Skip to main content

‘Abbāsids

ABBĀSIDS

Descendants of Abbās (d. a.d. 653), uncle of Muammad the prophet of islam; in a.d. 750 they seized the office of caliph earlier held by the umayyads, and reigned at Baghdad until 1258.

As Muammad's surviving uncle and head of his clan, Abbās would have had a claim to succeed the Prophet after his death in 632, had not Abbās's delayed conversion to Islam counted against him. His son Abdallāh (d. 687), a prominent religious authority, was governor of Basra under ali (alĪ ibn abĪ Ālib), but later was won to the cause of Muāwiya.

The family played no public role under Muāwiya's family, the Umayyads, but they were able by clandestine religious-political propaganda to turn to their advantage the social unrest of the early Arab Muslim Empire. Their message was egalitarian and messianic and seems to have incorporated certain Iranian religious ideas palatable to the newly converted. It was discreetly directed by agents in Kufa, the stronghold of Shīī sympathies in Iraq. Under the able Iranian propagandist Abū Muslim, Abbāsid propaganda found greatest response among the half-Islamized Iranian inhabitants of the old eastern marches of the Persian Empire, Khurasan, a frontier area where Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Mazdakism, Manichaeism, and Nestorian Christianity had met and mixed. Here in 747 local revolts were raised that, by calling for "an Imām [religious leader] of the Prophet's family," grew by 749 into a general rebellion of all disaffected elements in the Umayyad Empire. Shīīs participated enthusiastically in the belief that a descendant of Alī would come to power, but it was the head of the Abbāsid House, Abū al-Abbās al-Saffā (d. 754) who was acclaimed caliph in 749, and who rooted out the Umayyads in every province but Spain.

Like other revolutionary regimes, the Abbāsids had, when once in power, to reckon on conflicts with the differing groups and interests that had cooperated to give them the victory. Under al-Manūr, brother and successor of al-Saffā, the new regime's power was consolidated. Abū Muslim was put to death and his closest followers crushed. The hostility of the Shīīs pursued the dynasty through all its history, and succeeding Abbāsids were alternately led to employ repression or placation in dealing with them.

Al-Man ūr's new capital on the Tigris, Madīnat al-Salam (popularly known as Baghdad, after an earlier village on that site), was built at the junction of several trade routes, and within 50 years had become one of the great centers of civilization.

With the Abbāsid accession, the transformation of the Islamic polity from an Arab kingdom to the Muslim Empire was completed. The economic base of the dynasty was Mesopotamia, seat of earlier multiracial Middle Eastern empires; it drew heavily on the skills and traditions of the conquered peoples, particularly of converted members of the Sassanian bureaucratic class, and it depended on the military support of the peoples of the eastern frontier. Islamic religion and the Arabic language gave their distinctive stamp to this richly syncretic civilization, but the Arabs had lost their exclusive right to the responsibilities and rewards of empire. Islam, not Arab origin, sufficed for full membership in the Empire, and advancement depended almost solely on the favor of the caliphs, who had now transformed the simplicity of the first caliphs into the elaborate and splendid court of Persian autocrats.

The rapidity with which the cultural brilliance of the Abbāsid prime was reached (under Harūn al-Rashīd, 786809, and his son al-Mamūn, d. 833) led Prof. Arnold Toynbee to argue convincingly that in fact under the aegis of Islam the earlier civilization of Achaemenid times had come again into its own.

However, during the subsequent period (83692) when the court resided at Samarra, a new royal city north of Baghdad, the caliphs became the virtual prisoners of the elite corps they had formed from Central Asian Turkish slaves. Local rulers asserted themselves in the provinces, the clash of new cultural ideas prepared the way for new heretical movements, and a slave uprising of Africans devastated lower Iraq. Caliphal authority was slowly reasserted after 870, but during the long reign of al-Muqtadir (90832) the central administration of the empire began a period of self-strangulation through corruption and internal rivalries. In 909 the Ismaīlī Shīīs established an anticaliphate "of the Children of Fāima" in Tunisia (capital at Cairo from 9691171). From 945 to 1055 the Abbāsids at Baghdad were puppets of the Buwayhid dictators, Persian Shīīs of the "Twelver" sect. From 1055 to c. 1194 they were under the patronage of sultans of the house of Seljuk, Turkish chiefs whom they invited to rid them of the Buwayhids. The seljuks were at least orthodox in practice and led a Sunnī restoration.

In religious as well as imperial theory the caliph was still the sole fount of all validly exercised power, and most Sunnī Muslim monarchs found it advisable to secure a diploma of investiture from Baghdad. This has led to the caliphate's being rather inaccurately likened to the papacy.

A brief restoration of Abbāsid power, in Iraq at least, occurred with the passing of the Seljuks, under the Caliph al-Nāir (1180225). But in 1258 Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, destroyed Baghdad and put the Caliph al-Mustaim to death.

Under the Mamelukes of Cairo, a member of the Abbāsid family was established as caliph there in 1261. This shadow caliphate was continued by his descendants until the end of the sultanate in 1517, but it was only a legal device for the legitimization of Muslim rulers, and the Cairo Abbāsids were little more than court officials.

Bibliography: p. k. hitti, History of the Arabs (6th ed. New York 1958). w. muir, The Caliphate, Its Rise, Decline and Fall, rev. t. h. weir (Edinburgh 1924). a. j. toynbee, A Study of History, 12 v. (New York 194861). b. lewis, The Arabs in History (New York 1950); Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. b. lewis et al. (2d ed. Leiden 1954) 1:1523.

[j. a. williams]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"‘Abbāsids." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"‘Abbāsids." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/abbasids-0

"‘Abbāsids." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/abbasids-0

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.