The City of Kufa: Birth & Early Years

A Majlis Recited at Stanmore
Saturday 7 Ramadhan 1416 (eve),
27 January 1996.
By Dr Mahmood Husein Datoo

- Kufa is the nerve centre of Shia activities in the early Islamic period
- Imam Ali (a.s.) moves the headquarters of Islamic government from Medina to Kufa in 36 AH (656 AD)
- The mobilisation of forces, by Imam Ali (a.s.), takes place in and around Kufa for the battles of Jamal and Siffin
- Imam Hasan (a.s.) relinquishes the political office to Muawiya against the backdrop of political manoeuvrings involving the people of Kufa
- After the death of Imam Hasan (a.s.), the Shia uprising of Hujr al-Kindi against Muawiya in 51 AH occurs in Kufa
- Muslim b. Aqeel solicits support for Imam Husein (a.s.) from the people of Kufa in 60 AH
- The tragedy of Kerbala in 61 AH evolves around the city and people of Kufa
- The movement of the Penitents (Tawwabeen) in 64 AH, led by Sulayman Khuzai, is initiated and mobilised by the Kufa residents
- Mukhtar Thaqafi leads a revolution in Kufa in 66 AH to become its Governor and avenges the perpetrators of Kerbala residing in Kufa
- Thus, Kufa sees many activities connected with the early Shia history.


Some of the Arab communities who had converted to Islam during the Prophet's lifetime, now withdraw from that pledge and break-off their connection with Medina soon after the Prophet's death in 11 AH (632 AD).
The coup at Saqifa installs Abu Bakr as the successor to the Prophet.
Abu Bakr is therefore engaged in the apostasy campaigns to bring the deserting communities back into the fold.
Such apostasy campaigns mark the beginning of the outward expansion of the Muslim empire.
On Abu Bakr's death in 13 AH (634 AD), Umar b. Khattab is appointed by Abu Bakr to be his successor and the leader of the Muslims.
Umar continues, and greatly diversifies, with the policy of Abu Bakr to expand the Muslim influence in the region.

The Choice of Kufa

Umar sanctions the conquests of lands into Syria, Palestine and Persia.
Sa'd b. Waqqas, the commander of the Muslim army in Iraq, conquers Al-Qadisiya in 15 AH (636 AD); Sa'd's counterpart in the Persian army is a general by the name of Rustam.
Al-Qadisiya is near the border of the then Iraqi and Persia areas.
Next to fall is Madayn in 16 AH - the capital city of the Persian (Sassanaid) empire in the region.
Next to fall is Jalula in 16 AH, and the Muslim army is now deep in Persian territory.
The soldiers are based in Madayn, which is a rich, luxurious city, full of Persian royal pageantry and trappings; its climatic conditions does not suit the Arabic culture - it is not an open dessert terrain.
Umar is informed of the difficult acclimatising hardship of the Arab troops, and he orders Sa'd to search for a suitable stationing place for two purposes: first, to permanently house the Al-Qadisiya fighters thereby maintaining control over the new territory; secondly, to use the place as a launching station for further excursions in to the Persian territory (that is, it should serve as a garrison town).
After careful scrutiny, and (some reports say) with the help of Salman Farsi and Hudhayfa Yamani, a spot is chosen - a plain dessert terrain on the west bank of River Euphrates, near the old Persian city of Al-Hira, south of Madayn and just north of Al-Qadisiya; this is Kufa - so called because of its coarse soil and reddish sand.
Sa'd orders his troops to move there in 17 AH (638 AD) and this is the beginning of Kufa.

The First Administrative Block

The new area has now got to be planned and built into a garrison town.
The troops under Sa'd form a heterogeneous grouping of Arabs; they are not from the same area, clans or tribes, and it is not possible to naturally group them into tribal/clan/area divisions.
The soldiers who had ventured into Syria and Basra were mostly of cohesive groupings from the same tribe/clan, or at most from two predominant tribes, and thus establishing groupings there was much easier.
Also, the concept of township groupings is completely alien to these soldiers, used to a free Bedouin lifestyle based on tribal/clan loyalties.
There are about 24,000 people to be grouped in Kufa (which includes about 4,000 Persians under their leader Daylam who secures special status from Sa'd).
Sa'd assimilates this heterogeneous population into two broad geographical groupings: the Nizaris (North Arabs) and the Yemenis (South Arabs).
The Nizaris are settled on the western side of Kufa, the Yemenis on the eastern side (according to lots drawn by arrows, as was customary then in chance decisions); between the two areas, is to be built a mosque, and this adjoins to the governor's palace and the treasury.

The Second Administrative Block

The two broad groupings of the population very soon proves to be unsatisfactory for three reasons.
Firstly, each group finds it difficult to put up together; the Nizaris and the Yemenis find it awkward to live congenially within and between each other's groupings due to the very nature of the heterogeneity of tribal and/or family groupings.
Secondly, such large groupings of population presents serious logistics in quickly mobilising an army of soldiers ready for action at very short notices, which was part of the reason of establishing the garrison town.
Thirdly, it is administratively cumbersome for the authorities to organise efficiently the distribution of financial allowances (stipends), on which the population depends.
Umar therefore, in 17 AH, orders a change in the administrative arrangement of the population.
With the help of expert Arab genealogies, Sa'd now reshuffles the population according to compatible and congenial tribal genealogies and family alliances.
The population is now divided into seven ("asba") tribal units; each unit contains tribes and clans compatible with each other; broadly, there are four groups of Nizaris and three of Yemenis making up the seven individual units.
Each unit is allocated an area for dwellings, and its own main roads leading to the central mosque; there are smaller roads connecting to other localities.
Each of the seven locality is also allocated its own open space ("jabbana") - no buildings are to be built on this land as it is used primarily for grazing of animals and cemetery.
This arrangement into seven administrative units is to last for nineteen years until 36 AH when Imam Ali (as) becomes the governor of Kufa.

Distribution of Stipends

One reason for dividing the population into smaller groups is to facilitate the distribution of financial allowances (stipends) to the citizens.
Umar, in the year 20 AH (641 AD), introduces the system of stipends to the inhabitants of Kufa and sets up a register of all participants (soldiers) in the various campaigns.
There are three bands of allowances, depending on the seniority of military services:

  1. participants in campaigns during Prophet's lifetime
  2. a) participants in apostasy campaigns
    b) participants in Yarmuk and Qadisiya campaigns
  3. participants in post-Qadisiya campaigns

The allowances varies from 200 to 5,000 dirhams per year per person.
For the purposes of the stipend distribution, each group ("irafa") has a person in charge ("arif") for the distribution to each grouping, who in turn has his own hierarchy system of sub-leaders for distribution down to the people.

Arab Immigrants in Kufa

The Muslim empire, under Umar, is expanding vastly.
Two new groupings emigrate to Kufa.
The first major grouping is a wave of Arab immigrants; these are mainly soldiers, who after the conquest of Syria and Egypt by 20 AH (641 AD), see no prospects of military advances further westwards, and therefore come to Kufa with anticipation (correctly as it turns out to be) of incursions eastwards into the Persian empire, and hope to benefit from the booty of wars.
These Arab soldiers participate in the campaign of Nihawand (in Persia) in 21 AH with great valour, and Umar rewards them with a high level of stipends.
On hearing of the high stipend paid to these soldiers, a second wave of Arab immigrants flock to Kufa, also anticipating to benefit from further campaigns and hence being rewarded with an annual stipend.
These new Arab immigrants are accommodated in the unused spaces ("jabbana") reserved for each of the seven groupings.
These immigrants also find work as labourers in the fields of the Arab landlords and the conquered Persian lands now under the influence of Muslim empire.

Persian Immigrants in Kufa

The second major grouping to emigrate to Kufa is the Persian element.
The conquests of Persian territories, like Qadisiya, Jalula, Madayn and Nihawand, into the Muslim fold results in many Persians being taken as war captives and slaves to Kufa.
Economic migrants - as Kufa was just on the border of the then Persia, and Kufa was a growing city, many Persians find it easy to emigrate there for want of better economic prospects; some had lost their jobs as labourers with their royal landlords as the imperial system collapsed under he Muslim influence.
The initial presence of about 4,000 Persians ((Daylamites) in the founding of Kufa, coupled with the recent Nihawand influx, made it culturally attractive for other Persian immigrants to come to Kufa.
The Persians in Kufa are not granted full citizenship as their Arab counterparts; they are called the clients ("mawali") and are not allowed to own land, and are commonly regarded as second class citizens inferior to the Arabs.

The Cosmopolitan City

By the time of Umar's death in 24 AH (644 AD), the population of Kufa is well over 100,000 people (some reports say about 140,000).
With Kufa expanding, it also attracts tradesman and craftsmen of various skills to come and settle there.
As it was, Kufa started off with a heterogeneous composition of Arab tribes and clans; the new influxes of the Arabs and Persians further cosmopolises the population.

The Arab element of the population consists of:
1. a small number of Quraysh from Hijaz, who have a long standing reputation for nobility and settled lifestyle
2. strongly nomadic tribes (mostly from South Hijaz)
3. semi-nomadic clans (mostly from north and east Hijaz)
4. semi-settled lifestyle people of Yemen (very south of Hijaz)
5. Christian Arabs (like of the Najran) who pay the poll tax ("jizya")
6. the very nobles of many Arab clans
The Persian element (who are all "clients") of the population consists of:
1. soldiers, who become Muslims and join the Arab armies; they associate themselves with an Arab clan or come under an Arab patronage
2. refugees who are displaced from their lands due to the Muslim conquests; they are under the patronage of the governor
3. peasant who abandon their land due to increased taxation by the Muslim authorities who have to make up the budget deficit from the loss of land taxation due to the collapse of the royal and feudal landlords after the Muslim conquests; they are under the patronage of the governor
4. willing economic migrants to Kufa, who embrace Islam and are free men; they come under patronage of an Arab tribe/clan
5. prisoners of wars, who are converted to Islam, some still as slaves and some as free men; they are under the patronage of their Arab (former) masters
6. nobles of Persian from the conquered lands, who convert to Islam; they do not pay the poll tax ("jizya") but still have to pay land tax (even if it is their own); they come under the patronage of an Arab tribe/clan, although they are free to choose or change their own Arab patrons

The uneasy and in many instances, rebellious and treacherous strands of cosmopolitan Kufa is perhaps reasoned by four circumstances:

  1. Firstly, by the time of Umar's death in 23 AH, the population of Kufa is composed, roughly equally, of the Arabs and the clients (mostly Persians); the Arabs see themselves as the conquerors and racially superior to the clients, causing a growing discontent amongst the clients.
  2. Secondly, right at the founding of Kufa, the population is a mixture of tribes and clans, making it an uneasy alliances of social order, unlike other Arabian cities like Mecca, Medina, Damascus, Basra etc. which has an established tribal system of social order.
  3. Thirdly, many of the early settlers were soldiers ready for action, and by nature therefore, are restless and ever willing for military campaigns, rebellions or otherwise.
  4. Fourthly, Kufa is new town, with no tradition or culture of its own, and with a mixture of people of varying degrees of nomadic and settled lifestyles, cultures, nobles, immigrants, refugees and peasants, Kufa has to evolve its own cosmopolitan culture, which is difficult social development.

Class Struggle

There are two broad groups of people vying for status and power in Kufa
1. The first group is the religious hierarchy, who claim a higher status due to their early conversion to Islam, being companion of the Prophet (saww), involvement in the early militarily campaigns.
This group is given that status by Umar, who also awards them a higher stipend than the rest, and appoints officials from this group.

2. The second group vying for power is the Arab tribal aristocracy who wish to claim a higher status due to their tribal or clan nobility, strength, reputation or wealth.
This group is denied any influence in Kufa by Umar.

The interest of the Persian clients is thus best served in allying themselves with the first group (rather than the hostile group of Arab tribal supremacy).
However with Umar's death and Othman's succession in 23 AH, the roles are reversed; the tribal aristocracy are now given the positions of influence and status, and the religious hierarchy are removed from office.
Religious people like Malik b. Ashtar, Musyyab b. Nokhaba, Adi b. Hatim, Hujr al-Kindi are removed from office to be replaced by Othman's friends and relatives from the Ummayads.

The Third Administrative Block

After Othman's death in 35 AH, Imam Ali (as), by popular insistence, takes over the leadership of the Muslims.
The religious hierarchy in Kufa are the first to swear allegiance to Imam Ali (as) and they remain loyal throughout.
The tribal aristocracy and the Ummayads, who are now in position of high influence in all key areas, see their positions threatened.
An alliance between Mecca and Basra is formed to defeat Imam Ali (as) who has the support of the religious group in Kufa; the alliance is unsuccessful at the battle of Jamal.
Imam then makes Kufa his headquarters for strategic reasons as he still has to contend with Muawiya in Syria, and the Imam's core supporters are from Kufa.
He restores the religious hierarchy of influence, and removes from office the tribal leaders.
In order to weaken the stronghold of the tribal aristocracy and tribal leadership in Kufa, Imam now (in 36 AH - 656 AD) makes the third administrative change in the groupings of the seven tribal units established by Umar, which have been in effect for past nineteen years.
The seven tribal units is retained, but its composition is changed; the tribes are reshuffled and reorganised into seven new units, such that there is no undue domineering influence of one tribe or clan over another, which has since developed in the past nineteen years due to the wave of Arab immigration into Kufa.
In the battle of Siffin against the forces of Muawiya, the tribal chiefs play havoc with Imam's administration, for they fear further loss of status if Imam is allowed to consolidate his power, and yet, they also fear a dominating influence from Syria if Muawiya wins; thus a stalemate in the conflict is the ideal solution for them, and they find a safe haven with the Kharijites movement.

The Fourth Administrative Block

The change in composition of the seven units effected by Imam Ali (as) remains active for fourteen years.
In 50 AH (670 AD), Ziyad b. Abu Sufyan is made the governor of Kufa by Muawiya; this is in addition to being a governor of nearby Basra.
He completely demolishes the seven tribal administrative units into four ("arba") administrative blocks independent of any tribal genealogy.
Basra, which was founded just before Kufa, was divided into four administrative blocks from the beginning, which was not based on any tribal or clan genealogy; Basra had the advantage of a homogeneous population.
Ziyad chooses the four blocks system for Kufa as well, for it has worked extremely well for political and administrative controls in Basra where he is the governor.
The tribes are now all intermingled into four groups, carefully mixed for political expediency to ensure no rebellion from the tribes and the consolidation of the Ummayad power.
Ziyad's style of government is dictatorial, exercised through deputies responsible for the various groupings.

References & Bibliography

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    Leiden, Netherlands, 1986; ISBN 90-04-07819-3
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    Ansariyan Publications, Qum, Iran, 1989
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    Volume XII - The Battle of al-Qadisiyyah and the Conquest of Syria and Palestine
    Sate University New York Press, New York, USA, 1992; ISBN 0-7914-0734-9
  4. The History of al-Tabari; Tabari
    Volume XIII - The Conquest of Iraq, Southwest Persia, and Egypt
    Sate University New York Press, New York, USA, 1989; ISBN 0-88706-877-4
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