ABBASID, a dynasty of 37 caliphs who were the titular rulers of the Islamic empire from 750 to 1258 a.d. The Abbasids were the second, the longest-lived, and most renowned dynasty in islam. The name of the dynasty comes from al-Abbas, the uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, through whom the Abbasids laid claim to the caliphate in opposition to their Umayyad predecessors in Damascus.
The rise of the Abbasids marked a fundamental change in Islamic civilization. Under the preceding Umayyad dynasty, the empire had been ruled from Syria by Arabs under the influence of Byzantine Syria and by Yemeni Arabs long domiciled in the area. The Abbasids reigned from Iraq, maintained standing armies, and based their culture to an ever-increasing degree on the highly developed Persian civilization.
Beginnings of the Dynasty. The Abbasids came to power by putting themselves, before the mid-700’s, at the head of a coalition made up of Persians, Iraqis, members of the Shiite branch of islam, and others who hoped to undermine the Umayyad regime. In 750, at the decisive battle of the Great Zab (a tributary of the Tigris River), the Umayyad army was crushed. The Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, fled to Egypt, where he was slaughtered. Members of the Umayyad family were ruthlessly dealt with, but one of them, the youthful Abd ar-Rahman, escaped in disguise and reached Spain, where he established himself in 756 as an independent ruler. He laid the basis for a rival caliphate, the Umayyads oî Cordoba.
Early Abbasid Caliphs. Abu’l-Abbas (reigned 750-754), the first Abbasid caliph, transferred the capital from Syria to Iraq. He assumed the title of as-Saffah- (the Bloodshedder) because he intended to rule with an iron hand.
He was succeeded by his brother al-Mansur (reigned 754-775), who firmly established the new dynasty, chastised the Shiites; who expected a lion’s share from the Umayyad heritage, and built a strongly fortified capital at Baghdad. The Persians, on whose military shoulders the Abbasids had climbed to the caliphate, also had to be removed. Al-Mansur, therefore, invited their leader, Abu Muslim al-Khurasani, to an interview and had him murdered.
Golden Age. The Abbasid empire reached its zenith under the fifth caliph, Harun ar-Rashid (reigned 786-809), who as a crown prince had attacked the Byzantine empire and exacted trîbute from the regent, irene. Harun exchanged embassies with Charlemagne, patronized learning, and maintained such a splendid court that his name has lived in legend and history as the unsurpassed Islamic monarch. During his reign and that of his son and successor, al-Mamun (reigned 813-833), translations were made from Syriac, Persian, and Greek writings, which for the first time brought Muslims into close contact with the scientific and philosophic thought of the day. Scientific works translated into Arabic included writings by Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, and Galen. In philosophy, Aristotle and Plato were accorded the highest £>lace. The dean of translators was a Syrian Christian, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (in Latin, Johannitius; 809-873), who presided over the House of Wisdom—a combination of academy, library, and bureau of translation, established by al-Mamun.
Decline of the Abbasids. After the death of al-Mamun, the power of the Abbasids began to deteriorate. Al-Mamun’s brother and successor, al-Mutasim (reigned 833-842), began the practice of using a bodyguard of Turkish slaves. The bodyguard became so unpopular with the people of Baghdad that the caliph had to move his capital to Samarra, 100 miles up the Tigris River, which remained the capital for 56 years, during the reigns of eight successive caliphs. The caliphs were soon at the mercy of the Turkish soldiers, and the caliphate became a plaything to be disposed of at the pleasure of the commanding general. For about 200 years, caliphs continued to occupy the throne with little or no real power.
While the capital was at Samarra, there was a rebellion of Negro slaves who had been imported from East Africa to work the saltpeter mines en the lower Euphrates River. One army after another was sent to put down the uprising, only to be cut to pieces. The rebellion lasted for about 13 years (870-883), taxing the government’s resources to the utmost and contributing to the general disorder.
Various provinces meanwhile took advantage of the confusion to renounce their allegiance in part or in full to the central government. The Aghlabids of Tunisia had begun the process in 800. The more powerful Fatimids, who later ruled from Cairo, gave further impetus to the disintegration of the Abbasid empire when they established themselves as an independent dynasty in Tunisia in 909. The Fatimid caliphate belonged to the Shiite branch of islam. It threatened the unity of islam by challenging the Sunnite caliphate of the Abbasids in Baghdad.
Another but smaller Shiite state, the Hamdanid, arose in northern Syria with its capital at Aleppo. The most notable Hamdanid ruler was Sayf al-Dawlah (reigned 944-967), who patronized scientists, poets, and musicians, and developed a court that almost vied in grandeur with that of Baghdad in its heyday. Among those who enjoyed his patronage were the renowned poet al-Mutanabbi and the great musician al-Farabi. The Hamdanid armies clashed with the Byzantines several times, giving a foretaste of the warfare that was to follow during the Crusades.
Among the dynasties ruling new states east of Baghdad, the most important were the Persian Samanid dynasty of Transoxiana and Persia (874-999) and the Turkish Ghaznavid dynasty of Afghanistan and the Punjab (962-1186). Another Persian dynasty, the Buwayhid, arose in the center of the caliphate in 945 and held the Abbasid caliphs under its control for more than a century. The Buwayhids were Shiites and claimed descent from the Sassanids, whom the Arabs had displaced at the rise of islam.
The Buwayhids were supplanted by the Seljuk Turks, who entered Baghdad in 1055. During the reigns of the first three Seljuk sultans, the political unity of Müslim western Asia was restored under the nominal leadership of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. However, as the Seljuk* realm expanded, it became more and more fragmented.
In 1071, Alp Arslan, the second Seljuk sultan, won a decisive battle over the Byzantine forces at Manzikert, Armenia. He took the Byzantine emperor prisoner and opened the way for the influx of Turks, originally a Central Asian people, into Asia Minor. It was these Seljuk Turks with whom the Crusaders had to contend as they made their way from Constantinople to the Holy Land.
Last Abbasid Caliphs. Among the last caliphs, only an-Nasir (reigned 1180-1225) regained some of the temporal power associated with his high office. But the gain was only temporary. The empire continued to decline until the Mongol Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, delivered the final blow in 1258. Hulagu captured and burned Baghdad, and executed the last caliph, al-Mustaasim.