The History of the Muslim World: The Abbasid Caliphate

Крепость Ухайдир, построенная в 775 г. //

The belligerent Umayyads (661-750) were replaced on the throne of the Arab Caliphs by peaceful and bountiful Abbasids (750-945 and then a second time 1128-1258). They believed that their state had achieved the level of such might that no further wars with Christians or their own Muslim opponents were necessary. This policy ultimately led to the loss by the Caliphate of a number of lands, namely, in Spain the Umayyads that escaped the Abbasid’s slaughter had founded the Emirate of Cordoba, Idris, the leader of Persian Shiites, founded his own emirate in Morocco, and finally, Harun al-Rashid’s governors on the African coast, too, formed an independent state in Tunisia and Algiers.

The Abbasid dynasty hails back to the Prophet’s uncle Abbas ibn al-Muttalib. Their right to the throne was supported by their exclusive claim of being the only dynasty which, unlike the Umayyads, belonged to the Hashemite family (House of Hashim) which was the family of the Prophet. In the latest years of the Umayyad rule when discontent was mounting, the Abbasids with the help of the Iranian Shiites fomented an insurrection and deposed the Umayyads, installing as the Caliph Abul Abbas as-Safah.

Abul Abbas, who is often compared to Europe’s Louis XI, by way of cunning and guile, did away with all the supporters of the old dynasty and strengthened his own house to such an extent that it lasted for the next 200 years and after a short break 130 years more. The dynasty boasts a host of illustrious rulers. Here we see the ingenious organizer of the state and finances Al-Mansur (754—775), the magnanimous spendthrift Al-Mahdi, the father of Harun al-Rashid (775—785) and Harun al-Rashid himself, the renowned patron of poets and men of letters (786—809), as well as the friend of all scholars and philosophers Al-Mamun (813—833), and his heirs Al-Mutasim (833—842) and Al-Wasiq (842—847).

The Abbasid Caliphate is believed to be the age of the Muslim world’s development, the Golden Age of Muslim culture. Caliph Harun al-Rashid was a fervent promoter of culture, art and science. He set up the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, a scholarly place where knowledge was shared and developed into new breakthrough concepts. The House of Wisdom was a place where ideas could freely circulate, a kind of “medieval Internet”, which contributed greatly to the scientific achievements of the time. Abbasid scholars achieved tremendous results for the benefit of all humanity. That was how Ibn Sina produced his Canon of Medicine, Ibn al-Haytham invented the first camera and al-Khwarizmi invented algebra. The knowledge they created permeated all parts of the world.

However, the Golden Age of culture was bad for politics. In the middle of the 9th century the separatist tendencies of the Persian Shiites became so strong that Iran, in the absence of any opposition from the central government in Baghdad, fell away from the Caliphate and formed its own dynasties of the Sassanids and the Gaznevis.

In the 10th century the power of the Caliphs diminished so greatly that they remained nothing more than the rulers of a small Bagdad region. In 945 the Abbasids were deposed by the Shiite dynasty of the Buyids. In the 100 years of their rule the political landscape of the Central and Middle Asia changed dramatically. Under the Seljuks, who replaced the Buyids, the Abbasids remained nominal rulers until they regained their independence in 1125. In the next hundred something years of their rule they had to face a mighty enemy, Khwarazm, and its powerful ruler, the Khwarazm Shah. In a move to end the supremacy of Khwarazm, Caliph An-Nasir (1180-1225) sent an embassy to Genghis Khan suggesting that the latter should defeat Khwarazm. Little did An-Nasir suspect what catastrophe of the whole Muslim world he was thus courting. The Mongols did indeed defeat Khwarazm Shah but it would be silly to expect them to stop at that. In 1258 the hordes of Hulagu Khan captured and destroyed Baghdad, thus destroying both the Abbasid dynasty, the Golden Age and the Muslim culture. This was a blow from which the Muslim world would not recover from for many centuries to come.