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The authenticity of the letter of ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ to ‘Abd al-Malik

L'authenticité de la lettre de ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ à ‘Abd al-Malik
Wilferd Madelung
p. 37-43


Le texte que l'on présente comme la première lettre d'Ibn Ibâḍ a longtemps été considéré par les études contemporaines comme une épître authentique de ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâḍ, le supposé fondateur de la secte ibâḍite, au caliphe omeyyade ‘Abd al-Malik. Cette théorie a pourtant été remise en cause en premier lieu par John Wilkinson, puis par Michael Cook dans son ouvrage Early Muslim Dogma, où il proposait l'attribution de cette lettre à Jâbir b. Zayd, qui l'aurait adressée à l'émir muhallabid ‘Abd al-Malik b. al-Muhallab. Pour sa part, dans sa récente étude sur l'ibâḍisme, John Wilkinson a soutenu que cette lettre était adressée à ‘Abd al-Malik, le fils du calife ‘Umar II, et que Jâbir b. Zayd n'en est peut-être pas l'auteur. Dans cet article, nous entendons démontrer que ce document est bel et bien une lettre authentique de ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâḍ, adressée au fils de ‘Umar II. Toutefois, cet Ibn Ibâḍ n'est sans doute pas le fondateur de la secte ibâḍite, mais plutôt un contemporain et un rival d'Abû ‘Ubayda Muslim b. Abî Karîma.

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1The so-called first letter of ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ has long been considered as an authentic message of the founder of the Ibâiyya to the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwân in response to a letter of the caliph. It begins with the words : « From ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ to ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwân », and in the course of the text the recipient is repeatedly addressed either as ‘Abd al-Malik or ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwân. The writer informs the recipient that he had received his letter, conveyed by an otherwise unknown messenger Sinân b. ‘Âṣim and that he is now sending his reply at his correspondent’s request. The identity of both the sender and the recipient was first questioned by John Wilkinson and, following him, Michael Cook, who in his Early Muslim Dogma argued that some passages and the general tone of the letter ruled out that it could have been addressed to a ruling caliph (Cook, 1981 : 57-65). The real recipient, Cook tentatively suggested, might well have been the Umayyad official ‘Abd al-Malik b. al-Muhallab b. Abî ufra. Cook also rejected the identity of the writer of the letter with ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ, whose role as the founder of the Ibâiyya sect asserted by the heresiographers had become more and more dubious in modern research. He suggested that the author might well have been the prominent traditionist and legal scholar Jâbir b. Zayd al-Azdî (d. 93/712), who was generally claimed by the later Ibâiyya as their spiritual leader during the second half of the 1st/7th century. Jâbir is, moreover, known to have written letters to ‘Abd al-Malik b. al-Muhallab.

2Against Cook’s hypothesis, John Wilkinson in his recent book on Ibâism has proposed to identify the recipient of the letter as ‘Abd al-Malik, the son of the caliph ‘Umar II (Wilkinson, 2010 : 202-205). From Ibâî sources it is known that this son of the later caliph ‘Umar established a good relationship with Ibâî leaders, who seem to have put high hopes on his presumptive succession to the caliphate. ‘Abd al-Malik died, however, during his father’s caliphate. As Cook had already observed, there is a passage in the letter that seems to suggest that the recipient was an Umayyad (Cook, 1981 : 61). Wilkinson argues against the possibility that Jâbir b. Zayd could have been the author of the letter, noting the openly militant spirit of the letter which seems in sharp contrast with Jâbir’s cautious inclination to counsel secrecy to avoid antagonizing the government. Like Cook, however, he dismisses the ascription of the letter to ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ, a largely legendary figure, as fictitious. The writer, Wilkinson suggests, must have been some early militant leader of the Ibâiyya, such as Bisâm b. ‘Umar al-abbî, Sâlim b. Dhakwân or perhaps umâm b. al-Sâ’ib.

3On a close reading of the text, Wilkinson’s hypothesis distinctly fits the contents of the letter best. The addressee must have been an Umayyad hoping to enlist the allegiance of the writer, but definitely not a reigning caliph. Wilkinson suggests that the patronymic Ibn Marwân was added to the addressee’s name by the redactor of the letter, who assumed that it was addressed to the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwân, in good faith (Wilkinson, 2010 : 203). This is not necessarily the case. Ibn Marwân can well be understood as a nisba ila l-jadd, referring to the recipient’s great-grandfather Marwân b. al-akam as the founder of the ruling House. The writer may thus have expressly acknowledged ‘Abd al-Malik’s high status as a member of the ruling dynasty, especially if his father ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Azîz, as assumed by Wilkinson, was not yet the ruling caliph.

4The letter reflects the deep ideological conflict between the Ibâî writer and the Marwânid prince which they were unable to overcome despite their evident desire to reach agreement and their appeal to shared Islamic values. Their disagreement was primarily about the status of the caliph ‘Uthmân in Islam. In an earlier letter the writer had angrily denounced the wrong-doings of ‘Uthmân, and the Umayyad prince ‘Abd al-Malik evidently had sought to calm his ire against him by observing that God certainly knows the truth about all the accusations against him best and by stressing ‘Uthmân’s outstanding early merit in Islam. The Ibâî author replies conceding ‘Uthmân’s early conversion and meritorious acts, but affirms that God does not grant Muslims immunity from seduction and apostasy from Islam. He then enumerates at great length ‘Uthmân’s transgressions and violations of the commandments of the Qur’an which provoked the uprising of all faithful Muslims against him. Concerning the caliph Muʿâwiya, the prince ‘Abd al-Malik had noted that God had granted him support and full success when he sought revenge for the wrongfully spilt blood of ‘Uthmân. The Ibâî writer counters that temporary success and victory on earth are no indication of right and the ultimate favour of God. God may at times grant victory to the infidels, as He did at Uud in the age of the Prophet, in order to test the faith of the Muslims. The opponents of the Umayyads also won victories on many occasions, as they did when they killed ‘Uthmân. The writer warns ‘Abd al-Malik not to ask anyone else questions about Mu‘âwiya and his actions, « for we have experienced him (adraknâhu) and seen his action and conduct among the people, and we know no one more disrespectful of the division (of property) God has made and the laws God has laid down, nor more inclined to the shedding of forbidden blood than him » (Kâshif, 1986 : 2/340, reading ghayranâ for ghayr annâ). Mu‘âwiya then appointed his son Yazîd as his successor, a profligate accursed among the people, addicted to drinking intoxicating wine and pursuing his passions without any guidance from God. The writer appeals to ‘Abd al-Malik not to deceive himself by defending the record of Mu‘âwiya and Yazîd. He evidently had some hope of persuading the Marwânid prince in this matter, hinting: « It has reached me that some of your family (ahl al-bayt) criticize Mu‘âwiya and Yazîd and their actions » (Kâshif, 1986 : 2/340).

5In his letter, ‘Abd al-Malik had cautioned his Ibâî correspondent against extremism in religion (al-ghuluw fî l-dîn, Kâshif, 1986 : 2/341). The Ibâî counters that according to Qur’an 3:171 extremism in religion consists in stating about God anything but the truth. The Marwânid prince was guilty of that in following and obeying the caliph ‘Uthmân and the unjust imams after him and in collaborating with them in their rebellion against God. ‘Abd al-Malik then sought to incite (Kâshif, 1986 : 2/341, reading tuarriu for tu‘arriu) to action against the Khârijites, asserting that they were extremists in their religion. They departed from the people of Islam and did not follow the path of the faithful. The Ibâî writer promises to clarify their path and affirms that they were at first the supporters of ‘Uthmân, but then they rebuked and deserted him for his innovations in violation of the sunna. They were the companions of ‘Alî b. Abî âlib until he surrendered the judgement (akkama) to ‘Amr b. al-‘Âṣ and abandoned the judgement of God. They were the ones who in their religion and sunna obeyed the Messenger of God, Abû Bakr and ‘Umar and summoned to their path. The writer proclaims his unconditional solidarity with the Khârijites, except for Ibn al-Azraq and his followers. These had seemed good Muslims when they first rose up in revolt, but then they had turned away from Islam and become infidels.

6The Marwânid prince, it is evident, was in no position to concede that the caliph ‘Uthmân might have rightfully been overthrown and killed by the rebels against his reign. The claim of legitimacy of the Marwânid caliphate depended entirely on the rightful caliphate of the wronged caliph ‘Uthmân, Marwân b. al-akam’s first cousin, and on Marwân’s just revenge upon ‘Uthmân’s enemies, even more so than Mu‘âwiya’s claim had depended on it. Mu‘âwiya b. Abî Sufyân had been a more remote kinsman of ‘Uthmân and had been appointed governor of Syria by ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭâb. Marwân had been highly critical of Mu‘âwiya’s conduct, including his alliance with ‘Amr b. al-‘Âṣ who had been the first of the Companions of the Prophet to undermine ‘Uthmân’s caliphate after the latter had dismissed him from the governorship of Egypt. Marwân’s great-grandson ‘Abd al-Malik might thus perhaps distance himself from Muʿâwiya and Yazîd, but he knew that he would inevitably be disowned by his own family if he expressed doubts that ‘Uthmân’s violent death had been wrongful.

7The Khârijî author of the letter in turn could not concede that ‘Uthmân might have been wrongfully killed without betraying the cause of his Muakkima brethren. It was the constant persecution of the « murderers of ‘Uthmân » pursued by the Umayyad authorities, monstrous governors such as ‘Ubayd Allâh b. Ziyâd and al-ajjâj, that drove them ever again into open suicidal revolt against the tyrants (jabâbira). In the view of the author of the letter even the reckless revolt of the radical followers of Nâfi‘ b. al-Azraq was initially justified, although he evidently condemned their excesses against civilian Muslims. Perhaps a solemn proclamation of universal amnesty by the government might have been attractive to the author. But all the Marwânid prince had to offer was a warning against extremism in religion and incitement to combat the alleged extremism of the Muakkima for the benefit of the regime. The writer indignantly rejected the offer, without, however, breaking off the correspondence. The negotiations between the caliph ‘Umar II and the delegation of Ibâî leaders that met him also ended in failure, no doubt on similar grounds, although Ibâî tradition preserved a favourable image of this caliph.

  • 1 Jâbir b. Zayd died according to most early sources in 93/712, although al-Wâqidî gives his death da (...)

8Wilkinson is evidently right in maintaining that the letter, in view of its militant Khârijite tone, cannot have been written by Jâbir b. Zayd. Jâbir became the early religious adviser and guide of the moderate Muakkima later known as Ibâiyya already in the time of the leadership of Abû Bilâl Mirdâs (d. 61/680) among the Basran Khârijites. According to a letter of Abû ‘Ubayda Muslim b. Abî Karîma, he used to visit Abû Bilâl frequently and spent much time with him. Jâbir, however, never personally identified with the Muakkima and hardly would have defended the killing of the caliph ‘Uthmân or ‘Alî. He taught them to practice non-violent resistance to oppressive government by strictly obeying the rules of the divine law rather than the unjust governors. Moreover, Jâbir was most likely already dead at the time the letter was written if it was addressed to ‘Abd al-Malik, the son of ‘Umar II. In that case the letter is to be dated in the later nineties of the first century/ca. 715-171.

  • 2 It may be noted here that according to the second edition of al-Ash‘arî’s Maqâlât al-islâmiyyîn by (...)
  • 3 In both articles, M. Cook’s suggestion that the first letter might have been written by Jâbir b. Za (...)

9The attribution of the letter to ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ, rejected as fictitious by both Cook and Wilkinson, must be reconsidered in the light of recent research on the historicity of the alleged founder of the Ibâiyya. In an earlier article it has been proposed that ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ, a Basran of the Banû Tamîm, was punished and imprisoned by the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Manṣûr in 142/759 and died soon thereafter in prison as reported by Abû ‘Ubayd Allâh al-Marzubânî (d. 384/994) (Madelung, 2006). This ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ chronologically could not be identical with the ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ who, according to the account of Abû Mikhnaf, in 63/683 belonged to the group of Khârijî activists which under the leadership of Nâfi‘ b. al-Azraq went to Mekka to defend ‘Abd Allâh b. al-Zubayr against the Umayyad army and who not much later acted as the spokesman of the moderate Muakkima in Basra opposing the radical theses of Ibn al-Azraq. The Ibn Ibâ imprisoned in 142/759 can hardly have been born long before the year 70/689. He may have clashed with the Khârijî leader Abû Bayhas, as reported by al-Madâ’inî, not at the time of the split between the moderates and Ibn al-Azraq, but later before the execution of Abû Bayhas in 94/713. He was involved in the Ibâî uprising against the last Umayyad caliph Marwân b. Muammad as reported by al-Shahrastânî and al-Qazwînî2. In another article, it was argued that the so-called second letter ascribed to ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ, which is addressed to an anonymous Shî‘î, may well be an authentic polemic of Ibn Ibâ sent to the poet al-Sayyid al-imyarî with whom Ibn Ibâ was engaged in an ideological quarrel according to al-Marzubânî (Madelung, 2011)3. The militant spirit and highly polemical style is the same in the two letters attributed to ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ.

  • 4 The Maghribî version of the letter in al-Jawâhir al-Muntaqât of al-Barrâdî (8th/14th century) has t (...)

10If ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ wrote his letter to the son of ‘Umar II not long before ‘Umar’s succession to the caliphate in 99/717, he must still have been a young man, yet the leader of a significant force of Tamîmî Muakkima tribesmen. ‘Abd al-Malik may have initiated their correspondence aware of Ibn Ibâ’s condemnation of Abû Bayhas for his permission of harsh treatment of civilian Muslims in the Khârijî uprisings. Both Cook and Wilkinson suggest on the basis of the passage of the letter quoted above that the writer must have been alive during the reign of Mu‘âwiya and Yazîd to have experienced the iniquity of their conduct (Cook, 1981 : 60-61 ; Wilkinson, 2010 : 204). It is to be noted, however, that the writer expresses himself as the spokesman of his group of Muakkima speaking in the first person plural throughout the letter. He states repeatedly that « we departed from (fâraqnâ) ‘Uthmân » and « we witnessed (adraknâ) our Prophet » (Kâshif, 1986 : 329-30 and 343). His claim that « we have experienced him (Mu‘âwiya) and seen his action and conduct » thus need not be understood as implying that the writer personally was alive and present at the time4.

  • 5 Al-Malaî’s description of the followers of Ibâ, that they revolted in the Sawâd of Kûfa, killed e (...)

11There remains the question of the identity of the ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ who, according to the historical sources, acted as the leader and spokesman of the quietist Basran Muakkima at the time of the split with Ibn al-Azraq. While he cannot be identical with the writer of the two letters, it is difficult to assume that the reports about his role are entirely fictitious. A conflation of two persons into a single ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ must have occurred in the historical tradition. A single heresiographical source, al-Malaî, succinctly states that the Ibâiyya were the followers of Ibâ b. ‘Amr5. It may be tentatively suggested that this Ibâ b. ‘Amr, presumably the father of ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ, was the leader of the moderate Muakkima in Basra, mostly of the tribe of Tamîm, who replied to Ibn al-Azraq in 64/684. He presumably belonged to the original Khawârij who seceded under the leadership of ‘Abd Allâh b. Wahb al-Râsibî and became a follower of the Tamîmî Abû Bilâl Mirdâs in Basra. When he died in the seventies or eighties of the first century/690-708, his young son ‘Abd Allâh succeeded him in the leadership of the original Ibâiyya, the followers of Ibâ b. ‘Amr. The name Ibâiyya was later, after the caliph al-Manṣûr imprisoned ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ, applied by the ‘Abbâsid government to all those suspected to share his heretical political ideology which had first been developed by Abû Bilâl and Jâbir b. Zayd. Eventually it was adopted also by the sectarians themselves.

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Al-Ash‘arî, 1405/1985, Maqâlât al-islâmiyyîn, ed. Muḥyî l-Dîn ‘Abd al- Ḥamîd, Cairo, Maktabat al-Nahḍa al-Miṣriyya.

Al- Barrâdî, 1302/1884-1885, Kitâb al-Jawâhir al-Muntaqât, Cairo, n.n., Xerox copy.

Cook Michael, 1981, Early Muslim Dogma, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Crone Patricia, Zimmerman Fritz, 2001, The Epistle of Sâlim Ibn Dhakwân, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Kâshif Sayyida Ismâ‘îl (ed.), 1986, al-Siyar wa l-jawâbât li-‘ulamâ’ wa-a’immat ‘Umân, Sulṭânat ʿUmân, Wizârat al-Turâth al-Qawmî wa l-Thaqâfa.

Madelung Wilferd, 2006, « ‘Abd Allâh Ibn Ibâḍ and the origins of the Ibâḍiyya », in Barbara Michalek-Pikulska, Andrzej Pikulski (ed.), Authority, Privacy and Public Order in Islam : Proceedings of the 22nd Congress of L’Union Européenne des Arabisants et Islamisants, Leuven, p. 51-57.

—, 2011, « ‘Abd Allâh Ibn Ibâḍ’s ‘Second Letter to ‘Abd al-Malik’ », in Community, State, History and Change : Festschrift for Prof. Ridwan al-Sayyid on his 60th Birthday, Beirut, Al-Shabaka al-ʿArabiya li-l-Abḥâth wa al-Nashr, p. 7-17.

Al-Malaṭî, 1936, Kitâb al-Tanbîh wa l-radd, ed. Sven Dedering, Staatsdruckerei, Istanbul.

Al-Wazîr Zayd b. ‘Alî, 1433/2011, ‘Alà alâl al-Ibâiyya fî a‘âlî shimâl al-Yaman, Ṣan‘â’, Markaz al-turâth wa l-buḥûth al-Yamânî.

Wilkinson John C., 2010, Ibâism: Origins and Early Development in Oman, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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1 Jâbir b. Zayd died according to most early sources in 93/712, although al-Wâqidî gives his death date as 103/721-2. See Crone, 2001 : 301.

2 It may be noted here that according to the second edition of al-Ash‘arî’s Maqâlât al-islâmiyyîn by Muyî l-Dîn ‘Abd al-amîd, al-Ash‘arî stated that « ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ revolted in the days of Marwân b. Muammad » (al-Ash‘arî, 1985 : 1/170). See the quotation in al-Wazîr, 2011 : 81. This statement is missing in the edition by H. Ritter and in the first edition by M. ‘Abd al-amîd (Cairo 1361/1960). It may have been added by the editor.

3 In both articles, M. Cook’s suggestion that the first letter might have been written by Jâbir b. Zayd to ‘Abd al-Malik b. al-Muhallab was accepted.

4 The Maghribî version of the letter in al-Jawâhir al-Muntaqât of al-Barrâdî (8th/14th century) has the reading li’annî adraktuhu wa-ra’aytu ‘amalahu wa-sîratahu in the singular (al-Barrâdî, 1302/1884-1885: 163). This late version is, however, derived from the ‘Umânî version and is marked by distinct traces of simplifying manipulation of the original text. The letter was unknown among the early Ibâîs in the Maghrib.

5 Al-Malaî’s description of the followers of Ibâ, that they revolted in the Sawâd of Kûfa, killed everybody including infants, and that there were still remnants of them there, is obviously fictitious (Al-Malaî, 1936 : 42).

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Wilferd Madelung, « The authenticity of the letter of ‘Abd Allâh b. Ibâ to ‘Abd al-Malik », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 132 | décembre 2012, mis en ligne le 13 décembre 2012, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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Wilferd Madelung

Oriental Institute, Oxford.

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