ABBASIDS, second dynasty in Islam, ruling from 750 to 1258, mostly from their capital of Baghdad. At its height (eighth-ninth centuries) the Abbasid realm extended from Central Asia in the east through North Africa in the west. It thus encompassed virtually all the Jewish communities then known, save those in Europe.
The new dynasts came to power after some 50 years of clandestine revolutionary activity resulted in an open revolt (747–50). The ensuing conflict toppled the Umayyads (661–750), usurpers of the Prophet Muhammad's authority. The change of dynasty has long been regarded as a major watershed in the history of the Islamic state, albeit for different reasons.
Previous generations of Orientalists saw the rise of the Abbasids in the light of 19th century notions of nationalism and race and society. The emergence of the Abbasids was thus depicted as the culmination of a long struggle between the Syria-based "Arab" kingdom of the Umayyads and the conquered people of an Iranian empire that was shattered with the rise of Islam. The conflict was thus seen as being between a ruling institution predicated on the special privilege of a relatively small Arab/Muslim aristocracy and a more broadly defined coalition of forces whose ethnic origins were said to have been in the former Iranian provinces to the east, most especially the great land of
. With that, there developed the seductive notion that Islamic government became increasingly Iranized under the Abbasids. In sum, it was believed that the Abbasid triumph heralded the creation of a new political and social order in which a narrowly defined ruling Arab society was replaced by a polity of more universal outlook and composition.
The traditional view has given way to a new consensus. Historians now stress the central role played by Arabs from the eastern provinces, particularly in leading the revolt. It is now believed that the struggle between the rebels and the Umayyads was not to restore an Iranian empire and civilization in Islamized garb, but to restore the pristine Islam of the Prophet's time under caliphs chosen from the House of the Prophet (Hashimites).
In any case, the Abbasid revolution was not a palace coup in which one family displaced another for reasons of personal aggrandizement only to see business continue as usual. A new age had dawned, or so the advocates of the regime claimed in hyperbolic language spiced with apocalyptical symbols. The Abbasid rulers adopted regnal titles suggesting that the messianic age was at hand and they were the chosen instruments of this manifest destiny. The messiah did not arrive but the new rulers altered the political and social landscape dramatically. With unexpected swiftness, the Abbasids redefined an Islamic state that had been founded on Arab privilege and beset by tribal xenophobia. They replaced it with a broadly based polity aspiring to universal outlook and recognition. Viewed as a whole, the deliberate restructuring of Abbasid society seems radical and far reaching. Whether one speaks of new networks of social relationships, a complete overhaul of the military from tribal to regionally based professional units, innovations in provincial administration that allowed for greater representation of non-family affiliates among the governors and sub-governors, or the creation of a highly centralized and massive bureaucracy that employed many non-Arabs, the changes instituted by the new regime represented
an ambitious departure in the style and substance of rule hitherto known amongst the Muslims.
To legitimize these dramatic changes, the new ruling order built a magnificent capital at Baghdad in central Iraq. Never before had so grand a city been built. Completed in 766 as a glorified administrative complex, the city eventually grew to an urban area of some 7,000 hectares that was by all accounts densely populated throughout the eighth–tenth centuries. Population estimates vary, but a settlement of well over half a million is certainly possible. With the building of a second imperial center, Samarra, some 55 years later, the Abbasids completely altered the demographic landscape of Iraq, particularly the central region. The vast majority of the inhabitants now lived in major cities and towns, signifying a dramatic shift from agricultural hinterland to urban environment.
Although we lack firm evidence, we can surmise that the increasing urbanization saw a shift in the pattern of Jewish settlement in the region. Babylonian Jews, previously engaged in agriculture and small crafts, must have been attracted, like their Muslim and Christian neighbors, from the declining villages and small towns to the cities where the Abbasid rulers encouraged urban development and expanded commerce and trade. Jews thus became part of the changing economic environment, and eventually played a central role in long-distance trade throughout the Islamic world and beyond. In the ninth century, a group of Jewish merchants called Radhanites after a district in the vicinity of Baghdad traded from China to the Iberian Peninsula. Although business of this sort was not the archetypal Jewish profession, it was a métier to which they readily adapted and with communities of co-religionists dispersed throughout the Islamic world and in Europe, they were able to create an effective business network that included commerce, trade, and also banking.
In the tenth century, a number of Christian and Jewish bankers were employed by various Abbasid functionaries, including the caliphs in Baghdad. Their task was to manage the fortunes of state officials and of the caliph himself. One might ask to what extent the activities of the Jewish bankers in Baghdad had similar parallels elsewhere in the Islamic world. The contemporary Muslim geographer al-Muqaddasi reports that most of the bankers and moneychangers in Egypt were Jews. However, the broad picture of Jewish involvement in the financial transactions of the times has yet to be fully researched.
The Abbasid state could not sustain the political stability of its early decades. Civil war broke out towards the end of the eighth century and military revolts were common in the ninth. By the latter part of the tenth century, the Abbasid empire witnessed the loss of North Africa and Egypt to the *Fatimids, a Shiʿite dynasty that originated in North Africa. To the east, various petty dynasts recognized the suzerainty of the Abbasid caliphs but withheld the tax revenues for themselves. As a result, economic conditions declined throughout the truncated realm. Already in the ninth century, the state, strapped for revenues, confiscated vast wealth from rich Christians (and presumably Jews) and during the reign of the caliph al-Mutawakkil (847–61) went so far as to invoke the discriminatory legislation against the Christians and Jews that had long been Islamic law but was seldom put into effect.
With conditions deteriorating in the Abbasid heartland, many Jews migrated westward to Egypt, North Africa, and more distant lands. Their path was made easier by the relative tolerance they experienced in Egypt and North Africa. Slowly, the center of Jewish commercial activity as well as scholarly enterprise shifted westward. Abbasid Iraq, which had been the home of the *exilarchs and of the geonim (see *Gaon), the leading political and scholarly figures of world Jewry, as well as the seat of the great academies of Sura and Pumbedita, was forced to share its preeminence as a Jewish center with rapidly developing communities elsewhere.
Over the centuries the power of the caliphs declined although the empire itself, however truncated, was more or less kept intact. When Baghdad was conquered by the
in 1258, to all intents and purposes, the Abbasid caliphate came to an end. The Mongol conquest would seem to have created expectations of more relaxed times among Christians and Jews. But the conversion of the Mongols to Islam ended any hopes of dramatic change in the relations among the monotheists.