Islam (part 12)

Islam From The Beginning To 1300

Date: 2002

From Arab To Islamic Empire: The Early Abbasid Era

The sudden shift from Umayyad to Abbasid leadership within the Islamic
Empire reflected a series of even more fundamental transformations within
evolving Islamic civilization. The revolts against the Umayyads had arisen in
part from a lingering hostility toward the Umayyad clan. But they were even
more a product of growing regional identities and divisions within the Islamic
world. As Islamic civilization spread even farther under the Abbasids, these
regional interests and loyalties made it increasingly difficult to hold
together the vast areas the Arabs had conquered. They also gave rise to new
cleavages in the Islamic community that have sapped its strength from within,
from Abbasid times to the present day. The revolts against the Umayyads were
also an expression of the growing displeasure, if not disgust, of the Muslim
faithful with the absolutist pretensions and extravagant life-styles of the
Umayyad elite. There was a very strong puritanical thrust to the resistance of
the Abbasids and their Shi'ite allies. Ironically, as we shall see, the
victory of the Abbasids led to bureaucratic expansion, absolutism, and luxury
on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of the Umayyads.

Finally, the coalition of forces that overthrew the Umayyads was
strengthened by the support of the mawali who were weary of being second-class
citizens in the Muslim world. They saw the Abbasids as champions of a policy
of active conversion and their admission as full members of the Islamic
community. Of all the major transformations that were marked by the Abbasids'
rise to power, the last was the most significant for the development of
Islamic civilization. From the religion of a small, Arab warrior elite, Islam
became a cosmopolitan and genuinely universal faith with tens of millions of
adherents from Spain to the Philippine islands.

Abbasid Absolutism

The rough treatment the Umayyad clan had received at the hands of the
victorious Abbasids ought to have forewarned their Shi'ite and mawali allies
of what was to come. But the Shi'a and other dissenting groups continued the
support that allowed the Abbasids to level all other centers of political
rivalry until it was too late. Gradually, the Abbasids rejected many of their
old allies, becoming in the process more and more righteous in their defense
of Sunni Islam and less and less tolerant of what they termed the heretical
views of the various sects of Shi'ism. With the Umayyads all but eliminated
and their allies brutally suppressed, the way was clear for the Abbasids to
build a centralized, absolutist imperial order.

The fact that they chose to build their new capital, Baghdad, in Iraq
near the ancient Persian capital of Ctesiphon was a clear sign of things to
come. Soon the Abbasid caliphs were perched atop jewel-encrusted thrones,
reminiscent of those of the ancient Persian emperors, gazing down on the great
gatherings of courtiers and petitioners who bowed before them in their gilt
and marbled audience halls. The caliphs' palaces and harems expanded to keep
pace with their claims to absolute power over the Islamic faithful as well as
the non-Muslim subjects of their vast empire.

The ever expanding corps of bureaucrats, servants, and slaves, who strove
to translate Abbasid political claims into reality, lived and worked within
the circular walls of the new capital at Baghdad. The bureaucratization of the
Islamic Empire was reflected above all in the growing power of the wazir, or
chief administrator and head of the caliph's inner councils, and the sinister
figure of the royal executioner, who stood close to the throne in the public
audiences of the Abbasid rulers. The wazirs, who were initially recruited
mainly from the Persian provinces of the empire, oversaw the building of an
administrative infrastructure that allowed the Abbasids to project their
demands for tribute to the most distant provinces of the empire. Sheer size,
poor communications, and collusion between Abbasid officials and local
notables meant that the farther the town or village was from the capital, the
less effectively royal commands were carried out. But for well over a century,
the Abbasid regime was fairly effective at collecting revenue from its subject
peoples and preserving law and order over much of the empire.

The presence of the executioner perhaps most strikingly symbolized the
absolutist pretensions of the Abbasid rulers. With a wave of his hand, a
caliph could condemn the highest of Muslim nobles to death. Thus, even in
matters of life and death, the Abbasids claimed a status above the rest of the
Muslim faithful and even Islamic law that would have been rejected as
heretical by the early community of believers. Though they stopped short of
declaring themselves divine, the Abbasid rulers styled themselves the "shadow
of God on earth," clearly beings superior to ordinary mortals - Muslim or
otherwise. The openness and accessibility of the earlier caliphs, including
the Umayyads, was increasingly unimaginable. The old days, when members of the
Muslim community could request an audience with the caliph merely by ringing a
bell announcing their presence in the palace, were clearly gone. Now, just to
get into the vast and crowded throne room, one had to bribe and petition
numerous officials, and more often than not the best result would be to win a
few minutes with the wazir or one of his assistants. If an official or notable
were lucky enough to buy and beg an audience with the caliph, he had to
observe an elaborate sequence of bowing and prostration in approaching the
throne. Positions at court and throughout the bureaucracy were won and lost
depending on one's standing with powerful officials in the Abbasid hierarchy,
and these great men could in turn be elevated or dismissed on the whim of the

The "Good Life" And Its Enemies In The Abbasid Age

The luxurious life-style of the Abbasid rulers and their courtiers both
reflected the new wealth of the political and commercial elites of the Islamic
Empire and intensified sectarian and social divisions within the Islamic
community. As the compilation of folk tales, The Thousand and One Nights, from
many parts of the empire testifies, life for much of the elite in Baghdad and
other major urban centers was luxurious and oriented to the delights of the
flesh. Caliphs and wealthy merchants lived in palatial residences of stone and
marble, complete with gurgling fountains and elaborate gardens, which served
as retreats from the glare and heat of the southern Mediterranean climate. In
the Abbasid palaces luxurious living and ostentation soared to fantastic
heights. In the Hall of the Tree, for example, there was a huge artificial
tree, made entirely of gold and silver and filled with gold mechanical birds
that chirped to keep the caliph in good cheer.

Sexual enjoyment, which within the confines of marriage had been condoned
rather than restricted by the Quran, often degenerated into eroticism for its
own sake. The harem, replete with fierce eunuchs, insatiable sultans, and
veiled damsels, provided outside observers with a stereotypic image of the
Abbasid world that had little to do with the life of the average citizen of
the empire - and often even with that of the caliph and high officials. Yet as
the following passage from The Thousand and One Nights describing the interior
of the mansion of a Baghdad notable illustrates, the material delights of the
Abbasid era were enjoyed far beyond the confines of the palace:

They reached a spacious ground-floor hall, built with admirable
skill and beautified with all manner of colors and carvings, with
upper balconies and groined arches and galleries and cupboards
and recesses whose curtains hung before them. In the midst stood
a great basin full of water surrounding a fine fountain, and at
the upper end on the raised dais was a couch of juniper wood set
with gems and pearls, with a canopy like mosquito curtain of red
satin-silk looped up with pearls as big as filberts and bigger.

Since the tales were just that, tall stories, there is some exaggeration
of the wealth, as well as the romantic exploits and human excesses, of the
world depicted. But for the free-living members of the elite classes, the
luxuries, frivolities, and vices of the Abbasid age were very real indeed.

This sort of living was, of course, highly offensive to the pious,
particularly those of the dissenting sects, such as the Shi'as. Members of
these sects also built up an abiding hatred for what they perceived as the
arrogance and heresy of the Abbasid rulers and high officials. Thus,
throughout their reign, the Abbasid rulers were threatened by periodic revolts
on the part of sectarian groups. The leaders of these risings promised to
cleanse the Islamic community of the excesses of the court and notables. In
the centuries of Abbasid decline, when real power passed to a succession of
regional dynasties, there emerged a number of violence-prone sects, such as
the Assassins whose members were devoted to striking down Abbasid officials
whenever the opportunity arose. Even for less-radical Muslims, the excesses of
the Abbasid court and elite classes made a mockery of their claims to be the
religious successors of Muhammad and the upholders of Islamic law. The
resulting erosion of their legitimacy had much to do with the extended decline
of the caliphates' authority, particularly from the middle of the 9th century

Islamic Conversion And Mawali Acceptance

Popular enmity for the political elite was offset to some extent by the
fact that the Abbasid era saw the full integration of new converts, both Arab
and non-Arab, into the Islamic community. In the last decades of the Umayyad
period there was a growing acceptance of the mawali as equals and some effort
to win new converts to the faith, particularly among Arab peoples outside the
Arabian peninsula. In the Abbasid era, mass conversions to Islam were
encouraged for all peoples of the empire from the Berbers of North Africa in
the west to the Persians and Turkic peoples of Central Asia in the east.
Converts were admitted on an equal footing with the first generations of
believers, and over time the distinction between mawali and the earlier
converts all but disappeared.

Most converts were won over peacefully, due to the great appeal of
Islamic beliefs and to the considerable advantages they enjoyed over
non-Muslim peoples in the empire. Not only were converts exempt from paying
the head tax, but greater opportunities were open to them to get advanced
schooling and launch careers as administrators, traders, or judges. No group
demonstrated the new opportunities open to converts as dramatically as the
Persians, who soon came to dominate the upper levels of imperial
administration. In fact, as the Abbasid rulers became more dissolute and
consequently less interested in affairs of state, a number of powerful Persian
families close to the throne became the real locus of power within the
imperial system.

[See Persian School: A Persian school - bastinado for an unruly pupil.]

Commercial Boom And Urban Growth

The rise of the mawali was paralleled in the Abbasid era by the growth in
wealth and social status of the commercial and landlord classes of the empire.
The Abbasid age was a time of great urban expansion that was linked to a
revival of the Afro-Eurasian trading network, which had declined with the fall
of the Han dynasty in China in the early 3d century A.D. and the slow collapse
of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries. The Abbasid domains in the
west and the great Tang and Song empires in the east became the pivots of the
revived commercial system. From the western Mediterranean to the South China
Sea, Arab dhows, or sailing vessels with triangular, or lateen, sails that
later strongly influenced European ship design, carried the goods of one
civilized core to be exchanged with those of another.

Muslim merchants, often in joint ventures with Christians and Jews
(which, because each merchant had a different Sabbath, meant that the firm
could carry on business all week), grew rich by supplying the cities of the
empire with provisions and by taking charge of the long-distance trade that
specialized in luxury products for the elite classes. The great profits made
from the trade were reinvested in new commercial enterprises or the purchase
of land and in the construction of the great mansions that dominated the
central quarters of the political and commercial hubs of the empire. Some
wealth also went to charity, as required by the Quran. A good deal of the
wealth was spent on building and running mosques and religious schools, baths
and rest houses for weary travelers, and hospitals, which in the numbers of
patients served and the quality of their medical care surpassed those of any
other civilization to that time.

Town and Country

In addition to the expanding bureaucracy and servant classes and the boom
in commerce, the growth of Abbasid cities was fed by a great increase in
artisan handicraft production. Both government-run and privately owned artisan
workshops expanded or were established for the production of a wide range of
products, from necessities, such as furniture and carpets, to luxury items
such as glassware, jewelry, and tapestries. Though the artisans were
frequently poorly paid and some worked in great workshops, they were not
slaves or drudge laborers. They owned their own tools and were often highly
valued for their craft skills. The most skilled of the artisans formed
guildlike organizations that negotiated wages and working conditions with the
merchant oligarchy and provided support for their members in times of
financial difficulty or personal crisis.

In towns and the countryside, much of the unskilled labor was left to
slaves, who were frequently attached in considerable numbers to prominent
families as domestic servants. Large numbers of slaves were also in the
service of the caliphs and their highest advisors. It was possible for the
more clever and ambitious of these to rise to positions of considerable power,
and many were able eventually to be granted or to buy their freedom. Less
fortunate were the slaves forced into lives of hard labor under the overseer's
whip on rural estates and government projects, such as those devoted to
draining marshlands, or into a lifetime of labor in the nightmare conditions
of the great salt mines in southern Iraq. Most of these drudge laborers, who
were called the Zanj slaves, were non-Muslims captured on slaving raids in
East Africa. With little hope of mobility, much less manumission, they had
little reason to convert to Islam, and from the middle of the 9th century they
became a major source of social unrest.

In the countryside a wealthy and deeply entrenched landed elite, referred
to as the ayan, emerged in the early decades of Abbasid rule. Many of the
landlords had been long established. Others were newcomers - Arab soldiers who
invested their share of the booty in land, or merchants and administrators who
funneled their profits and kickbacks into the acquisition of sizeable estates.
In many regions, the vast majority of the peasantry did not own the land they
worked. They occupied it as tenants, sharecroppers, or migratory laborers who
were required to give the greater portion of the crops they harvested to the
estate owners. In densely populated areas, the bargaining power of the
agricultural tenants and laborers was greatly reduced by the ready supply of
extra hands to replace those who would not agree to a division of the harvest
that the landlord found sufficiently to his advantage. The control the ayan
exercised over the cultivating classes gave them more and more independence
from the Abbasid regime. In times of crisis, the ayan readily shifted their
allegiance to regional challengers of the imperial administration or foreign
invaders eager to carve out independent kingdoms within the Abbasid domains.

The First Flowering Of Islamic Learning

When the Arabs first came out of the desert, they were for the most part
illiterate and ignorant of the wider world. Their provincialism and cultural
backwardness was no better revealed than at the moment when the victorious
Muslim armi s came within sight of the city of Alexandria in Egypt.
Chroniclers of the great conquests record how the veteran Arab warriors halted
and sat on their horses, mouths literally open in wonderment, before the great
walls of the city that stretched across the horizon from the Pharos lighthouse
in the north to perhaps the greatest library in the ancient world in the

As this confrontation suggests, hhe Arab conquerors burst quite suddenly
into some of the most ancient and highly developed centers of civilization
known to human history. Within the confines of the Islamic domains were
located the centers of the Hellenistic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian, and
Mesopotamian civilizations as well as the widely dispersed Christian and
Jewish traditions of thought and learning. The rather sparse cultural
tradition of the Arabs, which one author has fittingly captured with reference
to their "mental virginity," made them highly receptive to influences
percolating from the subject peoples and remarkably tolerant of the great
diversity of their styles and approaches to thought and artistic creativity.

In the first phase of Abbasid rule, the Islamic contribution to human
artistic expression focused on the great mosques and palaces. In addition to
advances in religious, legal, and philosophical discourse, the Islamic
contribution to learning was focused on the sciences and mathematics. In the
early Abbasid period, the main tasks were recovering and preserving the
learning of the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Beyond the works of Plato, for example, much of Greek learning had been lost
to the peoples of western Europe. Thanks to Muslim and Jewish scholars in the
Abbasid domains, the priceless writings of the Greeks on key subjects such as
medicine, algebra, geometry, astronomy, anatomy, and ethics were saved,
recopied in Arabic, and dispersed throughout the empire. From Spain in the
west, Greek writings found their way into Christendom. Among the authors
rescued in this manner, one need only mention Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates,
Ptolemy, and Euclid to demonstrate the importance of the preservation effort.

In addition, scholars working in Arabic played a role as transmitters of
ideas that paralleled the rise of Arab traders and merchants as the carriers
of goods and inventions. Indian numbers, for example - which, along with Greek
mathematics, would prove critical to the development of scientific thinking in
western Europe - were learned by Muslim invaders of India, carried to the
Middle Eastern centers of Islamic civilization, and eventually transmitted
across the Mediterranean to Italy and from there to northern Europe. But the
best was yet to come. It is no exaggeration that from the 9th to about the
13th century, Arabic was the most important and the first language of science
and learning that extended across civilizations. In this era, Islamic
scientific discoveries and imagination significantly affected the thinking and
creativity of virtually all Old World civilizations from western Europe to

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