Fighting against the Abbasids: Rebellions of the Khurramiyya in the 8th century
Posted in
June 19, 2022

Fighting against the Abbasids: Rebellions of the Khurramiyya in the 8th century

By Adam Ali

The revolts of Sunbadh, al-Muqanna‘, and Babak are the best-known and documented Khuramiyya uprisings. There were several other rebellions by Khurramiyya groups in Khurasan, Sogdia, and the Jibal region that are described to some extent in the sources and sometimes even just mentioned in passing. There are also certain individuals whom the sources mention in relation to Khurramism due to their practices or the ideas that they attempted to propagate. Some of these people led rebellions and others tried to introduce religious ideas and reforms in their regions.

Khidash and the Khidashiyya

Several Khurramiyya factions emerged in Khurasan during the years leading up to the Abbasid Revolution in 750. One of these groups was known as the Khidashiyya, named after Khidash, an Abbasid missionary in Khurasan. As a matter of fact, the sources first begin to mention Khurramism and the Khurramiyya in relation to this missionary. Khidash started operating on behalf of the Abbasids in Khurasan in 727, more than two decades before the outbreak of the revolution. He was one of the first Hashemite/Abbasid missionaries to start spreading propaganda in Khurasan and in rallying support against the Umayyads. According to the sources he was either a potter in Hira or a schoolteacher in Kufa before his involvement in the revolution and was also possibly a Christian before his conversion to Islam.

Khidash was denounced by his fellow revolutionaries and executed in 736 at the order of the Umayyad governor of Khurasan, Asad ibn ‘Abdallah. He was accused of permitting his followers to sleep with one another’s wives in addition to being antinomian, meaning that he interpreted some of the precepts of Islam allegorically and instructed his followers that injunctions such as prayer, fasting, and going on pilgrimage to Mecca were optional. In her book, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism, Patricia Crone, interprets Khidash’s actions in a different light. She states that Khidash was operating in a region heavily populated by Khurramiyya communities that practiced fraternal polyandry, which was tied into the social and economic systems of these regions. When he recruited followers to the Hashemite cause against the Umayyads, he allowed them to continue these practices as the revolutionary cause for which he worked could not afford to lose converts/recruits. Furthermore, in such polyandrous societies, a man who refused to share his wife with his brothers lost access to the family’s land and resources. In this sense, Khidash seems to have been accommodating the local customs and culture in order to gain the manpower and converts to overthrow the Umayyads. Additionally, the antinomianism of which Khidash was accused seems to have applied not to him, but rather to his followers.

Khidash’s colleagues denounced him and sacrificed him for making concessions to the local beliefs of the Khurramiyya. However, he was not put to death for this reason. The other revolutionaries, having no political power at the time, denounced Khidash to the authorities as a slanderer of Abu Bakr and Umar (the first two caliphs after the prophet). Khidash was blinded and his tongue was cut out for his alleged slander before he was finally put to death. After his death there was a rift in the movement. Many of those who were converted and recruited by Khidash reacted the same way to his death as Abu Muslim’s followers would to his death in 755. The Khidashiyya, as Khidash’s followers came to be known, declared that the other revolutionaries (and in fact all other Muslims) were infidels. They also proclaimed that Khidash was the true imam and denied his death claiming that he had been raised to heaven in the manner of Jesus, as described in the Quran. They also claimed the laws of religion no longer applied (literally) to those who acknowledged and “knew” the imam.

Due to this esoteric interpretation of religious laws, the Khidashiyya were referred to as the batiniyya or those who adhere to the inner meaning of things, a title that would be applied to other groups deemed as being “heterodox” by the “orthodoxy.” Additionally, some of the Khidashiyya believed in reincarnation and in the occasional manifestation of the divine in the physical world. It was one of the Khidashiyya, Muhammad ibn Sulayman, who led the Abbasid movement in Khurasan before the arrival of Abu Muslim, which was the last straw for many of them and caused them to split from the Hashemite/Abbasid movement.

The Rawandiyya

The Rawandiyya were another group of Khurramiyya converts to Islam who had participated in the revolution that ousted the Umayyads and enthroned the Abbasids. However, unlike several of the other Khurramiyya groups that opted to rebel and leave Muslim society (such as the Khidashiyya and the Muslimiyya), they remained a part of Muslim society. They held similar beliefs to the other Khurramiyya converts, but they interpreted Abu Muslim’s death differently. Like the Khidashiyya and the Muslimiyya, they get their name from the Hashemite missionary who recruited and converted them, ‘Abdallah al-Rawandi.

The sources first mention this group before the revolution when one of its members, Ablaq, was executed by the governor for his extreme ideas. The term Ablaq means lepper and it should be noted that deformities are often attributed to rebels and “heretics” in the sources and should not be taken literally. Ablaq, according to the sources, claimed that the divine spirit that had been in Jesus entered the imams passing through a series of men from Ali ibn Abi Talib to Ibrahim ibn Muhammad, the Abbasid. He built up a following among the Rawandiyya who were, like other Khurramiyya groups, accused of “wife sharing.” Ablaq’s group of Rawandiyya broke away from the Hashemite revolutionary movement after his death.

The remainder of the Rawandiyya took part in the Hashemite/Abbasid Revolution. They fought their way west with the other revolutionaries led by ‘Abdallah al-Rawandi or his son Harb, who became a prominent military commander in the service of the Abbasids. Harb was devoted to the Abbasid cause and to the Abbasid family and was the founder of the Harbiyya quarter of Baghdad, which was settled by the revolutionary soldiers and their descendants and known for the extremist ideas of some of its inhabitants.

The Rawandiyya became active again four to ten years after the Abbasid Revolution during the reign of the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur. They proclaimed that the caliph was the one who nourished them, gave them food and drink, and in essence life. They claimed the caliph was their Lord (i.e. God) and that they would obey his every command. If he asked them to pray with their backs to Mecca, they would. They would move mountains for him if that was what he commanded. They also proclaimed that the spirit of Adam resided in one of the caliph’s military officers and that another was the archangel manifesting himself in human form. They also claimed, like Ablaq’s followers, that the spirit of Jesus was in the imams, the main difference being that to this group it continued to reside in the Abbasid line. They went so far as to circumambulate al-Mansur’s palace (rather than the Ka‘ba) and jumped off the palace walls at Hashimiyya (near Kufa, which was the capital before al-Mansur constructed Baghdad) to demonstrate their devotion and faith to their “God caliph.” Other groups of Rawandiyya in Syria are reported to have dispensed of all their earthly belongings and also jumped from high walls naked in the belief that they could fly or transform into angels to inherit a paradisical earth. To the Rawndiyya, al-Mansur was the saviour, the messiah, and the final manifestation of God on earth who would usher in a period of justice and paradise on earth. According to some sources, they believed in seven eras or cycles presided over by an imam, the seventh of whom, according to them was the caliph al-Mansur.

There seems to have been more than one occasion in which the Rawandiyya ran rampant. The first may have been in 754, the year that al-Mansur became caliph. The year 755 was more precarious. It is when al-Mansur had Abu Muslim killed. Those Khurramiyya who had been in Abu Muslim’s army lost their saviour and their “man-god” as well as their stake in Muslim society and walked out and rebelled. Some of the Rawandiyya also demanded justice for Abu Muslim. However, the majority of the Rawandiyya interpreted this incident as a test of their faith. This all reflected poorly on al-Mansur, who was the caliph and the representative of Islam. He demanded that the Rawandiyya repent and abstain from their extremist acts and beliefs. They responded by reinforcing their ideologies. They claimed that he was their God and could kill them without being held to account as God had caused the death of his other prophets, including Abu Muslim. They claimed that God (i.e. al-Mansur) had seized Abu Muslim’s spirit and that the animosity between them was not real.

A bust of the Abbasid Caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansur in Mansur district, Baghdad – photo by MohammadHuzam / Wikimedia Commons

Al-Tabari’s account is quite different and has them committing violent acts and even coming into conflict with the caliph’s guards. He mentions that al-Mansur invited their leaders and imprisoned 200 of them. Some of the Rawandiyya reacted with anger upon hearing of this treachery and marched on the prison and freed their comrades. A mob of 600 Rawandiyya then headed to al-Mansur’s palace. The caliph marched out to meet them with his guards. A fierce battle in the streets and markets of Hashimiyya ensued between the caliph’s troops, the Rawandiyya, and the populace, who had come out to fight the Rawandiyya as well. The conflict ended with a massacre of the Rawandiyya. The caliph then gave the order to hunt down and kill any survivors who had escaped.

The Abdallah ibn Mu‘waiya and the Harithiyya/Harbiyya

Abdallah ibn Mu‘waiya was an Alid rebel who revolted in Western Iran in 744. Like the other Abbasid missionaries in Khurasan, he seems to have preached “big tent” Shiism, meaning that he believed the caliph/imam should be from the prophet’s clan, the Banu Hashim rather than just the lineage of Ali and Fatima. He does not seem to have been an extremist in his beliefs, but like Abu Muslim he was held responsible for the extremism of his followers. Ibn Muawiya first revolted in Kufa but was quickly defeated by the Umayyad governor and somehow received safe-conduct for himself and his followers. He departed and headed east, and it seems that he recruited new followers in the Jibal region. Most of these recruits were Khurramiyya converts who were enthusiastic about their new faith and the new life it represented and at the same time they brought with them their own beliefs and traditions. Abdallah ibn Mu‘waiya launched a new revolt with his army in Western Iran, but he was defeated again. He, once again, fled east with his followers and made his way to Khurasan, probably with the intention of joining forces and cooperating with Abu Muslim. However, Abu Muslim arrested him and had him killed. He then brought Abdallah ibn Mu‘waiya’s army into his own forces.

Ibn Mu‘waiya’s followers, like many of the other Khurramiyya, believed in divine indwelling. They were convinced that their leader carried the spirit of God. They also believed that the prophets and the imams were gods, the last of whom was Abdallah ibn Muwaiya. This doctrine of divine indwelling is attributed to a certain Abdallah ibn Harb or al-Harith al-Kindi, hence this group came to be known by two names: the Harbiyya and Harithiyya. According to some accounts, the Harithiyya and the Rawandiyya competed with one another within the Abbasid revolutionary army. The Rawandiyya were firmly of the belief that Abu Hashim (the son of Muhammad ibn Hanafiyya) had designated the Abbasids as his successors and given them his testament (wasiyya), whereas the Harithiyya claimed that this testament was given to Abdallah ibn Mu‘waiya. The dispute was concluded through an arbitrator, whose decision was binding on both parties. The arbitrator, one Abu Riyah, proclaimed that the Abbasids had been designated by Abu Hashim as his successors. At this point, the followers of Ibn Mu‘wiya joined the Rawandiya to become one group.

Ishaq al-Turk

Ishaq was one of Abu Muslim’s compatriots who fled after his murder. It is said that he went to Transoxiana and started to preach among the Turks there, hence the title “al-Turk.” The sources on this individual are obscure. Some state that he was a prophet sent by Zoroaster, who was still alive and would come forth to reestablish his religion. In another account, he claimed that Abu Muslim was alive and imprisoned in the mountains near Rayy and that he would reappear at a specified time. Ishaq’s ideas seem to align with those propagated by Sunbadh during his revolt. They both repudiated Islam in favor of their native Zoroastrian religion and cast Abu Muslim as their messiah, Pisyotan (also referred to as Saoshyant). There are no reports of Ishaq leading a rebellion or even preaching against the Muslims/Arabs. Some scholars associate him with the “white-clothed ones,” who may have been responsible for the death of Abu Dawud, Abu Muslim’s deputy and the new governor of Khurasan after his murder. However, these claims cannot be substantiated in the sources.


Bihafaridh ibn Mahfarvardin was a Zoroastrian from the area of Nishapur. He was a trader and it is reported that he spent seven years in China. After his return he started to preach. One account states that he went up to a sepulchral monument where he spent the night. In the morning he descended wearing a green silk shirt and he told a peasant working in a nearby field that he had ascended to heaven, seen paradise and hell and had spoken with God, who gave him the shirt (the sources allege he brought it back from China). In a different account Bihafaridh feigned his death from an illness. Prior to that he had a sepulchral monument built upon which his body was laid (in other accounts it’s a tower or a mountain where his body is placed). This source by al-Tha‘labi claims that he survived upon the monument on rainwater and a stash of preserved food for a year. He then descended in the green silk shirt and made similar claims as in the first account. This idea of going on a heavenly journey was very popular in the Mediterranean and the Middle East of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and Manichaeans. The green silk shirt, the clothing of the inhabitants of paradise, was the proof of the veracity of this journey.

Whatever the account was the peasant(s) he meets upon his “return” believed him and started to spread the tale. He preached that Zoroaster was a true prophet and that his message was real, but altered some of the rituals. He replaced the mumbling of prayers when eating with five (or seven) ritual daily prayers (without prostrations or on one’s knees – the sources differ regarding this matter) in a direction to the left of the Muslim qibla. These prayers appear to be modelled on the Muslim worship, but at the same time different. Bihafaridh’s reforms have been interpreted by some as a merging and reconciliation between Zoroastrianism and Islam. At the same time, Crone suggests that even though Bihafaridh borrowed from Islam, he was not necessarily friendly to it. She states:

Islam was a rival religion, not a religiously neutral sphere, and reshaping Zoroastrianism in its image was not going to allow Bihafaridh to blend in. What he was doing was rather refurbishing his native religion so as to make it better able to survive under the new conditions introduced by Islam, which was luring Iranians into its fold all over Khurasan at the time.

In 748, Abu Muslim arrived at Nishapur to take control from the Umayyads and to eliminate any opposition in the region. The Zoroastrian priesthood in the area was offended by Bihafaridh’s reforms. They complained to Abu Muslim, whom they saw as the new representative of the ruling powers. They made the argument that Bihafaridh was not only corrupting Zoroastrianism, but also doing the same to Islam. Abu Muslim sent a force that apprehended Bihafaridh and some of his followers. Abu Muslim had them all executed after they were brought into his presence. In another account, Bihafaridh was spared because he converted to Islam. He joined Abu Muslim’s army only to be executed at a late date for continuing to preach his ideas.

The Revolt of Ustadhsis

Ustadhsis revolted in the region of Badghis near Herat in 758. his rebellion lasted for a decade and some sources claim that he was Bihafaridh’s successor and adopted his religion. The most common names by which his followers are known are Bihafaridhiyya or Sisaniyya (from Ustadhsis). The rebellion, although mired in religious colouring (like most rebellions of this era), erupted for economic reasons. The mountainous region of Badghis was rich in silver. The rights to extract the silver from these mines were granted to Zoroastrians. Additionally, the 30,000 miners employed in the mines were also mostly Zoroastrians or Khurramiyya. When new rich silver deposits were discovered, the governor of Khurasan or Sistan attempted to remove the mine from their control. The miners rose up in revolt when the governor struck one of their representatives. They killed several of his soldiers and refused to swear allegiance to the heir apparent, al-Mahdi, when his father named him as his successor. There was another revolt that broke out in Sistan around the same time by a group known as the Laghiriyya. This group was composed of soldiers who had converted to Islam and were sent on campaign either to Kubal or Sind (Northwestern India). They returned laden with booty and spoils and according to the sources they apostatized and rebelled. The two revolts, although separated by hundreds of kilometres, seem to have merged at one point.

Ustadhsis conquered parts of Khurasan (according to some sources most of the huge province fell to him). He defeated an army sent against him from Marw al-Rudh and then occupied the city and slaughtered its inhabitants. The sources list the names of half a dozen commanders sent against Ustadhsis who were defeated by the rebel. The last of these, Dawud ibn Karrar was besieged in Herat. Another army under the command of Khazim ibn Khuzaym defeated Ustadhsis’s forces inflicting heavy losses. This campaign is described by al-Tabari in detail. Khazim led a professional force and conducted as meticulous a campaign as al-Afshin would against Babak decades later. He built fortified camps, dug trenches, and secured his supply lines. After their defeat, the surviving rebels withdrew to the mountains. Khazim pursued and besieged them. Unable to hold out, they surrendered to the caliph’s forces. Ustadhsis and his family members were taken to Baghdad in chains while his followers (reportedly 30,000 in number) were released. His sons were enlisted in the caliph’s army, and it was one of these sons who would assassinate the domineering vizier Fadl ibn Sahl at al-Mamun’s command. His daughter passed into the Harem of Harun al-Rashid. This daughter, Marajil by name, would give birth to the future caliph al-Mamun.

This account has been rejected by many scholars. However, Crone argues that such accounts seem implausible when taken separately. When viewed together she argues that there was a pattern that emerges in which the Abbasids incorporated the daughters and sons of defeated rebels into their households as concubines, soldiers, and bodyguards. This happened with Babak’s children as well and such practices can be attested to have taken place during the earlier periods of Islamic history. For example, the sons of al-Kahina, the Berber rebel queen, were also enrolled in the armies of the Umayyad caliphs. Little did al-Mansur and al-Mahdi know that it would be al-Mamun, a descendent of Ustadhsis through his daughter who would rise to rule the caliphate as one of its greatest and most well-known caliphs.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Further Reading:

Patricia Crone, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism (Cambridge University Press, 2012) June 19, 2022 at 10:05AM

Comments & Reviews

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *