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Al-Karkh: the Development of an Imāmī-Shīʿī Stronghold in Early Abbasid and Būyid Baghdad

From the point of view of the micro-history, this article investigates the incubation of the Imāmī-Shīʿī movement in this suburban area of the city, bringing together topography and social history data from medieval geography manuals, historical chronicles, local histories, biographical dictionaries, poetry, and travellers’ accounts.

 Following the foundation of Baghdad by Caliph al-Manṣūr (r. 136-158/754-775) in 145/762, the neighbourhood of al-Karkh attracted many Imāmī scholars, becoming the centre of the Imāmī wikāla (network of deputies of the Imām) in the late 3rd/9th century, and then the heart of the Imāmī ḥawza (seminary) and the rationalist school of theology which developed under the Būyids (333-447/945-1055). Al-Karkh also became the centre of a popular movement of Imāmī-Shīʿa; from the Būyid period onward, the latter played a significant role in the social and political life of the city until its fall under the Mongol invasion of 656/1258. From the point of view of the micro-history, this article investigates the incubation of the Imāmī-Shīʿī movement in this suburban area of the city, bringing together topography and social history data from medieval geography manuals, historical chronicles, local histories, biographical dictionaries, poetry, and travellers’ accounts. More than a quarter, al-Karkh acted as a city within Baghdad; repeatedly destroyed and burnt down, its history sheds light on urban life in the Abbasid capital, and on the development of Imāmī-Shīʿism during its formative period.

Throughout the Abbasid period, Imāmī Shīʿism developed in various centres in Iran, Iraq and Khurāsān; Qum, Kūfa, Rayy, and Baghdad are the most note- worthy cities where Imāmī theology was elaborated. In Baghdad, it was in a specific quarter of the city named al-Karkh that the Shīʿī movement – both its intellectual stream and the popular activism of the masses – developed most strongly. Karkh Baghdad presented several advantages for Imāmīs: not only was it conveniently located on the road to Kūfa, a notorious Shīʿī stronghold, but it was also the most vibrant commercial centre of the capital city, attracting many visitors and merchants, and hosting a large and diverse population. Zayde Antrim highlighted the importance of place and territory in her work Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World, which examined notions of attachment to land between the 3rd/9th and the 5th/11th centuries. While Antrim put the accent on cities as the main forms of territorial attachment, this article highlights the key role of neighbourhoods and quarters as spaces of belonging and identity construction.

The timeline chosen emphasizes a long-term approach to developments in al-Karkh, contextualizing key moments in the evolution of the quarter. Social history studies on Abbasid Baghdad tend to focus on the Būyid period as the starting point of confessional and neighbourhood violence in the city. Both primary sources and secondary studies have emphasized the centrality of al- Karkh in this intercommunal violence from the Būyid period until the end of the Abbasid Caliphate in 656/1258.5 Throughout the late Abbasid period, al-Karkh is synonymous with Shīʿī rebellions in most chronicles of the time, particularly the works of the famous historians Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1201) and Ibn al-Athīr (d. 630/1233). Little is known, however, of al-Karkh prior to the early Būyid era. The lack of studies on al-Karkh in the early Abbasid period has led several scholars to argue that the Shīʿī settlements noticeable in early Būyid Karkh dated from that very period.6 In the view of these scholars, the rise of confessional violence in the city from the Būyid period onward was equated with a new geographical distribution of religious communities in different neighbourhoods across Baghdad. This article seeks to fill a major scholarly gap in the microhistory of Baghdad by investigating the development of al-Karkh as a Shīʿī, and then Imāmī stronghold from the early Abbasid period until the end of Būyid rule. Through what processes did a community slowly…

Bibliographic Information

Title: Al-Karkh: the Development of an Imāmī-Shīʿī Stronghold in Early Abbasid and Būyid Baghdad (132-447/750-1055)

Author(s): Nassima Neggaz

Published in: Studia Islamica 114(3).

 Language: English

Length: 50 Pages

Al-Karkh

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