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Succeeding the Umayyad Caliphate in 750, the ‛Abbāsid dynasty ruled the caliphate until 1258. Descendants of the Prophet’s uncle al-‛Abbās, the ‛Abbāsid claimed membership in the family of the Prophet or Banu Hashim. This relationship enabled them to attract some support in the last three decades of the Umayyad Caliphate, from 720 to 750, when many Muslims were searching for an alternative to that regime. While the ‛Abbāsid family remained in Syria, their most active and militant supporters were to be found in Khurasan. In 747 these supporters began a military rebellion in the province under the leadership of Abū Muslim. After taking Khurasan, they advanced on Iraq, which they occupied in 749, and proclaimed a member of the ‛Abbāsid family caliph as al-Saffāh (r. 750-754).

The early ‛Abbāsids faced opposition from supporters of the Umayyads, notably in Syria, and from those who looked to the house of ‛Alī for leadership and felt that the ‛Abbāsids had usurped their rights. The supporters of the ‛Alids were most numerous in Iraq; they staged a number of uprisings, notably that led by Muhammad the Pure Soul in Medinaand his brother Ibrāhīm in Basrain 762, and abandoned any real attempt to rule Spainand the Maghrib, which now became independent. ‛Abbāsid power was made effective throughout the Middle Eastby al-Mansur (r. 754-775), who built up a powerful state apparatus based on the army, most of whose members were of Khurasani descent, and on a bureaucracy, led by the Barmakid family, who continued the Sassanian traditions of financial administration. The state was based in Iraq; in 762 al-Mansur founded a new capital at Baghdad, which soon developed from a palatial and governmental complex into a thriving metropolis.

The apogee of ‛Abbāsid power was reached under Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-8o9), but, probably in order to appease provincial discontent about the rising burden of taxation, he divided the caliphate between two of his sons, al-Amin (r. 8o9-813) in Iraq and the West and al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833) in Iran. The agreement began to break down almost immediately after his death in 8o9; a decade of destructive civil war ensued before alMa’mun was able to establish himself inBaghdad. His reign was a period of great intellectual activity, and the caliph himself played an important part in the translation of Greek learning into Arabic. The government was less strong; to his brother and successor, al-Mu`tasim (r. 833-842), was left the task to develop a new and effective army based on a corps of Turkish cavalry. Meanwhile, the Tahirid family were allowed a free hand in easternIran. In order to accommodate his new army, al-Mu’tasim transferred the capital toSamarra, and it was here, from 861 to the mid-870s, that the caliphs were kept as virtual prisoners by their Turkish guards.

When ‛Abbāsid authority was restored by al-Mu’tadid (r. 892-902), the political influence of the caliphs was virtually confined to Iraq, although Egypt was temporarily regained in 905. Even this limited authority was lost during the reign of the incompetent al-Muqtadir (r. 9o8-932), a period that saw the virtual collapse of state finances and the impoverishment of much of Iraq. In 945 the caliphate was effectively taken over by the Buy-ids (also referred to as the Buwayhids), military adventurers from northern Iran. The ‛Abbāsid remained as ornamental figures in their Baghdad palace.

In the early eleventh century, Buyid control crumbled and the ‛Abbāsids returned to the life of the Muslim community. In opposition to the Shi’i Buyids and their supporters, al-Qadir (r. 991-1031) put himself at the head of the emerging Sunni movement, publishing the Risalat al-Qadiriyah, which established the bases of Sunni doctrine. This influence grew after 1055 when Baghdad was taken by the Seljuk Turks, professed Sunnis who accepted the religious leadership of the family. However, it was not until Seljuk power in turn began to collapse after the death of Sanjar in 1157 that this prestige could be translated into political power. Caliph al-Nasir (r. 1180-1225) reestablished ‛Abbāsid control over most of Iraq with the support of popular futuwah movements. His successors failed to maintain this momentum. When the ‛Abbāsids were faced by the still pagan Mongols, who had no respect for their religious status, they were unable to put up an effective resistance.Baghdad fell to the invaders in 1258, and the last caliph, al-Musta’sim (r. 1242-1258) was put to death.

The ‛Abbāsid Caliphate enjoyed a certain afterlife in Cairo, where members of the family continued as titular caliphs, although, in effect, they were members of the Mamluk court, kept to confer legitimacy on the sultanate but without any independent power. With the Ottoman conquest of Egyptin 1517, even this small survival of their ancient glory was swept away.

[See also Caliphate; Umayyad Caliphate.]


Bowen, Harold. The Life and Times of ‘Ali ibn ‘Is`a, the “Good Vizier”.Cambridge, 1928. Classic that still gives a good impression of political and artistic life in the tenth century.

Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphate.LondonandNew   York, 1986. Introduction to the political history up to the mid-eleventh century.

Le Strange, Guy.Baghdadduring the Abbasid Caliphate.London, 19o9. Historical geography closely based on Arabic sources.

Sha’ban, Muhammad `Abd al-Hayy. Islamic History: A New Interpretation. Vol. 2.Cambridge, 1976. Interesting insights, but not wholly reliable on detail.

Sharon, Moshe. Black Banners from the East.Leiden, 1983. Meticulously researched account of the build-up to the ‛Abbāsid revolution of 747-750.

Sourdel, Dominique. Le vizirat `abbdside. 2 vols.Damascus, 1959196o. Still the best history of the ‛Abbāsid bureaucracy.

Yarshater, Ehsan, ed. The History of al-Tabari: An Annotated Translation. Vols. 27-38.Albany,N.Y., 1984-. English translation of the classic Arabic history, from 750 to the beginning of the tenth century.


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  • writerPosted On: September 18, 2012
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