Alawites of Tabaristan

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Alawites of Tabaristan were the first Shiite rulers in northern parts of Iran. The Alawite government in Tabaristan dates back to 250/864. The Alawite government was founded by Zaydis in Tabaristan. The first Alawite ruler in northern Iran was Hasan b. Zayd b. Isma'il b. Zayd b. Hasan b. 'Ali, known as al-Da'i al-Kabir. The next most important Alawite ruler in Tabaristan was Nasir al-Utrush. The Alawite government lasted until the 10th/16th century. Before the 4th/10th century, Alawites fought Tahirid and Samanid governments in order to preserve their power. They were sometimes defeated, but after a while, they reclaimed their lost territories. After the 4th/10th century, however, their reign coincided with that of the Buyid dynasty, and so they lost their sovereignty. Thus, until the 10th/16th century in which they collapsed, Alawites of Tabaristan could not reign as an independent, sovereign government. The appearance of the Alawite government of Tabaristan led to the propagation of Islam among the residents of northern areas of Iran.

Backgrounds of the Appearance of the Alawite Government

According to some reports, Alawites entered Iran early in the 2nd/8th century. When Yahya b. Zayd and 70 companions of his began an uprising against the Umayyad government in Sabzevar and was killed in 125/742 or, on another account, in 126/743, people of the area named their sons “Yahya” as a way of mourning for his murder.

After him, Yahya b. 'Abd Allah b. Hasan, the brother of al-Nafs al-Zakiyya, was the first Alawite who went to Iran together with Persian pilgrims of hajj, after attending the uprising of Sahib al-Fakhkh in Hijaz and its defeat. He secretly lived in Daylam and called people of the city to follow him as an Imam. He succeeded to gather some companions around him.

However, his uprising ended in failure because his companions were threatened and bribed by Fadl b. Yahya al-Barmaki, the commander of an army sent by Harun al-Rashid. Yahya had to make a compromise with al-Barmaki, and after a while, he was imprisoned at the command of Harun al-Rashid. In 176/792, he died there.

Although Zaydis failed to obtain a stable position in Iran with such uprisings until the 3rd/9th century, their uprisings paved the path for the appearance and development of Zaydiyya in Iran in the 3rd/9th century and the centuries that followed.

Establishment of the Alawite Government in Tabaristan

When people of Tabaristan invited Hasan b. Zayd, known as al-Da'i al-Kabir, to their lands, he moved from Rey to Tabaristan in 250/864. People pledged their allegiance to him, and he entered Amol after defeating the Tahirid agent there. Al-Da'i al-Kabir’s 20 years of reign were full of wars and runs. However, he wrote letters to people in different areas of northern Iran and called a great number of people—who had not yet converted to Islam—to the Shiite Islam. His letters emphasized Shiite rituals, the superiority of Imam 'Ali (a) to other Sahaba, as well as the rejection of jabr (predestination), tashbih (assimilation of God to creatures), and tajsim (corporeality of God).

When al-Da'i al-Kabir died in 270/883, his brother, Muhammad b. Zayd, known as al-Da'i al-Saghir, succeeded him as the ruler of Tabaristan. After 17 years of reign, he was killed in a battle with the Samanid army in 287/900, his head was taken to Bukhara and Merv, and his corpse was buried in Gorgan. His burial place is known today as the grave of Da'i. After this, Tabaristan was annexed to the Samanid territories.

Period of Nasir al-Utrush

Main article: Hasan al-Utrush

After about 13 years of the Samanid reign in Tabaristan, Hasan b. 'Ali b. Hasan, known as Nasir al-Utrush or “al-Nasir al-Kabir”, retook Tabaristan from the Samanid dynasty after a number of wars and runs. He entered Amol in 301/913.

Nasir al-Utrush is a Zaydi Imam who wrote many books during his life. Unlike other Zaydi Imams, he was more inclined to the Imami views than the Mu'tazili ones. Late in his life, he founded a school and taught some students. The Nasiri school of thought emerged as a Zaydi branch as a result of his views.

Buyid Period

After Nasir al-Utrush and 12 years of the reign of Hasan b. Qasim, Nasir’s cousin, the Alawite government in Iran collapsed and the Shiite Buyid dynasty was established. During the Buyid government, Zaydi Imams occasionally established local governments. Important Zaydi Imams in this period include Ahmad b. Husayn b. Harun, known as Abu l-Husayn al-Haruni (d. 411/1020) and his brother Abu Talib Yahya b. Husayn al-Haruni (d. 424/1032). Unlike Nasir al-Utrush, they had Mu'tazili inclinations and played a significant role in the propagation of Hadawiyya Fiqh (a jurisprudence attributed to Hadi ila l-Haqq, the Zaydi leader in Yemen) in contrast with the Nasiri Fiqh (a jurisprudence attributed to Nasir al-Utrush). For example, Abu Talib al-Haruni wrote 16 books to elaborate the jurisprudence of Hadi ila l-Haqq.

After the 4th/10th century, Zaydis were mostly supported, honored, and respected by the Buyid dynasty. As some historians have claimed, Zaydi Imams were at the peak of their power under the Buyid government, such that they reigned Tabaristan, Daylam, Gilan, and Gorgan. An important activity by Zaydis in this period was their scholarly debates within themselves.

Kiya Dynasty

There is no report about Zaydi uprisings in northern Iran from the 6th/12th century to the 8th/14th century. However, in 776/1374, the Kiya dynasty, who were Zaydis according to some historical accounts, established a government in Gilan under the leadership of Sayyid 'Ali b. Sayyid Amir Kiya.

Collapse of the Alawites and Appearance of the Safavids

After the appearance of the Safavid dynasty, a battle occurred between Tahmasp I and Khan Ahmad Gilani, the last ruler of the Kiya dynasty, which led to the collapse of the latter dynasty. Some historians have claimed that in 960/1552, Khan Ahmad Gilani abandoned the Zaydiyya, and as a result, other people converted from Zaydiyya to Imamiyya.