During the Zanj Revolt, which lasted nearly 15 years from 868-883 AD, tens of thousands of people met their deaths in lower Iraq. Such an incredible level of bloodshed during this 15-year span led contemporary historians like Al-Tabari and Al-Masudi to view the Zanj revolt as the most vicious and brutal uprising of the many disturbances plaguing the Abbasid central authorities. The Zanj were a group of black slaves from East Africa who were brought to work in the salt pans of the Shatt al-Arab in order to clear away the nitrous topsoil that made the land arable. Modern scholarship documents that the quotidian hardships endured under the oppression of agricultural slavery were worse than those endured under the more common form of domestic slavery or concubinage in the 9th century. Many scholars maintain that Arab Ali b. Muhammad's leadership provided the precipitous force for the Zanj revolt that rallied the strength of thousands of slaves to rise up against their masters. Yet, ninth century historian al-Tabari painted Ali b. Muhammad as a treacherous and heathenous leader who manipulated a savage group of Africans.(1)
This essay examines individual leadership, religious ideologies, and Arab perceptions about the "barbaric" Zanj in order to contextualize the Abbasid crisis. In addition, this essay complicates the black and white model ninth century historians constructed by exploring the economic, political, and social implications that converge during the great Zanj revolt.
By the start of the Zanj revolt in 868 AD, the Abbasid caliphate was mired in a period of financial weakness, both internally and externally. Tabari opens his account of the Zanj revolt by first pointing out that the strife evident in Samarra was characteristic of Abbasid problems. In 869 AD, al-Mutazz abdicated the caliphate, and Tabari notes that, "Events transpired as they did in the wake of Muhtadi's accession to the caliphate with the revolt of troops and the Shakiriyyah ... and the outbreak of general unrest." As is often the case, this conflict was reduced to money. The dispute concerned the payment due to soldiers upon the accession of a new caliph. The instability of the caliphate in general led to an empty central treasury when Muhtadi, the fifth caliph in eight years and sixth from 860 AD to 870 AD, came to power. The financial strain imposed on the accession of each new caliph contributed to the ability of the Zanj revolt, which began in 868 AD, to sustain itself for as long as it did.(2)
Tabari's history is also rife with examples of internal conflict exacerbated by external developments that divided the limited resources of the Abbasid government. Muhtadi's tenure did not last very long--11 months and 25 days. His demise was instigated by Turkish soldiers on one hand and mawlas, the inner circle of non-Arab "clients" who rendered oaths of allegiance to the caliph, on the other. The Turkish soldiers were afraid that Muhtadi conspired against them with Salih b. Wasif, who they believed sought retribution against army involvement in the...