war that lasts about a hundred years—between what’s left of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and a new Fatimid anti-Caliphate in Cairo. It’s a clash of Islamic ideologies and interests that forever transforms the Muslim world—and paves the way for the divide we know today, between Sunnis on the one hand and Shi’ites on the other. The Kutama Berber of North Africa were the foot soldiers of revolution—an engine of historic change who have had an enduring impact on Muslim affairs to this day.

The Fatimid empire was eventually defeated, though its ideology and reportedly its blood line live on today in what is known as the Isma’ili sect. Their dynastic leader, the Aga Khan, claims to be a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. He traveled the world in the 20th century and was briefly married to Hollywood movie star Rita Hayworth and engaged to actress Gene Tierney. His son leads the Ismailis now—a generous man, active in world affairs, and keeps an ever watchful eye on the interests of his community.

Written by: Joseph Braude

Further Sources

The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Aga Khan Development Network
Joseph Braude interview on Africans in the Arabian Gulf
Dwight Reynolds interview on the Arabization of North Africa
Eve Troutt Powell interview on African Slaves in Islamic Lands

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