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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Karmathians

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(so called from Abu Said Al-Jena- bi, surnamed Al-Karmatha) is the name of a Mohammedan sect which originated in the 9th century, under the caliphate of Al-Mohammed. Strictly speaking, the Karmathians were Shiites, q.v.; (See ISMAIL), for Karmatha, their founder, was one of the missionaries in the province of Kufa. appointed by one of the apostles (Hussein Ahwagi) of Ahmed, the successor of Abdallah Ibn-Maimun, who flourished about the middle of the 2d century, and who first gave character to the Ismailite schism. It was he likewise who projected and prepared the way for a union of the Arabic. conquerors, and the many races that had been subjected since Mohammed's death, and the enthronement of what later was called "Pure Reason" as the sole deity for worship. With an extraordinary knowledge of the human heart and human weakness, he found a way to attract the high and the low. To the believer he offered devotion; liberty, if not license to the "free in spirit " philosophy to the "strong-minded;" mystical hopes to the fanatics; miracles to the masses. To the Jews he offered a Messiah, to the Christians a Paraclete, to the Moslems a Mahdi, and to the Persian and Syrian "pagans" a philosophical theology. The results of his exertions, so practical in tendency, were truly wonderful, and at one time it seemed as if Mohammedanism was doomed. He was soon persecuted by the authorities, and, driven from place to place, he finally died in Selamia, in Syria, leaving the work he had so successfully begun to his son 'Ahmed. This Ahmed, profiting by 'the experience of his father, carried on the work of conversion somewhat secretly; at least he did not dare to assume publicly the claims of an imam, as his father had done. He sent missionaries, however, to different parts of the country to gain adherents for this extreme Rationalistic movement, and one of the converts made was our Karmatha, who gave new life to this undertaking. He quickly gathered about him a large number of converts, and, successful in securing their confidence, he soon made them the blind instruments of his will. He advocated, according to some authorities, absolute communism, not only of property, but 'even of wives, and founded one particular colony, consisting of chosen converts, around his own house at Kufa. (See below, Religious Belief:)

From this place, called the "House of Refuge," thereafter the whole religious movement of the Karmathians was conducted. Missionaries were created and sent to different parts of the earth to convert the nations, and gather them into the fold of Karmathianism. Among these converts was one Abu Said, whose success in Southern Persia, and afterwards at Bahrein, in the Persian Gulf, deserves special notice here. The inhabitants of this country, formerly a province of Persia, adhering partly to the Jewish, partly to the Persian faith, had been subjected by Mohammed, but had been allowed to retain their own creed. After the prophet's death they had at once shaken off the unwelcome yoke, which, however, had again been put upon them by Omar. In the interior of this country lived certain Arabs, highly disaffected against Islam, the innumerable, precepts of which they intensely disliked, and among these Abu Said made the most marvellous strides in his conversions, until he finally gained the confidence of the Bahreinites generally, and in less than two years he brought over a great part of the people of Bahrein. To suppress this proselytism, an. army of 10,000 men was dispatched in 282 (Hegira) against him and his followers, but the Karmathians were victorious, and Abu Said now became undisputed possessor of the whole country, destroyed the old capital Hajar, and made Lahsa (his own residence) the capital of the country.

In other parts of the Saracenic possessions the Karmathians also warred for a time successfully against the caliphate of Bagdad, and threatened its very existence, until, in a battle fought in the 294th year of the Hegira, the caliph's general, Wasif, won a decisive victory, and greatly crippled the military strength of the Karathians. Both Karmatha (of whose personal history after this time we lack all information) and Abu Said became-by what means is matter of great obscurity faithless to their own creed; but they continued to have followers, and when Abu Said was killed, together with some of his principal officers, in the bath in his own castle at Lahsa, in 301 of the Hegira, by one of his eunuchs, his-son, Abu Tahir, became his successor, and the struggle was continued. In 311 he seized the town of Basra. In the next year he pillaged the caravan which went to Mecca, and ransacked Kufa. In 315 he once more appeared in Kufa and in Irak, and gained so decided a victory over the caliph's troops that Bagdad began to tremble before him. In 317. (A.D. 930) the great and decisive blow against the caliphate, or, rather, against Mohammedanism itself, was struck. "When the great caravan of pilgrims for the annual pilgrimage had arrived at Mecca, the news suddenly spread that Abu Tahir, the terror of Islam, had appeared at the head of an army in the holy city itself. All attempts to buy him off failed, and a massacre of the most fearful description ensued. With barbarous irony, he asked the victims what had become of the sacred protection of the place. Every one, they had always been told, was safe and inviolable at Mecca. Why was he allowed thus easily to kill them the race of donkeys? According to some, for six days; to others, for eleven or seventeen, the massacre lasted. The numbers killed within the precincts of the temple itself are variously given. The holy places were desecrated, almost irredeemably. But, not satisfied with this, Abu Tahir laid hands on the supreme palladium, the black stone itself. Yet he was apparently mistaken in his calculations. So far from turning the hearts of the faithful from a worship which God did not seem to have defended, the remaining Moslems clung all the more fervently to it. God's decree had certainly permitted all these indignities to be put upon his house, but it was not for them to murmur. The stone gone, they covered the place where it had lain with their kisses." Whenever Abu Tahir did not prevent them by force, the caravans went on their usual annual pilgrimage, and Abu Tahir was finally persuader to conclude a treaty permitting the pilgrimage on payment of five denars for every camel. and seven for every horse. But the black stone, notwithstanding all the efforts on the part of the court of Bagdad, he never returned. (See below.) Abu Tahir himself was a man of great daring, and so infatuated were his men with the personal bravery and divine calling of their leader that they blindly obeyed any demands he made upon them.

Abu Tahir died in 332 of the Hegira, master of Arabia, Syria, and Irak. It was not until seven years later (A.D. 950), under the reign of two of his brothers who had succeeded him, that the "black stone" was returned to Mecca for an enormous ransom, and fixed there, in the seventh pillar of the mosque called Rahmat (God's mercy). But with the death of Abu Tahir the star of the Karmathians began to wane. Little is heard of them of any import till 375, when they were defeated before Kufa an event which seems to have put an end to their dominion in Irak and Syria. In 378 they were further defeated in battle by Asfar, and their chief killed. They retreated to Lahsa, where they fortified themselves; whereupon Asfar marched to Elkatif, took it, and carried away all the baggage, slaves, and animals of the Karmathians of that town, and retired to Basra. This seems to have finally ruined the already weak band of that once formidable power, and nothing further is heard of them in history, although they retained Lahsa down to 430, and even later. To our own day there still exists, according to Palgrave, some disaffected remnants of them at Hasa (the modern name of their ancient centre and stronghold), and other tracts of the peninsula; and their antagonism against Mohammedanism, which they have utterly abrogated among themselves, so far from being abated, bids fair to break out anew into open rebellion at the first opportunity. Indeed, some of the most trustworthy writers on Eastern history assert that the modern Druses owe the origin of their religious belief to the Karmathians (comp. Madden, Turkish Empire, ii, 210).

The religious belief of the Karmathians, so far as it has been preserved to us, seems in the beginning-before Ismailism became a mixture of "naturalism" and "materialism" of whilom Sabaism, and of Indian incarnations and transmigrations of later days-to have only been a kind of "reformed" Islam. Their master Karmatha, this sect maintained, had evinced himself to be a true prophet, and had brought a new law into the world. By this many of the Mohammedan tenets were altered, many ancient ceremonies and forms of prayer were changed, and an entirely new kind of fast introduced. Wine was permitted, as well as a few other things which the Koran prohibited, while many of the precepts found in that book were made mere allegories. Prayer was but the symbol of obedience to their imam, and fasting the symbol of silence, or, rather, of concealment of the religious doctrine from the stranger. They also believed fornication to be the sin of infidelity, and the guilt thereof to be incurred by those who revealed the mysteries of their religion, or failed to pay a blind obedience to their chief, or to contribute the fifth part of their property as an offering to the imam (compare Sale, Preliminary Discourse to the Koran).

For further details, see Weil, Gescichte'd. Chalifen; idem, Geschichte der islamitischen Volker (Stuttg. 1866, 8vo), p. 197 sq.; De Goeje, Memoire sur les Carmathes, etc.; Silvestre de Sacy, Religion des Druses; Sale, Koran; Taylor, Hist. Mohammedanism, p. 223 sq.; Madden, Turkish Empire, ii, 164 sq.; Chambers, Cyclopedia, 10:586 sq. (See SHIITES).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Karmathians'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/k/karmathians.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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