THE GOLDEN AGE OF ISLAM
Muhammad would not be noticed in history except for the religion and society which he ushered onto the world stage. In this chapter we will look at the period most Muslims look back to as the most glorious in their history: the period of the four successors of Muhammad in Medina, then briefly summarize the subsequent history of Islam.
15.1 Abû-Bakr (632-4) & consolidation in Arabia
When Muhammad died, `Umar ibn-al-Khattâb, followed by the other leading Muslims, clasped the hands of Abû-Bakr as a sign of allegiance. This action was used as a precedent for many generations of Muslims that, in theory, the leader (imâm) of the Muslim community should be of the tribe of Quraysh, which embraced all the Meccans, and that the caliph (khalîfa = “successor”) should be chosen by a special group of leaders (ahl al-`aqd wa-l-hall = “the people who bind and loose”), whose choice was then ratified by the people at large. The rights and duties of the caliph varied with the times, but from the beginning there was no doubt that he was to enforce God’s law in both religious and worldly matters.
Abû-Bakr’s first act as head of state was to send an expedition north, as Muhammad had instructed, to fight the Byzantines who were the victors at Mu’ta and were not seriously challenged at Tabûk.
In the meantime, however, the Arabian tribes rose in a widespread revolt (ridda = “apostasy”). They did not renounce Islam as such, but refused to accept the political authority of the caliph or to pay him zakât. The general Khâlid ibn-al-Walîd, returning from war against the Byzantines, conducted a campaign which reduced the Arab tribes one after another to subjection.
Because trade was in ruins, booty gained through expansive wars was to be the mainstay of the Muslim polity for some time, until Damascus and Baghdad could assume their roles as trade centres between Asia and Europe. Khâlid therefore led the Muslim forces in a war of expansion which brought under Muslim rule the remainder of the Arabian peninsula, the south of Iraq and much of the southern Byzantine territories up to the gates of Jerusalem. The Arabs’ success was favoured: 1) by the presence of a sizable Arabized population in Syria, Palestine and Iraq, formed by immigrant Arabs who had intermarried with the local people, 2) by the traditional and instinctive urge of the Arab nomads to raid settlements; this natural tendency was reinforced by the religious motivation of jihâd, fighting to spread the rule of God; and finally 3) by the power vacuum left by the weakened state of the Byzantine and Persian empires.
15.2 `Umar ibn-al-Khattâb (634-644) & expansion
Before he died, Abû-Bakr urged the Muslim leaders to elect `Umar as his successor. This energetic man, whose daughter Hafsa was one of Muhammad’s wives, continued the conquests, taking the Persian capital Ctesiphon and overrunning the heartlands of the empire; in the west he took all of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Jerusalem surrendered peacefully under generous terms; Christians were given freedom of worship and levied a tax which was less than what they had paid to the Byzantines. `Umar ordered a mosque built on the site of the Temple ruins, which was later replaced by the present Dome of the Rock.
`Umar appointed amîrs over the conquered territories and set up a workable machinery of government. He introduced wise measures for land administration to guarantee its continued productivity. In an area which surrendered peacefully (sulan) the owners were left in possession of the land in exchange for the payment of tribute; lands conquered by force (`unwatan) became public land and the former owners were kept on as tenants to assure its cultivation. Arabs were not to be granted any land, but were to settle in camp-towns like Kûfa and Basra in Iraq, where they were to be ready to go out and fight where they were needed. In fact, however, many Arabs did acquire large estates in the conquered lands.
`Umar also introduced a pension system whereby everyone who was entitled to public funds was registered and paid at a scale determined by: 1) his degree of relationship with Muhammad, 2) the contribution he made by fighting or learning, and 3) the length of time he was a Muslim.
`Umar also decided, for the security of the empire, to make the Arabian peninsula a purely Muslim state. Disregarding the earlier treaties of Muhammad, he expelled most of the Jews and Christians, sending them to Syria and Iraq.
`Umar met a violent death, stabbed by a Persian slave over a personal dispute. Before expiring he left the choice of succession to six Qurayshites. `Uthmân and `Alî were the most favoured candidates; both were son-in-laws of Muhammad, `Uthmân having been married to Ruqayya and later to Umm-Kulthûm, and `Alî to Fâtima. The electors chose `Uthmân, probably because they thought he would continue previous policies, while `Alî had made it known he would make changes which would not suit the entrenched interests of some people. Immediately after `Uthmân’s election `Alî joined the opposition.
15.3 `Uthmân (644-656) & dissatisfaction
`Uthmân was faced with difficulties from the start. The first problem was to save the son of `Umar, whom `Alî and others wanted put to death according to the Sharî`a for having killed the assassin of his father out of anger.
`Uthmân was a pious man who spent much time in prayer and set up a commission to uniformize the Qur’ân. Yet opposition to his rule grew constantly. He was accused of innovation (bid`a), that is, of heresy in matters of ritual; his Qur’ân project was not well received by all; and above all he was accused of maladministration of state property. Great gaps emerged between those who profited from the conquests and the new soldiers in the camps, and their grumbling grew louder.
Although `Uthmân did not have tight control on his subordinates, he was not a particularly weak man, as was shown when he was called upon to abdicate and when he faced death, nor was he ill-advised, since he had a council of Companions of Muhammad led by Marwân. The problems of his administration were rooted in the logic of the conquest movement initiated by Muhammad. As nearby rich provinces were overrun, the loot coming into Medina created instant fortunes among the few dedicated soldiers who first joined the army. But after these finished their own despoilment of the conquered provinces, particularly the estates of fleeing Byzantine officials, only small pickings were left for the hordes of nomad Arabs whose cupidity was stirred and to enlist in future expeditions. `Uthmân tried to placate their disappointment by authorizing conquests further away. Outlying Asian provinces were conquered, and the armies marched across North Africa as far as Tunisia. But conquests so far from home were expensive, and little could be carried back over such great distances. So the discontent resulting from the end of the booty boom was compounded, especially in Iraq and Egypt. Furthermore, the Arab soldiers were now cut off from their former nomadic and free pastoral way of life and were trapped in the organizational machinery of a bureaucratic state. Their frustration at this new way of life, to which they had not adjusted, added to their discontent.
A delegation from Egypt came to `Uthmân demanding reforms in the distribution of funds. They were promised reforms and turned to go back to Egypt. On their way they supposedly intercepted a letter from Marwân to the governor of Egypt ordering their leader to be punished. Learning also of renewed unrest in Medina, during which stones were thrown at `Uthmân in the mosque, they turned back to Medina to join the dissidents. They blockaded `Uthmân’s house and unsuccessfully demanded his abdication. Eventually news came that help for `Uthmân was on its way, and this drove the dissidents to desperation. They broke into his house and killed him while he was reciting the Qur’ân. Muslims of note, including the son of Abû-Bakr, were among the murderers of `Uthmân, while `Alî kept a complicit silence in the background. The scandal of this event shook the Muslim world.
The leaders of Medina then chose `Alî to be caliph, since he was the leading man left among Muhammad’s Companions, and would be sure to get the support of `Uthmân’s opponents.
15.4 `Alî (656-661) & civil war
Although `Alî at first seemed to have the support of all Medina, and thereby of the Muslim world, opposition to him surfaced by the quiet withdrawal from Medina of `Abdallâh ibn-`Umar and some others.
Mu`âwiya, the governor of Syria in Damascus, refused to recognize `Alî. Claiming that he was next of kin to `Uthmân, he said that he had the authority, according to Qur’ân 17:33, to avenge `Uthmân’s death.
A third group, led by Muhammad’s widow `Â’isha and two men from Mecca, Talha and az-Zubayr, openly revolted after a few months and moved to Iraq to gain support. `Alî pursued and defeated this group near Basra. The event was called the Battle of the Camel, because `Â’isha watched it from the seclusion of a canopy tent on top of a camel. Talha and az-Zubayr were killed, and `Â’isha was sent back with due respect to Medina, while `Alî moved his administrative base to Kûfa.
`Alî next turned against Mu`âwiya for refusing to pay him homage. The two armies met in June 657 at Siffîn, along the upper Euphrates, and after a couple of months of hesitation began battle in earnest. As the tide began to turn against Mu`âwiya, some of his men suggested that his soldiers should tie copies of the Qur’ân to their lances, appealing in this way to `Alî not to fight his brother Muslims, but to accept arbitration. Some religious minded supporters of `Alî forced him to accept this proposal. Having no doubt of a favourable outcome, they chose to represent `Alî the neutral Abû-Mûsâ al-Ash`arî, whereas Mu`âwiya chose his loyal supporter `Amr ibn-al-`Âs, the conqueror of Egypt. The arbiters’ task was to decide whether `Uthmân was killed unjustly or not, upon which decision depended Mu`âwiya’s claim to the right of vengeance.
As the arbiters met and leaned towards a decision against `Alî, some of `Alî’s supporters decided that not only was `Uthmân rightly killed, but that consequently Mu`âwiya was a rebel for not submitting to `Alî; furthermore Alî himself had sinned gravely by accepting arbitration, since the Qur’ân 49:9 says to fight rebels until they return to obedience. Since `Alî allowed the arbitration to continue, these dissidents withdrew to a place called an-Nahrawân. `Alî’s supporters therefore gave them the name “Khârijites”, from the Arabic word meaning to “go out”. They themselves accepted the name with the meaning given in Qur’ân 9:81: to go out and fight; this God commanded, but condemned those who sat at home.
The Khârijites took as their rallying cry Qur’ân 6:57: “Lâ hukm illâ li-llâh” (“No judgement but God’s”). This was not an appeal for God to show his judgement by giving victory to the right side; rather it meant that they should not stop and discuss, but follow the clear judgement that God had already made in the Qur’ân to fight the rebels. The Khârijites had no doubts about the rightness of their stand.
When the expected verdict of the arbiters came, `Alî did not accept it, and in April 658 Mu`âwiya was acclaimed caliph by his followers. `Alî intended to pursue the war against Mu`âwiya, but first had to deal with the Khârijites. He persuaded some of them to return to his camp; the rest he attacked and massacred. That was not the end of the Khârijites, however, because the massacre caused so much indignation that many more of `Alî’s followers left him. He had to abandon his advance on Mu`âwiya and go back to his headquarters at Kûfa. The arbiters met once more at Adruh, and Abû-Mûsâ declared that neither Mu`âwiya nor `Alî should be caliph, but a third party should be elected, preferably `Abdallâh ibn-`Umar; `Amr, the other arbiter, simply declared his unqualified support for Mu`âwiya, and the meeting broke up without result. Each contender governed his own area; Mu`âwiya was clever enough not to risk a direct battle with `Alî. On 24 January 661 a Khârijite relative of one of those massacred at an-Nahrawân stabbed and killed `Alî in the mosque in Kûfa.
Mu`âwiya then induced `Alî’s son al-Hasan to forego his claims to the caliphate and accept a comfortable retirement in Medina. The supporters of `Alî’s family (later called Shî`ites), led by Alî’s other son al-Husayn, and the Khârijites continued in opposition, but Mu`âwiya became the overall ruler of the Muslim world, with Damascus as its new capital.
With this great-grandson of the Qurayshite Umayya, the Umayyad century began. The Umayyads were different from the fatherly, plain-dressing, accessible caliphs of Medina, who depended heavily on the Companions of Muhammad for advice in ruling; the Umayyads assumed a ceremonial, regal, aloof style, and were not afraid to innovate legislation with scant reference to Islamic precedents. Moreover, by nominating their sons to succeed them, they undermined the electoral system and instituted a hereditary monarchy. Among their subjects the primary distinction remained that between Muslim and non-Muslim, but among Muslims an important distinction was made between Arabs and non-Arabs, complicated further by tribal conflicts among Arabs themselves.
15.5 The Umayyad period (656-750)
Mu`âwiya successfully consolidated his power and effectively ruled and expanded the territories of the Islamic caliphate. He died in April 680 at the age of 80, leaving his son Yazîd to succeed him.
Yazîd was at once faced by revolts. `Alî’s son al-Husayn fled to Mecca and then to Kûfa where his supporters rallied to him. The Umayyad governor, however, subdued Kûfa and went out against al-Husayn’s remaining supporters. They rejected his call to surrender, and were all killed at Karbalâ’ on 20 Muarram (= 10 October) in the year 680. This day became sacred to the Shî`ites, who to this day observe it with passion dramas and cutting themselves to display their own blood.
Another rebellion was led by Ibn-az-Zubayr (son of the man killed at the Battle of the Camel), who had fled to Mecca with al-Husayn. The Medinan Ansâr accepted him as caliph and drove the Umayyads out of town. Yazîd sent Syrian troops against Medina who captured and pillaged the city. They then marched on Mecca, and during the siege the Ka`ba was destroyed by fire. The fighting stopped, however, when news came that Yazîd was dead (in 683). Yazîd’s sickly son died after three months, and chaos broke out. Ibn-az-Zubayr had his supporters in Syria, especially among the northern Arab tribes. The Yemenites, however, supported the Umayyad Marwân. A twenty day battle in July 684 left Marwân the victor. Yet Ibn-az-Zubayr still held Mecca and Medina and western Arabia, together with the south of Iraq, while the east of Arabia was in the hands of a Khârijite group led by Najda ibn-`Âmir, who had helped Ibn-az-Zubayr in defending Mecca and then ruled his own area independently.
Marwân died in 685 after a few month’s rule, and his son `Abdalmalik succeeded him. In Kûfa al-Mukhtâr had rallied the supporters of the family of `Alî and gained control of the town. He did not pretend to the caliphate himself, but claimed to act on behalf of Muhammad ibn-al-Hanafiyya, the son of `Alî by a second wife, Hanafiyya. Ibn-al-Hanafiyya himself never took part in politics, but remained sanctimoniously in the background, giving legitimacy to al-Mukhtâr’s designs. `Abdalmalik (685-705) tried to put down al-Mukhtâr’s rebellion, but in spite of winning some battles did not succeed. Al-Mukhtâr had the support of the Mawâlî; these were the non-Arab Muslims, mostly Aramaean or Persian, who had to affiliate with one or another Arab tribe in order to become Muslim, since the Islamic community was conceived of as a federation of Arab tribes. They saw in al-Mukhtâr a chance to rise from the second-class status they had under the Arabs and may also have been attracted by al-Mukhtâr’s devotion to the family of `Alî, which conformed to their own tradition of revering and divinizing their kings. The Arab supporters of al-Mukhtâr came into conflict with the Mawâlî, sand some of them withdrew, leaving al-Mukhtâr to rely more and more on the Mawâlî. The self-awareness of the Mawâlî gained at this time made them an important political force later, during the rise of the `Abbâsids. Al-Mukhtâr finally met his end at the hands of the governor of Basra, who was the brother and representative of the Medinan anti-caliph Ibn-az-Zubayr.
`Abdalmalik then found the solution to the fragmentation of his empire in the able general al-Hajjâj. Al-Hajjâj marched against Ibn-az-Zubayr and killed him while storming Mecca in 692. He then went on to drive the Khârijites out of eastern Arabia and moved up to Iraq, where he ruled with an iron hand and launched further conquests in the east until his death in 714; this was during the reign of the last great Umayyad, `Abdalmalik’s son al-Walîd (705-715).
In the final years of the Umayyads the short rule of `Umar II ibn-`Abdal`azîz (717-720) was noteworthy because of his strict and impartial observance of the Sharî`a. He encouraged conversions and eliminated discriminations against non-Arab Muslims for the length of his reign. He tried to assure non-Muslims better treatment than they had, yet he enforced many humiliating restrictions on them which became precedents for later constitutional theorists. After the twenty year reign of `Abdalmalik’s fourth son Hishâm (724-744) Umayyad rule was reduced to a vain containment of one rebellion after another. The proponents of `Alî’s family and the `Abbâsids worked together for a time because of their common demand that a close relative of Muhammad should be caliph, and the strict Shî`ite doctrine on this point was not yet formulated. Yet the fundamental factor in the downfall of the Umayyads was the awareness induced by religious teachers among the masses of Muslims, especially non-Arabs, of the rights which their religion accorded them.
15.6 Islamic thought and culture under the Umayyads
The most noteworthy characteristic of this period and which lasted in subsequent Islamic societies is the controlling grip that Qur’ânic thinking had on society. The process began among the Arabs with the preaching of Muhammad. His prophetic authority gradually became absolute, so that Qur’ânic ideology was seen as a manifestation of God’s supremacy, and to think independently was considered a form of idolatry.
Just as Muhammad became the embodiment of the Arab traditional hero, so Islam stood for the supremacy of Arab culture. Islam was a triumphant movement to which people were proud to belong. The Qur’ân and, in some way, the Sunna or practice of Muhammad, gave definition and identity to this society. In spite of all the discontent and civil wars, dissidents could not opt out of Islam, but only find another expression of it. Even if new ideas had to be introduced, they could not gain acceptance unless they were given an Islamic dress and considered somehow “sunna”. There is a story about `Umar who was asked what to do with the library of Alexandria after the city was conquered. He replied, “If the books are in accordance with the Qur’ân, they are unnecessary and may be burnt; if they are contrary to the Qur’ân, they are dangerous and ought to be burnt.”
A direct result of the Arab-Muslim sense of being “the best people ever raised up on earth” (Q 3:110) was the spread of the Arabic language in the conquered territories. It displaced the former languages in most places, with the notable exception of Persia. This was in spite of the fact that before the Umayyad period Arabic was not a highly developed language. The total literary heritage of the Arabs was no more than poetry, oratory, the Qur’ân and some business documents. The Umayyad period saw a considerable development of religious literature: legal studies, commentaries on the Qur’ân (tafsîr), and history. Hadîth literature, philosophy and theology (kalâm) was not developed until the `Abbâsid period.
Poetry also flourished but, in spite of an Islamic veneer, was more in the tradition of pre-Islamic poetry. Poetry written for entertainment often dwelt on romantic love. Political poetry engaged in praise of political patrons and satire of their opponents. It also promoted certain theological ideas that had political implications.
Many of the most famous writers of this period were not Arabs at all, but Persians and others who learned Arabic. They were the ones who systematized Arabic grammar and composed its most excellent literature.
15.7 The Umayyad political system
The Arabs were very successful in waging war. The custom of ghazwa (raiding) was rooted in Arab tradition. In Islam this was transformed into jihâd, (“effort”, at first mainly defensive) motivating wars of expansion which not only brought in a huge revenue of booty (ghanîma), but also assured the establishment of Sharî`a law over extensive lands populated by a wide variety of peoples. Jihâd wars grounded to a stop only when there was stiff resistance, as at Constantinople in 670 (under Mu`âwiya) and 716 (under `Abdalmalik), or the distance was too great, manpower was limited, or the booty available was not worth the effort.
The Umayyad empire was fundamentally organized as a federation of tribes tied together by a pact or covenant (hilf). There was no word for the whole of the Muslim peoples, except perhaps jamâ`a. In the Qur’ân the words qawm or umma are used with the meaning of “tribe”. Only later was the word umma used to designate the totality of the world Muslim community. Besides the full member tribes of the federation, there were second-class members, communities of Jews or Christians which were inserted into the general society by a relationship of dependence and protection (dhimma). Non-Arab converts to Islam were obliged to take adopted membership in an Arab tribe and be called by its name. They were known as clients (mawâlî, plural of mawlâ), and did not enjoy the same rights or privileges as the Arab Muslims.
The ruler of the empire was known as the caliph or khalîfa, meaning deputy or successor, in this case of Muhammad. His role was that of the Arab sayyid, or tribal chief, yet the caliphs tried to expand both the secular and religious basis of their power. Since they had to conduct war, their military authority made them less dependent on the nobles whom they normally would have to consult. Abû-Bakr ruled as an Arab chief, holding paramountcy but leaving the provinces a great deal of autonomy. `Umar created a huge foreign empire which `Uthmân tried to rule by strengthening his secular power as an Arab chief. `Alî, on the other hand, tried to gain control of the situation by increasing his religious authority. Mu`âwiya reverted to the secular power of an Arab chief, yet allowing considerable provincial autonomy. The Umayyads tried to increase the religious basis of their power by applying to themselves the term khalîfat Allâh, from Qur’ân 2:30 where God made Adam his khalîfa. The Umayyads thereby claimed to be God’s deputies on earth, and whoever disobeyed them was an unbeliever. The Umayyad caliphs did not call themselves “kings” (mulûk), but did consider the caliphate their mulk (“possession” or “sovereignty”) which could be bequeathed to their children. This may have been necessary to keep order, but it was a point for which later Muslims condemned them.
As for judicial matters, the caliphs sometimes decided cases themselves, but usually left them to provincial governors or other officials. The office of qâdî developed corresponding to the pre-Islamic hakam, who was a wise man who heard cases but had no executive power and could only get the parties to promise to accept his decision. The qâdî at this time was not a specialist in law, since Islamic law had not yet developed much beyond the Qur’ân.
Revenue for the Umayyad state came from booty, a land tax called kharâj, a special tax on non-Muslims called jizya, and zakât, the normal yearly tax all Muslims of means had to pay. As for thee disbursal of funds, the Qur’ân (8:41 etc.) stipulates that one fifth of booty goes to Muhammad (and by analogy, to the caliph). Other funds were distributed in the form of annual stipends varying according to the date a person had become Muslim. For instance the widows of Muhammad got most, then those who fought at Badr, followed by those who were Muslims before Hudaybiyya (628), converts of the time of Abû-Bakr, dependents of these groups, etc.
What were the reasons for the eventual collapse of the Umayyad empire? According to M.A. Shaban, the basic reason is that the caliphs could not solve the social and political problems of the empire. In spite of military success, the social structure was static and suffocating.
One major social problem was national and religious apartheid. The Arabs kept apart from the people they had conquered and were governing, except in Syria, where Arabs had been indigenized before the conquest. Towns which began as barracks attracted more Arabs, and even local people flocked in for work and trade. This influx forced al-ajjâj to declare Kûfa and Basra demilitarized. The natural trend in such a situation was towards assimilation, but Islam resisted assimilation with non-Muslims, and Arabism resisted assimilation with non-Arabs. The Qaysite group of Arab tribes particularly tried to maintain the distance between Arab and non-Arab Muslims.
Another major problem was how to govern Arabs who, before the rise of Muhammad, ruled themselves as so many hundreds of independent clans or tribes. Neither the laissez-faire method of a traditional Arab chief, nor religious claims of divine authority, nor sheer military force face the real social problems of the empire, and distraction was found in further campaigns of expansion. Expansion further compounded the problem by providing the government with new hordes of non-Arab, non-Muslim peoples either to be assimilated or ruled as distinct second-class subjects. `Abdalmalik saved the empire from a near catastrophe only by resorting to military power and forcing the recalcitrant Arab leaders into line. `Umar II and Yazîd III (744) tried a religious approach, with a policy of conversion and assimilation, with equal taxes or exemptions for all Muslims. Yet these policies only increased the despair of the disaffected. `Umar II’s successors returned to discriminatory policies and the use of naked military force to hold the empire together. Yet the social discontent proved stronger than the caliphal armies.
15.8 The `Abbâsids
The Umayyads fell to Abû-l-`Abbâs (750-54), known as as-Saffâh ("the bloody"), who founded the `Abbâsid dynasty, named after an uncle of Muhammad from whom they descended. The `Abbâsids do not seem to have really believed that their family or the clan of Hâshim had any special title to the caliphate, but they were ready to use any sympathizers they could find to obtain their goal. The `Abbâsids do not seem to have really believed that their family or the clan of Hâshim had any special title to the caliphate, but they were ready to use any sympathizers they could find to obtain their goal.
Who supported the `Abbâsid revolution? At least four groups of people can be pointed out: 1) the Mawâlî, 2) a variety of Shî`ite movements, 3) religious reformers in the centres of learning, and 4) Arabs settled on the frontiers. According to Shaban, the last group was the mainstay of the revolution, particularly in Khurâsân. In 671 50,000 families were settled around Merv in order to secure the occupation of the territory and to have a base for further conquests. The civil war between `Alî and Mu`âwiya interrupted further conquests for 14 years (684-96) and these Arabs settled down to trade and farm, mingling easily with the local population. When the governor Qutayba tried to send these men to the front again and put Arab and Mawâlî soldiers in separate divisions he was killed in a mutiny. Those who wanted were allowed to settle down, while fresh recruits were brought in from Iraq and Yemen. Soon a cleavage emerged between the Arab fighting men, who were mostly committed to Arab supremacy and Umayyad rule, and the settled Arabs who were at the bottom of the social scale. The settlers revolted against the Umayyad governor Nasr and were joined by his long standing enemy, `Alî al-Kirmâmî, whose father Nasr had killed.
At this point the Shî`ite Hâshimiyya movement moved in to exploit the situation. This movement takes its name from al-`Abbâs, Muhammad’s uncle. His great-grandson, Muhammad ibn-`Alî had once attempted to seize power. His followers later claimed that he was designated heir to the authority of `Alî around 716 by Abû-Hâshim, son of Muhammad ibn-al-Hanafiyya (Hanafiyya was the second wife of `Alî, the fourth caliph). Around 718 Muhammad ibn-`Alî began sending out emissaries to propagate his cause, but they were not successful and many of them were killed. When Muhammad died in 743, his son Ibrâhîm intensified the propaganda. One of his chief supporters was Abû-Muslim ibn-Muslim al-Khurâsânî (“father of a Muslim, son of a Muslim, from Khurâsân”, likely a non-Arab Mawlâ). He claimed to be operating in the name of “the acceptable one of the family of Muhammad” (ar-ridâ min âl Muhammad), and took the title “Amîr of the family of Muhammad”. After much propaganda, he led a successful revolt in Khurâsân in 747, exploiting complaints against the Umayyad governor Nasr from older Arab settlers, who had no privileges, and from newly arrived Arab fighters led by Juday` al-Kirmânî. Support also came from most proto-Shî`ites, Mawâlî and Arab religious reformists.
In the meantime Ibrâhîm was captured and executed by the Umayyad caliph Marwân II. The `Abbâsid forces nevertheless pushed on and took Kûfa in 749. There Abû-Salama, “wazîr of the family of Muhammad”, proclaimed the Hâshimite caliphate, without, however, naming the caliph. Among the descendants of al-Hasan or al-Husayn he offered the caliphate to Ja`far as-Sâdiq, `Abdallâh ibn-al-Hasan and `Umar ibn-`Alî ibn-al-Hasan, but all refused to accept it under the limitations he proposed. The supporters of the revolution, of course, did not want a leader with the same powers as the Umayyads whom they were throwing out, and wanted a man they could use.
In the meantime the Khurâsânî Arabs in Kûfa proclaimed Abû-l-`Abbâs (later named “as-Saffâ“, “the bloody”), a brother of Ibrâhîm, as caliph. The `Abbâsid armies went on to defeat the Umayyads completely in Syria and Egypt, gaining control of the whole Muslim world as far as Tunisia. The rest of the Maghrib was independent, and a branch of the Umayyads continued to rule in Spain.
Making Baghdad their capital, the `Abbâsids organized a prosperous state and a scientific renaissance unequaled in the world of that time. Greek scientific and particularly medical works, which had been translated into Syriac, were translated again into Arabic during the period 800-1000. The absorption of Greek culture was selective in that only scientific, not literary works, were sought and translated. From Persian and Hindu sources, however, a fair amount of literary works (like Thousand and one nights) were translated, along with mathematical works. These subjects, borrowed in their rudiments, were pursued and developed to encyclopedic proportions. Many original contributions were also made in geography and history. Although Jews and Christians had a major share in pursuing scientific research, the society which patronized these achievements was fundamentally Muslim and Arabic.
The enrichment of the `Abbâsid state from outside cultural sources brought many blessings, but produced its own crisis for Islam as well. The introduction of Greek logic and metaphysics cause a split on the one hand between the philosophers and the theologians, and on the other hand between different schools of theology who made different use or no use of Greek philosophical concepts. Persian and Hindu contact, moreover, gave rise to the spiritual or mystical movement known as Sûfism. The conflicts among the many different movements and the persecutions of one by another were partially resolved by the very learned figure of al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111). But for him and the mainstream of Muslim society, philosophy and science were very suspect and alien.
15.9 The reigns of each caliph in this period
1) Abû-l-`Abbâs as-Saffâh (750-754), once in power, systematically had any potential enemies killed, including every member of the Umayyad family he could find. Marwân II met his death in a church in Egypt where had taken refuge. Abû-`Abbâs even killed the wazîr Abû-Salama, who was restive because he only had civil power in Kûfa, while Abû-l-Jahm held the military command.
For his supporters, Abû-l-`Abbâs relied on Khurâsânî and Iraqi Arabs and Persian Mawâlî; these displaced the Syrian Mawâlî, descendants of Arabs settled in Syria before the conquest, who were the mainstay of the Umayyad regime.
With an Eastern power base, it was natural for the `Abbâsids to abandon Damascus and set up their capital in the Tigris and Euphrates valley. As a result, the empire took on a more Asian than Mediterranean character, and pressure lessened on the Byzantine empire. this also permitted Khârijite rebellions to take place in north-eastern Syria and in the Maghrib.
2) Abû-Ja`far al-Mansûr (754-775), brother of Abû-l-`Abbâs and his close collaborator, was a much stronger character, and for that reason was not chosen as the first `Abbâsid caliph. He began his reign by having the powerful Abû-Muslim assassinated and removing his own uncles from their posts because they were potential rivals; later he executed his uncles’ famous secretary Ibn-al-Muqaffa`.
Al-Mansûr then turned against the disaffected Shî`ites who were organizing themselves in Medina under the leadership of Muhammad an-Nafs az-Zakiyya (“the Pure Soul”), a great-grandson of al-Hasan. Not finding Muhammad’s hiding place, al-Mansûr had all the descendants of al-Hasan in Medina imprisoned, thus provoking an-Nafs az-Zakiyya to come out and fight. Al-Mansûr’s troops put down this revolt, as well as that of an-Nafs az-Zakiyya’s brother Ibrâhîm at Basra, killing them both in 762.
Having pacified his empire, al-Mansûr next moved to the new capital Baghdad, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, leaving the area of Kûfa where he and his predecessor had lived until then. Al-Mansûr also took the step of nominating his son Muhammad al-Mahdî as his successor, thereby setting up a dynasty of the `Abbâsid family and excluding and alienating the descendants of `Alî and their supporters.
3) Al-Mahdî (775-785) first had to face the problem of Shî`ite opposition. He tried to make peace with the Shî`ites by granting an amnesty to imprisoned Hasanid rebels, and even made one of them, Ya`qûb ibn-Dâwûd, his wazîr, dismissing the faithful Abû-`Ubaydallâh who had been his tutor in childhood and then his minister. These conciliatory moves were really and effort to set up a on-party state around one ideology, yet they won al-Mahdî little support from the Shî`ites. Al-Mahdî further alienated the Shî`ites when he made the claim that the Prophet Muhammad had designated his uncle al-`Abbâs as imâm, and that thereafter rightful succession remained in the `Abbâsid family.
Al-Mahdî’s second problem was the growing influence of the Persian secretarial class who were very cultured, but had little Islamic conviction. He persecuted many of them under the charge of zandaqa, a Persian word for heresy or irreligion, which meant in practice a secular attitude with disregard for Sharî`a. (A person guilty of zandaqa was called a zindîq.)
Al-Mahdî is also known for having instituted a luxurious and ceremonial life style into his court, keeping an executioner always at hand and isolating himself from easy access.
4) Al-Hâdî (785-786), the son of al-Mahdî, is known only for his massacre of some `Alid pretenders who tried to organize a revolt near Mecca. He tried to force his brother Hârûn to give up his rights as the next heir. Hârûn’s mother thereupon had al-Hâdî poisoned.
5) Hârûn ar-Rashîd (786-809) entrusted much of the affairs of state to his wazîr, the Persian Yayâ ibn-Khâlid ibn-Barmak, who had been his tutor as well. This man and his two sons enjoyed strong influence in court for seventeen years, which are called the Barmakid period. They gathered around themselves many clients and intellectuals, especially philosophers and Mu`tazilite theologians.
Hârûn had a political reason for leaving so much power in the hands of the Barmakids. This was because he could not control the Khurâsânî Arabs, “the Sons of the Revolution” (abnâ’ ad-dawla), who lived in privileged ease in Baghdad. He therefore preferred to live in Raqqa, and began organizing a second army, called the `Abbâsiyya, to put down various revolts and to campaign against the Byzantines. This army was made up of Hephthalite converts, a Mawâlî group from the eastern frontiers of Persia.
The Barmakids pursued strict and unscrupulous policies in gathering revenue for the caliph. His granting of tax exemption to localities in Khurâsân which provided recruits for the `Abbâsiyya army brought them into open conflict with the Sons of the Revolution in Baghdad. Hârûn himself capitulated to the pressure, and in 803 he had Yayâ and one of his sons, al-Fal, imprisoned, and the other son, Ja`far, put to death. The philosophers and Mu`tazilites were then excluded from Hârûn’s court. Christians, too, were harassed with the reimposition of the discriminatory laws instituted by `Umar II. The Mawâlî professional class, however, was indispensable for the running of the empire, and Hârûn was obliged to choose other Mawâlî to take the place of the Barmakid.
The descendants of`Alî were still a threat, and Hârûn had Yahyâ, a brother of Muhammad an-Nafs az-Zakiyya, put in prison, where he died. He also had Mûsâ al-Kâzim (the seventh imâm according to Shî`ite Imâmites) imprisoned and put to death.
6) Al-Amîn (809-813): Hârûn vacillated about which of his two eldest sons should succeed him. He settled by dividing the empire, giving the west to Muhammad al-Amîn, the son of a Hâshimite woman, and the governorship of Khurâsân and the east to al-Ma’mûn, the son of a Persian concubine.
This miscalculated division of power not only provided the occasion for conflict between the two brothers; it also fostered sectional differences. Al-Amîn stood for the conservative interests of the Sons of the Revolution, while al-Ma’mûn represented the easterners who were eager for changes.
Once in power, al-Amîn tried to assert his authority over al-Ma’mûn, but met resistance. Al-Amîn thereupon declared al-Ma’mûn deprived of his rights of succession and sent troops against him. Al-Ma’mûn’s general Tâhir successfully repelled the caliph’s troops and then marched against Baghdad. He besieged it for 14 months, and when the city fell al-Amîn was captured and put to death.
7) Al-Ma’mûn (813-833) initially remained in Merv. The conquest of Baghdad did not settle matters in the west. A serious Shî`ite revolt broke out in 815 in Kûfa under the leadership of Abû-s-Sarâyâ, who claimed to represent the Hasanid Ibn-Tabâtaba. This revolt was put down with difficulty.
Baghdad continued to make trouble for al-Ma’mûn’s governors. Opposition was lead by the religious teacher Ahmad ibn-Hanbal (d. 855). He followed the thinking developed and popularized by ash-Shâfi`î (d. 820), which rejected any social system of laws apart from what is laid down in divine revelation, as contained in the Qur’an and Hadith. Hadith was taken as revelation because, according to ash-Shâfi`î, it is the record of what Muhammad did or said in his role as the ultimate prophet, who is infallible and impeccable, an example whom people of all time must imitate.
The arch-conservative Hanbalites who dominated the city were allied with the wealthy merchants called abnâ’ ad-dawla (the Khurâsânî privileged Sons of the Revolution). These were virtually tax-exempt, while the poor had to carry the burden. They hired thugs and mobs to make trouble for al-Ma’mûn’s governors and deal with their opponents, the Shî`ites, who were pressing for tax reforms.
To strengthen his hand, al-Ma’mûn tried to win Shî`ite support in 817 by designating as his heir the Husaynid `Alî ar-Ridâ, son of Mûsâ al-Kâzim. Apparently he did not intend to institute an exclusively `Alid succession, but was promoting the idea that the best man among the Hâshimites should rule, whether he is an `Alid or an `Abbâsid. He himself took the title of imâm and khalîfa, with the suggestion that he was the “deputy of God”.
This manoeuvre, however, while winning the Zaydites and some other `Alid supporters, only alienated the Iraqi populace, who by now were champions of `Abbâsid legitimism and thought al-Ma’mûn was trying to establish Persian domination of the empire. The Sons of the Revolution then appointed an anti-caliph, Ibrâhîm, brother of Hârûn ar-Rashîd.
Al-Ma’mûn now realized that he could not rule the empire from Merv, and marched on Baghdad. In the meantime al-Ma’mûn’s heir designate, `Alî ar-Ridâ, died, seemingly poisoned by al-Ma’mûn in an effort to placate the Baghdad people.
Al-Ma’mûn entered Baghdad in 819 and embarked on a new method of controlling the different factions. Probably as a result of earlier contact with the Barmakids, al-Ma’mûn and his followers had broad intellectual interests. He founded the Bayt al-hikma (house of wisdom) in Baghdad, a university and research centre where Greek philosophical works were translated into Arabic and this learning was developed by the best brains of the empire, whether Muslims, Christians or Jews. In this environment of free thought the new science of Kalâm emerged, systematic theology which used philosophy in order to present the articles of faith in an organized and apologetic way. Thus theologians began using Greek philosophical thought in debates about religion, particularly in the question of free will and determinism.
Among the schools of Kalâm was Mu`tazilism, one of whose teachings was that the Qur’an was the created word of God. Al-Ma’mûn compelled all theologians to subscribe to this teaching. The determinists argued that the Qur’ân existed as the eternal speech of God before the human events it narrates. The Mu`tazilite school replies that the Qur’ân was created in time, after the events it describes; so God did not determine them.
Al-Ma’mûn saw the political usefulness of Mu`tazilism. To say that the Qur’ân was created was, in the popular mind, a way of downgrading its authority in favour of the imâm who interprets it (a Shî`ite idea). This would neutralize the Hanbalites, who insisted on a literal following of the Qur’ân and the adîth with no philosophical interpretations. Extreme Shî`ism would be neutralized both by the place given to philosophy and by al-Ma’mûn’s claim to be himself the imâm.
Mu`tazilism, as al-Ma’mûn adopted it, came close to the political stance of Zaydism. This was a diluted form of Shî`ism which accepted the first three Medinan caliphs as legitimate but inferior to `Alî. The compromise idea of the “imâmate of the inferior” (imâmat al-mafdûl) was taken up by many Mu`tazilites and by al-Ma’mûn. He based his claim to legitimacy on being of the house of Muhammad through Muhammad’s uncle al-`Abbâs; he also claimed to be the best of the community, and could enforce his claim by the sword.
In 827 al-Ma'mûn publicly declared his adherence to the Mu`tazilite chief tenet, that the Qur’ân is created. In 833 he instituted the Mihna, an inquisition or interview, in which all teachers and qâdîs were required to declare their acceptance of the teaching that the Qur’ân is the created speech of God. Those who refused to accept this teaching were tortured or imprisoned.
Ibn-Hanbal rejected this teaching because it played down the authority of the Qur’an; besides, it was based on philosophical reasoning, which he would not allow to be placed alongside revelation. The Hanbalites echoed the Khârijites in their reverence for the Qur’an, and insisted on its literal interpretation without any allegorical or philosophical speculation. For refusing to accept the official teaching on the Qur’an Ibn-Hanbal was kept in prison until the death of al-Ma’mûn.
Ibn-Hanbal’s strength was his influence on the masses, who looked on him as a holy martyr. At his prompting, they demonstrated in the streets of Baghdad against the intellectual liberalism of the regime. They even opposed the conservative theological school of Ash`arism because it dared to use philosophical reasoning in presenting matters of faith.
At the end of his reign al-Ma’mûn had to deal with a serious revolt of the Copts of the Egyptian Delta over taxation. He brutally repressed this revolt, and then turned to defend his frontiers against the Byzantines, when he died.
For this section see Veccia Vaglieri, "The Patriarchal and Umayyad periods", part 1, ch. 3, of The Cambridge history of Islam, vol. 1 (1970); M.A. Shaban, Islamic history, vol. 1 (Cambridge U.P., 1971); W.M. Watt, The majesty that was Islam (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1974); Marshall Hodgson, The venture of Islam, vol. 1 (University of Chicago Press, 1974). For a readable summary of Muslim historians on this whole chapter see W. Muir, The caliphate: its rise, decline and fall (Beirut: Khayats, 1963 reprint of 1898).
Cf. Shaban, op. cit., p. 24.
Cf. Watt, The majesty, ch. 5.
Cf. Watt, the majesty, chs. 2 & 3.
Islamic history, vol. 1, ch. 10.
Cf. M.A. Shaban, Islamic history, vol. 2; The `Abbâsid revolution (Cambridge U.P., 1970); D. Sourdel, the `Abbâsid caliphate", part 1, ch. 4, of The Cambridge history of Islam, vol. 1.
The `Abbâsid revolution, chs. 1-3.