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The Abbasid: a Golden Age and Disintegration,750 to 1055 CE

Map of the extent of the Abbasid caliphate, around 850 CE

The Abbasid Caliphate at its greatest extent, around 850 CE (Wikipedia Commons)

The new line of caliphs would be from the family of Abbas, known as the Abbasids. And in 750 the capital of Islam moved from Damascus to what had been a small Christian village on the west bank of the Tigris River, near the ruins of the old Persian capital, Ctesiphon, a town with a Persian name: Baghdad.

The Abbasids began ruling with a show of Islamic piety, and they spoke of reform. They gave prominence in state affairs to Islamic theologians and to experts in Islamic law. They built a skilled bureaucracy and professional army, manned to a large extent by those who had helped the Abbasids to power. Much of the military was Persian. And at the Abbasid court were Persian refinement and urbanity. There were also Persian titles, Persian wives, mistresses, wines and Persian garments – while Arabic remained as the language of Islam. In the holy cities of Medina and Mecca asceticism remained an ideal, but luxury and the pursuit of pleasure were fact.

With an increase in trade the Islamic empire going into the 800s was having its "golden age." Islam had no scorn for the merchant as did Christians and Confucians – Muhammad himself having been a merchant. Caravans connected Aden, Syria and Egypt, and they connected Baghdad to India and China. Muslim trade by sea dominated the Mediterranean and extended across the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean to the Far East. The Indian Ocean was becoming a great trade route. Arab merchants were a familiar site in India. Muslim traders and mariners were spreading their language and religion to Southeast Asia. In the 800s, residing in Guangzhou China were over 100,000 Arabs, Persians and Jews who had voyaged across the Indian Ocean on Muslim ships. Muslim merchants were as far north as Korea.

At Baghdad, the Tigris River was 750 feet wide. At Baghdad's docks and wharves were hundreds of ships: warships, trading vessels including Chinese junks and pleasure boats. It was the time fictionalized in the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights drawn from reports of actual voyages made by Muslim merchants. note10


But the economic success and recent expansion was not to serve or help unification of the empire. Islam's empire was headed toward the same fate as other empires: it was disintegrating. Islam's empire was too vast for control from any one center. Grumbling and disrespect for those in power were common throughout history. The promises of the first Abbasid caliphate were empty, and in the far reaches of Islam's empire grumbling was encouraged by the distance to Baghdad.

The Abbasids had not fundamentally changed the course of Islamic civilization. No protection of rights of individuals was written into law. The Abbasids were as autocratic as the Umayyads had been and worse. In addition to trying to wipe out Umayyad lineage, they suppressed their Shiite and Khorasani former allies. They surrounded themselves with pomp and shielded themselves from the public by a wall of officials and eunuchs. Under the Abbasids there was an increase in centralization of power. What tribal democracy had existed under the Umayyads disappeared.

Slavery was very much alive. Slaves served preeminent roles in administration and a variety of public affairs. To avoid having to recruit warriors from tribes, the Abbasids, from the early 800s, regularly employed people of slave origin as soldiers and some as officers.


At various times and at various places in Persia, people revolted against the imposition of Islam into their religious lives. As early as the year 767 a rebellion arose led by a man named Muqanna, who preached a combined doctrine of Islam and Zoroastrianism and led thousands against the Abbasids, robbing caravans and destroying mosques. The caliph Mahdi sent armies against him on several occasions and defeated him within five years.

Rebellion by orthodox Muslims also occurred. By the year 800, Spain and north Africa west of Egypt were free of control from Baghdad – under the rule of an Umayyad prince. In Baghdad itself the son of a Turkish slave woman, Mu'tasim, took power as caliph in a coup in 833. He used Berber and Turkish slaves and mercenaries as bodyguards. These guards rose in number to four thousand, and their meanness and abuse of the people of Baghdad provoked so much hostility from the public that Mu'tasim, in 836, moved his court to Samarra, seventy or so miles up the Tigris River. Four years later, Mu'tasim's troops captured and executed another rebel leader, Babak Khorramdin, ending a 34-year Persian rebellion against Islam. note9

During Mu'tasim's reign as caliph, slave officers gained influence at court – as eunuchs often had in China. Mu'tasim fell in October 841. He died in January 842 and was succeeded by his son, then another son in 847.

After Mu'tasim, officers of the guard gained in power. In 861 they murdered the second son, the caliph Mutawakkil, and made his son caliph. A few assassinations later – in the 880s – the caliph and his powerful guards returned to Baghdad, and there, into the next century, the Turkish officers of the guard continued to make and unmake caliphs.

While officers of the guard ruled in Baghdad, the empire's economy weakened, and across the empire respect for the Abbasid caliph fell to new lows. There had been a rebellion in Azerbaijan. There had also been a great slave revolt at the salt mines near Kufa, the slaves killing hundreds of thousands of citizens in the area.

Meanwhile, since 788 an independent Shia state had arisen in North Africa near Tangier. In 909 that Shia rebellion spread eastward to Tunis, where the Shia freed their leader, Said ibn Husayn from prison and declared him caliph. Husayn began a dynasty called the Fatimids, claiming descent from Muhammad's daughter Fatima. Husayn changed his name to Ubaydullah al Mahdi – Mahdi signifying prophesied redeemer of Islam. From his base in North Africa he extended his rule to Sicily and then to Egypt, where the Abbasids had never been popular, and Cairo became his new capital. In 929 Rahman III in Cordoba (Spain) declared himself caliph, and now there were three caliphs: the Umayyad in Spain, or Hispania, the Shiite in Cairo and the Abbasid at Baghdad.

During the first half of the 900s the Fatimids expanded their empire into Palestine, southern Syria and to Medina and Mecca. An army of a Shia family called the Buwayhids, from just south of the Caspian Sea, occupied Baghdad in 945. They kept the Abbasids as figureheads, while the Abbasids clung to what prestige they could with their nominal position as caliph and successors of Muhammad.

Contributing to the fragmentation was a group of devout believers in Islamic monotheism in Lebanon who had broken with others in the 800s, to become known as the Druze (Druse), who addressed their prayers to the Fatimid caliph.

After the year 1000, Christian forces began to reconquer the Iberian peninsula (Hispania) and Sicily. And whole tribes of Turks were moving through Transoxiana and into Persia. It was much like the disintegration of the Roman Empire. The Islamic empire was fragmented in loyalties and unable or unwilling to rally to defend its frontier against invasion. The Turks conquered much of Persia and then much of Mesopotamia, including Baghdad in 1055, and from the Fatimids the Turks took control of Syria and Palestine.

The Turks were quick learners. They adopted Persian culture, and they converted to Islam. But, with all the upheaval, the empire's trade with China had come to an end and trade with Europeans had declined. The coins that had been numerous in the 800s and 900s diminished in the eleventh century, and soon these coins disappeared.

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