Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Failures of the Abbasids

Steve Muhlberger

Between 750 and 945, the caliph of the Abbasid line, based at Baghdad and Samara in Iraq ruled nearly the entire Islamic world, at least in theory. After the fall of the effective power of the caliphs in 945 A.D., there never has been another ruler or line of rulers who controlled all or even most of the Muslim world.  Caliphs lasted in Baghdad until 1258, and caliphs have been located in other places right up until the twentieth century, but it just has not been the same since.

The unity of the umma under one khalifa has been an ideal for many Muslims over the centuries.  The fact is, however, that through most of Islamic history Muslims have been ruled by many princes, amirs, beys, begs, and sultans, who were just as likely to fight each other as the infidel.   In this lecture and the next, we will look at the factors that destroyed Muslim political unity, and what the effect on the umma was of the loss of that unity.

Abbasid caliphs thought of themselves as the leaders of all Muslims.  They took their religious responsibility very seriously indeed.    This was particularly the case because the purely religious heritage of Islam was not something that could be taken for granted.    It was still evolving.

As Lapidus points out, there were several different strands.

These strands disagreed on the issue of who had the right to interpret the Quran, the word of God, and to set the standards for all other Muslims:   should it be men learned in the literal evidence?   should it be philosophers with a background not just in religion but in natural philosophy and logic?   should it be people with a special mystical gift, especially, perhaps,  the imams descended from Ali?

And what about the Caliph?

In fact the Caliph’s claim to lead the umma was still awfully strong.   When it came to religious leadership, his court had a special role: there the  teachings of the Quran and the various sayings of the Prophet were debated by the most learned men in the empire, men who also knew the Greek, the Persian, the Christian, and the Jewish traditions.   There was the possibility of a unique synthesis that could arise nowhere else, and be approved and enforced by the Caliph, the successor of the Prophet.

This kind of role for the Caliph was very much in the Middle Eastern tradition.   In both the Christian Roman Empire and the Zoroastrian Persian Empire the ruler had had a key position in defining the content of the dominant religion and ensuring its dominance -- and neither of them had invented this idea.

However, outside the court, there was a great deal of resentment of the ambitions of the Caliph to stand as the chief authority of Islam.   I mentioned sometime back that debates in Arab Muslim cities were very influential in the early days in establishing the practical meaning of Islam.    Muslim urban communities still thought of themselves as having such a role in the Abbasid era.    They leaned toward scriptural legalism, on interpreting the Quran and the Hadith as a guide to everyday life.    They did not approve of remote philosophers -- or even Caliphs -- at a far away and luxurious court claiming ultimate religious authority.    Although the learned men of the cities  tended to be prosperous or even rich, in terms of their environment,  they were much closer to the grassroots than the court thinkers, and they knew it.

The grassroots leadership was able to frustrate the efforts of the Caliphs to establish themselves as religious arbiters.    The case of the Caliph Ma’mun (813-33) is particularly interesting.    He had come to power in a civil war, and may have felt that Caliphal authority needed shoring up.   He took two steps, each of which was meant to emphasize the authority of the Caliph to be the ultimate source of religious belief.   First, he designated a Shiite imam, a man named Ali al-Rida, as his successor.    This was an attempt to unify the claims of the line of Ali and the line of Al-Abbas, which if it had happened should have given later Caliphs an impressive religious authority.

Unfortunately Ali al-Rida died within a year, and Ma’mun took another step.   He publically adopted the philosophically-derived idea that the Quran was a created thing and did not share the divine essence.   This meant, of course, that it could be interpreted by men, presumably by the Caliph and his designated intellectuals.    The idea had been around for a while and was considered the height of courtly arrogance by a good many religious leaders.    Ma’mun was determined to establish the point, though, and he mounted an inquistion to force Muslim scholars to accept the doctrine.

In the short run, Ma’mun succeeded.   Hardly anybody dared defy him.   However, the attempt at absolute religious power crystallized resistance among the leadership of local Muslim communities.    In 848-9 a later Caliph, al-Mutawakkil had to publicly abandon the idea of the created Quran, which meant, of course, the idea that the Caliph could determine its meaning.

This great setback meant that for most Muslims ever since, the power of the Caliph to establish religious doctrine has been no greater, and maybe less, than the consensus of Muslim scholars throughout the umma.    There would be no Islamic pope.

This is one failure of the Abbasid Caliphate.   The other failure was the inability of the Abbasids to maintain the unity of their empire indefinitely.

Like previous empires, its survival depended on three main factors:

Keeping the money coming in from so wide an area is no easy matter.  In the life of any empire, it is easiest to do in the early stages, when the number of recipients is relatively small, and their relationship to each other and to the ruler is fairly clear.  In the early days of the Abbasid caliphate, the central bureaucracy, which collected the money and transmitted orders to the provinces, worked rather well.  Recruitment was open.  The most ambitious, hardest-working candidates got the positions, and worked hard to keep them.  Candidates were drawn from all over the empire, usually from educated, long established local families with a tradition of land-holding and government involvement.  In a way the ambitious sons of the capital represented the communities of the empire, and kept the court in touch with the provinces.

As the generations went by, however, the bureaucracy changed.  Instead of being a new institution, whose members were there because of individual talent, it became very much a hereditary group, or rather, a number of different groups connected by ties of blood and patronage.  Established members got jobs for their sons, nephews and cousins.  These people were not loyal to the institution, but to the patron who had got them the job.  And the patrons of course competed for position, bringing their clients into the battle with them.   After a while, the bureaucracy was made up of  feuding clienteles, whose major interests were feathering their own nests, not the will of the caliph.

In fact after a while, the bureaucrats were not effectively under the caliph’s control.  The evil viziers (more properly, wazirs) of the Arabian nights grow out of reality.  The caliph, to maintain his special position, had to be remote even from his closest servants.  After a while, they could have little direct control over their government.  They only had the power to hire and fire viziers, or prime ministers, men who had less magic and were closer to the levers of power.  Such viziers, of course, were the most successful faction leaders within the bureaucracy.  They were men who had gotten to their present position through bureaucratic intrigue, and were ruthless and suspicious.

But even viziers were not necessarily able to control the government.  The bureaucracy of the later Abbasids was not the representative body of old, in touch with the local scene all over the empire.  As a semi-hereditary group, based in the capital, they knew very little outside of Baghdad.   Thus did one of the main props of  Abbasid rule rot away.  The bureaucracy neither ruled nor collected money efficiently, and what was collected was largely diverted to the special interests of certain members of the caliphal court.

What about the troops?  They were inherently difficult to control.  The Abbasids armies were diverse bunch of professionals who made up their army, and keeping them loyal was no easy matter.   Further, the caliphs were not military men, in close touch with their camps and troops; they were closed up in their palaces.  But even if they had been military men, the empire was so large that unity of command was impossible.

Like the armies of ancient Middle Eastern empires, Abbasid armies tended to recruit  trouble-makers on the borders of the empire (often by enslaving them) because were usually better, cheaper, and more easily available as soldiers than the subjects of the empire itself.  However, there was a price to be paid in the long run.  The soldiers were or became ethnically distinct from the population of the empire, and from the existing ruling class, loyal primarily to themselves and their leaders.  They tended to infiltrate the power structure of the empire, use its institutions for their own purposes, and eventually make themselves the ruling class.

This is precisely what happened in the Abbasid caliphate.  The caliphs did want to absorb their armies into their empire -- the slave troops were converted to Islam.  But they also wanted to keep them distinct, and therefore loyal to the central government, and not to some distinct region or potentially rebellious governor or official.  But of course they had to be loyal to their commanders, and it was no simple matter to keep the commanders loyal.

So the army was as much a problem as the bureaucracy.  Later Abbasid caliphs had a very hard time controlling any of their supposed deputies.  Caliphs could gain in the short term by giving special privileges to people who were not part of the old establishment -- but the decentralization of power obviously affected their own position.

When I listed three factors earlier in this lecture that affected the survival of the caliphate, the last was that "the authority of the caliph had to be undoubted." You can see that the natural evolution of the caliphate eventually put the caliph’s authority in doubt almost everywhere.

Even though the Middle East was progressively becoming more Islamic all the time, this did not benefit the central power.  The caliph was no longer a war-leader with an obvious claim to the loyalty of a militarized master race.  He had become a remote divine-right monarch, who by the very nature of his office could not intervene effectively much beyond the walls of his own palace.  After a while, as his deputies became more and more independent of his will, the extremely limited power of the caliph became obvious.

The logical end of this process came in the 10th century A.D.  Around the year 900, the caliphs had become merely the rulers of Iraq.  Provincial governors and warlords had taken effective control of the rest of the caliphate.  Even in Iraq itself, they were not secure.  Political uncertainty and corruption and migration of beduin tribes into agricultural areas had ruined the prosperity of the irrigated regions that had supported the capital and the court.  Irrigation cannot be maintained unless the supervisors are honest; long-term maladministration means canals, locks, and reservoirs will fall into ruin.   By 945, the caliphs did not have the strength to keep provincial warlords from taking over their own capital.

As I said before, this was not the end of the office of caliph.   But it was the end of caliphs as actual imperial rulers.   Islam would no longer have, in fact had no longer had for quite a while, a single ruler who continued to wield the combined religious and political authority of the prophet.   If Islam was going to survive, it would have to learn how to live in a world of decentralized political power -- and for that matter, of decentralized religious power.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.