The Abbasid Caliphate

The Abbasid revolt began a new age for the Umma. Many Muslims had high expectations of the new dynasty, for they regarded its members to be the representatives of the House of the Prophet. During the first several decades of its history, the new empire emitted occasional flashes of brilliance, and its subjects could feel justly proud of it. By the middle of the ninth century, however, it began to falter. It never attempted to regain the areas of the Maghrib and the Iberian Peninsula that had been lost by the Umayyads in the Great Berber Revolt, and in the ninth century it began losing effective control of its remaining provinces. By the middle of the tenth century, the Abbasid caliph was a figurehead for military officers who wielded effective power over a limited area.

The Early Period

The first Abbasid caliph, Abu al-‘Abbas, assumed the title al-Saffah, or “the blood shedder.” It was an apt title for two reasons. First, it was a name that had been associated with the idea of the Mahdi in the literature of the previous decades, and therefore the new ruler was asserting his divinely sanctioned status in accordance with the propaganda of the Abbasid movement. (All subsequent Abbasid caliphs would follow his example in assuming titles with a religious implication; the third Abbasid caliph even adopted the title al-Mahdi). Second, as in any revolution, the stakes were high, and much blood would have to be shed. Several long-time leaders of the Abbasid movement itself were executed for objecting to the selection of al-Saffah as caliph. Numerous Shi‘ites who were regarded as potential threats to the new regime were also killed or otherwise persecuted.

When al-Saffah died in 754, his brother Abu Ja‘far succeeded him and assumed the title al-Mansur (“the victor”). Al-Mansur (754–775) laid the foundations for the Abbasid empire. He began by choosing a site on the west bank of the Tigris River for the new capital city. Officially named madinat al-salam, or “City of Peace,” it came to be known by the name of the village that lay next to it, Baghdad. The choice of the site was particularly astute: The Tigris and the Euphrates rivers came close together at this point and were connected by a navigable canal. Construction on the new capital began in 762, with 100,000 workers employed in the gargantuan project. It was a circular city some one and one-half miles in diameter that was designed for palaces, public buildings, and military barracks. Over the next few decades, the city grew into a large metropolis, and the original design was submerged in the welter of development. Extensive suburbs began springing up outside the circular walls to house those who flocked to the city to seek favors at the court or to participate in the city’s flourishing international commerce. The wealthier neighborhoods boasted of sewers, courtyards, and pools lined with tiles. By the ninth century, the city was six miles long and four miles wide, a geographical area five times greater than that of Constantinople. With its population of close to half a million, it was certainly one of the two or three greatest cities in the world.1

The Abbasid revolution seems to have been a genuine attempt to make Islamic society more inclusive. The particularistic concerns of the Arab tribes that dominated the Umayyad government had led to policies that alienated other Arabs and non-Arabs alike. In North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, the anger against such policies had expressed itself in the ferocity of the Berber Revolt of the 740s, which so shattered the edifice of central authority that the Abbasids themselves were not able to reassert effective control west of Ifriqiya. Even in Ifriqiya itself, they found it advantageous in 800 to concede autonomy to the province’s governor, Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab, a native of Khorasan. The Aghlabids went on to develop a regional power that extended its sway to Sicily.

In the rest of the former Umayyad territories, however, the Abbasid cause successfully appealed to a powerful current of piety by virtue of its demand for the abolition of the Umayyad dynasty and the installation of the Prophet’s family as the leader of the Umma. As we have seen, the Abbasid era disappointed the pro-Alids, and it was also a bitter pill for the Arab elites who had benefitted from Umayyad policies. The latter immediately lost their privileged position at court and their central-ity in the army and were replaced by the Khorasani guard. Over the next few years they also lost their tax exemptions for their property. Many Arabs, however, as well as most non-Arab Muslims, welcomed the new government because it did not favor any particular ethnic group. Its ideology was based on the spiritual and legal equality of all Muslims.

The Abbasid regime’s more cosmopolitan and less parochial character was countered by its increasing remoteness from the ordinary citizen. It is easy to overdraw the contrast between the court ceremony of the early Abbasids and the late Umayyads, for Mu‘awiya (d. 680) may have been the last of the caliphs who actually welcomed the common people to his presence with their petitions and appeals. But despite the increasing pomp of the later Umayyads, the Abbasid caliphs soon became much more removed from their subjects than even their immediate predecessors were. In Baghdad, the legacy of Sasanian ceremonial was revived, and the caliph became shielded from his public not only by monumental palaces, but also by a remarkably differentiated set of chamberlains and servants. Only the most important officials and foreign guests were allowed in the presence of the caliph. The new government quickly developed a complex bureaucracy, the members of which were recruited from throughout the empire. At the apex of the administration was the wazir, who served as the caliph’s prime minister or chief executive officer. Reporting to him were ministries of the army, finance, posts and intelligence, and the chancery, among others.

The urbanity of the era is reflected in the poetry and prose that it produced. Poetry had been the greatest cultural expression of the Arabs. Although the Umayyad period had seen some development of poetic themes and styles, nostalgia for hunting parties and desert encampments remained dominant. Under the patronage of the Abbasid caliphs, new themes emerged. The most famous of the poets of the age was Abu Nuwas (d. ca. 813), who was of mixed Arab and Iranian origin. He spent time with bedouin in order to learn the venerated traditions of Arabic poetry, and then sought patronage in Baghdad. He was unsuccessful for several years and began developing new themes that reflected the worldly sophistication of the great metropolis. He gradually became famous for his wit, cynicism, and glorification of wine drinking and pederasty, and he finally gained a coveted position at court in the last few years of the reign of the great caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809).

Court poets such as Abu Nuwas were expected to demonstrate their command of one or more of the major genres of poetry popular at the time. Others rejected such conventions as being artificial and even dissolute. A stark contrast to the career of the social climber Abu Nuwas was Abu al-‘Atahiya (d. 826), whose goal was to convey religious values and morality to the common people on the street. To do so, he discarded all the formal poetic conventions of his time, and used only the simplest language that would be comprehensible to anyone.

Arabic literature broadened its scope during this period. A prose style emerged that was employed to convey the traditions of courtly behavior (primarily Sasanian in origin) to bureaucrats and courtiers and to record the historical exploits of the Muslim community. Many outstanding prose writers made contributions in the period that spanned the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, but some must be mentioned. Sibawayh (d. ca. 793) was an Iranian, but composed the single most influential exposition of Arabic grammar. Ibn Ishaq (d. 768) was born in Medina but moved to Baghdad. He compiled the first major biography of the Prophet. His use of sources was criticized by some of his fellow scholars, and his work was revised by the Egyptian Ibn Hisham (d. ca. 833). The latter version has remained the major source for details of the Prophet’s life. Al-Jahiz (d. 869), who was descended from an African slave, lived in Iraq. His mastery of style, and his combination of intellect, erudition, and wit made him a highly influential author. Al-Tabari (d. 923) wrote books on a wide variety of subjects, but is most famous for his huge History of Prophets and Kings, a compendium of history from creation until his own time. It is one of our most important sources for the first three centuries of Muslim history.

The labeling of certain historical periods as “golden ages” is often misleading, because economic, political, and cultural developments do not always coincide. In the Abbasid case, this caution is certainly justified. Culturally, its most productive period falls after the middle of the ninth century, but its political and economic high point was during the first few decades of the dynasty. The caliphate of Harun al-Rashid (786–809) is celebrated in the famous One Thousand and One Nights as the period of glory for the dynasty, even though to his contemporaries the caliph could boast of no special achievements. In retrospect, however, his reign of a quarter of a century was a halcyon period. The caliph was the unquestioned ruler of the realm, Baghdad had developed into a world capital, and a pax Islamica brought a sense of optimism and confidence that southwestern Asia has only rarely known.

Harun himself contributed to the undoing of that optimism. In 802, he designated his oldest son al-Amin to be his successor as caliph, but stipulated that a younger son, al-Ma’mun, should rule over an enlarged and autonomous Khorasan and succeed al-Amin as caliph at the latter’s death. Soon after Harun died in 809, however, al-Amin demanded that al-Ma’mun cede the western parts of Khorasan to him and that the taxes from the remainder of the province be forwarded to Baghdad. Al-Ma’-mun refused, and a long and destructive war between the brothers ensued. During 812–813, al-Ma’mun’s army besieged Baghdad itself for a year, and al-Amin was killed. Al-Ma’mun named himself caliph in 813, but he elected to set up his court in Merv, where his base of support lay. Near-anarchy reigned in Baghdad, and the city was heavily damaged in internecine fighting over the next six years. We saw in the previous chapter that al-Ma’mun finally decided in 817–818 to relocate to Baghdad (with fatal consequences for the Imam ‘Ali al-Rida). Moving slowly, he arrived only in 819. Exhausted, the factions in the city surrendered with hardly a struggle.

Military and Economic Problems

The heart of the empire had suffered a decade of warfare from 809 to 819. Not only did Baghdad and other cities incur major damage, but ambitious local leaders in every province had tried to take advantage of the confusion to bolster their own power. When al-Ma’mun took up residence in Baghdad in 819, he began trying to restore the unity of the empire. He had remained in control of Iran during the war, and was now successful in regaining the areas as far west as Benghazi in eastern Libya and as far south as the Holy Cities. The area west of Benghazi, however, was permanently lost. The Aghlabids continued to rule in Ifriqiya, technically as Abbasid vassals, but in reality as an independent principality. As a result, the Maghrib and the Iberian Peninsula remained outside the Abbasid orbit.

In the field of culture, al-Ma’mun was more successful, and in that context he became one of the most influential caliphs in history, as we shall see in the next chapter. With the coming to power of al-Ma’mun’s younger brother, al-Mu‘tasim (833–842), however, the Abbasid dynasty entered a new and tragic era. On the one hand, the middle third of the ninth century probably represents the zenith of Abbasid political power if measured in terms of the control that the central government was able to exert over the provinces. On the other hand, certain developments set the stage for a precipitous decline in the prestige and power of the central government in general and of the caliph in particular.

Changes in the army played a major role in this process. Throughout the ninth century, the army became increasingly multiethnic in its composition. This was not a unique development for the time, as the Byzantine army itself became dependent on Slavs, Turks, Armenians, and eventually Normans. But just as the Arab forces that had achieved the spectacular conquests of the first decades of Islamic history were replaced by Khorasanis early in the Abbasid era, the Khorasanis became supplemented in the ninth century by Daylamis (from Daylam, the region south of the Caspian Sea), Armenians, Berbers, Sudanese, Turks from Central Asia, and other ethnic groups. What is striking is that the vast majority of the Abbasid troops were beginning to come from the border areas of the empire, or from outside it altogether—few Iraqis, west Iranians, Syrians, Egyptians, or peninsular Arabs were represented in it.

The new pattern of composition of the army had advantages for the caliph. By not having to rely on the local populace for troops, a ruler was freer to use troops against either external or internal enemies without having to negotiate with chieftains or notables for the use of their subjects. In addition, his troops did not hesitate to attack civilians on the streets, since they had no local families at risk. Furthermore, Muslim armies of the ninth century were becoming more professional in general and were intent on employing a variety of weaponry on the battlefield in an effort to gain the tactical edge over their opponents. The different ethnic groups represented a military division of labor that, when used well, made an army a formidable force against a less diversified force. The Turks specialized in mounted archery, the Berbers and Armenians were lance-bearing cavalry, the Daylamis were predominantly light infantry employing bows and javelins, and the black Sudanese served as heavy infantry.

The most notable ethnic group in the new army was that of the Turks. As early as the civil war between his older brothers, al-Mu‘tasim had begun building a private army composed of slaves, and he continued to do so after he became the caliph. He eventually owned several thousand such soldiers, mostly Turks of Central Asian origin. These military slaves came to be referred to as mamluks, from an Arabic term meaning “owned” or “belonging to.” After a training regimen they were usually manumitted and became clients of their former masters. As free clients, they gained limited legal rights to property and marriage. Mamluks, then, were not servile and abject victims of a brutal system, but rather formed a proud and intimidating force who preferred the company of their own kind and regarded the civilian populace with contempt. They were answerable only to the caliph, and could attain the rank of general or minister of state, controlling the destinies of hundreds of thousands of people and owning vast estates. Thus, rather than being a subservient part of the army, they actually enjoyed important privileges.

The value to caliphs of an army composed of foreign ethnic groups lay in the soldiers’ undivided loyalty. Free, indigenous soldiers could be torn between allegiance to the court they served and the local interests of the region from which they came. The irony is that the new pattern developed instabilities of its own, and caused even greater difficulties for the administration than the earlier system had. Two factors were prominent in the developing crisis. One was that the military was evolving into a de facto caste, separated by a wide cultural gulf from the rest of society. The martial values of the professional military had always set such a force apart from the rest of society, but now those differences were made all the greater by differences in language and customs. The other problem was that the economy upon which the caliphal government was based was growing weaker, making it more difficult to sustain the military at any acceptable standard of living. The rich province of Iraq was beginning to suffer a double blow to its agriculture: In some parts of the region, river channels were shifting, leaving irrigation works and fields without access to water, whereas in the region close to the Persian Gulf, many fields were suffering from salinization due to repeated irrigation by river water full of salts. To attempt to solve the latter problem, tens of thousands of slaves from East Africa were brought in to drain swamps and to remove the salinated soil in an effort to restore fertility.

Because of the economic strains, the government had difficulty paying its troops regularly. The soldiers became restive, and the various ethnic groups suspected each other of benefitting from favoritism. The mutual suspicions led to frequent clashes among the various units, and the Turks gained a reputation for initiating many of the fights. More disturbing still, the civilian population of Baghdad frequently fell victim to slights or outright injury from the arrogant soldiers, most of whom did not bother to learn Arabic. As early as 836, al-Mu‘tasim felt compelled to separate the Turks from the other troops and from the general populace by moving his capital some eighty miles to the north, where he built the city of Samarra. The move was intended to be permanent: Samarra entailed a massive investment on a scale not less than the founding of Baghdad itself. The palace and mosque complexes were imperial monuments, and within a few decades the city extended along the Tigris for twenty-four miles. Baghdad continued to function as a commercial and intellectual center, but it was no longer of political importance.


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