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QARMIAH (sg., Qarmaī) is the name applied to a dissident Muslim group that broke away from the parent Ismāʿīlī movement. At first, this name referred to the followers of amdān al-Qarma, an Ismāʿīlī dāʿī (missionary) in the rural district of Kufa, who was given the surname Qarma (meaning either that he was short-legged or red-eyed). Later the term was used in a wider and derogatory sense to include all the Ismāʿīlīyah.


The missionary activities of amdān, who was converted to the Ismāʿīlī cause by the dāʿī Ahwazi, began around 873. He was assisted by his deputy and brother-in-law, ʿAbdān. In 899, because of change in the central leadership of the Ismāʿīlī movement and the doctrinal issue involved in this change, amdān severed his relations with the leadership. Shortly thereafter he disappeared, and ʿAbdān was murdered by his subordinate dāʿī Zikrawayh, who at first showed loyalty to the central leadership. When Zikrawayh was threatened with revenge by ʿAbdān's followers he went into hiding. In 902 Zikrawayh's son succeeded in winning the support of tribes in the Syrian desert and attacked and pillaged several cities in Syria. Two years later he was captured and executed. After several unsuccessful attempts at organizing revolts, Zikrawayh himself came out of hiding in 906 and defeated the Abbasid army, but the following year he was routed and killed, and the Qarmaī revolts in Syria came to an end.

The split of the Ismāʿīlīyah into two factions profoundly affected the loyalty of the various daʿwah (mission) groups to the central leadership. The daʿwah in Syria-Mesopotamia and western Persia refused to recognize the Fatimid claims to the imamate and instead supported the Qarāmiah. The daʿwah in Yemen at first remained loyal to the central leadership, but in 913 ʿAlī ibn al-Fal renounced his allegiance to the Fatimids and began waging war against his companion Manūr al-Yaman, who had remained loyal to them. Because of internal strife the political power of the Qarāmiah disintegrated rapidly. The dāʿī s in Rayy, who were successful in gaining the support of the Daylamis and some rulers of the Musafirid dynasty, maintained their contacts with the Qarāmiah.

QarĀmiah of Bahrein

Abū Saʿid al-Jannābī, the founder of the Qarmaī state in Bahrein (the coastal area of eastern Arabia between Basra and Oman, embracing the oases of al-Qaīf and Hajar/al-asā), who was sent by amdān al-Qarma and ʿAbdān, began his missionary activity in 886/7. Following the murder of ʿAbdān, he sided with the rebels against the central leadership and plotted the murder of the dāʿī amāmī, who had been sent to Bahrein before him by Manūr al-Yaman from Yemen and who had remained loyal to the central leadership. He himself was murdered in 913. In 923, under the leadership of Abū āhir, the son of Abū Saʿīd, the Qarāmiah launched devastating attacks on southern Iraq and raided pilgrim caravans. Then, interpreting the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 928 as a sign indicating the end of the Islamic era and the beginning of the final era, Abū āhir predicted the appearance of the Mahdi (messiah) in the near future. In 927929 he led new attacks on southern Iraq and threatened the Abbasid capital of Baghdad itself. In 930 he attacked the holy city of Mecca during the pilgrimage season, committed slaughter, and carried away the Black Stone of the Kaʿbah, thus demonstrating the end of the Islamic era. The following year he handed over his reign to a Persian youth from Isfahan in whom he recognized the expected Mahdi, but events took an entirely unexpected turn when the Persian ordered the cursing of all the prophets and instituted the worship of fire. When the Persian encouraged certain extravagant abominations and executed prominent Qarmaī leaders, Abū āhir plotted his murder and admitted that he had been duped by the youth. This episode demoralized his followers. Consequently, the Iraqi Qarāmiah, who had escaped from the Abbasid army and had joined Abū āhir, left Bahrein. Many apostatized, disclosing their secrets, and some tribal leaders joined the army of the Sunnī rulers. Abū āhir nevertheless continued to raid southern Iraq until his death in 944.

After the death of Abū āhir his brothers ruled jointly, and in 951 they returned the Black Stone for a high sum paid by the Abbasids. The Fatimid caliph al-Muʿizz li-Dīn Allāh (953975) failed in an effort to bring the Qarāmiah of Bahrein back to the Ismāʿīlī/Fatimid fold. Open hostilities broke out after the Fatimid conquest of Egypt, when their army advanced to northern Syria, provoking the Qarāmiah, who had their own interests in Syria. Temporary alliances were formed when the Qarāmiah were aided by the Buyids of Baghdad and the amdānids of Syria against the common enemy, the Fatimids. Subsequently, the Qarāmiah threatened the Fatimid capital of Cairo, but they were defeated both times. As their relations with Baghdad became strained they renewed their attacks on southern Iraq. In 988 the Abbasid army inflicted a crushing defeat on the Qarāmiah; their capital, al-asā, was besieged; and al-Qaīf was pillaged. When they were defeated and reduced to local power they renewed their nominal allegiance to the Fatimids in return for a tribute, but these relations did not last long. Gradually, the Qarmaī communities outside of Bahrein were either absorbed by the Ismāʿīlīyah or disintegrated. In 1067 they lost the island of Uwāl, and soon thereafter al-Qaīf was lost. Finally, in 10771078, after a long siege al-asā was lost to an emerging local tribe that was aided by the Seljuks of Baghdad, thus ending the Qarmaī rule of almost two centuries.


The basic tenet of Qarmaī doctrine was the appearance of Muammad ibn Ismāʿīl as the seventh nāiq ("apostle" of God), the Mahdi, al-Qāʾim (the Redeemer), who would abrogate the sharīʿah (Muslim canon law) and promulgate the bāin (inner truth of religion). The doctrine carries an antinomian tendency. The reports of historians that the Qarāmiah dispensed with Islamic ritual and law are therefore correct, but other accusations, of licentiousness and libertinism, are not true. Abū Hātim al-Rāzī (d. 934/5), Abū al-asan al-Nasafī (d. 943), and Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī (d. after 971) are some of the illustrious dāʿī s who have elaborated Qarmaī doctrine.

The Qarāmiah drew a fundamental distinction between the āhir ("exoteric") and the bāin ("esoteric"), the two aspects of religion. The former consists of external aspects of religion as laid down in the religious law and explains the apparent meaning of the Qurʾān. The āhir changes, therefore, with each prophet in accordance with time and circumstance. The bāin is comprised of the inner, true meaning of the law and the Qurʾān. It remains unchanged.

The Qarāmiah formulated a new synthesis of reason and revelation based on Neoplatonic cosmology and Shīʿī doctrine. Thus, they offered a new world order under the imam, who resembles Plato's philosopher-king. The classic formulation of this synthesis is found in the well-known encyclopedic work entitled Ras āʾil Ikhwān al-Safāʾ (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity). The Qarāmiah viewed history as a developmental process that progresses through seven major cycles, each containing seven minor cycles. The length of these cycles varies. In conjunction with the cyclical view of the Qarāmiah history also had a notion of different epochs, according to which the seven major cycles progress through three different epochs: dawr al-kashf ("epoch of unveiling"), dawr al-fatrah ("epoch of langor"), and dawr al-satr ("epoch of occultation"). During the first epoch good prevails, hence there is no need for external law, and the bāin is promulgated openly. This is followed by the second epoch, during which goodness loses its hold over the people and religion becomes corrupted. At the end of this period begins the third epoch, when the prophet receives the revelation and lays down the law. The prophet then appoints his successor, known as waī ("plenipotentiary"), who promulgates the bāin. The imams during this epoch remain hidden. At the end, when the people are ready, al-Qāʾīm appears and abrogates the law; he thus becomes the first imam of the following epoch of unveiling. These cycles are repeated until all souls are emancipated from matter and return to the Universal Soul.

Historical and Social Significance

The Qarāmiah were a powerful movement that shook Sunnī Islam, threatened the Abbasid caliphate, and terrorized southern Iraq. They had such an enormous influence in the region that during the Buyid supremacy in Baghdad the Qarāmiah had their own customhouse in the port of Basra alongside that of the Abbasid government. Their representatives resided in Baghdad, Kufa, and Jaʿfarīyah and wielded considerable influence. Sunnī Muslim authors considered them a heretic group led by people of the faiths superseded by Islam in order to undermine the latter from within. The general accusation against them that they practiced communism of goods and women is false; however, the shift in their opponents' arguments from theological issues to economic ones does indicate that they were perceived as a social threat.

The Qarāmiah constituted a messianic movement promising a better future with the rule of justice and equity; hence the social character of their preaching is undeniable. The famous historian al-abarī (d. 923) observes that the Qarāmiah consisted mainly of peasants and tillers. Their support came from rural areas and from the bedouin. Although the backbone of the army consisted of able-bodied Qarāmiah who were trained militarily, bedouin tribesmen joined them regularly for military campaigns. Some tribes, such as Banū Kilāb and Banū ʿUqayl, were integrated into the Qarmaī community. They did experiment with communal ownership of property, but those experiments remained peripheral. Their concern for the welfare of their community produced a unique experiment in the state of Bahrein. Its order and justice even evoked the admiration of non-Qarmaī travelers. Ibn awqal, who visited Bahrein in the latter half of the tenth century, makes interesting observations on its political structure. According to his account, the Qarmaī state was very much like an oligarchic republic. The ruler was not absolute and ruled with the aid of a ruling council comprised of important government officials and his own close associates. Following Abū āhir's death, the leadership was held collectively by his brothers.

Ibn awqal also describes the various taxes and tolls by which the state raised its revenue, and the distribution of these revenues among the ruling council. Income from grain and fruit estates was assigned to the Qarmaī community, while the revenues from customs on the island of Uwāl were allocated to Abū Saʿīd and his descendants. All other revenues from taxes, tribute, protection fees paid by the pilgrim caravans, and booty from military campaigns were disposed of in agreement with the ruling council after setting aside one-fifth for the Mahdi.

Nāsir-i Khusraw, a Persian Ismāʿīlī who visited Bahrein in the eleventh century, makes the following observations. There were in al-asā more than twenty thousand inhabitants capable of bearing arms. Though the inhabitants acknowledged the prophethood of Muammad, they observed neither fasts nor prayers. The ruling council ruled with equity and justice; it owned thirty thousand black slaves who did agricultural labor. No taxes were paid by the inhabitants, and any impoverished person could obtain a loan without interest. New artisans arriving there were given loans to establish themselves. Repairs for poor homeowners were done by the state. Grain was ground free of charge in the mills owned by the state. There were no mosques, but a foreign merchant was allowed to build a mosque for the use of Muslim visitors. People did not drink wine.

The fourth century of Islamic history, known for the flowering of Islamic civilization, witnessed a dramatic Shīʿī ascendancy to power, with the Fatimids in North Africa and Egypt and the Buyids in Baghdad. It was during this period that the Qarāmiah, representing a powerful, radical revolutionary movement, also succeeded in establishing their state in Bahrein. This state exemplifies their rule of justice and equity.

See Also

Shiism, article on Ismāʿīlīyah.


The surviving fragments of Qarmaī writings from early historical works are collected, along with extracts from later works, in Taʾrikh akhbār al-Qarāmiah, edited by Souhayl Zakkar (Beirut, 1971). The best modern studies are by Wilferd Madelung, S. M. Stern, and Vladimir A. Ivanov. Madelung's article "armaī" in the new edition of The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1960) contains an excellent bibliography.

Ismail K. Poonawala (1987)