A Messianic Uprising in Kufa: al-Mukhtar’s Revolt in 685-687

By Adam Ali

In 685, al-Mukhtar rallied the people of Kufa and launched a rebellion driving out the local governor and taking control of the city and its environs. Although al-Mukhtar’s movement would eventually, like most revolts and uprisings in history, be crushed, he and his followers laid the foundations for the eventual overthrow of the Umayyads and introduced certain religious and messianic ideas and terms that had long lasting effects on the political and religious history of the Muslim world.

Al-Mukhtar’s two-year rebellion was an episode of a greater historical event known as the Second Civil War or Second Fitna (680-692). It was the most significant political movement on behalf of the proto-Shias or Alids during the conflict. In 685, al-Mukhtar and his followers seized the city of Kufa, a traditional base of support for Ali ibn Abi Talib and his family, and its environs. He claimed he was acting on behalf of one Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, a son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, and to avenge the killing of al-Husayn ibn Ali, another son of Ali ibn Abi Talib and the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Although he was initially successful, he was unable to maintain his position in Kufa and was ultimately defeated and killed.


Various histories and traditions portray him in contrastingly different manners. Depending on the source, he comes across as an Alid loyalist, an avenger, a political opportunist, an adventurer, a hero, and a villain. Even though his rebellion ultimately failed, as most uprisings often do, the legacy of his movement was carried on by his surviving supporters and their descendants, many of whom would form the core organizers of the Hashemite Revolution (commonly referred to as the Abbasid Revolution) that would overthrow the Umayyads and place the Abbasids on the throne in 750, ushering in a new era for the caliphate.

The context: The Second Civil War/Second Fitna

The First Civil War or Fitna ended in 661 with the victory of Mu‘awiya ibn Abu Sufyan (r. 661-680), who became the first Umayyad caliph. Kharijite assassins had targeted both Mu‘waiya and his opponent, Ali ibn Abi Talib. The former escaped the assassin’s blade and while the latter succumbed to his wounds two days after being attacked. Ali’s eldest son, al-Hasan, was proclaimed caliph by his followers in Kufa. But much of his support melted away as Mu‘waiya marched on Iraq with a large army. Al-Hasan and Mu‘waiya concluded a treaty in which al-Hasan abdicated his claims to the caliphate in favor of Mu‘awiya on the condition that he would succeed him upon his death. That was never to be because al-Hasan died in 669, allegedly poisoned at Mu‘waiya’s instigation, leaving Mu‘waiya the sole master of the caliphate without an appointed heir.


According to most of the surviving sources, Mu‘waiya was able to stabilize the caliphate and ruled it effectively until his death in 680. Even the Abbasid sources, which are very hostile to the Umayyads and their memory, credit him as being an effective ruler possessing the qualities valued in a leader or chief among the Arabs. Primary among these qualities was hilm (forbearance/patience, self-mastery, wisdom in the face of difficulties).

Toward the end of his life, Mu‘awiya attempted to secure the oath of allegiance to his son, Yazid. He succeeded in gaining the acceptance of most of the notables and tribal leaders. Many of those who opposed Yazid’s appointment to the caliphate were either bribed or coerced. This move towards dynastic succession was unusual. Yazid’s appointment was the first instance in early Islamic history in which a caliph appointed his son as his successor, and in essence began Islam’s first dynasty. In most pre-Islamic Arab communities, the son of a chief did not automatically assume his father’s position after his death. The Arabs were accustomed to choosing a leader from among the leading figures of their societies or tribes through a shura, which roughly translates to a council in which the clan and tribal leaders voted for the candidate of their choice.

This carried over into Islam, as Abu Bakr was proclaimed caliph by a group of the leading figures assembled in Medina after the prophet’s death. The third caliph Uthman was also chosen by a shura of six notables. Likewise, Ali was proclaimed caliph by a group of his leading partisans after Uthman’s murder in 656. Mu‘waiya’s appointment of his son as his successor shifted this model to a hereditary system, a point that many of his contemporaries seem to have noticed and one which they were not happy to endorse.

Despite his efforts, Mu‘waiya was not successful in securing unanimous support for Yazid’s enthronement before his death in 680. Although most of the tribes accepting him, some of the most prominent Muslims opposed Yazid’s accession to the throne. Chief among these were al-Husayn ibn Ali, Ali ibn Abi Talib’s younger son, and Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr, the son of another prominent companion al-Zubayr ibn al-Awwam. Both Ali and al-Zubayr were early converts to Islam and among the most important of the prophet Muhammad’s companions. They were also both his cousins, Ali being the son of Muhammad’s paternal uncle and al-Zubayr the son of his maternal aunt. The close familial and religious relationship of the fathers of both men to the prophet made them legitimate contenders for the throne and both could muster a considerable number of supporters. Upon Yazid’s accession to the throne, both men fled Medina, where they resided, and took refuge in Mecca, an inviolable sanctuary and sacrosanct by Muslims.


Al-Husayn was the first to make his move. The people of Kufa invited him to their city to lead them in war against Yazid. The Kufans had been the main base of support for his father, Ali ibn Abi Talib, who saw him as a just leader and an egalitarian representative of their interests and of those of the downtrodden.

The Alids or the Shia (or proto-Shia), at this point, were not yet a religious sect, although religious elements do begin to appear in their movements gradually throughout the Second Civil War and during the ensuing decades (“Shiat Ali” or the “Shia of Ali” means “the party/partisans of Ali”). It was not until the imamate of Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d.765), the sixth imam, that Shiism begins to acquire its unique and separate sectarian and religious aspects. Al-Husayn and his fate during the Second Civil War had a big impact on the religious and emotional development of what would become the Shia sect.

Upon being invited to Kufa, al-Husayn set out for the city with a small band of followers, primarily members of his household and family and close associates. He sent a cousin, Muslim ibn ‘Aqil ibn Abi Talib to Kufa to muster support and prepare the ground for his arrival. Muslim was welcomed by the leaders of the Alids and he was a guest in al-Mukhtar’s house. However, the Umayyad governor, Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, got wind of the Alids’ plans, arrested Muslim, and had him executed for treason and sedition, putting an end to the mobilization of al-Husayn’s supporters in Kufa.


Unaware of these events, al-Husayn and his small band marched on toward Kufa. By the time he heard about what befell Muslim in Kufa, it was too late. Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad had dispatched a large force to intercept him. After failed negotiations, al-Husayn and his small party were all killed in battle by the superior Umayyad force at Karbala in 680.

The massacre of the prophet’s grandson and his household at Karbala shook the Muslim world. However, this event would be politically and militarily eclipsed by the struggle between the Umayyads and Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr for the caliphate. The event at Karbala removed one of Yazid’s rivals for the throne from the scene

Despite al-Husayn’s failure and defeat at Karbala and the seemingly small military impact it had on the struggle, it had far-reaching consequences on the development of the Shia sect. It reinforced the idea that the Umayyads were “impious” and “godless” oppressors. In his chapter on the Second Civil War in The First Dynasty of Islam G.R. Hawting summarizes the long-term impact of Karbala stating that “the event has attained a mythic quality in Muslim, and especially Shi‘ite, tradition. For the Shi‘a Karbala’ is the supreme example of the pattern of suffering and martyrdom which has afflicted their imams and the whole of the Shi‘ite community.” He later adds that “it is… in the long run, in its emotive and mythological significance, that Karbala’ is really important.” Al-Husayn and his followers became the symbols of suffering and the oppressed of the caliphate and would become a central part of the Shia identity as the sect developed in the following decades.

The events at Karbala sent shockwaves throughout the caliphate. One of the short-term consequences of the events at Karbala was a rebellion in Kufa in 684/685 known as the movement of the Tawwabun or “penitents.” This movement was composed of men who regretted failing to support al-Husayn when he needed them the most and blamed themselves for his death. They met an Umayyad army in battle along the border of Syria and Iraq at ‘Ayn al-Warda and were utterly defeated. The few survivors of the battle would join al-Mukhtar in his rebellion that same year.

The Battle of Karbala depicted in a 16th century Ottoman manuscript – Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after al-Husayn’s killing at Karbala, a revolt broke out in the city of Medina by the Ansar and Muhajirun (the prophet’s earliest supporters from Medina and Mecca respectively) and their descendants. Although this rebellion is often painted as “pious” resistance against the “ungodly” Umayyads, it was also a political and economic revolt by the people of Medina who saw their control of their city slipping away from them and into the hands of the Umayyads and their supporters. The Umayyads residing in Medina under the leadership of Marwan ibn al-Hakam, were driven out.

Yazid’s response was to dispatch a large army from Syria to restore order in the holy cities of the Hijaz. This force was primarily composed of Kalbi (or southerner/Yemeni) tribesmen and the Banu Taghlib tribe, which at this point was still largely Christian. This Umayyad army easily defeated the rebels of Medina at the Battle of Harra in 683. The Medinese attempted to emulate the prophet’s strategy at the Battle of the Trench (or al-Khandaq) by digging trenches to defend their city. However, the Umayyad army was nothing like the primitive tribal desert force that the prophet had faced in 626 and this rudimentary defence did little to prevent the Umayyad army from storming the city. The defenders were easily defeated at the Battle of Harra, the city’s defences were overcome, and Medina was sacked.

The Umayyad army then turned toward Mecca and besieged the city with the objective of eliminating the other major contender for the throne, Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr. Yazid died in November 683 and the siege was lifted. The commander of the Syrian army even offered Ibn al-Zubayr the throne on the condition that he move to Syria, but Ibn al-Zubayr refused.

The main contest for power during the Second Civil War was between Ibn al-Zubayr and the Umayyads. After Yazid’s death the Umayyad dynasty was faced with a crisis. The dead caliph’s son, Mu‘waiya II (6. 683-684), ruled for only a few months before he died, most probably from an illness. He had no heirs and had not appointed a successor. With Muawiya II’s death, the Sufyanid line of the Umayyad dynasty came to an end. The Umayyads halted their campaigns against Ibn al-Zubayr and their authority collapsed throughout the caliphate. The Umayyad family was only able to retain a tenuous hold over their main base in Syria. Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr capitalized on this development and effectively took control of the entire caliphate except for parts of Syria. He represented factions of Muslims that were disaffected by Umayyad rule, included among these were many prominent Muslims from among the early converts and their descendants. Importantly, most of the Quraysh, who felt that the Umayyad regime did not represent them, were among his key supporters. He is often painted as the rebel during the conflict.

However, in 684, he controlled Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran and was acknowledged as caliph in these regions. There were even elements in Syria, primarily the Qaysi or northerner tribes, that backed him. Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr controlled most of the caliphate and for a few years could be considered the effective ruler of the Muslim world. He appointed governors, minted coins, and it was his name that was mentioned at the pulpits of mosques throughout the caliphate.

The Umayyads, now under the leadership of Marwan and his son Abd al-Malik, were hard-pressed to retain their position in Syria. In 684, Marwan and his Qalbi followers defeated the Zubayrid Qaysis at the bloody Battle of Marj Rahit to consolidate their hold over Syria. The Umayyads, under the leadership of Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705), set out to reestablish their control over the caliphate, first taking Egypt in 685. His efforts to retake Iraq failed and his forces were defeated by al-Mukhtar, who by this point had taken over control of Kufa. Abd al-Malik struggled against Ibn al-Zubayr and internal revolts until 689/690. By this point, Ibn al-Zubayr had been isolated in Arabia, which lacked the wealth and population of regions like Iraq and Syria and prevented him from raising the armies, supplies, and funds needed to face the growing power of the Umayyads.

The Umayyad commander, al-Hajjaj, besieged Mecca in 692. During the siege most of Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr’s 10,000 supporters, including two of his sons, defected after being promised pardons. Ibn al-Zubayr and a small band of his loyal supporters made a final stand against overwhelming odds and died fighting the Umayyad forces in November 692. With Ibn al-Zubayr’s death the Second Civil war ended and the Umayyads were able to assert their control over the entire caliphate.

Al-Mukhtar’s rebellion took place in the larger context of the events described above. Due to the political environment in 685, Kufa was technically part of Ibn al-Zubayr’s domains. Therefore, al-Mukhtar’s uprising was against Ibn al-Zubayr and not directly in opposition to Umayyad rule.

Al-Mukhtar: The Man behind the Revolt

Al-Mukhtar ibn Abu Ubayd al-Thaqafi was born into a clan of the Thaqif tribe that inhabited the town of Ta’if and its environs. Some sources state that he was born in 622, but the date of his birth may have been earlier because other sources refer to him as an “old man” in 660. This discrepancy in dates may stem from the fact that some of the writers may have been providing a parallel with his younger adversaries during the Second Civil War. Al-Mukhtar’s family played prominent roles in the early caliphate.

His father, ibn Abu Ubayd al-Thaqafi, was the first Muslim commander appointed to lead the caliphal armies during the conquest of Iraq. He died in 634 fighting the Sassanians at the Battle of the Bridge. After his father’s death, al-Mukhtar was raised by his uncle, Sa‘d ibn Mas‘ud. The fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib appointed Sa‘d to the governorship of al-Mada’in, the former Sassanian capital. Al-Mukhtar also held a minor official post during Ali’s reign. Some sources state that during the turmoil of the First Civil War, al-Mukhtar was a supporter of Uthman (r. 544-656) and that he had advised his uncle to hand over Ali’s son, al-Hasan, to Mu‘awiya when he took refuge with the governor of al-Mada‘in. Many Shia sources maintain this accusation, perhaps because he supported an Alid imam, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, who was not a descendant of his first wife, Fatima (the prophet’s daughter).

There is no clear evidence that al-Mukhtar himself was hostile to the imams from the line of Ali and Fatima (al-Hasan and al-Husayn). However, some of his Shia followers who upheld Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya’s right to the imamate claimed Ali’s other sons, al-Hasan and al-Husayn, were usurpers. This is contradicted by his support for al-Husayn when he started making his way to Kufa. It was al-Mukhtar who welcomed al-Husayn’s cousin, Muslim ibn ‘Aqil, and lodged him in his home. Al-Mukhtar worked with Muslim to mobilize support for al-Husayn.

When the Umayyad governor made his move and arrested Muslim, al-Mukhtar was away at an estate and failed to publicly proclaim his support for Muslim. Upon his return to Kufa, he meekly submitted to the Umayyad governor, which earned him more criticism from the Alids. One explanation for this behavior was that Muslim ibn ‘Aqil launched the uprising prematurely, which took al-Mukhtar and the other rebels by surprise. Despite his submission to the Umayyad governor after the failed insurrection, al-Mukhtar was treated harshly. He was imprisoned and beaten and one of his eyes was badly injured. Al-Mukhtar was only released after his brother-in-law, Abdallah ibn Umar (the son of the second caliph, Umara ibn al-Khattab) interceded on his behalf directly to the caliph.

Al-Mukhtar left Kufa and travelled to the Hijaz. He first went to Mecca and offered to pledge allegiance to Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr in exchange for a prominent position in his movement. Ibn al-Zubayr refused to comply with his demand and told him that he would accept his oath of allegiance on the same terms as all his other followers. Al-Mukhtar then departed to Ta’if where he remained for several months. He returned to Mecca when an Umayyad army besieged it after defeating the people of Medina at the Battle of Harra in 683. He joined Ibn al-Zubayr in the city’s defence and the sources state that he distinguished himself in the fighting. After the siege was lifted, al-Mukhtar returned to Kufa to organize his own revolt.

Al-Mukhtar’s Uprising and the seizing of Kufa

Al-Mukhtar began his political activity almost immediately after his return to Kufa. At this point, the city was under the control of Ibn al-Zubayr, who had appointed two governors, Abdallah ibn Yazid al-Khatmi and Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn Talha. Al-Mukhtar’s return coincided with the movement of the tawwabun or the penitents. He claimed he had been sent by and was representing the imam and came into direct conflict with the leader of this movement, Sulayman ibn Surad, over the leadership of the Alid faction. Despite these claims and al-Mukhtar’s active propaganda, Ibn Surad was able to retain the support of most of the Alids. Even though he was initially unsuccessful in winning much support, al-Mukhtar was seen as a greater threat than his counterpart. Perhaps his energy and his active propaganda alarmed the ashraf or the tribal elites and notables of Kufa, who denounced him to the governors. He was thrown into prison again, but the conditions of his second incarceration seem to have been less severe than they had been when the previous Umayyad governor had had him imprisoned.

While he was in prison, the tawwabun, who had been defeated returned to Kufa. He was able to contact them from his cell and won their support. Abdallah ibn Umar, once again, interceded on behalf of his brother-in-law and convinced the governors to release him. They did so on the condition that he would refrain from taking hostile action against the government. The sources show al-Mukhtar taking this oath in a cynical manner and he promised to abide by it unless the “greater good demanded that he should break his oath.”

Ibn al-Zubayr sent a new governor, Abdallah ibn Muti‘ to Kufa in 685. This governor galvanized Kufa’s populace, including the tribal notables, when he refused to mention Ali favourably in his inaugural Sermon or khutba, which resulted in more Kufans joining the ranks of al-Mukhtar’s movement. By this point, al-Mukhtar was actively planning a revolt. The sources state that after hearing of his activities, the governor summoned him with the intention of arresting him. Al-Mukhtar feigned illness to avoid the summons and went into hiding to avoid being arrested for a third time.

The Great Mosque of Kufa -photo by Ali Alturaihy / Wikimedia Commons

When Umayyad power faltered after Yazid’s death, only a few of Ali and Fatima’s descendants remained, most having been killed at Karbala. In his propaganda to the Kufans, al-Mukhtar presented himself as representing the imam and the house of Ali. The two possible Alid candidates for the imamate were Ali ibn al-Husayn, one of the few survivors of Karbala, and Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, a son of Ali with another wife or concubine, Khawla. She is referred to as al-Hanaffiyya, or the Hanafite woman because she was from the Banu Hanifa tribe of al-Yamama. She had been taken prisoner during the Riddah Wars and ended up in Ali’s household as a slave/concubine. Some sources state that Ali freed and married her.

Neither of the Alid contenders was keen to join al-Mukhtar. Ali ibn Husayn outright rejected al-Mukhtar’s overtures, while Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya gave ambiguous and vague responses. Both men were in the Hijaz and closely watched by Ibn al-Zubayr. Whatever the case, Ibn al-Hanafiyya’s response was good enough for al-Mukhtar who proclaimed him both caliph and mahdi, which implied he was the divinely guided saviour and messiah. Hugh Kennedy notes that this was a novel concept in Islam and that the term “mahdi” was used for the first time by al-Mukhtar as the designation and title for Ibn al-Hanafiyya. The use of the title “mahdi” became widely accepted and would become a recurring one in many movements and rebellions.

Most of the Alids or proto-Shias accepted ibn al-Hanafiyya, who also happened to be the head of the Banu Hashim clan, as the rightful imam. This indicates that for the earliest Shias direct descent from the prophet through his daughter Fatima was not a prerequisite for the imamate. It also showed the importance of Ali and descent from him among the Alids of that era. Additionally, this conforms with the idea of leadership from the clan or “holy family” of the prophet and not necessarily his direct descent or “big tent Shiism” as Patricia Crone calls it in her book, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran. The line of “legitimate” imams would not become defined until the sixth imam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d. 765) elaborated the Shia doctrine of the imamate, which restricted the imams to those descending from Ali and Fatima and specifically those tracing their lineage through Ali’s younger son, al-Husayn.

Al-Mukhtar’s uprising was initially very successful. It is unclear whether Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya acknowledged him as his representative. However, he was able to convince the Kufans that Ibn al-Hanafiyya was the mahdi and that he was his wazir (vizier). M.A. Shaban states that proclaiming Ibn al-Hanafiyya the mahdi was a very shrewd move on al-Mukhtar’s part because it gave the impression and hope that, as the Messiah, he would usher in a period of justice. Additionally, by proclaiming himself the mahdi’s wazir, al-Mukhtar ensured he would hold secular authority in his master’s name as his helper.

In addition to presenting himself as a partisan of the Alids and the representative of the mahdi, al-Mukhtar’s call for vengeance against the killers of al-Husayn was also appealing to many Kufans. Significantly, he was able to win the support of Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar. Ibrahim was the son of Malik al-Ashtar, one of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s champions and chief supporters. Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar became al-Mukhtar’s most important military commander throughout the rebellion. Furthermore, both Ibrahim’s and his father’s reputation swayed many of the tribesmen of Kufa to join al-Mukhtar’s movement.

The revolt began in October 685, reportedly one day earlier than it was scheduled. Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar encountered one of the governor’s men in the street and killed him in a sword fight. Both sides mustered their supporters and the streets, squares, and marketplaces of Kufa saw heavy fighting. Al-Tabari’s universal history presents multiple accounts of these battles. Early in the uprising, the governor’s forces seem to have taken the initiative and attacked al-Mukhtar and his followers in their home districts. The rebels were hard-pressed, but then Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar and his men appeared at the rear of the Umayyad forces and put them to flight. The fighting seems to have been spread out in various parts of the city. The rebels tried to link up with their comrades, while Abdallah ibn Muti‘’s forces tried to prevent them from advancing on the governor’s palace. The fighting lasted several days at the end of which Ibn Muti‘ and his remaining forces were pushed back to the palace and besieged by the rebels.

The beleaguered governor, heeding the advice of his officers, slipped out of the palace at night and made his escape. The governor’s commanding officers then negotiated a surrender and safe passage for themselves and their men. With the departure of the Zubayrid troops, al-Mukhtar entered the palace and took the oath of allegiance from the Kufans on behalf of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya. Those who took the oath (bay‘a) swore to uphold the sunna (or traditions of the prophet) and the Quran, to avenge al-Husayn, protect the weak. Furthermore, the takers of this oath promised to support their comrades in times of war and peace.

Although most movements and revolts such as the one led by al-Mukhtar were coloured heavily by religion and ideology, there were always underlying political and economic motives. At the outset of the revolt the sources state that al-Mukhtar’s forces numbered 3,800 men and that by the time he had besieged the governor’s palace another 6,000 had joined his ranks. Al-Tabari states that upon capturing the palace al-Mukhtar took the treasury containing 9,000,000 dirhams. He gave 500 dirhams to those who fought alongside him from the beginning of the uprising and 200 dirhams to those who joined him at the siege of the governor’s palace. Furthermore, the people of Iraq, specifically those of Kufa, had initially supported Ali and his descendants because they saw him as a representative of their political and economic interests and their regional independence.

The Rebels: Mawali and Arabs

Al-Mukhtar’s movement was initially successful because he was able to rally support from every element of Kufa’s population. Initially most of his supporters were Arab tribesmen and warriors from the various tribes of Kufa. Among these were many of the ashraf or nobles/tribal elites who held Alid sympathies. In addition to these, he was also supported by a group of the mawali, non-Arab converts to Islam. These mawali were, for the most part, Iranians. Large numbers of them ended up in Kufa as slaves and prisoners of war who fell into captivity as a result of the conquests carried out by the soldiers of Kufa. At the time of the rebellion, some of these mawali were freedmen and others were still slaves. Initially, there were only a few hundred of them involved in the movement and the initial fighting. However, their numbers and influence grew with al-Mukhtar’s success.

For his part, al-Mukhtar came to depend on the mawali more over time and favoured them. It is significant to note that al-Mukhtar’s revolt was the first time the mawali played an important military and political role in the caliphate and it was certainly not the last. As important as all these groups were for al-Mukhtar’s initial victory, the differences of their interests were irreconcilable, and it was these differences that ultimately led to al-Mukhtar’s eventual defeat and demise.


Map by Al Ameer son / Wikimedia Commons

The mawali among al-Mukhtar’s followers played a significant role in the revolt. They contributed to its initial success, and one could argue that it was their support for al-Mukhtar and his favouring them that caused his demise. The mawali were drawn to al-Mukhtar because he preached that he was acting on behalf of the interests of the weak and the downtrodden. As slaves and freedmen, the mawali related to this message. As mentioned earlier, the majority of these mawali were Iranians who had been captured in the areas conquered by the Kufans including the Zagros mountains, the Caspian coast, Mesopotamia, and Azerbaijan. The sources state they spoke “Persian” among themselves. Crone contends that the “Persian” they spoke was most likely one or more of the north-western Iranian languages.

Some of these mawali may have migrated and settled in Kufa voluntarily. Several Sassanian military units such as the asawira (savaran in Persian), the elite jund-i shahanshah, and units of Daylami infantrymen had defected to the Arabs during the course of the conquest of the Iraq and Iran during the early and mid-seventh centuries. These units of Iranian soldiers converted to Islam and were settled in Kufa and Basra. There are examples of Khurasani peasants coming to Iraq during al-Hajjaj’s governorship to convert to Islam, settle, and enlist in the army. Although this episode with al-Hajjaj occurred after the Second Civil War (al-Hajjaj became governor of the eastern provinces after he defeated Ibn al-Zubayr), it is not inconceivable that individuals or groups of Iranians sought to move to the new cities of Basra and Kufa.

Most, if not all, the mawali had converted to Islam, the term mawali (s. mawla), literally means “clients.” Non-Arabs who converted to Islam during the first century of Islam became attached to a tribe or clan, becoming their clients or confederates. Similarly, freed slaves became clients of their masters. This system survived from pre-Islamic Arabia where the term mawali/mawla applied to weaker clans or groups that attached themselves to powerful tribes for protection. This term also referred to freed slaves in Pre-Islamic Arabia. As the numbers of non-Arab Muslims increased, they came to outnumber the Arabs in many parts of the caliphate by 8th and 9th centuries. Under the Abbasids (750-1258), they acquired positions of power and authority in the government and the army. The system became untenable and by the mid-Abbasid period the term “mawali” disappears from the sources. Furthermore, by the early to mid-ninth century, the Arabs were removed from the military registers and lost their position as the military elites of the caliphate. They were replaced by Iranians and increasingly by Turks.

The conspicuous presence of the mawali among al-Mukhtar’s supporters, even though they increased his numbers, caused conflicts within the ranks of the rebels. Even though al-Mukhtar tried to win them over, the ashraf and many of the Arab warriors, who initially formed the bulk of the rebel army, viewed the mawali with fear, suspicion, and disdain. They were alarmed by al-Mukhtar favoring them and increasing their status and influence in Kufa. He promoted them, gave them horses and rights to the income from public lands, and included all his mawali supporters among those who received regular salaries, which, up to this point, was a privilege of the Arabs (and a few units of non-Arab military elites such as the asawira). Al-Mukhtar also seized the ashraf’s slaves, freed them, enlisted them in his army, and gave them salaries.

Some of the Arabs were also concerned by the radical beliefs that the some of the mawali espoused. Some of the religious ideas that permeated al-Mukhtar’s movement were heavily influenced by non-Arab and non-Islamic origins. Many of the mawali originally came from regions where various versions of Khurramism and non-Persian Zoroastrian cults and religions flourished, which, according to Patricia Crone, were the religions of many (if not most) of the Iranians prior to the arrival of Islam. Some of the various beliefs of the Khuramiyya include reincarnation, metempsychosis or the transmigration of the soul, pantheism, messianism, and the belief that their leaders were divine “god men” or physical manifestations of the divine, among others.

Some scholars have argued that these mawali brought their pre-Islamic beliefs with them and maintained them even after converting to Islam, sometimes blending their old and new beliefs. For example, the notion of a savior figure or messiah in the form of the mahdi is first mentioned in the sources in relation to al-Mukhtar’s revolt, but would become characteristic of Islam, especially Shiism. Another example of one of their practices that were viewed as extreme by the ashraf was the veneration and worship of a chair, that they referred to as “Ali’s chair.” The sources state that they circumambulated it in reverence and compare it to the Hebrews’ Ark of the Covenant carrying it into battle with them.

The more critical sources deride and ridicule this practice and compare the chair to the golden calf of the Israelites. However, such practices were prominently attributed to the mawali, many Arab tribesmen also held similar beliefs and partook in the rituals such as the veneration of the chair during al-Mukhtar’s rebellion. Chief among these were the Yamani clans that were the most active in worshipping the chair and in other practices deemed to be extreme by today’s mainstream Sunnis and Shias. Al-Tabari states that al-Mukhtar himself embraced the idea that the chair was a holy relic and even assigned certain individuals as its guardians, among them was Musa ibn Abu Musa al-Asha‘ari, a son of one of the prophet’s companions.

The sources often refer to these mawali and certain other groups as ghulat or extremists. This designation is often attributed to extreme Shia groups in medieval heresiographies. Most of these heresiographies were written at later periods by Sunni authors, although some Shia authors also wrote texts condemning the ghulat. One such Shia work is Firaq al-Shia by the Imami (Twelver) author al-Nawbakhti. The “extremism” of the ghulat is attributed to their beliefs, which often included the deification of Ali and/or his descendants and later the deification of their own leaders. There are several examples of such beliefs in the sources among the ghulat sects of the Khurramiyya in various parts of Iran who rebelled against the Abbasids after 750 and who deified their own non-Arab Iranian leaders such as Abu Muslim, al-Muqanna‘, Babak, and Mazdak. Although al-Mukhtar was not deified, there are some reports that he was considered ma‘sum or infallible, a notion considered outrageous by both Sunni and most mainstream Shia sects.

The sources mention two prominent groups of ghulat within the ranks of the rebels. One of these were the Saba’iyya, the followers of the semi-legendary Abdallah ibn Saba’. Ibn Saba’, who lived during the seventh century, is often referred to the Islam’s first “heretic.” Many of the earliest beliefs and practices of the ghulat are attributed to him and his followers, the Saba’iyya. The other group of ghulat was the Kaysaniyya. This group was composed of mawali who joined the rebellion. They were organized into their own military unit and commanded by Abu ‘Amra Kaysan. This unit became al-Mukhtar’s elite personal guard and acted as a police force in Kufa during his reign.

Kaysan’s beliefs and ideologies were more radical than those espoused by al-Mukhtar. It was he who attributed infallibility to al-Mukhtar and claimed that he was visited by the archangel Gabriel. He also charged the first three Rashidun caliphs with infidelity and even claimed that Ali’s sons al-Hasan and al-Husayn were usurpers to the imamate, asserting that Ali had designated Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya as his successor from the beginning.

Another group, the Khashabiyya, is mentioned in relation to al-Mukhtar’s rebellion. They were dispatched by al-Mukhtar to Mecca to rescue Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya from the custody of Ibn al-Zubayr. They are referred to as the “Khashabiyya” because they wielded wooden clubs and staffs as weapons (the word for wood in Arabic is “khashab”). The Khashabiyya were in essence Kaysaniyya, and both terms are used in the sources interchangeably to refer to al-Mukhtar’s ghulat followers. The Khashabiyya were able to rescue Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya from the confinement in which Ibn al-Zubayr kept him. However, the mahdi remained uncommitted to the revolt that had been launched in his name. Instead of accompanying them to Kufa, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya went to Ta’if and avoided getting directly involved in the politics and the conflict of the Second Civil War.

The main campaigns and battles of the Second Fitna. Map by Al Ameer son / Wikimedia Commons

Victory and Defeat: Fighting internal and External Enemies

Shortly after seizing power in Kufa, al-Mukhtar faced challenges to his rule on multiple fronts. Abd al-Malik, who had somewhat stabilized his position in Syria sent an army to Iraq. This force occupied Mosul about one year after the Battle of Ayn al-Warda in which the penitents had been defeated. This Umayyad force then began to threaten Kufa. Al-Mukhtar dispatched an army of 3,000 men under the leadership of one of the ashraf, Yazid ibn Anas. The Kufan force defeated the Umayyads in battle. No quarter was given and the Syrian prisoners were mercilessly put to death after the fighting. That same night Yazid ibn Anas died, reportedly of natural causes. In the confusion that ensued, the Kufans withdrew as another large Umayyad army advanced against them. Al-Mukhtar deployed another force of 7,000 men under Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar to reinforce them.

The ashraf saw the departure of a large portion of al-Mukhtar’s supporters as an opportunity to rebel and overthrow him. As mentioned earlier, there were tensions between the various factions that formed al-Mukhtar’s rebellion and the ashraf had always been lukewarm in their support. They gathered and conspired to launch a countercoup to restore the status quo in their city. Al-Tabari reports:

When Yazid b. Anas died, the ashraf in al-Kufah met and told disturbing stories about al-Mukhtar. They said that Yazid b. Anas had been killed, and did not believe he had died [a natural death]. They began to say, “By God, this man has made himself commander over us without our consent. He has drawn our mawali near to himself, mounted them on horses, given them stipends, and assigned our fay’ to them. Our slaves have disobeyed us, and our orphans and widows have thus been despoiled.”

Fay’ is defined in the Encylopaedia of Islam as “permanent booty,” which was the tribute or tax income from which the stipends of Muslim soldiers were paid.” Elsewhere in al-Tabari’s account the ashraf are quoted as saying:

“He has alleged that Ibn al-Hanafiyyah sent him to us, but we have found out that Ibn al-Hanafiyyah did not do so. He has assigned our fay’ to our mawali and taken our slaves, despoiling our orphans and widows by means of them. He and his Saba’iyyah have openly disavowed our righteous predecessors.”

The ashraf and their followers rose in rebellion and once again the streets of Kufa were engulfed in fighting between the two rebel factions. Al-Mukhtar was besieged in the governor’s palace but was able to get a message out to Ibn al-Ashtar who returned to Kufa with his army three days later. The ashraf were defeated in the ensuing fight. The infighting among al-Mukhtar’s movement did not bode well for the future of the rebellion. In addition to earning the enmity of the ashraf and the Umayyads, al-Mukhtar’s relations with Mus‘ab Ibn al-Zubayr, Abdallah Ibn al-Zubayr’s brother and the governor of Basra, also soured because he refused to accept a governor assigned over his domains from the Hijaz region. The discontented ashraf took advantage of the rift between Basra and Kufa and departed with 10,000 of their followers to join Mus‘ab ibn al-Zubayr.

After crushing the ashraf’s rebellion, al-Mukhtar set out to fulfill his vow to avenge the slaying of al-Husayn and his male relatives and companions at Karbala. This seemed an opportune moment to simultaneously fulfill his vow and to punish the ashraf.  Several of the ashraf who were involved in the massacre at Karbala were killed. Abu Amra Kaysan was heavily involved in finding and punishing these individuals who included Umar ibn Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas. His father, Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas, was one of the earliest converts to Islam and a relative of the prophet through his maternal clan, the Zuhra. Sa‘d was also the commander of the Muslim armies at the Battle of Qadisiyya, the conqueror of the Sassanian empire, and the founder of Kufa.

Umar ibn Sa‘d’s example demonstrates that even the most illustrious Muslim pedigree could not save one from the vengeful al-Mukhtar and his radical followers. In addition to being true to his vow to avenge al-Husayn, al-Mukhtar’s killing of those who had been involved in the massacre at Karbala was also financially lucrative. The money and property of all those who had been killed was confiscated. The saying “Abu Amra visited him” became popular and applied to anyone who lost his wealth denoting the central role Abu Amra Kaysan played in these punitive actions. Al-Mukhtar’s vengeance for al-Husayn’s killing did not stop at a few individuals. For instance, after the ashraf’s rebellion had been defeated 500 prisoners were allegedly brought before al-Mukhtar with their hands bound behind their backs. He examined each one of them and if they had been present at Karbala, they were beheaded on the spot. Before the day was done 248 men had been killed in his presence.

Al-Tabari asserts that many of the other prisoners who had not been involved in al-Husayn’s killing at Karbala were also massacred. Al-Mukhtar’s men saw this as an opportunity to rid themselves of enemies, rivals, and to repay personal grudges. These prisoners were taken aside and killed without al-Mukhtar’s knowledge. However, it is reported that upon hearing about these other killings al-Mukhtar freed the remaining prisoners and gave a guarantee of safety to all in the city with the exception of those who had played a role in al-Husayn’s death.

There followed a broad hunt for the killers of al-Husayn. Al-Mukhtar sent out men referred to as “investigators” to find those who had gone into hiding. The sources describe al-Mukhtar and his men tracking down and killing those men who were allegedly involved in the events that took place at Karbala. Some of the accounts of these killings are quite graphic describing in detail the terrible ways in which these me were put to death. The sources include accounts of decapitation, burning alive, mutilation, stoning, and the shooting with arrows of those who were accused of having been at Karbala. All those who could fled to Basra and joined Mus‘ab ibn al-Zubayr.

With the ashraf’s rebellion crushed, al-Mukhtar once again focused his efforts on dealing with the external threats posed by the Umayyad army advancing from the north and the forces of Ibn al-Zubayr in Basra and Arabia. His plan was to forestall a clash with the Zubayrids to avoid fighting on two fronts. Al-Mukhktar sent a message with overtures conciliating Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr at Mecca. In this letter, al-Mukhtar claimed to be working on his behalf. Upon receiving the message, Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr summoned one of his followers, Umar ibn Abd al-Rahman and appointed him governor of Kufa. When asked about al-Mukhtar, Ibn al-Zubayr stated that he had submitted to him and would obey his commands.

Al-Mukhtar’s spies in Mecca sent word about these developments and that t Umar ibn Abd al-Rahman had outfitted himself and his men at the cost of 30,000 dirhams. To forestall the coming of the newly appointed Zubayrid governor, al-Mukhtar sent one of his men, Za’ida ibn Qudamah, to intercept him with a bribe of 70,000 dirhams to convince him to turn back and abandon his mission. Al-Mukhtar also put 500 horsemen under Zai’da’s command. These men are described as heavily armed wearing helmets and chainmail armour and carrying lances. Al-Mukhtar instructed Za’ida to conceal his troop and if Umar refused to turn back, he was to summon them and to say to him that a hundred other squadrons were coming behind them. Initially, Ibn al-Zubayr’s governor refused to turn back, but sure enough, when he saw the armed horsemen, he took the money and fled. This was a clever plan to win some time and to avoid a direct clash with Ibn al-Zubayr while the bulk of al-Mukhtar’s forces were occupied with the Umayyad army marching on Kufa from the north.

To further convince Ibn al-Zubayr of his loyalty and to win more time, al-Mukhtar sent an army to Arabia at Ibn al-Zubayr’s request. This force was composed of 3,000 men of whom 2,300 were mawali. Ibn al-Zubayr had commanded al-Mukhtar to direct this army to wadi al-Qura, where an Umayyad force was encamped and preparing to march on Mecca. However, al-Mukhtar instructed his commander, Shurahbil ibn Wars, to enter Medina and occupy it and then march on Mecca, taking Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr by surprise. Ibn al-Zubayr did not trust al-Mukhtar’s intentions and sent an army of 2,000 men under one of his generals, Abbas ibn Sahl, to Medina. He instructed Ibn Sahl to verify al-Mukhtar’s intentions. If he found that the troops he sent were true to their master’s word, he was to welcome them, if not, then he was to destroy them by any means.

Sure enough, the two commanders met and disagreed on the chain of command and the course of action. Ibn Wars insisted on marching to Medina, as he had been instructed by al-Mukhtar. On the other hand, ibn Sahl was determined to take command of both armies and to march against the Umayyad forces at Wadi al-Qura. Abbas ibn Sahl, having ascertained Ibn Wars’s true intentions came up with a plan to destroy his army. The Kufan force was drawn up in battle formation and he did not want to engage in a pitched battle against a numerically superior army and came up with a plan to disrupt the enemy’s formation. Ibn Sahl had noticed that the soldiers in Ibn Wars’s army were hungry and tired from the long march. He sent gifts of livestock to them. As the men broke ranks to slaughter and eat the animals, ibn Sahl launched a surprise attack. Ibn Wars was barely able to rally 100 men before he and seventy of his guards were cut down. Ibn Sahl then offered the remaining troops safety if they joined his army, most did except for 300 men. The Zubayrid commander ordered the execution of these men, but 200 were released because the men who had been ordered to kill them refused to carry out the command.

Most of those who were released died in the desert and only a very few made it back to Kufa. Upon hearing of the debacle, al-Mukhtar preached to his followers proclaiming that their pious comrades had been deceitfully killed by their wicked enemies, turning the defeat into propaganda to fan the flames of rage within his followers.

With his defeat in Arabia and a large Umayyad army marching south against Kufa, the situation looked dire for al-Mukhtar. This enemy force was led by none other than the former Umayyad governor Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad. He was one of the most hated people and enemy number one to many of al-Mukhtar’s followers, who held him primarily responsible for the tragedy of Karbala. Al-Mukhtar committed the bulk of his army to fight the Syrians. He sent his best commander, Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar, accompanied by his best troops. The chair was also accompanying the army, carried on the back of a mule, guarded by seven men on either side. Al-Mukhtar marched with the army for a part of the journey, seeing them off before turning back to Kufa.

The two armies met at the bank of the Khazir, a tributary of the Great Zab in Northern Iraq. Prior to the battle, the leader of the Qaysi northern tribes, Umayr ibn al-Hubab, secretly met with Ibn al-Ashtar. The Qaysis had been supporters of Ibn al-Zubayr and had recently been defeated and subjugated by the Umayyads at the Battle of Marj Rahit. They were still bitter about the way they had been treated. Umayr and his troops formed the right wing of the Umayyad force, he promised Ibn al-Ashtar that he would withdraw from the battle when the two sides engaged in battle.

The two armies clashed on August 6, 686. The Battle of Khazir lasted almost the entire day. The fighting was heavy and bloody and both sides suffered heavy losses. In one account Umayr had been shifted to command the left wing of the Umayyad army and stood firm. However, in another version of the battle he is said to have sent Ibn al-Ashtar a message asking if he should defect. Ibn al-Ashtar’s response was to hold back until his troops’ bloodlust and battle rage abated because he feared they would fall upon the defectors, seeing them as another part of the Umayyad army.

The Umayyad commander, Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, fell in the fighting. One account of the events state he was cut down by Ibn al-Ashtar himself. In another version of the events, it was one of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s partisans, Shairk ibn Jadir al-Taghlibi, who killed him. He had retired to Jerusalem after the First Civil War but upon hearing of al-Husayn’s killing he swore an oath to kill the Umayyad governor and joined al-Mukhtar’s revolt. At the Battle of Khazir he commanded a detachment of horsemen. They cut their way through to the Umayyad governor and both al-Taghlibi and Ubayd Allah died from the wounds they inflicted on one another.

With its commander and many of the officers slain, the Umayyad army fled the battlefield. Many drowned in the Khazir as they sought to escape their pursuers. According to the reports on the battle, more drowned than those who fell to the swords of Ibn al-Ashtar’s men. This victory was al-Mukhtar’s crowning glory, he had defeated the mighty Umayyad army and expanded the extent of his control over northern Iraq and Jazira (Mesopotamia). He had also fulfilled his vow to punish the man most responsible for al-Husayn’s death. Abd al-Malik, being a shrewd tactician, refrained from sending any further expeditions into Iraq for the time being. He knew that Ibn al-Zubayr needed Iraq’s wealth and manpower and was content to allow al-Mukhtar and the Zubayrids to weaken one another as they fought for control of Iraq.

In Basra, the Kufan ashraf and their followers rallied to Mus‘ab ibn al-Zubayr. They urged and enticed him to march on Kufa to restore order and in the process their own positions of privilege. The opportune moment to strike arrived when a rift emerged between al-Mukhtar and Ibn al-Ashtar, who remained in Mosul after his victory at Khazir. Mus‘ab and his army marched on Kufa. They met al-Mukhtar’s army and defeated it in a fierce battle at al-Madhar on the Tigris in the late summer of 686. Kaysan may have fallen in this battle because the sources do not mention him after this point. Thus, al-Mukhtar lost his other reliable commander. The Zubayrids did not rest on their laurels and pushed their advantage, pursuing the defeated Kufans catching them at Harura where another battle was fought. Al-Mukhtar’s forces suffered a devastating defeat in which most of the army was wiped out.

Al-Mukhtar and his remaining followers were besieged in the governor’s palace at Kufa. During the four-month siege al-Mukhtar led several daring sorties against the besiegers but was unable to overcome them. As the days passed, more and more of his men defected to the Zubayrids. He was finally killed in a final sortie with a handful of his most loyal followers.

Mus‘ab and the ashraf exacted bloody retribution against those who had supported al-Mukhtar. Over 6,000 of al-Mukhtar’s followers and supporters were reportedly killed in the aftermath of the rebellion. Even one of al-Mukhtar’s wives was put to death because they publicly praised him and refused to disavow him. With al-Mukhtar’s death in April 687 and the execution of thousands of rebels, the revolt was over. But the Second Civil War was to continue until 692.

The Aftermath of al-Mukhtar’s Revolt

The final showdown of the Second Civil War between Ibn al-Zubayr and Abd al-Malik determined the fate of the caliphate. The conflict ended with the Ibn al-Zubayr’s defeat and death. His brother Mus‘ab was unable to hold on to Iraq. Both the Abd al-Malik and the Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr tried to win Ibn al-Ashtar, who now held Mosul and much of Northern Iraq, over to their side. Ibn al-Ashtar threw in his lot with the Zubayrids, but even the support of this renowned warrior and general, the Umayyads eventually emerged as the victors. Both Ibn al-Ashtar and Mus‘ab ibn al-Zubayr died in battle in 691 when Abd al-Malik invaded Iraq. Shortly afterwards, Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr suffered the same fate after Mecca was besieged.

Although al-Mukhtar’s rebellion failed, many of his followers and their ideologies survived. Those among the ghulat who managed to escape continued to venerate Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya. Ibn al-Hanafiyya’s death in 700 was interpreted in a number of ways by his followers. Some of the Kaysaniyya and Khashabiyya believed that Ibn al-Hanafiyya was still alive and had gone into occultation in the Radwa mountains and would one day reappear as the mahdi. Others believed he had died in the Radwa mountains and that he and the most prominent among his followers would come back to life and establish justice on earth, believing in the doctrine of raj‘a (i.e. “to return to life before the Day of Resurrection”). Another group believed he had died and that his son, Abu Hashim, had been designated by his father to be the next imam. Abu Hashim was a more active leader than his father had been. He died childless around 717-718.

The Hasimiyya, his followers, also splintered into several groups holding various beliefs and ideas regarding the imamate. However, most of them asserted that Abu Hashim had designated the Abbasid, Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Abdallah ibn al-Abbas, as his successor. It is this group of Hashimiyya that formed the core and nucleus of the movement that would successfully oust the Umayyads in 750 through the Abbasid or Hashemite Revolution. As such, it can be argued that al-Mukhtar’s rebellion was not a complete failure, he and his followers planted the seeds that eventually led the Umayyads’ overthrow and it was in the city of Kufa were the first Abbasid caliph, al-Saffah (r. 750-754), received the oath of allegiance in 750, ushering in a new era of Islamic history.

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

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