Zanj Revolt of African Slaves Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A ninth century uprising and prolonged revolt of black African slaves proved the most serious threat the ՙAbbāsid caliphate faced in a period remarkable for the wide array of challenges to caliphal power.

Summary of Event

The history of the early Islamic world is frequently one of rebellion and revolt. The ambiguous nature of authority within the early Muslim ummah (community of believers) following the death of the Prophet stemmed in part from the fact that Muḥammad never clearly designated a successor. This, combined with the inevitable disaffection of those unable to compete for wealth or power within the evolving Islamic hierarchy, produced persistent factional strife within the community. It was the nascent ՙAbbāsid ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids] Dynasty’s ability to harness and focus discontent that proved important in the overthrow of the Umayyad caliphate, but once in power, the ՙAbbāsids themselves faced the effects of the social and political turbulence that undid their predecessors. [kw]Zanj Revolt of African Slaves (869-883) [kw]African Slaves, Zanj Revolt of (869-883) [kw]Slaves, Zanj Revolt of African (869-883) Zanj revolt (869-883) Slavery;Africa Iraq;869-883: Zanj Revolt of African Slaves[1020] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;869-883: Zanj Revolt of African Slaves[1020] ՙAlī ibn Muḥammad Abū al-ՙAbbās (850-902) Muwaffaq, al-

It is thus against a backdrop of precarious central power and insurgencies nourished by personal disappointment and led by charismatic prophetic figures that the so-called Zanj revolt, which began in 869, should be understood. The slaves involved in the revolt, which was directed by a self-styled Arab prophet, were almost exclusively men of sub-Saharan and East African extraction, the Zanj. It began and progressed while the ՙAbbāsid regime faced local challenges to its authority and power from the Sāffārids in Khorāsān, the Ṭūlūnids in Egypt and Syria, the Sāmānids in Transoxiana, and Khāijite rebels dispersed throughout Iraq and Iran. In addition, the ՙAbbāsid regime faced an ongoing conflict with the Byzantine Empire on its western frontiers.

Although the revolt was finally put down in 883, during the conflict, the Zanj army took several major cities, including Wasit and, in 871, the cultural, religious, and commercial center of Basra. In so doing, Zanj troops committed long-remembered acts of brutality and vandalism. In narrating these events, the normally dispassionate contemporary historian al-ṭabarī referred to the leader of the revolt, ՙAlī bin Muḥammad, as “the accursed one.” It is impossible to know how many died during the campaigns of the Zanj, although estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million people. Basra never recovered its former wealth or importance as a trading center, and the memory of the revolt may have shaded Arab perception of blacks, long after the last former Zanj guerrilla was mustered into the ՙAbbāsid army following the collapse of the revolt.

For more than a century before the outbreak of the Zanj rebellion, thousands of black African slaves were employed removing unusable topsoil from extensive tracts of southern Iraqi marshland. Islamic law held that anyone who made land productive would thereafter own it, and transforming otherwise unusable Iraqi marshland into arable farmland seems to have been an industry deemed worthy of the investment of large-scale capital in the form of slave cadres. For the men who labored in the salt marshes, however, conditions were miserable. Such conditions led to smaller Zanj uprisings under the Umayyads in 689-690 and 694.

The catalyst for the rebellion of 869 seems to have been the appearance of ՙAlī ibn Muḥammad ՙAlī ibn Muḥammad , a charismatic would-be Arab prophet. Before reaching Basra prior to the revolt, ՙAlī had drifted from employment as a poet and teacher in the orbit of the caliphal court at Sāmarrā՚ to the desert regions of Bahrain, where he presented himself to the Bedouin tribes as a descendant of Abū Ṭālib (d. 619), Muḥammad’s uncle. He claimed to receive revelations from God in the form of poetry that came tripping off his tongue, and he badgered the desert tribes for their “moral laxness.” Moreover, he rallied his followers against the power of the caliphate, a project in which he enjoyed some patchy success.

After a series of defeats and close scrapes with the authorities in Bahrain, Basra, and Baghdad, however, ՙAlī returned to the Basra region posing as a well-to-do merchant. Having captured a trader whose business was the transportation of flour to the labor camps arrayed throughout Iraq’s southern salt marshes, ՙAlī seems to have recognized immediately the slaves working in those camps as potential followers. After inquiring about the condition of the slaves, ՙAlī sent the merchant to recruit as many of the Zanj as he could to his cause.

The revolt began as a series of local riots whose focus was the acquisition of provisions and armaments and whose targets were local villages. The residents of these villages were unable to field an effective defense against the rebels, and they were quickly joined by Basrans determined to protect their movable property and to regain control of their slaves. Through a series of guerrilla-style operations, the Zanj routed or evaded their enemies consistently and made a habit of collecting the banners and severed heads of their defeated foes and delivering them to their leader.

As they made their way through the Iraqi countryside, the Zanj also rallied other black slaves to their cause and rejected offers of payment from local officials and citizens to leave the area. On October 22 and 23, 869, the Zanj fought a pair of climactic battles with the people of Basra among the canals south of the city. The first day was a serious defeat for the Zanj, but on the second day the Basrans were decisively routed, many prominent members of the community were killed, and their former slaves took their heads as trophies. Following the battle, the Zanj established a base camp in the salt marshes and set about plundering and massacring the surrounding villages. The people of Basra immediately appealed to the caliph for help against the rebels.

Meanwhile, the rebellion spread. The Zanj took the cities of Ubulla and Abbadan, Jubba and Ahvāz. The caliph al-Muՙtamid dispatched his brother, al-Muwaffaq Muwaffaq, al- , to deal with the rebellion, but it nevertheless continued unabated. Complicating matters was the fact that the revolt had taken on a nebulous quality and manifested itself where least expected before dissipating and re-forming again elsewhere. In 872, al-Muwaffaq took personal command of a large army and set out to crush the Zanj once and for all. The resulting battles were inconclusive, however, and each side took away its share of victories before disease in the ranks forced al-Muwaffaq to withdraw.

During this and directly preceding periods, the vicious excesses of the Zanj crescendoed into the sack of Basra Basra, sack of (871) on September 7, 871. Having defeated the ՙAbbāsid contingent on hand, the Zanj set about pillaging and burning the city while indiscriminately murdering men, women, and children. The rich were stripped of their wealth before being murdered, while the poor were butchered immediately. Throughout the environs of the city, people tried to hide from the Zanj, and they were reportedly reduced to cannibalism after the supply of rats and feral dogs had been exhausted.

Distracted with other matters following the collapse of al-Muwaffaq’s campaign, the ՙAbbāsids remained content with a policy of containment with regard to the Zanj. This strategy lasted from 873 to 879. When the caliphate was once again free to deal exclusively with the Zanj, al-Muwaffaq, now caliph, sent his son Abū al-ՙAbbās Abū al-ՙAbbās (Muslim commander) to crush the Zanj. Abū al-ՙAbbās proved a talented and tenacious commander. Having learned from his own failure, al-Muwaffaq instructed his son to undermine the Zanj’s ability to wage the style of warfare at which they had proven most adept: the use of guerrilla tactics in the salt marshes using home terrain and small boats for swift mobility and amphibious assaults. Beginning in 879-880, Abū al-ՙAbbās slowly ground away the capacity of the Zanj to wage war in the swaps, destroying boats and cutting off supplies while pushing the Zanj out of captured cities and territories.


ՙAlī ibn Muḥammad was killed in battle on August 11, 883, and the Zanj revolt collapsed. When the rebel leader’s head was carried in triumph through the streets of Baghdad by Abū al-ՙAbbās, the city was jubilant. The Zanj revolt had come to represent for the ՙAbbāsid caliphate not just a challenge to its authority but also a threat to the existence of the community it headed. Carried on in the Iraqi heartland and by a group of people the ՙAbbāsids could neither negotiate with nor co-opt, the revolt was of a character distinct from those of other, less radical challenges to ՙAbbāsid authority. Basra, however, would never recover from the ravages of the revolt, and southern Iraq thereafter entered a long period of neglect, poverty, and despair.

Less easily quantified are the effects of the rebellion on perceptions of blacks among Muslims. Such perceptions had never been overly positive. Al-Jāiẓ (c. 776-868), for example, an Arabic satirist who died the year before the Zanj revolt broke out, reveals in his tongue-in-cheek essay “The Superiority of Blacks to Whites” (English translation, 2002) that despite arguments made on their behalf, blacks were thought by his contemporaries to be stupid, ugly, and uncultured. In other writings, al-Jāiẓ suggests that blacks are, in his own estimation, crude, vicious, and “dim.” Other Arab writers were less generous. Blacks, they declared, were not only lacking in intelligence, but also violent, malodorous, and, as one put it, “beggars when hungry and rapists when fed.” While it is not difficult to understand how the excesses of the Zanj revolt might have nourished such stereotypes, the grim consequences of the prejudices that underlie such stereotypes carried grave implications for the millions of black Africans who were to come into contact with Islam in the ensuing centuries as converts and slaves.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldenberg, David M. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. A thoroughly researched study of the topic of race, slavery, and anti-black sentiment—and the portrayal of black Africans—in the major world religions and in the Bible. Focuses on the belief that the biblical figure Ham and his descendants, including black Africans, had been cursed by God with eternal slavery. Extensive bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunwick, John, and Eve Troutt Powell. The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam. Princeton, N.J.: Marcus Wiener, 2002. Provides primary sources on the topic of the enslavement of black Africans by Muslims in the Mediterranean region during a one-thousand-year span of history. Illustrations, map, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jāiẓ, al-. Sobriety and Mirth: A Selection of the Shorter Writings of al-Jāiẓ. Translated by Jim Colville. New York: Kegan Paul, 2002. Writings on social and moral issues by the Islamic satirist of the ninth century, including “The Superiority of Blacks to Whites.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century. New York: Longman, 1986. A clear and accessible guide to the events of the age of the Zanj revolt. Genealogical tables, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Bernard. Race and Color in Islam. New York: Harper and Row, 1970. Explores the topic of race, color, and racism in the context of Islam. Illustrations, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Bernard. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Explores the legacy of slavery in the Middle East, focusing on the relationship between the institution of slavery and racial prejudice and oppression. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Popovic, Alexandre. The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the Third/Ninth Century. Translated by Léon King. Princeton, N.J.: Marcus Wiener, 1999. A translation of the author’s 1976 classic and exhaustive study of the revolt. Includes a new introduction by scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waines, David, trans. The Revolt of the Zanj. Vol. 36 in The History of al-ṭabarī. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985. An important historical work by the Arab historian al-ṭabarī, author of a multivolume treatise on Islam before and during the Middle Ages, up to the year 915.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waines, David, trans. The ՙAbbāsid Recovery. Vol. 37 in The History of al-ṭabarī. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985. Discusses the end of the revolt and the “recovery” of the ՙAbbāsids. Bibliography, index.

Categories: History