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Iraq: Historical Setting
Library of Congress Country Study

The Abbasid Caliphate, 750-1258

Many unsuccessful Iraqi and Iranian insurrectionists had fled to Khorasan, in addition to the 50,000 beduins who had been sent there by Ziyad. There, at the city of Merv (present-day Mary in the Soviet Union), 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. 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. Their political policies were, however, remarkably similar to those of the Umayyads.

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. 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. 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. 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.

Harun ar Rashid, the caliph of the Arabian Nights, actively supported intellectual pursuits, but the great flowering of Arabic culture that is credited to the Abbasids reached its apogee during the reign of his son, Al Mamun (813-33). After the death of Harun ar Rashid, his sons, Amin and Al Mamun, quarreled over the succession to the caliphate. Their dispute soon erupted into civil war. Amin was backed by the Iraqis, while Al Mamun had the support of the Iranians. Al Mamun also had the support of the garrison at Khorasan and thus was able to take Baghdad in 813. Although Sunni Muslims, the Abbasids had hoped that by astute and stern rule they would be able to contain Shia resentment at yet another Sunni dynasty. The Iranians, many of whom were Shias, had hoped that Al Mamun would make his capital in their own country, possibly at Merv. Al Mamun, however, eventually realized that the Iraqi Shias would never countenance the loss of prestige and economic power if they no longer had the capital. He decided to center his rule in Baghdad.

Disappointed, the Iranians began to break away from Abbasid control. A series of local dynasties appeared: the Tahirids (821- 873), the Suffarids (867-ca. 1495), and the Samanids (819-1005). The same process was repeated in the West: Spain broke away in 756, Morocco in 788, Tunisia in 800, and Egypt in 868. In Iraq there was trouble in the south. In 869, Ali ibn Muhammad (Ali the Abominable) founded a state of black slaves known as Zanj. The Zanj brought a large part of southern Iraq and southwestern Iran under their control and in the process enslaved many of their former masters. The Zanj Rebellion was finally put down in 883, but not before it had caused great suffering.

The Sunni-Shia split had weakened the effectiveness of Islam as a single unifying force and as a sanction for a single political authority. Although the intermingling of various linguistic and cultural groups contributed greatly to the enrichment of Islamic civilization, it also was a source of great tension and contributed to the decay of Abbasid power.

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 Buwayhids were ousted in 1055 by another group of Turkic speakers, the Seljuks. The Seljuks were the ruling clan of the Kinik group of the Oghuz (or Ghuzz) Turks, who lived north of the Oxus River. Their leader, Tughril Beg, turned his warriors first against the local ruler in Khorasan. He moved south and then west, conquering but not destroying the cities in his path. In 1055 the caliph in Baghdad gave Tughril Beg robes, gifts, and the title, "King of the East." Because the Seljuks were Sunnis, their rule was welcomed in Baghdad. They treated the caliphs with respect, but the latter continued to be only figureheads.

There were several lines of Seljuks. The main line, ruling from Baghdad, controlled the area from the Bosporus to Chinese Turkestan until approximately 1155. The Seljuks continued to expand their territories, but they were content to let Iraqis and Iranians simply pay tribute while administering and ruling their own lands. One Seljuk, Malek Shah, extended Turkish rule to the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor, and to parts of Arabia. During his rule, Iraq and Iran enjoyed a cultural and scientific renaissance. This success is largely attributed to Malek Shah's brilliant Iranian vizier, Nizam al Mulk, one of the most skillful administrators in history. An astronomical observatory was established in which Umar (Omar) Khayyam did much of his experimentation for a new calendar, and religious schools were built in all the major towns. Abu Hamid al Ghazali, one of the greatest Islamic theologians, and other eminent scholars were brought to the Seljuk capital at Baghdad and were encouraged and supported in their work.

After the death of Malek Shah in 1092, Seljuk power disintegrated. Petty dynasties appeared throughout Iraq and Iran, and rival claimants to Seljuk rule dispatched each other. Between 1118 and 1194, nine Seljuk sultans ruled Baghdad; only one died a natural death. The atabegs (see Glossary), who initially had been majordomos for the Seljuks, began to assert themselves. Several founded local dynasties. An atabeg originated the Zangid Dynasty (1127-1222), with its seat at Mosul. The Zangids were instrumental in encouraging Muslims to oppose the invasions of the Christian Crusaders. Tughril (1177-94), the last Seljuk sultan of Iraq, was killed by the leader of a Turkish dynasty, the Khwarizm shahs, who lived south of the Aral Sea. Before his successor could establish Khwarizm rule in Iraq, however, Baghdad was overrun by the Mongol horde.
 
Iraq: Historical Setting
Library of Congress Country Study

Sunni-Shia Controversy <<< Contents >>> Mongol Invasion

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