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4 Sep

The Qarmati sect was a sect of Shi’ite Islam named after its founder, Hamdan Qarmat.

Qarmat was a carter from the village of Quss Bahram, which no longer exists, but which may have been located near the ruins of ancient Babylon. Sometime between 873-878 CE he was converted to Ismailism, a branch of Shi’ite Islam founded by a certain Abdallah the Elder a few years earlier.


Abdallah the Elder is himself an interesting character: little is known about his background, but all known biographies seem to believe that his family were either Bardesanites or Manicheans. Some sources also say that he was descended from the Arab tribe of Bahila, which was active during the Ridda Wars (Wars of Apostasy) against Islam.

Abdallah the Elder preached the coming of the Mahdi, and initially Qarmat and his brother-in-law Abdan did likewise. But by 899, after Abdallah and various descendants had succeeded each other at the head of the Ismaili movement, Qarmat grew suspicious. Matters came to a head when the leader of the movement (Abdallah the Elder’s great-grandson)declared himself Mahdi: at that point Qarmat and Abdan, as well as most of their followers in Iraq, lost all confidence in him. Abdan was murdered by followers onf the Mahdi who broke into his house one night, while Qarmat simply disappeared from the scene entirely: he is not mentioned in any source after 899. No one knows what happened to him, but his followers remained active. One group of Qarmatis seized Bahrain (which extended beyond the modern-day island of that name) and founded a short-lived millenarian state there. The self-proclaimed Mahdi, meanwhile, fled to Egypt with a group of followers: there he would found the Fatimid caliphate in the year 909 CE,  which would survive until the year 1171 CE.

The leader of the Qarmatis in Bahrain, one Abu Said al-Jannabi, had meanwhile proclaimed the coming of the Mahdi for the year 300 AH (i.e. of the Muslim calendar.) This would have been equivalent to the year 912 or 913 CE, but that date passed without the Mahdi appearing. This may have been the reason for al-Jannabi and some of his principal lieutenants being murdered. He was eventually replaced by one of his sons, Abu Tahir, who instituted a reign of terror,plundering cities and robbing pilgrim caravans. In 930, Abu Tahir seized the city of Mecca during the annual pilgrimage and massacred countless pilgrims, dessecrating the Ka’ba and carrying off the Black Stone to Bahrain, where it was broken in two and used as the steps to a privy. He then proclaimed a Persian slave as the Mahdi.

This Mahdi (who seems to have been named Abu l-Fadl) assumed power and instituted a reign of terror of his own. According to a reliable account, he ‘prescribed pederasty and incest with their own sisters for them, and he ordered that all beardless youths who refused should be put to death. But Abu Tahir and the people used to circle around him, completely naked, shouting: Our God, he is mighty and exalted!’

We should note the similarity between these accusations and the ones made against the gnostic sects (which influenced early Ismailism.)

But Abu Tahir eventually turned against the Mahdi Abu l-Fadl, for reasons that are unclear, and  had him killed. He himself died of smallpox in 944, whereupon his surviving brothers felt it expedient to surrender the Black Stone to the Abbasid caliph. In 952, it was finally returned to its place in the Ka’ba. The Qarmatis’ power dwindled thereafter, and the last reliable mention of them dates from 1050.

Further reading: The Empire of the Mahdi, by Heinz Halm, E.J.Brill, 1996