Post-classical history

'Abbāsids

An Arab dynasty that reigned in Iraq (749-1258) and Egypt (1261-1517). By the mid-eighth century the previous caliphal dynasty, the Umayyads (661-749), had made many enemies, including both Shi‘ites and other members of the Muslim community who felt that they were too concerned with worldly issues and not sufficiently focused on Islam itself. They were also weakened by rivalries among the tribes supporting them in their chosen power-base, Syria. Eventually a rebellion broke out in Khurasan (eastern Persia, Afghanistan, and other lands east of the Oxus River). This spread to Iraq, where a descendant of Muhammad’s uncle al-‘Abbās was proclaimed caliph with the regnal title of al-Saffāh. The last Umayyad army was defeated in 750 in Egypt, with the Umayyad caliph,Marwān II, being killed in the fighting.

Al-Saffāh’s dynasty became known as the ‘Abbāsids after their ancestor. In succeeding to the caliphate, the ‘Abbāsids became, like their predecessors, both the religious and secular leaders of the Muslim world. Initially they based their particular claims to the caliphate on both their kinship with the Prophet Muhammad and the fact that, unlike others, they had taken action against a regime that was perceived as being unjust. Later they also presented themselves as patrons of orthodoxy, stressing their position as guardians of Islam. They made their capital at Baghdad in Iraq, from which most of the caliphs reigned until 1258.

The reign of Hārūn al-Rashid (786-809) is generally regarded as the high point of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate, particularly when contrasted with later events. His death was followed by a civil war between his sons. This was soon followed by a gradual decline in caliphal power, exacerbated by financial problems, increasing domination of the caliphs by their subordinates, and rebellions by Shi‘ites and other disaffected elements. During this period much of the Muslim world fragmented so that the provinces came to acknowledge only nominal allegiance to the caliphs. Finally in 945, Baghdad was taken by the Būyids(Buwayhids), a Shi‘ite dynasty from the mountains of Daylam in Persia. They maintained the existence of the Sunni caliphate, ruling as the caliphs’ nominal subordinates until 1055. Meanwhile Egypt was taken by the Fātimids (969), who also temporarily extended their influence into parts of Palestine, Syria, and Arabia, although by the period of the crusades much of these gains had again been lost.

In 1055, Sunni rule was restored in Baghdad when the Saljûqs took control of the city. This did little to change the situation in the city itself, for while the Saljūqs became embroiled in the struggle for the Levant with the Fātimids and crusaders, the caliphs remained largely impotent. However, the collapse of Saljûq authority enabled some of the more vigorous caliphs to exercise their own authority somewhat. In particular, al-Muqtafi (1136-1160) asserted caliphal independence from the Saljūqs in Iraq. His great- grandson al-Nāsir (1180-1225) not only overthrew the Saljûqsbut also, through a mixture of diplomacy, military action, and a little luck, extended caliphal territories and warded off potential attacks from other enemies, including the Mongols. He also made several other social, political, and religious reforms, emphasizing in particular the primacy of the caliph and even coming to a certain degree of understanding with the Shi‘ites. The resurgence of caliphal authority was brief, however. The end came in 1258, when the Mongols took Baghdad and put the reigning caliph, al- Musta‘sim, to death.

Not all of the caliph’s family died in the Mongol onslaught, and in 1261 the Mamlûk sultan Baybars restored the caliphate in Cairo. From here the ‘Abbāsid caliphs reigned, albeit in name only, until the Ottoman conquest. The last caliph died as a prisoner of war in Istanbul in 1517.

The 'Abbāsid Caliphs

Date of Accession

Caliph (usually noted using given name and title)

Date of Accession

Caliph (usually noted using given name and title)

 

‘Abbāsid Caliphs in Iraq

1135

al-Mansûr al-Rashīd

749

Abu’l-‘Abbās al-Saffāh

1136

Muhammad al-Muqtafī

754

Abû Ja‘far al-Mansûr

1160

Yûsuf al-Mustanjid

775

Muhammad al-Mahdī

1170

al-Hasan al-Mustadī’

785

Mūsā al-Hādī

1180

Ahmad al-Nāsir

786

Hārūn al-Rashīd

1225

Muhammad al-+āhir

809

Muhammad al-Amīn

1226

al-Mansûr al-Mustansir

813

‘Abd Allāh al-Ma’mûn

1242

‘Abd Allāh al-Musta‘sim

817

Ibrāhīm ibn al-Mahdī (rival)

1261

Ahmad al-Hākim I (in Aleppo, Harran and northern Syria)

833

Abû Ishāq al-Mu‘tasim

 

 

842

Hārūn al-Wāthiq

 

 

847

Ja‘far al-Mutawakkil

 

‘Abbāsid Caliphs in Cairo

861

Muhammad al-Muntasir

1261

Ahmad al-Mustansir

862

Ahmad al-Musta‘īn

1262

Ahmad al-Hākim I

866

Muhammad al-Mu‘tazz

1302

Sulaymān al-Mustakfī I

869

Muhammad al-Muhtadī

1340

Ibrāhīm al-Wāthiq I

870

Ahmad al-Mu‘tamid

1341

Ahmad al-Hākim II

892

Ahmad al-Mu‘tadid

1352

Abû Bakr al-Mu‘tadid I

902

‘Ali al-Muktafī

1362

Muhammad al-Mutawakkil I (first reign)

908

Ja‘far al-Muqtadir (first reign)

1377

Zakarīyyā al-Mu‘tasim (first reign)

908

‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Mu‘tazz (rival)

1377

Muhammad al-Mutawakkil I (second reign)

908

Ja‘far al-Muqtadir (second reign)

1383

‘Umar al-Wāthiq II

929

Muhammad al-Qāhir (first reign)

1386

Zakarīyyā al-Mu‘tasim (second reign)

929

Ja‘far al-Muqtadir (third reign)

1389

Muhammad al-Mutawakkil I (third reign)

932

Muhammad al-Qāhir (second reign)

1406

‘Abbās (or Ya‘qûb) al-Musta‘īn

934

Ahmad al-Rādī

1414

Dāwūd al-Mu‘tadid II

940

Ibrāhīm al-Muttaqī

1441

Sulaymān al-Mustakfī II

944

‘Abd Allāh al-Mustakfī

1451

Hamzah al-Qā’im

946

al-Fadl al-Mutī‘

1455

Yûsuf al-Mustanjid

974

‘Abd al-Karīm al-Tā’i‘

1479

‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Mutawakkil II

991

Ahmad al-Qādir

1497

Ya‘qûb al-Mustamsik (first reign)

1031

‘Abd Allāh al-Qā’im

1508

al-Mutawakkil III (first reign)

1075

‘Abd Allāh al-Muqtadī

1516

Ya‘qûb al-Mustamsik (second reign)

1094

Ahmad al-Mustazhir

1517

al-Mutawakkil III (second reign)

1118

al-Fadl al-Mustarshid

1517

Ottoman Conquest of Egypt

Adapted from Clifford Edmund Bosworth, The New Islamic Dynasties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

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