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MUHAMMAD BIN ISMAIL (158-197/775-813), 7TH IMAM

Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

"Abu Abdullah Muhammad, surnamed ash-Shakir was born in 122/740 in Medina. He passed his early life with his grandfather for 24 years and 10 years with his family in Medina. He however kept himself silent so long as he lived in Medina. He most probably left Medina soon after the death of his grandfather in 148/765.

The Abbasid caliph Mansur also died in 158/775 and was succeeded by his son Mahdi. He also died in 169/785 and was succeeded by his son, Hadi. He died in 170/786, and then his brother, Harun ar-Rashid became the next ruler till 193/809. He was also succeeded by his son, Amin.

The earliest description of Imam Muhammad bin Ismail occurred in the work of Tabari (3:2218). It is learnt in the 4th volume of Uyun'l-Akhbar (comp. 842/1438) that Imam Muhammad bin Ismail resided in Medina from where he sent his da'is not only to spread Ismailism, but to search for a land of refuge where he could live unscathed. When Harun ar-Rashid learnt news of it, he sent his officials to arrest and bring the Imam to his court. When the caliph's men came to the house to carry out the orders, the Imam entered an underground passage he had constructed inside his house and remained concealed until they had left. When the search had abated, he started on his journey, leaving behind his two sons. His whereabouts had been kept a closely guarded secret only the few specially privileged being acquainted with it and even they being pledged to the strictest secrecy.

The Abbasids had instituted an intensive search for Imam Ismail, because they were well aware that Musa Kazim was not the true successor, otherwise he would have been executed very soon. They failed to trace out Imam Ismail and his son. On the other side, the Abbasids noticed its counter effect in Medina, where Musa Kazim was being truly adhered as an Imam. Thus, Musa Kazim was arrested, who died in prison in 183/799. He should have been arrested and executed in 148/765, had he been truly succeeded his father.

Imam Muhammad bin Ismail made his footing in Iran and Syria accompanied by Maymun al-Qaddah. The Abbasids' enmity was daily growing in intensity. Apprehending lest the enemies should resort to some violent measures against him, the Imam assumed the name of Maymun al-Qaddah to elude discovery. Thus, the name Maymun al-Qaddah came to be used by two characters at one time. It was also resolved, if the real identity of the Imam be traced, Maymun al-Qaddah was to come forward as Imam Muhammad bin Ismail to sacrifice his own life in order to protect the line of Imamate from extinction.

Henceforward, Imam Muhammad bin Ismail had also a sobriquet of Maymun al-Qaddah to conceal his identity. Maymun al-Qaddah had a son, named Abdullah (d. 260/874), while Imam Muhammad bin Ismail had also a son at the same time, called Abdullah (d. 212/828), surnamed al-Wafi Ahmad. With the passage of time, Imam Muhammad became known as Maymun al-Qaddah in the places he resided, while Maymun al-Qaddah was treated as Imam Muhammad bin Ismail in the regions he propagated Ismailism. Abdullah, the son of Maymun al-Qaddah was consequently considered as the son of Imam Muhammad bin Ismail in the regions where the Imam had assumed the title of al-Qaddah. It therefore gave rise to the contrivance of a story that Abdullah (al-Wafi Ahmad) was the son of Maymun al-Qaddah on one hand, and Abdullah (bin Maymun al-Qaddah) was the son of Imam Muhammad bin Ismail on other. Later, it became a vehicle for the anti-Fatimid propagandists, notably Ibn Razzam to join the lineage of the Fatimid Imams with that of Abdullah bin Maymun al-Qaddah instead of Abdullah (al-Wafi Ahmad) bin Muhammad bin Ismail. This is known as Qaddahid theory and became a tool of the later Abbasids to discredit the Fatimid origin in 401/1010.

In the face of these facts, the Ismaili Imams had assumed the titles of the da'is in one or more time during the veiled period, which is also sounded expressly in the letter of the Fatimid Imam al-Muizz (d. 365/975), written in 354/965, addressing to his da'i Jaylam bin Shayban in Sind. This important letter is preserved by Idris Imaduddin (d. 872/1468) in the 5th volume of Uyun'l-Akhbar. Hatim bin Imran bin Zuhra (d. 498/1104) writes in his al-Usul wa'l-Ahkam that, "The da'is used their own names as nick-names for the Imams in order to protect them from persecution; some people were misled by this to such a degree that they said that the Imam, descendant of Muhammad bin Ismail was Abdullah bin Maymun al-Qaddah." According to Arif Tamir in al-Qaramita (p. 87), "When Muhammad bin Ismail fled from the east and established in Palmyra in Syria, the centers of his activities; he called himself Maymun al-Qaddah." Syed Abid Ali Abid writes in Political Theory of the Shiites (cf. A History of Muslim Philosophy, ed. by M.M. Sharif, Germany, 1963, 1:740) that, "As a matter of fact, as the latest research has established beyond any doubt, Maimun was the name adopted by Imam Muhammad when he went into concealment. In other words, during the period of concealment those who were in his confidence knew Imam Muhammad to be a Maimun." Husayn F. al-Hamdani (1901-1962) writes in his On the Genealogy of Fatimid Caliphs (Cairo, 1958, p. 18) that, "It is likely that Muhammad b. Ismail, who did not, and could not, according to accounts, live a settled life at one place, went underground during his wanderings by assuming the name of Maymun."

Before leaving Medina, Imam Muhammad had secretly convened an assembly of his da'is, inviting them from all the regions. When caliph Harun ar-Rashid came to know the secret assembly, he resolved to arrest the Imam in Medina. In the meantime, Zubeda, the wife of Harun ar-Rashid and a secret follower of the Imam, managed to send her trusted servant towards the Imam in Medina, informing him the plan of the caliph. Thus, the Imam had to make his footing out of Medina at once.

Tradition however has it that Imam Muhammad bin Ismail first went to southern Iraq, where he acquired the epithet of al-maktum (veiled one), and then at Nishapur in disguise, where he lodged for some times. Nishapur was one of the most important of the four great cities of Khorasan. Afterwards, he proceeded towards Ray.

Ishaq bin al-Abbas al-Farsi, the Abbasid governor of Ray secretly professed Ismailism. The Imam betrothed to Fatima, the daughter of Sarah, sister of Ishaq bin al-Abbas; who gave birth to a son, who was named Abdullah, also known as Wafi Ahmad. When the news of the Imam's stay at Ray reached the ears of Harun ar-Rashid, he wrote to Ishaq bin al-Abbas, ordering to arrest him and send him to Baghdad. Upon receipt of caliph's letter, he showed it to the Imam and replied to the caliph that he found no trace of Imam Muhammad bin Ismail, and would send as soon as he was arrested, and thus he tried to put the caliph off the scent. But the spies reported the caliph that Imam Muhammad bin Ismail not only was living at governor's house, but that he was operating his mission from there. Upon this, the caliph wrote another letter to Ishaq bin al-Abbas, impugning him to come in person with his forces if his orders were not obeyed forthwith. The governor however made his usual reply. Meanwhile, the complaints about Ali bin Musa bin Mahan, the governor of Khorasan reached the point where Harun ar-Rashid could no longer ignore them. With the intention of deposing his governor and to make a search of the Ismaili Imam, Harun ar-Rashid adopted a militant stance. In 189/805, he marched towards Ray with a detachment of his army, and after searching for the Imam through a tracking party, ordered the arrest and torture of Ishaq bin al-Abbas, who did not indicate any clue of the whereabouts of the Imam. Ishaq died as a result of severe torture that was inflicted upon him, and was rigorously flogged till death. He did not waver and stood firm in spite of excruciating tortures.

Imam Muhammad bin Ismail selected Hurmuz as a chief da'i of the mission, and then made his footing at the fortified city of Nihawand, where he stayed with the governor, Mansur bin Jowshan, who had close ties with Ishaq bin al-Abbas. He allotted the Imam a piece of land in the district of Sarha, where he led a peaceful living. It is related that the Imam was traced out on one day in Sarha by the Abbasid agent, named Muhammad bin Ali al-Khorasani, who surprised the Imam in a mosque. He was greatly impressed to behold the Imam, and lost courage to arrest him, and permitted the Imam to escape. Thence, the Imam went to Azar in Khuzistan. He also proceeded to Shapur. Disguised as a merchant, he stayed in Shapur with a certain Qamas bin Nuh, whose daughter Rabta, he married.

When the Abbasids intensified their search, the Imam had to travel out of Iran. The tradition has it that Imam Muhammad bin Ismail had taken refuge at Farghana valley, situated mainly in the eastern Uzbekistan and partly in Tajikistan and Kyrgstan. The Ismailis in upper Oxus were reportedly deep-rooted in their faith, but unfortunately we do not have details of the Ismaili mission during the veiled era in Central Asia. These Ismailis however retained a specific literary tradition by preserving and transmitting from generation to generation an anonymous treatise, entitled Ummu'l-Kitab that had certainly exercised a sole source of their religious inspiration for about three hundred years till the arrival of Nasir Khusaro in this region.

After some times, the Imam returned to Salamia, where he died in 197/813. He left behind six sons, viz. Jafar, Ismail, Ahmad, Ali, Hussain and Abdullah. He had also a son named Yahya.

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