Abbasid Caliphate

Abbasid Caliphate

ٱلْخِلافَةُ ٱلْعَبَّاسِيَّة
Flag of Abbasids
Abbasid Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. 850
Abbasid Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. 850
Ceremonial dynasty based in Cairo under the Mamluk Sultanate
Common languagesArabic (central administration); various regional languages
Sunni Islam
• 750–754
As-Saffah (first)
• 1242–1258
Al-Musta'sim (last Caliph in Baghdad)
• 1508–1517
al-Mutawakkil III (last Caliph in Cairo)
• Established
• Disestablished
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Umayyad Caliphate
Ottoman Empire
Seljuk Empire
Ghurid Sultanate
Fatimid Caliphate
Mamluk Sultanate (Cairo)
Saffarid dynasty
Ziyadid dynasty
Mongol Empire
Amir al-Mu'minin (أمير المؤمنين), Caliph (خليفة)

The Abbasid Caliphate (d/ or d/ Arabic: ٱلْخِلافَةُ ٱلْعَبَّاسِيَّة‎, al-Khilāfatu al-ʿAbbāsiyyah) was the third of the Islamic caliphates to succeed the Islamic prophet Muhammad. It was founded by a dynasty descended from Muhammad's uncle, Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib (566–653 CE), from whom the dynasty takes its name.[2] They ruled as caliphs for most of the caliphate from their capital in Baghdad in modern-day Iraq, after having overthrown the Umayyad Caliphate in the Abbasid Revolution of 750 CE (132 AH).

The Abbasid Caliphate first centred its government in Kufa, modern-day Iraq, but in 762 the caliph Al-Mansur founded the city of Baghdad, near the ancient Sasanian capital city of Ctesiphon. The Abbasid period was marked by reliance on Persian bureaucrats (notably the Barmakid family) for governing the territories as well as an increasing inclusion of non-Arab Muslims in the ummah (national community). Persianate customs were broadly adopted by the ruling elite, and they began patronage of artists and scholars.[3] Baghdad became a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention in what became known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Despite this initial cooperation, the Abbasids of the late 8th century had alienated both non-Arab mawali (clients)[4] and Iranian bureaucrats.[5] They were forced to cede authority over al-Andalus (Spain) to the Umayyads in 756, Morocco to the Idrisid dynasty in 788, Ifriqiya and Southern Italy to the Aghlabids in 800, Iran to Saffarid in 861 and Egypt to the Isma'ili-Shia caliphate of the Fatimids in 969.

The political power of the caliphs largely ended with the rise of the Iranian Buyids and the Seljuq Turks, who captured Baghdad in 945 and 1055, respectively. Although Abbasid leadership over the vast Islamic empire was gradually reduced to a ceremonial religious function, the dynasty retained control over its Mesopotamian domain. The Abbasids' period of cultural fruition ended in 1258 with the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan. The Abbasid line of rulers, and Muslim culture in general, re-centred themselves in the Mamluk capital of Cairo in 1261. Though lacking in political power (with the brief exception of Caliph Al-Musta'in of Cairo), the dynasty continued to claim religious authority until after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517.[6]


Abbasid Revolution (750–751)

The Abbasid caliphs were Arabs descended from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, one of the youngest uncles of Muhammad and of the same Banu Hashim clan. The Abbasids claimed to be the true successors of Prophet Muhammad in replacing the Umayyad descendants of Banu Umayya by virtue of their closer bloodline to Muhammad.

The Abbasids also distinguished themselves from the Umayyads by attacking their moral character and administration in general. According to Ira Lapidus, "The Abbasid revolt was supported largely by Arabs, mainly the aggrieved settlers of Merv with the addition of the Yemeni faction and their Mawali".[7] The Abbasids also appealed to non-Arab Muslims, known as mawali, who remained outside the kinship-based society of the Arabs and were perceived as a lower class within the Umayyad empire. Muhammad ibn 'Ali, a great-grandson of Abbas, began to campaign in Persia for the return of power to the family of Prophet Muhammad, the Hashimites, during the reign of Umar II.

During the reign of Marwan II, this opposition culminated in the rebellion of Ibrahim the Imam, the fourth in descent from Abbas. Supported by the province of Khorasan (Eastern Persia), even though the governor opposed them, and the Shia Arabs,[2][8] he achieved considerable success, but was captured in the year 747 and died, possibly assassinated, in prison.

On 9 June 747 (15 Ramadan AH 129), Abu Muslim, rising from Khorasan, successfully initiated an open revolt against Umayyad rule, which was carried out under the sign of the Black Standard. Close to 10,000 soldiers were under Abu Muslim's command when the hostilities officially began in Merv.[9] General Qahtaba followed the fleeing governor Nasr ibn Sayyar west defeating the Umayyads at the Battle of Gorgan, the Battle of Nahāvand and finally in the Battle of Karbala, all in the year 748.[8]

Folio from the Tarikhnama of Bal'ami depicting al-Saffah as he receives pledges of allegiance in Kufa

The quarrel was taken up by Ibrahim's brother Abdallah, known by the name of Abu al-'Abbas as-Saffah, who defeated the Umayyads in 750 in the battle near the Great Zab and was subsequently proclaimed caliph.[10] After this loss, Marwan fled to Egypt, where he was subsequently assassinated. The remainder of his family, barring one male, were also eliminated.[8]

Immediately after their victory, As-Saffah sent his forces to Central Asia, where his forces fought against Tang expansion during the Battle of Talas. The noble Iranian family Barmakids, who were instrumental in building Baghdad, introduced the world's first recorded paper mill in the city, thus beginning a new era of intellectual rebirth in the Abbasid domain. As-Saffah focused on putting down numerous rebellions in Syria and Mesopotamia. The Byzantines conducted raids during these early distractions.[8]

Power (752–775)

The city of Baghdad between 767 and 912 AD. The round plan reflects pre-Islamic Persian urban design.[11]

The first change the Abbasids, under Al-Mansur, made was to move the empire's capital from Damascus, in Syria, to Baghdad in Iraq. This was to both appease as well to be closer to the Persian mawali support base that existed in this region more influenced by Persian history and culture, and part of the Persian mawali demand for less Arab dominance in the empire. Baghdad was established on the Tigris River in 762. A new position, that of the vizier, was also established to delegate central authority, and even greater authority was delegated to local emirs.[12]

This eventually meant that many Abbasid caliphs were relegated to a more ceremonial role than under the Umayyads, as the viziers began to exert greater influence, and the role of the old Arab aristocracy was slowly replaced by a Persian bureaucracy.[12] During Al-Mansur's time control of Al-Andalus was lost, and the Shia revolted and were defeated a year later at the Battle of Bakhamra.[8]

The Abbasids had depended heavily on the support of Persians[2] in their overthrow of the Umayyads. Abu al-'Abbas' successor, Al-Mansur welcomed non-Arab Muslims to his court. While this helped integrate Arab and Persian cultures, it alienated many of their Arab supporters, particularly the Khorasanian Arabs who had supported them in their battles against the Umayyads.

These fissures in their support led to immediate problems. The Umayyads, while out of power, were not destroyed. The only surviving member of the Umayyad royal family, which had been all but annihilated, ultimately made his way to Spain where he established himself as an independent Emir (Abd ar-Rahman I, 756). In 929, Abd ar-Rahman III assumed the title of Caliph, establishing Al Andalus from Córdoba as a rival to Baghdad as the legitimate capital of the Islamic Empire.

In 756, the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur sent over 4,000 Arab mercenaries to assist the Chinese Tang dynasty in the An Shi Rebellion against An Lushan. The Abbasides or "Black Flags," as they were commonly called, were known in Tang dynasty chronicles as the hēiyī Dàshí, "The Black-robed Tazi", (黑衣大食) ("Tazi" being a borrowing from Persian Tāzī, the word for "Arab").[nb 1][nb 2][nb 3][nb 4][nb 5] Al-Rashid sent embassies to the Chinese Tang dynasty and established good relations with them.[18][nb 6][nb 7][21][22][23][24][25] After the war, these embassies remained in China[26][27][28][29][30] with Caliph Harun al-Rashid establishing an alliance with China.[18] Several embassies from the Abbasid Caliphs to the Chinese court have been recorded in the T'ang Annals, the most important of these being those of Abul Abbas al-Saffah, the first Abbasid caliph, his successor Abu Jafar, and Harun al-Rashid.

Abbasid Golden Age (775–861)

Harun al-Rashid receiving a delegation sent by Charlemagne at his court in Baghdad. Painting by German painter Julius Köckert [fr] (1827–1918), dated 1864. Oil on canvas.

The Abbasid leadership had to work hard in the last half of the 8th century (750–800), under several competent caliphs and their viziers to overcome the political challenges created by the far flung nature of the empire, and the limited communication across it and usher in the administrative changes needed to keep order.[31] It was also during this early period of the dynasty, in particular during the governance of al-Mansur, Harun al-Rashid, and al-Ma'mun, that the reputation and power of the dynasty was created.[2]

Al-Mahdi restarted the fighting with the Byzantines and his sons continued the conflict until Empress Irene pushed for peace.[8] After several years of peace, Nikephoros I broke the treaty, then fended off multiple incursions during the first decade of the 9th century. These attacks pushed into the Taurus Mountains culminating with a victory at the Battle of Krasos and the massive invasion of 806, led by Rashid himself.[32]

Rashid's navy also proved successful as he took Cyprus. Rashid decided to focus on the rebellion of Rafi ibn al-Layth in Khorasan and died while there.[32] While the Byzantine Empire was fighting Abbasid rule in Syria and Anatolia, military operations during this period were minimal, as the caliphate focused on internal matters, its governors exerting greater autonomy and using their increasing power to make their positions hereditary.[12]

At the same time, the Abbasids faced challenges closer to home. Harun al-Rashid turned on the Barmakids, a Persian family that had grown significantly in power within the administration of the state and killed most of the family.[33] During the same period, several factions began either to leave the empire for other lands or to take control of distant parts of the empire away from the Abbasids. The reign of al-Rashid and his sons were considered to be the apex of the Abbasids.[34]

Gold dinar minted during the reign of al-Amin (809–813)

After Rashid's death, the empire was split by a civil war between the caliph al-Amin and his brother al-Ma'mun who had the support of Khorasan. This war ended with a two-year siege of Baghdad and the eventual death of al-Amin in 813.[32] Al-Ma'mun ruled for 20 years of relative calm interspersed with a rebellion supported by the Byzantines in Azerbaijan by the Khurramites. Al-Ma'mun was also responsible for the creation of an autonomous Khorasan, and the continued repulsing of Byzantine forays.[32]

Al-Mu'tasim gained power in 833 and his rule marked the end of the strong caliphs. He strengthened his personal army with Turkish mercenaries and promptly restarted the war with the Byzantines. His military excursions were generally successful culminating with a resounding victory in the Sack of Amorium. His attempt at seizing Constantinople failed when his fleet was destroyed by a storm.[35] The Byzantines restarted the fighting by sacking Damietta in Egypt. Al-Mutawakkil responded by sending his troops into Anatolia again, sacking and marauding until they were eventually annihilated in 863.[36]

Fracture to autonomous dynasties (861–945)

Map of the fragmented Abbasid empire, with areas still under direct control of the Abbasid central government (dark green) and under autonomous rulers (light green) adhering to nominal Abbasid suzerainty, c. 892

Even by 820, the Samanids had begun the process of exercising independent authority in Transoxiana and Greater Khorasan, as had the Twelver-Shia Hamdanids in Northern Syria, and the succeeding Tahirid and Saffarid dynasties of Iran. The Saffarids, from Khorasan, nearly seized Baghdad in 876, and the Tulunids took control of most of Syria. The trend of weakening of the central power and strengthening of the minor caliphates on the periphery continued.[34]

An exception was the 10-year period of Al-Mu'tadid's rule (892–902). He brought parts of Egypt, Syria, and Khorasan back into the Abbasid's control. Especially after the "Anarchy at Samarra" (861–870), the Abbasid central government was weakened and centrifugal tendencies became more prominent in the Caliphate's provinces. By the early 10th century, the Abbasids almost lost control of Iraq to various amirs, and the caliph al-Radi was forced to acknowledge their power by creating the position of "Prince of Princes" (amir al-umara).[34]

Al-Mustakfi had a short reign from 944–946, and it was during this period that the Persian faction known as the Buyids from Daylam swept into power and assumed control over the bureaucracy in Baghdad. According to the history of Miskawayh, they began distributing iqtas (fiefs in the form of tax farms) to their supporters. This period of localized secular control was to last nearly 100 years.[2] The loss of Abbasid power to the Buyids would shift as the Seljuks would take over from the Persians.[34]

At the end of the eighth century the Abbasids found they could no longer keep a huge polity larger than that of Rome together from Baghdad. In 793 the Zaydi-Shia dynasty of Idrisids set up a state from Fez in Morocco, while a family of governors under the Abbasids became increasingly independent until they founded the Aghlabid Emirate from the 830s. Al-Mu'tasim started the downward slide by utilizing non-Muslim mercenaries in his personal army. Also during this period officers started assassinating superiors with whom they disagreed, in particular the caliphs.[2]

By the 870s, Egypt became autonomous under Ahmad ibn Tulun. In the East as well, governors decreased their ties to the center. The Saffarids of Herat and the Samanids of Bukhara had broken away from the 870s, cultivating a much more Persianate culture and statecraft. By this time only the central lands of Mesopotamia were under direct Abbasid control, with Palestine and the Hijaz often managed by the Tulunids. Byzantium, for its part, had begun to push Arab Muslims farther east in Anatolia.

By the 920s, the situation had changed further, as North Africa was lost to the Abbasids. A Shia sect only recognizing the first five Imams and tracing its roots to Muhammad's daughter Fatima took control of Idrisid and then Aghlabid domains.[34] Called the Fatimid dynasty, they had advanced to Egypt in 969, establishing their capital near Fustat in Cairo, which they built as a bastion of Shia learning and politics. By 1000 they had become the chief political and ideological challenge to Sunni Islam in the form of the Abbasids. By this time the latter state had fragmented into several governorships that, while recognizing caliphal authority from Baghdad, did mostly as they wanted, fighting with each other. The Caliph himself was under 'protection' of the Buyid Emirs who possessed all of Iraq and western Iran, and were quietly Shia in their sympathies.

Outside Iraq, all the autonomous provinces slowly took on the characteristic of de facto states with hereditary rulers, armies, and revenues and operated under only nominal caliph suzerainty, which may not necessarily be reflected by any contribution to the treasury, such as the Soomro Emirs that had gained control of Sindh and ruled the entire province from their capital of Mansura.[31] Mahmud of Ghazni took the title of sultan, as opposed to the "amir" that had been in more common usage, signifying the Ghaznavid Empire's independence from caliphal authority, despite Mahmud's ostentatious displays of Sunni orthodoxy and ritual submission to the caliph. In the 11th century, the loss of respect for the caliphs continued, as some Islamic rulers no longer mentioned the caliph's name in the Friday khutba, or struck it off their coinage.[31]

The Isma'ili Fatimid dynasty of Cairo contested the Abbasids for even the titular authority of the Islamic ummah. They commanded some support in the Shia sections of Baghdad (such as Karkh), although Baghdad was the city most closely connected to the caliphate, even in the Buyid and Seljuq eras. The Fatimids' green banners contrasted with Abbasids' black, and the challenge of the Fatimids only ended with their downfall in the 12th century.

Buyid and Seljuq control (945–1118)

Despite the power of the Buyid amirs, the Abbasids retained a highly ritualized court in Baghdad, as described by the Buyid bureaucrat Hilal al-Sabi', and they retained a certain influence over Baghdad as well as religious life. As Buyid power waned with the rule of Baha' al-Daula, the caliphate was able to regain some measure of strength. The caliph al-Qadir, for example, led the ideological struggle against the Shia with writings such as the Baghdad Manifesto. The caliphs kept order in Baghdad itself, attempting to prevent the outbreak of fitnas in the capital, often contending with the ayyarun'

With the Buyid dynasty on the wane, a vacuum was created that was eventually filled by the dynasty of Oghuz Turks known as the Seljuqs. By 1055, the Seljuqs had wrested control from the Buyids and Abbasids, and took any remaining temporal power.[2] When the amir and former slave Basasiri took up the Shia Fatimid banner in Baghdad in, the caliph al-Qa'im was unable to defeat him without outside help. Toghril Beg, the Seljuq sultan, restored Baghdad to Sunni rule and took Iraq for his dynasty.

Once again, the Abbasids were forced to deal with a military power that they could not match, though the Abbasid caliph remained the titular head of the Islamic community. The succeeding sultans Alp Arslan and Malikshah, as well as their vizier Nizam al-Mulk, took up residence in Persia, but held power over the Abbasids in Baghdad. When the dynasty began to weaken in the 12th century, the Abbasids gained greater independence once again.

Revival of military strength (1118–1258)

Coin of the Abbasids, Baghdad, 1244

While the Caliph al-Mustarshid was the first caliph to build an army capable of meeting a Seljuk army in battle, he was nonetheless defeated in 1135 and assassinated. The Caliph al-Muqtafi was the first Abbasid Caliph to regain the full military independence of the Caliphate, with the help of his vizier Ibn Hubayra. After nearly 250 years of subjection to foreign dynasties, he successfully defended Baghdad against the Seljuqs in the siege of Baghdad (1157), thus securing Iraq for the Abbasids. The reign of al-Nasir (d. 1225) brought the caliphate back into power throughout Iraq, based in large part on the Sufi futuwwa organizations that the caliph headed.[34] Al-Mustansir built the Mustansiriya School, in an attempt to eclipse the Seljuq-era Nizamiyya built by Nizam al-Mulk.

Mongol invasion (1206–1258)

Siege of Baghdad by the Mongols led by Hulagu Khan in 1258

In 1206, Genghis Khan established a powerful dynasty among the Mongols of central Asia. During the 13th century, this Mongol Empire conquered most of the Eurasian land mass, including both China in the east and much of the old Islamic caliphate (as well as Kievan Rus') in the west. Hulagu Khan's destruction of Baghdad in 1258 is traditionally seen as the approximate end of the Golden Age.[37] Mongols feared that a supernatural disaster would strike if the blood of Al-Musta'sim, a direct descendant of Muhammad's uncle Al-‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib,[38] and the last reigning Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, was spilled. The Shia of Persia stated that no such calamity had happened after the death of Husayn ibn Ali in the Battle of Kerbala; nevertheless, as a precaution and in accordance with a Mongol taboo which forbade spilling royal blood, Hulagu had Al-Musta'sim wrapped in a carpet and trampled to death by horses on 20 February 1258. The Caliph's immediate family was also executed, with the lone exceptions of his youngest son who was sent to Mongolia, and a daughter who became a slave in the harem of Hulagu.[39]

Abbasid Caliphate of Cairo (1261–1517)

In the 9th century, the Abbasids created an army loyal only to their caliphate, composed of non-Arab origin people, known as Mamluks.[40][41][42][43][44] This force, created in the reign of al-Ma'mun (813–33) and his brother and successor al-Mu'tasim (833–42), prevented the further disintegration of the empire. The Mamluk army, though often viewed negatively, both helped and hurt the caliphate. Early on, it provided the government with a stable force to address domestic and foreign problems. However, creation of this foreign army and al-Mu'tasim's transfer of the capital from Baghdad to Samarra created a division between the caliphate and the peoples they claimed to rule. In addition, the power of the Mamluks steadily grew until al-Radi (934–41) was constrained to hand over most of the royal functions to Muhammad ibn Ra'iq.[10]

The Mamluks eventually came to power in Egypt. In 1261, following the devastation of Baghdad by the Mongols, the Mamluk rulers of Egypt re-established the Abbasid caliphate in Cairo. The first Abbasid caliph of Cairo was Al-Mustansir. The Abbasid caliphs in Egypt continued to maintain the presence of authority, but it was confined to religious matters.[citation needed] The Abbasid caliphate of Cairo lasted until the time of Al-Mutawakkil III, who was taken away as a prisoner by Selim I to Constantinople where he had a ceremonial role. He died in 1543, following his return to Cairo.[citation needed]