The Great Muslim Military Leaders: Abu Muslim, the Abbasid Kingmaker

World Contributor
Динар аль-Мамуна

Abu Muslim (700-755) was a talented military leader, one of the main protagonists of the Abbasid Revolution. Abu Muslim was very popular in Khorasan, legends were made about him. After his death at the hands of Caliph al-Mansur, he received among the people a hardly deserved status of the “defender of the disadvantaged”, under whose banner the leaders of the popular uprisings Al-Muqanna and Babak later gathered their supporters.

Abu Muslim was born in Isfahan and was a slave. In his youth, he was sold to Kufa (the former capital of the Caliphate under Caliph Ali). His owner turned out to be one of the members of the anti-Umayyad underground, which consisted mainly of Kufi Shiites. While running errands for him, Abu Muslim himself joined the protest activities. A Persian by nationality, Abu Muslim sympathized with the Abbasids, who conducted anti-Umayyad agitation, accusing the Umayyad caliphs of oppressing non-Arabs, of the highest aristocracy’s indulging in luxury while the masses of people saw nothing but poverty, of corruption and nepotism. For a modern person, the Abbasid underground of those years can be compared with the secret gatherings of Jacobites in 17th – 18th century England: for decades, the best people of the country discussed plans to overthrow the current regime, there was talk everywhere about secret meetings, arrests, and escapes. Abu Muslim grew up in this atmosphere from childhood. His master was also arrested, thrown into prison, Abu Muslim acted as a liaison between him and the Abbasid underground.

Fulfilling his master’s orders, Abu Muslim himself became an anti-Umayyad propagandist. In 741, his master sold him to the regional anti-Umayyad activist Abu Salama in Khorasan who later passed him on to the leader of the anti-Umayyad underground Ibrahim ibn Muhammad. Ibrahim freed Abu Muslim and made him his personal representative in Khorasan (a historical region that included present-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan, as well as most of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with eastern Iran). Abu Muslim began to stir Khorasan to rebellion. As a representative of lower classes of society, he enjoyed great influence among the people and with his charismatic propaganda he easily turned them over to his side. In the period of two years (from 745 to 747) he managed to win the support of the whole of Khorasan, including the entire non-Arab population, Iranians, slaves, everyone dissatisfied with the Umayyad rule.

In May 747, he arrived at the Merw oasis (on the territory of modern Turkmenistan) and appealed to the local feudal lords and slaves for an open uprising, promising them freedom. A month later, he managed to collect an army of several thousand people and set out westward, heading for the Iranian city of Nishapur, a large military and economic centre of the Caliphate, which, due to his remarkable talents as a commander, he quickly captured. Continuing his offensive against the Umayyads, he won victory after victory, until finally, on January 25, 750, he defeated the army of Caliph Marwan II at the Battle of the Zab. Caliph Marwan II fled (after 8 months he was caught and executed), and Caliph Abul-Abbas al-Saffah, the first caliph from the Abbasid dynasty, was enthroned.

The new caliph appointed Abu Muslim as governor of Khorasan. Abu Muslim hastened to consolidate his position. To do this, he quickly dealt with all his former fellow supporters of the anti-Umayyad struggle (including his former master, the head of the former Khorasan underground Abu Salama and many others). Abu Muslim faithfully served Caliph al-Saffah, cracking down on all disaffected and suppressing all uprisings against the new regime, until the son and successor of al-Saffah Caliph al-Mansur (father of Harun al-Rashid) began having misgivings about Abu Muslim’s growing popularity among the people and decided to remove him as a dangerous competitor. Summoning Abu Muslim for a report, Caliph al-

Mansur ordered the guards to hack him to death. Thus ended the career of a revolutionary and a fighter, and this once again confirms Danton’s words that “the Revolution, like Saturn, devours its own children.”