ʿAbd Allāh b. Sabāʾ (Arabic: عبدالله بن سبأ) or ʿAbd Allāh b. Sawdāʾ (Arabic: عبدالله بن سوداء, the 3rd and the 4th decade of the 1st century/640s and 650s) was a controversial figure in the history of Islam. Sources of history and rijal reported contradictory stories about him.
Some Sunni historical sources have introduced Ibn Saba' as the founder of Shiism. Some researchers consider him as a ghali (a person who exaggerates about Imams) who was cursed by Ahl al-Bayt (a). According to some studies, this is a fictional character which never existed; in fact, it was fabricated by enemies of Shiism.
From Denial to Affirmation
The variety of views about Ibn Saba' ranges from affirming his existence and his vital roles in the history of Islam to the denial of the existence of such a character. In general, historical studies about the character of 'Abd Allah b. Saba' lead to the following conclusions.
In Early Sources
Important older sources of the Islamic history, such as al-Tabaqat al-kubra by Ibn Sa'd (168/784-5-230/844-5) and Ansab al-ashraf by al-Baladhuri (d. 279/892-3), do not mention 'Abd Allah b. Saba' in their accounts of the events in the period of 'Uthman b. 'Affan's caliphate and his murder. In fact, such a character is not mentioned in these sources at all. The only reference to "'Abd Allah" in these sources is taken by some people to refer to 'Abd Allah b. Wahb al-Rasibi.
Founder of Shiism
Some historians, mainly Sunni scholars, take 'Abd Allah b. Saba' to be the founder of Shiism who played crucial historical roles, including in the murder of 'Uthman and prevention of a dialogue between 'Ali (a) and Aisha during the Battle of Jamal. The theory was first propounded by al-Tabari on the basis of a report by a person called "Sayf b. 'Umar". All subsequent sources of this theory appeal to al-Tabari's view and its source.
Cursed by Ahl al-Bayt (a)
Many historians and scholars of rijal consider 'Abd Allah b. Saba' to be a ghali who exaggerated about the character of Imam 'Ali (a) and identified him with God. Thus, he was cursed by Shiite Imams. The source of this view is al-Kashshi who was followed by most of the Shiite scholars. Some Sunni scholars and western researchers of Islam have confirmed such a view about Ibn Saba'.
Myth and Historical Fabrication
Some later scholars believe that no such a person as 'Abd Allah b. Saba' ever existed, and in fact, it was fabricated by people such as Sayf b. 'Umar. They have appealed to historical sources and principles of rijal to support their view. The view was propounded most famously by 'Allama Tabataba'i, 'Allama 'Askari, and Dr. Taha Hussein.
'Abd Allah b. Saba' is 'Ammar b. Yasir
In his Wu''az al-salatin, Dr. Ali al-Wardi, an Arab scholar, has supported the view that no such a person as 'Abd Allah b. Saba' ever existed and claimed, moreover, that most of the features attributed to 'Abd Allah b. Saba' in al-Tabari's Tarikh (history) and the like apply to 'Ammar b. Yasir, the loyal companion of the Prophet Muhammad (s) and Imam 'Ali (a). He could thus be considered as the leader of Saba'is, or he could be identified with 'Abd Allah b. Saba'. Similarities between 'Ammar b. Yasir and 'Abd Allah b. Saba' as mentioned in Sunni sources include their both being known as "Ibn al-Sawda'" (son of a black mother), love of 'Ali (a), calling people to pledge their allegiance to 'Ali (a), and the active role in the Battle of Jamal.
According to what al-Tabari and his followers have cited, 'Abd Allah b. Saba' was a Jew from Sana'a and his mother was black (Sawda'). He converted to Islam in the period of the third caliph. He believed that the Prophet Muhammad (s) will return to this world, just as Jesus will. He believed that every prophet had a successor and 'Ali (a) was the successor of the Prophet Muhammad (s) and the last successor. According to him, 'Uthman usurped 'Ali's (a) right and was unjust to him. Thus, the Islamic nation was, he believed, obliged to rise and remove 'Uthman from power and return the government to 'Ali (a).
In order to propagate his beliefs, the story goes, Ibn Saba' travelled to different Islamic cities and lands such as Kufa, Syria, Egypt, and Basra. Some companions of the Prophet (s) were "deceived" by him and supported his views, including Abu Dhar, 'Ammar b. Yasir, Muhammad b. Abi Hudhayfa, 'Abd al-Rahman b. 'Udays, Muhammad b. Abi Bakr, Sa'sa'a b. Sawhan al-'Abdi, and Malik al-Ashtar. His beliefs became so widespread that 'Uthman had to commission some of the Sahaba to go to different cities to prevent the sedition. As a result of Ibn Saba's provocations, an uprising against the caliph began which led to 'Uthman's murder.
Ibn Saba' allegedly had propagators in different cities who called people to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong (al-amr bi-l-ma'ruf wa l-nahy 'an al-munkar). They were significantly involved in the battles of Jamal and Siffin.
Assessment of Sources
The first source in which the story of Ibn Saba' is mentioned is Tarikh al-umam wa l-muluk by al-Tabari (224/838-9-310/922-3). He transmits the story from a person called "Sayf b. 'Umar". Other historiographers such as Ibn Athir (d. 630/1232-3), Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1372-3), and Ibn 'Asakir (d. 571/1175-6) in Tarikh madina Dimashq (History of the city Damascus) also transmitted the story from Sayf b. 'Umar.
Sayf b. 'Umar
The main transmitter of the story of Ibn Saba'—that is, Sayf b. 'Umar—is, according to many Sunni scholars, unreliable. Scholars such as Yahya b. Ma'in (d. 233/847-8), al-Nasa'i, the author of Sunan (d. 303/915-6), Abu Dawud (d. 275/888-9), Ibn Hammad al-'Aqili (d. 322/933-4), Ibn Abi Hatam (d. 327/938-9), and Ibn Hibban (d. 354/965) have referred to him as weak in the transmission of hadiths, fabricator of hadiths, and unreliable.
- (a) these hadiths do not appear in the Shiite Four Books, which is evidence that Shiite scholars have not relied on them.
- (b) scholars such as al-Najashi, al-Muhaddith al-Nuri, and Muhammad Taqi Shushtari hold that al-Kashshi's book contains some mistakes and unreliable hadiths.
'Abd Allah b. Saba' is discussed in many books and historical investigations. The most important such works which also discussed the story of 'Abd Allah b. Saba' include al-Fitna al-kubra by Taha Hussein (1889-1973) and Wu''az al-salatin by Ali al-Wardi (b. 1913). Moreover, there are monographs about Ibn Saba' the most important of which are the following:
- 'Abd Allah b. Saba' wa asatir ukhra by 'Allama Murtada 'Askari (1332/1914-1428/2007). The book has been translated into English, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish.
- Ara' wa asda' hawl 'Abd Allah b. Saba' wa riwayat Sayf fi l-suhuf al-Sa'udiyya: 'Askari's book attracted a lot of positive and negative reactions when it was published. Some Saudi newspapers and press published comments on the book made by professors of Saudi universities. This book is a compilation of these comments together with 'Allama 'Askari's replies to them. It was published in 1421/2000-1 by Usul al-Din University.
- 'Abd Allah b. Saba' min manzur akhar ('Abd Allah b. Saba from another perspective) by Asad Haydar (1911-1980). It was published by Ahl al-Bayt (a) World Assembly in 1426/2005-6.
- 'Abd Allah b. Saba' bayn al-waqi' wa l-khiyal by Hadi Khusrushahi (b. 1899-1900) in Arabic. It was published in 1426/2005-6 by the Cultural Deputy of the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought.
- 'Abd Allah b. Saba' haqiqa am khurafa ('Abd Allah b. Saba', reality or fiction?) by Ali Al Muhsin in Arabic. It was published 1429/2008 by the Cultural-Art Institute of Mash'ar.
- Ḥusayn, al-Fitnat al-kubrā, vol. 2, p. 132.
- Balādhurī, Ansāb al-ashrāf, vol. 2, p. 382.
- Ṭabarī, Tārīkh al-umam wa l-mulūk, vol. 4, p. 340.
- Ṭūsī, Ikhtīyār maʿrifat al-rijāl, vol. 1, p. 323-324.
- ʿAskarī, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ wa dīgar afsānihāyi tārīkhī, vol.3, p. 614.
- Baghdādī, al-Farq bayn al-firaq, p. 223.
- Guyard, Sāzmānhā-yi tamaddun-i Imprāṭūrī-yi Islām, p. 38-40.
- See: ʿAskarī, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ wa dīgar afsānihāyi tārīkhī, vol. 1, p. 64; Ṭabāṭabāʾī, " ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ", p. 194; Ḥusayn, al-Fitnat al-kubrā, vol. 2, p. 134.
- Wardī, Wuʿʿāẓ al-salāṭīn, p. 174.
- Ṭabāṭabāʾī, " ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ", p. 220-221.
- Ṭabarī, Tārīkh al-umam wa l-mulūk, vol. 4, p. 340.
- Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil fī l-tārīkh, vol. 3, p. 154.
- Ibn Kathīr, al-Bidāya wa l-nihāya, vol. 7, p. 167.
- Ibn ʿAsākir, Tārīkh madīnat Dimashq vol. 29, p. 3-4.
- Amīnī, Naẓra fī kitāb al-Sunna wa l-Shīʿa l-Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā, p. 11.
- Nashshār, Nashʾat al-fikr al-falsafī fī l-Islām, vol. 1, p. 68.
- Nasāʾī, al-Ḍuʿafāʾ wa l-matrūkīn, p. 50.
- Ibn Ḥajar ʿAsqalānī, Tahdhīb al-tahdhīb, vol. 4, p. 295.
- Ibn Ḥammād, Kitāb al-ḍuʿafāʾ al-kabīr, vol. 175.
- Ibn Abī Ḥātam, al-Jarḥ wa l-taʿdīl, vol. 4, p. 278.
- Ibn Ḥibbān, al-Majrūḥīn, vol. 1, p. 345.
- Dhahabī, al-Mughnī fī l-ḍuʿafāʾ, vol. 1, p. 292.
- ʿAskarī, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ wa dīgar afsānihāyi tārīkhī, vol. 3, p. 615-618.
- Amīnī, ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn al-. Naẓra fī kitāb al-Sunna wa l-Shīʿa l-Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā. Edited by Aḥmad al-Kinānī. Tehran: Mashʿar, n.d.
- ʿAskarī, Murtaḍā. ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ wa dīgar afsānihāyi tārīkhī. Translated by Aḥmad Fihrī Zanjānī & ʿAṭāʾ Muḥammad Sardārniā. Qom: Dānishkadi-yi Uṣūl dīn, 1387 Sh.
- Baghdādī, ʿAbd al-Qāhir b. Ṭāhir al-. Al-Farq bayn al-firaq wa bayān al-firqat al-nājīyya. Beirut: Dār al-Āfāq al-Jadīda, 1977.
- Balādhurī, Aḥmad b. Yaḥyā al-. Ansāb al-ashrāf. Edited by Muḥammad Bāqir al-Maḥmūdī & et al. Beirut: Muʾassisat al-Aʿlamī , n.d.
- Dhahabī, Muḥammad b. Aḥmad. Al-Mughnī fī l-ḍuʿafāʾ. Edited by Nūr al-Dīn ʿItir. n,p, n.d. (Version of al-maktaba al- shamela)
- Guyard, Stanisals. Sāzmānhā-yi tamaddun-i Imprāṭūrī-yi Islām. Translated by Sayyid Fakhr al-Dīn Ṭabāṭabāʾī. Tehran: Kitābkhāni-yi Ibn Sīnā , 1326 Sh.
- Ḥusayn, Ṭāhā. Al-Fitnat al-kubrā. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, n.d.
- Ibn Abī Ḥātam, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Muḥammad. Al-Jarḥ wa l-taʿdīl. Hyderabad: Majlis Dāʾirat al-Mʿārif al-ʿUthmānīyya, 1371 AH- 1952.
- Ibn al-Athīr, ʿAlī b. Muḥammad. Al-Kāmil fī l-tārīkh. Beirut: Dār al-Ṣādir, 1385 AH.
- Ibn ʿAsākir, ʿAlī b. al-Ḥasan. Tārīkh madīnat Dimashq. Edited by ʿAlī Shīrī. Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, n.d.
- Ibn Ḥajar ʿAsqalānī, Aḥmad b. ʿAlī. Tahdhīb al-tahdhīb. India: Maṭbaʿat Dāʾirat al-Maʿārif al-Niẓāmīyya, 1326 AH.
- Ibn Ḥammād al-ʿAqīlī, Muḥammad b. ʿAmr. Kitāb al-ḍuʿafāʾ al-kabīr. Edited by ʿAbd al-Muʿṭī Amīn Qalʿajī. Beirut: Dār al-Maktabt al-ʿIlmīyya, 1404 AH, 1984.
- Ibn Ḥibbān, Muḥammad. Al-Majrūḥīn min al-muḥaddithīn wa l-ḍuʿafāʾ wa l-matrūkīn. Edited by Maḥmūd Ibrāhīm Zāyid. Aleppo: Dār al-Waʿī, 1396 AH.
- Ibn Kathīr al-Dimashqī, Ismāʿīl b. ʿUmar. Al-Bidāya wa l-nihāya. Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1407AH.
- Nasāʾī, Aḥmad b. Shuʿayb al-. Al-Ḍuʿafāʾ wa l-matrūkīn. Aleppo: Dār al-Waʿī, 1396 AH.
- Nashshār, ʿAlī Sāmī al-. Nashʾat al-fikr al-falsafī fī l-Islām. Ninth edition. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, n.d.
- Ṭabarī, Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-. Tārīkh al-umam wa l-mulūk. Edited by Muḥammad Abu l-Faḍl Ibrāhīm. Beirut: n.p. , n.d. (Version of Noor digital library)
- Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn. " ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ" Maktab-i tashayyuʿ. N. 4, 2/1339 Sh.
- Ṭūsī, Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan. Ikhtīyār maʿrifat al-rijāl. Edited by Mahdī Rajāyī & Muḥammad Baqir b. Muḥammad Mīrdāmād. Qom: Muʾssisat Āl al-Bayt l-Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth, n.d.
- Wardī, ʿAlī al-. Wuʿʿāẓ al-salāṭīn. Beirut: Dār Kufān l-l-Nashr, 1955.