The Zanj Revolt took place near the city of Basra, located in southern Iraq over a period of fifteen years (869-883 AD). It grew to involve over 500,000 slaves who were imported from across the Muslim empire and claimed over “tens of thousands of lives in lower Iraq” . The revolt was said to have been led by Ali ibn Muhammad, who claimed to be a descendent of Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib. Several historians, such as Al-Tabari and Al-Masudi, consider this revolt one of the “most vicious and brutal uprising” out of the many disturbances that plagued the Abbasid central government.
The Zanj revolt helped Ahmad ibn Tulun to create an independent state in Egypt. It is only after defeating the Zanj Revolt that the Abbassids were able to turn their attention to Egypt, and end the Tulunid dynasty with great destruction.
It is certain that large numbers of slaves were exported from eastern Africa; the best evidence for this is the magnitude of the Zanj revolt in Iraq in the 9th century, though not all of the slaves involved were Zanj. There is little evidence of what part of eastern Africa the Zanj came from, for the name is here evidently used in its general sense, rather than to designate the particular stretch of the coast, from about 3°N. to 5°S., to which the name was also applied..The Zanj were needed to take care of:
the Tigris-Euphrates delta, which had become abandoned marshland as a result of peasant migration and repeated flooding, [which] could be reclaimed through intensive labor. Wealthy proprietors “had received extensive grants of tidal land on the condition that they would make it arable." Sugar cane was prominent among the products of their plantations, particularly in Khūzestān Province. Zanj also worked the salt mines of Mesopotamia, especially around Basra.Their jobs were to clear away the nitrous top soil that made the land arable. The working conditions were also considered to be extremely miserable. Many other people were imported into the region besides Zanj.
Also around the time of the revolts, the Abbasid caliphate was
mired in a period of financial weakness, both internally and externally… The financial strain imposed on the accession of each new caliph contributed to the ability of the Zanj revolt, which began in 868 AD, to sustain itself for as long as it did.The rise of the Shīˤa also occurred around this time, so the Abbasid government was fighting on two fronts.
In Basrah, ˤAlī b. Muhammad preached at the mosque, advocating against the caliphate and for the people.
His first actual contact with Basrah’s slaves seems to have been motivated by a vicious outbreak of hostilities between two Turkish regiments, the Bilaliyah and the Sa’diyah, which contributed to the weakening of Basrah’s political regime. Hoping to exploit the resultant anarchy to his advantage, he tried to win to his side members of one of these groups.The Bilaliyyah and Saˤdiyyah were described by Tabari as guilds in the town or rivaling quarters.
When he heard news about another scuffle between Basrah’s factions he started to seek out “began to seek out black slaves working in the Basrah marshes and to inquire into their working conditions and nutritional standards.” He told the Zanj and other slaves that he was sent by God to liberate them from their bonds.
Origins have a large part in establishing oneself in Arab society and especially when dealing with slaves. Initially
‘Ali bin Muhammad’s paternal grandfather was said to have been a member of the ‘Abd al-Qays lineage and his paternal grandmother a Sindhi slave woman. His mother, a free woman, was a member of the Asad bin Khuzaimah lineage... later commentators have presumed him to have been of Persian rather than Arab origin..
Sahib al-Zanj [ˤAlī’s title] declared his rebellion at al-Basrah, during the reign of al-Muhtadi, in 255 A.H. He claimed that he was descended from ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, but most people recognize this as a false claim and reject it.After ˤAlī’s lineage was not accepted, he started to preach the “extremely egalitarian doctrine of the Kharijites, who preached that the most qualified man should reign, even if he was an Abyssinian slave.”.
This was not the only Kharijite influence in ˤAlī b. Muhammad’s campaign. He started off his Friday sermons with the slogan "God is great, God is great, there is no God but God, and God is great; there is no arbitration except by God." “Everyone knew [this] was the war cry used by the Kharijites when they defected from the ranks of Ali during the battle of Siffin.” ˤAlī also took on the title Sāhib az-Zanj, which loosely translated means “Friend of the Zanj”.
However, ˤAlī b. Muhammad was not just the friend of the Zanj but of many other socially downtrodden peoples. This included “semi-liberated slaves, clients of prestigious families, a number of small craftsmen and humble workers, some peasantry and some Bedouin peoples who lived around Basrah.” “Hostilities began in and around Basrah in the area known formerly as Dajlah al-‘Awra’, but eventually spread to the whole area between Shatt al-‘Arab and Waset. Much of this area... was swampland”. Since the revolutionaries were more mobile than the heavily armed caliphate army it was easy for them to wage guerrilla warfare and overcome most of their former oppressors.
No sooner had they taken up arms against their exploiters that they became adept at night-raids on enemy territory, liberating weapons, horses, food and fellow slaves burning the rest to cinders to delay retaliation.Over the course of time, the Zanj even
trained expert engineers who blocked the enemy’s advance by constructing impenetrable fortresses, cocooned inside layers of water canals or conversely built rapid bridges and communication lines for uninvited courtesy calls to the citadels of the gods.Footnotes]They even had somewhat of a navy to take on the Caliph’s ships.
Their ultimate goal however was control over the whole Basrah area and they
finally accomplished their objective with a tight blockade that prevented goods and victuals from reaching the besieged inhabitants, and by exploiting the sectarian and ethnic differences among section of the population. Basrah was finally taken in 871 A.D. and totally devastated, then burned..Mas’udi provides even more gruesome details. “Most people hid in homes and wells appearing only at night, when they would search for dogs to slay and eat, as well as for mice.... They even ate their own dead, and he who was able to kill his companion, did so and ate him.”
Ali’s soldiers were so outrageous as to auction off publicly women from the lineage of al-Hassan and al-Hussein and al’Abbas [meaning descendants of Ali and the ruling ‘Abbasids] as well as other from the lineage of Hashem, Qureish [the Prophet’s lineage] and the rest of the Arabs.”The caliphate eventually sent out a large military force led by the Vizier Al-Muwaffaq.”. After several encounters, the caliphate army started to make examples of rebellion leaders.
For instance, Yahya of Bahrain, a noted leader of the rebel troops, was taken with a small group of men and sent to Samarra. There he was flogged two hundred times while Caliph al-Mu'tamid watched. Both his arms and legs were amputated and he was slashed with swords. Finally, his throat was slit and he was burned.This did nothing to hinder the Zanjī and they continued to raid towns and villages. “When the caliphate became preoccupied with the Saffarid secessionist movement in Persia, the Zanjī extended their control further north with the aid of the surrounding Bedouin peoples.” It was probably at this time that the Zanjī constructed their capital which was called Moktara (the Elect City).
In the long run, Islamic culture in Basrah area changed quite a bit concerning slavery. “The slaves’ workload was lessened and they were gradually transformed into peasants and serfs, some being ‘freed’ into wage-slavery.” By the tenth century instead of using slaves as a sign of treaty between two cities, private trade was used.