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Abu Tahir Al-Jannabi, The Muslim Who Sacked Mecca

January 25, 2021

Abu Tahir Al-Jannabi, The Muslim Who Sacked Mecca
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Abu Tahir was the leader of a mystical offshoot of mainstream Islam known as 'The Qarmatians'.

He created a kind of 'proto-communist' enclave on the Arabian peninsula, and successfully defended it from the Abbasid Caliphate.

But soon his hatred of Orthodox Islam would drive him to do something that would cement his place in Islamic history as one of the most despised men to ever have existed.


 

Further Reading and Sources:

Ismaili History (website)

The Arabs in History by Bernard Lewis

the origins of ismailism 1940 by Bernard Lewis 

The Ismailis, Their history and their doctrines by Farhad Daftart

Mecca: A Literary History of the Muslim Holy Land by FE Peters

 

Attributions:

The Ice Giants by Kevin MacLeod
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Transcript

It's. 930 Ad. The sacred city of the prophet Muhammad lies in ruin, and the smell of charred ash and burnt flesh wafts through the Arabian desert. The sacred well where the descendants of Abraham once drank is clogged with the rotting corpses of men, women, and children. 

 

But most concerning of all, the holy Kaaba, the structure all Muslims prey towards, has been reduced to a smoldering ruin. And the most precious relic of Islam, the black stone, is missing. But this was not done by any crusader army. No Mongol horde had bought this destruction. No, this butchery was conducted by a follower of the faith, a fellow brother. This is the story of abu Tahir al Janabi, the Muslim who sacked Mecca. 

 

The 10th century had been a rough time for the great Islamic empire known as the Abbasid caliphate. In its heyday, its borders stretched from Algeria to Afghanistan. But as with so many empires that expand rapidly, the government struggled to keep such a broad group of people united. But how did we get here? 

 

The first Islamic empire, or caliphate, was founded after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632AD, known as the Rashidun caliphate. Not long after came the Umayyad caliphate, which was to remain the largest Islamic empire ever. And after the Umayyads came the Abbasid caliphate. After a revolution, the early Abbasid rulers stabilized the humongous empire. Arts, philosophy, and science flourished in what some call the golden age of Islam. But as you know, what goes up must come down. 

 

In the 9th century, as Caliphs tried to stomp out revolts, they began to rely more and more enslaved soldiers and mercenaries whose loyalty was to whoever paid the most. More and more breakaway states, aka emirates, sprang up, with the government too weak to stop them without outsid. 

 

And it was into this fragmented world that we begin our story. The Qarmatians were basically a breakaway sect of a breakaway sect. They were centered around the far eastern part of Saudi Arabia, near the modern island of Bahrain. The Qarmatian faith was very different from mainstream sunni Islam, followed by the Abbasid caliphate. The core belief was the idea of waiting for the return of a final prophet, or madi. And once he arrived, he would bring with him a new law that would replace Islamic law and bring an end to the world as we know it. According to the Qarmatians, every passage in the Quran had two meanings, one obvious to the reader and the other only comprehensible to the enlightened.

 

As an initiate progressed through the ranks, more of the hidden message was revealed to them. This kind of secretive behavior is likely how the sect managed to survive. Despite abundant efforts to crack down on unorthodox beliefs exactly like this, these mystical teachings gained popularity in a few pockets of the outer Islamic world. But it was around the West Bank of the Persian Gulf where they found the warmest reception (that's modern western Saudi Arabia next to Bahrain). The province was perfectly situated on the outskirts of the Islamic world. Far from the central authority of Baghdad, here, the ideas were eagerly lapped up by angry dirt poor peasants who were unhappy with a distant authority, taxing them and eager for change.

 

 Bernard Lewis, the author of Arabs in History, quotes a poet from this era which I think captures the vibe of the populace quite well: “by God. I shall not pray to God while I am bankrupt. Why should I pray? Where are my wealth, my mansion? And where are my horses, trappings, golden belts? Were I to pray when I do not own an inch of earth, then I would be a hypocrite” Putting religion aside, the Qarmatian teachings came bundled with a flare of, well, what we would call communism. Someone who visited the kingdom in the 10th century remarked that there were no mosques, no taxes, and food was distributed freely.

 

There was no concept of money, and when a transaction did need to take place, a token was provided instead. Personal ownership was also just not a thing. Apart from a sword and some armor, nothing was owned. Although some more nefarious sources state that women were quote unquote shared as well.

But I'll tell you, if you were dirt poor and owned nothing but the clothes on your back, I bet you'd find this lifestyle pretty appealing too! So to summarize, a large empire begins to break apart into autonomous districts, and the communist leaning mystical offshoot of Sunni Islam begins to put down roots in the Persian Gulf. With me? Cool.

 

Finally we can start talking about the man himself, abu Tahir al Janabi, which I will just shorten to Abu Tahir was born in 906AD somewhere in the newly emerging Bahrain state. His father, Abu Sahid al-Jannabi  was the founder of the Emirate, declaring independence from the Abbasids and slowly expanding his territory while fighting off attempts to reintegrate them back into the fold. Abu Tahir was one of seven children. Usually this would rule him out of succeeding his father, but not in this case. Sources differ as to whether his father recognized his talents early on or whether he just knocked off his brothers. Whatever the case, he started his reign when he was about 17 years old. I could find no accounts of what he looked like or much about his personality. For reasons you'll find out soon, everyone seemed to just want to forget he existed as soon as he died

 

Abu Tahir showed both military prowess and religious zeal. Early on, he bought many small Berber tribes under his banner and many even adopted the Qarmatian religion. With a sizable army and his Berber allies, he quickly besieged the wealthy Abbasid city of Basra in southern Iraq. It fell quickly and its inhabitants were slaughtered without mercy. Abu Tahir made his thoughts clear on mainstream Sunni religion completely destroying the Grand Mosque, one of the oldest in the history of Islam.

 

Over in Baghdad, the government was concerned. Generally a mosque would be spared when a city was plundered but this one almost seemed to be targeted. This pattern of hatred against mainstream Islam meant this was not a prince acting out in order to be bribed into submission. It was a zealous heretic who should be, no, needed to be snuffed out. So the Abbasid sent what they could. But it wasn't enough. Abu Tahir and his allies had got comfortable on the Bahrain peninsula and weren't about to be pushed out. The armies were beaten and they trudged home to Baghdad. 

 

Beating the largest Islamic force in the world comes with a bit of prestige. And afterwards the young man set up relations with a few other Islamic emirates, some as far away as North Africa. It seemed his new kingdom was off to a good start. A wealthy, fertile land to farm, a well trained army and a society based on utopian ideals.

 

 But all of this would change and not long after this Abu Tahir would send the kingdom down a path that would leave them isolated and universally hated by the Islamic world. In chapter 22, verse 27 of the Quran it states “Proclaim the Hajj to all people. They will come to you on foot and on every kind of swift mount, emerging from every deep mountain pass”.

 

According to the Quran, it states that the Hajj, or pilgrimage, is a journey that all Muslims must take at least once during their lifetime. The journey commences from anywhere but always ends at the Kaaba, or House of Allah in the center of Mecca, the holy city of the Prophet Muhammad. 

It was seen as a sign of legitimacy for a caliphate to be able to secure the travel route and ensure that all pilgrims arrived safe. The current Caliph of the Abbasids was struggling to do this. And as Abu Tahir grew more bold he pushed further west across the deserts of Arabia with almost any other Islamic nation. Regardless of their disposition towards the Abbasid, murdering the pilgrims along this holy journey would be unthinkable. But the Qarmatians weren't like any other Islamic nation. 

 

Around 925AD Abu Tahir started raiding the stops along the pilgrimage route deep into the Hejaz (the west coast of Saudi Arabia, east of the Red Sea).

 

The Abbasid caliph, overstretched on all of its borders and exhausted from constant internal rebellions, did their best to stop the raids. But they were defeated again and again by Abu Tahir and the Qarmatian army. 

 

The raids were conducted frequently and with impunity. The Qarmatians would sack cities, kill pilgrims, capture prisoners and then wait to be paid to leave. Pilgrimages to Mecca slowed to a trickle, the citizens were rightfully scared for their own safety.
While these raids provided loot for the soldiers they came at a huge diplomatic cost. The world wanted nothing to do with the Qarmatians. But if the Muslim world was shocked by these raids, they were about to be disgusted by what was coming soon.

 

 While internationally the Qarmatians reputation was in the dirt, internally it was quite the opposite. Abu Tahir had kept a steady flow of money coming in from an already profitable region. His Berber allies were happy, his border was safe and the religion was slowly spreading. Not only that, but remember when we talked about the Qarmatian belief in the return of the Mahdi, the final Prophet that would bring the end of the world? Well it turns out all this time he was closer than they thought. Abu Tahir proclaimed a Persian prisoner that they had in custody was actually the final Prophet.

 

Wow, talk about luck! There's not too much known about this guy who became known as  Abul Mahdi.. He claimed Ascendancy from the old Persian kingdom and definitely had some leanings towards the old Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. It's equally unclear how Abu Tahir located or decided that this nondescript man was the Mahdi. What is clear though is how quickly he regretted his decision to elevate him as such.

 

Upon being elevated to the status of well, similar to a god, he proclaimed some very unpopular edicts and made some very unpopular decisions. Fire worship, a pillar of Zoroastrianism was reinstated. Holy books including the Quran were burnt. The direction of prayer was altered so that the pious should no longer face Mecca. And prominent leaders of all royal families were killed indiscriminately, including those of Abu Tahir's. Now fearing for his own life, abu Tahir begged the Council of Elders to reverse his decision to elevate this lunatic. After the Mahdi was unable to bring back someone from the dead, it was widely confirmed that he was not the fabled last prophet the Qarmatians were waiting for and he was quietly murdered.

 

His bizarre reign had lasted eight days. This embarrassing series of events made many Qarmatian followers question the legitimacy of their belief system. And some key defections took place to surrounding kingdoms. In 930 Ad, one of their raids went further than ever before to the heart of Islam itself. To Mecca.

 

Other cities around Mecca had been consistently rated. But to sack Mecca itself, well that was unthinkable no matter the sect one belonged to. It's not 100% clear how Abu Tahir gained entry to Mecca. One source claimed that he requested entry under Islamic law that stated any Muslim was allowed to enter into the city providing that person gave an oath that they entered in peace. However, once he entered him and his army slaughtered all they encountered. According to some sources, as he cut down townsfolk of the sacred city he taunted them with verses of the Quran. The sack was vicious. Mosques and anything associated with mainstream Islam was deliberately targeted. The famous well of Zamzam, which provided Abraham's son Ismail with water in the middle of a barren desert, was filled with corpses. It became so tainted that none could drink from it for generations afterwards. But these were merely distractions. It seemed that the sacred mosque Masjid al-Haram, was their prime target. Abu Tahir and his men rode their horses throughout its grandiose halls, killing, indiscriminately and hacking apart anything that looked valuable. The Kaaba, that's the famous black box shaped hall in the middle of the mosque, was almost completely destroyed also.

 

But they didn't stop there. Most shocking of all, the renowned black stone that had been set in place by Muhammed himself was crudely hacked out and stolen. An Ottoman historian writing much later, said this about the event “Abu Tahir, drunkardly, charged with his sword drawn in his hand and halted before the noble house where his horse dropped dung and urinated. The pilgrims were in the act of circling the sacred house and they were struck down by swords until 1700 of them were killed in that area alone. The well of Zamzam and all other wells and pits of Mecca were filled to overflowing with the remains of the martyrs. Abu Tahir went to the venerated door of the Kabbah and tore it out while he cried “It's me, by God! And by God, it's me! He creates creatures and I exterminate them” Then he shouted at the pilgrims, you asses!  You say that whoever enters here shall be secure! So where is the security when we have done what we have done?”
The sack of Mecca left somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people dead, mostly pilgrims. It would be remembered as one of the most vicious attacks on Islam up to the present day.

If your first question is why? Why a supposed Muslim would do this, that's understandable.


Mecca had been besieged about 60 years earlier, but that was more of a strategic siege. This attack was definitely ideologically motivated. It was an attack on mainstream Islam. While researching, I found some interesting theories, but they are just that. Take them with a grain of salt. It's possible that the Qarmatians considered the veneration of the black stone as idol worship and the pilgrimage to it an accessory to that. While a revisionist theory states that the original holy city was Petra and not Mecca. If Abu Tahir believed this, in his eyes there was nothing sacred about Mecca and any pilgrimages to it were sacrilege.

Another theory states that Abu Tahir was attempting to bring on the appearance of the real Mahdi after he embarrassed himself with the last one. Why he thought sacking Mecca would do this is anyone's guess. Or maybe we're all just overthinking this and he just wanted money and didn't care where he got it from. The definitive reason this took place is unclear, at least to me. The Qarmatians differed hugely from mainstream Islam, but this was an extreme act that shocked the Islamic and Christian world alike. The Fatimid Caliph and the Abbasid Caliph, who were sworn ideological enemies, joined voices in insisting that the stone be returned, But Abu Tahir refused. Instead, he had the stone set up in his capital in eastern Arabia, hoping to redirect the flow of pilgrims into his state. But it didn't work. 

 

The sacking of Mecca cemented the Qarmatians as pariahs of the Islamic world. While their kingdom would prosper for the time being, few nations wanted anything to do with them. Even the Fatimid caliphate, which prior to this could have called the Qarmatian sect their ideological cousin, now went to great lengths to ensure all understood that they were nothing alike.

After the sacking, Abu Tahir continued his yearly raids into Arabia. Even without the black stone, pilgrims still made their way to Mecca to venerate the spot where the stone stood. Much to the annoyance of Abu Tahir. He would die a few years later in 944. It was likely of natural causes, but the same Ottoman historian above says of his death, quote,”"the filthy Abu Tahir was afflicted with a gangrenous sore, his flesh was eaten away by worms, and he died a most terrible death" end quote.

 

Even though these quotes were written much later than the events, it paints a vivid picture of the burning, visceral hatred the Islamic world had for this man even centuries after his death. He would leave his state prosperous, but almost universally despised. Following his death, the command of the state was passed down to Abu Tahir's family. The proto communist state would start to rip itself apart almost immediately as family members schemed and turned on each other. After the new pilgrimage plan failed, they had no use for the blackstone, and it was ransomed back to the Abbasids 23 years later for a huge sum of money. 

 

With all the care you'd expect from these guys. It was wrapped in a rough sack and thrown into a mosque near Baghdad during prayer. In the sack, there was a note saying “by command we took it, and by command we have brought it back”  which is the 10th century equivalent of saying, fine, I didn't even want it anyway. The stone was broken in several pieces and to this day is held together with a silver lining that needs to be tended every few decades. 

 

Over the next few years, the recovering Abbasid state would wrestle back control of the Arabian Peninsula from the Carnations, decisively defeating them in a battle in 976AD. Over time, they lost more and more of their territory and eventually were confined to the small island which we now call Bahrain. 

 

Slowly, over the next millennia or two, the Arabian Peninsula would revert back to mainstream Sunni Islam and the sacking of their holiest city, likely a memory that all inhabitants wish to forget.