World History 1 204 - 13.2.1 The Breakdown of Abbasid Authority and the Turkic Migration

Having overthrown the Umayyad caliphs, the Abbasid rulers moved east, establishing a capital at Baghdad. There the ruling elite were able to foster a time of immense creativity and intellectual achievement that allowed cultures, languages, and ethnicities to blend in the course of building an empire.

The Abbasid Caliphate kept intact the Persian and Byzantine administrative apparatus, which ensured wealth for the elite and promoted the revival of cities and trade. While Arabic continued as the language of administration and religion, Persian language and literary forms also began to influence Arabic and helped to create a rich tradition of both secular and religious works, housed at the Great Library of Baghdad. The caliphate became cosmopolitan. Syriac Christians translated Greek works into Arabic, Persians served as administrators, and Jewish people and Christians alike were bankers and physicians. Wealth flowed in from the trading routes that connected the Mediterranean with India and China, and Baghdad became the center of the empire, a cosmopolitan city with a reputation as a place of learning, commerce, and trade. (Figure 13.11)

A map is shown labelled “The Abbasid Caliphate ca 850 AD.” The map shows land in white and water in blue. Crisscrossing dark blue lines run throughout the map. The Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Aral Sea are labelled in the north. The Mediterranean Sea is labelled in the west and the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean are labelled in the south. Along the north of the map the land is highlighted white with areas labelled in gray capital letters indicating “Abbasid Provinces.” These areas are, from west to east: Middle Francia, Beneventa (with the city of Messina labelled within with a black dot and the city of Baris labelled with a black dot and highlighted lime green), Croatia (with the city of Ragusa labelled with a black dot and highlighted lime green), Bulgarian Empire, Byzantine Empire, Hungarians, Khazar Khanate, Abkhazia, Oghuz Turks, and Karluks. Southeast of the Aral Sea a small oval area is highlighted white and labelled “Ghor.” In the very south of the map two areas are labelled Makuria and Blemmyes. In the west , a “P” shaped slice of land on the southern border of the Mediterranean Sea as well as half of an island to its north is highlighted lime green indicating “Autonomous Dynasties” and labelled Aghlabids. Cities labelled within this area include: Tunis, Constantine, Kairouan, Sfax, Tripoli, and Palermo on the island. Two oval areas in the northeast of the map are also highlighted lime green. A smaller one is labelled “Afrighids” with the cities of Kath and Gurganj labelled within. The larger one is labelled “Transoxiana” with the cities of Bukhara, Khujand, Samarkand, and Kesh labelled with. The rivers of Syr Darya and Amu Darya are labelled in this area. In the Mediterranean Sea two islands are highlighted with lime green stripes and labelled “Emirate of Crete” and “Cyprus” indicating “Condominium of Cyprus.” Much of the land is highlighted green indicating “Areas under the Caliph.” Starting in the west, these areas are: an unlabeled area with the cities of Misrata and Sirte, Barqa with the city of Barca, “Egypt” with the cities of Alexandria, Damisetta, Fustat, Falyum, El Ashmunein, Asyut, Akhmim, Qus, and Aswan labelled as well as the Nile River. To the southeast an area is labelled “Hejaz” with the cities of Tabuk, Medina and Mecca labelled. Going east is an area labelled “Al-Yamama” with the city of Zubala labelled within. East of that is an area labelled “Al-Bahrayn” with the city of Qatif labelled within. Going southeast an area is labelled “Oman” with the cities of Dibba, Sohar, and Muskat labelled within. South of Al-Yamama is an area labelled “Ziyadida” with the cities of Zabid and Aden labelled within. Going north of Al-Yamama is an area ls labelled Bilad Al-Sham with the cities of Aquaba, Jerusalem, Tiberias, Damascus, Beirut, Tripoli, Tadmos, Antioch, Aleppo, Manbij, Tarsus, and Malatya labelled. Heading northeast an area is labelled “Armenia” with the cities of Tbillisi, Kars, and Bitlis labelled within. East of Armenia is an area labelled “Arran” with the cities of Derbend, Barda, and Baku labelled. South of Armenia is an area labelled “Al-Jazira” with the cities of Mosul, Raqqa, al-Qarqisiya, Tikrit, and Haditha labelled within. Heading east is an area labelled “Adharbayjan” with the city of Ardabil labelled within. South of Al-Jazira is an area labelled “Iraq” with the cities of Samarra, Anbar, Kufa, and Abadan labelled. The city of Baghdad is also labelled with a hollow black circle indicating it is a capital city. To the east is an area labelled “Jibal” with the cities of Abhar, Rayy, Hamadan, Nihwand, Kashan, and Isfahan labelled within. To the east is an area labelled “Gilan-Tabaristan” with the city of Amol labelled. South of Jibal is “Khuzistan” with Ahvaz and Basra labelled. “Fars” is south with the cities of Yazd, Arrajan, Shiraz, and Fasa labelled. Northeast of Fars is “Khurasan” with the cities of Nasa, Marw, Gorgan, Nishapur, Damaghan, Marw al-Rudh, and Herat labelled. To the south “Kirman” is labelled with Bardasir, Jiruft, and Hormuz labelled within. Going east is “Makran” with Siwi, Fannazbur, and Tis labelled. Going east is “Sind” with Aror, Quzdar, Mansura, Daybal, and Karachi labelled. Heading northeast is “Banu Munabbih” with the city of Multan labelled within. Heading northwest is “Sistan” with the cities of Kabul, Bust, and Zaranj labelled. An unlabeled area is north of Sistan with the city of Balikh labelled within.
Figure 13.11 This map shows the Abbasid Caliphate in 850, with areas listed either by their regional name in Arabic or by the ruling dynasty. The caliphate stretched from the territory in North Africa held by the Aghlabids in the west to the region of Transoxiana in the east. The heartland was in Iraq in the center. (credit: modification of work “Abbasid Caliphate 850AD” by “Cattette”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

The early Abbasid caliphs were successful in establishing a centralized administration and easing some of the ethnic tension that had undone the Umayyad dynasty. Other problems went unresolved, however, and new ones arose that the Abbasid rulers struggled to manage. To create an army that was loyal solely to the Abbasid ruler, early ninth-century caliphs began to use enslaved men of Turkic origins. These soldiers, called mamluks, were often young boys taken from their homes, converted to Islam, and trained as soldiers. Their education was provided and their social status assured; in return, they were expected to be loyal to the caliph alone.

The mamluks were initially useful for quelling rebellions, attacking Byzantine rivals, and enabling caliphs such as al-Mutasim to gain some security against hostile aristocrats. Al-Mutasim’s predecessors had tried to strike a balance between Persian and Arab elites, but his own power rested on the militaristic force of the mamluks. The wealth and favor shown the military, however, and especially to these Turkic soldiers, only served to erode the caliph’s position with the traditional elite. To solve this problem, al-Mutasim moved his capital from Baghdad to Samarra in northern Mesopotamia in order to segregate the Turkic soldiers from the rest of the population. After his death, the mamluks supported different successors in a vicious civil war that lasted nearly ten years. Their power and influence had become a permanent fixture in the Abbasid heartland.

The Abbasid rulers also faced religious divisions and criticism, even as the cosmopolitan nature of the caliphate sparked the growth of speculative philosophy and rationalizing thought. For example, philosophers like al-Farabi and Ibn Sina delved deeply into the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, including their systems of logic and medicine. They promoted new ways of approaching philosophy and made contributions to science, law, and theology that later influenced the thought of Christian philosophers in Europe. These Islamic scholars translated ancient philosophical texts into Arabic that Christian scholars later translated into Latin. However, the fact that these two leading figures were not Arabs, and that they applied human reason to the truths of Islam, antagonized religious conservatives and fostered discontent with the worldly caliphs. The Abbasid cultural renaissance was a remarkable achievement, but the Abbasid leadership was not celebrated by all.

One of the most important and enduring religious developments in the Abbasid period was the growth of a mystical form of Islam known as Sufism. Sufism was organized into “brotherhoods,” each of which followed the teachings and practices of its founders in the pursuit of heartfelt and personal worship of God. Sufis behaved like monks in other religions, renouncing the artificial performance of religious duties, as well as luxury and worldliness, to embrace a life dedicated to mystical union with God. Some Sufis also rejected the rationalization of religion and criticized the incorporation of Greek philosophy into Islamic theology. Though Sufism was not a political movement, its search for spiritual purity and rejection of classical philosophy weakened the position of the Abbasids.

In Their Own Words

Poetry from the Abbasid Period

Omar Khayyam was a mathematician, philosopher, and poet who lived during the transition from Abbasid rule to the rise of the Seljuk Turks. He is famous for writing poetry that was often controversial in its day, so much so that he was accused of being irreligious at the Seljuk court. For example, drinking wine was forbidden by the Quran, but Khayyam often refers to drinking wine in terms that seem both literal and metaphorical. Other contemporaries viewed his poetry as reflecting the Sufi value of moving beyond external religious conformity to a more personal spirituality.

Following are excerpts from his most famous work, The Rubaiyat. Khayyam uses imagery related to drinking to express both the joy of life and its fleeting nature. He also considers life experience more precious than formal education, showing a disdain for the teachings of sages and scholars. (Note: The word sans is French for “without,” and a muezzin is the person who makes the call to prayer five times a day at a mosque.)

Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate or all their Vintage pressed,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.
And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend- ourselves to make a Couch- for whom?
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and- sans End!
Alike for those who TO-DAY prepare
And those that after some TO-MORROW stare,
A Muzzein from the Tower of Darkness cries,
“Fools, your Reward is neither Here nor There”
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so wisely- they are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth, their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.

—Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edmund Fitzgerald

  • What does Khayyam mean when he speaks of the “Couch of Earth” in XXII?
  • In the lines of XXV, why does he chide “Saints and Sages?” What might be his issue with these wise or holy men?

As the Abbasid rulers struggled to maintain control over the heartland in Mesopotamia and Persia, the political and cultural unity of the Islamic world began to decline. Dynasties that viewed the Abbasids as too corrupt or too distant began to splinter off. In Spain and North Africa, the Amazigh Idrisid dynasty in Morocco and the Aghlabids in Algeria drifted away from Abbasid control. On the eastern fringes, Persian and Turkic dynasties openly contested the authority of the Abbasid Caliphate without formally dissolving it. This process of growing disunity is called political devolution, in which powers once assumed by a centralized state are taken over by local authorities.

The worldliness of the Abbasid culture offended religious conservatives. For example, the scholar al-Ghazali criticized the incorporation of Greek speculative thought when speaking of Islamic beliefs. The caliphs’ support for Persian culture and literature, as well as the power given to Persian families and scholars, alienated the Arab elites. An entrenched and powerful bureaucracy, as well as the use of the mamluks, made the Abbasid government look corrupt and weak. The most significant blow to Abbasid power was the ability of rivals to establish their own states and claim the title of caliph, as well as the arrival of powerful Turkic tribes like the Seljuks in the Abbasid heartland.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax