The Caliph and the Heretic: Ibn Sabaʾ and the Origins of Shīʿism

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 The Caliph And The Heretic
  • Book Author:
Sean Anthony
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INTRODUCTION – The Caliph and the Heretic

This is a study of the sect known as the Sabaʾīya, a sect traditionally classified by early and medieval Muslim heresiographers, regardless of sectarian loyalties, as the original manifestation of so-called extremist Shīʿism (al-shīʿa al-ghāliya) and even the very fount of Shīʿite belief itself.

 This study is equally concerned with the legends surrounding the sect’s infamous, founding personality, most widely known as ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ, or simply “Ibn Sabaʾ ”. At first glance, this sect and its eponymous founder may seem to belong to only the most obscure and arcane corners of Islamic history and, therefore, to be of purely antiquarian interest.

 As fate would have it, however, the Sabaʾīya and Ibn Sabaʾ stand at the heart of a host of the most salient and intractable problems of early Islamic historiography. This is in part because Ibn Sabaʾ is a fixture of Islam’s earliest years—the era that is, not without some irony, referred to simultaneously as the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (al-khulafāʾ al-rāshidūn) and the era the First Civil War (al-fitna al-kubrā). Inextricably linked to this formative period, Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya remain deeply entangled within the web of the his-toriographical enigmas associated with writing the history of Islamic origins.

 Yet, the historical importance of the sect and its founder also arises from the fact that recurrent interest in Ibn Sabaʾ and his sect among Muslim religious scholars—whether in works of theology, her-esiography, or history—thrived for centuries. This ensured the sect’s continued relevance for a wide spectrum of religious concerns and anxieties salient not only to the earliest articulations of Muslim iden-tity but also the more mature developments thereof.

 As a result, Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya have remained permanent fixtures within the Muslim debates over sectarianism and dogmatic purity, particularly as they unfolded and evolved amidst the religio-political upheavals and socio-historical transformations of the first four centuries after the hijra.

As with most historical persons and phenomena dating from the earliest years of the Islamic religion, there exists no indisputably con-temporary witness to Ibn Sabaʾ and his activities. By contrast, from the 2nd/8th century onwards the quantity of portrayals depicting the life and events of Ibn Sabaʾ multiply to quite a considerable number.

 More anecdotal than biographical, these accounts also contradict each other a great deal and, as a result, pose manifold historical puzzles that are not easily resolved. Hence, to hazard an early, preparatory summary of who Ibn Sabaʾ was and what the Sabaʾīya believed risks arbitrarily prejudicing one account over a myriad, rival accounts.

Indeed, a pre-mature, prejudicial favoritism for one source or tradition over others continues to blight modern treatments of Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya today. In order to avoid repeating past errors, we shall begin, there-fore, with a broader question: Why are there so many accounts of Ibn Sabaʾ, and why is he so important to early Islamic historiography and heresiography?

In the view of many early and medieval Muslim scholars, Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya stand at the nexus of the earliest incarnations of Islamic sectarianism. As such, Ibn Sabaʾ almost invariably appears as the nemesis of either one or two of the early community’s caliphs and as instigating some form of reprehensible or refractory innovation against them.

(This caliph is usually the fourth of those whom the Sunnīs revere as ‘rightly-guided’ caliphs—i.e. the Prophet’s son-in-law, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib—but his predecessor, ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, features grandly in one of the more well-known accounts, too. Lesser known accounts even place in conflicts with the Umayyad dynast Marwān ibn al-Ḥ akam or the Shīʿī imāms ʿAlī Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn and Muḥammad al-Bāqir.) For those medieval scholars of a non-Shīʿī disposition (often Sunnīs or Muʿtazila, but not necessarily so), Ibn Sabaʾ represents the very fount of ʿAlid and Shīʿī sectarianism and, thus, the leader of the party responsible for first despoiling the original, pristine unity (Ar., al-jamāʿa) of the primitive Muslim community. In anti-Shīʿite polemic, he is reviled as the first to regard ʿAlī as the sole successor to and inheri-tor of Muḥammad’s prophetic legacy (i.e., his waṣī); the first to curse ʿAlī’s three caliphal predecessors, Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, and ʿUthmān as usurpers; and the first to claim that ʿAlī possessed a unique, even eso-teric, knowledge of the Qurʾān.

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For Imāmī-Shīʿī scholars, however, he is not a founding figure but rather the quintessential ‘extremist’ heretic (ghālī; pl. ghulāt).1 Summarily denouncing Ibn Sabaʾ as a depraved corrupter of the early Shīʿī creed, Shīʿī theologians thus vitiate him as a veritable icon of ghulūw (a term in the Shīʿite context that usually denotes Ibn Sabaʾ’s excessive veneration for ʿAlī as immortal or divine) and as the progenitor of all the ghulāt-sects.

Ibn Sabaʾ is, for this reason, nearly universally reviled as a noxious religiopath. He subsequently becomes a historiographical obsession because he stands at the pathological locus of Islam’s earliest sectarian moment. He is not merely Islam’s first heretic, but also (in a more literary sense) its most nefarious—its arch-heretic.

This work is necessarily, therefore, also a study about the origins of Shīʿism and the historiography thereof. While the present study makes no claims to having achieved a comprehensive account of early Shīʿism—of delineating and distilling the early Shīʿī Gestalt as it were—many of the fundamental issues at stake for early Shīʿism are necessarily on the table when discussing Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya. Although formidable, this aspect of our study is also unavoidable inas-much as Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya pertain so vividly in both modern and medieval literature to the origins of the religious reverence for Muḥammad’s household (ahl al-bayt), his clan (the Banū Hāshim), and the person and descendents of his son-in-law ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib.

Still, the persona of Ibn Sabaʾ is a perplexing phenomenon for the historiography of early Shīʿism, for he embodies many of the contra-dictions and tensions characterizing Shīʿism during the first three cen-turies of its development. One could also say that he serves as a type of synecdoche for the enigmas posed by early Shīʿism to any modern histo-rian.

Ibn Sabaʾ, most accounts claim, was a Jewish convert to Islam; his reverence for Muḥammad’s son-in-law ʿAlī was allegedly derived from his attempt to conceptualize ʿAlī’s role vis -à-vis Muḥammad within a framework adopted from biblical and Judaic paradigms concerning the succession of Joshua to Moses. This innovation of Ibn Sabaʾ—if it indeed was his innovation—was and still is conventionally regarded by Muslims hostile to Shīʿism as a Judaizing contagion threatening to undermine autochthonous, Islamic conceptions of legitimate leader-ship.

Many traditions assert as well that Ibn Sabaʾ denied ʿAlī’s death and professed that he would return to usher in a chiliastic utopia. Such traditions raise profound questions concerning the apocalyptic roots of early Shīʿī reverence for the Prophet’s clan (the Banū Hāshim) as well as ʿAlī and his descendents—not to mention the palpable Jewish influ-ences on Shīʿī eschatology. Other medieval Muslim scholars further claim that Ibn Sabaʾ regarded ʿAlī not only as imām but also as God-incarnate, raising profound questions as to the place of esotericism and the belief in the supra-human powers and identity of the imāms in early Shīʿī thought.

Hence, although Ibn Sabaʾ is a figure often pushed to the margins,2 the controversies surrounding him stand at the center of the most important developments of early Shīʿī beliefs.

Numerous Orientalists and Islamicists have already undertaken several studies of considerable consequence for any investigation into Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya. All of these studies serve as a reminder of the salience of the topic in the study of Islamic origins. Among these scholars, one can mention such pioneers and luminaries of the field as Julius Wellhausen,3 Israel Friedländer,4 Leone Caetani,5 Heinz Halm,6 and Josef van Ess.7 Obviously, one may wonder whether there remains any more to be said on the issue given the pedigree of previous stud-ies, but in fact much more does remain to be said, as I hope to dem-onstrate. This is mostly due to the fact that the above scholars rarely treated the sect and its founder as a topic of study on its own terms, being contented to discuss the aspects or features of the sect’s beliefs and founder (and/or the historical traditions about them) only inso-far as they relate to other interests. Not surprisingly, then, one would search in vain to locate an occidental monograph on Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya. Although a concentrated, focused effort to analyze all the materials relevant to Ibn Sabaʾ has indeed been attempted in Western scholarship, this was done only once—by Israel Friedländer—and that was over a century ago.

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 The considerable time that has passed since Friedländer’s admirable attempt has brought with it the discovery, publication, and wider accessibility of numerous sources unavailable to him. These sources (not to mention the studies they inspired) have since transformed the study of early Islam profoundly and, moreover, bear within them the possibility of shedding considerable new light upon the origins, development, and spread of the accounts of ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ, the Sabaʾīya, and their religious beliefs and practices in ways hitherto unrealized or unappreciated.

This study has been structured with the express purpose of elu-cidating the portrayals of Ibn Sabaʾ and, subsequently, the Sabaʾīya that remain enshrined within medieval Islamic literary sources. These sources are diverse, encompassing historical annals, prosopographi-cal compendia, compilations of belle-lettres, and treatises of theo-logical and heresiological dispositions.

The considerable demands that these diverse genres exact from the historian require flexibility in both approach and methodology. As a result, the reader of this study will find that, although essentially united in its topical aim, the vari-ous chapters of the present work often assume considerably different approaches depending on the materials given the most preeminent place in any given chapter.

My approach to the body of materials I shall hereafter refer to as ‘the Ibn Sabaʾ tradition’ divides into three main parts. Part I of this study marks our first foray into the tradition and begins with the most well-known and most influential (in modern times at least) portrayal of Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya: that of the 2nd/9th century Kūfan his-torian/akhbārī Sayf ibn ʿUmar al-Tamīmī.

 Chapter 1 sets the ground work by reviewing the place of Sayf b. ʿUmar in scholarly debates over early Muslim historiography, and chapters 1 and 2 explores Sayf’s uti-lization of Ibn Sabaʾ and his Sabaʾīya in his narrative of the caliphate of ʿUthmān and the events leading up to and culminating in the Battle of the Camel.

Sayf’s version of Ibn Sabaʾ enjoys an exceedingly prominent, and even notorious, place in the modern iterations of the Ibn Sabaʾ tale—a prominence and notoriety matched perhaps only by Sayf’s own place in the debates over the modern historiography of Islamic origins, more generally speaking. For this reason, I have accorded to his account the honor of first place in my study. This is despite the fact that the ‘Say-fian’ account of Ibn Sabaʾ, though extensive, is in reality quite idiosyn-cratic and often uncannily at odds with the broader Ibn Sabaʾ tradition as it came to coalesce over the centuries.

Yet, the importance of Ibn Sabaʾ and Sabaʾīya for comprehending Sayf’s historical corpus is para-mount. Not only did Sayf’s obsession with Ibn Sabaʾ as the heretical provocateur of the early Islamic caliphate produce a substantial body of narratives about the heresiarch and his acolytes, their story within his narrative is, in fact, conterminous with the religious and ideological outlook characteristic of the broad strokes of his narratives of the first Muslim civil war, or fitna.

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His work is also exceptionally early, and given the recent discovery of an incomplete manuscript of his his-torical writings, it is also of revitalized importance insofar as his work was previously known only through the redactions of later authors. Thus, despite the tendentiousness of the Sayfian materials on Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya, they provide an indispensible testimony to the earli-est strata of the Ibn Sabaʾ tradition as a whole.

Even though the Sayfian depiction of Ibn Sabaʾ and the Sabaʾīya is fundamental to understanding the evolutionary trajectory of the over-all tradition, a Sayfian baptism into the Ibn Sabaʾ lore by no means comes close to exhausting the ocean of extant Ibn Sabaʾ materials. Sayf’s materials, rather, represent one exceptional moment in this tra-dition’s evolution.

To fully appreciate the significance of the Ibn Sabaʾ tradition and the light it sheds on Shīʿism, particularly as it evolved from the 2nd/7th through 3rd/8th centuries, one requires a more com-prehensive view that does not merely concentrate on a single author’s corpus. Hence, after addressing the unique problems posed by Sayf’s corpus, Part II of this study sets aside the Sayfian corpus in order to examine the origins and evolution of the medieval Muslim heresiog-raphers’ and theologians’ diverse portrayals of Ibn Sabaʾ.

With this in mind, Chapters 4 through 6 broaden the focus consid-erably and examine the persona of Ibn Sabaʾ through the panoramic perspective of the evolution of a corpus of legends and tropes that form the structural features of the ‘Ibn Sabaʾ tradition’.

In so doing, however, this section of the study focuses nearly exclusively on the persona of the heresiarch himself and the archetypal, narrative tropes that eventually gave rise to the portrayal of Ibn Sabaʾ as the founder of Shīʿism or, alternatively, of the Shīʿī ghulāt. These chapters have at their heart a twofold aim: 1) to map out the principal features of the Ibn Sabaʾ tradition and 2) to establish a chronology of the tradi-tion’s evolution as well as the origins of its earliest components. Our approach in these chapters, therefore, is both source- and tradition-critical.

Chapter 6 in particular concludes with an attempt to evaluate the historicity of the earliest extant materials on Ibn Sabaʾ and their significance for illuminating our understanding of early Shīʿism in light of the conclusions our analysis of the Ibn Sabaʾ lore.

Part III marks our final shift in methodological focus, turning away from source- and tradition-critical analyses towards a focused reconstruction of the history of the Sabaʾīya in the Umayyad period. Thus, chapter 7 takes up the issue of the Sabaʾīya as a sectarian move-ment removed from the considerable shadow cast by its eponymous founder.

Gathering together a diverse corpus of materials attesting to the existence of groups and/or individuals known collectively as the Sabaʾīya, this chapter attempts to evaluate the historicity of the Sabaʾīya as they appear in the pages of early Muslim annals at various moments throughout the history of the Sufyānid era of the Umayyad caliph-ate and, subsequently, the Second Civil War (ca. 40–72/661–691).

Our final aim, therefore, is to determine the identity of the Sabaʾīya, what ultimately comprised their earliest beliefs, and (inasmuch as it is possible) to surmise the ultimate fate of the sect and its influence on Shīʿism in the wake of the resurgence of Umayyad caliphate under the Marwānid dynasty after the Second Civil War.

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