Islamic History: The Abbasid Movement and the Twelver Shi'i Response
Throughout Islamic history, groups have used religious ideas for various purposes. Some have used religion to take power, and some have used it to survive under opposing, often hostile, political structures. One group that famously used religious ideas as the basis for a vast political revolution was the Abbasid Caliphate. They appealed to marginalized communities within the Umayyad territory and used religious ideas about political legitimacy to overthrow the “illegitimate” political order. However, once they gained power, the Abbasids reneged on their propaganda intended to gain the sympathies of Shi’is in the region. These Shi’is, instead of revolting against the new political order, used religious ideas to help their followers adapt to and survive in the Abbasid state.
The Abbasid movement began long before the revolution. The Umayyad Caliphate had ruled for several decades, earning a reputation as a corrupt institution that did not live up to the Islamic principles developed since the revelations of Muhammad. Grievances against the Umayyads' rule were based in religious, ethnic, and economic reasons. Support for the institution of the caliphate was widespread, but support for the Umayyads was waning. Questions of legitimacy were raised among many segments of the population, including the Kharijites. Many Muslims wanted a member of the Prophet’s family, or the People of the House, to rule the Muslim Ummah.
Aside from questions of religious legitimacy, economic issues led to grievances against the ruling class. Arab supremacy was a key feature of the Umayyad Caliphate, but inter-Arab tribalism also played a role in social divisions. The Arabs were largely divided between Northern and Southern Arabs, or Qays and Yaman, respectively. Theories about who supported the Abbasid Revolution say that Yamani Arabs played a large part in the uprising. Most likely, the Yamani Arabs in Iran, and the disaffected Persians in the area, were the primary supporters of the initial rebellion started by the Abbasid agent, Abu Muslim, in Khorasan. Seemingly the most distinct feature of the Abbasids, in contrast with the Umayyads, was that they aimed to create an Islamic empire rather than an Arab one. Using religious ideas, like the Prophet’s family’s right to rule, they were able to appeal to various groups without saying exactly who would take up the mantle.
The Shi’is believed in the institution of the caliph, but they believed that the caliph had to be a member of the Prophet's family. More specifically, they believed that the right to rule the Muslims belonged to the descendants of Ali. The Abbasid movement exploited this belief, claiming that Ali's grandson had designated the right to rule to a descendant of Abbas, the uncle of both Muhammad and Ali and a member of the Hashemite family. Abbasid propaganda after their rise to rule included a so-called prophecy, supposedly predicting the Abbasid Revolution, but in reality it was written after the events. It described the conditions under which the Muslims lived with the Umayyad rulers, and it laid out in detail how the righteous revolutionaries were to seize power. Most importantly, it described the Abbasids’ claims to legitimacy through familial ties to Muhammad and Ali.
The Shi’i Imams of the Abbasid Caliphate were a relatively quiet group. They avoided persecution from the Sunni-leaning government by avoiding proclamations that would anger the ruling class. The Imams’ attempts to placate the Abbasids were met with scepticism, and the caliph al-Mutawakkil eventually ordered the Tenth Imam to live at his capital in Samarra. His removal from the larger Shi’i community made communication more difficult, but there was a group of agents still able to act on his behalf.
It was much later during the Abbasids' rule, long after their betrayal, that the Shi’i community experienced a calamitous event. Hasan al-Askari, the Eleventh Imam, died in 874 while his son and heir was still an infant. The Imam was taken into hiding, while deputies ruled the community on his behalf. This is known as the Lesser Occultation, as the community could still communicate with the Imam through his deputies. However, the deputies increasingly instructed followers to consult jurists rather than themselves. Finally, when the last deputy died, the Greater Occultation began. The Lesser and Greater Occultations of the Twelfth Imam were a fundamental shift in Twelver Shi’i religious ideas.
Without the presence of an Imam, the Twelver community of the Abbasid Caliphate had to develop their theology without an all-knowing Imam to ask. Whereas the Shi’is before could ask the Imam for a ruling on any given subject, they now had to rely on rationalism and development of their religious laws without the innate knowledge of the Imam. Beliefs about the Twelfth Imam developed, with followers coming to refer to him both as the Qa’im and the Mahdi.
The Twelver Imami Shi’is during the Abbasid Caliphate kept a relatively low profile. During the time of the Imams, the religious leaders intentionally avoided provocation of the political elites, even when Shi’i followers would have preferred a more confrontational approach. The leadership’s agreeable positions worked to placate the political elite, who were suspicious of the Imamis. However, one important way that Shi’is were able to survive under hostile political conditions, during and after the time of the Imams, was the principle of taqiya. This allowed Shi’i followers to hide their beliefs in the event of imminent harm. Instead of being forced into martyrdom, Shi’is had a range of options to defend the survival of their faith. Although not exclusively a Shi’i practice, taqiya helped Imami followers to adapt to hostile conditions.
The uses of religious ideas for political purposes are many. The Abbasids’ exploitation of religious ideas regarding political legitimacy formed the basis for their revolution, along with the social and economic issues of the time. Moreover, the Shi’i uses of religious ideas and authority served to retain a substantial Twelver community despite political pressures from the Abbasid Caliphate. In these cases, religious discourses were used in the service of political action as well as survival within a hostile political environment.