The Abbasids were the dynasty of caliphs who ruled the Islamic Empire from 750 until the Mongol conquest of the Middle East in 1258. The dynasty takes its name from its ancestor al-Abbas, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. In 750 the Abbasids defeated the Umayyads and transferred the capital of the Caliphate from Damascus to Baghdâd, thereby shifting the empire's center from Syria to Iraq.
The regime reasserted the theocratic concept of the caliphate and continuity with orthodox Islam as the basis of unity and authority in the empire. The Abbasid "revolution" also made Islam and the fruits of power accessible to non-Arabs. A strong Persian influence persisted in the government and culture of the Abbasid period, and Hellenistic ideas led to the rapid growth of intellectual life.
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Michael W. Dols
Ahsan, M. M., Social Life under the Abbasids (1979); Goldschmidt, A., Jr., A Concise History of the Middle East, 3d rev. ed. (1988); Hitti, Philip K., History of the Arabs, 10th ed. (1970); Lassner, J., The Shaping of Abbasid Rule (1980); Mansfield, Peter, The Arab World: A Comprehensive History (1976); Shaban, M. A., The Abbasid Revolution (1970; repr. 1979).
The Abbasids was a dynasty of caliphs who ruled the caliphate of Islam from 750 until 1258. All of these caliphs were descended from Abbas, a member of the tribe of Quraysh of Mecca who was an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. The Abbasids seized the caliphate following the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs, and held it until the Mongols sacked Baghdâd and killed the last caliph of the line. For most of this time their court was in Baghdâd, a town founded at the command of the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur (754-775) in 762.
For the first century or so of their caliphate, the Abbasids acted as the leaders of Islam both religiously and politically, despite the fact that during this period their authority was rejected by some. The peak of their power probably occurred in the reign of Harun ar-Rashid, who relied heavily on the Barmakid family of administrators. Following Harun's death there was a period of civil war between his two sons, al-Amin and al-Mamun. Al-Mamun finally triumphed but the prestige of the family was damaged.
By the end of the 9th century the Abbasids were unable to exercise real religious or political authority. Their religious authority had been taken over by the religious scholars of Sunni Islam following the failure of the caliphs' attempt to impose their will over them in the trial of strength known as the Mihna (833-847). As a result of this episode the caliphs were restricted to a largely symbolic role as merely nominal leaders of Sunni Islam. Followers of Shiism rejected the Abbasids completely.
Politically the caliphs had become puppets in the hands of their Turkish soldiers, who were able to remove and install caliphs as they wished. In 908 one caliph held office for one day only. The process culminated with the institution in 935 of the title Amir al-Umara (Commander of the Commanders), which was taken by the real political power, the chief of the Turkish soldiers.
At the same time, territories that the Abbasids controlled fell apart as independent states arose in regions previously under Abbasid rule. Some of the rulers of these states recognized the suzerainty of the Abbasids, but this was merely a token. In 945 the Shiite Buwayhid family conquered Baghdâd itself, and for the next century the Abbasid caliphate survived mainly because the Buwayhids found it useful in various ways.
Although the 9th and 10th centuries saw a decline in the power of the caliphs, the period was one of great religious and cultural importance. The trial of strength between the caliphs and the Sunni religious scholars sealed the rise of the Sunni form of Islam. It prepared the way for the appearance of the great books of Sunni law and the collections of hadiths (reports about Muhammad). Only slightly later, the Shiite form of Islam achieved its definitive form when the line of the 12 Imams came to an end in 873, an event followed by the appearance of books of Shiite law and distinctive collections of hadiths.
Philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and other sciences flourished as the Islamic world appropriated and developed the knowledge and wisdom of earlier and surrounding cultures. Particularly important was the science and philosophy of the Hellenistic Near East, and the 9th and 10th centuries saw the translation into Arabic of several works by (or attributed to) figures like Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Galen, and others. The work of translation was encouraged by the Abbasid al-Mamun who founded the so-called House of Wisdom (Dar al-Hikma) in Baghdâd as a center for it. Arabic-speaking Christians were especially active in the production of translations. The system of so-called Arabic numerals originated in India, but was adopted at this time by Islamic civilization, then later transmitted to the West.
The political fragmentation of the caliphate led to the emergence of many local courts and centers of power, which also encouraged the development of science and philosophy as well as poetry and prose, art, and architecture. Some of the local courts that emerged in the eastern regions of the caliphate are especially associated with the rise of an Islamic Persian literature and Iranian national sentiment.
In 1055 the Seljuk Turks, who were Sunnis, captured Baghdâd, but this made no significant difference to the position of the caliphs. Although once again honored as symbols of the unity of Sunni Islam, their freedom of action was severely limited. Only in times of Seljuk weakness were individual caliphs occasionally able to exercise some power and influence. By the time the Mongol Empire ended the line of caliphs in 1258, Sunni Islam no longer needed even the symbolic role of the caliphate. It is true that the Mameluke sultans of Egypt established a puppet caliphate in Cairo, installing various members of the Abbasid family who had escaped the fall of Baghdâd. Since the end of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdâd, however, no claimant to the office has achieved anything like general recognition among the Muslims.
After their first century or so the Abbasids cannot be said to have had much control over events. They nevertheless provided a focus of loyalty for Sunni Islam during an often turbulent period, and their caliphate may be seen in retrospect as the golden age of Islamic civilization.
The Abbasids was the name of a dynasty of Muslim caliphs. The Umayyads were overthrown by a combination of Shiite, Arab and non-Arab Muslims dissatisfied with the Umayyad regime. The rebels were led by the Abbasid family, descendants of the Prophet's uncle Abbas. From about 718 the Abbasids had plotted to take the caliphate, sending agents into various parts of the Muslim empire to spread propaganda against the Umayyads. By 747 they had secured enough support to organize a rebellion in northern Iran that led to the defeat of the Umayyad caliphate three years later. The Abbasids executed most of the Umayyad family, moved the capital of the empire to Baghdad, and assimilated much of the pomp and ceremony of the former Persian monarchy into their own courts.
Beginning in 750 with Abu al-Abbas, the Abbasid caliphate lasted five centuries; it is the most durable and most famous Islamic dynasty. The Abbasids became patrons of learning and encouraged religious observance. They were the first Muslim rulers to become leaders of an Islamic civilization and protectors of the religion rather than merely an Arab aristocracy imposing an Arab civilization on conquered lands. Under their caliphate Baghdad replaced Medina as the center of theological activity, industry and commerce developed greatly, and the Islamic empire reached a peak of material and intellectual achievement.
The 8th- and 9th-century caliphs Harun ar-Rashid and his son Abdullah al-Mamun are especially renowned for their encouragement of intellectual pursuits and for the splendor of their courts. During their reigns scholars were invited to the court to debate various topics, and translations were made from Greek, Persian, and Syriac works. Embassies also were exchanged with Charlemagne, emperor of the West.
In the late 9th century, the Abbasid caliphs increasingly began to delegate administrative responsibility to ministers of state and other government officials and to lose control over their Baghdad guards. As they gradually gave up personal political power, the caliphs placed more and more emphasis on their role as protectors of the faith. One result of this change in emphasis was the increased persecution of heretics and non-Muslims. About the same time, several successful revolts in the eastern provinces led to the establishment of independent principalities, and independent caliphates were subsequently established in North Africa and in Spain. Eventually, the power of the Abbasids barely extended outside Baghdad, and by the middle of the 10th century, the Abbasid caliphs had virtually no power, serving merely as figureheads at the mercy of the military commanders. The final defeat of the Abbasid dynasty came from outside the Muslim world, when al-Mustasim was put to death by the invading Mongols at the order of Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan.
Islamic culture started to evolve under the Umayyads, but it grew to maturity in the first century of the Abbasid dynasty. The Abbasids came to power in AD 750 when armies originating from Khorâsân, in eastern Iran, finally defeated the Umayyad armies. The Islamic capital shifted to Iraq under the Abbasids. After trying several other cities, the Abbasid rulers chose a site on the Tigris River on which the City of Peace, Baghdâd, was built in 762. Baghdâd remained the political and cultural capital of the Islamic world from that time until the Mongol invasion in 1258, and for a good part of this time it was the center of one of the great flowerings of human knowledge. The Abbasids were Arabs descended from the Prophet's uncle, but the movement they led involved Arabs and non-Arabs, including many Persians, who had converted to Islam and who demanded the equality to which they were entitled in Islam.
The Abbasids distributed power more evenly among the different ethnicities and regions than the Umayyads had, and they demonstrated the universal inclusiveness of Islamic civilization. They achieved this by incorporating the fruits of other civilizations into Islamic political and intellectual culture and by marking these external influences with a distinctly Islamic imprint.
As time passed, the central control of the Abbasids was reduced and independent local leaders and groups took over in the remote provinces. Eventually the rival Shia Fatimid caliphate was established in Egypt, and the Baghdâd caliphate came under the control of expanding provincial dynasties. The office of the caliph was nonetheless maintained as a symbol of the unity of Islam, and several later Abbasid caliphs tried to revive the power of the office.
In 1258, however, a grandson of Mongol ruler Genghis Khan named Hulagu, encouraged by the kings of Europe, led his armies across the Zagros Mountains of Iran and destroyed Baghdâd. According to some estimates, about 1 million Muslims were murdered in this massacre. In 1259 and 1260 Hulagu's forces marched into Syria, but they were finally defeated by the Mamluks of Egypt, who had taken over the Nile Valley. For the next two centuries, centers of Islamic power shifted to Egypt and Syria and to a number of local dynasties. Iraq became an impoverished, depopulated province where the people took up a transitory nomadic lifestyle. Iraq did not finally experience a major cultural and political revival until the 20th century.
Ahmad S. Dallal
Abbasid was the dynastic name generally given to the caliphs of Baghdad, the second of the two great dynasties of the Muslim empire. The Abbasid caliphs officially based their claim to the throne on their descent from Abbas (AD 566-652), the eldest uncle of Muhammad, in virtue of which descent they regarded themselves as the rightful heirs of the Prophet as opposed to the Umayyads, the descendants of Umar.
Throughout the second period of the Umayyads, representatives of this family were among their most dangerous opponents, partly by the skill with which they undermined the reputation of the reigning princes by accusations against their orthodoxy, their moral character and their administration in general, and partly by their cunning manipulation of internecine jealousies among the Arabic and non-Arabic subjects of the empire.
In the reign of Marwan II this opposition culminated in the rebellion of Ibrahim the Imam, the fourth in descent from Abbas, who, supported by the province of Khorasan, achieved considerable successes, but was captured (AD 747) and died in prison (as some hold, assassinated). The quarrel was taken up by his brother Abdallah, known by the name of Abu al-'Abbas as-Saffah, who after a decisive victory on the Greater Zab river (750) finally crushed the Umayyads and was proclaimed caliph.
The history of the new dynasty is marked by perpetual strife and the development of luxury and the liberal arts, in place of what their opponents identified as old-fashioned austerity of thought and manners. Mansur, the second of the house, who transferred the seat of government to the new city of Baghdad, fought successfully against the peoples of Asia Minor, and the reigns of Harun al-Rashid (786--809) and al-Ma'mun (813-833) were periods of extraordinary splendour.
Independent monarchs established themselves in Africa and Khorasan (an Umayyad prince had set up independent rule in Spain), and in the north-west the Byzantines successfully encroached.
The ruin of the dynasty came, however, from those Turkish slaves who were constituted as a royal bodyguard by al-Mu'tasim (833-842). Their power steadily grew until al-Radi (934-941) was constrained to hand over most of the royal functions to Mahommed b. Raik. Province after province renounced the authority of the caliphs, who became figureheads, and finally Hulagu Khan, the Mongol general, sacked Baghdad (February 28, 1258) with great loss of life.
The Abbasids still maintained a feeble show of authority, confined to religious matters, in Egypt under the Mamelukes, but the dynasty finally disappeared with Motawakkil III, who was carried away as a prisoner to Constantinople by Selim I.
(from 1911 encyclopedia)
The Abbasids had the Mihna in effect during their reign (beginning in 827 AD). This was a movement of extreme intolerance, and it is sometimes referred to as the Muslim Inquisition.
Unfortunately, we are not aware of any scholarly texts on this subject which have yet been translated into English. We know that a number of Arabic scholars have written wonderful texts in Arabic, and look for the day when we will be able to add higher quality texts to this presentation.
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