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Zanj

By:
Gabriele Tecchiato
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Zanj

Zanj is a term mostly used in Arabic medieval historiographical and geographical sources to indicate native black populations of East Africa, particularly from the coasts of the Horn of Africa that border the Indian Ocean. Through compound nouns this term also indicates toponyms (e.g., Baḥr al-Zanj, the Sea of Zanj). The term, which is falling into disuse, clearly does not have an Arabic origin and appears to be a loan translation modeled on names already known in antiquity: for example, the Greek Strabo (c.64 B.C.E.–c.23 CE) calls these territories Azania, quoted by the Roman Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), who also mentions a population not otherwise identified, the Zangenae. Judged in the sources as the least developed among the blacks, the Zanj were reduced to slavery and traded by Arab merchants. During the first three centuries after the hijrah, they were heavily involved in what is now Iraq, particularly in the south, in agriculture (sugar cane, for example), in extraction of nitrates, and in draining brackish marshes around Basra. This is an almost unique case, in the history of Islam, of intensive enslavement on a large scale; it differs from the traditional Islamic idea of slavery in this time and place, which was mostly connected to the household sphere.

The major use of this term, however, is related to a series of three rebellions that occurred in the age of the Umayyads and the ʿAbbāsids. These revolts, stemming from the inhumane conditions to which the slaves were subjected, were named after the Zanj, who were their main initiators. The participants in these revolts were not exclusively black Zanj, but also other slaves imported through Zanj territories. Although included in the same definition, Thawra al-Zanj (the Zanj Revolution), the first two revolts are separated from the third one by a period of around two centuries. The revolts have different ideological and organizational characteristics, as well as different intents and purposes.

The first rebellion ascribed to the Zanj took place, according to the sources, in AH 70/689–690 CE, early in Islamic history. It took the form of riots, provoked by the desperate conditions of the slaves. With no mass support, with no ideological foundations, lacking organization and planning, the rebellion reduced itself to bloody assaults of armed bands, which were repressed with equal brutality by the central power. The second rebellion took place in AH 75/694 CE Although it was better organized, it still resembled the earlier one. In neither case can ideological or religious bases be adduced. The second revolt produced a leadership figure who seems to presage the leader of the third revolt. He has not been definitely identified; the sources do not agree even on his name, although he is called Shīr (Lion), a word of Persian origin.

The third revolt is certainly the most articulated and the most famous one. Its dynamics, the presence of a central charismatic leader, the ideological and religious motives, a sense of social justice, and the reclaiming, albeit indirectly, of revolutionary Shīʿī methodologies, are all ingredients that recall other instances of revolution in the Islamic world of that period, as well as more modern insurrections. Extending over fifteen years ( AH255–270/869–883 CE), the revolution inflamed southern Iraq and the region of Khūzestān. It was inspired and led by ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad, known as Ṣāḥib al-Zanj (Lord of the Zanj), a professional revolutionary from a cultured background. This was not his first attempt to rebel against ʿAbbāsid caliphs, whose court he had probably known directly. He presented himself as a descendant of the fourth caliph, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, with all the implications that arose from this alleged lineage.

The half million insurgents and their leader were able to take advantage of the precarious situation of the central power, which was economically weak and militarily involved on several fronts. The marshy terrain was also favorable to guerrilla warfare. They were quickly able to conquer vast portions of land, to found a fortified capital, al-Mukhtāra (The Selected), to mint coins, and even to forge alliances and exercise control over Persian Gulf trade routes. After a decade, the rebels were forced into gradual retreat during the period AH266–270/879–883 CE, because of the powerful reaction of the reorganized central power and its systematic siege of rebel positions, culminating in the defeat and suppression of their movement. ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad was executed and the chief rebels were beheaded.

This revolution can be viewed in two ways. The first one is political, as a rebellion against the ʿAbbāsid political and social system, which was regarded as sclerotic. The second one is religious, based on the faith interpretations of ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad, which apparently relied upon Khārijī doctrines of social justice and the absolute equality of believers (Qurʿān 6:57 and 9:11). Although it ended with a bloodbath and left behind devastation and incalculable economic damage, the third revolution marked the final attempt, in Islamic history, to exploit slaves with almost colonialist methodologies.

See also IRAQ AND SLAVERY.

Bibliography

  • Popovic, Alexandre. The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the Third/Ninth Century. Translated by Léon King. Princeton, N.J., 1999.
  • Ṭabarī, al-. The Abbasid Recovery. Translated by Phillip M. Fields, annotated by Jacob Lassner. Albany, N.Y., 1987.
  • Ṭabarī, al-. The Revolt of the Zanj. Translated and annotated by David Waines. Albany, N.Y., 1992.
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