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.
Data as of May 1988