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Abbasid Caliphate

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Abbasid Caliphate

    The Abbasids were descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of Muhammad . Abbasid caliphs ruled much of the Muslim world from 750 to 1258 . The Abbasids brought an era of strong government, economic prosperity, and a flourishing civilization.

    Rise to Power.

    The Umayyad family had controlled the caliphate from 661 to 750 . The Umayyad reign, however, was a turbulent one, plagued by power struggles and civil war. In the 720s, the Abbasid family began to gather support in the Khurasan province (present-day northeastern Iran). Villagers there resented Umayyad tax policies. In 747 an Abbasid commander named Abu Muslim led a revolt in the province. The rebellion spread, and three years later the Abbasid family took control of the caliphate.

    Over the next 100 years, the Abbasids solidified their rule. They faced strong opposition from Umayyad supporters in Syria, and several uprisings erupted in Iraq. The second Abbasid caliph, Abu Jafar al-Mansur , strengthened Abbasid power by establishing a professional army during the first decades of the dynasty. Caliph Harun al-Rashid further increased the power of the caliphate in the early 800s.Iraq became the Abbasids' power base, and al-Mansur established his capital at Baghdad. From there, the family ruled the surrounding provinces, including Mesopotamia, Iran, Egypt, and Syria. Abbasid caliphs appointed a military governor to rule each province. The Abbasid government did not directly rule the distant provinces in its vast empire, though it collected taxes and tributes from these areas. Local governors usually structured districts according to taxation purposes. The tax collection process depended on the organizational support of landowners, merchants, and money changers. To ensure that no official would become too powerful, the caliph chose different people to head tax collection and the judiciary.

    Although Arabs dominated the Abbasid government and military, non-Arab Muslims played important roles in both. Persian influence was especially strong in the caliphate.

    A Thriving Civilization.

    Islamic civilization flourished under Abbasid rule. Growth in industry, agriculture, and commerce broughT economic prosperity to the region. Baghdad, with a population close to one-half million residents, became an international center of trade. In the 800s, it was one of the largest cities in the known world.

    Abbasid wealth promoted advances in math, science, medicine, architecture, literature, philosophy, and art. Muslim religious leaders became experts in law and theology. By the 800s, Arabic had displaced local languages throughout most of the empire. Muslim scholars translated classic works of science, literature, and philosophy into Arabic. With Europe going through its so-called Dark Ages, a period of little classical scholarship, Muslim cities became the important centers of learning. Many noted medieval Christian philosophers and theologians later studied Muslim works.

    Islamic scholarship during the Abbasid period included contributions from many foreign sources. Islamic science, for example, combined elements from Persian, Greek, Indian, and Arab studies. Cultural and artistic advances in the Islamic world also reflected outside influences. As the dominant political force, Muslims felt they could borrow from other cultures without losing their own identities. They also believed that cross-cultural exchanges would promote the spread of Islam.

    Conflicts and Downfall.

    Despite great advances in Islamic civilization, the regional, religious, and political differences that divided the empire threatened the stability of the Abbasid caliphate. In the late 800s, local governors in Tunisia, Morocco, Iran, and Syria gained autonomy (self-government) from Abbasid rule. In the 900s, the Fatimid family established an independent Shi'i dynasty in Egypt. To make matters worse, caliph al-Muqtadir's financial mismanagement weakened Abbasid power in Iraq, and in 945 the Buyids, a Shi'i dynasty from northern Iran, captured Baghdad. They reduced the Abbasids to powerless figureheads.

    In the 1000s, Abbasid leader al-Qadir helped rally Sunni resistance to the Buyids. In 1055 the Seljuk Turks captured Baghdad, where as Sunnis, they accepted the religious leadership of the Abbasid family. In the 1100s, caliph al-Nasir reestablished the family's political power in Iraq as well.

    Outside forces finally brought an end to the Abbasid dynasty. Beginning in 1095 , Christians invaded the Holy Land and engaged in fierce battles against Abbasid armies. The Mongols in Asia posed an even greater threat to the caliphate. Sweeping across the continent, Mongol forces captured Baghdad in 1258 . They executed the last Abbasid caliph and permanently ended the family's reign.

    After the Mongol conquest, a few Abbasid family members reemerged in Cairo as members of the Mamluk court. Retained only to give legitimacy to the sultanate, these Abbasids had no real power. This last trace of Abbasid status disappeared in 1517 when the Ottomans conquered Egypt. See also Arabic Language and Literature; Crusades; Mongols; Philosophy; Shi'i Islam; Sunni Islam; Taxation; Trade; Umayyad Caliphate.

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