Saturday, March 10, 2018

Founders: Who were Caliphs as-Saffah and al-Mansur?

In 749, in the city of Kufa, the Islamic world founded another Caliphate – the Abbasids. And the foundation and security of this new Caliphate rested in its first 2 Caliphs, both considered founders of the new dynasty – Caliph As-Saffah and Caliph al-Mansur.

Proclamation of as-Saffah as Caliph in Kufa

The Blood Shedder

Caliph as-Saffah was born as Abu al-Abbas Abdullah ibn Muhammad in the year 722 (some claimed he was born in 726) in Hummaymah. His older brother Ibrahim led the movement called the Hashimiyah that undermined the rule of the Umayyads and promoted the claims of the Abbasids to the Caliphate.Though, as descendants of the uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, al-Abbas, they had lesser claims compared to the descendants of Ali ibn Abi Talib.

The disputed between to Shia Alids and the Umayyads rooted at the early years of Islam and the first Fitna. After few Caliphs, the dynasty declined from incompetence, corruption, and divide. In 746, the Hashimiyah movement and the Abbasids took their opposition to a new level. Sensing the weakness of the Caliphate after another civil war, they rose up in rebellion in the highly discontented region of Khorasan in modern day Iran. The Abbasid Revolution went in full swing.

The Abbasids got themselves an excellent general to lead the rebels – Abu Muslim. Abu Muslim led the rebellion that grabbed for the Abbasids control over Persia before expanding their influence to Iraq. In 749, the city of Kufa fell. With the whole situation going well for the Abbasids, Abu Muslim decided the moment as ripe to proclaim a new Caliph and start a new Caliphate. The Abbasids leader, Ibarahim, already passed away incarcerated in prison right after the rebellion began. Before Ibrahim’s condition worsened, he already declared his brother Abu al-Abbas as his successor. As a result, Abu al-Abbas ascended in Kufa as the new Caliph and the first of the Abbasids.

During his ascension speech as Caliph, Abu al-Abbas denounced the Umayyads and honored the courage of the people in rising up against the tyrants. He then called himself “the avenger and the blood shredder” that would punish the Umayyads for their crimes against Ali and his descendants. Thus, he became known as as-Saffah – the Blood Shredder.
He then set up his government in Kufa where he led the continuation of the campaign against the Umayyads. In 750, the Abbasids won against the last Umayyad Caliph Marwan II who fled to Egypt after his defeat. In Egypt, however, the Umayyad Caliph fell to the hands of men who loathed the Umayyads and ultimately slayed.

As-Saffah indeed lived up to his name. After the defeat of Marwan II, he launched a whole scale massacre of the Umayyads. In Syria, he or his uncle invited the Umayyads in a banquet on the pretext of celebrating peace. In the end, however, it proved to be a betrayal as the Abbasids slaughtered the invited Umayyad family members. In Iraq, news spread of Umayyad family members being killed in streets and their corpse fed to the dogs adding insult to injury. More perished in the killing of Umayyad members in Mecca and Medina. Though bloody, as-Saffah with the help of his uncles carried out the killing to secure and consolidate the hold of the Abbasids to power.

Nonetheless, rebellions against the Abbasids rose instantly. Mosul, Wasit, Sind, and Oman all had rebellions that either supported the Umayyads or at least opposed the Abbasids. These rebellions, however, failed to make an impact due to its lack of cohesion, concerted effort, and a strong single leadership.

As-Saffah also suspected betrayal and rebellion from those who helped the Abbasids to rise in power. The Abbasids rose with the support of the Shia who believed the Abbasids would step down later to give way to the descendants of Ali. The Caliph suspected many within the leaders of the successful revolution plotting to realize this idea. Either of fear of a takeover or fear of influence and power, in 754, As-Saffah authorized the killing of many revolutionary leaders like Abu Salma, the first Vizier of the Abbasids, as well as the Abbasid general Abu Muslim. But the plan to kill Abu Muslim did not materialized. In the same year, As-Saffah contracted smallpox and passed away.

The Victorious

In 754, before he could savor his position, Caliph as-Saffah passed away. Abu Muslim helped the trusted older brother of as-Saffah, Abu Jafar Abdullah ibn Mohammed to ascend as the new Caliph al-Mansur (r. 754-775) or The Victorious. Born in 704 (or in 714) in Humaymah, he was the older brother of Caliph as-Saffah. As-Saffah had the luck of being born to a noble woman rather than a slave, thus becoming a better suited candidate as successor to Ibrahim.

But with the news of the death of as-Saffah and Abu Muslim alongside him, he returned to the capital Kufa and claimed the Caliphate. But there were those who challenged his rule, including his uncle Abdullah who deemed himself as better suited Caliph than al-Mansur. This ended with the help of Abu Muslim. This help, however, brought the jealousy and suspicion of al-Mansur sharing the same attitude as his younger brother. Before 754 ended, he carried out his brother’s orders and had Abu Muslim killed.

From then on, al-Mansur had to face all his challenges alone. His reign marked the consolidation of the Abbasid Caliphate clamping down on rebellions and challenges to the Abbasids. In 755, Khorasan erupted in rebellion led by a Zoroastrian Magi named Sunbadh. The rebels took the vital city of Reyy and had the support of the angry supporters of Abu Muslim. Al-Mansur managed to crush this rebellion, but later received news of an attack by the Byzantines.

Al-Mansur received reports that Emperor Constantine V attacked Syria and took several cities. But the attack immediately lose its momentum and al-Mansur immediately arrived in the region. Eventually, it ended in a 7 year truce.

In 757, he had to save the Caliphate from his own extremist supporters called the Rawadiyya who worshiped him as God. The Rawadiyya visited and surrounded his palace worshiping him. Viewing it a heresy and dangerous to his image as the leader of Islam that trampled upon idolatry, he had the leaders of the movement arrested. It, however, caused a riot that had to be put down.

Rebellions persisted throughout his reign. Khorasan continued to challenge his rule, but the greatest threat came from the Alids in 762.

As stated before, the Alids thought the Abbasids would step down to hand over power to them. It was a wait in vain. When the Abbasids showed that they had no plans of stepping down, the brothers Mohammad and Ibrahim, descendants of Hassan, led a 2-prong rebellion. Mohammad led a rebellion in Medina, while Ibrahim led a rebellion in Basra. It threatened the whole Caliphate as it gained support and ground. But eventually, al-Mansur’s seasoned soldiers won the day ending the rebellion and forcing the Alid to flee west.

While waging war against rebels, al-Mansur also took upon himself establishing the Abbasid government. Previously, his brother established the office of the Vizier, which served as chief minister, and inspired by the government practices of the Sassanids. Al-Mansur build up and consolidated the government by laying down the Caliphal government and local administration. But greatest testament to his contribution to the establishment of the Caliphal government was the creation of a new administrative center – Baghdad.

The establishment of Baghdad came as a result of the Rawadiyya incident. He feared for his safety and decided to establish a secure capital. In 762, while the rebellion of the Alids simmered, Al-Mansur had already chosen a place for the new Abbasid capital. Lying between the Tigris and Euphrates River, in the crossroads of the lucrative silk route, and at the center of the Abbasid Caliphate Empire, he established Madinat al-Salam or the city of peace, though the name of the previous village stuck and even used to this day – Baghdad. The cost of the construction amounted to 4 million dirham and rose the famous circle city with the Caliphal palace at the center. His successors later on built up from this circle city to make it indeed the center of the Islamic civilization.

More than a decade after establishing Baghdad, the Abbasids had a secure hold on power. In 775, al-Mansur passed away while on his way to Mecca for his pilgrimage. His son, al-Mahdi, succeeded him.

Summing Up

The two Abbasid Caliph Brothers secured their dynasty’s rule. They showed extreme ruthlessness and brutality in order for the Abbasids to stand astride the Islamic civilization. They faced the common challenges of a newly established dynasties – rebellions, claims, and internal strife. But they did not wavered, not even considering the blood they spilled, just to defend their position. From their bloody reigns spurred the Golden Age of Islamic civilization, an age of prosperity and astounding progress in the sciences. With an iron hand of Caliphs as-Saffah and al-Mansur, the Abbasids managed to oversee this magnificent age.

See also:

Hawting, G.R. "Al-Mansur." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on March 9, 2018. URL:

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. "Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on March 9, 2018. URL: 

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