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For the Caliphate of Cordoba (Al-Andalusmarker) dynasty see Abbadids; for the south-west Arabia Muslim sect, see Abādites.

The Abbasid Caliphate ( , ) was the third of the Islamic Caliphates of the Islamic Empire. It was ruled by the Abbasid dynasty of caliphs, who built their capital in Baghdadmarker after overthrowing the Umayyad caliphs from all but Al Andalusmarker.

It was founded by a descendant of Muhammad's youngest uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. It was created in Harranmarker in 750 C.E. and shifted its capital in 762 C.E from Harranmarker to Baghdadmarker. It flourished for two centuries, but slowly went into decline with the rise to power of the Turkish army it had created, the Mamluks. Within 150 years of gaining power across Persiamarker, they were forced to cede power to local dynastic amirs who only nominally acknowledged their power, and had to cede Al Andalusmarker to an escaped Umayyad royal and the Maghreb and Ifriqiya to independent entities such as the Aghlabids and the Fatimids.

Their rule was briefly ended for three years in 1258, when Hulagu Khan, the Mongol conqueror, sacked Baghdad, resuming in Egypt in 1261. They continued to claim authority in religious matters from their base in Mamluk Egyptmarker up to 1519 when power was formally transferred to the Ottomans and the capital transferred to Istanbul.


The Abbasid caliphs descended from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (566 – 662), one of the youngest uncles of Muhammad, because of which they considered themselves as the true successor of Muhammad as opposed to the Umayyads. The Umayyads were descended from Umayya, and were a clan separate from Muhammad's in the Quraish tribe. They won backing of Shiites (i.e. the Hashimiyya sub-sect of the Kaysanites Shia) against the Umayyads by temporarily converting to Shia Islam and joining their fight against the unjust Umayyad rule.

The Abbasids also distinguished themselves from the Umayyads by attacking their moral character and administration in general. According to Ira Lapidus "The Abbasid revolt was supported largely by Arabs, mainly the aggrieved settlers of Marw with the addition of the Yemeni faction and their Mawali". The Abbasids also appealed to non-Arab Muslims, known as mawali, who remained outside the kinship-based society of Arab culture and were perceived of as a lower class within the Umayyad empire. Muhammad ibn 'Ali, a great-grandson of Abbas, began to campaign for the return of power to the family of Muhammad, the Hashimites, in Persiamarker 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. Supported by the province of Khorasan, Iranmarker, he achieved considerable successes, but was captured in the year 747 and died in prison; some hold that he was assassinated. The quarrel was taken up by his brother Abdallah, known by the name of Abu al-'Abbas as-Saffah, who, with victory on the Greater Zab River (750), defeated the Umayyads and was proclaimed Caliph.

Political situation

The various de facto independent emirates after the Abbasids lost their military dominance (c.

Consolidation and schisms

The first change the Abbasids made was to move the empire's capital from Damascus, in Syria, to Baghdad in Iraq. This was to both appease as well to be closer to the Persian mawali support base that existed in this region more influenced by Persian history and culture, and part of the Persian mawali demand for less Arab dominance in the empire. Baghdadmarker was established on the Tigris Rivermarker in 762. A new position, that of the vizier, was also established to delegate central authority, and even greater authority was delegated to local emirs. Eventually, this meant that many Abbasid caliphs were relegated to a more ceremonial role than under the Umayyads, as the viziers began to exert greater influence, and the role of the old Arab aristocracy was slowly replaced by a Persian bureaucracy.

The Abbasids had depended heavily on the support of Persians [see 'Abbasid Dynasty article in Britannica] in their overthrow of the Umayyads. Abu al-'Abbas' successor, Al-Mansur, moved their capital from Damascusmarker to the new city of Baghdadmarker 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 Khorasanian 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. The only surviving member of the Umayyad royal family, which had been all but annihilated, ultimately made his way to Spain where he established himself as an independent Emir (Abd ar-Rahman I, 756). In 929, Abd ar-Rahman III assumed the title of Caliph, establishing Al Andalusmarker from Córdobamarker as a rival to Baghdad as the legitimate capital of the Islamic Empire.

Rift with the Shia Muslims

The Abbasids also found themselves at odds with the Shia Muslims, many of whom had supported their war against the Umayyads, since the Abbasids and the Shias claimed legitimacy by their familial connection to Muhammed. Once in power, the Abbasids embraced Sunni Islam and disavowed any support for Shi'a beliefs. That led to numerous conflicts, culminating in an uprising in Meccamarker in 786, followed by widespread bloodshed and the flight of many Shi'a to the Maghreb, where the survivors established the Idrisid kingdom. The Abbasids also executed the direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammed who were also the Shia Imams, which includes Imam Jafar Sadiq and other respected nobles. Shortly thereafter, Berber Kharijites set up an independent state in North Africa in 801. Within 50 years the Idrisids in the Maghreb and Aghlabids of Ifriqiya and a little later the Tulunids and Ikshidids of Misr were effectively independent in Africa.

Communication with provinces

The Abbasid leadership had to work hard in the last half of the eighth century (750–800), under several competent caliphs and their viziers to overcome the political challenges created by the far flung nature of the empire, and the limited communication across it and usher in the administrative changes to keep order. While the Byzantine Empire was fighting Abbasid rule in Syriamarker and Anatoliamarker, military operations during this period were minimal, as the caliphate focused on internal matters as local governors, who, as a matter of prodecure, operated mostly independently of central authority. The problem that the caliphs faced was that these governors had begun to exert greater autonomy, using their increasing power to make their positions hereditary.

At the same time, the Abbasids faced challenges closer to home. Former supporters of the Abbasids had broken away to create a separate kingdom around Khorosan in northern Persia. Harun al-Rashid (786 – 809) turned on the Barmakids, a Persian family that had grown significantly in power within the administration of the state however, Harun al-Rashid turned against them and killed most of the family. During the same period, several factions, or opposing groups, began either to leave the empire for other lands or to take control of distant parts of the empire away from the Abbasids.

Golden Age

The Islamic Golden Age was inaugurated by the middle of the 8th century by the ascension of the Abbasid Caliphate and the transfer of the capital from Damascusmarker to Baghdadmarker. The Abbassids were influenced by the Qur'anic injunctions and hadith such as "the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr" stressing the value of knowledge. During this period the Muslim world became the unrivaled intellectual center for science, philosophy, medicine and education as the Abbasids championed the cause of knowledge and established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad; where both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars sought to translate and gather all the world's knowledge into Arabic. Many classic works of antiquity that would otherwise have been lost were translated into Arabic and Persian and later in turn translated into Turkish, Hebrew and Latin. During this period the Muslim world was a cauldron of cultures which collected, synthesized and significantly advanced the knowledge gained from the ancient Roman, Chinesemarker, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, North African, Greek and Byzantine civilizations.


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 Abbasids' welcoming of support from non-Arab Muslims. It is well established that the Abbasid caliphs modeled their administration on that of the Sassanids. One Abbasid caliph (whose mother was Persian) is even quoted as saying:

"The Persians ruled for a thousand years and did not need us Arabs even for a day. We have been ruling them for one or two centuries and cannot do without them for an hour."

A number of medieval thinkers and scientists living under Islamic rule played a role in transmitting Islamic science to the Christian West. They contributed to making Aristotle known in Christian Europe. In addition, the period saw the recovery of much of the Alexandrianmarker mathematical, geometric and astronomical knowledge, such as that of Euclid and Claudius Ptolemy. These recovered mathematical methods were later enhanced and developed much further by other Islamic scholars, notably by Persian scientists Al-Biruni and Abu Nasr Mansur.

Algebra was also pioneered by Persian Scientist Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī during this time in his landmark text, Kitab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqabala, from which the term algebra is derived. He is thus considered to be the father of algebra. The terms algorism and algorithm are also derived from the name of al-Khwarizmi, who was responsible for introducing the Arabic numerals and Hindu-Arabic numeral system beyond the Indian subcontinent.

Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) developed an early scientific method in his Book of Optics (1021). The most important development of the scientific method was the use of experiments to distinguish between competing scientific theories set within a generally empirical orientation, which began among Muslim scientists. Ibn al-Haytham is also regarded as the father of optics, especially for his empirical proof of the intromission theory of light. Bradley Steffens described Ibn al-Haytham as the "first scientist" for his development of scientific method.

Medicine in medieval Islam was an area of science that advanced particularly during the Abbasids' reign. During the ninth century, Baghdad contained over 800 doctors, and great discoveries in the understanding of anatomy and diseases were made. The clinical distinction between measles and smallpox was discovered during this time. Famous Persian scientist Ibn Sina (known to the West as Avicenna) produced treatises and works that summarized the vast amount of knowledge that scientists had accumulated, and is often known as the father of modern medicine for his encyclopedias, The Canon of Medicine and The Book of Healing. The work of him and many others directly influenced the research of European scientists during the Renaissance and even later.

Astronomy in medieval Islam was advanced by Al-Battani, who improved the precision of the measurement of the precession of the Earth's axis. The corrections made to the geocentric model by al-Battani, Averroes, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Mo'ayyeduddin Urdi and Ibn al-Shatir were later incorporated into the Copernican heliocentric model. The astrolabe, though originally developed by the Greeks, was perfected by Islamic astronomers and engineers, and was subsequently brought to Europe.

Muslim chemists and alchemists played an important role in the foundation of modern chemistry. Scholars such as Will Durant and Alexander von Humboldt regard Muslim chemists to be the founders of chemistry. In particular, Geber (Jabir ibn Hayyan) is considered the "father of chemistry". The works of Arab chemists influenced Roger Bacon (who introduced the empirical method to Europe, strongly influenced by his reading of Arabic writers), Isaac Newton, among many others. A number of chemical processes such as distillation techniques and the production of alcohol were developed in the Muslim world and then spread to Europe.


The most well known fiction from the Islamic world was The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). The original concept is derived from pre-Islamic Iranianmarker (Persian) prototype with reliance on Indian elements. It also includes stories from rest of the Middle-Eastern and North African nations. The epic took form in the 10th century and reached its final form by the 14th century; the number and type of tales have varied from one manuscript to another. All Arabian fantasy tales were often called "Arabian Nights" when translated into English, regardless of whether they appeared in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. This epic has been influential in the West since it was translated in the 18th century, first by Antoine Galland. Many imitations were written, especially in France. Various characters from this epic have themselves become cultural icons in Western culture, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba.

A famous example of Persian poetry on romance is Layla and Majnun, dating back to the Umayyad era in the 7th century. It is a tragic story of undying love much like the later Romeo and Juliet, which was itself said to have been inspired by a Latin version of Layli and Majnun to an extent.


One of the common definitions for "Islamic philosophy" is "the style of philosophy produced within the framework of Islamic culture." Islamic philosophy, in this definition is neither necessarily concerned with religious issues, nor is exclusively produced by Muslims. Their works on Aristotle was a key step in the transmission of learning from ancient Greeks to the Islamic world and the West. They often corrected the philosopher, encouraging a lively debate in the spirit of ijtihad. They also wrote influential original philosophical works, and their thinking was incorporated into Christian philosophy during the Middle Ages, notably by Thomas Aquinas.

Three speculative thinkers, al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Avicenna, combined Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism with other ideas introduced through Islam, and Avicennism was later established as a result. Other influential Muslim philosophers in the Caliphates include al-Jahiz, a pioneer in evolutionary thought, and Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen), a pioneer of phenomenology and the philosophy of science and a critic of Aristotelian physics and Aristotle's concept of place (topos).


In technology, the Muslim world adopted papermaking from China and further advanced the technology with their invention of papermills many centuries before paper was known in the West. The knowledge of gunpowder was also transmitted from China via Islamic countries, where the formulas for pure potassium nitrate and an explosive gunpowder effect were first developed.

Advances were made in irrigation and farming, using new technology such as the windmill. Crops such as almonds and citrus fruit were brought to Europe through al-Andalusmarker, and sugar cultivation was gradually adopted by the Europeans. Arab merchants dominated trade in the Indian Oceanmarker until the arrival of the Portuguesemarker in the 16th century. Hormuz was an important center for this trade. There was also a dense network of trade routes in the Mediterraneanmarker, along which Muslim countries traded with each other and with European powers such as Venicemarker, Genoamarker and Cataloniamarker. The Silk Road crossing Central Asia passed through Muslim states between China and Europe.

Muslim engineers in the Islamic world made a number of innovative industrial uses of hydropower, and early industrial uses of tidal power, wind power, steam power, fossil fuels such as petroleum, and early large factory complexes (tiraz in Arabic). The industrial uses of watermills in the Islamic world date back to the 7th century, while horizontal-wheeled and vertical-wheeled water mills were both in widespread use since at least the 9th century. A variety of industrial mills were being employed in the Islamic world, including early fulling mills, gristmills, hullers, paper mills, sawmills, shipmills, stamp mills, steel mills, sugar mills, tide mills and windmills. By the 11th century, every province throughout the Islamic world had these industrial mills in operation, from al-Andalusmarker and North Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia. Muslim engineers also invented crankshafts and water turbines, employed gears in mills and water-raising machines, and pioneered the use of dams as a source of water power, used to provide additional power to watermills and water-raising machines. Such advances made it possible for many industrial tasks that were previously driven by manual labour in ancient times to be mechanized and driven by machinery instead in the medieval Islamic world. The transfer of these technologies to medieval Europe had an influence on the Industrial Revolution.

A number of industries were generated due to the Muslim Agricultural Revolution, including early industries for agribusiness, astronomical instruments, ceramics, chemicals, distillation technologies, clocks, glass, mechanical hydropowered and wind powered machinery, matting, mosaics, pulp and paper, perfumery, petroleum, pharmaceuticals, rope-making, shipping, shipbuilding, silk, sugar, textiles, water, weapons, and the mining of minerals such as sulfur, ammonia, lead and iron. Early large factory complexes (tiraz) were built for many of these industries, and knowledge of these industries were later transmitted to medieval Europe, especially during the Latin translations of the 12th century, as well as before and after. For example, the first glass factories in Europe were founded in the 11th century by Egyptianmarker craftsmen in Greecemarker. The agricultural and handicraft industries also experienced high levels of growth during this period.

Fracture of central authority

Even by 820, the Samanids had begun the process of exercising independent authority in Transoxiana and Greater Khorasan, the Shia Hamdanids in Northern Syria, and the successive Tahirid, Alid and Saffarid dynasties of Iran. By the early 10th century, the Abbasids almost lost control to the growing Persian faction known as the Buwayhids that replaced the Samanids as the Buwayhids were quietly able to assume real power in the bureaucracy at Baghdad. Despite the power of the Buwayhid amirs, the Abbasids retained a highly ritualized court in Baghdad, as described by the Buwayhid bureaucrat Hilal al-Sabi', and they retained a certain influence over Baghdad as well as religious life. The caliph al-Qadir, for example, led the ideological struggle against the Shia with writings such as the Baghdad Manifesto.

All the autonomous provinces slowly took on the characteristic of de facto states with hereditary rulers, armies, and revenues and operated under only nominal caliphal suzeranity, which may not necessarily be reflected by any contribution to the treasury.

Loss of power

Mahmud of Ghazni took the title of sultan, as opposed to the "amir" that had been in more common usage, signifying the Ghaznavid Empire's independence from Caliphial authority even as a matter of form. By the 11th century, the loss of respect for the caliphs had gone even further, as the Seljuks, Khwarezmshahs, Almoravids and other Islamic rulers no longer mentioned the caliph's name in the Friday Khutba, or struck it off their coinage. The Fatimids contested the Abbasids for even the titular authority. The Buwayhids were defeated in the mid-11th century with the aid of the Seljuks under Toghril Beg; however, the Seljuks then themselves took over de facto lordship of the Empire, and the Caliph bestowed on Toghril Beg the title of Sultan of the East and the West. The Seljuks publicly pledged allegiance to the Caliph, but left him in control of little actual terrritory beyond Baghdad.Caliph Al-Muqtafi was the 1st Abbasid Caliph to regain the independence of the Caliphate,after nearly 250 years of foreign rule, he successfully defended Baghdad against the Seljuqs, thus securing Iraq for the Abbasids. see Seljuk siege of Baghdad 1157

The end of the dynasty

Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad on February 10, 1258, causing great loss of life. Muslims feared that a supernatural disaster would strike if the blood of Al-Musta'sim, a direct descendant of Muhammad's uncle and the last reigning Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, was spilled. Despite the advice of the Learned Shiites of Persiamarker that no such calamity had happened after the deaths of John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, or the Shiite Imam (leader) Hussein, therefore, as a precaution, Hulagu, in accordance with a Mongol taboo which forbade spilling royal blood, had Al-Musta'sim wrapped in a carpet and trampled to death by horses on February 20, 1258. The Al-Musta'sim family was also executed, with the lone exceptions of his youngest son who was sent to Mongoliamarker, and a daughter who became a slave in the harem of Hulagu. According to Mongolian historians, the surviving son married and fathered children, but played no role in Islam thereafter.

The Abbasids continued to maintain the presence of authority, yet it was confined to religious matters in Egyptmarker, under the Mamluks. The dynasty finally ended with Al-Mutawakkil III, who was taken away as a prisoner, by Selim I, to Constantinoplemarker where he had a ceremonial role until his death in 1543.

Role of the Mamluks

In the 9th century, the Abbasids created 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 disintegration of the empire.

The Mamluk army, though often viewed negatively, both helped and hurt the caliphate. Early on, it provided the government with a stable force to address domestic and foreign problems. However, creation of this foreign army and al-Mu'tasim's transfer of the capital from Baghdad to Samarramarker 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 Buwayhids, who were Shi'ites, seized power over Baghdadmarker, ruling central Iraqmarker for more than a century.

List of Abbasid Caliphs

Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad

Genealogic tree of the Abbasid family.
In green, the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad.
In yellow, the Abbasid caliphs of Cairo.
Muhammad the Prophet is included (in caps) to show the kinship of the Abbasids with him.

Abbasid Caliphs in Cairo

See also


  1. Ira Lapidus. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press. 2002 ISBN 0-521-77056-4 p.54
  2. Applied History Research Group , University of Calgary, " The Islamic World to 1600", Last accessed October 30, 2008
  3. Brauer, Ralph W, Boundaries and Frontiers in Medieval Muslim Geography, Diane Publishing Co., Dec 1, 1995, ISBN 0-87169-856-0, pg 7–10.
  4. Persian Historiography to the End of the Twelfth Century
  5. Vartan Gregorian, "Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith", Brookings Institution Press, 2003, pg 26–38 ISBN 081573283X
  6. Hamilton Gibb. Studies on the civilization of Islam. Princeton University Press. 1982. ISBN 0-691-05354-5 p.66
  7. Bertold Spuler. The Muslim World. Vol.I The Age of the Caliphs. Leiden. E.J. Brill. 1960 ISBN 0-685-23328-6 p.29
  8. Ron Eglash(1999), p.61
  9. David Agar (2001). Arabic Studies in Physics and Astronomy During 800 - 1400 AD. University of Jyväskylä.
  10. Bradley Steffens (2006), Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist, Morgan Reynolds Publishing, ISBN 1599350246.
  11. Robert Briffault (1928), The Making of Humanity, p. 190–202, G. Allen & Unwin Ltd:
  12. John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Arabian fantasy", p 51 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  13. L. Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy, p 10 ISBN 0-87054-076-9
  14. John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Arabian fantasy", p 52 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  15. Talattof, Kamran and Jerome W. Clinton, K. Allin Luther, The poetry of Nizami Ganjavi: knowledge, love, and rhetoric, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), 15-16.
  16. NIZAMI: LAYLA AND MAJNUN – English Version by Paul Smith
  17. "Islamic Philosophy", Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998)
  18. Ahmad Y Hassan, Potassium Nitrate in Arabic and Latin Sources, History of Science and Technology in Islam.
  19. Ahmad Y Hassan, Gunpowder Composition for Rockets and Cannon in Arabic Military Treatises In Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, History of Science and Technology in Islam.
  20. Ahmad Y Hassan (1976). Taqi al-Din and Arabic Mechanical Engineering, p. 34–35. Institute for the History of Arabic Science, University of Aleppo.
  21. Maya Shatzmiller, p. 36.
  22. Adam Robert Lucas (2005), "Industrial Milling in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: A Survey of the Evidence for an Industrial Revolution in Medieval Europe", Technology and Culture 46 (1), p. 1–30 [10].
  23. Ahmad Y Hassan, Transfer Of Islamic Technology To The West, Part II: Transmission Of Islamic Engineering
  24. Adam Robert Lucas (2005), "Industrial Milling in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: A Survey of the Evidence for an Industrial Revolution in Medieval Europe", Technology and Culture 46 (1), p. 1–30.
  25. Ahmad Y Hassan, Transfer Of Islamic Technology To The West, Part 1: Avenues Of Technology Transfer
  26. Subhi Y. Labib (1969), "Capitalism in Medieval Islam", The Journal of Economic History 29 (1), p. 79–96.
  27. Annals of history: Invaders: Destroying Baghdad by Ian Frazier, in The New Yorker 25 April, 2005


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