Islamic History, Part 19: the Islamic Opposition and the Abbasid Revolution (705-750), Part I

Islamic History Series

(this got really out of control long, so I split it into two pieces; part II is here)

The Arabic word dawlah means “state” in modern parlance, and prior to the rise of the modern nation-state it was often used to describe dynasties. Its root (dawala) is a verb that means “to rotate, change, take turns,” and so it conveys the sense that any given dynasty is just one family’s turn on the throne before the next aspirant comes along and takes it away from them. Dynasties, and later states, are transient in that way, here only until they weaken and something (or someone) stronger ends their run, supplants them, and repeats the process.

So it was with our pals the Umayyad family, whose turn at the top of the caliphate lasted less than one century (661-750) before they were overthrown, done in by an opposition that still wasn’t sure it liked the idea of hereditary monarchy and was pretty sure that, if there had to be a hereditary monarchy, the Umayyads had neither the moral stature or the ancestral claim to justify holding on to it. They don’t disappear completely; we’ve already seen the groundwork being laid for their revival, albeit on a much smaller stage. But in terms of the empire as a whole they give way to the second (and last) dynasty to rule a (mostly-)unified Islamic polity, the Abbasids. Depending on how you define the word “rule,” the Abbasids will get to rule the caliphate either to 945, when they began to rule only at the discretion of their “caretakers,” or all the way to 1258, when the Mongols conquer Baghdad. Either way, they’ll have a considerably longer turn at the top than the Umayyads got.

So what happened to the Umayyads, and where do these Abbasid folks come from? We talked about part of the reason for the decline and eventual fall of the Umayyads in part 17, when we dealt with the later Umayyad rulers and their collective, let’s say, uninspiring brand of leadership. Most of them seem to have been more interested in counting their loot and getting drunk than in governing wisely or well, and consequently they failed to manage the divisive Qays-Yaman tribal rivalry and did everything they could to alienate non-Arab converts to Islam by taxing and treating them as second-class citizens despite the fact that all Muslims were, in principle, supposed to be equal, legally and morally. The part of the story we haven’t covered yet is the rise of opposition movements, some driven by grievances over tribal disputes or the treatment of non-Arabs, but some motivated by more pious concerns. These movements, which Marshall Hodgson collectively labeled “the Islamic opposition,” ultimately did the Umayyads in and, in the process, helped to fundamentally shape Islam both politically and as an organized religion.

When the (mostly) Arab armies swept out from Arabia and across the former territories of the Roman and Persian Empires in the mid-7th century, they disrupted centuries of static administration. Privileged families lost that privilege and were answerable to a new/foreign elite who saw little difference between the most patrician Roman family and the poorest Roman peasant. For a while this was probably kind of exciting for the peasants and was certainly terrifying for the former elites (or at least the ones who didn’t or couldn’t make arrangements to hold on to as much of their status as possible), but it didn’t take very long before it became clear to just about all the conquered peoples of the empire that, practically speaking, they’d simply traded one elite for another. Oh, the caliphate, subject as it was to Muhammad’s vision, was somewhat less absolutist (and somewhat more egalitarian) than the empires it had replaced, at least for a little while. But the same reforms that ʿAbd al-Malik made to ensure that Arab culture would dominate the empire, rather than imperial culture assimilating the Arabs, also enshrined an Arab ruling caste over the rest of the population (think of them as the richest 10 or 20 percent in American society today), vastly increased the powers of the caliph, and laid the groundwork for an absolutism that would be every bit the equal of Rome/Constantinople and Ctesiphon.

At the same time, the Arabs themselves were being torn apart by tribal and sectional rivalries. We’ve talked at length about Qays-Yaman, but equally as important was the developing conflict between Syrian Arabs, who supported the Umayyads and whose fighters were the root of Umayyad power, and Iraqi Arabs, many of whom had been ʿAli’s strongest supporters and were still suspected of harboring sympathies for his descendents. The Syrians, as the Umayyads’ shock troops, were obviously in the ascendency. So now we’re talking about an Arab super-elite being installed over even the rest of the Arab elite, the top 1% to their top 10% or whatever. Arabs in Iraq, or Arabs whose tribal confederation was out of favor, found themselves having a lot more in common with the ruled than with the rulers. As this Syria-Iraqi division was growing, Iraq itself, specifically the Sawad, the very productive agricultural region in the southern part of modern Iraq, was becoming indispensable to the empire’s ability to produce enough food for its growing population. So the Umayyads desperately needed Iraq but couldn’t trust the Iraqi Arabs, and this meant a series of repressive governors (al-Hajjaj being the first and the archetype) being sent from Damascus to control the region, usually through the harshest means possible.

We already know that the idea of hereditary monarchy was distasteful to major factions in the empire; the mere idea of it fueled resistance to ʿAli assuming the caliphate and, when the Umayyads attempted to implement hereditary succession, it very quickly sparked a civil war. As the successor to Muhammad and/or the deputy of God on Earth (different caliphs conceived of the office differently), the caliph was supposed to be the focal point of the community, the glue binding everybody together. But when the office became hereditary it lost some of that luster, and when some of its inheritors turned out to be, shall we say, of below average character and competence, many people, Arab and non-Arab, really started looking for something else around which the community could be formed. It seems inevitable in hindsight that they turned to the teachings of Muhammad. In this they were led by pious believers, people who would we could probably call “holy men,” who lived exemplary lives of piety according to the tenets of the emerging Islamic faith.

Hasan al-Basri (via, including a nice tale about a sermon he gave on the morality of freeing slaves)

One of the earliest and most prominent of these holy figures was Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), who, as his name tells us, lived most of his life in Basrah in southern Iraq, where he was well-known as a judge and especially as a preacher. One of Hasan al-Basri’s core teachings was on the subject of free will; he argued that a just God must leave people free to believe and behave as they wished so that they could be responsible for their own morality or immorality. The caliph, who at this point was ʿAbd al-Malik, who didn’t like this whole “free will” business and was busy punishing other preachers for espousing theology with which he disagreed (let that contradiction kick around your brain for a minute there), but when he found out that Hasan was preaching free will, all ʿAbd al-Malik could do was ask Hasan to clarify his teachings, then let him carry on as he was. The implications of a renowned religious leader facing down a caliph and coming away unscathed should not be underestimated. It showed people who were paying attention that, maybe, this caliph guy sitting in his palace in Damascus didn’t need to be the final authority on all things. For a would-be absolute monarchy, that’s a dangerous thing for the little people to be thinking.

to be continued


One thought on “Islamic History, Part 19: the Islamic Opposition and the Abbasid Revolution (705-750), Part I

  1. Hurrah! We love Islamic History!

    As a total aside, when I was a boy (a hundred years ago, it seems) there was a “Battles at the End of Time” series of boardgames which pitted armies from different eras against one another. My favorite was “776” which pitted the Continental Army, recalled to duty after its victory over the Redcoats, against the mounted shock troops swarming out of the desert. Much hilarity.

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