Origin and rise of the Tawwabun

The tragic event of Karbala stirred religious and moral sentiment, particularly among those of the Kufans who had so zealously invited Hussain to Iraq to guide them on the path of God. But when Hussain came to Iraq they did not not stand with him in the hour of trial. Soon after the event of Karbala, the Umayyad governor Ibn Ziyad returned to Kufa from his camp at Nukhayla, the Shiites, according to Tabari (7th vol., p. 47), "were stung with shame at their faint-heartedness. They took to mutual recrimination as they painfully realized the enormity of neglecting to go to Hussain's help, and thereby leading him to his death in their close neighbourhood, since he had come to Iraq only to their invitation." They thought that they must make similar sacrifices to obtain God's forgiveness. They believed that they could only prove their real repentance by exposing themselves to death while seeking vengeance for the blood of Hussain. Hence they named themselves as the tawwabun (the penitents).

The movement of the Tawwabun began under the headship of five of the oldest trusted associates of Ali, with a following of a hundred diehard Shiites of Kufa. The five leaders of the Tawwabun, Suleman bin Surad al-Khuzai, Al-Musayyab bin Najaba al-Fazari, Abdullah bin Sa'd bin Nufayl al-Azdi, Abdullah bin Walin at-Taymi, and Rifa'a bin Shaddad al-Bajali; had always been in the forefront of all Shiite activities in Kufa. At the end of 61/680 they held their first meeting in the house of Suleman bin Surad. According to Tabari (2nd vol., p. 498), the first to speak was Al-Musayyab bin Najaba al-Fazari, who said: "We invited the son of the daughter of our Prophet to come to Kufa to guide us on the right path, but when he responded to our call, we became rapacious for our own lives until he was killed in our midst. What excuse would we have before our Lord, and before our Prophet when we must meet him on the day of resurrection, while his most beloved son, family and progeny were massacred in our midst. By God, there is no other way for us to expiate ourselves for the sin except to kill all his murderers and their associates or be killed. Perhaps by doing so our Lord may forgive our sin. You must, therefore, now select someone from among you as your leader, who can organize and mobilize you under his command and proceed with the plan of seeking God's forgiveness by taking the action which has been proposed."

Finally, Suleman bin Surad had been chosen as their leader, who also made a forceful speech in the meeting, and said: "We used to crane our necks eagerly in looking for the arrival of the members of the Prophet's household, but when they arrived, we acted with such indifference and laxity that in our land and not far from us, the Prophet's son was put to the sword. When he raised his voice in demanding justice and help, there was none to respond to him to say, `Here I am, standing in thy service'. The man of sin made him the target of their arrows and spears, and killed him. Now if you wish to get up, rise! God's wrath has been stirred. Resolve here and now not to return to your wives and children till you have taken steps to win God's pleasure. Now that you consider sinners, prepare yourselves for sacrifice. Sharpen your swords, and straighten your spear-heads." (Tabari, 7th vol., p. 48) He then entered into correspondence with Shiite leaders in other cities, namely Sa'd bin Hudhayfa al-Yamen in Madain and Al-Muthanna bin Mukharriba al-Abdi in Basra. The movement of Tawwabun, however, went on secretly for three years, increasing in number and strength, and waiting for an appropriate time. In the interim, Yazid died in 64/683, encouraging the Tawwabun to come out in the open. They succeeded in gaining support of 16,000 Kufans. Suleman started final preparations for action, and the penitents embarked upon a course of direct action against Yazid's rule.

In the interim, Mukhtar also spurred his horses towards Kufa, and tried to bring the Tawwabun in his mission. The main body of Tawwabun, however, refused to join Mukhtar, though at least 2,000 of these had registered their names with Suleman bin Surad did switch over to him. According to their plan, the Tawwabun raised their call for "revenge for the blood of Hussain" (la latha'rat al-Hussain) in 65/684, and gathered at Nukhayla, a suburb of Kufa, from where they had to march against the forces of Ibn Ziyad, the Umayyad governor who had been responsible for the massacre of Karbala upon the instructions of Yazid. Only 4,000 out of 16,000 enrolled members of Tawwabun assembled at Nukhayla, where their supporters from Madain and Basra yet not arrived. Meanwhile, another 1,000 out of 4,000 had left the field. Thus Suleman led the remaining 3,000 and marched to Karbala to the grave of Hussain, where they mourned. They then proceeded to the village of Qarqisiya, the fifth stage of Karbala, and ultimately reached Ayn al-Warda, and engaged the twenty thousand Umayyad horsemen fiercely, shouting: "Paradise! Paradise! for the Turabites." The battle lasted for three days, in which Suleman bin Surad was killed. Finally, Rifa bin Shaddad, advised the survivors to return, and brought them to Qarqisiya after getting defeat.

An exhaustive scrutiny of the earliest sources suggests that the small number of Tawwabun survived the battle of Ayn al-Warda, went over to Mukhtar and accepted Ibn al-Hanafiya as their Imam. This is confirmed even by Imam Muhammad Bakir in one of his traditions quoted by Kashi, who said: "After the death of Hussain, all the people apostatised except three, viz. Abu Khalid al-Kabuli, Yahya bin Umm at-Tiwal and Jubayr bin Mutim, and only later did other join them and their number increased." ("Marifat Akhbar ar-Rijal", p. 123) These Kufans, who formed the backbone of Mukhtar's movement, called themselves Shiat al-Mahdi, Shiat al-Haqq or Shiat al-Muhammad. Consequently, a sect emerged with the name of Kaysaniya. The power of Mukhtar soon ended by his being killed with the majority of his followers, Kaysaniyas. These sectarians, some of who lived as far away as Khorasan, continued to recognize Ibn al-Hanafiya as their Imam Mahdi, who died in 81/700, who believed in his concealment and return, while the majority accepted the eldest of his sons, Abu Hashim as the next Imam, who himself also claimed to have inherited the scrolls of his father.

The famous Umayyad poet, Kuthayyir bin Abd Rehman Azza (24-105/644-723) was first to propagate that Ibn al-Hanafiya was alive on the Mount Radhwah, that he was being guarded by a lion and a tiger, that he had two rich springs of water and honey, and that he would reappear to fill the world with justice, vide his "Diwan" (ed. by Ihsan Abbas, Beirut, 1971). Kashi also records a story about two men from the entourage of Imam Jafar Sadik, viz. as-Sarraj and Hammad bin Isa, who were known to believe that Ibn al-Hanafiya was still alive. Jafar Sadik reproached them and pointed out that Ibn al-Hanafiya was seen being buried, and his property had been divided and his widow had re-married. (Ibid)

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