Islamic History, Part 20: the Islamic Opposition and the Abbasid Revolution (705-750), Part II

Islamic History Series

before you read this, first read part I

As I said earlier, the Umayyads were able to operate on a religious level in their claim on authority primarily because they were the symbolic embodiment of the communal unity that Muhammad had established decades earlier. What it meant to be a “Muslim” still wasn’t all that clear at this point, but everybody could be sure that the community was still united as long as they all still gave loyalty to the caliph. But there were dissenters, which I think can be put into two categories. First were those who thought the community should be oriented around something other than obeying one ruling dynasty. Religious thinkers like Hasan al-Basri were in this group, though they were only slowly developing their ideas about what should replace “loyalty to the caliph” as the characteristic that marked those who belonged to the community. They wanted to change the character of the caliphate, in effect, from an Arab empire whose ruling class happened to be mostly “Muslim” to an “Islamic” empire (I leave those terms in quotes because at this point they’re still not very well-defined) whose language and culture happened to be mostly Arab. That may have been a distinction without a practical difference in many ways, but the more these thinkers focused on “Islamic” values like submission to God and the equality of all believers, the more the opulent lifestyle and absolutism of the caliphate seemed incompatible with those values. These scholars began, in this period, the process of theorizing and constructing what we know today as Shariʿah, the (unwritten) body of Islamic law that is incumbent upon all believers but whose content has been hotly contested over the centuries.

The second group of dissenters were those who still mostly agreed that the caliph should be the locus of imperial unity, but thought that the choice of caliph ought to be based on something other than physical possession of the office (which was becoming the Umayyads’ best/only argument for holding on to the job). In the early days of the community, succession had been easier, because everybody mostly knew everybody and you could more or less reach some consensus about who possessed the requisite religious knowledge (ʿilm) to be the leader (imam). But now we’re talking about a sprawling empire, one that had transitioned to hereditary rule, and there was no particular reason, if you really thought about it, why the son of the sitting caliph would necessarily have any more ʿilm than anybody else. The Umayyads essentially defended their reign with variations of “we’re in power, so ipso facto God must think we have the ʿilm for the job,” but you can see why this wouldn’t really satisfy critics. Partisans of ʿAli (the shiʿatu ʿAli or what we know today as “Shiʿa”) were in this group, and they contended that the descendents of Muhammad, via ʿAli, were the only ones who possessed the ʿilm to rule the community. Also in this group were the Kharijites, who argued that ʿilm could be found anywhere you looked, potentially, and so anybody was a potential caliph. They believed that the qualification to be imam was simple; just look for the most pious believer and you’ll have found the guy with the right amount of ʿilm for the job. They didn’t have a great deal of popular support, but their ideas of radical equality were potent enough to seep into popular consciousness. Both the Kharijites and the emerging Shiʿa were focused on justice and the basic equality of all believers, and so they were both very popular among those mistreated non-Arab converts (and even those who did not join either of these movements were undoubtedly influenced by their ideas).

This all raises an important question: what the heck is ʿilm in the first place? The word means “knowledge,” but here it’s a specific kind of knowledge: the understanding of what is “right,” as seen through the framework of the Qurʾan and the example of Muhammad and his Companions. It incorporated several emerging disciplines: Qurʾan recitation, Hadith scholarship, the early stages of a kind of historiography (focused primarily on reconstructing Muhammad’s biography), and the early stages of the legal profession (fiqh, or “jurisprudence”). Our first category of reformer, outlined above, tended to believe that developing and disseminating ʿilm was the responsibility of the scholars (ʿalim, from the same root as ʿilm; plural ʿulamaʾ), rather than the caliph; in this view, the ʿulamaʾ was responsible for keeping the caliph honest and ensuring that he adhered to the Law. The second category believed that it was the leader (the imam, who in the caliphate was, you know, the caliph) who had to possess ʿilm and plot the legal and doctrinal path for the emerging faith. Some in this latter group went so far as to suggest that real ʿilm was somehow removed from the apparent or external meaning of the Qurʾan (its zahir), and that the true imam must actually understand a hidden meaning behind the text (batin) that he would share only with a few worthy followers. The most radical of these folks would later be called ghulat, or “extremists,” and while they never came close to mainstream acceptance they heavily influenced later Sufi movements (and if you see echoes of gnosticism in the idea of secret knowledge, then give yourself a pat on the head).

The thing is, no matter which of these two groups won the debate, the scholars or the “pious imam” crowd, the Umayyads were going to lose; if the scholars, not the emperor, were responsible for ʿilm, then the emperor’s authority was diminished, but if the emperor, not the scholars, was responsible, then it was clear that the Umayyads didn’t have the ʿilm necessary to hold the office. Many scholars even started to chafe against the official title that the Umayyad Caliphs had assumed, khalifat Allah (“Deputy of God”) as opposed to the more modest khalifat rasul Allah (“Successor of the Messenger of God”) that Abu Bakr and his first successors had used. The Successor of the Messenger of God might need a community of experts to help guide his decisions as the head of the community, but the Deputy of God presumably had some kind of direct line to the Almighty that superseded whatever the scholars might have to say. This reframing of the title of “caliph” was one example of Umayyad overreach that really cost them support with the scholars.

All of these currents–the resentment of non-Arabs toward the ruling Arabs, tribal and regional rivalries, developing religious consciousness, partisan resentments–coalesced into a general feeling that the Umayyads, their existential defense of their reign aside, were not worthy of the caliphate. Here are these guys who won an office that was originally intended to guide and lead a pious community of believers, but with the consent of those believers and under the principle that all those believers are equal under the law and under God, and what did they do? They turned that office into a hereditary monarchy with absolutist pretensions, governing according to a clear hierarchy and doing all kinds of things (drinking, womanizing, and incorporating “foreign”–Roman and Persian–innovations into their architecture and administrative practices, among other things) that weren’t very pious at all. The Umayyads tried to shape the developing religion around their own beliefs and their own political needs, but what did they know? Holy men like Hasan al-Basri were more easily credible religious scholars than the Umayyads. Plus they seemed to go out of their way to punish ʿAli’s (and thus Muhammad’s) descendents, and even those believers who didn’t agree that ʿAli’s sons should be ruling the empire still held them in esteem because of their family’s prestige. They weren’t even particularly good at the worldly aspects of their job; Sulayman (d. 717), for example, sent the army to besiege Constantinople, and the complete failure of that expedition was devastating to the empire’s military might.

Amidst all this discontent, including open Kharijite and Shiʿa revolutions, something was brewing in the eastern hinterlands of the empire, in a region called Khurasan that is now divided among modern Iran, modern Afghanistan, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. This was a region that was the site of several rebellions against Umayyad rule during the first half of the 8th century, but around 745 a man named only Abu Muslim (d. 755; his name was an obvious pseudonym, but nobody knows who he really was) arrived in Khurasan and started preaching on behalf of…somebody. It wasn’t clear who he was talking about, but Abu Muslim’s genius was that he was able to make all the disparate revolutionaries in the region, be they proto-Shiʿa, Kharijite, or just discontented eastern Arabs and non-Arab converts, think that he was singing their tune. He talked about ʿilm, and about the special authority of the Hashimite house from which Muhammad and his descendents came, and about the equality of all who joined Muhammad’s community, but he very craftily never revealed who he was actually looking to put on the throne. That way, everybody with a grievance against the Umayyads could imagine that Abu Muslim was talking specifically to them, planning to make one of them caliph (it’s also worth pointing out that, by not revealing the identity of his boss until victory was almost assured, Abu Muslim was protecting that boss in the event that the revolution failed). By the time he’d amassed enough of a force to march an army west, under its soon-to-be legendary black banners, the crumbling Umayyads never had a chance. Abu Muslim controlled Khurasan by 747, and in 749 he took Kufa. It was then that he decided to reveal his boss, the man behind the curtain.

Abu Muslim’s move west (via; I know it’s not the greatest map but you blog with the map you have, not the map you wish you might have, etc.)

That man, so eagerly awaited by Abu Muslim’s followers, and especially his Shiʿa followers who really figured it would be a descendent of Muhammad via ʿAli, turned out to be…not a descendent of Muhammad at all. Instead, Abu Muslim turned out to be working for a fellow named Abu al-ʿAbbas al-Saffah (d. 754), who belonged to the Hashimite clan and was thus a relative of Muhammad, albeit a distant one. He was descended from one of Muhammad’s uncles, al-ʿAbbas (d. 653), from whom we get the name of the dynasty, the ʿAbbasiyah or ʿAbbasids (I’ll probably devolve into “Abbasid” as we go on, because it’s easier and faster to type). Abu al-ʿAbbas took the name Al-Saffah, “The Generous,” as a kind of messianic regal epithet, and the subtext was obvious: all you subjects who have been getting screwed by the Umayyads can look forward to much nicer treatment from a caliphate being run by this Abu al-ʿAbbas, The Generous. He assumed the caliphate for himself in Kufa and immediately made that city the new capital of the empire. This wouldn’t last, but the overall effect of the quick military success, the sudden reveal of the new caliph, and the elevation of Kufa, ʿAli’s city, to the status of capital seems to have dizzied his supporters, many of whom had reason to be pretty angry that this relatively unknown, distant cousin of Muhammad had suddenly come of out nowhere and been handed the throne by Abu Muslim, who had kind of played most of those supporters by not letting them in on the whole point of the rebellion.

There was still the matter of disposing of the current, Umayyad, caliph, and Abu Muslim, with al-Saffah’s uncle, ʿAbdallah ibn ʿAli, led the Abbasid army north, to the banks of the Great Zab river in central Iraq, where they met Marwan II and his forces in the Battle of the Zab. The Umayyad cavalry ran into an ʿAbbasid spear wall (think of the film “Braveheart” and the Battle of Stirling, even though the Battle of Stirling in that movie isn’t in any way like the actual Battle of Stirling…well, I digress), and was completely broken. Marwan II fled all the way to Egypt, where he was killed relatively ignominiously. Al-Saffah was now the unquestioned caliph, and the caliphate would spend the next five to eight centuries (it depends on your perspective) in the hands of the dynasty that he and Abu Muslim founded. Of course, all revolutions eventually eat their own, and this one was no different; Abu Muslim’s popularity was seen as a threat, and al-Saffah’s successor, al-Mansur (d. 775), had him executed in 755.

The Umayyad Dynasty was over…at least in Syria and the east. One of Marwan II’s cousins, a grandson of the former caliph Hisham named ʿAbd al-Rahman (d. 788), fled Damascus ahead of the oncoming ʿAbbasid army, and didn’t stop running (dodging ʿAbbasid assassins all the way) until he reached Ifriqiyah (more or less modern Tunisia), whose governor was sympathetic to the deposed Umayyads. When that governor stopped being sympathetic and started suspecting Umayyad exiles of plotting to overthrow him, ʿAbd al-Rahman went back on the move, eventually crossing into Andalusia, which was in chaos after the Berber revolt of 740 and the subsequent arrival of new Arab forces who brought with them the old Qays-Yaman feud, and desperately needed someone with the political legitimacy to unite its warring cities and tribes. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, so let’s stop here.

Further Reading

This is the last time I’ll be able to recommend G. R. Hawting’s The First Dynasty of Islam.

Also of specific interest for the end of the Umayyad Dynasty is Khalid Yahya Blankinship’s The End of the Jihad State: The Reign of Hisham Ibn ʿAbd al-Malik and the Collapse of the Umayyads. Blankinship argues that the Umayyad’s dependence on expansionary warfare ultimately exposed them to more dangerous external enemies and diminishing returns to those wars. The Dynasty’s inability to replace war with a more stable ideological basis for their rule is what did them in, once the wars stopped going so well.

Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam (vol. 1) literally wrote the book on the emergence of the Islamic/pious opposition to the Umayyads.

Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050 and his The Armies of the Caliphs: military and society in the early Islamic State. His When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty does for the ʿAbbasids what Hawting’s book does for the Umayyads, though in general there is more material on the ʿAbbasids since we actually have written works from their period that have survived.

Suliman Bashear’s Arabs and Others in Early Islam

Patricia Crone’s God’s Rule – Government and Islam: Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought and her God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam (with Martin Hinds).


2 thoughts on “Islamic History, Part 20: the Islamic Opposition and the Abbasid Revolution (705-750), Part II

  1. Shoo, nasty spammerbot, shoo!

    What a shame that all of our work in machine intelligence has done so much to enable the greedy and the shiftless….

    But I was happy to see Abu Islam make his appearance, for purely selfish reasons: Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv is one of my favorite stories in the Borges Canon and is based on one of Abu Islam’s subordinates: good to see the pieces set into context.

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