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The First Islamic Empire – Its Decline and Fall

The Court of the Caliphs
Hugh Kennedy
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2004

There were 37 Abbasid Caliphs, in a succession that lasted from 749 to 1258, when the last of them was rolled up in a carpet and suffocated by the Mongols after the surrender of Baghdad. Why Hugh Kennedy should sub-title his fine, interesting and rather horrifying book The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty is a bit of a mystery. The last effective Caliph was assassinated by his Turkish guards in 861 and although the Family Tree dribbles down to the bottom of its page until 1031, perhaps just to fill it up, Kennedy continues his history only as far as 935, by which time the Caliphate had fragmented into independent entities in Spain, Africa, Egypt, Persia and Khurasan. According to Hitti’s History of the Arabs, from 945 the Caliphs were puppets of the Persian Shia Buwahids (“who made and unmade Caliphs at will”), ruling Iraq (and Baghdad) from distant Shiraz until in 1055 they were replaced by the Seljuk Turks (“a new and more benevolent tutelage”). As the Seljuk supremacy petered out around 1200, the Caliphate regained some power and prestige, only to be extinguished by the Mongol Hulagu in 1258.

Thus the effective rule of the Abbasid Caliphs was quite short and any ‘golden age’ during it even shorter. It began when discontented elements in the north-eastern borderland province of Khurasan rebelled against the Umayyad Caliph in Damascus. Despite their considerable resources, the Umayyads were unable to resist the forces organised against them by the able, ruthless, fanatical (and pseudonymous) Abu Muslim. Too obscure in origin to be a claimant himself, he perforce backed a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle al-Abbas (who had never actually become a Muslim himself and was assumed to have gone to hell). This first Caliph was sickly and died after a five year reign, being succeeded by his brother, called, after his accession, Mansur (Victorious), “the most remarkable individual in the whole story of the Abbasids” whose twenty year reign set the dynasty on its feet, and probably ensured it survived at all.

Although Mansur had been appointed heir by his brother, whose sons were too young to be contenders, he had to dispose of a threat by an uncle, who claimed to have done as much as anyone to defeat the Umayyads. With the aid of Abu Muslim, Mansur brought about the break-up of the uncle’s army, and then lured Abu Muslim to his tent and had him murdered, behaviour often repeated in the history of the dynasty. As far as the legitimacy behind the claim for the Succession (the Caliphate) to the Prophet was concerned, suffice it to say that, in terms of relationship, that of the Abbasids was not indisputable. Descendants of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and her husband Ali were plentiful but poorly organized. Ali himself had been assassinated in 661 and both his sons had died, one in battle, the other possibly poisoned, which made all three martyrs to give rise to the Shia branch of Islam. Mansur had to destroy one outright claimant who made the mistake of starting his rebellion in Medina, which, howerever sacred, was “a place where there is no money, no men, no weapons and no fodder” and, in the end, no support. Other “Alids” were watched and confined to Baghdad, the new capital, founded in 762. There is a sinister tale that on Mansur’s death, his heir found a whole room with their neatly laid out and ticketed corpses, of all ages. The Alids were invariable losers, and misfortune seems to have dogged their followers, the Shia, who have done either the right or the wrong thing at the wrong or the right time, down to the present day. Harun al-Rashid (786-809), the fifth Abbasid Caliph, is the best known of all of them and the one whose reign became legendary for its power and prosperity, probably because of the chaos that followed it. He figures, for instance, as the benign Caliph in the Arabian Nights, and though versions were first current in the fourteenth century, long after the demise of the dynasty, their roots can be discerned within two generations of his death. On the whole his reign was successful politically and militarily, insofar as the Caliphate remained intact and raids against the Byzantines, who were going through a difficult period, kept them submissive. Unfortunately two key administrative problems remained unsolved: how to dismiss civil servants without a blood bath, and how to arrange a peaceful succession. Both resulted in spectacular failures. Harun had been supported at the critical time of his accession by members of the Barmakids, Muslim converts in the far north of what is now Afghanistan. These became his intimates at court and ran the Caliphate bureaucracy. For no clear reason, though the events of the coup are well-recorded, all disappeared into prison, never to be seen again, or were executed. As for the succession, Harun had laid elaborate plans for his two sons to follow each other as Caliphs, complete with oaths which both solemnly swore at a pilgrimage to Mecca. Instead, two years after Harun’s death, civil war broke out between the brothers and Baghdad endured a siege followed by prolonged street fighting which left it in ruins. The elder brother was killed there in 813, but the younger, Ma’mun, who had ruled Khurasan from its capital Merv, did not come to Baghdad until 819.

Ma’mun did his best to reconcile the opposing factions brought about by the civil war and there were no severe reprisals. He died unexpectedly in 833 while about to start a campaign in southern Asia Minor against the Byzantines and was succeeded by his brother Mu’tasim who, probably because he was with him when he fell ill, was in a stronger position to do so than his son, who later lost his life in a bungled conspiracy. Mu’tasim did two things that sowed the seeds for the crisis and collapse of the Caliphate by the end of the century. He bought Turkish slaves from Central Asia to turn into a private army or bodyguard and he built a new capital, Samarra, 100 miles north of Baghdad. The Turks were unpopular in Baghdad and it may have seemed a good idea to segregate them, though it resulted in their acquiring so much power that after the short reigns of Mu’tasim and his son Wathiq they were able to pick from obscurity Wathiq’s brother Mutawwakil in 847 to be the next Caliph.

Despite his Turkish installation, Mutawwakil was far from a nonentity or puppet and managed to put to death a number of the Turkish cabal. He was also “a prodigious builder of palaces” and “the last caliph to be free of major financial constraints”. This independence, together with an attempt to regularise the succession among his three sons which only caused trouble, led in 861 to his murder by Turkish conspirators, who replaced him with his eldest son, who soon died. Chaos followed, including another siege of Baghdad. Caliph after Caliph was murdered, including Mutawwakil’s other two sons. After this Kennedy tells us little of any of the Caliphs that exercised any power at all and: “In 935 a military adventurer by the name of Ibn Ra’iq took power as Amir al-Umara, Prince of princes, depriving the Abbasids of the last remnants of their secular power.”

Sandwiched between the narratives are several chapters dealing with Abbasid culture in general, though the reader might be forgiven for wondering just when, in the hurly burly of the times, things became sufficiently settled for anyone to indulge in it. However, just as war has been described by its participants as long periods of boredom punctuated by short ones of excitement, Abbasid court life could perhaps equally be described as long periods of elegant liesure broken by short bursts of mayhem. It is a little dispriting to find that “early Abbasid court culture was dominated by poetry and song” especially when the “public poetry of the Abbasid court was largely praise poetry” and formed “the bread and butter of literary life”. Epic poetry might have been suitable for public recitations instead, but there is no mention of it at all and drama did not exist. Nor, of course, did representational art, which came under the Islamic ban on the depiction of human and animal life; to some extent calligraphy flourished in its stead. Literacy was promoted by a need for an imperial bureaucracy and facilitated by the manufacture of paper, a technological import from China through Central Asia. Caliph and courtiers were alike literate, a contrast to the aristocracy of Western Europe, though not that of Byzantium.

It was at this period that elements of Greek science, medicine and philosophy were assimilated, but once absorbed, no longer studied. As Bernard Lewis puts it, in his The Political Language of Islam: “This literature… is neverthless of marginal importance in the political and intellectual history of Islam. The Muslim philosophers of the Hellenistic school were a comparatively small, relatively minor group. Their kind of philosophy flourished for a time in the Islamic academies during the Middle Ages, but it died out and had only a limited impact on later generations. It did, however, contribute substantially to the vocabulary of political writing of far greater significance…” Although there were large Christian communities and smaller Jewish ones living under the Caliphate, Kennedy makes no mention of any interaction between them and if Christians read the Koran or Muslims the Bible and Jews read both there is no suggestion that this led to any published result, of the type of controversial literature against heresies written by orthodox Christians during the pagan period of Imperial Rome.

Kennedy devotes a whole chapter to the Harem. Everyone knowns that, guarded by eunuchs, the Caliph was the only intact adult male ever to set eyes on its inmates. Other males were not the only moral hazards however: a grim anecdote recounts how one Caliph personally beheaded two slave girls found making love to each other. Broadly speaking, the Harem consisted of all the women of the Court, from the swarms of slave-girls and concubines to extremely influential and rich women at the top, sometimes a favourite wife (though Caliphs after Harun-al-Rashid seem to have given up formal marriage arrangements) or a Caliph’s mother. Harun’s mother Khayzuran, who ensured he became Caliph, and his wife Zubayda were both extremely rich. Another rich Queen Mother was apparently too stingy to give her Caliph son a comparatively small sum to pay his Turks, with the result that he was assassinated. On the whole the women connected with men who were assassinated or executed, or, before such events occurred, merely political enemies, were not themselves killed, harshly treated or even molested. An exasperated Turk is recorded as hanging one of them upside down and beating her to get her to tell him where her money was hidden (she refused), but such treatment was regarded as irregular.

There is little here about the Caliphate’s military organization or the strategy and tactics of its armies, though something from the author’s The Armies of the Caliphs (which I have not read), tucked away in the Bibliography, without even a reference to it in the text, would have been appropriate. Islamic expansion seems to have ceased and the border with the Byzantine Empire remained little altered during the whole period, having in fact moved somewhat to the east when the Islamic capital moved from Damascus to the more distant Baghdad. Campaigns against it were essentially larger or smaller raids and if fortified towns, such as Heraclea and Armorium were captured, they were later abandoned, though their inhabitants might be deported as slaves, resettled or simply massacred. The last siege of Constantinople, a crushing failure, had been in 716 by the Umayyads; there were none by the Abbasids. Why the enormous resources of the intact Caliphate were not brought to bear to eliminate the relatively small area of the last Christian power in the East is not examined, let alone explained.

In fact, most Abbasid warfare was internecine and possibly the most severe was the suppression of a revolt by black African slaves, the Zanj, who worked the saltpetre mines in the south of Iraq, lasting from 869 until 883. This uprising (in the name of Ali – who else?) is not mentioned by Kennedy, except in his Chronology, though it may have caused as many as half a million deaths. Ronald Segal, in his Islams Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora, credits the abandonment of any attempt by Islamic societies to use Africans as forced labour on the land, as was done centuries later in the Americas, to the trouble this revolt had caused.

It is not clear to me why the Abbasid Caliphate deserves the admiration that Kennedy obviously thinks I should feel for it. After less than two centuries of its existence the Caliphate it had usurped had fallen to pieces and the fertile, irrigated heartland it had inherited had been ruined. Whoever exercised power, whether Caliph or his puppet-master, had as councillors only sycophants or who were, if otherwise, suspect as subversive. In either case his caprice could kill. The succession, like that of other Islamic empires, the Ottomans and the Mughals, was always a problem, usually solved with violence. As with many historians and intellectuals, Kennedy gives too much credit to the trappings of civilization, rather than marking its more solid achievements. Poetry meant little to the peasants whose crops were trampled, irrigation ditches blocked and water polluted and whose taxes paid for the splendid palaces they never saw (is there something familiar about this last?).

There may be lessons which contemporary Arabs can learn from the events chronicled in this book, but they are not ones that should give rise to imitation. In his final paragraph beginning “The memory of the caliphate survived to inspire later generations…” Kennedy continues with words and phrases such as: power, prestige and unity, ancient greatness, potent inspiration for Osama bin Laden, cultural legacy, defined the style and performance of Muslim monarchy, showed how a caliph and vizier should behave (eh?), flowing elegant script, astonishing achievement. This is mythology, not history, and should be debunked rather than supported.

3 comments to The First Islamic Empire – Its Decline and Fall

  • Rob

    It is not clear to me why the Abbasid Caliphate deserves the admiration that Kennedy obviously thinks I should feel for it

    Though I haven’t read this particular book, I think this is fairly common amongst historical books which focus on a particular period, dynasty or social class. Lord Norwich’s excellent series on Byzantium is similarly enthusiastic and sympathetic to an empire and its rulers, despite their many cruelties, assassinations, plots and schemes, and their abject failure to advance the fine Greek and Roman traditions they inherited.

    It all depends on the slant you want to put on a story; it’s possible to tell the Byzantine story as an epic of cruelty, or to illuminate some of the more positive aspects. The same applies to the story of the Caliphs (Byzantine contemporaries in more ways than one). I think the intelligent reader can draw their own conclusions; your criticisms are entirely valid, but they don’t make the content of the book any less valid either.

  • Findlay Dunachie


    We could have a ding-dong about this just by ourselves, since no-one else seems interested (sob!).

    The point I was trying to make, and the conclusion I had reached, which surprised me, was that the Abbasids had effective power for such a short time and yet managed to leave such a mess behind them, that how anyone could call them “Islam’s greatest dynasty” (rather than say “Islam’s greatest failed state”) was completely baffling.

    The Abbasids usurped power from the Umayyads in 750. Haroun-al-Rashid, the most well know Caliph died in 809. There was a ruinous civil war beween his sons 811-813. The Turkish bodyguards started picking Caliphs in 847 and murdered the last one who showed signs of independence in 861. Kennedy finishes his history in 935, by which time the outlying provinces of the Caliphate had detached themselves and what is now Iraq was ruined agriculturally.

    The case of Byzantium was quite different. As the Roman Empire (continued) it survived 1) the barbarian invasions (400-500), 2) the Arab conquest of Syria, Egypt and N. Africa (640-700), 3) the Turkish conquest of internal Asia Minor (1071-1100) and 4) the 4th Crusade (1204-1261). Considering the number and size of its enemies, that survival was not bad. The Abbasid Caliphate had no serious external enemies except Byzantium, and couldn’t eliminate it.

  • Mobarak Haider

    Do we have any period of Muslim history at all when the power centres followed a lawful pattern of succcession or of bureaucracy? Islam with its claims to perfection and comprehensiveness could be expected to teach its followers something of a political system. But its complete paucity on this count stands in sharp contrast to the rich detail of the catagories of women Allah has allowed Muslims and what times servants and slaves should enter or not enter their master’s privacy. That absence of political thought and the resulting conflict soon after the death of the prophet with three out of four Rightly Guided successors recieving Martyrdom from their Muslim brothers, permanently limits the Muslim mind’s ability to ask for a system. That explains the obscurity and limitations of most of Muslim political thought from Ali through Ibne Hambal, Al Mavardi, Taymiyah, Wahhab, Jamaluddin Afghani to Iqbal in recent times, followed by such monsters as Sayyid Qutb and Maudoodi.
    So also the arts and softer side of human life. Islam, despite Muhammad’s personal and occasional tendancy toward softness and his great love of good linguistic performance, provided powerful bans on arts, saving maximum energy for demographic achievement.
    It is generally believed that the Abbasid caliphate helped sciences and arts to flourish. The fallacy has its genesis in that owing to prosperity a few scholars with access to Greek intellectual work emerged in prominence during this period.They recieved some patronage from the aristocracy as well as the court. But the court easily surrendered to the orthodox clergy when it attacked rational thinking as heretical. The caliph’s love of power and pleasure always helped him act with prudence.
    Writing “history” without a dressing of “mythology” is perhaps a myth. In a world with Islamic Resurgence thumping at every door, admiring a pleasure loving line of kings with trappings of secularism is perhaps a less pernicious failing than if it had been a condemnation of their incompetence to conquer. That condemnation they abundantly recieve from Resurgence Islamists.