The Scourges of the Desert: The Triumph and Fall of the Qaramita of Bahrayn

By Adam Ali

In the second part of this look at the Qaramita, it is revealed how they challenged both the Abbasids and Fatimids before ultimately disappearing in the eleventh century.

Abu Sa‘id’s death was not the end of the Qaramita in Bahrayn. They would rise to prominence under his successors, primarily Abu Tahir and al-Hasan al-A‘sam. Their claim to fame was their military prowess and fearsome reputation for indiscriminately raiding their neighbours in Southern Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and other parts of Arabia and terrorizing and pillaging pilgrim caravans on their way to Mecca. To them, even Islam’s holiest sites were not off-limits. Their indiscriminate attacks on military and civilian targets acquired them a terrifying reputation and they demonstrated their power by challenging and almost destroying both the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates.


See also Part 1: The Warlord Missionary: Abu Sa‘id al-Jannabi and the Rise of the Qaramita of Bahrayn

The Reign of Abu Tahir

Abu Tahir Sulayman ibn Abu Sa‘id al-Hasan (son of al-Hasan Abu Sa‘id) assumed power in Bahrayn in 923. At the time of his father’s death, Abu Tahir was six years old. Abu Sa‘id had named him his successor and stated that he should take the reins of power upon reaching the age of maturity. He was energetic and militant and upon his assumption of power, he overturned his brother’s conciliatory policy toward the Abbasids. He set out on a vigorous campaign attacking the towns of southern Iraq and mercilessly waylaying and pillaging the annual pilgrimage caravans for the next two decades.


His first act after taking control of Bahrayn was to attack the city of Basra. Abu Tahir moved his army quickly and stealthy and launched a surprise attack on the unsuspecting city. He and his men scaled the walls at night and occupied all the strong points in the city before an effective defense could be organized. The Qaramita then spent seventeen days pillaging and massacring as they pleased before retiring, once again, into the desert.

That same year Abu Tahir also attacked the pilgrimage caravan as it made its way to Mecca. They captured several notables, including the Hamdanid prince Abu al-Hayja, who had been charged with the security of the pilgrimage routes. Abu al-Hayja was able to negotiate his release and that of some other prisoners, considered a major feat because the Abu Sa‘dis usually put their prisoners to death.

Abu al-Hayja was sent to Baghdad with a message. Abu Tahir demanded several territories, including Ahwaz, Basra, and other regions, be ceded to him. The caliph rejected Abu Tahir’s demands. In response, the following year (924-925), Abu Tahir once again attacked the pilgrimage caravan and sacked the city of Kufa. The pilgrim caravan of 926 was only allowed to proceed to Mecca after a substantial sum was paid to Abu Tahir by the pilgrims for their safe passage.

Abu Tahir continued the wreak havoc along the pilgrimage route and in Southern Iraq for years. The chaotic state of affairs was unacceptable and the caliphate decided to strike back. The Abbasid vizier, al-Khasibi, summoned the governor of Armenia and Azarbaijan, Ibn Abi al-Saj to deal with Qarmati menace. Ibn Abi al-Saj mustered his forces at Wasit, in central Iraq, and awaited reinforcements from Baghdad as he prepared to march against Abu Tahir.


In the meantime, Ali ibn ‘Isa, the former vizier who had been ousted by a rival, returned to power. This vizier had both fought against and negotiated with the Qaramita in the past. He counseled that Ibn Abi al-Saj’s army was not the best force to send against Abu Tahir, the bulk of the soldiers being accustomed to fighting in mountainous and wooded terrain. He suggested using other Bedouin tribes such as the Banu Asad and Banu Shayban to attack the Qaramita and to guard the pilgrimage caravans. Ibn Abi al-Saj rejected his advice and marched out to fight Abu Tahir. Even though the Abbasid army was large and well-equipped, Abu Tahir won a decisive victory in 928. He captured the Abbasid commander and put him to death along with all the other prisoners.

The Qaramita state in the 10th century – image by Dpstoksy / Wikimedia Commons

After his victory against Ibn Abi al-Saj, Abu Tahir embarked on an offensive campaign that threatened the very existence of the Abbasid caliphate in 928. This year also coincided with the millenarian expectations that the mahdi would appear. Abu Tahir led his army up the Euphrates taking al-Anbar and ‘Ayn al-Tamr. He crossed the river and marched on Baghdad.

His advance was checked by an Abbasid army, led by the famous commander, Mu’nis al-Khadim (d. 933), who had defended Egypt from the Fatimids. The Abbasids were supported by the Hamdanids, and Abu al-Hayja and three of his brothers were present in Mu’nis’s army. The Hamdanid prince, whom the Abu Sa‘idis had spared years earlier, proved instrumental in halting the Abu Sa‘idi advance. It was Abu al-Hayja’s plan to destroy one of the bridges on a canal that greatly hampered Abu Tahir’s advance and prevented him from bringing enough troops across to effectively fight the Abbasids. With his plan to take Baghdad foiled, Abu Tahir turned north and terrorized Rahba, Qarqissiya, and Raqqa. Some of his forces raided farther to Sinjar, Ra’s ‘Ayn, and Nisibin, in modern-day northern Syria and Southern Turkey. He returned to Bahrayn in 929.


The climax of Abu Tahir’s campaigns occurred in the early 930s. In 930 Abu Tahir attacked the city of Mecca during the pilgrimage. He massacred the pilgrims around the mosque and spent eight days massacring the inhabitants and pillaging them. His men stripped the city of anything that had value, even wrenching out the Black Stone from the corner of the Ka‘ba and carrying it off to Bahryan. The Black Stone would only return to Mecca twenty-two years later. The violation of Islam’s holiest site and the bloodshed committed in the sanctuary of Mecca shook and outraged the entire Muslim world. That same year Abu Tahir fully conquered Uman, and undertaking that his father had begun. In 931, Abu Tahir attempted another invasion of Iraq. His troops took Kufa and spent twenty-five days pillaging it, but advanced no further and returned to Bahrayn.

The mahdi

It was not Abbasid arms or the threat of an Abbasid army that halted the irresistible Qarmati offensive, but rather it was the internal turmoil in Bahryan that saved the Abbasids. Expecting the imminent arrival of the mahdi, Abu Tahir and his followers had enthroned a young Persian from Isfahan as their mahdi in 931. The Isfahani had been a prisoner of war and Abu Tahir and others claimed that they recognized the mahdi in him and that he would usher in the final religious era on earth. They had built a new abode for him near al-Ahsa, where he established his court.

This move was to hurt the Qarmati movement in Bahrayn greatly. The young Persian proclaimed all previous religions abolished, commanded the cursing of all prophets, ordered his followers to worship fire, and abolished all religious rules. He issued proclamations that, to most Muslims were, unacceptable, extreme, and repulsive. Some of these proclamations have been described as stemming from Zoroastrianism. However, it is possible that the new mahdi may have been following some version of Khurramism because in one version of these events he was declared God incarnate and some of his social decrees ring familiar regarding what is known about the practices of the Khurramiyya inhabiting many parts of the Iranian world. He also issued orders to have some of the prominent leaders among the Qaramita killed.

His reign lasted for eighty days. Abu Tahir ordered his execution and admitted that he had been deceived by a “false mahdi.” In another version of these events, Abu Tahir and Ibn Sanbar allowed the Persian to take the reins of power to get rid of a powerful opponent to their rule. Once the “mahdi” had done the dirty work of ordering the deaths of their powerful enemy and many other prominent Qaramita, Abu Tahir and Ibn Sanbar revealed his deception and put him to death.


François Du Blois asserts that Abu Tahir named this Persian the mahdi because he knew that his older brothers and the other leaders would have never accepted it if he claimed the title for himself. This scholar states that Abu Tahir sought to strengthen his hold over his followers through his Persian puppet. When the new mahdi tried to assert himself and things got out of hand, Abu Tahir had him killed.

This episode hurt the reputation of Qarmati movement of Bahrayn, especially due to the commands and proclamations of the pseudo-mahdi and the ensuing antinomianism and libertinism among some of the Qaramita. These events also demoralized many of the adherents of the movement and weakened the leadership’s hold over some of the other dissident Qaramita who had joined the Abu Sa‘idis of Bahrayn. Many Iraqi Qaramita as well some tribal groups left Bahrayn. Some of these renegades even joined the armies of the Abbasids and other Sunni rulers in the following decades.

After the episode of the “false mahdi” and the sacking of Mecca, the Qaramita went back to believing that they were acting on behalf of a “hidden” mahdi. Eschatological expectations also declined, and Abu Tahir and his remaining followers’ primary interests returned to securing strategic, commercial, and economic gains. As a result of this reorientation of policies, the Qaramita returned to targeting wealthy towns and commercial centers. They crossed the Persian Gulf and raided the Iranian coast sacking the towns of Siniz and Tawwaj in 933 and 934 respectively. They continuously raided southern Iraq and southern Iran and also blocked the pilgrimage routes. Pilgrimage caravans could not traverse the desert without the Qaramita’s approval. During the ten-year period from 929-939 only two such caravans were permitted to make the journey to Mecca.

In 934, the Abbasid hajib (chamberlain), Muhammad ibn Yaqut, entered into negotiations with Abu Tahir. These negotiations would slowly shift the policy of the Qaramita from violent hostility toward the Abbasids to one defined by “peace for privileges,” as stated by Istvan Haynal in his article on the relations of the Qaramita. The chamberlain demanded Abu Tahir recognize the Abbasid caliph, al-Radi (r. 934-940), to put an end to his attacks on the pilgrimage caravans, and to return the Black Stone to Mecca. In return for doing these things, Abu Tahir would be recognized as the ruler of the regions he possessed and conquered. Abu Tahir and the Qaramita refused to return the Black Stone but agreed to stop obstructing the pilgrimage. Despite this agreement, they continued their attacks on the pilgrims in 935 and 936.

In 937 the Qaramita crushed another caliphal army and occupied Kufa for several days. Despite all these violations of the agreement with the Abbasids and acts of aggression, the negotiations between the caliphal authorities and Abu Tahir continued. The Abbasid official who had taken over as the representative of the caliph was the new amir al-umara (amir of amirs or commander-in-chief or overlord), Ibn al-Ra‘iq. Abu Tahir and his followers demanded a subsidy of 120,000 dinars per year, which ibn al-Ra‘iq accepted. He stated that with this payment, the Qaramita were to see themselves as enrolled in the caliph’s service as the protectors of the pilgrimage.

This agreement was fully formalized in 939. The Abbasids had finally achieved peace with the Qaramita of Bahrayn. Abu Tahir, once the terror of the desert and the dread of every pilgrim, was now their protector. In addition to this payment, the Qaramita imposed taxes and fees on the pilgrim caravans. Upon their payment, they took over as the guides and guards of these caravans and ensured they arrived at their destination unmolested. After this point, relations between the Abbasids and the Qaramita became more peaceful and amicable.

Abu Tahir died in 944 of smallpox and the leadership of Bahrayn devolved to a ruling council of his brothers and the Banu Sanbar. In fact, it was one of the Banu Sanbar who returned the Black Stone to Mecca in 951. One can say that the Qaramita achieved their political and economic objective by forcing recognition by their neighbours first through violent militancy and an expansionist policy and then by negotiating agreements based on “peace for privileges.”

Fighting the Fatimids: Ismai‘lis vs. Isma‘ilis

Abu Tahir’s successors, the ruling council of his brothers (al-sada al-ru’asa’) and other notables, continued to maintain the peace with the Abbasids. The raids of the Qaramita into Iraq and on the pilgrim caravans completely ceased after 951. However, their militancy did not completely die. The Qaramita of Bahrayn directed their military aggression westward against the Fatimids. They and other dissident groups of Qaramita in Syria and Iraq had broken away from the Fatimids after rejecting Ubayd Allah’s claim to the position of imam. Ubayd Allah and his followers had fled to North Africa after their base at Salamiyya was attacked and taken by Syrian Qaramita tribes. In North Africa (modern-day Tunisia), they founded the Fatimid caliphate with the help Berber converts, primarily from the Kutama tribe.

The Fatimid conquest of Egypt took place during the reign of the fourth Fatimid caliph, al-Mu‘iz (r. 953-975). A large army, reportedly 100,000 strong, under the famous general Jawhar marched into Egypt and occupied it in 969 from the faltering Ikhshidid regime. By 971, the Fatimids were making inroads into Syria. The return of their former rivals prompted a violent reaction among the Qaramita of Bahrayn and Syria. There were also important economic implications for the Fatimid conquest of Egypt. The Ikhshidids had paid the Qaramita 300,000 dinars to secure the safe passage of the pilgrimage caravans form Egypt and Syria to Mecca and to prevent their raids into the regions they ruled in southern Syria.

The leading figure to emerge among the Qaramita of Bahrayn during this period was al-Hasan al-A‘sam. He had been a part of the ruling council but was promoted to the role of commander of the army. The Qaramita had started raiding westward even before the Fatimids arrived on the scene. For instance, al-Hasan al-A‘sam raided and pillaged Tabariyya (Tiberias) in 963.

The ruling elite of the caliphate in Baghdad were also very concerned about the advances of the Fatimids. After all, the Fatimid caliph sought to become the universal ruler of the Muslim world. To do that, he had to eliminate the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. As a result of this common enemy, the Qaramita of Bahryan and other Qaramita groups under their control made an alliance with the Buyids, who were the real power behind the caliphal throne in Baghdad. Al-Hasan al-A‘sam was promised 1.4 million silver dirhams and 100,000 gold dinars in addition to arms and armour by Baghdad.

He marched his army to Kufa, where he collected the funds and weapons from the Abbasids. He also received more money from the Hamdanids of Mosul in addition to troops, who were likely the remnants of the Ikhshidid army that had fled from Egypt in the wake of the Fatimid advance. At the core of al-Hasan’s army were the Qaramita of Bahrayn, with at least 1,000 heavily armoured warriors. There were also tribal contingents from the Banu Uqayl and Banu Kilab tribes of the Syrian desert and the reinforcements sent by the Hamdanids. He also reached agreements with the local leaders of Syria and northern Arabia.

Al-Hasan al-A‘sam met the invading Fatimid force outside Damascus where he won a decisive victory, putting a stop to the Fatimid invasion and taking Damascus and Ramla. Even though they professed Shi‘a ideologies, the Qaramita proclaimed Abbasid authority in the territories they occupied and cursed the Fatimid caliph. By doing this, the Qaramita reinforced their rejection of Fatimid claims to authority and to the imamate.

In the following years, al-Hasan al-A‘sam launched several campaigns against the Fatimids in Syria and Egypt. He defeated a large Fatimid army in 972 and reoccupied Ramla, which had once again fallen into Fatimid hands shortly after al-Hasan had taken it in 971. He then marched on Egypt and besieged the new capital, Cairo.

Jawhar, the Fatimid general and conqueror of Egypt, put up a stiff defence. However, it was the defection of the Banu Uqayl and Banu Tayyi tribes, who had been bribed by the Fatimids, that forced the Qaramita to break the siege and withdraw. Things came to a head in 973, when the Fatimid caliph, al-Mu‘izz, formally moved to Egypt. He sent a long letter to al-Hasan in which he attempted to establish his lineage as an imam, reproached him for allying with the Abbasids, accused him of treason and apostasy, and urged him “to return to the fold” and to swear allegiance to him, and in the process to save himself and his followers from divine retribution.

Al-Hasan sent a curt response in which he described al-Mu‘izz’s letter as too wordy and long-winded and at the same time non-sensical and stated that he was on the way. Sure enough, al-Hasan launched a major invasion of Egypt in 974. He attacked the Fatimid domains by land and sea. He besieged Cairo for a second time, which was once again saved by betrayal within the ranks of the Qaramita.

This time it was the Jarrahids, a prominent family that had allied with al-Hasan, that broke ranks. After the desertion of the Jarrahids and their followers, al-Hasan’s forces were defeated in battle and driven out of Egypt. Many of the fleeing Qaramita joined Alp Tegin, a renegade Turkic general, who occupied Damascus at the behest of its inhabitants, who did not desire a Fatimid occupation of the city.

In 976, A Fatimid army under Jawhar marched on Damascus, but was driven back, when al-Hasan al-A‘sam marched against them from Bahrayn, responding to Alp Tegin’s appeal for aid. The Qaramita pursued Jawhar, taking Ramla and Ascalon in the process. The renewed threat of an invasion of Egypt prompted the new Fatimid caliph, al-Aziz (r. 975-996) to personally lead an enormous army into Syria.

In the ensuing battle, the Qaramita suffered a major defeat. Alp Tegin and many of his men were captured but Al-Hasan al-A‘sam and the bulk of his forces withdrew to lake Tiberias. Rather than risk another military encounter with the Qaramita, al-Aziz sent emissaries to negotiate peace. The Qaramita were convinced to return to Bahrayn only after the Fatimids agreed to pay them an annual tribute of 30,000 dinars. This agreement ended the intervention of the Qaramita in Syria and the sum continued to be paid until al-Aziz’s death in 996. Al-Hasan al-A‘sam died shortly after this agreement in 977.

The events in Syria signalled the beginning of the end for the power of the Qaramita. With Syria off-limits, the Qaramita turned their attention to Iraq once again. They attacked Basra in 983 but were convinced to withdraw after they were paid tribute. In 985 they occupied Kufa and the Buyid rulers of Iraq were forced into action. They marched against the Qaramita, defeating them decisively in two battles and driving them back to Bahrayn. This was the last time the Qaramita were to launch a major invasion of Iraq.

As a result of the humiliating defeats at the hands of both the Abbasids and the Fatimids, the Qaramita of Bahrayn lost many of their tribal allies and were reduced to a local power in eastern Arabia. In 988 an Uqaylid tribal chief defeated the Qaramita in battle and besieged al-Ahsa, taking and sacking it. The Qaramita continued to lose prestige with every defeat. They no longer inspired terror and awe in their neighbours. They lost their position as the escorts and guards of the pilgrimage caravans, depriving them of funds. They also lost their influence in northern Arabia and along the commercial routes and could no longer tax merchants and travellers.

Outside Bahrayn, many of the Qarmati communities were absorbed into the Fatimid movement. In Bahrayn, the power and influence of the Qaramita continued to shrink. They lost the island of Uwal when its inhabitants revolted and defeated the Qarmati fleet in 1067. Qatif also fell to a local rebel in 1069. The death blow to the Qaramita of Bahrayn was dealt by a tribal chief of the Banu Murra of Abd Qays, Abdallah al-Uyuni, who rebelled against them and defeated them in battle in 1070. He then besieged al-Ahsa for seven years. Its fall in 1077 signalled the end of the Qarmati state of Bahrayn.

Religion and Society

It is difficult to reconstruct a clear picture of the Qaramita’s society and their religious beliefs. The primary challenge to achieving this stems from the fact that the Qaramita of Bahrayn, of the Abu Sa‘idis as they called themselves, did not leave any written records about their history or their religious ideologies. Everything that is known about this group comes from chronicles and heresiologies from the 10th and 11th centuries. Furthermore, there is a palpable hostility towards the Qaramita of Bahrayn in these sources, which were written by their opponents, Sunni and Isma‘ili Fatimid writers and scholars.

Several religious beliefs are attributed the Qaramita of Bahrayn. Simply put, when Abu Sa‘id al-Jannabi won them over to his cause, they followed the tenets of early Isma‘ilism. These centred on the idea of the return of the seventh imam, Muhammad ibn Isma‘il, as the mahdi or saviour, who would establish dominion over the world and usher in an era of justice and truth. Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi, the first Fatimid caliph, broke with this ideology by claiming the imamate for himself and by proclaiming that he was a descendent of Ja‘far al-Sadiq through a line of hidden “shadow” imams, whose identity had been concealed for their safety. The Isma‘ili communities in the east, including the followers of Abu Sa‘id in Bahrayn, rejected these claims and broke away from those who supported Ubayd Allah, the future Fatimids. This does not, as we shall see, necessarily mean that the various Qaramita groups remained faithful to this “original” form of Isma‘ilism, and according to the surviving records and accounts, biased as they may be, it seems that their beliefs probably changed over time.

One of the most detailed accounts of the religious practices and beliefs of the Qaramita of Bahrayn comes from Nisir-i Khusraw (or Nasir ibn Khusraw), the Fatimid da‘i (missionary) who visited al-Ahsa in 1051, shortly before the collapse of the Qarmati state in Bahrayn. In his writings, Nasir-i Khusraw depicts the Qaramita of Bahrayn as non-Muslims. Among the things he says about them is that Abu Sa‘id forbade many practices of Islam. He abolished prayers, fasting, and dietary restrictions (probably meaning that they ate all animals killed in any manner). The Fatimid writer also states that there were no mosques and that they believed that the religion of Islam and its laws had been abrogated.

According to Nasir-i Khusraw, it appears that, at least by 1051, Abu Sa‘id had replaced Muhammad ibn Isma‘il as the awaited savior. He reports that his followers believed that Abu Sa‘id would rise from the dead and return one day. For this reason, the Qaramita of Bahrayn always kept a fresh saddled and bridled horse ready for his imminent return by his tomb. They also claim that he said that when he reappeared his followers should strike his neck with a sword. If the person claiming to be Abu Sa‘id were telling the truth, he would instantly come back to life. This seems to have been a clever “safeguard” against imposters claiming to be the returned Abu Sa‘id.

Nasir-i Khusraw also states that Abu Sa‘id was believed to have been a sharif or a descendant of the prophet through Zayd ibn Ali ibn al-Husayn. Such a genealogy legitimized him as a claimant to the imamate and the role of a saviour or mahdi. A century and a half after the fall of the Qarmati state, Abd al-Rahman al-Jawbari visited Bahrayn and met with the descendants of Abu Sa‘id who were still being referred to as saada (i.e. a title reserved for those tracing their lineage to the prophet). This same writer states that Abu Sa‘id had claimed he was a prophet. This is also mentioned by the 11th-century Yemeni polemicist, Muhammad ibn al-Malik al-Hammadi. Abu Tahir also claimed to be an imam and the mahdi, and while he was alive his followers may have accepted his claims. However, after his death, the ruling oligarchy reverted to the belief that Abu Sa‘id was the only mahdi. Abu Tahir’s children were excluded from power and were not considered imams.

Some of the above-mentioned beliefs, even if exaggerated and biased, help to partially explain some of the Qaramita’s behaviour. Their raiding, pillaging, and extraction of tribute from their enemies in exchange for peace certainly stemmed from their tribal nature and economic needs. However, their most extreme act, the sacrilegious attack on Mecca, the holiest site of the Muslim world in 930, went beyond simple economic and strategic considerations. The massacre of the pilgrims and inhabitants of Mecca, the desecration of Islam’s holiest site, and the carrying away of the Black Stone to the new Qarmati capital, al-Ahsa, symbolized, as Farhad Daftary puts it, the “end of the era of Islam.” This idea fits in with the belief that a new era was being ushered in by a new prophet/saviour, who would introduce new laws and a new religion. This ideology also helps to clarify some of the Qaramita’s antinomian acts and practices – although these are probably also exaggerated in the sources.

Little is known about the social organization of the Qaramita in Bahrayn. They seem to have had some sort of commonwealth. If any member of their society needed money, they were given an interest-free loan. Likewise, foreigners were also given loans to establish shops or businesses and they could pay these loans back at any time and interest-free. Furthermore, the rulers sent their slaves to assist with the restoration of agricultural lands free of charge to the farmers and landowners. Additionally, the people could take their grain to be ground in mills set up in al-Ahsa without having to pay charges or fees for their use.

The Black Stone in Mecca – photo by furkan38 / Wikimedia Commons

Such distribution of wealth and support to the members of the community should come as no surprise, as most tribal societies operated in a similar manner. As such, there are reports that the Qaramita pooled their resources and shared them.

The polemical writings about them also state that they shared their women and engaged in liberal sexual acts. This trope of sexualizing heresy has been employed by all “orthodox” religious groups to discredit rival sects. It was used by all three Abrahamic religions to condemn those whom they viewed and branded as heretics as deviants and unnatural. Sometimes these condemnatory reports attacked cultural practices and traditions, older than the Abrahamic faiths, that seemed abhorrent to the practitioners of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Such judgements were applied to polyandrous societies and other groups that defined the sexual relations between men and women differently. This topic has been discussed in detail by Patricia Crone in the chapter on wife sharing in her book on the Khurramiyya, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran, and by Nadia Maria el-Cheickh in her chapter on the Qaramita in her book Women, Islam, and Abbasid Identity. As such, the heretics in polemical texts were always portrayed as immoral, indecent, sexually licentious and perverse, points that the reader should take with a grain of salt.

Nasir-i Khusraw also reports that the Qaramita had about 30,000 agricultural slaves, mostly Africans. This form of plantation slavery was highly unusual in the Muslim world, with the only other record of large-scale agricultural slavery being in marshy regions of southern Iraq, where tens of thousands of African slaves, known as Zanj, lived and worked under harsh conditions.

The Qaramita of Bahrayn were major players in the political, military, religious, and economic history of the Islamic world during the 9th-11th centuries. Abu Sa‘id, the Isma‘ili missionary, established the Qarmati state in Bahrayn and attracted the disparate tribes of northern and eastern Arabia to rally under his standard. His successors challenged two of the most powerful empires of their era, the Abbasids and the Fatimids, and came close to putting an end to both. They were only stopped just outside their capitals: Baghdad and Cairo.

However, this polity was not sustainable in the long run. The Qaramita operated primarily as tribal raiders sacking and pillaging the cities of Iraq, Syria, Arabia, and Southern Iran and attacking commercial and pilgrimage caravans. They failed to incorporate these regions into their empire and to establish a firm foothold outside the Arabian Peninsula, which doomed them to depend solely on their military prowess. They secured finances, resources, and political concessions through the terror they instilled in their enemies. Their military successes stemmed from the fact that they saw themselves as the spearheads of a millenarian movement, combining that with the prowess and energies of the disparate tribes and groups they were able to unite. The episode of the “false mahdi” weakened their doctrinal vigour causing them to lose many followers, who now saw that the new (seventh) and final era of the world had not been ushered in. Furthermore, the agreements and compromises made with the Abbasids and then the Fatimids limited the scope of their operations and potential targets, which constrained them to eastern Arabia by the 11th century. Finally, their inability to fully defeat the Abbasids and Fatimids dented their military prestige.

The defeats they suffered at the end of the 10th century at the hands of both caliphates was the beginning of the end. Having lost their image of invincibility, they were no longer able to extract the tributes that kept their society funded and their armies paid. By the 11th century, they lacked the funds, resources, and manpower to launch expeditions into Iraq and Syria and it was only a matter of time before their former tribal followers and allies turned on them.

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

Top Image: Ptolemy’s 6th Asian Map depicting Arabia, created in 1467 – Wikimedia Commons