Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Abbasid Revolution

In 746, in the marginalized regions of modern day Iran, the region called Khorasan erupted in revolt against the weakened Umayyad Caliphate. A revolt that grew to a revolutions and installed a new dynasty that presided over the most glistening age for Islam – the Abbasid Caliphate.

Road to Revolution

Before the Abbasid Revolution, the Umayyad Caliphate dominated the Islamic world. Its land covered 3 continents, from Spain to the ends of Persia covering diverse ethnic population united by Islam. However, within less than a century of its inception the Umayyads declined. Civil war, intrigue, rebellions, and military defeats led to its rapid decline.

Its weakening became a chance to the enemies of the Umayyad Dynasty, especially the Shia Muslims. The Umayyads came out after the biggest schism of Islam that resulted to 2 major sects of the religion today – the Shia and the Sunnis. The Umayyads belonged to the Sunnis, and the Shia, who believed that relatives of the Prophets should take the helm of the Islamic community continuously plotted to topple the ruling Caliphate.

Besides the Shia Muslims, another sect sought to undermine the leadership of the Umayyad - the Kharijite. This small sect of Muslims that emerged along after the First Fitna promoted equality among races and gave all opportunity to be an Imam or leader of the Islamic Caliphate. Them along with the Shia opposed the Sunni Umayyad leadership.

Although united by the religion of Islam, ethnic divide prevailed within the vast caliphate with the Arabs being in the top of the social hierarchy after a wave of Arabinization policies in the early 8th century. Non-Arab Muslim suffered as second-class citizens, being forced to be dependents of Arab tribes or Mawali. The client-patron relation between Non-Arabs and Arab Muslim failed to assimilate non-Arabs and the Mawali started to be treated as second-class citizens. Worst, Arabnization also led to racial segregation which led to separation between Mawali and Arabs during worship, discrimination in civil and military service, and prohibition of intermarriage. All despite the fact that majority of the population of the Caliphate were non-Arabs.  

More than the Mawali, discontent also rose among the Arabs. Tribal rivalry turned some Arab tribes against the Caliphate. Arab soldiers who failed to receive pensions from the Caliphate also fell in disillusioned. With Umayyad society filling with discontent and dismay, revolution became imminent and the tinder box only needed a spark to blow out.

The Rise of the Abbasids

Along with the rising unpopularity of the Umayyad Caliphate, a faction of Shia Muslims, the Abbasids, plotted. The Abbasids claimed descent from the uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib. They supported the claim of the descendants of the son of Caliph Ali Mohammed bin al-Hanafiyyah and his son Abu Hashim. Abu Hashim's supporters called the Hashimiyyah attacked the leadership of the Umayyads through propaganda. The Hashimiyyah grew to be a well-organized party. 

The Hasmiyyah though faced a leadership transition when Abu Hashim passed away. The Abbasids claimed that Abu Hashim transferred to them through Mohammed bin Ali, the great-grandson of Abbas the leadership of Islamic community in the early 8th century. Mohammed bin Ali and his son Ibrahim took over the Hashimiyyah network and propaganda campaign undermining the authority of Umayyads with their small followers. Among their followers was an Uthman bin Bashar, but Ibrahim called Abu Muslim.

Abu Muslim came from a very humble and obscured roots. A Persian born from a slave, he proved be one of Ibrahim’s most trusted followers. Abu Muslim became acquainted with the follower of Ibrahim in prison while visiting a relative incarcerated. Eventually, he supported the Abbasid claim and was introduced to Ibrahim. He proved his worth, being smart and charismatic, he was assigned to Khorasan to gather support for their cause and when the time came, to instigate a revolt. 

Abu Muslim gained the support of many by touching the issues of many sectors of the Umayyad society. For the Shia, he presented the Abbasids as bringers of justice for the death of Hussein, the son of Al murdered by the Umayyads. For the Kharijites, opportunity to fight the corrupt and unjust Umayyad rule. For the Mawali, he offered the Abbasids to bring equality and the fall of Arab domination over the majority non-Arab population. His Persian background provided more credibility to this promise. He also gained the support of Arab tribes that rivalled the Umayyads. In summary, the Abbasid revolution support by promising to right the wrongs of the corrupt and discriminating Umayyad Caliphate.

The Revolution

When Marwan II won the civil war that led to his ascension as Caliph in 744, the Abbasids sensed their moment. Ibrahim sent Abu Muslim a black flag signaling the start of a revolt. The revolt began in June 747 in Merv, a city center of the Khorasan region. A rebel army 2,000 unleashed their discontent in revolution and their drove out the governor of the region Nasr bin Sayyar into hiding in Wasit, Iraq.

As the revolution raged, the Umayyads imprisoned Ibrahim, where he would die in his cell years later. But even with the imprisonment of the head of the Abbasid cause, the revolt spread growing into a revolution against the Caliphate. In 747, they captured Herat and wrestled for the control of Persia. In 748, they advanced to Iraq capturing Kufa. Other major cities fell such as Istafan and Reyy. By the late months 749, Abu Muslim and the Abbasid revolutionaries controlled Persia and Mesopotamia. In November 749, with Ibrahim dead in prison in the same year, Abu Muslim and the revolution appointed the new head of the Abbasids, Abu al-Abbas, as Amir al-Muminin or commander of the faithful and Caliph.

In 750, the Abbasids faced a threat from the Caliph Marwan II himself marching his army against the rebels. The Abbasid and the Umayyad armies met in the Great Zab River where the former dealt a decisive blow against the latter. The Abbasid victory forced Caliph Marwan II to flee, first to Harran, a city near the modern borders of Turkey and Iraq, and then to Egypt. In Egypt he was captured and executed by Abbasid supporters. Those responsible for Marwan II’s death sent his head, Caliphal staff and ring back to the new Abbasid Caliph Abu al-Abbas.

With the death of the Marwan II, Damascus and other Umayyad strongholds in Syria surrendered. The tombs of the Umayyad caliphs desecrated. Caliph Abu al-Abbas, however, believed his position as precarious as long as other Umayyad princes remained.
Caliph As-Saffah receiving pledge of allegiances in Kufa

Tales recounted al-Abbas ended the threat through a banquet. A banquet where he invited the family members of the Umayyad. Then, he treacherously ordered the killings of the members while he enjoyed the food of the feast. The act cemented his nickname As-Saffah – the Blood-shedder. But 1 Umayyad prince escaped the slaughter, Prince Abdul Rahman ibn Muawiya.

He fled Syria and then into North Africa before crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Emirate of Cordoba. There he established a renegade Emirate and later Caliphate – the Cordoba Caliphate. Making the most western province of the Islamic Empire the last bastion of Umayyad Caliphate.  

Aftermath of the Revolution

The death of the Umayyad princes and the exile of Abdul Rahman marked the start of the Abbasid rule. The Abbasids presented their ascendancy as a Dawala or change – a revolution. After their victory they made true to the promise of equality among races, erasing the dominance of Arabic culture in the Islamic community.

From Arabic, various cultures reemerge, especially Persian. Persians who back the early phased of the revolution became well regarded with previous Persian Sassanid culture especially in politics reemerged. The office of Wazier or Vizier was created by an inspiration from the Persians. Persians, especially the Khorasanis, served as soldiers in the army of the Abbasid. The new Abbasid Capital of Baghdad was located near Persia and near the site of the ancient Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon.

Meanwhile, the toleration of other religions and other cultures brought unity and allowed many to freely pursuit their fields with no discrimination. The return of stability also led to rise in trade and economic prosperity. This then financed endeavors in the fields of science and arts that made the Abbasid Caliphate host the period called the Islamic Golden Age.

Summing Up 

The Umayyad Caliphate’s weakness and favor towards the Arabic culture breaded discontent that its opponents exploited. The Abbasids furthered their claim through propaganda and promises of solving key issue in the society. Eventually, it fanned a revolution that shook the Islamic world, ending the supremacy of the Umayyads, the Arab culture, as well as a single unifying Caliphate. The Abbasid did brought changes in Islamic society, being more true to the idea of unity and equality within the Islamic community. It then ushered a new age of discovery and prosperity which shone bright in world history.  

See also:

Fattah, Hala & Frank Caso. A Brief History of Iraq. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009.

Hunt, Courtney. The History of Iraq. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Najeebabadi, Akbar Shah. The History of Islam, Volume 2. New York, New York: Darussalam, 2001. 

Saunders, J.J. A History of Medieval Islam. New York, New York: Routledge, 2002.

General Reference:
Hanne, Eric. "'Abbasids." In Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Josef Meri. New York, New York: Routledge, 2006.

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