Islam’s First Heretics

The descendants of the Prophet Muhammed founded the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 A.D. and established it’s capital in Baghdad. Near the end of the 9th century, as it faced a number of lesser regional challengers to it’s rule in Egypt and Persia, a group of Shia radicals called the Qarmatians emerged and seized control of the island of Bahrain.

It’s unclear if the Qarmatians were utopian revolutionaries or apocalyptic militants, but either way, everything about their religion and way of life was radical. The Qarmatians mixed Shia theology, then a new minority sect of Islam, with Persian nationalism and Zoroastrian mysticism. Their key principle was a society based on reason and the equal distribution of real and movable property among their members — ignoring the fact that, outside the membership of the society they maintained large numbers of slaves and subjugated others as second-class citizens. The affairs of government were managed by a tribal council, led by a chief who was the first among equals. The Qamartians were also strict vegetarians and banned the consumption of all meat. And from Zoroastrianism they replaced the Qiblah, the niche in a mosque that indicates the direction Mecca, with a fire.

The Qarmatians were also militantly opposed to conducting the Haaj, the Muslim pilgramage to Mecca and Medina. They used their base in Bahrain to launch raids on the pilgrim routes crossing the region, massacring tens of thousands of pilgrims on several occasions and finally reaching all the way to Mecca and Medina in 930, during which time they desecrated the holy Well of Zamzam with corpses of pilgrims and stole the Black Stone from Mecca, holding it ransom. The caliph in Baghdad pleaded with them to return it, ultimately paying the Qarmatians tribute to stay on their island and refrain from raids, similar to how Rome paid German hordes camped across the Danube to stay out of Roman territory.

It is not clear if ransom for the stone was paid, or if it was returned by the Qamartians voluntarily. According to one historian, the Black Stone was returned twenty-two years after it was stolen, wrapped in a sack and thrown into a Mosque in Kufa, accompanied with a note that read, “By command we took it, and by command we have returned it.” The stone was shattered into seven pieces during its abduction, and it is for that reason that today, it is wrapped in a silver frame to hold it together.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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7 Responses to Islam’s First Heretics

  1. Thomas says:

    Damn you Curzon for composing an informative and substantiative post that gives me no place to be contrary!

    You shall pay for this.

  2. dj says:

    The Qiblah is the direction of Mecca. The “Mihrab” is the niche in the wall of the mosque, FYI

  3. They used their base in Bahrain to launch raids on the pilgrim routes crossing the region, massacring tens of thousands of pilgrims on several occasions and finally reaching all the way to Mecca and Medina in 930, during which time they desecrated the holy Well of Zamzam with corpses of pilgrims and stole the Black Stone from Mecca, holding it ransom.

    Bleah, charming behavior. :( This sort of thing makes me very happy to be an atheist.

  4. Curzon says:

    Thanks DJ.

    Right, exactly Chris — we all know that athiests are never badly behaved.

  5. Pingback: Starship Troopers « The World According to Me…

  6. Wilson says:

    “By command we took it, and by command we have returned it.”

    That is some Jack Bauer action right there. Someone should option the movie rights to this piece of history and get to filming.

  7. Right, exactly Chris — we all know that athiests are never badly behaved.

    Sure, some are. But they at least don’t claim they’re doing what God wants them to do.