The Qarmatians (Arabic: قرامطة Qarāmita; also transliterated Carmathians, Qarmathians, Karmathians) were a syncretic religious group that combined elements of the Ismaili Shia Islam centered in al-Hasa (Eastern Arabia), where they established a religious utopian republic in 899 CE. They are most famed for their revolt against the Abbasid Caliphate. Mecca was sacked by the sect’s leader, Abu Tahir al-Jannabi,[1] outraging the Muslim world, particularly with their theft of the Black Stone and desecration of the Zamzam Well with corpses during the Hajj season of 930 CE.[2]


The origin of the name "Qarmatian" is uncertain.[3] According to some sources, the name derives from the surname of the sect's founder, Hamdan Qarmat.[4][5] The name qarmat probably comes from Aramaic, and means either "short-legged," "red-eyed," or "secret teacher".[6][7][8] Other sources, however, say that the name comes from the Arabic verb قرمط (qarmat), which means "to make the lines close together in writing" or "to walk with short steps."[2][9] The word "Qarmatian" can also refer to a type of Arabic script.[10]

The Qarāmiṭah in southern Iraq were also known as "the Greengrocers" (al-Baqliyyah) because of a preacher Abu Hatim who in 906/7 forbade animal slaughter as well as the eating of vegetables such as alliums. It is not clear if his teachings persisted.[11]


Early developments

Under the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258 CE), various Shi'i groups organised in secret opposition to their rule. Among them were the supporters of the proto-Ismā‘īlī community, of whom the most prominent group were called the Mubārakiyyah.

According to the Ismaili school of thought, Imām Ja'far al-Sadiq (702–765) designated his second son, Isma'il ibn Jafar (ca. 721–755), as heir to the Imamate. However, Ismā‘īl predeceased his father. Some claimed he had gone into hiding, but the proto-Ismā‘īlī group accepted his death and therefore accordingly recognized Ismā‘īl's eldest son, Muhammad ibn Ismail (746–809), as Imām. He remained in contact with the Mubārakiyyah group, most of whom resided in Kufa.

The split among the Mubārakiyyah came with the death of Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl (ca. 813 CE). The majority of the group denied his death; they recognized him as the Mahdi. The minority believed in his death and would eventually emerge in later times as the Isma'ili Fatimid Caliphate, the precursors to all modern groups.

The majority Ismā‘īlī missionary movement settled in al-Salamiyah (in present-day Syria) and had great success in Khuzestan (southwestern Iran), where the Ismā‘īlī leader al-Husayn al-Ahwāzī converted the Kūfan man Ḥamdān in 874 CE, who took the name Qarmaṭ after his new faith.[2] Qarmaṭ and his theologian brother-in-law ‘Abdān prepared southern Iraq for the coming of the Mahdi by creating a military and religious stronghold. Other such locations grew up in Yemen, in Eastern Arabia (Arabic Bahrayn) in 899, and in North Africa. These attracted many new Shi'i followers due to their activist and messianic teachings. This new proto-Qarmaṭī movement continued to spread into Greater Iran and then into Transoxiana.

The Qarmatian Revolution

A change in leadership in as-Salamiyah in 899 led to a split in the movement. The minority Ismā‘īlīs, whose leader had taken control of the Salamiyyah centre, began to proclaim their teachings - that Imām Muḥammad had died, and that the new leader in Salamiyyah was in fact his descendant come out of hiding. Qarmaṭ and his brother-in-law opposed this and openly broke with the Salamiyyids; when ‘Abdān was assassinated, he went into hiding and subsequently repented. Qarmaṭ became a missionary of the new Imām, Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah (873–934), who founded the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa in 909.

Nonetheless, the dissident group retained the name Qarmaṭī. Their greatest stronghold remained in Bahrain, which at this period included much of eastern Arabia as well as the islands that comprise the present state. It was under Abbasid control at the end of the ninth century, but the Zanj Rebellion in Basra]] disrupted the power of Baghdad. The Qarmaṭians seized their opportunity under their leader, Abu Sa'id al-Jannabi, who captured Bahrain’s capital Hajr and al-Hasa in 899, which he made the capital of his republic and once in control of the state he sought to set up a utopian society.

The Qarmaṭians instigated what one scholar termed a "century of terrorism" in Kufa.[12] They considered the pilgrimage to Mecca a superstition and once in control of the Bahrayni state, they launched raids along the pilgrim routes crossing the Arabian Peninsula: in 906 they ambushed the pilgrim caravan returning from Mecca and massacred 20,000 pilgrims.[13]

Under al-Jannabi (ruled 923–944), the Qarmaṭians came close to raiding Baghdad in 927, and sacked Mecca and Medina in 930. In their attack on Islam's holiest sites, the Qarmatians desecrated the Zamzam Well with corpses of Hajj pilgrims and took the Black Stone from Mecca to al-Hasa.[14][15] Holding the Black Stone to ransom, they forced the Abbasids to pay a huge sum for its return in 952.[16]

The revolution and desecration shocked the Muslim world and humiliated the Abbasids. But little could be done; for much of the tenth century the Qarmatians were the most powerful force in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, controlling the coast of Oman and collecting tribute from the caliph in Baghdad as well as from a rival Isma'ili imam in Cairo, the head of the Fatimid Caliphate, whose power they did not recognize.

Qarmatian society

The land they ruled over was extremely wealthy with a huge slave-based economy according to academic Yitzhak Nakash:

The Qarmatian state had vast fruit and grain estates both on the islands and in Hasa and Qatif. Nasir Khusraw, who visited Hasa in 1051, recounted that these estates were cultivated by some thirty thousand Ethiopian slaves. He mentions that the people of Hasa were exempt from taxes. Those impoverished or in debt could obtain a loan until they put their affairs in order. No interest was taken on loans, and token lead money was used for all local transactions. The Qarmathian state had a powerful and long-lasting legacy. This is evidenced by a coin known as Tawila, minted around 920 by one of the Qarmathian rulers, and which was still in circulation in Hasa early in the twentieth century.[17]


After defeat by the Abbasids in 976 the Qarmatians began to look inwards and their status was reduced to that of a local power. This had important repercussions for the Qarmatians' ability to extract tribute from the region; according to Arabist historian Curtis Larsen:

As tribute payments were progressively cut off, either by the subsequent government in Iraq or by rival Arab tribes, the Carmathian state shrank to local dimensions. Bahrain broke away in AD 1058 under the leadership of Abu al-Bahlul al-Awwam who re-established orthodox Islam on the islands. Similar revolts removed Qatif from Carmathian control at about the same time. Deprived of all outside income and control of the coasts, the Carmathians retreated to their stronghold at the Hofuf Oasis. Their dynasty was finally dealt a final blow in 1067 by the combined forces of Abdullah bin Ali Al Uyuni, who with the help of Seljuk army contingents from Iraq, laid siege to Hofuf for seven years and finally forced the Carmathians to surrender.[18]

In Bahrain and eastern Arabia the Qarmatian state was replaced by the Uyunid dynasty, while it is believed that by the middle of the eleventh century Qarmatian communities in Iraq, Iran, and Transoxiana had either been won over by Fatimid proselytising or had disintegrated.[19] The last contemporary mention of the Qarmatians is that of Nasir Khusraw, who visited them in 1050, although Ibn Battuta, visiting Qatif in 1331, found it inhabited by Arab tribes whom he described as "extremist Shia" (rafidhiyya ghulat),[20] which historian Juan Cole has suggested is how a fourteenth-century Sunni would describe Isma'ilis.[21]

Qarmatian-Imamate of Seven Imams

Qarmatian Imam Period
1 Ali (632–661)
2 Hasan ibn Ali (661–669)
3 Husayn ibn Ali (669–680)
4 Ali ibn Husayn Zayn al-Abidin (680–713)
5 Muhammad al-Baqir (713–733)
6 Ja'far al-Sadiq (733–765)
7 Isma'il ibn Jafar (765–775)
Mahdi Muhammad ibn Isma'il[22] (775–813)

Ismaili imams who were not accepted as legitimate by Sevener Qarmatians

The following Ismaili imams after Muhammad ibn Isma'il had been considered heretics of dubious origins by certain Qarmatian groups,[23] who refused to acknowledge the imamate of the Fatimids and clung to their belief in the coming of the Mahdi.

Qarmatian rulers in Eastern Arabia

See also


  1. Mecca's History, from Encyclopædia Britannica.
  2. 1 2 3 Glassé, Cyril. 2008. The New Encyclopedia of Islam. Walnut Creek CA: AltaMira Press p. 369
  3. Akbar, Faiza. "The secular roots of religious dissidence in early Islam: the case of the Qaramita of Sawad Al‐Kūfa." Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 12.2 (1991): 376-390.
  4. Madelung, Wilferd. "ḤAMDĀN QARMAṬ". Encyclopædia Iranica. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  5. Madelung, Wilfred. "Karmati". Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed. Brill. Retrieved 19 July 2012.
  6. Seta B. Dadoyan (23 September 2013). The Armenians in the Medieval Islamic World, Volume Three: Medieval Cosmopolitanism and Images of Islam. Transaction Publishers. p. 36. ISBN 978-1-4128-5189-3.
  7. Farhad Daftary (24 April 1992). The Isma'ilis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge University Press. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-521-42974-0.
  8. Heinz Halm (1996). Der Nahe und Mittlere Osten. BRILL. p. 27. ISBN 90-04-10056-3.
  9. Edward William Lane. Arabic-English Lexicon. p. 2519.
  10. Josef W. Meri (31 October 2005). Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. p. 134. ISBN 978-1-135-45596-5.
  11. Madelung, Wilfred (2001-02-22). Daftary, Farhad, ed. Mediaeval Isma'ili History and Thought. Cambridge University Press. p. 71. ISBN 9780521003100.
  12. Al-Jubūrī, I M N (2004), History of Islamic Philosophy, Authors Online Ltd, p. 172
  13. John Joseph Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam, Routledge 1978 p. 130
  14. Houari Touati, Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages, transl. Lydia G. Cochrane, (University of Chicago Press, 2010), 60.
  15. The Qarmatians in Bahrain, Ismaili Net
  16. "Qarmatiyyah". Overview of World Religions. St. Martin's College. Retrieved 2007-05-04.
  17. Yitzhak Nakash, Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World, Princeton 2007
  18. Larsen, Curtis E (1984), Life and Land Use on the Bahrain Islands: The Geoarchaeology of an Ancient Society, University Of Chicago Press, p. 65
  19. Farhad Daftary, The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis, IB Tauris, 1994, p20
  20. Ibn Battuta (1964), Rihla ibn Battuta, Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Sadir, pp. 279–80
  21. Cole, Juan (2007), Sacred Space and Holy War, IB Tauris
  22. MUHAMMAD BIN ISMAIL (158-197/775-813)
  23. Encyclopedia Iranica, "ʿABDALLĀH B. MAYMŪN AL-QADDĀḤ"

External links

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