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Ma?Mun, Al- (786–833)

MA˒MUN, AL- (786–833)

Abu 'l-˓Abbas ˓Abdallah al-Ma˒mun (r. 813–833) was the seventh caliph of the Abbasid Dynasty (750–1258). He came to power in the wake of Islam's fourth civil war and is best known for his theological interests and for instituting an inquisition, the Mihna, on the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur˒an.

During the reign of his father, Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), al-Ma˒mun served as the governor of Khurasan, in northeastern Iran. He was appointed by al-Rashid as his second successor, after al-Ma˒mun's half-brother, Muhammad al-Amin (r. 809–813). But the relations between the two brothers deteriorated rapidly after the death of al-Rashid, which led to a protracted and destructive civil war and eventually to the defeat and death of al-Amin. Al-Ma˒mun stayed in Khurasan for several more years after the civil war, before moving back to the Abbasid capital, Baghdad, in 818. The civil war was an episode of major proportions: The long siege of Baghdad and the unrest that followed its fall to al-Ma˒mun's troops left large parts of the city in ruins; and the killing of al-Amin, the first time in Abbasid history that a caliph had been murdered, cast a long shadow over the victorious caliph's legitimist claims.

Al-Ma˒mun's reign is also noted for the distinctly pro-˓Alid policies he pursued. The ˓Alids, the descendants of the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, ˓Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), considered themselves to be the rightful claimants to the caliphate, and saw not just the Umayyads (661–750) but also the Abbasids as usurpers—claims viewed unfavorably by caliphs from both houses. While still in Khurasan, al-Ma˒mun, in an unprecedented move that startled and dismayed many in his Abbasid clan, had in 817 nominated ˓Ali b. Musa al-Rida (d. 818) as his successor. This was justified by the caliph on grounds that al-Rida—"the acceptable one," whom the later Twelver Shi˓a reckon to be their eighth imam—was the person most qualified for the political leadership of the community. The caliph also adopted the ˓Alid green to replace black as the official color of the Abbasids. And later in his career, he had ˓Ali ibn Abi Talib publicly declared "the best" person after the prophet Muhammad, thus denying the superiority of Muhammad's first two successors, Abu Bakr and ˓Umar, a point that was then evolving as a matter of dogma among the early Sunnis. ˓Ali al-Rida mysteriously died before al-Ma˒mun's return to Baghdad, though the caliph continued his pro-˓Alid stance until the end of his reign.

The episode, however, which left the most lasting impression on subsequent generations was neither the civil war nor the caliph's pro-˓Alid sympathies. Nor was it even al-Ma˒mun's patronage of ancient Greek learning, which later came to be associated specifically with his name. Rather, what came to be remembered as the most famous, and controversial, facet of the caliph's reign and of his legacy was the Mihna, an inquisition seeking to enforce the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur˒an. This was a doctrine attributed in particular to two early theologians, Ja˓d b. Dirham (d. 743) and Jahm b. Safwan (d. 745), and to the latter's putative followers, the Jahmiyya. The Mu˓tazila—the most famous of Islam's rationalist theologians, who enjoyed unprecedented political influence under al-Ma˒mun and his two successors—espoused it as well; they were also closely associated, during the years of the Mihna (833–c. 851), with the abortive caliphal effort to implement this doctrine as a matter of state policy.

In 827, al-Ma˒mun had publicly announced his support for the createdness of the Qur˒an. Five years later, and shortly before his death, he decreed that the judges and the scholars of hadith be made to publicly assent to it. A number of explanations have been offered to explain this ultimately abortive venture into state sponsorship of a theological doctrine, but it appears that the caliph's interest in asserting his position as the arbiter of right belief, and in thereby checking the increasing influence in society of the populist scholars of hadith, had much to do with the institution of the Mihna.

The caliph lived for only about four months after he had begun the Inquisition. He died in Tarsus in 833, while on a campaign against the Byzantines, and was succeeded by his brother al-Mu˓tasim (r. 833–842). The Inquisition continued under him as well as under the latter's successor, al-Wathiq (r. 842–847), and was finally brought to an end—along with the political influence of the Mu˓tazila—during the reign of al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861). The debate on the theological controversies the Mihna had brought to the fore, as well as on the controversial caliph who had instituted it, continued for many centuries.

See alsoCaliphate ; Fitna ; Mihna ; Mu˓tazilites, Mu˓tazila ; Succession .


Cooperson, Michael. Classical Arabic Biography: The Heirs of the Prophets in the Age of al-Ma˓mun. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Ess, Josef Van. Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. Und 3.Jahrhundert Hidschra. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991–1997.

Gutas, Dimitri. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ˓Abbasid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th Centuries). London: Routledge, 1998.

Hibri, Tayeb, el-. Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Harun al-Rashid and the Narrative of the ˓Abbasid Caliphate. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Tabari, al-. The History of al-Tabari. Vols. 31–32. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987–1992.

Muhammad Qasim Zaman

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