Type of Government
The second great Islamic caliphate (ruling dynasty), the ʿAbbāsid Empire ruled the Muslim world as an absolute hereditary monarchy between 750 and 1258.
The first caliph of the ʿAbbāsid dynasty, Abū al-ʿAbbās as-Saffāḥ (722–754), led a revolutionary movement against the rule of the Umayyad caliphate in the late 740s. As-Saffāḥ’s claim to the title of caliph was that he was descended from ʿAbbās ibn ʿAbd al-Muốốalib (566–c. 653), an uncle of the prophet Muḥammad. With the support of the Persian province of Khorāsān, as-Saffāḥ’s army defeated the last of the Umayyad caliphs, Marwān II (d. 750) in Egypt, removing the final obstacle for the establishment of an ʿAbbāsid dynasty, named after as-Saffāḥ’s influential ancestor.
As-Saffāḥ’s brother and heir, Abū Jaʿfar al-Manṣūr (c. 709–775), laid the foundations for the empire when he became caliph. Unlike the preceding Umayyad Empire, the empire under al-Manṣūr made efforts to convert non-Arabs—particularly Persians—to Islam. This helped al-Manṣūr consolidate his authority with the Khorāsānis (inhabitants of Khorāsān), as did the decision to move the empire’s capital East to modern-day Iraq. In many aspects, al-Manṣūr based the administration of his empire on the model of the Sassanid dynasty of Persia.
In 762 al-Manṣūr began construction a palace in his new capital city on the west bank of the Tigris River, near a village called Baghdad. He chose the site for much the same reason that the former Sassanid kings had chosen to build their capital at nearby Ctesiphon. Here, the Tigris and Euphrates, the region’s most important rivers, came closest together and were connected by navigable canals. Trade, governance, and much of the other business of the empire would benefit from such a strategic location. Over the next few decades the village of Baghdad grew into a large city and an increasingly important metropolis.
Heading the complex ʿAbbāsid bureaucracy was the wazir (prime minister), who served as the caliph’s main adviser, chief executive officer, and intermediary for the dynasty’s administration. ʿAbbāsid administration was divided into a number of diwans (offices). Ministries of the army, finance, posts and intelligence, and chancery, among others, reported to the wazir. Such a complex imperial hierarchy spread over a geographically large area required the caliph to ensure the loyalty of officials governing distant districts in his name. A well-developed system of intelligence gathering developed to inform the caliph of activity in the provinces.
ʿAbbāsid rule saw the development of a specialized system of taxation that sought to link itself with established Islamic traditions. The first type of tax, kharaj, was levied on land or on its produce. In the earliest days of the ʿAbbāsid Empire a distinction was drawn between the amount and kind of kharaj paid by Muslims and non-Muslim landowners, but this distinction grew less pronounced in the empire’s later years. The second type of tax was jizya, a levy on the wealth of non-Muslims within the empire. Additional revenues were raised by levies on exports and imports.
The ʿAbbāsid government did not favor any particular ethnic group, but based its ideology on the spiritual and legal equality of all Muslims. Court officials and governors held public sessions to allow public complaints to be aired and resolved.
Political Parties and Factions
Khorāsān, a vast territory within the ʿAbbāsid Empire that stretched from central Persia into Central Asia, was home to powerful Arab-Iranian elites who were Muslim in religion, but Persian in language and culture. ʿAbbāsid rulers’ reliance on Persian converts and military power had the effect of exposing the entire empire to Persian literature and science, which itself spurred Muslim arts and sciences to new heights.
Turkish populations from the steppes of Central Asia and the surrounding territories formed a significant minority population in the ʿAbbāsid Empire. A reliance on Turkish slave labor as soldiers proved costly to the empire in the long term, because as the number of Turks in the army grew, the harder it became for the ʿAbbāsids to control their own military.
The reign of Hārūn ar-Rashīd (c. 763–809) was considered a golden age of peace, confidence, and optimism. Significant discoveries and modifications in astronomy, medicine, and mathematics took place during his reign. Meanwhile, his capital city of Baghdad evolved into an important world capital. The period was celebrated in literature as the setting of the world-famous tales of One Thousand and One Nights.
At the apex of their power, the ʿAbbāsids ruled an area that stretched from the Fergana Valley in Central Asia, west across modern-day Iran and Iraq to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, then south and west across Egypt and North Africa. However, it was the very vastness of the empire’s reach which doomed the ʿAbbāsids. Hārūn ar-Rashīd decided to divide the administrative burden of the government between his two sons, naming one, Muḥammad al-Amīn (787–813) caliph after his death, and the other, Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Maʿmūn (786–833) as governor of Khorāsān, and successor to al-Amīn as caliph. This was a disastrous arrangement, which developed into open warfare between 809 and 813 that led to decline and regional conflict in the empire. Over the next century, competing Islamic states would greatly reduce the ʿAbbāsids’ sphere of influence. In 909 the Shiite Fāṭimid dynasty established itself as a caliphate in Egypt, directly challenging the ʿAbbāsid caliphate’s legitimacy.
The ʿAbbāsid caliphate began its final decline in the 930s, when financial crisis, disorder within the military ranks, and diminishing resources from the empire’s agricultural heartland on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers slowly reduced ʿAbbāsid political power to limited pockets of the former empire before invading rival armies abolished it entirely in 1258.
After the demise of the ʿAbbāsid Empire, the unity of the Islamic world was fractured, and it would never again in its entirety be ruled by a single sovereign or dynasty. The ʿAbbāsids were also the last of a long list of empires going back to ancient times that utilized the resources of the fertile Tigris and Euphrates river valley to support their imperial rule.
The active literary life of the ʿAbbāsid court lives on in the reputation of its poets, who are still read and acknowledged as among the greatest in the Arabic language. Throughout the existence of the caliphate, ʿAbbāsid scholars translated scholarly works from Greek, Indian, and Syriac languages, helping preserve knowledge and sustain higher learning throughout the Islamic world and medieval Europe. In the centuries following the rise of the ʿAbbāsid Empire, written Arabic became an important vehicle for cultural progress, and significant Greek, Persian, Arab, and Syrian historians and geographers, as well as other scholars scattered throughout the empire and beyond, recorded their observations for posterity in the flowing Arabic script first produced by ʿAbbāsid bureaucratic scribes. Like the Sassanid Persian rulers before them, ʿAbbāsid caliphs provided succeeding empires with a model for imperial behavior and decorum.
Egger, Vernon O. A History of the Muslim World to 1405: The Making of a Civilization. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991.
Kennedy, Hugh. When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2005.