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Al-Muqanna‘: The Veiled Prophet of Transoxiana

By Adam Ali

One of the most serious revolts against the still young Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th century was led by a man best known in the sources as al-Muqanna‘, or “the veiled one.” 

This uprising, like Sunbadh’s rebellion, broke out in the wake of Abu Muslim’s murder and is directly linked to the fallout of the Abbasid Revolution and the perceived betrayal of its architect by the caliph, al-Mansur. Al-Muqanna’‘s rebellion began in the year 768 along the eastern fringes of the empire in Transoxiana, primarily in Sogdia, and it was not until 780 that it was suppressed. This uprising is also classified as one of the Khurramiyya revolts against the Abbasids and was significantly more serious than Sunbadh’s short-lived rebellion in 755.

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Little is known about the man who would take the title of al-Muqanna‘ prior to his involvement in the Abbasid Revolution and his subsequent rebellion. According to most of the sources his real name was Hashim ibn Hakim (some later writers claimed his name was ‘Ata’). Most of the information about his background comes from Narshakhi’s Tarikh-i Bukhara (originally written in Arabic during the 10th century and translated to Persian in the 12th century). According to this source he was from the city of Balkh, in the region of Tukharistan, although Patricia Crone states that his family may have originally been from Sogdia since that is where he rebelled.

Hashim’s father was probably recruited (and by default converted to Islam) by a Hashemite missionary and may have even named his son after the new movement that he joined, making Hashim a second-generation Muslim. Hashim (and maybe his father) joined Abu Muslim’s revolutionary army when the rebellion against the Umayyads broke out at Marw, the capital of Khurasan and participated in the battles that drove the Umayyads out of Khurasan. Hashim was an officer and a secretary/administrator in the Khurasani army during the revolution. He most probably used Persian or an eastern Iranian dialect when doing his administrative work and also knew Arabic, although al-Jahiz states that his Arabic was broken and that he spoke it incorrectly and with an accent. The sources also mention that he had studied sleights of hand and magic, although it is unclear when this happened and maybe an attempt by the Muslim writers to discredit the miracles his followers attributed to him.

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Map of the region and principal localities of Transoxiana in the 8th century Image by Cplakidas / Wikimedia Commons

Although these fragmentary pieces of information do not give us a detailed picture of his childhood, upbringing and education, they do inform us that he was educated to some degree, which may have earned him and/or his father the title of “hakim” or “wise one.” This information also tells us that Hashim and his family were not, unlike the majority of the Iranian recruits in Abu Muslim’s army, a simple peasant or villager. In fact, after joining the ranks of the revolutionary army Hashim did very well, rising in the ranks and becoming an officer and military administrator. He seems to have seen active combat as well, as some of the sources indicate that he may have lost an eye in battle.

Like thousands of other Khurasani soldiers of the revolution, Hashim came to the city of Marw, the provincial capital, and was settled in one of the villages surrounding it, specifically a village by the name of Kaza. Abu Muslim’s death in 755 did not impact him directly. In fact, he continued to profit and do well for himself serving two governors Abu Dawud Khalid ibn Ibrahim al-Dhuli (755-757) and ‘Abd al-Jabbar ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Azdi (757-758). He continued working as an army secretary and an advisor to the governors. In fact, some writers, like al-Narshakhi, even go so far as to claim that he was ‘Abd al-Jabbar’s chief adviser. Whatever the case, unlike Sunbadh and many of Abu Muslim’s other soldiers, Hashim’s hopes and dreams were not dashed by his death.

Hashim’s road to revolt

The real change in Hashim’s fortune came with the downfall of ‘Abd al-Jabbar, the governor under whom he served. It appears that it was during the reign of the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur (r. 754-775), that the rift within the Hashemite family (i.e. the descendants of the prophet’s clan) became more pronounced between the Alid and Abbasid lines. This ended the idea of “big tent” Hashemite Shiism, as Crone puts it, which was one of the hallmarks of the Abbasid Revolution that had united many people with different ideas, ideologies, and aims, including many of the Alids and their supporters, the Khurramiyya, the ghulat (Shia extremists), and even non-Muslims under the banners of the revolution. This unity was achieved through ambiguous messaging to the potential recruits during the revolution and directed all the groups’ anger and frustrations towards overthrowing the Umayyads. With that accomplished, the Abbasids set to consolidate their newly won throne. They got rid of Abu Muslim and other threats, including the Alids, who also had a legitimate claim (perhaps more so than the Abbasids according to some) to the position of caliph.

Al-Mansur had commanded his governor in Khurasan to eliminate officers and commanders in the army with Alid sympathies. ‘Abd al-Jabbar initially complied, but then suddenly switched to the Alid side. He swore allegiance to a man whom he claimed was a Hasanid (i.e. a descendent of Hasan, the son of Ali and the prophet’s grandson) by the name of Ibrahim ibn Abdallah. Most of the sources claim that this man was in fact a mawla or an Iranian convert to Islam. ‘Abd al-Jabbar then put to death anyone who resisted him. He adopted the colour white, in opposition the Abbasid black and possibly also to build bridges with and gain the support of the mubayyida or the “white-clothed ones” who would come to play a prominent role in al-Muqanna‘’s revolt. He also sought to recruit other Khurasanis who rejected the Abbasids preferring an Alid on the throne or who were in favour of Abu Muslim (possibly a resurrected/returned messianic Abu Muslim).

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Al-Mansur sent an army to Khurasan, defeated ‘Abd al-Jabbar, and captured him. He was taken to Baghdad along with his close associates. The disgraced governor was cruelly put to death and many of those captured with him were tortured to reveal their wealth, while others were imprisoned.

Hashim was among those who spent some time imprisoned in Baghdad after his employer’s downfall. He was released sometime later and returned to Marw. He had lost favour with those in power and had been dismissed from his former position in the military. He worked as a fuller in Kaza. It was either during or after his imprisonment that Hashim underwent a transformation and started to preach. Some sources state that he began his preaching and prophetic career prior to the downfall of his patron. Either way, he blamed the downturn of his fortunes, like many of the other Khurramiyya, on the Abbasids and turned his back on them and their religion. He was now a new prophet. He converted several men to his cause in Marw, including an Arab whose daughter he also married, and who became his chief missionary. He sent his missionaries out to gather recruits to his cause. They met with success in Sogdia among the mubayyida (white-clothed ones), who have been described as Khurramiyya.

Although Hashim began his preaching activities earlier, the year 768 is marked as the starting point of his rebellion. It is during this year that the governor of Khurasan, Humayd ibn Qahtaba, tried to arrest him, forcing Hashim to go into hiding. He came out of hiding and moved to Sogdia after his followers there rebelled openly and violently and seized several fortresses. He crossed the Oxus River with 36 followers and took one of these fortresses, Nawakit, in the mountainous region of Kish, as his main base. In addition to being on the fringes of the empire in an inhospitable and mountainous region, the fortress itself was also formidable. The sources describe it as a fortress within a fortress. It was composed of an outer castle and wall in which the soldiery and the officers lived and an inner fortress where Hashim, now al-Muqanna‘, ensconced himself with his wives, concubines, and confidants.

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Al-Muqanna‘, having gained experience as a member and participant in the Abbasid Revolution, employed similar tactics and methods. He sent out representatives and missionaries targeting the villagers of Sogdia as recruits. These tactics met with a considerable amount of success.

Becoming the ‘Veiled One’

Al-Muqanna‘’s message resonated with his followers, who most probably adhered to some form of Khuramism or ghuluww (among those who had converted to Islam). He claimed that God would periodically enter the body of a man whom He had selected as His messenger. God did this when he wanted to interact with humanity in order to inform His followers, through His messenger, how he wanted them to live and when He revealed new laws. Al-Muqanna’ asserted that Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Abu Muslim were all such messengers and that he was the newest incarnation of God, making him divine. This idea, known as hulul and sometimes as tanasukh (periodic manifestation of the divine spirit in man), was un-Islamic because it obscured the line dividing God and the human world and also reduced Muhammad and all previous Biblical prophets to irrelevance and abrogated their teachings.

According to al-Muqanna‘, God manifested himself in the bodies of His messengers because the human eye cannot behold Him in His true form. Al-Muqanna‘ asserted that even when God did manifest himself in human form, His followers could not bear to look upon him directly. That is the purported reason that he wore a veil, which was either golden or green, a representation of the paradise that his followers would enjoy in this world and the hereafter. The Divine Spirit dwelling within him made him too brilliant to behold with the mere human eye. In essence, he was shielding his followers from his unbearable radiance. The Muslim sources, on the other hand, claim that he was hiding his hideous features, which included him missing an eye, leprosy, baldness, and other disfigurements. Al-Muqanna‘ may have also drawn from Buddhism, which still flourished in Transoxiana during the 8th century, perhaps envisaging himself as the Maitreya Buddha, the savior Buddha who would bring salvation. This form of the Buddha is also described as being brilliant like the sun.

Lalla Rookh, written by Irish poet Thomas Moore in 1817, includes a fanciful retelling of the story al-Muqanna‘ – image from Lalla Rookh: an Oriental romance (1890) – Library of Congress

To back up his claims, al-Muqanna‘ is purported by his followers to have performed miracles. Among the most famous of these miracles is a moon that rose and sank upon his behest. The Muslim sources explain this as a trick produced with quicksilver in a well or by using mirrors, candles, and water to produce illusions and reflections. Others state that he was a magician or sorcerer and that his feats were not divine. Another “miraculous” event was his removal of his veil in the presence of some of his followers, stunning them with his unbearable brilliance. The last miracle is the nature of his death, which will be discussed in more detail below and once again evokes the image of the Maitreya Buddha that al-Muqanna‘ may have been trying to channel.

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Patricia Crone states that it is unclear whether he had a social programme comparable to that of other Khurramiyya leaders such as Mazdak (who rebelled against the Sassanians). The sources attribute the notion of communal sharing, a common practice in many Khurrami communities, of all property, wealth, and women. However, Crone argues that al-Muqanna‘ allowed his followers to despoil their enemies and gave them a free hand to take and share their property, women, and children, which may have been understood by the Muslim scholars “as a doctrine of free use of women and property among the followers themselves.” For example, Nizam al-Mulk, the Seljuk Vizier writing in the 11th century, states that al-Muqanna‘ abolished religious law. He goes on to conflate the al-Muqanna‘ and his followers with several other groups that he deemed “heretical” and even fabricates alliances between them that probably never existed.

The Revolt in Sogdia

It was during the first few years of the rebellion that al-Muqanna‘’s movement was the most successful. At one point it looked as though all of Sogdia might fall to him. His followers struck from their mountain fortresses against villages and caravans. They occupied several villages near Bukhara and Samarqand and even captured Samarqand on two occasions. It is at Samarqand that al-Muqanna‘ minted coins in his own name proclaiming himself as the avenger of Abu Muslim and the King of Sogdia.

The local authorities attempted to put down al-Muqanna‘’s revolt, but the rebels defeated an army composed of troops from Tirmidh, Balkh, and Chaganiyan near Tirmidh and occupied that city. Al-Muqanna‘’s forces also besieged Chaganiyan and Nasaf but could not take them. The siege of Chaganiyan was broken off after a month because the besiegers ran out of supplies and had depleted all the villages in the region. The siege of Nasaf was also abandoned because the population formed a united front in resisting the attackers. The rich citizens of the city opened up their granaries and stores to feed the entire populace.

The Turks, who had joined al-Muqanna‘, were very good at winning field battles, but they lacked the appropriate equipment and engines for sieges. They blockaded the cities and lived off the surrounding villages, making long sieges unsustainable. It was crucial for al-Muqanna‘’s forces to either force a surrender or somehow force an entrance into the target as quickly as possible.

It was these moves against major cities rather than the earlier raids and banditry committed by al-Muqanna‘’s followers that attracted the attention of the central authorities. These moves were alarming to the caliph because Tirmidh controlled the route through the Iron Gate from Balkh to Kish and Samarqand. Nasaf and Bukhara controlled the routes from the west. Chaganiyan controlled access to the Iron Gate from the East. Al-Muqanna‘’s attempts to take these cities would not only secure his position in Sogdia and make it very difficult to dislodge him, but would have also had major strategic and economic consequences.

A view of Samarqand – photo by Stefan Munder / Flickr

The height of al-Muqanna‘’s success occurred around the year 775 – when both the caliph, al-Mansur, and the governor of Khurasan died. Al-Muqanna‘ took the opportunity during this time of confusion to expand and seize Samarqand.

Two major groups made up the forces of al-Muqanna‘: the mubayyida or white-clothed ones, who were mostly Sogdian villagers, and the Turks. Some of them were ex-Muslims, like al-Muqanna‘ himself, who had been disappointed with their experiences as a part of the Muslim community and who nativized their new religion and incorporated some of their own traditions into it and claimed to be the true custodians of Islam. There were also local brigands, strongmen, ex-soldiers, and mercenaries who joined the rebels.

The Turks who joined al-Muqanna‘ may have been Turgesh, Ghuzz, and/or Qarluqs. The Turgesh had once been the dominant force in Transoxiana before the arrival of the Muslims. The Qarluq and Ghuzz are said to have joined al-Muqanna‘ for the sake of plunder. However, some, or most, of the Turgesh may have believed in his messianic message. They had once dominated the region and were now squeezed between the advancing Muslims from the west and other Turkic groups moving in from the east. They may have had designs to restore the Turgesh hegemony they once enjoyed in Transoxiana. Their leader, the Khaqan, allied himself with al-Muqanna‘ and may have portrayed himself as the righteous king who would welcome the Maitreya, the divine role that al-Muqanna‘ claimed for himself. The Turks were instrumental to the successes that the rebellion enjoyed. Their military strength allowed al-Muqanna‘ to not only survive the early attempts by the local authorities to subdue him, but also to expand and occupy villages and even major cities such as Samarqand.

Al-Muqanna‘’s downfall

The beginning of the end of the rebellion started in 776 when the new caliph, al-Mahdi (r. 775-785), appointed a new governor to Khurasan, Mu‘adh ibn Muslim. Mu‘adh was a Khurasani who had participated in suppressing another Khurrami revolt by Ustadhsis less than a decade earlier in Eastern Khurasan. He reconquered Samarqand and fought al-Muqanna‘’s Turks, who represented the biggest military threat. He even besieged al-Muqanna‘’s fortress but broke off the siege with the arrival of winter.

In 779 Mu‘adh was replaced by a new governor, al-Musayyab ibn Zuhayr al-Dabbi. This governor sent an army to besiege Nawakit under the command of Sa’id al-Harashi. The rebels were eventually starved out because the siege was maintained even during the winter months. The troops stationed in the outer fortress surrendered. Al-Muqanna‘ with his wives, concubines and close associates committed suicide in the inner fortress. Some sources claim that he poisoned everyone in the inner fortress, then made a great fire, jumped into it, and disappeared. Some accounts say that not even his ashes were found because he jumped into a hearth into which he had poured molten copper and/or tar and sugar, which fully consumed him. The way in which al-Muqanna‘ took his life suggests once again that he conceived himself to be the Maitreya who would enter Parinirvana and disappear in flames. Other sources suggest that he poisoned himself or that his body did not fully burn. His enemies claim that his head was cut off and sent to al-Mahdi. One version tells how one of his slave girls feigned death and witnessed him killing his women and retainers and then himself. However, this account is only found in the Persian sources and not in any of the Arabic texts recounting these events.

The Defeat of al-Muqanna, from ‘The Chronology of Ancient Nations’ by Al-Biruni, 1307 – Edinburgh University Library Or Ms 161 fol.93v

The last point left to address is al-Muqanna‘’s objectives. He was the veiled prophet, a divine being who had come to punish the tyrants and to avenge the death of Abu Muslim. His victory would usher in a period of paradise on Earth. However, this paradise was for Sogdia and the Sogdian community. In other words, his objectives were very “local.” His aim was to destroy the caliphal regime in Sogdia, not to bring down the entire caliphate. Before the coming of Islam, Sogdia was never a part of the Sasanian empire, so there was nothing restorationist about his movement (i.e. the desire to restore the Sassanian royal family). Very often these rebellions have also been attributed with a sort of Iranian or Persian “nationalism”. This too, is far from the truth. Al-Muqanna‘ and his followers were not “nationalistic” by any means.

They were anti-Islamic in the sense that they opposed foreign domination, in this case by the Abbasids and the “Arab” invaders. However, al-Muqanna‘ and at least some of his follower probably saw themselves as the true Muslims and rejected their enemies’ beliefs and claimed they followed a corrupted version of Islam. The label of “Arab” was applied to all those who opted to remain under caliphal rule, regardless of their actual ethnicity. In fact, al-Muqanna‘’s father-in-law was an ethnic Arab, but did not fall under the label of “Arab” as seen by the rebels. The siege of Nasaf is an example of such “Arabs.” The majority of the populace of Nasaf and the other cities besieged by the rebels was Sogdian or East Iranian. The people of Nasaf stood in solidarity against al-Muqanna‘’s forces and resisted them. In such instances, it does not seem that al-Muqaanna‘’s forces were rescuing their fellow countrymen from “Arab” tyranny or that they had widespread support. On this matter Patricia Crone writes in her book The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran:

There is no suggestion that al-Muqanna‘’s followers were perceived as Robin Hoods or bandits celebrated for upholding traditional values against an intrusive government, or that they were fed and protected by the peasantry in villages other than those they controlled.

Like many of the other Khurramiyya revolts, this movement can be described as nativist. Like several of the other rebels such as Sunbadh, al-Muqanna‘ was realistic in his aims. His objective was to secure Sogdia and to create an independent polity for those Sogdians who believed in his message and divinity and followed him and to purge it from all other elements. The rebels wanted to stem the tide that was transforming the region and its power structures at the expense of the indigenous population; to build a utopia for “us.” However, they failed because these rebels did not represent the entire population and also because as Crone aptly concludes “because there now was a new, Islamic Iran both inside and outside Sogdia, that al-Muqanna‘’s rural representatives of old Iran were unsuccessful.”

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Further Reading:

Patricia Crone, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

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