The Abbasid Revolution

Table of Content

The Abbasid Revolution led to the establishment of the Abbasid Dynasty, also known as the ‘blessed dynasty’, which took control of the Islamic empire in 132/750. Their goal was to create a new era characterized by justice, piety, and happiness. This dynasty ruled over the Islamic Caliphate from 750 to 1258 AD, making it one of the most influential and long-lasting Islamic dynasties. In its early years, it governed the largest empire in the world and interacted with neighboring civilizations such as China and India in the East and Byzantium in the West. These interactions allowed for an assimilation and blending of ideas from these cultures.

The replacement of the Umayyads by the Abbasids in the leadership of the Islamic community was not simply a change of dynasty; it marked a revolution in the history of Islam. This revolution was as significant as the French and Russian Revolutions were for Western history. The Umayyad administration, which ruled the Islamic Empire from 661 to 750, engendered discontent among different political, religious, social, and ethnic factions. The Umayyads’ control over power prevented others from obtaining crucial administrative roles and the associated advantages and rewards.

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The Umayyads displayed bias towards Syrian Arabs and considered mawali, who were recent converts to Islam, as having lower status. Among the mawali, the Persians formed the largest group and lived with resentful Arabs in the eastern region. This created an environment that encouraged rebellion. Furthermore, other Muslims expressed discontent with the Umayyads for establishing a hereditary dynasty, relying excessively on the bureaucracy of the Byzantine Empire, imposing taxes contrary to Qur’anic teachings, and implementing ethnocentric policies.

While some opposed the concentration of power in a single family, the Shiites believed that the ultimate authority lied with the family of Prophet Muhammad, particularly his son-in-law Ali. Conversely, the Umayyads were not regarded as members of Muhammad’s family and faced allegations from different religious factions due to their apparent lack of commitment to Islam. It is crucial to highlight that discontent among various groups within the empire, such as the shi’is, kharijites, orthodox believers, Persian community, and other dissatisfied parties, enabled the Abbasid dynasty to seize power.

The Abbasids, who initiated a rebellion against the Umayyads in Persia, managed to unite angry groups, including Persian mawali, Eastern Arabs, and Shiites. Despite not descending from Ali, whom Shiites favored, the Abbasids garnered Shiite support due to their claim of being descended from Muhammad through Muhammad’s uncle Abbas. Leading the Abbasid armies, a Persian general named Abu Muslim supported their claims to power.

Abul `Abbas al-Saffah, the leader of the Abbasids, emerged victorious in his battles and was able to enter the Shiite-dominated city of Kufa in 748. There, he proclaimed himself caliph. In 750, al-Saffah and his army, under the leadership of Abu Muslim, clashed with Marwan II, the Umayyad Caliph, at the Battle of the Zab near the Tigris River. The defeat of Marwan II led to his escape and subsequent death. As-Saffah then took control of Damascus and executed all remaining members of the Umayyad family—except for Abd al-Rahman—who fled to Spain and continued their rule as part of the Umayyad Dynasty there. This event marked the ascendance of the Abbasids as rulers of the caliphate.

The ‘Abbasid revolution in the Arab empire marked the beginning of an integrated Islamic society. It was during this time that the underprivileged mawali, or non-Arab clients, played a crucial role in shaping a common culture based on Islam and the Arabic language. According to Wellhausen in 1902, the ‘Abbasids referred to their government as the dawlah, signifying a new era. This revolution was indeed remarkable.

The ‘Abbasids rose to power after leading a revolt against the unpopular policies of the Umayyads. However, there were expectations of significant change that were not met. Under the rule of the second ‘Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur, it became apparent that many of the practices from the Umayyad era would continue. The ‘Abbasids established a new dynasty while maintaining hereditary control over the caliphate.

Initially, there was an alliance with the Shiites, but it was short-lived. The ‘Abbasids ended up championing Sunni orthodoxy and prioritized their family’s authority over that of Ali’s, continuing to oppress Shiites. Even Abu Muslim, who played a vital role in the ‘Abbasid victory, met his demise at the hands of al-Mansur.

Nevertheless, the ‘Abbasids remained loyal to their Persian mawali allies. In fact, Persian civilization had a dominant influence on ‘Abbasid culture. The Abbasid court adopted Persian customs, and members of the influential Persian Barmakid family acted as advisors to the caliphs, rivalling them in wealth and power.The Abbasids made a significant decision to relocate the Islamic empire’s capital from Damascus to Baghdad. Baghdad, established by al-Mansur in 762, was strategically positioned along the Tigris River. As a round-shaped city, it was meticulously planned to serve as a prominent capital and the heart of the Islamic world.

Baghdad quickly grew in size under the support of the Abbasid state, becoming the largest city in the world. In Baghdad, the Persian culture that the Umayyads had sought to suppress was now allowed to prosper, resulting in a flourishing of art, poetry, and science. The Abbasids acquired the knowledge of paper-making from the Chinese, potentially through Chinese soldiers captured during battles. Paper, being inexpensive and long-lasting, became a crucial material for the dissemination of literature and knowledge. The administration of the Abbasids was an evolution of that established by the late Umayyads, with Mansur openly acknowledging his debt to Umayyad Caliph Hisham in terms of organizing the state.

The text emphasizes that the administration and exclusivity of power were no longer based on race. The Abbasids introduced a new position, the vizier (wazir), to delegate central authority, ranking closely with the Caliph. This position was a novel concept introduced by the Abbasids, possibly originating in Persia. Consequently, the authority of many Abbasid caliphs became more ceremonial compared to their predecessors, the Umayyads, as viziers gained increasing influence and the Persian bureaucracy gradually replaced the old Arab aristocracy.

The dictum of the Abbasids stated that obeying the vazir meant obeying the caliph, and obeying the caliph meant obeying God! The Department of Taxation was a crucial component of the administration. Additionally, the Abbasid government had a notable postal department known as Sahib al-barid, which intriguingly enough, also served as an intelligence service. However, the Abbasid chief of intelligence employed numerous old women in this role. Audit, chancery, and police were among the other departments of administration.

The Police Department had a functionary called the muhtasib, who was responsible for maintaining public morals and religious practices. In the Army, the Arab militia lost its significance and pensions for Arabs were gradually stopped, except for active soldiers. The all-Arab forces that initially established the authority of the conquering people were replaced by a professional army and the Persian dihqans-supported militia. These militiamen gradually replaced the Arab tribal levies and were recruited only for major campaigns.

During the Abbasid era, Islamic literature and the natural sciences experienced a period of growth, thanks to Muslim Persians who excelled in mathematics, astronomy, and chemistry. The openness of the Abbasid community fostered innovative ideas and production methods that surpassed their Arab counterparts. This ultimately resulted in a more efficient industry and increased wealth. Harun al-Rashid, the fifth caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, was widely known for his patronage of arts and sciences. Under his leadership, Baghdad emerged as the world’s premier center for science, philosophy, medicine, and education. Scholars in Baghdad took advantage of the vast expanse of the caliphate to gather knowledge from various civilizations such as Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Chinese Greeks Romans Byzantines. They not only translated but also expanded upon this knowledge.

During the reign of Harun al-Rashid’s successors, particularly his son al-Ma’mun (r. 813–833), there was a continuation of the policy to support artists, scientists, and scholars. Al-Ma’mun established the Bayt al-Hikma, known as the House of Wisdom, in Baghdad. This establishment served as a library, a center for translators, and in many aspects an early prototype of a university. The House of Wisdom gathered and translated the collective knowledge of human history into Arabic, attracting both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. It became a hub where significant ideas from various parts of the world converged.

The Indian numerals, now widely used in the Islamic and Western worlds, played a crucial role in advancing mathematics and science. Esteemed scholars like Al-Kindi pioneered mathematical breakthroughs by merging Greek philosophy and Islamic ideas. Additionally, luminaries like Al-Biruni and Abu Nasr Mansur made significant contributions to geometry and astronomy. Building upon Greek mathematical principles, Al-Khwarizmi developed Algebra, giving rise to the term “algorithm” as a derivative of his name.

Ibn al-Haytham is credited with significant contributions in the realm of optics and is widely acknowledged as the developer of the scientific method. The field of agriculture witnessed several noteworthy advancements, particularly in the areas of irrigation and labor reduction through the use of improved techniques and innovative mills and turbines. It is worth noting that while these advancements were taking place, slavery remained prevalent in both rural and urban sectors.

The peasants’ possession rights were enhanced, and they received a fairer tax assessment system during the Revolution. Previously, taxes were fixed, but now they were based on a percentage of the crop. Additionally, the Arab Empire under the Abbasids quickly transformed into an international Muslim Empire. This transformation was facilitated by the adoption of crops and farming techniques from neighboring cultures. As a result, the caliph, who used to represent equality and simplicity in native Arab beliefs, became an all-powerful ruler surrounded by grandeur and ceremonial practices.

Eventually, the moral character of the dynasty was corrupted by absolute power and boundless luxury. The later Abbasid caliphs lost their true authority and became mere puppets controlled by non-Arab ruling provincial vassals. These vassals acted as independent sovereigns within their own territories. In I258, the Abbasid dynasty came to an end when the Mongols attacked Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph, al-Musta’sim.

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The Abbasid Revolution. (2016, Nov 11). Retrieved from

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