The early Islamic empire fell to Abbasid control with the overthrow and decimation of the Umayyad house in 750 C.E. The “Abbasid revolution” followed an extended period of clandestine organization centered in the eastern province of Khurasan. Modern scholarship has devoted considerable attention to the formation and execution of the anti-Umayyad movement. Opposition to Umayyad rule appears easier to explain, however, than the movement itself. Factors contributing to the collapse of the Umayyads included the deleterious effects of several rounds of civil war; divisions within the Syrian-based armed forces; persistent problems of legitimacy fueled by charges of fiscal corruption and impious conduct on the part of the caliphs and their kin; serious military setbacks along the frontiers of North Africa, Armenia, and Central Asia; and a fierce ideological challenge posed by leading _Alids and their Shi_ite partisans that gave rise to repeated uprisings, particularly late in the Umayyad period.
Abbasid success against the Umayyads was due in part to support emanating from Shi_ite quarters as well as, it appears, the broader populace of mawali (non-Arab Muslim “clients”).
The leadership of Abbasid partisans, key among them Abu Muslim (d. 775), and the strength of the Khurasan-based forces under his command, tipped the balance in favor of the Abbasid movement. As Elton Daniel has made clear, alongside other historians, modern scholarship remains divided on at least two questions.
The first question concerns the point at which the Abbasid family assumed leadership of the anti-Umayyad movement. Evidence indicates that the movement remained clandestine until a very late point and that its propaganda was kept deliberately vague. In an attempt to appeal to _Alid sympathies, the slogans of the movement spoke only of restoring “a chosen one” (from the Prophet’s family) rather than a member of the Abbasid house specifically. The Abbasids only showed their hand at a very late point; assuming control of the caliphate, the dynasty alienated the _Alids and their Shi_ite backers. The second question relates to the composition of the movement itself. One view is that the movement, however broad-based it later became, only succeeded because of the participation of Arab tribesmen that had settled in Khurasan during the early Islamic conquest period. In response to the “Arabist,” and hence largely ethnic, argument, other scholars have sought an explanation based variously in the socioeconomic conditions of eighth-century Khurasan and the religiopolitical appeal of Shi_ite ideals for Arab and non-Arab Muslims alike.
Beginning of Abbasid Khilafate
The reigns of the first two Abbasid caliphs, Abu ’l-Abbas al-Saffah (r. 750–754) and al-Mansur (r. 754–775), began with a period of consolidation that led to the elimination of Abu Muslim among other leaders of the revolutionary movement.
A period of sustained prosperity, if continued political unrest, ensued. Al-Mansur established Baghdad in the 760s and is properly viewed as the real founder of the dynasty. At its height, under al-Mansur’s immediate successors, al-Mahdi (r. 775–785), al-Hadi (r. 785–786) and, most significantly, Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), the Abbasid empire stretched from the central Maghrib across the Middle East and southern Anatolia into Transoxiana. Sustained civil war, initially a conflict between the sons of al-Rashid, Muhammad al-Amin (r. 809–813) and _Abdallah al-Ma_mun (r. 813–833), followed by the effort at consolidation by al-Ma_mun over Baghdad and its hinterland, initiated the gradual dissolution of the empire. Despite the skilled leadership of later caliphs, by the end of the ninth century, local dynasties and semiautonomous governing families had come to the fore in Egypt, Khurasan, Spain, and the Maghrib.
Fragmentation of the imperial domain and a dissolution of dynastic legitimacy set in by the first quarter of the tenth century with an eclipse of Abbasid authority at the hands of bureaucratic families and condottiere. By the 940s, Syria, Iraq, Fars, and western Iran were divided into principalities under Hamdanid or Buyid (Buwayhid) control; members of both families had served in the Abbasid military before asserting control over regions of the empire. Egypt, by the 970s, fell to the control of the Fatimids, an Isma_ili Shi_ite dynasty created in the central Maghrib earlier in the tenth century; the dynasty controlled Egypt, and, for extended periods, Syria and the Hijaz, into the second half of the twelfth century. Buyid rule gave way in the mid-eleventh century to a Sunni Turkish dynasty, the Seljuks, whose reign was largely defined by rivalry with the Fatimids, conflict against the Crusader states, and the onset of an extended period of Turkish domination of Near Eastern political life.
From the Buyid period on, the Abbasids themselves usually wielded little more than the trappings of authority; in Iraq, Abbasid history came to an end with the Mongol invasion in 1258. A branch of the family retained a wholly symbolic role under the Mamluks in Egypt until the Ottoman invasion of 1517 that brought an end to Abbasid claims upon the caliphate.
Politics and Administration
Taking their lead from the Umayyads, the early Abbasids worked quickly to fashion a highly centralized state. Like their predecessors, the Abbasids drew inspiration from Sassanian, Byzantine, and more deeply rooted patterns of Near Eastern imperial statecraft. For example, the caliphs relied upon elaborate systems of monarchical ritual and symbolism, such as the use of screens used to shield them during open sessions of the court. More dramatic still was the plan of Baghdad: The city, known as the Round City, was originally built around a massive circular core containing the caliphal residence, mosque, treasuries, and barracks. Historians understand the plan in terms of the assertion, through symbolic means, of the coming of a new imperial age. No less than earlier dynasties, the first Abbasids thus devoted themselves to massive building programs. In Baghdad, Samarra, and elsewhere, extensive palace complexes emerged alongside congregational mosques, extensive markets, and an impressive infrastructure of roads, canals, way-stations, and the like.
It appears as well that the early Abbasids sought to imbue their office with religious as well as political meaning. Commitment to holy war (jihad), a presiding role in the hajj, patronage of religious scholars: All were efforts to perpetuate the caliph’s moral leadership. The claim found little sustained support within the religious community. For the ulema, the traditions of theocratic monarchy contradicted the model of leadership crafted by the prophet Muhammad and the first generation of caliphs. The problem of delineating lines of authority was gradually resolved by the middle Abbasid period as the scholars asserted a near-monopoly over legal and social authority. No less significant a source of challenge to Abbasid legitimation were the sectarian movements of the Kharijites and the various Shi_ite tendencies, all of whom viewed Abbasid authority as illegitimate. Early Kharijite rebellions under the first Abbasid caliphs were suppressed at a moderate expense to the state. Far more costly, in ideological and political terms, was the challenge of their Shi_ite detractors. If the emergent Twelver Shi_ite tendency in Iraq and elsewhere remained relatively quiescent, by the early tenth century, a prominent Isma_ili movement had won support from local forces in the central Maghrib (modern-day Tunisia) and laid the foundation for the Fatimid state.
The considerable wealth of the early Abbasid empire drew predictably on agricultural production and commerce. Al- Mansur’s decision to build a new capital beside the two major Iraqi rivers and in the midst of the extensively farmed areas of central and southern Iraq, had much to do with assuring control over both sources of income. To assure a reliable flow of money and goods, the early Abbasids continued late Umayyad efforts to systematize tax collection. These efforts, initially successful, ultimately came up short as the health of the Abbasid economy fell victim to the civil war that followed the death of al-Rashid in the early ninth century and, some decades later, the turmoil sparked by the assassination of al- Mutawakkil (r. 847–861). By the early tenth century, the Iraqi agrarian system was in sharp decline. Commercial activity flourished in the early to mid-Abbasid periods, fueled by rapid urbanization in the Near East and the related rise in investment opportunities, urban surplus wealth, and the spread of new products, chief among them paper, cotton, and sugar. Merchant networks would play a key part in the dissemination of Islam into Central Asia, the Pacific Basin, and Saharan Africa from the ninth century on.
To administer their empire, the Abbasids relied on skilled bureaucrats, many of Persian or Christian origins. These officials (kuttab) oversaw a growth in the Abbasid bureaucracy to a size and complexity unknown under the Umayyads. The offices (diwans) of the Abbasid administration included the chancery, treasury, police, and intelligence-gathering services, and a special court of appeals (mazalim) presided over by the caliph. Control of the treasury and access to the imperial family allowed key families to build extensive networks of influence as exemplified by the eastern Iranian (and originally Buddhist) Barmakid family under al-Rashid. In 803, al-Rashid, having long tolerated Barmakid authority, finally turned against the family. By the first half of the tenth century, however, his successors, such as al-Muqtadir (r. 908–932), proved incapable of resisting pressures exerted by their top bureaucrats. High-level bureaucrats retained no less crucial a role under the Buyids and Seljuks; prominent civilian officials played a similar part in Egypt, particularly late in the Fatimid period.
To defend its borders and assure political calm, the Abbasids, like the Umayyads, relied upon a semiprofessional army largely supplied and paid by the state. The mainstay of the earliest Abbasid armies were the Khurasani troops that had fought to bring the dynasty to power. A number of these regiments were settled in Baghdad by al-Mansur and his successors, and naturally viewed themselves as integral to the fortunes of the new state. The civil war that brought al- Ma_mun to power in the early ninth century witnessed the defeat of these regiments at the hands of a new generation of eastern troops recruited by the new caliph bolstered by a new-style regiment of Turkish slave troops led by his brother, and successor, Abu Ishaq al-Mu_tasim (r. 833–842). In good part to house these new forces, al-Mu_tasim founded a garrison center in Samarra, north of Baghdad; his successors would administer the empire from Samarra for the next halfcentury. The practice of using slave regiments, many of which were drawn from Turkic peoples of Central Asia, would be emulated by later Near Eastern dynasties. The heads of the Samarran Turkish regiments, however, would rely on their troops, and close ties to the caliphate, to interfere in caliphal decision-making; the result was a period of violence and instability in Samarra that sapped the resources of the caliphate and set the stage for the humiliations of the tenth century.
Culture and Society
A revival of Near Eastern urban culture, rooted in Umayyad history, was a hallmark of the Abbasid period. The early Arab garrison centers, among them Basra, Kufa, Fustat, and Qayrawan, were now functioning towns while, under Umayyad and then Abbasid rule, Damascus and other pre-Islamic centers witnessed rapid population growth and cultural development. Constructed expressly as an imperial center, and occupied probably by the late 760s, Baghdad quickly emerged, however, as the nexus of early Islamic culture and scholarship.
(Samarra, the imperial administrative seat for much of the ninth century, never replaced Baghdad in this sense.) Much of this activity was directly tied to the patronage of the imperial state and networks of elite urban families. Historians are divided, however, over the question of whether to credit the support of the caliphs and elite urban society with the complex translation movement that rendered, in Arabic, nearly the entire corpus of Greek scientific and philosophical work over a period of roughly two hundred years beginning under al-Mansur in the later eighth century. Equally significant was urban literary production. The list of writers, poets, musicians, and cognoscenti that flourished in the Iraqi urban milieu included such luminaries as the grammarian Sibawayh (d. 793); the poet Abu Nuwas (d. 810); the essayist, linguist, and theologian al-Jahiz (d. 868); and the tenth-century polymath Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (d. 1023).
Urban patronage and the demands created by steady conversion to Islam throughout the empire explain the formation of a community of sophisticated and increasingly selfconfident religious scholars (ulema). Their efforts yielded seminal contributions to Qur_anic exegesis, hadith scholarship, and Islamic law. In the Sunni regions, four major schools of legal interpretation emerged: the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi_i, and Hanbali. The work of the great exegete and historian Abu Ja_far al-Tabari (d. 923) exemplifies both the remarkable scholarly achievements of the ulema and their ambivalent stance vis-à-vis the caliphal state. Ulema served the empire in their capacity as judges, market inspectors, and the like; their role in imperial administration was crucial. As noted earlier, however, they were loath to provide yet further backing to the caliphate. The trajectory to socioreligious prominence of the scholars occurred as the fortunes of the Abbasid state sharply declined.