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Islam: The Abassid Caliphate

(758 - 1258)

The 'Abassid caliphate was founded on two disaffected Islamic populations: non-Arabic Muslims and Shi'ites. For the most part, the Islamic impetus to the Abassid revolution lay in the secularism of the Umayyad caliphs. The Umayyads had always been outsiders—as a wealthy clan in Mecca, they had opposed Muhammad—and the secularism and sometime degeneracy that accompanied their caliphate delegitimized their rule for many devout Muslims.

The Abassids took their name from al-'Abbas, a paternal uncle of Muhammad and early supporter of the Prophet. Their close kinship to Muhammad and the position of al-'Abbas as a Companion of the Prophet served them well in gaining support. As early as 718 AD, during the reign of Umar II, Muhammad ibn 'Ali, a great-grandson of al-'Abbas, began to proselytize in Persia to rally support for returning the caliphate to the family of the Prophet, the Hashimites.

What made the 'Abassid seizure of the caliphate unique was the heavy reliance on client Muslims, or mawali. The mawali were foreigners who had converted to Islam; because, however, they were foreigners they could not be incorporated into the kinship-based society of Arabs. They had to be voluntarily included into the protection of a clan, that is, they had to become "clients" of the clan (which is what the word mawali means). For the most part, they were second-class citizens even though they were Muslims.

The overwhelming majority of foreigners who rallied to the Hashimiyya cause were Iranian. Historians have argued that the 'Abassid caliphate represented a shift in Islam from Semitic to Iranian culture; other historians argue that there really no such shift. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. When the 'Abassids took power, the center of Islamic culture shifted from the Semitic world in Arabia and Syria to the Iranian or Persian world in Iraq. By shifting the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, the 'Abassids brought about a dynamic fusion of Persian and Semitic culture.

The dynasty was started when Abu'l-'Abbass assumed the caliphate from 750-754 AD / 132-136 AH. Both he and his successor, Abu Ja'far al-Mansur (754-775 / 136-158), ruthlessly consolidated power and began a series of administrative moves that would characterize Islamic government for the next several centuries. As with Umayyads, they separated themselves from the general Islamic populace, but they surrounded themselves with foreigners rather than Arabs, particularly in the military. This bred bitter resentment, particularly among Arabs, such as the Khorosanian Arabs, that had helped them rise to power.

The Umayyads

The Umayyads, however, did not take being removed from power lying down. In 756, the Umayyads established a rival empire in Spain, though they did not set up a rival caliphate until 929. They were aided in their seizing of power by Kharjite North Africans and, in particular, Berbers, who had been instrumental in the conquest of Spain earlier. The Umayyad caliphate flourished in Spain for the next three centuries and the Islamic culture that grew on this fertile soil, the Moorish culture, was dramatically different from the Iranian-Semitic culture that grew up around the 'Abbasid Caliphate.

The Early Years

The 'Abassids only came to power with the help of diverse and disaffected populations; even though they consolidated power fairly ruthlessly in the beginning, their control over the world of Islam unraveled quickly. The first threat came with the establishment of Umayyad rule in Spain which, because of its distance, obviated any military reconquest of the area. Soon after, rival Islamic states were set up by Berber Kharjites in North Africa in 801.

The Shi'ites were a particular thorn in 'Abassid rule; the 'Abassids had come to power by using both Shi'ite help and rhetoric. The Shi'ites, however, were not a single, unitary group, and the 'Abassids abandoned their ties to the Shi'a beliefs. Efforts were made to make peace with moderate Shi'ites, but these soon broke down. An uprising in Mecca in 786 led to a massacre of Shi'ite 'Alids—the survivors, however, fled to the western region of Africa, or the Maghreb, and established a new and independent kingdom, the Idrisid kingdom.

By the beginning of the ninth century, the caliph's control over the Islamic world was beginning to crumble. It was into this increasingly bleak picture that al-Mamun suddenly appeared.


Abd Allah, or al-Ma'mun, had not been named as a successor to the caliphate—this instead fell to his brother, Muhammad, called al-Amin. The brothers soon fell out, however, and al-Mamun seized the caliphate in 813. As with his predecessors, he tried to incorporate Shi'ites into the Islamic government, but his entire reign was spent in quelling disturbances among Shi'ites and anit-Shi'ites. He seems to have just held the line in the disintegration of the 'Abbasid caliphate. There are, however, two great innovations that irrevocably changed the course of Islamic history.

The first was a military revolution begun by his brother, al-Mu'tasim. The constant revolutions and the deep division in Islamic society convinced al-Ma'mun that he needed a military force whose only loyalty was to him. So his brother, who would later become caliph (833-842 / 218-27), assembled a military force of slaves, called Mamluks. Many of the Mamluks were Turkish, who were famous for the horsemanship. But the Mamluk military also consisted of Slavs and some Berbers. By the middle of al-Wathiq's reign, the Mamluk army had completely displaced the Arabian and Persian army under the caliph. This army, and al-Mu'tasim's abandonment of Baghdad for Samarra, caused bitter resentment among Muslims and would irreperably sever the protective bond between the Islamic sovereign and the Islamic people. It also introduced a new ethnic group in the Islamic world, the Mamluks, who would eventually play a powerful role in the drama of power and decline in medieval Islam.

More importantly, al-Ma'mun energetically patronized Greek, Sanskrit and Arabic learning and so altered the cultural and intellectual face of Islam. He adopted a radical theological position, called Mu'tazilism, which was regarded as somewhat heretical by more orthodox Muslims. Nevertheless, Mu'tazilism had as one of its fundamental beliefs the idea that Muslims should obey a single ruler. In order to facilitate the spread of Mu'tazilite teaching, al-Ma'mun established a university, the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma).

It was here that Hellenistic and Indian works made their way into Islamic culture through a series of translations. Islam incorporated into its culture and belief the philosophical method of inquiry of the Hellenist world—it is for this reason that philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were passed on to succeeding generations. This incorporation led to a new Islamic intellectual practice, faylasafa, or philosophy, based on principles of rational inquiry and to some extent empiricism.


After the caliphate of al-Mu'tasim and that of his son, al-Wathiq (842-47 / 227-32), the centralized power of the caliphate declined centrifugally. By 945, the area around Iraq fell to a dynasty of Amirs; the Buyid dynasty. The 'Abbasids remained as caliphs until 1030, but they were only figureheads.

Islamic history entered a new phase. The history of early Islam is a history of the spread of a single cultural force throughout the Iranian, Semitic, North African, and to a lesser extent, the Hellenistic and European worlds. That single cultural force was religious, social, linguistic, and political and was based almost entirely on Arabic culture and world view. In the earliest years, there is a remarkable consolidation in the regions where Islam spreads—there is by and large an acceptance of a central authority, a government structure, a religion, a language, and a cultural chauvinism. During the latter years of the Umayyad caliphate, that cultural and political unity began to break down. The 'Abbasids, in adopting Iranian culture in part and in distancing themselves from their Semitic origins (for instance, by instituting Mamluk armies), further accelerated the cultural divisions in the world of Islam. After only two hundred years in power, the unified cultural and political world of Islam broke down into a myriad independent cultural and political units.

And thus began the medieval period in Islam, a period of cultural and political disunity and decentralization. This was not, however, a bad thing; Islamic culture, split into several different groups that were often divided along ethnic lines, expanded the cultural and intellectual richness of the religion. By the end of the medieval period, even the fiction of a cultural or political unity of Islam had been completely destroyed. The historical process, then, of medieval Islam was primarily about cultural and political decentralization—modern Islam would be the history of powerful cultural centers in this divided world.

Sources: Islam from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission.