Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Community Divided: A Textual Analysis of the Murders of Idris B. 'Abd Allah (D. 175/791)

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Community Divided: A Textual Analysis of the Murders of Idris B. 'Abd Allah (D. 175/791)

Article excerpt

In 175/791, Idris (I) b. 'Abd Allah b. al-Hasan b. al-Hasan b. 'Ali b. Abi Talib, the eponymous founder of the Idrisid dynasty in North Africa, was killed by an unknown assailant. Disagreement regarding the details of the murder emerged in the form of two fundamentally different narratives. In the first, Idris I was poisoned by tainted tooth powder administered by an 'Abbasid client (al-Shammakh), who was rewarded with a political appointment in Egypt. In the second, he was poisoned (in a number of possible ways) by a traitorous Zaydi theologian, who was injured in his subsequent flight to safety. The first of these narratives occurs in the earliest extant historical works and persists into the Mamluk period in the non-Zaydi (and largely Sunni) historiographical tradition. The second originates almost exclusively in Zaydi historical works from the fourth/tenth century, but exerts a clear influence on a number of important late sources. This study examines both these versions with an eye towards better understanding (a) the polemical motivations that helped shape each narrative and (b) the techniques utilized by late premodern Muslim historians to reconcile contradictory source material.

A. HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The Muslim historiographical tradition depicts Idris I as a prominent participant in the failed Zaydi revolt of Sahib Fakhkh al-Husayn b. 'Ali (his nephew), which erupted in Medina in 169/786. (1) The uprising was a result of tensions stemming from the concurrent deaths of the 'Abbasid caliph, al-Mahdi, and the consensus head of the nascent Zaydi community, 'Isa b. Zayd. (2) The new caliph, al-Hadi, assumed a hostile and antagonistic stance towards the 'Alids, ordering al-Husayn b. 'Ali and other prominent (and potentially dangerous) Hasanids and Husaynids residing in Iraq to return to Medina, where they were kept under the watchful eye of the new governor of the Hijaz, 'Abd al-'Aziz b. 'Abd Allah al-'Umari. (3) The historical sources attribute the revolt to a series of repressive measures, particularly the imposition of a daily roll call. If an 'Alid failed to appear when his name was called, his relatives were held accountable and threatened with physical and fiscal sanctions. (4) One day, the absence of an 'Alid precipitated a harsh exchange between al-'Umari and al-Husayn b. 'Ali in which the former threatened the latter with physical violence. (5) The 'Alids (and Talibids) in Medina were enraged at the governor and convened an emergency meeting in June 169/786 during which they offered al-Husayn b. 'Ali the oath of allegiance and decided (in a rather thoughtless manner) to revolt the next day. (6)

When the following morning al-Husayn b. 'Ali appealed to the local Medinan population for support against the 'Abbasids, he found them wholly unenthusiastic. In fact, most quickly left the mosque and returned to their homes to await the 'Abbasid military response. (7) Perhaps if the 'Alids had waited a month until the end of the Hajj and had declared their intentions in Mecca, they would have posed a more serious threat to 'Abbasid power. (8) In Medina, however, al-Husayn b. 'Ali was isolated with a limited support base--no more than 300 men--drawn primarily from his own family. (9) His only viable option was to head to Mecca where pilgrims, unaware of the events in Medina, might be mobilized for rebellion. When the 'Abbasids learned of the uprising in Medina, however, they were able to raise a patch-work army and intercept the 'Alids at Fakhkh, six miles outside of Mecca. (10) The subsequent battle claimed the lives of al-Husayn b. 'Ali and over one hundred of his 'Alid supporters. Most of the survivors, including Idris I and his older brother Yahya, fled to Mecca where they escaped by dispersing among the large crowds of pilgrims. (11) Idris I eventually reached the Maghrib and Ifriqiya where he settled in the town of Walila near present-day Fas and began proselytizing among the Berber tribes of the area. …

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