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Abbasid Caliphate

Mansur 754775
Mahdi 775785
Hadi 785786
Harun al-Rashid 786809
Amin 809813
Ma'mun 813833
Mamluk Supremacy
Mu'tasim 833842
Wathiq 842847
Mutawakkil 847861
Muntasir 861862
Musta'in 862866
Mu'tazz 866869
Muhtadi 869870
Mu'tamid 870892
Mu'tadid 892902
Muktafi 902908
Muqtadir 908932
Qahir 932934
Ar-Radi 934940
Muttaqi 940944
Mustakfi 944946
Buyid Supremacy
Muti 946974
At-Ta'i 974991
Qadir 9911031
Qa'im 10311075
Seljuk Supremacy
Muqtadi 10751094
Mustazhir 10941118
Mustarshid 11181135
Ar-Rashid 11351136
Muqtafi 11361160
Later Decline
Mustanjid 11601170
Mustadi 11701180
An-Nasir 11801225
Az-Zahir 12251226
Mustansir 12261242
Musta'sim 12421258

In 637 A.D. the force of Islam and the Arabs swept across the desert plain to a place called al-Qadisiyyah. It was here that the Arab force routed the remnants of the Sassanids, chasing their king as far as Afghanistan where he was finally assassinated. In four years the Sassanids were pushed off the historical scene.

The establishment of Islam under the Arab Empire was to bring to flower yet another great civilization in Iraq. And it is the Arabs which first began to call the country "Iraq".

The first Khalif of Arab Iraq was one of the Companions of the Prophet Mohammed, who had died in 632 AD. This new ruler, Umar ibn al-Khattab, was a stern but just ruler. He would walk the streets of the cities at night in disguise, looking for orphans or the destitute to help. He wore a patched robe in the kind of saintly poverty that was an ideal preached by the Prophet Mohammed. He was also an energetic city-builder, founding the two important cities of Kufa on the Euphrates and Basra at the confluence of the two Mesopotamian Rivers. Several Khalifates followed, and by 750 AD a dynasty was established in Iraq called the Abbasid.

Everywhere the weakening control of the central power allowed the Arabs to waste their strength in internal feuds, and alike in Spain in the extreme west, in Africa, in Syria, and in Irak the situation was most gloomy for the Caliph. In Khorasan too the able Governor Nasr who had proved his military capacity by defeating and capturing Kursul the Khakan, was opposed by the Yemenite faction, and the ceaseless quarrel between Modhar and Yemen convulsed Khorasan as much as it was convulsing Spain.

At this juncture, in AH 129 [747 AD] Abu Muslim raised the black standard of the house of Abbas, which bore the following inscription from the Koran : " Permission to fight is accorded to those who take up arms because they have been unjustly treated." This remarkable man, destined to overthrow the Omayyad dynasty and to set the house of Abbas in its stead, was purchased as a slave at Mecca by Mohamed, the head of the Abbasid family. Showing conspicuous ability, he was employed as a confidential agent, and constantly travelled between Southern Palestine and his native province Khorasan. It was in consequence of his reports that active steps were taken. Intrigues conducted with consummate skill resulted in the capture of both Herat and Merv.

Mahommed, the father of the two first Abbasid caliphs, was a man of unusual ability and great ambition. He directed his energies primarily to Khorasan, where missionaries were charged with the task of undermining the authority of the Omayyads, by drawing attention to all the injustices that took place under their reign, and to all the luxury and wantonness of the court, as contrasted with the misery of many of their subjects. God would not suffer it any longer. As soon as the time was ripe - and that time could not be far off-He would send a saviour out of the house of the Prophet, the Mahdi, who would restore Islam to its original purity. All who desired to co-operate in this holy purpose must pledge themselves to unlimited obedience to the Imam, and place their lives and property at his disposal. As a proof of their sincerity they were required at once to pay a fixed sum for the Imam. The missionaries had great success, especially among the non-Arabic inhabitants of Khorasan and Transoxiana.

A faction that supported Abd al Abbas (a descendant of the Prophet's uncle), was able to organize the rebels under the battle cry, "the House of Hashim." Hashim, the Prophet Muhammad's grandfather, was an ancestor of both the Shia line and the Abbas line, and the Shias therefore actively supported the Hashimite leader, Abu Muslim. In 747, Abu Muslim's army attacked the Umayyads and occupied Iraq. The Abbasids left Homaima and arrived at Kufa in the latter half of September 749 AD. Abu Jahm, on the instructions of Abu Moslim, declared to the chief officers of the Khorasanian army that the Mahdi was in their midst, and brought them to Abu'l-Abbas, to whom they swore allegiance. On Friday, the 12th Rabia II. A.h. 132 (28th November 749) Abu'l-Abbas was solemnly proclaimed caliph in the principal mosque of Kufa. The trick had been carried out admirably. On the point of gathering the ripe fruit, the fruit was snatched away by the Abbasids. The latter gained the throne and they took good care never to be deprived of it.

In 750, Abd al Abbas (not a Shia) was established in Baghdad as the first caliph of the Abbasid Dynasty. The Abbasids, whose line was called "the blessed dynasty" by it supporters, presented themselves to the people as divine-right rulers who would initiate a new era of justice and prosperity. Abu'l-Abbas inaugurated his Caliphate by a harangue in which he announced the era of concord and happiness which was to begin now that the House of the Prophet had been restored to its right. He asserted that the Abbasids were the real heirs of the Prophet, as the descendants of his oldest uncle Abbas. Their political policies were remarkably similar to those of the Umayyads.

The Omayyads, however, were persecuted with the utmost rigour. Even their graves were violated, and the bodies crucified and destroyed. In order that no members of the family should escape, Abdallah b. Ali pretended to grant an amnesty to all Omayyads who should come in to him at Abu Fotros (Antipatris) and acknowledge the new caliph.and even promised them the restitution of all their property. Ninety men allowed themselves to be entrapped, and Abdallah invited them to a banquet. When they were all collected, a body of executioners rushed into the hall and slew them with clubs. A grandson of Hisham, Abdarrahman, son of his most beloved son Moawiya, reached Africa and founded in Spain the Omayyad dynasty of Cordova.

The ruin of the Omayyad empire and the rise of the new dynasty did not take place without mighty convulsions. In Bathaniya and the Hauran, in the north of Syria, in Mesopotamia and Irak Khorasan insurrections had to be put down with fire and sword. The new caliph then distributed the provinces among the principal members of his family and his generals. To his brother Abu Ja'far he gave Mesopotamia, Azerbaijan and Armenia; to his uncle Abdallah b. Alt, Syria; to his uncle Da'ud, Hejaz, Yemen and Vamama (Yamama); to his cousin 'Isi b. Musa, the province of Kufa. Another uncle, Suleiman b. Ali, received the government of Basra with Bahrein and Oman; Isma 'il b. Ali that of Ahwaz; Abu Moslim, Khorasan and Transoxiana; Mahommcd b. Ash'ath, Fars; Abu 'Ami, Egypt. In Sind the Omayyad governor, Mansur b. Jomhur, had succeeded in maintaining himself, but was defeated by an army, sent against him under Musa b. Ka'b, and the black standard of the Abbasids was raised over the city of Mansflra. Africa and Spain are omitted from this catalogue, because the Abbasids never gained any real footing in Spain, while Africa remained, at least in the first years, in only nominal subjection to the new dynasty.

The history of the Abbasid Caliphate can be divided into five rather unequal parts, representing, as it were, so many acts in the great drama of the history of Islam. These five divisions are:

  1. the period of the great Caliphs, from the foundation of the dynasty in AH 132 (AD 750) to the death of Mamun in AH 218 (AD 833);
  2. the period during the tyranny of the Turkish body-guard, ending in AH 334 (AD 946), when Mu'izz-ad-Dawlah the Buyid prince became master in Baghdad;
  3. the period of the Buyid supremacy;
  4. followed by the Saljuk supremacy, beginning with Tughril Beg, who entered Baghdad in AH 447 (AD 1055), and ending with the death of Sultan Sanjar, the last of the great Saljuks in 552 (AD 1157);
  5. lastly, the period of decline and fall, which ended with the Mongol conquest, the sack of Baghdad in AH 656 (AD 1258), and the death of the last Abbasid Caliph Musta'siml.

The first Abbasid Khalif, al-Saffah had began his khalifate at Kufa, then moved it to a town re-named Hashimiya where he died in 754 AD. His son al Mansur, on an expedition three years after ascending to Khalif, crossed the Tigris and found there a small village called Baghdad.

"What is the name of this place?"

"Baghdad," they answered.

"By God," said the Khalif, "This is indeed the city which my father told me I must build, in which I must live, and in which my descendants after me will live. Kings were unaware of it before and since Islam, until God's plans for me and orders to me are accomplished. . . By God, l shall build it. . . It will surely be the most flourishing city in the world. . . and shall never be ruined."

It was the second Abbasid caliph, Al Mansur (754-75), who decided to build a new capital, surrounded by round walls, near the site of the Sassanid village of city of Baghdad. In 758 al-Mansur exactingly laid out the plan for the new city. One hundred thousand workmen - architects, engineers, masons, laborers, craftsmen, carpenters, smiths, and diggers were called together. Under his plans they erected a round city, nearly a mile and a half in diameter, centered around a great square which contained the palace, adjoined by the cathedral mosque. Avenues were then laid out 75 feet wide, with streets of 25 feet, and dead-end alleys as needed. Within fifty years the population outgrew the city walls as people thronged to the capital to become part of the Abbasids' enormous bureaucracy or to engage in trade. Baghdad became a vast emporium of trade linking Asia and the Mediterranean. During the reign of its first seven caliphs, Baghdad became a center of power where Arab and Iranian cultures mingled to produce a blaze of philosophical, scientific, and literary glory. This era is remembered throughout the Arab world, and by Iraqis in particular, as the pinnacle of the Islamic past.

By the reign of Mansur's grandson, Harun ar Rashid (786-806), Baghdad was second in size only to Constantinople. Baghdad was able to feed its enormous population and to export large quantities of grain because the political administration had realized the importance of controlling the flows of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. The Abbasids reconstructed the city's canals, dikes, and reservoirs , and drained the swamps around Baghdad, freeing the city of malaria.

Further administrative developments came with the Abbasids. They created a new city, Bagdad, between the Tigris and the Euphrates, where the three races, Syrian, Arab and Persian, met and sought with Bagdad as a capital to consolidate the empire. The Arab empire, it is true, had passed away with the Omayyads; yet there might be a chance to create a world-empire of all the Moslem peoples. But not even the genius and administrative skill of the early Abbasids could hold together that unwieldy mass. The semi-independent provinces soon became fully independent, or at most acknowledged the caliph as a spiritual head and paid a nominal tribute. His name might stand on the coinage and prayers be offered for him in the Friday service, the two signs of sovereignty to this day in Islam. With this crumbling of the empire went a more elaborate organization; bureaus took the place of principles and of the energy of individual rulers.

As the system of Moslem law was built on that of the Roman codes, so was the machinery of administration on that of Persia. And with the Abbasids the chance of the Persians had come. Abu '1-Abbas, the first Abbasid caliph, was the first to appoint a vizier (wazir, " helper," so Aaron is wazir to Moses in the Koran), a confidential minister VUlerate. to advise him and come between him and the people. Advisers the caliphs had had before; but not a definite adviser with this name. He must, we are told, have a strain of the ruler in him and a strain of the people to be able to work with both. He must know how to be acceptable; fidelity and truthfulness are his capital; sagacity, firmness, generosity, clemency, dignity, effectiveness of speech are essential. It is plain that the vizier became as important as the caliph. But Abu '1-Abbas was fortunate in early securing as his vizier the grandfather of the house of the Barmecides. On this Persian family the fortunes of the Abbasids hung, and it secured for them and for Islam a short golden age, like that of the Antonines, until the jealous madness of Harun al-Rashid cast them down.

During 786-809 AD under the rule of the fifth and most famous Abbasid khalif, Harun al-Rashid, Baghdad reached the full glory and opulence associated with the Abbasid era. Fortunes equivalent to the greatest today were made in Baghdad and elsewhere in the empire, as money and wealth rolled in from the provinces and dependencies. Houses were cooled by ice brought down from Zagros mountains. Tableware was made of silver. Clothing of all sorts, brocades, taffeta, damask, pewter, glass, stained glass, gold and silver, pearls, rubies, lapis-lazuli, turquoise, antimony, silks, perfumes, porcelain, dyes, spices, ivory, marble, sulfur, paper, pitch, tar, and mercury, all were brought into and became part of the economy and lifestyle.

Agriculture flourished. The Tigris and the Euphrates delta was drained, new canals were dug, and crops of barley, wheat, rice, and dates were bountiful. With the addition of exotic imported food stuffs from the provinces, cooking was developed into an art. With literacy common and not the privilege of a few, social standards were high. There were 27,000 public baths. Medicine and pharmacy was a Baghdad specialty; there were 800 doctors, licensed to weed out the quacks. And libraries were translating into Arabic knowledge from the farthest reaches of the world.

For centuries Baghdad was the center of civilization. Not only was the wealth of the world concentrated there, but so was its intellect. Rome had declined to a weedy town of 50,000 peasants in whose empty streets cattle browsed. London and Paris were villages, and Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, but a second-rate city. In the only other empire of consequence, the Holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne, the nobles could barely write their names, and nothing else.

Under the Abbasids everyone was expected to be educated. Great universities were established at Baghdad and Nippur. The classical Greeks were translated into Arabic and then retranslated into Latin and the Western languages. Science and mathematics flourished - Arabic numerals were universalized. Literature peaked, creating such works as the renowned Thousand and One Nights.

As with all great dynasties, this, too, came to a slow end. By the 9th and 10th centuries, the kingdom had disintegrated to the point where nomadic Turkish tribes had began to make incursions into the outlying districts.

In addition to the cleavages between Arabs and Iranians and between Sunnis and Shias, the growing prominence of Turks in military and in political affairs gave cause for discontent and rivalry at court. Nomadic, Turkic-speaking warriors had been moving out of Central Asia into Transoxiana (i.e., across the Oxus River) for more than a millennium. The Abbasid caliphs began importing Turks as slave-warriors (Mamluks) early in the ninth century. The imperial palace guards of the Abbasids were Mamluks who were originally commanded by free Iraqi officers. By 833, however, Mamluks themselves were officers and gradually, because of their greater military proficiency and dedication, they began to occupy high positions at court. The mother of Caliph Mutasim (who came to power in 833) had been a Turkish slave, and her influence was substantial. By the tenth century, the Turkish commanders, no longer checked by their Iranian and Arab rivals at court, were able to appoint and depose caliphs. For the first time, the political power of the caliphate was fully separated from its religious function. The Mamluks continued to permit caliphs to come to power because of the importance of the office as a symbol for legitimizing claims to authority.

In 945, after subjugating western Iran, a military family known as the Buwayhids occupied Baghdad. Shias from the Iranian province of Daylam south of the Caspian Sea, the Buwayhids continued to permit Sunni Abbasid caliphs to ascend to the throne. The humiliation of the caliphate at being manipulated by Shias, and by Iranian ones at that, was immense.

The power of Qaimn, the Abbasid caliph of Bagdad, was reduced to a mere shadow, as the Shlite dynasty of the Buyids and afterwards his more formidable Fatimite rivals had left him almost wholly destitute of authority. The real ruler at Bagdad was a Turk named Basaslrt, lieutenant of the last BQyid, Malik-ar-Rahlm. Nothing could, therefore, be more acceptable to the cajiph than the protection of the orthodox Toghrul Beg, whose name was read in the ofiicial prayer (khotba) as early as 1050. At the end of the same year (1055) the Seljuk entered the city and after a tumult seized the person of Malik-ar-Ratlin.

The influence of the Khalifate began slowly to recede to Baghdad and nearby areas. The Abbasids remained in power there until 1258 though, when the Mongols under Genghis Khan's grandson Hulagu raided from the east, sacked the city, and massacred over a million people.



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