Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Rise of the Abbasids

Steve Muhlberger

One of the most important events in Islamic history was the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty.  In the 740s of the Christian era, about a century after the beginning of Arab expansion, a branch of the Banu Hashim, the Prophet’s own clan, took advantage of the weakness of the Umayyad rulers in Damascus to raise a revolt against them.  Once they had defeated the Umayyads, these new rulers, the Abbasids or descendents of Al’Abbas, one of Muhammed’s uncles, created one of the most successful of Arab and Muslim dynasties.

In this lecture I’ll discuss a number of subjects:   Why the Ummayads fell, how the Abbasids replaced them, and the resulting changes in the caliphate and the umma.

The Umayyads became the leaders of the umma in the late 7th century A.D. because they were militarily and politically competent to run the great empire that the Arabs had acquired.

By the middle of the Christian eighth century,  a little past the end of the first Muslim century, the structure of the empire was clearly disfunctional.    It was no longer possible for all Arabs to be soldiers, or to restrict military roles only to them.  No longer were only Arabs Muslims.  No longer was the Arab-Islamic life of the garrison cities the preserve of the conquerors and their descendants.  Many Arabs had become demilitarized and settled down to live as townsfolk or even farmers, while Persians, Syrians, Egyptians, Berbers, Goths, and many others had learned Arabic and converted to Islam, and were claiming a place in the sun.

The attempts of the Umayyads to hold onto a structure where only Arabs -- and specifically the Syrian-Arab military establishment--enjoyed the full privileges of Muslims was one of the reasons they fell to the Abbasids.
Indeed, by the 740s A.D., the Ummayads had exhausted the military resources of Syria, faced a great deal of opposition all over their empire, and anyone with the right army in the right place at the right time had a chance to seize the big prize.
The Abbasids at that time were based in Khorasan, a border province located in NE Iran and W Afghanistan.   When the moment of Ummayad weakness came, they had three advantages:

For centuries after 750, members  of the Abbasid family held the title of Caliph, and till the 10th century A.D. they controlled a vast empire based in the Middle East.    Three points should be made about it:
  The Abbasids founded a new capital at Baghdad, right in the middle of the Iraqi agricultural zone that had supported Middle Eastern empires for thousands of years.   Also, Persian influence and resources were very important to the new regime.

Baghdad soon became the largest city in the world, and the richest.  The early conquests of the umma were over, and the great armies were no longer needed.  Tax revenue flowed into Iraq from all over what had always been one of the richest and most productive regions in the world, and created a wonderful environment that is reflected in the tales of Haroun al Raschid in the Arabian Nights.

There were more solid achievements: unrestricted trade and movement over the large area dominated by the Abbasids promoted the spread of technology and science.  The most important technology was associated with advanced irrigation and the introduction into many countries of new crops like oranges and sugar.  Coffee and paper are two other products not invented in the Islamic sphere but which were popularized by being adopted within it.  The same can be said of “Arabic numbers,” actually invented by Hindus in India but exported to many other countries by people from the caliphate.

Compared to western and central Europe, which was something of a rural backwater at this time, the wealth of the caliphate was astonishing.

The Abbasids were also the Islamic rulers who took the logical step of  ending discrimination against non-Arab Muslims, thus sweeping away the last remnants of  ethnic (as opposed to cultural) Arab chauvinism.  The caliph in the name of Islam ruled over all Muslims in the same way.

What did this mean in real life?

One thing it meant was that the road to conversion was wide open, and that the road would be more frequently taken.  All the troubles of the caliphate, the three fitnas or civil wars,  the division between the earliest Sunnis and Shiites, had done nothing to take the shine off the general success of the Muslim conquerors.   Islam and the caliphate were the wave of the future.

When Islam had been supposedly only for the Arabs, it had attracted converts anyway.  Now that converts were to be accepted as equals by older Muslims, conversion picked up.

Even so, this was still not the period of mass conversions.  Non-Muslims still made up the majority of the population of the caliphate.

A second effect that the official equality of all Muslims had, was to open the door to greater influence within the Muslim community for non-Arab languages and non-Arab culture. 

Arabic remained important:  in fact, after the conquests,  it became increasingly more usedl, because the conquerors appropriated the gems of  other literatures and translated them into their own language.  It became a cosmopolitan language.

But if a Muslim was not necessarily an Arab, then the legitimacy within Islamic culture of other languages and traditions was increased.

The language that most benefited from this situation in the Abbasid era was Persian.  When the Arabs took over the Middle East, there were three big languages, Greek, Persian, and Syriac, each of which had impressive literatures.  Syriac was so close to Arabic that it was easily absorbed into it.  Greek was studied very closely by Arabic scholars, but was not the native language of a large number of Arab subjects.   So it remained a “foreign language.”  But Persian was the language of  peasants, landlords, bureaucrats, soldiers, and scholars over a very large part of the caliphate.

Persian converts, especially in the earliest years of the conquest, learned Arabic for practical and religious reasons, and even translated Persian works into Arabic.   But they didn’t forget Persian or Persian traditions.  These traditions were well-represented not only in present-day Iran, but in Central Asia and in Iraq.  So in Abbasid times, the Persian influence on poetry, political ideas, and aristocratic life became very important.

A final effect of the Abbasid recognition that all Muslims were equal was a two-part political change.

The Abbasids were for two centuries among the most powerful rulers in the world -- maybe the most powerful.    At the same time, they had a very elevated sense of their role as the religious leaders of Islam.    But in neither case were they able to make that power a permanent one.    The political fall of the Abbasid caliphate was, as we will see, a pretty standard scenario, an empire’s fall like any other.    More interesting, perhaps, is the frustration of their religious pretensions.   Long before they began losing their political grip, the Abbasid caliphs were defeated in their attempt to become the defining force in Islam.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.