Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Bakhamra (763)

The various Shiʿa movements that have sprung up over the centuries trace their origins, obviously, to Ali b. Abi Talib, the cousin and son in-law of Muhammad. But apart from that common ancestry there have (again, obviously) been a number of disagreements within the Shiʿa community over which line of descent from Ali was legitimate. Take the two biggest extant Shiʿa movements: Twelver Shiʿa have one set of imams, Ismaʿili Shiʿa have a different (though overlapping for the first six) set. Both, however, trace their line back to Ali through his second son (by Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah), Husayn. There’s a whole other branch of Ali’s descendants via Husayn’s older brother, Hasan, who we don’t talk about as much, but they’ve also produced a number of Shiʿa imams (particularly within Zaydi Shiʿism, still popular in Yemen, which allows that either a Husaynid or a Hasanid descendant can be imam), as well as a few prominent Sunni families (the Alaouite Dynasty of Morocco and the Hashemite Dynasty of Jordan both claim descent from Muhammad via Ali via Hasan). There are actually different titles for descendants of Ali (who are often well-regarded even by most Sunnis because they descend from Muhammad) via Hasan (they’re called sharif) and via Husayn (sayyid).

There’s no sugar coating the fact that the Husaynids get the majority of historical attention unless you’ve got some really specialized interests–although it should be said that the fourth Twelver/Ismaʿili imam, Zayn al-Abidin, married a Hasanid cousin, so from the fifth imam (Muhammad al-Baqir) on the Husaynid imams actually descend from both Husayn and Hasan. As noted above, the two largest currently active Shiʿa branches are both Husaynid. Historically, (apart from the Zaydi Idrisid Dynasty of 9th-10th century Morocco) the most significant Shiʿa dynasties–the Fatimids, the Safavids, the Qarmatians, the Qajars–have followed Husaynid imams. Husayn, not Hasan, was the one who died at Karbala in the single most formative event in the historical development of Shiʿism. However, the Hasanids had their moments of rebellion, like their revolt in September 762, which was ultimately squashed by the Abbasids at the Battle of Bakhamra on January 21, 763. This is sometimes considered to have been a “Zaydi revolt,” since the Zaydis claim its leader as one of their imams, but this seems to me to be a case of writing something into the record after the fact. I doubt that the rebels as a whole considered themselves Zaydi, although there were undoubtedly Zaydis among them.

The central figure in the 762 revolt was Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyah (“Muhammad the Pure Soul,” and from this point on in this post when I refer to “Muhammad” it’s to him), a great-grandson of Hasan whose uprising was one of the first consequential attempts by the early Shiʿa to push back against the Abbasids. The Abbasids, if you recall, had come to power in large part by skillfully playing upon the contempt in which the more religious members of the community–scholars, for example, but also the early Shiʿa–had held the previous Umayyad dynasty. Once on the throne, the Abbasid caliphs–initially al-Saffah (d. 754) but by this time his brother and successor al-Mansur (d. 775)–cleverly set about dismantling the coalition that had put them in power, lest it eventually turn on them. They made some reforms, and appointed key scholars to important jobs to bring them into the Abbasid tent, but they weren’t about to dismantle the absolutist qualities of the empire to satisfy the most extreme reformers (and certainly they weren’t about to appease the early Shiʿa, who wanted to see Ali’s descendants on the throne, not these Abbasid dudes). So some rebellions were inevitable, and the Abbasids seem to have realized this and prepared for it.

Not much is known about Muhammad, although he seems to have built up a devoted following in Medina (his epithet certainly suggests that people thought highly of him). He and his younger brother, Ibrahim, are said to have gone incognito after the Abbasid takeover, traveling around the empire to stir up resistance to the new dynasty. In response, al-Mansur began arresting their relatives and tossing them in prison in Baghdad, where many died. Knowing that Kufa was the historic center of Alid resistance to the caliphs, al-Mansur made certain to keep tight control over that city–as a result, Muhammad and Ibrahim decided to begin their revolt simultaneously in Medina, where Muhammad was popular, and in Basra, a city with some Alid sympathies and from where Ibrahim could be in position to take Kufa fairly quickly.

Once they split up, however, things started to go wrong. Muhammad declared his revolt in Medina in late September, well before Ibrahim was ready to do the same in Basra, and while he gained control of Medina pretty easily, that didn’t really mean all that much. Despite the fact that it had been the Prophet Muhammad’s capital and was still the caliphate’s regional capital in the Hijaz, Medina had long since stopped being of anything but symbolic importance from a military perspective. The city was too dependent on external supplies, which the Abbasids naturally cut off, to serve as the base of a rebellion, and its defenses were negligible. Al-Mansur sent a small army to retake the city, which Muhammad tried to defend by relying on the same trench system that the Prophet Muhammad had used back in 627. It seems that almost nobody thought this could possibly work, so they began to desert Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyah in large numbers. And they were right; when the Abbasids arrived, on December 6 762, they laid boards over the trenches, entered the city, and slaughtered Muhammad and most of his remaining followers.

Ibrahim finally declared his revolt in Basra in late November, just before his brother was killed. He had some initial success, but this was partly because al-Mansur opted to bide his time, and strengthen his forces in Kufa, as well as to allow time to bring the force he’d sent to Medina north into Iraq. In January, a group of followers from Kufa convinced Ibrahim to march on that city before he was ready, and Ibrahim compounded the problem with his own indecision, choosing mid-march to stop and turn back toward Basra. His army camped for the night at Bakhamra, on the road between Kufa and Basra, where it was met and wiped out by the Abbasid army on January 21, 763. Ibrahim escaped but was badly wounded; he died in mid-February, officially ending the rebellion.

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