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Abu ʿĪsā, Isaac ben Jacob Al-Iṣfahīnī


ABU ʿĪSĀ, ISAAC BEN JACOB AL-IṢFAHĪNĪ , founder of a Jewish sect in Persia, the first to be formed after the destruction of the Second Temple. Abu ʿĪsā was also called Obadiah, evidently an honorific bestowed on him by his admirers. According to the Karaite scholar al-*Kirkisānī, Abu ʿĪsā lived during the reign of Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn *Marwān (685–705); the Arabic historian Shahrastāni places him during the reigns of the Umayyad caliph Marwān ibn Muhammad (744–50) and al-Mansur (754–75). The latter period seems correct because the religious and political ferment in the Islamic world during the eighth century forms the suitable background for the establishment of the sect. Abu ʿĪsā proclaimed himself a prophet and herald of the Messiah. He led a revolt against the Muslims, and many Persian Jews rallied behind him. After several years the rebellion was suppressed. His army was defeated by the Muslims near the ancient city of Rhagae (present-day Rai) southeast of Teheran, and Abu ʿĪsā himself was killed. His followers did not believe that he was dead but rather that he had entered a cave and disappeared. According to another tradition, he placed his followers in a circle which he drew with a myrtle branch and they remained beyond reach of the enemy. Only Abu ʿĪsā rode out of the area and dealt the Muslims a mighty blow single-handedly. He afterward went to the "Sons of Moses" beyond the desert to prophesy to them. The sect which Abu ʿĪsā founded, known as the Isunians or Isfahanians, still existed in the time of al-Kirkisānī (c. 930), who found about 20 adherents in Damascus. The movement launched by his disciple *Yudghan and the early activities of *Anan b. David reflect the influence of Abu ʿĪsā's teachings. His followers maintained that Abu ʿĪsā had been an illiterate tailor who wrote his books through prophetic inspiration. He taught that five prophets, among them Jesus and Muhammad, preceded the coming of the Messiah and that he himself was the final harbinger. Basing himself on Psalm 119:164 ("Seven times daily do I praise Thee"), he ordained seven daily prayers for his followers, but did not reject recitation of the *Shema and the Amidah or observance of the holy days as practiced by *Rabbanites. The latter regarded the Isunians as legitimate Jews in all respects. That the Isunians tended to be stringent is evidenced in their prohibition of meat and wine and their ban on divorce.


Friedlaender, in: jqr, 1 (1910/11), 203 ff.; 2 (1911/12), 481 ff.; Nemoy, in: huca, 7 (1930), 328, 382–3; Poznański, in: Reshumot, 1 (1925), 209–13; A.Z. Aešcoly, Ha-Tenuʿot ha-Meshiḥiyyot be-Yisrael, 1 (1956), 100–2, 117–26; Dinur, Golah, 228–31.

[Zvi Avneri]

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