Islam From The Beginning To 1300
The Abbasids, Zenith Of Islamic Civilization
In 750 the Umayyad Dynasty was removed from power by rebels, and a new
dynasty, the Abbasid, ruled most of the Muslim world from 750 to 1258. The
city of Baghdad was built in 762 as the capital of the new caliph,
Abu-al-Abbas, a descendant of the Prophet's uncle. The Abbasids owed their
initial success to the discontent of the non-Arabic Muslims, who were the
primary leaders in the towns and in the Shia.
The fall of the Umayyad Dynasty marked the end of Arab domination within
Islam; the Abbasid caliph made great effort to establish equalitarian
treatment of all Muslims. The Arab aristocracy had led the forces of conquest
during the great period of Islamic expansion, but with the advent of more
stable political conditions, the important status previously held only by the
Arab soldier was given to non-Arab administrators, merchants, and scholars.
The traditional Arabic patterns of nomadism and warfare gave way before
economic prosperity, the growth of town life, and the rise of a merchant
class. Caliph Abu-al-Abbas forecast that Baghdad would become the "most
flourishing city in the world"; and indeed it rivaled Constantinople for that
honor, situated as it was on the trade routes linking West and East.
Furthermore, Abbasid patronage of scholarship and the arts produced a rich and
complex culture far surpassing that then existing in western Europe.
The location of a new capital at Baghdad shifted Islam's center of
gravity to the province of Iraq, whose soil, watered by the Tigris and
Euphrates, had nurtured the earliest human civilization. Here the Abbasid
caliphs set themselves up as potentates in the traditional style of the
ancient East (more particularly of Persia) so that they were surrounded by a
lavish court that contrasted sharply with the simplicity of the lifestyle of
The Abbasid Dynasty marked the high point of Islamic power and
civilization. The empire ruled by these caliphs was greater in size than the
domain of the Roman Caesars; it was the product of an expansion during which
the Muslims assimilated peoples, customs, cultures, and inventions on an
unprecedented scale. This Islamic state, in fact, drew from the resources of
the entire known world.
[See Abbasid Dynasty: The Islamic world under the Abbasid Dynasty.]
Trade, Industry, And Agriculture
From the eighth to the twelfth century the Muslim world enjoyed enormous
prosperity. In close contact with three continents, the Muslims could shuttle
goods back and forth from China to western Europe and from Russia to central
Africa. The absence of tariff barriers within the empire and the tolerance of
the caliphs, who allowed non-Muslim merchants and craftsmen to reside in their
territories and carry on commerce with their home countries, further
facilitated trade. The presence of such important urban centers as Baghdad,
Cairo and Cordova stimulated trade and industry throughout the Muslim world.
The cosmopolitan nature of Baghdad was evident in its bazaars, which
contained goods from all over the known world. There were spices, minerals,
and dyes from India; gems and fabrics from Central Asia; honey and wax from
Scandinavia and Russia; and ivory and gold dust from Africa. One bazaar in the
city specialized in goods from China, including silks, musk, and porcelain. In
the slave markets Muslim traders bought and sold Scandinavians, Mongolians
from Central Asia, and Africans. Joint-stock companies flourished along with
branch banking organizations, and checks (an Arabic word) drawn on one bank
could be cashed elsewhere in the empire.
Muslim textile industries turned out excellent cottons (muslins) and
silks. The steel of Damascus and Toledo, the leather of Cordova, and the glass
of Syria became internationally famous. Notable also was the art of
papermaking, learned from the Chinese. Under the Abbasids, vast irrigation
projects in Iraq increased cultivable land, which yielded large crops of
fruits and grains. Wheat came from the Nile valley, cotton from North Africa,
olives and wine from Spain, wool from eastern Asia Minor, and horses from
The Spectacular Reign Of Harun Al-Rashid
Just as the Abbasid Caliphate was the most impressive Islamic dynasty, so
the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) was the most spectacular of the Abbasid
reigns. A contemporary of Charlemagne, who had revived the idea of a Roman
Empire in the West (see ch. 9) there can be no doubt that Harun was the more
powerful of the two and ruler of the more highly advanced culture. The two
monarchs were on friendly terms, based on self-interest. Charlemagne wanted to
exert pressure on the Byzantine emperor to recognize his new imperial title.
Harun, on the other hand, saw Charlemagne as an ally against the Umayyad
rulers of Spain, who had broken away from Abbasid domination. The two emperors
exchanged embassies and presents. The Muslim sent the Christian rich fabrics,
aromatics, and even an elephant named Abu-Lababah, meaning "the father of
intelligence." An intricate water clock from Baghdad seems to have been looked
upon as a miracle in the West.
Relations between the Abbasid caliphate and the Byzantine Empire were
never very cordial, and conflicts often broke out along the constantly
shifting border that separated Christian and Muslim territories. Harun
al-Rashid once replied to a communique from the Byzantine emperor in the
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
From Harun, Commander of the Faithful, to Nicephorus,
the dog of the Greeks, I have read your letter, you son
of a she-infidel, and you shall see the answer before
you hear it.
Whereupon the irate caliph sent forth expeditions to ravage Asia Minor.
In the days of Harun al-Rashid, Baghdad's wealth and splendor equaled
that of Constantinople, and its chief glory was the royal palace. With its
annexes for eunuchs, officials, and a harem, the caliph's residence occupied a
third of Baghdad. The caliph's audience chamber was the setting for an
elaborate ceremonial, which imitated that of the Byzantines and Persians.
Disintegration Of The Abbasid Empire
In some ways, the opulent reign of Harun al-Rashid marked the highpoint
of Abbasid achievement. In others it exhibited the warning signs of weakness.
Despite the unprecedented prosperity of the far-flung Abbasid Empire, the
political unity of Islam began to crumble soon after the accession of the
Abbasid caliphs. The first sign of political disintegration appeared in 756
when a member of the deposed Umayyad family founded his own dynasty at Cordova
in Spain; in 929 his decendant assumed the title of caliph. Also in the tenth
century the Fatimids - Shiites who claimed descent from Muhammad's daughter
Fatima who had married Ali, the fourth caliph - proclaimed themselves the true
caliphs of all Islam. From their capital at Cairo, which they founded, their
rule eventually extended from Morocco to northern Mesopotamia.
Meanwhile, in the latter part of the tenth century Turkish nomads, called
Seljuks, had migrated from Central Asia into the Abbasid lands, where they
accepted Islam. After annexing most of Persia, the Seljuks gained control of
Baghdad in 1055 and subjugated Iraq. Subsequently they conquered Syria and
Palestine at the expense of the Fatimids and proceeded to annex most of Asia
Minor from the Byzantines. It was the Seljuks' advance that prompted the First
Crusade in 1095. The Seljuks permitted the Abbasids to retain nominal rule,
but a new and powerful enemy now appeared and overran Abbasid lands.
Early in the thirteenth century Genghis Khan succeeded in uniting the
nomads of Mongolia, and conquering much of China and Russia; he and his
successors moved on to eastern and central Asia (see ch. 8) and swept into
Persia and Iraq. In 1258 a grandson of Genghis Khan captured Baghdad and had
the caliph put in a sack and trampled to death. Not only did the Abbasid
Dynasty come to an end, but so did most of the vast irrigation system that had
supported the land since the beginning of civilization; Iraq was not to
recover until modern times. The dynasty established by the Mongols survived
for only a short time, and the Mongol ruling class was eventually absorbed
into the native populations of Persia and Iraq.
Muslim Egypt was saved from the Mongol advance by the Mamluks ("the owned
ones"), captured Turkish slaves trained to become Muslims and soldiers.
Serving as a elite guard for their Fatimid masters, the Mamluks rebelled,
seized power in Egypt, and eventually took over Palestine and Syria, ejecting
the last of the crusaders in 1291. Ultimately they fell before the onslaught
of another Turkish force, the Ottomans, in 1517.
The Ottoman Turks
Having settled in northwestern Asia Minor in the thirteenth century as
vassals of the Seljuks, the Ottoman Turks had organized their own aggressive
state by the end of that century. The name Ottoman is derived from Osman I (d.
1324), founding chieftan of the dynasty, who organized Muslim volunteer
fighters against the Byzantines on the western borders. These fighters
committed themselves to ghaza, or Islamic holy war, in order to eliminate the
unbelievers surrounding the Turkish homeland. The Ottomans pitted their
considerable strength against the crumbling power of the Byzantines, pressed
on into southeastern Europe, and finally captured Constantinople in 1453.
Driving as far as Vienna, they were turned back with tremendous difficulty in
1529 and again in 1683. Meanwhile, in 1517, the Ottomans had conquered the
Mamluk territories, and within a few years they added Iraq, much of Arabia,
and all of the North African coastal belt to the borders of Morocco.