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ʿAbbāsid Caliphate

Hugh Kennedy, Ken Burnside
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics What is This? Provides in-depth coverage of the political dimensions of Islam and the Muslim world through thematic examination of the major topic areas of political science as they relate to the Muslim world.

ʿAbbāsid Caliphate

The rise of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate was the first fissure in Islamic culture; it would eventually result in the Shīʿī and Sunnī sects that exist today. The ʿAbbāsid caliphate arose from the chaos resulting from the weak successors of the Umayyad caliph Ḥishām ibn ʿAbd al-Malik, which resulted in four caliphs in seven years, with scandal tainting two of them. Another proximate cause of the shift from the Umayyad dynasty was the changing demographics of the period; Ḥishām’s efforts to consolidate the territory resulted in mass conversions of Persians, Turks, and Kurds; as Muslims they paid lower taxes, resulting in fiscal instability. In addition, several of the Ummayad caliphs had gained reputations for being more concerned with the pleasures of the flesh than piety or duty.

The formal proclamation of the first ʿAbbāsid caliph, Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Saffāḥ, in 750 C.E. forced the last Umayyad caliph to flee to al-Andalus, where the caliphate remained independent until the Frankish invasions and Spanish reconquista. The ʿAbbāsid dynasty ruled the caliphate until 1258 C.E.

Origins of the Dynasty.

The ʿAbbāsids claimed membership in the family of Prophet Muḥammad. They thus attracted support during the reign of the Umayyad Marwān II. Abū al-ʿAbbās became leader of a rebellion that began with isolated incidents and coalesced into a military uprising in Khorāsān in 747 C.E., led by the Persian Abū Muslim. After taking Khorāsān, they advanced on Baghdad, which they occupied in 749, and proclaimed Abū al-ʿAbbās caliph (r. 750–754).

The early ʿAbbāsids faced opposition from supporters of the Umayyads, notably in Syria. Additional friction over rulership came from supporters of the house of ʿAlī, who felt the ʿAbbāsids had usurped their rights as descendants of the Prophet. The ʿAlid faction, most numerous in Iraq, staged uprisings, the most successful of which was led by Muḥammad al-Nafs al-Zakīyah (“the Pure Soul”) in Medina and his brother Ibrāhīm in Basra in 762. Communication issues and rebellions close to court caused the ʿAbbāsid dynasty to abandon rulership of al-Andalus (modern Spain) and the Maghrib (modern Libya and Algeria).


ʿAbbāsid power was consolidated throughout the Middle East by al-Manṣūr (r. 754–775), who used the army, and their family members, to build his first government. These positions, prominently filled with Khorāsānī, and a bureaucracy, led by the Barmakid family, continued the Sassanian traditions of financial administration. The state was based in Iraq; in 762 al-Manṣūr founded a new capital at Baghdad. Most notably, al-Manṣūr focused on building a system of amirs and viziers, delegating authority and decentralizing much of the power he had accumulated. Much of this was done to appease the Persian supporters who dominated the bureaucracy.

Al-Manṣūr’s immediate successor, al-Mahdī, continued his father’s peaceful programs, and it was during his reign that Baghdad developed from a palace complex to a vibrant city and hub of trade across the Middle East; it became the largest city of its era outside of China. Al-Mahdī’s successes included reorganizing the army (although the reasons for this included the prevention of a coup) and appointing secular judges. Technologically, al-Mahdī is notable for the introduction of paper to the Middle East. He was succeeded by his oldest son, al-Hādī, who was perceived as weak; this perception was coupled with uprisings both in the east and west and an invasion by the Byzantines.

Islamic Golden Age.

Al- Hādī’s successor was Hārūn al-Rashīd, who reigned during the apogee of the ʿAbbāsid dynasty over the next three decades. It was during the reign of Hārūn that the first actions against the increasingly powerful Barmakid family were taken and that the palace was moved from Baghdad to a more centralized location, in al-Raqqah, where lines of communication were better. His principal external rival was the Byzantine Empire, which paid tribute in all but four years of his reign as caliph.

In striking parallel to the succession of the sons of Charlemagne, Hārūn al-Rashīd was forced to divide his realm between his sons, al-Amīn (r. 809–813) in Iraq and the West and al-Maʾmūn (r. 813–833) in Iran. The agreement broke down immediately after his death in 809; a decade of destructive civil war ensued before al-Maʾmūn was able to establish himself as sole caliph in Baghdad. His reign was a period of great intellectual activity, and the caliph himself played an important part in the translation of Greek texts into Arabic; while al-Maʾmūn was a scholar and linguist and focused on the intellectual, the government proved less effective, with several provinces becoming independent in all but name, and getting away with acts that would have merited reprisals from his father.

The Rise of Turkish Influence.

Al-Maʾmūn’s successor, his brother al-Muʿtaṣim (r. 833–842), began his reign by dismantling his brother’s military base at Tyana and sending his forces against the Khurramīyah revolt; the suppression was successful, and most of the rebels sought refuge with the Byzantines. Shortly after this rebellion was crushed, Muḥammad ibn al-Qāsim brought Khorāsān into rebellion; the fighting lasted a year and a half before al-Qāsim was captured. (He escaped from prison and was never heard from again.) The principal army of the rebellion, the Zult, were captured and presented to the caliph, who granted them clemency and sent them to fight the Byzantines. The final resolution of the Khorāsān rebellion involved bringing Babak Khorramdin to Sāmarrāʾ in 838; Khorramdin arrived at the palace on his own elephant and submitted to the rule of the caliph, resulting in him being beheaded by his own executioner.

Not without justification, Muʿtaṣim was concerned about internal rebellions and coup attempts; after repelling an invasion by the Byzantines, he acted on intelligence about a coup and killed a number of his senior military commanders. In an attempt to secure armed forces loyal only to himself, al-Muʿtaṣim instituted the ghilman system of slave-soldiers, in which the captured children from conquered regions were taken from their homes and trained as soldiers beholden only to the caliph. An unintended consequence of this, the creation of a corps of Turkish cavalry, was a growing discontent with the caliph by the Arab elements of his armed forces. After rioting in Baghdad, the capital was moved to Sāmarrāʾ, where it would remain for over fifty years.

While the capital was relocated to Sāmarrāʾ, the Ṭāhirid family was allowed a free hand in eastern Iran, including freedom from several intensely disliked taxes. Combined with the general dislike of the Arab populace for the mostly Turkish army, the isolation of the caliphate in Sāmarrāʾ persisted into the reign of al-Wathiq and was exacerbated in the reign of his successor, his brother, al-Mutawakkil.

The Rise of Intolerance and Impending Decline.

Al-Mutawakkil was mistreated by his brother’s vizier, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Malik; within a month of becoming caliph, al-Mutawakkil had him arrested and put to death and his property confiscated. Over the next two years, al-Mutawakkil began to deal systematically with those who had mistreated him during his brother’s reign. This furthered the split between the Arab forces in the caliphate’s army and the Turks who ran it. As most of the caliphs of this time did, al-Mutawakkil depleted his treasury and resources suppressing rebellions, notably in Albania and in Egypt, and fighting off incursions by the Byzantines. Although lacking the scholarly bent of his father and brother, he may have been the last effective ʿAbbāsid caliph.

Al-Mutawakkil involved himself in public works projects and in the religious sphere, where his proclamations resulted in a reopening of the rift between the Shīʿī and the caliph, and eventual repression of the Shīʿī, including the destruction of the shrine of Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī. While he opened diplomatic avenues between Sāmarrāʾ and Constantinople, his treatment of the Christians and Jews in his own lands resulted in the proclamations that they must wear certain clothes, that every tenth Christian or Jewish home be torn down and replaced with a mosque, and that no Muslim should be ruled over by a Christian or Jew, effectively driving them from the government. The net effect of these proclamations was to make non-Muslims ready scapegoats when an unpopular decision had to be enforced.

The next three caliphs were virtual puppets of the Turkish army and various factions. Al-Mustaʿin, al-Muʿtazz, and al-Muhtadī put many of their heirs, rivals, and coconspirators to death and, in focusing on such issues, allowed the western part of the caliphate to slowly unravel and the Ṭāhirids to become an all-but-independent dynasty in northeastern Iran. The last of these three, al-Muhtadī, attempted a reformation—but was killed by the Turks four months after his ascension.

Relocation of the Capital to Baghdad and the Resurgence of the Caliphate.

When ʿAbbāsid authority was restored by the second al-Muʿtaḍid (r. 892–902), the political influence of the caliphs was confined to Iraq, although Egypt was temporarily regained in 905. Many reforms were carried out, including reduction of some of the burdens on Christians and Jews imposed by al-Mutawakkil. Rapprochement with the Shīʿah was initiated, though the remaining Umayyads were removed from the mosques and the courts, and al-Muʿtaḍid’s secret police and public executions made him feared rather than loved by his subjects. His son, al-Muktafī, won great popularity by ending some of his father’s excesses, but his reign was marked by attacks by external forces. While al-Muktafī desired to bring the caliphate back to its full expanse, circumstances did not allow it.

Al-Muqtadir and the Resumption of the Decline.

The resurgence of the ʿAbbāsids was short lived; al-Muqtadir succeeded his father, with the assistance of his father’s vizier, who wanted a weak caliph so that he could be the power behind the throne. Muqtadir is portrayed as caroming from one hedonistic pleasure to another, while thirteen viziers were nominated, assassinated, or brought up on charges and removed. His successor, al-Qāhir Billāh was even worse; displaying an outward veneer of piety, he tortured those close to his predecessor for their wealth. He walled up his presumptive heir alive; eventually he was set upon by palace officials, blinded, and cast into prison. He died a beggar. His successor, al-Rādī, while not as maliciously cruel or paranoid, was functionally a puppet, as was the next caliph, al-Muttaqī.

In 945 C.E., the caliphate came under the functional rule of the Būyids, who took Baghdad by force and sent the reigning caliph into hiding. After the caliph’s capture and blinding, a civil war broke out between the Būyids and the Turkish elements of the army; the remaining caliphs served at the pleasure of the Būyids, and were ruled by their viziers.

In the early eleventh century, Būyid control crumbled, and the ʿAbbāsids returned to the life of the Muslim community. In opposition to the Shīʿī Būyids and their supporters, al-Qādir (r. 991–1031) put himself at the head of the emerging Sunnī movement, publishing the Risālat al-Qādirīyah, which established the bases of Sunnī doctrine. This influence grew after 1055 when Baghdad was taken by the Seljuk Turks, professed Sunnīs who accepted the religious leadership of the family. However, it was not until Seljuk power in turn began to collapse after the death of Sanjar in 1157 that this prestige could be translated into political power. Caliph al-Nāṣir (r. 1180–1225) reestablished ʿAbbāsid control over most of Iraq with the support of popular futūwah movements. His successors failed to maintain this momentum. When the ʿAbbāsids were faced by the still-pagan Mongols, who had no respect for their religious status, they were unable to put up an effective resistance. Baghdad fell to the invaders in 1258, and the last caliph, al-Mustaʿṣim (r. 1242–1258) was put to death.

The ʿAbbāsid caliphate enjoyed a certain afterlife in Cairo, where members of the family continued as titular caliphs, although they were in effect members of the Mamlūk court, kept to confer legitimacy on the sultanate but without any independent power. With the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, even this small survival of their ancient glory was swept away.



  • Bowen, Harold. The Life and Times of ‘Alí ibn ‘Ísa`, ‘the Good Vizier.’ Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1928. Classic that still gives a good impression of political and artistic life in the tenth century.
  • Glubb, John Bagot. The Empire of the Arabs. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1963.
  • Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphate: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century. London and New York: Longman, 1986. Introduction to political history up to the mid-eleventh century.
  • Le Strange, Guy. Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate. Oxford: Clarendon, 1900. Historical geography closely based on Arabic sources.
  • Muir, William. The Caliphate, Its Rise, Decline, and Fall: From Original Sources. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004.
  • Shaban, M. A. Islamic History: A New Interpretation. Vol. 2: a.d. 600–750 (a.h. 132). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Interesting insights, but not wholly reliable on detail.
  • Sharon, Moshe. Black Banners from the East. Vol. 1: The Establishment of the ʻAbbasid State: Incubation of a Revolt. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1983. Meticulously researched account of the buildup to the ʿAbbāsid revolution of 747–750.
  • Sourdel, Dominique. Le vizirat ʿAbbāside de 749 à 936 (132 à 324 de l’hégire). 2 vols. Damascus: Institut Français de Damas, 1959–1960. Still the best history of the ʿAbbāsid bureaucracy.
  • al-Ṭabarī. The History of al-Tabari. Vols. 27–38. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1984–1999. English translation of the classic Arabic history, from 750 to the beginning of the tenth century.
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