In his relations with his agents Abu Ja断ar was careful to leave no trace which the authorities could use against him and which would jeopardise both his own life and that of the Imam. Al‑Saduq reports a secret meeting between Abu Ja断ar and Ibn Matil, one of the ten agents in Baghdad. Abu Ja`far took Ibn Matil to a ruin in alュ`Abbasiyya in Baghdad,(1) where he read a letter written to him by the Twelfth Imam and then tore it to pieces(2). To evade any government spies Abu Ja` far also did not implicate himself in any direct contact with agents from remote provinces. He used to order any person who brought letters or money to put them in a certain place, and he would give him no receipt(3).

Another narration indicates that the second Saf段rhad established a complicated system of communications between himself and the agents in the Imamite areas. There seems to have been a secret code reserved for the Saf段rand his agents, while the messengers were sometimes ignorant of both the contents of their messages and the code. For example, Abu Ja`far once sent messages to Samarra with one of his reliable partisans, but the messenger inserted a letter amongst the other messages without the Saf段r's knowledge. In Samarra he received answers to all the letters except his own(4).

The second Saf段rsometimes dealt directly with certain agents with whom he had previously communicated indirectly. The career of Muhammad b. `Ali al‑Aswad is a good example of such a case. According to al‑Saduq, al‑Aswad used to bring the legal taxes for the Imam to Abu Ja`far, who commanded him to hand them over to the well‑known scholar al‑`Abbas b. Ma`ruf al‑Qummi(5), and did not offer him any receipt(6).

 However, we later find al‑Aswad dealing directly with the second Saf段rand the third Saf段r, who both received in person the money which al‑Aswad had collected from the Imamites(7).

3. The Effect of the Shiite Revolutionary Activities upon the 'Abbasids' Attitude towards the Twelfth Imam

3.1) The events of the second Saf段r's career suggest that he instructed his agents to avoid any act which might lead the government of the day to think that the Imamites still had political aspirations or that they had an Imam leading them secretly. Despite the fact that he directed the Imamites to maintain this policy, the political activities of the other Shiite groups, particularly the Zaydites, the Qaramita and the Isma`ilis, complicated the Imamites' relations with the `Abbasids and made it difficult for them to keep the existence of the Twelfth Imam totally concealed from their opponents.

When the Zanj revolution (255‑270/866‑883) was taking place the situation of the Imamites was critical. The leader of that revolution, `Ali b. Muhammad, traced his lineage to the brother of Imam al‑Baqir, Zayd b. `Ali. For this reason a considerable group of `Alids joined his side and participated in his uprising from the year 257/871.(8)

In spite of the fact that the eleventh Imam, al‑`Askari, had openly announced that the leader of the Zanj was not a member of the People of the House (Ahl al‑Bayt),(9) the authorities considered this revolution to be linked with the `Alids. According to al‑Tabari, the collapse of the Zanj revolt in 270/883 was followed by governmental propaganda against the `Alids in general. This attitude can be discerned in the poem of Yahya b. Muhammad al‑Aslami, who praised the `Abbasid leader al‑Muwaffaq in 270/883 with this verse:

And the Book of Allah is recited in every mosque, and the Talibiyyin invite people to their cause in vain(10).

It is most likely that the `Abbasid antagonism towards extreme Shi段te groups extended also to the Imamites. According to al‑Tusi, the Imamites were too frightened to express their doctrine openly between the years 270‑273/883‑887.(11)

Another factor which strained relations between the Imamites and the `Abbdsids was the discovery of the underground activities of the two Isma段ll parties, the original Isma値is and the Qaramita(12).  Like the Imamites, the Isma`ilis had reported the Prophetic traditions stating that al-Qa段m al‑Mahdi would go into occultation as a preparatory action for his rising(13).

However, they interpreted some of these traditions in a manner which would support their struggle to gain immediate success in North Africa (al‑Maghrib). Thus they understood the tradition which states that al-Qa段m al‑Mahdi will appear when the sun rises from the place of its setting to mean that the Qa'im would rise in the west (al‑Maghrib)(14).

Furthermore they applied other traditions narrated by the Imamites about al-Qa段m al-ュMahdi to their own concealed leader, who had organized his followers into a strong underground movement and had commanded them to extend their activities into new areas by military means to prepare for his rising as al-Qa段m al‑Mahdi(15). According to Sa'd al‑Ash`ari the number of the Qaramita increased in the villages around Kufa, and according to al‑Nawbakhti, they gained about 100,000 partisans there(16).

Afterwards they expanded their propaganda on the western shores of the Gulf and Yemen, where a large number of Arabs accepted their cause, thus helping them to become powerful. As a result of all this they announced their rebellion(17), which according to al‑Tabari occurred in the suburbs of Kufa in 278/891.(18)

In the occultation of the Twelfth Imam the Isma'ilis seem to have found a good opportunity to use the Imamite masses in their political struggle. According to Ibn al‑Athir, the Qaramita missionary Yahya b. al‑Mahdi went to Bahrain, which had a large Shi ite population. In 281/894 he contacted an eminent Shiite leader, `Ali b. al‑Mu'alla b. Hamdan, and informed him that he had been sent by al‑Mahdi to inform his followers that his rising was at hand. `Ali b. al‑Mu'alla was satisfied with the message and revealed it to the Shiites in the town of Qatif and other villages of Bahrain. They in turn accepted it and promised that they too would support al‑Mahdi if he rose. By such means the Qaramita succeeded in circulating their propaganda among the Arab tribe of Qays and began to collect the khums.(19)

By using the same methods, they expanded their activities among the tribes of Asad, Tayy and Tamim in the Sawad; while in the desert of the Samawa, the tribe of Banu al‑`Ulays, which used to protect the trade route between Kufa and Damascus, also joined their side(20).

It is worth mentioning that the Qaramita took into consideration the sectarian beliefs and economic situation of the people with whom they worked. Therefore we find that their propaganda spread mainly among people who already had Shiite inclinations, such as the Qarmatiyyun, who had participated in the Zanj revolt(21),  and also among the people of the Sawad(22),  who wished to join the side of any rebel in order to improve their social and economic conditions.

There is evidence that the Qaramita permitted their followers to kill their opponents and confiscate their property(23).

The Imamites seem to have been aware of the danger of such a principle, since the 'Abbasid government might accuse them of holding the same principle and it could be easy for it to attack them under this pretext. Since both the Qaramita and the Imamites were Shiites and lived in the same areas, practicing the same religious rites, expecting the rise of al-Qa段m al‑Mahdi in the near future, it was difficult for the government to differentiate between them without extensive and careful investigation.

3.2) The Twelfth Imam wanted to protect his followers from the influence of the Qaramita and make the government of the day differentiate between the Qaramita and his own adherents. Perhaps this is why he is said to have sent a letter to his second Saf段r, in which he denounced and cursed Muhammad b. Abi Zaynab and his followers (the Qaramita). He declared that he had no relations with them and ordered his 'followers neither to have any discussion with them nor to attend their gatherings. The second Saf段rcirculated the pronouncement of the Imam among the Imamites via his agent Ishaq b. Ya`qub(24).

It seems most likely that the Imamites obeyed the instructions in the pronouncement. According to Ibn al‑Athir, a group of people from Kufa revealed to the Abbasid authorities the underground activities of the Qaramita in their area and informed them that they were inventing rules contrary to Islamic law, according to which it was permissible to murder any Muslim other than those who paid them an oath of allegiance. Ibn al‑Athir also reports that later a group of Talibiyyun fought beside the government against the Qaramita in Kufa(25).

It is plausible that in both of these instances these groups were Imamites, and that these steps were part of their plan to make the `Abbasids realize in a practical way that they were not responsible for the Qaramita's activities.

However, there is evidence that the `Abbasids paid no attention to the Imamite claims(26). The period of al‑Mu'tadid (279‑289/892‑901) was distinguished as one of oppression and pursuit for the Imamites. It was well known among the Sunni scholars like al‑Ash`ari that the Imamites had achieved a consensus in respect of the prohibition of any militant revolution unless the Imam himself appeared and ordered them to such action(27).

But the propaganda of the Qaramita concerning the rise of al-Qa段m al‑Mahdi seems to have encouraged the government to link their activities with the occultation of the Twelfth Imam and to consider them as a preparation for his rising. They were certainly encouraged in this direction by the fact that the cousin of the Twelfth Imam, Muhsin b. Ja`far b. `Ali al‑Hadi involved himself in the Qaramita's rebellion in Damascus(28).

This critical situation gave the opponents of the Imamites a vital weapon, which the viziers used not only against the Imamites but also against their own colleagues who were anti‑Shi`ite(29). In 278/891 the caliph, al‑Mu'tamid, ordered the arrest of a member of the Imamite family Banu Furat who had held the office of Diwan al‑Sawad. The family members hid themselves, but Abu Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Furat was still arrested(30).

In the same time al‑Mu`tamid appointed `Ubayd Allah b. Sulayman, who was well‑known for his anti‑`Alid attitude(31), to the office of the wizara(32). If one can link the uprising of the Qaramita in 278/891 with these two steps ‑ taking into account the attitude of `Ubayd Allah b. Sulayman ‑ one can claim that `Ubayd Allah's appointment was part of the precautions taken by the `Abbasids against Shiite activities in general.

Afterward, al‑Mu稚adid carried out a careful investigation of Shiite underground cells in general. In 282/895 he discovered that Muhammad b. Zayd, the head of the Zaydite state in Tabaristan, was sending 32,000 dinars every year to Muhammad b. Ward al‑`Attar so that he could distribute the money among the `Alids in Baghdad, Kufa, Mecca and Medina(33).

The continual investigations of al-ュMutadid caused the arrest and murder of many `Alids; according to al‑Isfahani they were not Qaramita, but were simply persecuted under that pretext(34).

As a result of these measures, the authorities realized that the Imamites had their own organization. According to al‑Kulayni the spies of the vizier `Ubayd Allah b. Sulayman discovered that the Imamites still had an Imam who guided their activities secretly. Al-Kulayni reports:

"Al‑Husayn b. al‑Hasan al‑ `Alawi said that two intimates of Badr Hasani (the servant of the caliph) were talking and one of them said, `Why, he (the Twelfth Imam) is collecting money and has agents, wukala. Afterwards they named all the agents in all the districts. Then they reported this information to the vizier `Ubayd Allah b. Sulayman, who endeavoured to arrest them. But the caliph (al‑Mu`tadid) told him to search for the place of this man (the Imam), because this matter was important. `Ubayd Allah b. Sulaymdn said, `Let us arrest the agents.' But the caliph said, `No, but infiltrate among them some spies who are unknown (in their service to the government), and ask them to give money to the agents. Then arrest anyone who accepts the money."(35)

Al‑Kulayni does not mention the date of this incident, but we know that `Ubayd Allah b. Sulayman continued in the service to the caliph al‑Mu tadid until the year 288/900, so this incident must have taken place between the years 282‑288/895‑900.

It is clear from this report that the 'Abbasid spies had reached the conclusion that the eleventh Imam al‑`Askari had in fact left a successor, who directed the underground activities of his agents; but they were unsure of his place of residence. So they tried to arrest some of his agents and partisans, hoping that by interrogating them they might also arrest the Twelfth Imam. For this reason, the caliph ordered that spies be sent with money to infiltrate amongst the agents.






(1)Al-`Abbasiyya was a fief in Baghdad granted to al-`Abbas, the brother of the caliph al-Mansur. According to al-Khatib al-Baghdadi there were two fiefs of the same name, one on the eastern side of Baghdad and the other on the western side. Because the house of Abu Ja`far was on the western side, the meeting may have occurred there; al-Khatib,I,79, 95.

(2)Kama値, 498.

(3)T. al-Ghayba,192.

(4)Kama値, 499.

(5)Al-`Abbas b. Ma`ruf was a companion to the tenth Imam, al-Hadi. He devoted his time during the short occultation to relating Imamite narrations; therefore, perhaps, Abu Ja`far originally ordered al-Aswad to hand the money over to Ibn Ma`ruf because al-Aswad, at that time, was not aware of the necessity of the underground organization. For a full account of the career of Ibn Ma池uf as a narrator of Imamite narrations which criticise those Shiites who considered Ibn al-Hanafiyya or the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim, as the hidden Imam, see Ikhtiyar,315, 461; al-Najashi,215-6, 151; al-Tusi, Tahdhib al-Ahkam,IV,122, 137, V, 292, VI, 122, 194.

(6)Kama値, 502.

(7)T. al-Ghayba,241.

(8)Tabari,III,1857, 2024, 2109; for a full account of the Zanj revolt see the two important articles by Naji, "Tarikh al-Tabari Masdaran `an Thawrat al-Zanj",al-Mawrid VII, No. 2 (1978), 37-92; and "al-Tanzim al-`Askari li jaysh Sahib alュ Zanj", al-Mu`arikh al-`Arabi,VII (1978), 116-157; Faysal al-Samir, Thawrat alュ Zanj (Basra,1952).

(9)al-Irbili, Kashf al-Ghumma,IV, 428; Bihar, L, 293.

(10)Tabari, III, 2099.

(11)Al-Tusi reports that the tomb of al-Husayn collapsed in 273/886 probably due to an act of sabotage, especially if one bears in mind the fact that an attack upon the grave of `Ali was foiled about the same time; al-Tusi, Tahdhib al-Ahkam, VI,111-12.

(12)For the distinction between the Mubarakiyya and the Qaramita, see Q. Maqalat,80-6; N. Firaq,67-74; al-Fusul al-Mukhtara,247-8.

(13)T. al-Ghayba,39,130. The Isma'ili writer Ibn Hawshab narrates in al-Kashf several Qur'anic verses about the Last Day, which for him means the rise of al-Qa段m al-Mahdi (al-Kashf 5-6, 10, 11, 14, 24; Abu Ya`qub al-Sijistani, Kashf alュ- Mahjub (Teheran,1949, 81-3). Moreover, Ibn Hawshab mentions a narration attributed to al-Sadiq, stating that al-Qa段m will rise in Mecca. Thus he agrees with the Imamite reports regarding this point; al-Kashf 32-5.

(14)Ibn Hawshab, Asrar al-Nutaqa',51-3, 90-2. For the details of the Isma`ili use of these traditions in their activities with the tribe of Kitama in 280/893, see al-Kamil, VIII, 24-5, 26.

(15)Ibn Hawshab, al-Kashf 62; al-Kamil, VIII, 22-3; Ivanow supports this point in suggesting that "the terrible slaughter of the pilgrims in the Ka`ba itself, and the seizure of the sacred relics were not acts of wanton cruelty, but were connected with some expectations of a religious character, such as the return of Muhammad b. Isma`il in full glory, etc., which most probably was expected to be due about that time." Ivanow, "Ismailis and Qarmatians", Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, XVI (1940), 82; also see W. Madelung, "Karmati", E.I.2.

(16)N. Firaq,76; al-Tabari confirms this number; Tabari, II, 2218.

(17)Q. Maqalat,86.


(19)al-Kamil,VII,340-1, VIII, 21-2. There is evidence which encourages the present writer to link the activities of the Qaramita with those of the Ismailis. Ibn Hawqal mentions that after the establishment of the Qaramita state in Bahrain they used to send the khums to the Sahib al-Zaman,that is the Ismaili leader in Egypt; Ibn Hawqal, op. cit.,21-3.

(20)Tabari,III,2218; Ibn Hawqal, op. cit.,29.

(21)Tabari,III,1757. Shaban put forward the theory that the Isma'ili movement in Iraq and Bahrain was called the Qaramita after a specific race called alュ-Qaramatiyyun. They came originally from Libya and they could hardly speak Arabic. They took part in the Zanj revolt and joined the Ismaili movement when the revolt collapsed. (Shaban, op. cit,130).



(24)Kama値,483, 485.

(25)al-Kamil,VIII,311, 376.

(26)Tabari,III,2127-8; al-Kamil,VII,311.

(27)al-Ash`ari, Maqalat al-Islamiyyin,58; Ibn Shadhan, al-Idah,475.

(28)Later in 300/912 Muhsin was arrested in the suburbs of Damascus. His head was sent to Baghdad, where it was impaled on a bridge in the eastern side of the city, an area which was inhabited by a large Shiite population; Maqatil,449; alュ-Kubaysi, op. cit.,446.

(29)`Ali b. Isa, who was known for his anti `Alid attitude, was called a Qarmati by his personal enemies; as a result he was dismissed from office (`Arib, op. cit., 59). Al-Qasim al-Khaqani was discharged in the same manner. Later al-Hallaj was arrested on the accusation that he was a Qarmatian missionary; Nujum,III,182; Ibn Taymiyya, Aami' al-Rasa'il,I,188.

(30)al-Sabi, al-Wuzara,292-3; Tabari,III,2123.


(32)Tabari,III,2123. `Ubayd Allah b. Sulayman was a close associate of alュ-Muwaffaq in Samaria in 264/878, but four years later he was imprisoned. When al-Mu`tadid became the heir-apparent to al-Mu`tamid, `Ubayd Allah was promoted to the office of the wizara,whereupon he used his office to pursue his rivals such as Bann Furat. At the same time he managed to uncover the activities of the agents of the second Saf段r. He died in 288/900; al-Kafi,I,525; alュ-Kamil,VII,219, 227, 309; al-Fakhri, 302.

(33)Tabari,III,2148; al-Muntazam, V,150.

(34)Al-Isfahani mentions that two `Alids, Muhammad b. `Ali b. Ibiahim and `Ali b. Muhammad b. `Ali, were tortured along with the Qarmati Sahib al-Kahl, whose hands and legs were cut off, yet they did not support the Qaramita nor did they have any relations with them (Maqatil,446). Al-Tabari states twice that the `Abbasid troops arrested a group of Qaramita in 286/899 and investigated them. They disclosed the name of their leader, Abu Hashim b. Sadaqa al-Katib, who was arrested and put in jail (Tabari III,2179). Al-Mu`tadid's investigation of the Qaramita leader, Abu al-Fawaris, shows that he differentiated between the doctrine of the Qaramita and the Imamites; al-Kamil,VII,354