The Abbasid Caliphate

Definition: The Abbasid Caliphate
An Islamic dynasty established in 750, when it replaced the Umayyad caliphate. Originally based in Mesopotamia (the Abbasids founded Baghdad in 762), it remained dominant in the Islamic world until the mid-10th century. Abbasid art and architecture is characterized by Persian, Oriental, and Arabic influences.

The Abbasids in Islamic history

In Islamic history, Abbasid was the dynastic name generally given to the caliphs of Baghdad, the second of the two great Sunni dynasties of the Muslim empire, that overthrew the Umayyad caliphs. It seized power in 758, when it finally defeated the Umayyads in battle, and flourished for two centuries, but slowly went into eclipse with the rise to power of the Turkish army they had created, the Mamluks. Their claim to power was finally ended in 1258, when Hulagu Khan, the Mongol general, sacked Baghdad. While they continued to claim authority in religious matters from their base in Egypt, their dynasty was ended.

The Abbasid caliphs officially based their claim to the Caliphate on their descent from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (AD 566-652), one of the youngest uncles of the prophet Muhammad, by virtue of which descent they regarded themselves as the rightful heirs of the Prophet as opposed to the Umayyads. The Umayyads were descended from Umayya, and were a clan separate from Muhammad's in the Quraish tribe.

The Abassids also distinguished themselves from the Umayyads by attacking their secularism, their moral character and their administration in general. The Abassids also appealed to non-Arab Muslims, known as mawali, who remained outside the kinship-based society of Arab culture and were at best second-class citizens within the Umayyad empire. Muhammad ibn 'Ali, a great-grandson of Abbas, began to campaign for the return of power to the family of the prophet, the Hashimites, in Persia during the reign of Umar II, Muhammad ibn Ali.

During the reign of Marwan II this opposition culminated in the rebellion of Ibrahim the Imam, the fourth in descent from Abbas, who, supported by the province of Khorasan, achieved considerable successes, but was captured (AD 747) and died in prison (as some hold, assassinated). The quarrel was taken up by his brother Abdallah, known by the name of Abu al-'Abbas as-Saffah, who, after a decisive victory on the Greater Zab river (750), finally crushed the Umayyads and was proclaimed Caliph.

Consolidation and Schisms

The Abassids had depended heavily on the support of Persians in their overthrow of the Umayyads. Abu al-'Abbas' successor, Mansur, moved their capital from Damascus to the new city of Baghdad and welcomed non-Arab Muslims to their court. While this helped integrate Arab and Persian cultures, it alienated many of their Arab supporters, particularly the Khorosanian Arabs who had supported them in their battles against the Umayyads.

These fissures in their support led to immediate problems. The Umayyads, while out of power, were not destroyed. Reestablishing themselves in Spain) in 756, they not only declared a rival caliphate, but sponsored a Moorish culture that was dramatically different from the fusion of Arab and Persian culture under the Abassids.

The Abassids also found themselves at odds with the Shia, many of whom had supported their war against the Umayyads, since the Abassids claimed legitimacy by their familial connection to Muhammed. Once in power, the Abassids embraced Sunni Islam and disavowed any support for Shi'a beliefs. That led to numerous conflicts, culminating in an uprising in Mecca in 786, followed by widespread bloodshed and the flight of many Shi'a to the Maghreb, where the survivors established the Idrisid kingdom. Shortly thereafter Berber Kharjites set up an independent state in North Africa in 801.

At the same time the Abassids faced challenges closer to home. The Byzantine Empire was fighting Abassid rule in Syria and Anatolia. Former supporters of the Abassids had broken away to create a separate kingdom around Khorosan in northern Persia. Harun al-Rashid (786 - 809) added to these troubles by turning on the Barmakids, the Persian family that had supplied the caliphate with competent administrators, over a personal dispute.

The Mamluks

Faced with these challenges from within, the Abassids decided to create an army loyal only to their caliphate, drawn mostly from Turkish slaves, known as Mamluks, with some Slavs and Berbers participating as well. This force, created in the reign of al-Ma'mun (813 - 833), and his brother and successor al-Mu'tasim (833 - 842), prevented the further distintegration of the empire.

It also, however, led to the ultimate eclipse of Abassid rule. The creation of this foreign army and al-Mu'tasim's transfer of the capital from Baghdad to Samarra created a division between the caliphate and the peoples they claimed to rule. In addition, the power of the Mamluks steadily grew until al-Radi (934 - 941) was constrained to hand over most of the royal functions to Mahommed bin Raik. In the following years the Buyids, who were Shi'ites, seized power over Baghdad, ruling central Iraq for more than a century before being overthrown by the Seljuq Turks. In the same period, the Hamdanids, another Shi'ite dynasty, came to power in northern Iraq, leading to a tremendous expansion of Shi'a influence. In the process the Abassid caliphs became no more than figureheads.

Learning under the Abassid Dynasty

The reigns of Harun al-Rashid (786 - 809) and his successors fostered an age of great intellectual achievement. In large part this was the result of the schismatic forces that had undermined the Umayyad regime, which relied on the assertion of the superiority of Arab culture as part of its claim to legitimacy, and the Abassids' welcoming of support from non-Arab Muslims.

A number of medieval thinkers and scientists living under Islamic rule, many of them non-Muslims or heretical Muslims, played a role in transmitting Greek, Hindu, and other pre-Islamic knowledge to the Christian West. They contributed to making Aristotle known in Christian Europe. In addition the period saw the recovery of much of the Alexandrian mathematical, geometric and astronomical knowledge, such as that of Euclides and Claudius Ptolemy, and these recovered mathematical methods were later enhanced and developed by other Islamic scholars, notably by Al-Biruni, and Abu Nasr Mansur, who are thought to have first derived the Cosine rule and applied it to spherical geometry.

Three speculative thinkers, the Persians al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Avicenna, combined Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism with other ideas introduced through Islam.

The End of the Caliphate

Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad on (February 10, 1258), causing great loss of life. Al-Musta'sim, the last reigning Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad was then executed on February 20, 1258. The Abbasids still maintained a feeble show of authority, confined to religious matters, in Egypt under the Mamelukes, but the dynasty finally disappeared with Motawakkil III, who was carried away as a prisoner to Constantinople by Selim I.

Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad

  • Abu'l Abbas As-Saffah 750 - 754 Al-Mansur 754 - 775 Al-Mahdi 775 - 785 Al-Hadi 785 - 786 Harun al-Rashid 786 - 809 Al-Amin 809 - 813 Al-Ma'mun 813 - 833 Al-Mu'tasim 833 - 842 Al-Wathiq 842 - 847 Al-Mutawakkil 847 - 861 Al-Muntasir 861 - 862 Al-Musta'in 862 - 866 Al-Mu'tazz 866 - 869 Al-Muhtadi 869 - 870 Al-Mu'tamid 870 - 892 Al-Mu'tadid 892 - 902 Al-Muktafi 902 - 908 Al-Muqtadir 908 - 932 Al-Qahir 932 - 934 Ar-Radi 934 - 940 Al-Muttaqi 940 - 944 Al-Mustakfi 944 - 946 Al-Muti 946 - 974 At-Ta'i 974 - 991 Al-Qadir 991 - 1031 Al-Qa'im 1031 - 1075 Al-Muqtadi 1075 - 1094 Al-Mustazhir 1094 - 1118 Al-Mustarshid 1118 - 1135 Ar-Rashid 1135 - 1136 Al-Muqtafi 1136 - 1160 Al-Mustanjid 1160 - 1170 Al-Mustadi 1170 - 1180 An-Nasir 1180 - 1225 Az-Zahir 1225 - 1226 Al-Mustansir 1226 - 1242 Al-Musta'sim 1242 - 1258

Abbasid Caliphs in Cairo

  • Al-Mustansir 1261 Al-Hakim I 1262-1302 Al-Mustakfi I 1302-1340 Al-Wathiq I 1340-1341 Al-Hakim II 1341-1352 Al-Mu'tadid I 1352-1362 Al-Mutawakkil I 1362-1383 Al-Wathiq II 1383-1386 Al-Mu'tasim 1386-1389 Al-Mutawakkil I (restored) 1389-1406 Al-Musta'in 1406-1414 Al-Mu'tadid II 1414-1441 Al-Mustakfi II 1441-1451 Al-Qa'im 1451-1455 Al-Mustanjid 1455-1479 Al-Mutawakkil II 1479-1497 Al-Mustamsik 1497-1508 * Al-Mutawakkil III 1508-1517

External Links -


    - "Abbasids." 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.


Article Info

Title The Abbasid Caliphate
Last UpdatedJanuary 29, 2021
MLA Citation “The Abbasid Caliphate.” 29 Jan. 2021. Web. Accessed 22 Jan. 2022. <>