Abbasid Dynasty in Medieval Islamic World
The ‘Abbasid Dynasty (r. 750–1258) came to power after a revolution (747–750) that resulted in the overthrowing of the Syrian-based Umayyad dynasty (r. 661–750). Scholars have divided the period of ‘Abbasid rule into two main eras:
(1) 750–945, the ‘‘Golden Age’’ of ‘Abbasid rule and the beginning of its decline;
(2) 945–1258, the period after the ‘Abbasids’ loss of autonomy to regional warlord dynasties and ending with the Mongol execution of the last ‘Abbasid caliph in 1258.
This division, which is largely artiﬁcial in nature, has affected the nature of the modern study of the ‘Abbasids, with the majority of work being done on the earlier period of ‘Abbasid rule.
Taking their name from an uncle of the Prophet (i.e., al-‘Abbas), the ‘Abbasids sought legitimacy for both the revolution and their subsequent rule by emphasizing their family lineage to the Prophet and the alleged transference of authority to their family line by a descendant of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. Supporters of the ‘Abbasid dynasty argued that the ‘Abbasids were part of a literal revolution (dawla) in the sense that the ‘Abbasid Caliphate would bring the Islamic community back full circle to its earlier mores as found during the time of the Prophet and the four Rightly Guided Caliphs. Rather than ruling as an elitist Arab dynasty (a crime of which they accused the Umayyads), the ‘Abbasids sought to govern in a more universal fashion as symbols of a uniﬁed Sunni community. To that end, the ‘Abbasid caliphs used honoriﬁc titles (laqab/pl. alqab) such as al-Mahdi, al-Ma‘mun, and al-Qadir to denote their links to Allah, and they adopted the title al-Imam in addition to the traditional titles of Caliph and Commander of the Faithful.
Another change from the Umayyad period was that Persian culture (i.e., political, literary, and personnel) was more fully integrated into ‘Abbasid society; a key example was the central role played by the Persian Barmakid family of viziers during the early ‘Abbasid government. Modern scholars continue to debate the nature of the ‘Abbasid revolution and the later ‘Abbasid rule, focusing on such issues as the ethnolinguistic and regional backgrounds of those that fought for the ‘Abbasid cause (the abna’ al-dawla); later disputes about the role of the caliphs in determining correct belief; and the nature of the Islamic polity in light of the loss of ‘Abbasid autonomy to regional powers starting in the tenth century.
During the decades after the revolution, the ‘Abbasids successfully consolidated and strengthened the control over the lands. Al-Mansur (r.754–775) was instrumental during these early years in two distinct ways: (1) he removed any potential/actual rivals to ‘Abbasid rule through direct assassination and/or putting down localized revolts; and (2) he founded Baghdad as the new capital city for the ‘Abbasids in central Iraq. Baghdad soon became the economic, cultural, and intellectual locus of the Muslim world, with the caliphs and their viziers patronizing scholars and promoting the vast translation efforts that integrated works from the ancient world and surrouning cultures in to the larger Islamic consciousness.This cultural ﬂowering built upon earlier developments in Islamic theology and law, and it laid the foundation for developments in Islamic philosophy and mysticism as well as advances in the natural sciences(e.g., optics, medicine, chemistry). Over time, Baghdad would become a conduit for scholarship and the exchange of ideas through out Muslim lands.
In the ninth century, the ‘Abbasids began to face problems on a variety of fronts, all of which hampered the irability to rule effectively. A disastrous civil war between two brothers, al-Amin (r. 809–813) and al-Ma‘mun (r. 813–833), over the succession to the
Caliphate highlighted the weaknesses inherent in the ‘Abbasid support base. The ‘Abbasid caliphs began acquiring new troop support in the form of slave-soldiers (ghulam/pl. ghilman) from the Turkish population on their eastern borders. To maintain the loyalty of these slave-soldiers, al-Mu‘tasim (r. 833–842) established a new capital city, Samarra, to the north of Baghdad. The slave-soldiers would eventually turn against their caliphal masters in 861, precipitating the Samarran captivity(861–870),wherein ‘Abbasid caliphs were placed on the throne and removed by competing troop factions. Throughout the rest of the ninth century and into the tenth century, the ‘Abbasids were faced with dwindling resources (e.g., ﬁnancial, troop support) and increased pressure from newly independent dynasties in formerly ‘Abbasid-controlled lands.
Most notable were the Samanids (819–1005) in eastern Iran, the Fatimids (909–1171) in Egypt, and the Buyids (945–1055) in Iraq and Iran. It was the Shi‘is Buyid amirs who would bring the ‘Abbasids to their lowest point in 945, deposing the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Mustakﬁ and replacing him with another of Buyid choosing. Within a century, Buyid control was replaced by that of the Seljuks, a dynasty of Turkish Sunni Muslims (1055–1194). Although the ‘Abbasids began to regain some independence of action during the late eleventh century, they would never regain their former glory. The Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258 put an end to the ‘Abbasid presence in Iraq.
Although as cion of the‘Abbasid family would establish a Shadow Caliphate in Egypt that would astuntil 1517, these ‘Abbasids were merely titular ﬁgureheads that were far removed from their ancestors with regard to power and authority.