Revolution: Classical Islam

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The concept that comes closest to revolution in early Islam is fitna (civil strife), used in reference to three civil wars that occurred in the first 125 years of Islamic history. The first civil war (556–561) began with the murder of the third caliph, ˓Uthman, and ended after the assassination of the fourth caliph, ˓Ali. Its consequence was the transfer of the caliphate to Mu˓awiya, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. The second fitna (680–692) began after the death of Mu awiya and ended with the victory of the Marwanid branch of his dynasty. The third civil war began within the Umayyad dynasty, with the rebellion of Yazid III against Walid II in 744, and continued until the defeat of Marwan II and the overthrow of the Umayyads by the Abbasids in 750. The rise of the Abbasids was viewed as a new turn (dawla) in power. That term, dawla, came to mean the state as the Abbasid rule continued for centuries. Modern scholarship concurs that this change of dynasty in the mid-eighth century was of fundamental importance and generally refers to it as the Abbasid revolution.

If revolution is taken to mean a fundamental change in the political order and its social base, then the rise of Islam itself can be considered a revolution. The rise of Islam (622–632) was primarily a religious revolution that saw itself as the realization of Messianism, but it entailed a political revolution in Arabia and immediate expansion into the Roman and Persian empires. Muhammad succeeded in creating a unified community and state out of the segmentary tribal society of Arabia. He mobilized those who accepted Islam as a new monotheistic religion for "struggle (jihad) in the path of God," and unified the refractory tribes of Arabia on the basis of the acceptance of his Prophecy. Immediately upon completing the unification of Arabia after his death, his successors, the caliphs, redirected the energy the Prophet had thus mobilized, turning their attention toward the conquest of the Byzantine and Persian empires. The result of their efforts was the exportation of Islam and its gradual spread through vast conquered lands, from North Africa to Central Asia and northern India.

The subject populations of these conquered lands were converted to Islam only very gradually. Under the Umayyads (660–750), the Muslim empire remained an Arab empire. The non-Arabs who converted to Islam became the clients (mawali) of the Arabs, and did not have a share in political power. As the number of people in the client class grew in the second quarter of the eighth century, so did their demand for equal treatment as fellow believers in Islam. A movement with this as its aim gained momentum among the converts of Islam in Khurasan and Central Asia, whose adherents later became known as the Murji a, but in fact called themselves "the people for equality."

The Shi˓ite sects took advantage of the discontent among the mawali to form underground revolutionary organizations on behalf of different branches of the House of the Prophet, raising these as alternatives to the ruling Umayyads. These clandestine revolutionaries made messianic claims for their leaders as the Mahdi, the reviver of religion and redeemer of the world. They remained united, however, by not naming their messianic leader. Rather, he was anonymously referred to as the one to be agreed upon (al-rida) from the House of Muhammad.

The Shi˓ites favored the House of ˓Ali (the Prophet's sonin law) and were mostly active in Medina and Kufa. But the party of the House of ˓Abbas (the Prophet's uncle) began proselytizing in Khurasan. The Abbasid leader, Abu Muslim, began his open rebellion in Khurasan while the Umayyad Empire was torn by an internecine civil war after a period of military overextension in North Africa. An army recruited by Abu Muslim defeated the governor of Khurasan and several Umayyad armies in Iran, and, finally, the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, near the river Zab in northern Mesopotamia in 750. The Khurasanian army proceeded to Kufa, brought the Abbasid family out of hiding, and proclaimed one of them, Abu 'l-˓Abbas ˓Abd Allah b. Muhammad, the new caliph over the objection of the Kufan revolutionary elite. The revolutionary power struggle continued under Abu 'l-˓Abbas (750–754), and the real consolidation of Abbasid power took place under his brother and successor, Abu Ja˓far, who later assumed the title of al-Mansur (754–775).

The first step in the consolidation of Abbasid power was the elimination of Abu Muslim, in 755. Then came Abu Ja˓far's break with Shi˓ism and his other former revolutionary partners. Descendants of the House of ˓Ali were not only excluded from power but also persecuted. Abu Ja˓far's former allies, who claimed he had in fact pledged allegiance to their Mahdi, Muhammad b. ˓Abdallah b. al-Hasan, finally rose under the latter's leadership in 762, but their rebellion was suppressed with much bloodshed.

Effects of the Abbasid Revolution

The Abbasid revolution was the social revolution of Islam, and created a more integrated polity defined in terms of Islam. The subject populations became integrated into the Abbasid Empire as Muslims in their own right, and no longer lived as disprivileged clients of the Arabs. The Abbasid caliphs embarked on an empirewide recruitment of the new political elite from the local notable families as well as the Arab tribal aristocracy, and opened their bureaucracy more widely to Iranians and Nestorian Christians. Military careers were opened to Iranian and, later, Turkish converts. Non-Arab Muslims were not only integrated into the Abbasid imperial administration and armies but also fully participated in the cultural elaboration of Islam as a universalist religion of salvation, making major contributions to the collection of the traditions of the Prophet (hadith) and the development of Islamic law, and even to the development of the Arabic language as Islam's lingua franca.

After the second civil war, which ended in 692, the caliphate had gradually been transformed from a regime of patriarchal rule over a coalition of nomadic conquerors into an imperial government employing Arab-speaking clients into its bureaucracy. This process was completed after the Abbasid revolution, and an elaborate central government emerged, divided into a number of departments (diwans): a chancery, an imperial postal and inspection service, and taxation and army bureaus, each functioning under a wazir. Thus, like modern social revolutions, the Abbasid revolution resulted in the centralization of administration and concentration of power, inaugurating an era of caliphal absolutism.

See alsoAssassins ; Empires: Abbasid ; Empires: Umayyad ; Fitna ; Shi˓a: Early ; Succession .


Humphreys, R. S. Islamic History: A Framework of Inquiry. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Lapidus, I. M. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Wellhausen, J. The Arab Kingdom and Its Fall. Beirut: Khayyats, 1963.

Saïd A. Arjomand

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Revolution: Classical Islam

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