Islamic History, part 21: The Abbasids take over (750-786)

Islamic History Series

Well, it’s been a while since I had time to put one of these together. Sorry about that. Trying to eke out some freelance work and desperately looking for a regular gig kind of saps your will for big projects, I find.

Aside from lacking the time to undertake another chapter of this series, part of the delay is, I think, because of the fact that the scope of Islamic history begins to broaden very rapidly once the Abbasids take over, and I’ve been a little reluctant to jump into it. Why does it broaden so much, you ask? Because the Abbasid era is the first one for which we have good, contemporary sources and writing to work from, and while in some ways that makes it easier to study the Abbasids than it is to try to piece together what happened under the Rashidun caliphs, or to try to cut through Abbasid propaganda to get a sense of what really happened under the Umayyads, it also makes the undertaking a heck of a lot more intensive. Not only can we look at the history of the period in more detail and more reliably, but we can also start to talk about cultural things like literature, art, philosophy, science, political theory, and a whole bunch of other stuff that just seems to have exploded under the Abbasids and really created the foundations of the rich Islamic culture that Europeans encountered and took back home with them during the Crusades.

Now you might be thinking that this story gives the Umayyads an unfair rap, since it basically treats their era in power like some kind of cultural and intellectual void where nothing happened, nobody really thought or wrote about anything, and you’re probably right that it’s unfair. But the fact is that without any extant written works from the Umayyad period, we can’t really know whether or to what extent they were doing any deep writing and thinking. We do know that there were great thinkers and innovators in the Umayyad period, like Abd al-Malik and the holy man al-Hajjaj, and there must have been somebody keeping track of what happened so that later Abbasid-era historians could work off of a historical record when they were writing their chronicles. Maybe they weren’t doing it in Arabic yet, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t being done. So it is probably unfair to cast the Umayyad period in this “dark ages”-esque light just because of an absence of evidence to the contrary.

But it also makes sense that in the first century after Muhammad’s death, when the community as a whole was preoccupied with achieving massive military conquests and with trying to figure out how to administer those conquered lands, when Arab written culture was just literally being born, there actually wouldn’t have been a lot of philosophizing and literature going on. It makes sense that those things exploded during the Abbasid period, when Arabic was on firmer ground as a literary language and when scholars were finally getting the chance to absorb the scholarship and literature of the peoples and languages (Greek, Persian, Aramaic, Coptic, even Sanskrit) that their leaders had just conquered. If the Abbasids had never come along, or if they’d failed to topple the Umayyads when they did, then the Umayyads would have been running the show when Arabic came into its own and I wouldn’t have to apologize for their dearth of written material.

But anyway, that’s all to come, hopefully. I’d like to start slowly here, with a purely political look at the first four Abbasid caliphs, from al-Saffah, the founder and first ruler, through al-Mansur and al-Mahdi, who really established the new dynasty on the throne, to al-Hadi, who made it about a year in office before he died, maybe after being poisoned by his stepmother (ah, royalty). The fifth Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid, is so important that he deserves his own entry.

The Abbasid Caliphate. Note the loss of far western territories.

One innovation you see with the Abbasids is that many of them adopt regal names when they come to power, most or all of which have some connection to the idea of the Mahdi, the figure found in Hadith literature, who will supposedly come at the End of Days (maybe alongside Jesus, the Masih or Messiah) to defeat the false Messiah and restore righteousness to the world. Al-Saffah, whose real name was Abu al-Abbas Abdullah b. Muhammad, begins this tradition, saffah means “pouring out” and used to have the connotation of “generosity” (“pouring out” ones wealth on the less fortunate, I guess) and so al-saffah (“The Generous”) is one of the Mahdi’s epithets. That’s the archaic meaning of the term; it’s actually come to mean “shedder of blood” or “murderer” (one who “pours out” blood), and it’s fun to imagine that this meaning comes from al-Saffah’s bloody effort to purge the empire of any trace of the Umayyad house, but who knows if that’s really true.

Another Abbasid innovation isn’t so much an innovation as it is the continuation of some of the tendencies that had been developing under the Umayyads. They had already done much to transform what had been a relatively undefined and limited office, the successor to the Prophet but without any pretense to the authority he had possessed, into something approaching an absolute monarchy, but the Abbasids took things still further. They made the caliph into something pretty reminiscent of the Sasanian emperor (though never quite as absolute as that; Islam’s focus on personal piety and egalitarianism kept the social hierarchy from getting completely back to Persian Empire-like levels): several levels removed from the common subject, walled off literally in his palace and figuratively by layers of bureaucrats and courtiers.

The development of the bureaucracy produced a few notable figures, like Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. ~756), a tax official who wrote the first great work of Arabic literature, Kalilah wa Dimnah, a translation/interpretation of a collection of Persian fables, and the Barmakid family, who served as close advisors/viziers to the first four Abbasid caliphs. Khalid b. Barmak had been an early supporter of al-Saffah, and he served as the chief advisor to both al-Saffah and his successor al-Mansur. His son, Yahya, was vizier to the third Abbasid caliph, al-Mahdi, and tutor to the fifth Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid. The family established the first paper mill in Baghdad (see below) and they were the first prominent bureaucratic powers in the caliphate’s history. The success of these folks illustrates another feature of the early Abbasid period, an rapid increase in the number of people converting to the new faith. Ibn al-Muqaffa had been a Zoroastrian from birth (and was in fact executed after being accused of still secretly practicing Zoroastrianism despite his conversion, though that might have been a fabricated charge), and the Barmakids had been Buddhists.

Miniatures from a manuscript of Kalilah wa Dimnah, from the Brooklyn Museum

Al-Saffah’s first act after declaring himself caliph was to move the capital of the empire from Damascus to Kufa, in Iraq, which had briefly been the capital under Ali. This was a major change, not just because it meant relocating the entire apparatus of the caliphal court to a new city, but for what it said about the nature of the new dynasty. The Umayyads had ruled for the most part because of the power of their loyal Syrian forces; the Abbasid takeover represented the rest of the empire finally overcoming that Syrian dominance. Symbolically, moving the capital out of Damascus represented that those Syrian soldiers were no longer paramount in the imperial pecking order. Kufa had been a consistent source of opposition to the Umayyads; it was Ali’s base of support when he was fighting Muʿawiyah, had flirted with Husayn’s rebellion before turning on him, had been Mukhtar al-Thaqafi’s home base, and had been home to a number of other, smaller Umayyad-era rebellions that were quickly put down. Now it was the capital again.

Al-Saffah’s other major order of business was to hunt down and do away with every member of the Umayyad family that he could find. There’s a legendary story that he invited all the remaining members of the clan to a “burying the hatchet” banquet and then had them all beaten to death, but this is probably apocryphal (he may well have lured some of the Umayyads to their deaths in this way but probably not all of them). His efforts weren’t completed; Abd al-Rahman b. Muʿawiyah, a grandson of Umayyad Caliph Hisham b. Abd al-Malik, escaped and eventually got all the way to Andalusia, where he set himself up pretty nicely for a while, but that’s for another time.

The new caliph also quietly presided over an event that would have great significance for Islamic civilization and for European civilization as well. The Battle of Talas, in 751, pitted an Arab-Muslim army against a Chinese army of the Tang Dynasty somewhere in the area of the modern border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Chinese army lost, possibly betrayed by a large contingent of Central Asian mercenaries who were supposed to be fighting with them. The Arab victory may have, in the long-run, helped to open up Central Asia’s Turkic population to missionaries spreading the emerging Islamic faith (SPOILER: it took hold pretty well), but in the short-run it really seems to have had no effect at all on the Chinese-Arab balance of power in the region. But what it did achieve was the spread of paper-making into the Islamic world; among the Chinese soldiers who were taken prisoner by the Arabs were several who had knowledge of the paper-making process, and they were soon put to work making paper for the caliphs. From the caliphate, the technology made its way into Europe. Paper was already known around the world thanks to Chinese commerce, but it was only after Talas that the rest of the world learned how to make the stuff for itself. So it was a pretty big deal.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and you can’t consolidate your imperial authority after a deliberately vague revolt without alienating some of your erstwhile allies. When it became clear that al-Saffah was not actually a descendent of Ali and really had no more intention of handing the reins of power over to the descendents of Ali than the Umayyads ever did, he quickly lost Alid (“Alid” is more or less equivalent to “Shiʿa,” but we’re in a period where “Shiʿism” is not yet a well-defined thing so “Alid” is the better term) support. At the same time, though, al-Saffah established that the new dynasty would be far more equitable in its treatment of non-Muslims, of non-Arab converts to Islam, and of non-Syrian Arabs than the Umayyads had, and since these were the groups where the Alids had their strongest support, it would be a few years before they could muster up enough discontented followers to mount a serious challenge to the caliphs again.

Al-Saffah died of smallpox in 754. He was succeeded by his brother, Abu Jaʿfar Abdullah b. Muhammad, who took the royal name al-Mansur (“the triumphant”). Because al-Saffah died so soon after assuming the throne, while al-Mansur stuck around for another 20 years, he’s regarded as the real “founder” of the dynasty. Al-Mansur’s first order of business was to get rid of Abu Muslim, the preacher and general whose efforts were largely responsible for putting the Abbasids on the throne in the first place. Abu Muslim doesn’t seem to have done anything to precipitate his execution (some of the sources suggest he’d become paranoid and dangerous, but that’s as far as it goes), but he had too great a personal following and too much power (he was the de facto independent governor of everything east of Iraq) for al-Saffah’s successor (who maybe lacked al-Saffah’s compelling “post-revolution” legitimacy) to allow him to go on breathing.

Al-Mansur also had to deal with the first Alid challenge to the Abbasids, led by Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyah, a great grandson of Muhammad via Ali and Hasan. He put together a rebellion in Medina in 762 but was killed in battle with the Abbasids only a few months later. He put in place the roots of the bureaucratic structure that would define the empire moving forward (for example, he created the position of katib, or scribe, to oversee the empire’s finances; eventually, this would evolve into the supremely powerful position of vizier). He also moved the capital again. Kufa was a garrison city, built to accommodate the needs of an army on the frontier, but it left something to be desired as an imperial capital (and was tainted with Alid/Shiʿa associations anyway). So al-Mansur had a new city built in 762, pretty close to the old Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon in the central part of Iraq where the rivers ran close together. He called it Madinat al-Salam, “The City of Peace,” but it soon became better known by a different name: Baghdad. It would be the most important city in the Islamic world, and at times the entire world, for the next 500 years.

Al-Mansur died in 775, leaving the caliphate to his son, Muhammad, who dispensed with the allusions to the Mahdi and just styled himself “al-Mahdi.” Needless to say he wasn’t actually the Mahdi. But he does seem to have been a pretty pious fellow. His great mission was a campaign to stamp out Manichaeism, a Zoroastrian version of gnosticism that had been on the outs in Sasanian Persia before the Arabs came along. Manichaeism, like most gnostic variations, taught that the material world is evil and that spirit and knowledge are good, which is the kind of belief that tends to alienate the political and economic elites and so it’s not a tendency that most major organized religions can tolerate. But such beliefs to have an appeal to the ascetically-minded and to non-elites, and it was particularly potent among the lower classes when contrasted with the luxury of life in and around the Sasanian and now Abbasid courts. So al-Mahdi killed anybody he could find who wouldn’t renounce Manichaeism altogether.

This internal crusade had a few effects. It asserted a real religious role for the caliph, which would later lead to conflict with the scholars, but for now the scholars and caliph were working together against a common heretical enemy. It even brought the Alids into line for a while, again because of the common opposition. It also helped to shape and form Islam itself, defining it in the ways that it was Not Manichaeism. The word the Arabs adopted from Persian to describe the Manichaeans, zindiq, eventually became a catch-all term for heresy (zandaqah).

Al-Mahdi died in 785 and was succeeded by his son, Abu Muhammad Musa ibn Mahdi, who took the name al-Hadi (“leader,” from the same Arabic root as mahdi); he died a year later, either of illness or because he was poisoned by his own mother, al-Khayzuran, who presumably wanted her younger son Harun to become caliph and may have collaborated with the Barmakid Yahya b. Khalid to bring about his succession. The one truly noteworthy event of Hadi’s short reign was an Alid revolt in 786 near Mecca, which was put down at the Battle of Fakhkh. The revolt itself wasn’t such a big deal, but Idris b. Abdullah, a great great grandson of Ali via Hasan, escaped the fighting and fled west. He conquered territory in northwest Africa and founded the Idrisid Dynasty, which ruled what is roughly the area of modern Morocco until 974.

Next time: Harun al-Rashid (786-809)

Further reading:

Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam (vol. 1)

Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050, his The Armies of the Caliphs: military and society in the early Islamic State, and his When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty

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).

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