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Al-Mutawakkil ˤAlā Allāh Jaˤfar ibn al-Muˤtasim (Arabic المتوكل على الله جعفر بن المعتصم; March 821 – December 861) was an Abbasid caliph who reigned in Samarramarker from 847 until 861. He succeeded his brother al-Wāthiq and is known for putting an end to the Mihna "ordeal", the Inquisition-like attempt by his predecessors to impose a single Mu'tazili version of Islam.


While al-Wathiq was caliph, his vizier, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Malik, had poorly treated al-Mutawakkil. On September 22, 847, al-Mutawakkil had him arrested. The former vizier's property was plundered and he was tortured in his own iron maiden. He finally died on November 2nd. The caliph had others who had mistreated him in the previous reign punished.

In A.H. 235 (849) al-Mutawakkil had the prominent military commander Itakh al-Khazari seized in Baghdad. Itakh was imprisoned and died of thirst on December 21st. One Mahmud ibn al-Faraj al-Naysaburi arose claiming to be a prophet. He and some followers were arrested in Baghdad. He was imprisoned, beaten and on June 18, 850 he died.

In A.H. 237 (851-852) Armenians rebelled and defeated and killed the Abbasid governor. Al-Mutawakkil sent his general Bugha al-Kabir to handle this. Bugha scored successes this year and the following year he attacked and burned Tiflismarker, capturing Ishaq ibn Isma'il. The rebel leader was executed. That year (A.H. 238) Byzantines attacked Damietta.

In A.H. 240 (854-855) the police chief in Himsmarker killed a prominent person stirring an uprising. He was driven out. Al-Mutawakkil offered another police chief. When the next year saw a revolt against this new police chief, al-Mutawakkil had this firmly suppressed. As Christians had joined in the second round of disturbances, the caliph had Christians expelled from Hims.

Also in 241 occurred the firm response to the revolt by the Bujah, people of African descent just beyond Upper Egypt. They had been paying a tax on their gold mines. They ceased paying this, drove out Muslims working in the mines and terrified people in Upper Egypt. Al-Mutawakkil sent al-Qummi to restore order. Al-Qummi sent seven ships with supplies that enabled him to persevere despite the very harsh terrain of this distant territory. He retook the mines, pressed on to the Bujah royal stronghold and defeated the king in battle. The Bujah resumed payment of the tax.

On February 23, 856, there was an exchange of captives with the Byzantines. A second such exchange took place some four years later.

al-Mutawakkil's reign is remembered for its many reforms and viewed as a golden age of the Abbasids. He would be the last great Abbasid caliph; after his death the dynasty would fall into a decline.

Al-Mutawakkil continued to rely on Turkishmarker statesmen and slave soldiers to put down rebellions and lead battles against foreign empires, notably the Byzantines, from who Sicily was captured. His vezir, Al-fath bin Khaqan, who was Turkish, was a famous figure of Al-Mutawakkil's era.

His reliance on Turkish soldiers would come back to haunt him. Al-Mutawakkil would have his Turkish commander-in-chief killed. This, coupled with his extreme attitudes towards the Shia, made his popularity decline rapidly.

Al-Mutawakkil was murdered by a Turkish soldier on December 11, 861 CE. Some have speculated that his murder was part of a plot hatched by his son, al-Muntasir, who had grown estranged from his father. Al-Muntasir feared his father was about to move against him and struck first.

Al-Mutawakkil is said to have been slender, with a light tan complexion, a sparse beard and attractive eyes. He was also a cold blooded and ruthless killer of unorthodox Muslims and non-Muslims.

Treatment of Jews and Christians

Mutawakkiil ordered Jews and Christians to wear different dress.They were forbidden to ride on animals other than donkeys.They could not build churches or synagogues.


Al-Mutawakkil was unlike his brother and father in that he was not known for having a thirst for knowledge, but he had an eye for magnificence and a hunger to build. The Great Mosque of Samarramarker was at its time, the largest mosque in the world; its minaret is a vast spiralling cone 55 m high with a spiral ramp. The mosque had 17 aisles and its wall were panelled with mosaics of dark blue glass.

The Great Mosque was just part of an extension of Samarra eastwards that built upon part of the walled royal hunting park inherited from the Sassanians. Al-Mutawakkil built as many as 20 palaces (the numbers vary in documents). Samarra became one of the largest cities of the ancient world; even the archaeological site of its ruins is one of the world's most extensive.The Caliph's building schemes extended in A.H. 245 (859-860) to a new city, al-Jaˤfariyya, which al-Mutawakkil built on the Tigrismarker some eighteen kilometres from Samarra. More water, and al-Mutawakkil ordered a canal to be built to divert water from the Tigris, entrusting the project to two courtiers, who ignored the talents of a local engineer of repute and entrusted the work to al-Farghanī, the great astronomer and writer. Al-Farghanī, who was not a specialist in public works, made a miscalculation and it appeared that the opening of the canal was too deep so that water from the river would only flow at near full flood.

News leaked to the infuriated caliph might have meant the heads of all concerned save for the gracious actions of the engineer, Sind ibn ˤAlī, who vouched for the eventual success of the project, thus risking his own life. Al-Mutawakkil was assassinated shortly before the error became public.

Al-Mutawakkil was keen to involve himself in many religious debates, something that would show in his actions against different minorities. His father had tolerated the Shīˤa Imām who taught and preached at Medinamarker, and for the first years of his reign al-Mutawakkil continued the policy. Imām ˤAlī al-Hadī's growing reputation inspired a letter from the Governor of Medina, ˤAbdu l-Lāh ibn Muħammad, suggesting that a coup was being plotted, and al-Mutawakkil extended an invitation to Samarra to the Imām, an offer he could not refuse. In Samarra, the Imām was kept under virtuial house arrest and spied upon. However, no excuse to take action against him ever appeared. After al-Mutawakkil's death, his successor had the Imām poisoned: al-Hadī is buried at Samarra. The general Shīˤa population faced repression. and this was embodied in the destruction of the shrine of Hussayn ibn ˤAlī, an action that was carried out obstensibly in order to stop pilgrimages to that site.

During his reign, the influence of the Muˤtaziliyya was reversed and questions about over the divinity of the Qur'an were ended. This resulted from the caliph's personal devotion to studying as-Sunna.

Also during his reign, Al-Mutawakkil met the famous Byzantine theologian Constantine the Philosopher, who was sent to tighten the diplomatic relations between the Empire and the Caliphate in a state mission by the Emperor Michael III.


Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari History v. 34 "Incipient Decline," transl. Joel L. Kraemer, SUNY, Albany, 1989


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