Arabic Thought and its Place in History, by De Lacy O'Leary, , at sacred-texts.com
The rule of the Umayyads had been a period of tyrannical oppression on the part of the Arab rulers upon their non-Arab subjects and especially upon the mawali or converts drawn from the native population of the conquered provinces who not only were not admitted to equality, as was the professed principle of the religion of Islam, but were treated simply as serfs. This was in no sense due to religious persecution, for it was the converts who were the most aggrieved, nor was it due to a racial antipathy as between a Semitic and an Aryan people, nor yet to anything that could be described as a "national" feeling on the part of the Persians and other conquered races, but simply a species of "class" feeling due to the contempt felt by the Arabs for those whom they had conquered and hatred on the part of the conquered towards their arrogant masters, a hatred intensified by disgust at their misgovernment and ignorance of the traditions of civilization. There were other causes also which helped to intensify this feeling of hatred especially in the case of the Persians. Amongst these was a semi-religious feeling, even amongst those who had become converts to Islam. It had been the
old usage of the Persians to regard the Sasanid kings, the descendants of the legendary kayani dynasty of heroes who had first established a settled community in Persia, as bagh not quite perhaps what we should understand as "gods," but rather as incarnations of deity, the divine spirit passing on by transmigration from one ruler to another, and so they ascribed to the king miraculous powers and worshipped him as the shrine of a divine presence. At the Muslim conquest the Sasanid kings had not only ceased to rule, but the dynasty had become extinct. Many of the Persians who, in spite of adopting Islam, still clung to their old ideas, were quite ready to treat the Khalif with the same adoration as their kings, but felt a distinct distaste for the theory of the Khalifate according to which the Khalif was no more than a chieftain elected in the democratic fashion of the desert tribes, a thing which seemed to them like reversion to primitive barbarism. Our own experience in dealing with oriental races has shown us that there is a great deal which must be taken seriously in ideas of this kind. Of course those who had been subjects of the Roman Empire had no inclination towards deifying their rulers, unless perhaps some who had been only recently incorporated from more oriental elements: but those who had been under Persian rule craved a deified prince. In A.H. 141-142 this took the form of an attempt to deify the Khalif by a fanatical sect of Persian origin known as the Rawandiyya which broke out into open revolt when the
[paragraph continues] Khalif refused to be treated as a god and cast their leaders into prison: the members of the sect, and many other of their fellow-countrymen, considered that a Khalif was no valid sovereign who refused to be recognised as a deity. From the second century of the Hijra down to modern times there has been a continuous stream of pseudo-prophets who have claimed to be gods, or successful leaders who have been deified by their followers. The latest of these appears in the earlier phases of the Babi movement, A.D. 1844-1852, though the doctrines of re-incarnation and of the presence of the divine spirit in the leader seem to be less emphasized in present day Babism, at least in this country and America.
The most prevalent form of these ideas occurs in the essentially Persian movement known as the Shia or "schismatics." These are divided into two types, both alike holding that the succession of the Prophet is confined to the hereditary descendants of Ali the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet to whom alone was given the divine right of the Imamate or leadership. The two types differ in the meaning of this Imamate, the one group contenting itself with maintaining that Ali and his descendants have a divine authority whereby the Imams are the only legitimate rulers of Islam and its infallible guides; of this moderate type of Shia is the religion of Morocco and the form prevalent about Sana in South Arabia. The other group presses the claim that the Imam is the incarnation of a divine spirit,
sometimes asserting that it was only by fraud that the prophet Muhammad interposed and acted as spokesman for the divine Imam Ali. Of this type is the Shia which forms the state religion of modern Persia, spreading westwards into Mesopotamia and eastwards into India. The commonest belief, prevalent in the modern Shia, is that there were twelve Imams of whom Ali was the first, and Muhammad al-Muntazar, who succeeded at the death of his father the eleventh Imam al-Hasan al-Askari in 260 A.H. (= A.D. 873) was the last. Soon after his accession Muhammad Al-Muntazar "vanished" at Samárrá, the town which served as the Abbasid capital from A.H. 222 to 279. The mosque at Samárrá is said to cover an underground vault into which he disappeared and from which he will emerge again to resume his office when the propitious time has arrived, and the place whence he is to issue forth is one of the sacred spots visited by Shiite pilgrims. Meanwhile the Shahs and princes are ruling the faithful only as deputies of the concealed Imam. The disappearance of Muhammad al-Muntazar took place more than a century after the fall of the Umayyads but we have anticipated in order to show the general tendency of the Shiite ideas which were prevalent even in Umayyad times, especially in Northern Persia, and did much to promote the revolt against the secularised Umayyad rule.
A curious importance also is attached to the date. The disaffection of the mawali came to a head towards
the end of the first century of the Muslim era. There was a general belief that the completion of the century would see the end of existing conditions, just as in Western Europe the year 1000 A.D. was expected to mark the dawn of a new world. Dissatisfaction was at its height, especially in Khurasan, and the disaffected for the most part rallied round the Alids.
The Alid claims which did so much to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty and indirectly led to the bringing forward of the Persian element by which the transmission of Hellenistic culture was most furthered, are best understood by the help of a genealogical table.
[paragraph continues] Ali had two wives, (i) al-Hanafiya, by whom he had a son Muhammad, and (ii) Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, by whom he had two sons, Hasan and Husayn. All the Alid party believed that Ali should have succeeded the Prophet by divine right and regarded the first three Khalifs as usurpers. Already under the third Khalif Uthman the dissatisfied mawla element had begun to look to Ali as their champion, and he in the true spirit of early Islam supported their claim to the rights of brotherhood as fellow Muslims. This partisanship received its extreme expression in the preaching of the Jewish convert Abdu b. Saba, who declared the divine right of Ali to the Khalifate as early as A.H. 32. Ali himself apparently did not take so pronounced a view, but certainly regarded himself as in some degree injured by his exclusion. In 35 Ali was appointed Khalif and Ibn Saba then declared that he was not only Khalif by divine right, but that a divine spirit had passed from the Prophet to him, so that he was raised to a supernatural level. This theory Ali himself repudiated. When he was assassinated in 40 Abdu declared that his martyred soul had passed to heaven and would in due course descend to earth again: his spirit was in the clouds, his voice was heard in the thunder, the lightning was his rod.
The Umayyad party led by Muawiya never submitted to Ali, although they did not question the legitimacy of his appointment. At his death Muawiya became the fifth Khalif, but had to face the
claims of al-Hasan, Ali's son. Al-Hasan made terms with Muawiya and died in 49, poisoned, it was commonly stated. The other son, al-Husayn, tried to enforce his claim, but met a tragic death at Kerbela. After al-Husayn's death some of the Alid partisans recognised Muhammad the son of Ali and al-Hanafiya as the fourth Imam; he, it is true, disowned these supporters, but that was a detail to which they paid no attention. His supporters were known as Kaysanites, and owed their origin to Kaysan, a freedman of Ali, who formed a society for the purpose of avenging the deaths of al-Hasan and al-Husayn. When this Muhammad died in 81 his followers divided into two sections, some accepting the fact of his death, others supposing that he had simply passed into concealment to appear again in due course. This idea of a "concealed" Imam was a heritage from the older religious theories of Persia and recurs again and again in Shia history. The important point is that both sections of this party continued to exist all through the Umayyad period, steadily refusing to recognise the official Khalifa as more than usurpers, and looking forward to the day when they could avenge the martyrdom of Ali and his sons.
We need not linger over the family of al-Hasan and his descendants. They were involved in Alid risings at Madina, and after the suppression of one of these in 169, long after the fall of the Umayyads, Idris the great-grandson of al-Hasan escaped to the far West and established a "moderate" Shiite
[paragraph continues] Dynasty in what is now Morocco, so that the subsequent history of that house concerns the history of the West.
Most of the Shiites regard the third Imam al-Husayn as being succeeded by his son Ali Zayn. Al-Husayn, like al-Hasan, was not only the son of Ali, but also of the Prophet's daughter, Fatima. In al-Husayn's case moreover there was another heritage which ultimately proved more important than descent from either Ali or Fatima: he was generally supposed to have married the daughter of the last of the Persian kings, the "mother of the Imams," and this traditional marriage with the Persian princess,its historical evidence is very dubioushas been regarded by the Persian Shiites as the most important factor in the Imamate, although this, of course, has nothing whatever to do with the religion of Islam. That so great weight could be attached to such a consideration serves to show how really foreign and non-Muslim a thing the Shia is. Ali Zayn had two sons, Zayd and Muhammad al-Bakir. Of these Zayd was a pupil of Wasil b. Ata and associated with the Mutazilite movement: he is generally regarded as a rationalist. Indeed, as we shall now see frequently, the heretical Shiite party was very generally mixed up with free thought and frequently shows adherence to Greek philosophy: it seems as though its inspiring spirit was hostility towards orthodox Islam, and a readiness to ally itself with anything which tended to criticize unfavourably the orthodox doctrines.
[paragraph continues] Zayd had a body of followers who established themselves in North Persia where they held their own for some time, and a branch of their party still exists in South Arabia, still suspected of rationalist proclivities. Most of the Shiites, however, recognised Muhammad al-Bakir as the fifth Imam, and Jafar as-Sadiq as the sixth. This latter also was a devoted follower of the "new learning," that is to say, of Hellenistic philosophy, and is generally regarded as the founder, or at least the chief exponent, of what are known as batinite views, that is to say the allegorical interpretation of the Quran, so that revelation is made to mean, not the literal statement, but an inner meaning, and this inner meaning generally shows a strong influence of Hellenistic philosophy. It is only the divinely directed Imam who can expound the true meaning of the Quran which remains a sealed book to the uninitiated. Jafar was, it would appear, the first of the Alids who openly asserted that he was a divine incarnation as well as an inspired teacher: his predecessors had done no more than acquiesce in such claims when made by their followers, and very often had repudiated them.
Abu Hashim, the son of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiya, died in 98. A.H. poisoned, it was generally believed, by the Khalif Sulayman, and bequeathed his rights to Muhammad b. Ali b. Abdullah, a descendant of the house of Hashim, to which the Prophet and Ali had belonged, the rival clan of the Quraysh tribe opposed to the clan of the Umayyads. Abu Hashim assumed
that the Imamate was his to be passed on to whom he saw fit, a view of the Imamate which was not accepted by the stricter Shiites who were legitimists, but the partisans of Abu Hashim do not seem to have been extremists in spite of their Kaysanite origin. In 99 the Khalifate passed to Umar II. the one Umayyad who showed Alid sympathies, putting an end to the public cursing of Ali which had formed part of the public ritual in the mosques of Damascus since the days of Muawiya and who represented a type of personal piety to which the Umayyad Khalifs had hitherto been strangers. His brief reign of less than three years did not, however, remove the evils of tyranny and misgovernment, and he was followed by other rulers more in conformity with the old bad type.
About the time of Umar's death a deputation of Shiites waited upon Muhammad b. Ali the Hashimite, a man of noted piety and the one who had now become, as legatee of Abu Hashim the son of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiya, the recognised head of an important wing of the Shiites, and swore to support him in an endeavour to obtain the Khalifate "that God may quicken justice and destroy oppression" (Dinwari: Akhbaru t-Tiwal. ed. Guirgass, Leiden. p. 334): and Muhammad had answered that "this is the season of what we hope and desire, because one hundred years of the calendar are completed" (id.)
The supporters of the family of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiya, who had now transferred their allegiance to
[paragraph continues] Muhammad b. Ali, were extremely important, not so much by reason of their numbers as by their excellent organisation. They had developed a regular system of missionaries (dai, plur. duat) who travelled under the guise of merchants and confined their teaching to private instructions and informal intercourse, a method which has become the standard type of Muslim missionary propaganda. By Abu Hashim's death and legacy Muhammad b. Ali found this very fully organised missionary work at his service, and its emissaries were fully confident that his acceptance of the overtures of the Shiite deputation meant that he stood as the champion of Shiite claims. The stricter Shiites who followed the house of al-Husayn did not admit the claims of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiya or his descendants, but they supported Muhammad b. Ali's efforts under the impression that he was a Shiite champion.
The propaganda in favour of Muhammad b. Ali is sometimes referred to as Abbasid because he was descended from al-Abbas, one of the three sons of Abdu l-Muttalib, and so brother of Abu Talib the father of the Imam Ali and of Abdullah who was grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad. At the time, however, the missionaries claimed rather to be the supporters of the Hashimites, a term which was ambiguous, perhaps intentionally so. It was afterwards explained as referring to the house of Hashim which was the rival clan of the Quraysh opposed to the Umayyads and that to which the Prophet, and Ali.
and al-Abbas belonged: but in the minds of many of the Shiites it was taken to mean the followers of Abu Hashim, the grandson of Al-Hanafiya.
Muhammad b. Ali died in 126 A.H. leaving three sons, Ibrahim, Abu l-Abbas, and Abu Jafar, the first of these being recognised as his successor. About the same time Abu Muslim, who became governor of Khurasan in 129 comes into prominence. It is dubious whether he was an Arab or a native of Iraq (cf. Masudi. vi. 59), indeed, the claim was made that he was a descendant of Gandarz, one of the ancient kings of Persia (id.) Now Khurasan was the area most disaffected towards the Umayyads, and there the Hashimite missionaries had been most active and successful. Abu Muslim threw himself into this work heartily and began gathering together an armed body of men who before long numbered 200,000. Information and warning was sent to the Khalif Marwan II. but was ignored: indeed the court at Damascus took no notice until 130. Abu Muslim at length openly raised the black standard as the signal of revolt against the Umayyads whose official colour was white. Then all the Khalif did was to seize Muhammad b. Ali's son Ibrahim and put him to death. The other two sons escaped and fled to Kufa where they were sheltered and concealed by some Shiites, the second son Abu l-abbas, known to history as as-Saffah "the butcher" being recognised as the Hashimite leader.
Abu Muslim's success was rapid and complete, and in 132 the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown and
partly exterminated, and so "the butcher" became the first of the Abbasid Khalifs, so called as being of the family of al-Abbas the son of Abdu l-Muttalib.
As soon as the Khalif Abu l-Abbas was seated on the throne his chief aim was to secure the establishment of his dynasty by getting rid of all possible rivals, and it was the vigour he showed in doing this which earned for him the title of "the Butcher." First of all he hunted down and slew all the representatives he could find of the Umayyad family. One of these escaped, Abdu r-Rahman, and went to Africa where he endeavoured to form a body of supporters without success, and then crossed over to Spain where in 138 he established himself at Cordova, and there he and his descendants ruled until 422 A.H. These Spanish Umayyads claimed to be legitimist rulers, but never assumed the divine claims of the Alid section.
Abu Muslim, who had done most to establish the Umayyad dynasty, next provoked the Khalif's jealousy, probably with good cause for he was indignant to find that "the Butcher" was no sooner on the throne than he entirely discarded the Shiites who had helped to place him there, and so within the first year of the Abbasid rule Abu Muslim was put to death.
The fall of the Umayyads brought an end to the tyranny of the Arab minority, as it now was, and placed the preponderance for a clear century (A.H. 132-232) in Persian hands. The government was
remodelled on Persian lines, and to Persian influence was due the institution of the wazir or responsible minister at the head of the executive. The title is probably identical with the Old Persian vi-chir or "overseer" (thus Darmesteter: Etudes Iraniennes i. p. 58. note 3.); before this the chief minister was simply clerk (kàtib) or adviser (mushir) and was simply one of the Khalif's attendants who was employed to conduct correspondence, or to give advice when occasion required. In 135 the noble Persian family of Barmecides began to supply wazirs, and these controlled the policy of the Khalifate until 189. From the time of al-Mansur (A.H. 136-158) onwards the Persians began to assert their pre-eminence and a party was formed known as the Shuubiyya or "anti-Arab party" of those who held, not only that the alien converts were equal to the Arabs, but that the Arabs were a half savage and inferior race in all respects, contrasting unfavourably with the Persians, Syrians, and Copts. This party produced considerable mass of controversial literature in which free course was given to the general dislike felt towards the Arabs and which reveals the intensity of the contempt and hatred felt towards these parvenus. The Arabs had boasted of their racial descent and had devoted much attention to the keeping of their genealogies, at least in the century immediately preceding the rise of Islam; as they had then only just commenced to count descent in the father's line these genealogies were purely fictitious in so far as they dealt with pre-Islamic
ancestors. The Arabs were in fact a parvenu people only just emerging out of barbarism (cf. Lammens: Le berceau de lislam. p. 117). But the Persians, no less careful about genealogical records, to which their caste system had caused them to pay considerable attention, boasted authentic genealogies of much greater antiquity. In literature, in science, in Muslim canon law, in theology, and even in the scientific treatment of Arabic grammar, the Persians very rapidly surpassed the Arabs, so that we must be careful always to refer to Arabic philosophy, Arabic science, etc., in the history of Muslim culture, rather than to Arab philosophy, etc., remembering that, though expressed in the Arabic language, the common medium of all the Muslim world, only in a very few cases was it the work of Arabs: for the most part the Arabic philosophers and scientists, historians, grammarians, theologians, and jurists were Persians, Turks, or Berbers by birth, though using the Arabic language. The fall of the Umayyads and the replacing of the Arabs by the Persians commences the golden age of Arabic literature and scholarship. The older Arabic literature, that namely which was written by Arabs as yet untouched by external influences, consists entirely of poetry, the work of professional bards who sing of desert life and warfare, lament over the deserted camping grounds, boast of their tribe, and abuse their enemies. It forms a distinct class of poetic composition, which has developed its own literary standards, and attained a high standard of
excellence in its way. In many respects this older Arab poetry makes a special appeal to us, it shows an observation of nature which is very striking, it has an undercurrent of melancholy which seems an echo of the desert, and an emotional side which seems convincing in its reality. At the same time it has very distinct limitations in its range of interest and subject matter. Undoubtedly a careful study of this early Arab poetry is a necessary preparation for a proper appreciation of the literary forms of Arabic and of its oldest vocabulary and syntax, and of recent years much attention has been given to it. But this older Arabic poetry, apparently a native production, but possibly influenced in pre-Islamic times by some external contacts as yet undefined, comes to an end soon after the fall of the Umayyads, save in Spain, where, under the exiled and fugitive remnant of the Umayyad dynasty, the production of such poetry survived. But this type of poetry is really outside our present enquiry, save to note that it was a Persian scholar, Hammad b. Sabur ar-Rawiya (d. circ. 156-159) who collected and edited the seven ancient Arabic poems known as the Muallaqat or "suspended," i.e., the catena or series, and thus set what may be called the classical standard of the ancient poetry and vocabulary. At the accession of the Abbasids the old Arab type passes away and the intellectual guidance of the Muslim community passes into the hands of the Persians.