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THE C ABBASID CALIPHATE: A HISTORICAL

INTRODUCTION

The cAbbasid period opened with a major political revolution in the Islamic
world. The cAbbasid movement had developed in Khurasan, the vast
province which lay on the north-east frontiers of Islamic Iran, during the
first part of the second/eighth century. The reasons for the revolt against
the rule of the Umayyads in distant Damascus have been intensively
debated by historians, and much remains unclear; but we can be certain that
it was a movement among all the Muslims of the area, Arab and non-Arab
alike, and it was intended to replace the Umayyad government, thought to
be authoritarian and indifferent to both religion and the local concerns of
the Khurasanis, by the rule of a member of the "Family of the Prophet"
who would usher in an era of peace and justice. Perhaps because they came
from a frontier province and had ample military experience, the Khurasanis
were able to succeed where so many before them had failed;1 marching
westwards across the great plains of central Iran and through the passes of
the Zagros mountains, they took Iraq in 132/749 and, while the leaders
stayed in Iraq and Iran to consolidate their position, an expedition was sent
to the west to defeat the demoralized Umayyad army and eventually to kill
the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan b. Muhammad, in Egypt, where he had
taken refuge.
The military victory left many political problems to be solved. Like so
many groups which come to power on the crest of a wave of revolutionary
enthusiasm, the leaders of the cAbbasid movement soon had to come to
grips with the problems of reconciling revolutionary ideals with the
practical problems of government. The first question was of course, who
should be caliph. Revolutionary propaganda had simply called for "a
chosen one" from the family of the Prophet, a cry which could unite many
different interests; but it seems that the leaders of the movement had for
some time been in touch with the descendants of the Prophet's uncle, al-
c
Abbas, and when the victorious armies approached Iraq from the east, the
c
Abbasid family had moved from southern Palestine to settle in Kufa. So it
1
See CHIs/am, i, 75-103.

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2 H. N . KENNEDY

was that in 132/750 a group of leading Khurasanis sought them out and
proclaimed one Abu Dl-cAbbas, known to history by his regnal title of al-
Saffah, as the first cAbbasid caliph. Not everyone was satisfied by this and it
seems that there was a considerable number of people who held that only
the direct descendants of the Prophet through his daughter Fatimah and
C
A1I b. Abi Talib should be accepted as leaders of the Muslim community.
At this stage they were too weak to mount a major political challenge, but
they continued to pose an ideological threat which the cAbbasids were
never completely able to master; those who felt that the revolution had been
betrayed, or that the cAbbasid government had failed to establish a truly just
and Islamic society, could always look to the cAlid family for leadership.
The first cAbbasid caliph, and his brother and successor, al-Mansur (136-
58/754-75), were also faced with a second problem - the extent of the
powers of the caliph. On the one hand, there were those who felt that the
Umayyad regime had become too authoritarian and that the Muslims of the
various provinces of the empire should be effectively in control of their own
affairs, in particular that the taxes collected in the provinces should be spent
on the stipends of the Muslims settled there, an idea which went back to the
diwan (list of those entitled to state salaries) of the second "Orthodox"
caliph cUmar b. al-Khattab. On the other hand, there were those who felt
that the caliph should play the role of religious leader as well as secular
administrator, deciding on the true interpretation of QurDan and sunnah (the
precedents set by the Propjiet, which were used as a basis of law) and, as
God's representative on earth, enjoying an almost absolute power.
The differing ideas about who should be ruler, and the powers he was to
enjoy, were the main bones of political contention under the cAbbasid
caliphs. For their part, al-Saffah and al-Mansur were determined to steer a
middle course. They did not claim semi-divine powers, a fact which drove
some of their supporters to violent discontent, but on the other hand they
established a strong state, in which the caliph would be the effective ruler
and would appoint governors to and collect taxes from all the provinces of
the Islamic world (except Spain, which was tacitly abandoned at this time).
Thus, when the leader of the cAbbasid movement in Khurasan, Abu
Muslim, attempted to secure his own independent rule over the province,
al-Mansur had no hesitation in having him murdered, despite his previous
services to the dynasty.
Although many of its leading figures originally came from Khurasan, the
early cAbbasid state was firmly based in Iraq and the rulers derived a large
proportion of their incomes from the rich and flourishing agricultural
economy of the Sawad, the "black land" or irrigated lands of lower Iraq. It
was at the northern end of the Sawad, on a site conveniently close to the two

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THE ABBASID CALIPHATE 3

great rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, and the roads to Khurasan through the
passes of the Zagros mountains, that al-Mansur, in 145/762, founded his
capital at Baghdad which was to be the most important cultural centre in the
Muslim world for the next three centuries. This concern for Iraq and its
revenues led to the development of that most characteristic feature of
c
Abbasid administration, the consolidation of a highly educated elite of
administrative secretaries {kuttab), the mandarins of the early Islamic
world, whose power and wealth were based on the fact that they alone
could administer the revenue-collecting machinery on which the regime
depended. In many cases these were men of Persian or Nabati (Aramaean)
origin whose families had been established as small landowners in the
Sawad since Iranian times but who now lent their expertise to the state.
Under the leadership of the Barmakid family (the Barmecides of the
Arabian Nights), themselves of eastern-Iranian origin, the kuttab became an
important political force during the reign of the third cAbbasid caliph, al-
Mahdi (15 8-69/775—8 5), and even after the dramatic fall of the Barmakids in
187/803, during the reign of Harun al-Rashld (170—93/786—809), the kuttab
maintained and increased their influence.2 These people were immensely
important for the development of the literary culture of the age. Not only
were they themselves literate, as their profession demanded — and
sometimes, like Ibn Muqlah (d. 328/940), famous calligraphers - but they
were also important as patrons of poets and prose-writers alike. The
language of administration was Arabic, and it was Arabic literature that the
kuttab composed and patronized; but many of the kuttab, like the
Barmakids, were of Persian origin and looked back with some nostalgia to
the great Persian imperial past, seeing in its achievements a form of reply to
the Arab pride in the QurDan and early Arabic culture. The Persian heritage,
and to a lesser extent the Aramaean, was thus incorporated into the Arabic-
Islamic cultural tradition, where it proved extremely influential and
provided the intellectual background to the Shuubiyyah movement in
literature, a reaction among non-Arab Muslims to Arab claims of
superiority. The scene of this cultural activity was of course at the political
capital in Baghdad, which had, by the beginning of the third/ninth century,
come to replace all other cultural centres; the independent traditions of
Kufa, Basra and the Hijaz were taken over and adapted by the new
metropolitan centre. Besides the patronage of court and kuttab, Baghdad
also offered a separate and equally important cultural milieu, the world of
the hadith scholars or traditionists. This was largely a middle-class
movement. The rapid economic growth of Baghdad led to the develop-
2
For a comprehensive discussion of the kuttab, see D. Sourdel, Le Vi^irat abbaside (Damascus,
1959-60).

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H. N. KENNEDY

ment of a genuine bourgeoisie whose fairly modest wealth was derived


from trade and manufacture rather than from government office or
extensive landed estates. From the third/ninth century these people became
increasingly concerned with the science of hadtth (the sayings and doings
attributed to the Prophet), and this led in turn to much early history
writing, culminating in the great Tarikh ("History") of al-Tabarl (d. 310/
923), who, although a landowner of private means from northern Iran,
owed his training and intellectual development to the Baghdad milieu. The
full development of Arabic literature in the third/ninth centuries is
inconceivable without Baghdad as the great melting-pot and crucible of
this culture. And Baghdad owed its existence and continued prosperity to
the cAbbasid dynasty.
The period of stability and prosperity under the early cAbbasids reached
its apogee during the reign of Harun al-Rashld, which left its mark on
literature with the poetry of Abu Nuwas and Abu Dl-cAtahiyah and is
recalled in popular legend, including Alf laylah wa-laylah (the Arabian
Nights), as the "golden age" of the cAbbasids; but this peace was shattered
in the years after the caliph's death in 193/809 by a prolonged civil war
which profoundly affected the course of cAbbasid history. Harun had
decided that he should be succeeded by two sons in turn (some sources
mention a third son but he did not play an active part in the war),
Muhammad al-Amin and cAbdullah al-MaDmun, and that meanwhile al-
MaDmiin should be essentially al-Amin's viceroy in the East, i.e. Khurasan,
including all of eastern Iran. This complicated arrangement, detailed in
solemn agreements displayed in the Kacbah at Mecca, was designed to solve
a number of problems; those of coping with the vast size of the empire, of
assuring an orderly pattern of succession, but above all the problem of
taxation. In the years that followed the cAbbasid revolution, many
Khurasanis had settled in Baghdad and their descendants formed an
influential part of the population, known as the abna° al-dawlah (literally
"sons of the fAbbasid] state"); but despite their long residence in Iraq, they
were still paid from taxes collected in Khurasan whence their families had
originally come. It seems to have been resentment at this from those
presently living in Khurasan that led Harun to divide his heritage, and one
of the most important features of the agreements between the two brothers
was that taxes collected in Khurasan were to be spent there. After the
caliph's death, the elaborate agreement soon broke down; the leaders of the
abnc? in Baghdad felt unable to tolerate thefiscalautonomy of Khurasan and
launched a major invasion to deprive al-MaDmun of his inheritance and to
reconquer their native province. The attempt backfired disastrously; under
the leadership of Tahir b. al-Husayn, al-MaDmun's supporters swept

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THE ABBASID CALIPHATE 5

westwards into Iraq and took Baghdad after a long and hard-fought siege in
198/813. The civil war dragged on for almost a decade after that. It was only
gradually that al-MaDmun and his supporters, notably Tahir and his family
and the caliph's younger brother Abu Ishaq (soon to be caliph himself with
the title of al-Muctasim), were able to re-establish cAbbasid authority over
the central Islamic lands.
Al-MaDmun was succeeded in 218/833 by hi s brother al-Muctasim, and it
was under him that the new, middle cAbbasid regime took shape. It was
distinguished by a highly centralized financial administration and the
development of a new army, a new capital and a new ideology. The new
army consisted almost entirely of horsemen of Turkish origin, many of
whom were barely Muslim or Arabic-speaking. Both the Arab tribes who
had supported the Umayyad regime and the abna'\ who had supported the
early cAbbasids, were effectively excluded from participation, and it is the
development of this new army, much more than the cAbbasid revolution,
which marks the moment when the Arabs lost control of the empire they
had created. To avoid friction between this new army and the abna' of
Baghdad whom they had supplanted, al-Muctasim founded a new capital, at
Samarra on the Tigris about eighty miles north of Baghdad, which
distanced the military and government centre from the economic and
cultural metropolis of Baghdad. The new ideology was adherence to the
Muctazili doctrine of the createdness of the QurDan. This doctrine held that
the QurDan, while of course the Word of God, was created in time, rather
than being, as SunnI theologians later held, coeternal with God. The
importance of this was that if the QurDan was created in time, then it was for
that time and could be interpreted or even possibly modified by a divinely
guided caliph/imam to suit changing circumstances. There were a number
of reasons why the middle cAbbasid government was attached to this
position; in part it was an attempt to reconcile the supporters of the cAlids to
c
Abbasid government, and the caliphs began to use the title imam at this
time, emphasizing their religious status. The Muctazili position also
allowed the caliph greater freedom for manoeuvre on dogmatic and legal
questions since he was not bound by the developing tradition (sunnah) of the
Prophet (clearly, if the QurDan itself could be reinterpreted, much of the
early tradition which sought to explain it could be viewed as obsolete and
disregarded). The middle cAbbasid government made acceptance of the
Muctazili position on the createdness of the Qur3an the touchstone of
loyalty to the Samarra regime, and government officials were obliged by the
mihnah (inquisition) to pledge their loyalty to it. In opposition to these
policies there developed in Baghdad a passionate concern for, and interest
in, the traditions of the Prophet as a defence against the pretensions of

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6 H. N . KENNEDY

Samarra, and the foundations were laid, by Ahmad b. Hanbal and others, of
the movement which was to develop into the fully fledged Sunnism of the
fourth/tenth century. This development reached its intellectual maturity in
the work of Abu Dl-Hasan al-Ashcari (d. 324/935), who used the debating
techniques of the Muctazilis to produce a reasoned defence of tradition, and
the general acceptance of Ashcarism by the Sunni community effectively
closed the argument.
The Samarra regime was comparatively short-lived. The marginal and
alien soldiers whom al-Muctasim and his successors had imported to be
their military backers felt threatened by any change of caliphal policy, and
an attempt by the caliph al-Mutawakkil to broaden his power base by
recruiting soldiers from elsewhere led to his murder at the hands of his
Turkish guards in 247/861. There then followed ten years of anarchy in
Samarra, with rival groups of Turks and their supporters among the kuttab
fighting to ensure that their candidate became caliph and that, when he did,
he looked after their interests. It was a grim period for the cAbbasids, and
one which saw the beginnings of the disintegration of the empire into
numerous different states. The accession of al-Muctamid in 256/870
effectively marked the end of the anarchy in Samarra, not because of the
caliph himself, who was something of a figurehead, but because his brother
Abu Ahmad, called al-Muwaffaq, slowly rebuilt the cAbbasid army and
secured its loyalty to the dynasty. The anarchy had seen many of the
provinces pass into the hands of the local rulers; in Egypt Ahmad b. Tulun,
himself of Turkish origin from Samarra, took over and, while acknowledg-
ing the formal authority of the caliph, was effectively independent. In
eastern and southern Iran power was seized by a war-lord from Sistan,
Yacqub b. Layth al-Saffar ("the Coppersmith"),3 who was soon in a position
to threaten Iraq. Closer to the centre, northern Syria and Iraq were claimed
by local adventurers while, most dangerous and humiliating of all, the Zanj,
black slaves who worked the latifundia of southern Iraq, overran the area
which had been the heartland of cAbbasid power and sacked the great
trading city of Basra at the head of the Gulf. Al-Muwaffaq and his son, the
caliph al-Muctadid (279-289/892-902), both of them great soldiers, made a
determined effort to restore the position, al-Muwaffaq by subduing the
Zanj in a series of campaigns in the marshes of southern Iraq and by keeping
back the threat from the Saffarids, and al-Muctadid by bringing northern
Jazirah (northern Mesopotamia) and much of western Iran under control.
The high point of the cAbbasid revival was during the reign of al-Muktafi
(289-95/902-8), when Egypt was briefly recovered for the caliphate.
All this good work was, however, brought to nothing during the
3
See CHIran, iv, 106-17.

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THE ABBASID CALIPHATE 7

disastrous reigns of al-Muqtadir (295—320/908—32) and his successors, al-


Qahir (320—2/932—4) and al-Radi (322—9/934—40). The reasons for this
collapse were partly connected with the circumstances of al-Muqtadir's
reign. He came to the throne young and inexperienced and was shamelessly
manipulated by viziers, court factions and the military, all out to get what
they could. But there was more to the collapse of the caliphate than the
inadequacies of one individual. The most fundamental cause was the
economic decline of Iraq. The early cAbbasid caliphate, as has already been
seen, had flourished on the agricultural prosperity of Iraq. From the time of
the long civil wars which followed the death of Hariin al-Rashid in 193/809,
this prosperity began to decline. The wars of the anarchy in Samarra and the
protracted struggle against the Zanj simply intensified the damage to the
rich but fragile irrigation agriculture of the area. The problems which
defeated al-Muqtadir and his experienced viziers like Ibn al-Furat and CA1I
b. cIsa, "the good vizier", were in the end economic; the government
simply could not support the burden of providing for the vast court and
military establishment. As the cAbbasids gave away more and more lands
and rights, frequently in the form oiiqtcf or quasi-fief,4 to solve temporary
financial embarrassments, their enemies became more powerful and their
own prospects for recovery diminished still further. In 324/936, the caliph
al-Radi was obliged to call on a local war-lord, Ibn Ra°iq, to enter Baghdad
and assume the title of amir al-umam (amir of amirs, generalissimo) with
complete control over military, political andfinancialaffairs.5 The cAbbasid
caliphs became simply ornamental figures, isolated in their palaces and
devoid of any real power. The idea of a powerful and vigorous caliph
exercising effective control of the Muslim world, an idea born with Abu
Bakr and cUmar, and fostered by Umayyads and early cAbbasids alike, was
now at an end.

THE SUCCESSOR STATES

The breakup of the caliphate saw the emergence of a large number of


successor states of different background and character. It is easy to see the
breakup of the caliphate as a disaster, and in some ways it was; never again
was the Islamic world to have a central political focus of the sort which the
c
Abbasids provided, and the effect on Baghdad and much of southern Iraq
was to introduce a new era of economic decline in the area which had been
the political centre of a major empire. But in other ways the breakup of the
caliphate allowed the development of other political and cultural centres
which had hitherto been overshadowed by Baghdad and the cAbbasid
court; in Egypt, Syria and Iran, new Muslim states emerged to provide
4
See El2, "Ikta c ". 5
See ibid., "Amir al-umara3" and "Amir".

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8 H. N. KENNEDY

different centres of cultural patronage; these competing centres allowed a


wonderful variety of writing to flourish, and in many ways the century
which witnessed the collapse of the caliphate was also a period of unrivalled
literary activity.
This activity was stimulated by another important change, the growing
pace of conversion to Islam. It is difficult to speak with confidence on this
subject, but it would appear that the fourth/tenth century was the time
when Muslims came to form the majority of the population in the central
Islamic lands, although the speed obviously varied from area to area: faster
in Iraq but probably slower in Egypt, where it would seem that mass
conversion did not really get under way until after the Fatimid take-over in
3 5 8/969. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of this change
for the development of Arabic literature; educated Muslims in Egypt, Syria
and Iran all expressed themselves in Arabic and if they made a contribution
to literature, they made it to Arabic literature. Only when there was a
considerable body of Muslims could centres like Egypt or Isfahan make a
major contribution to Arabic writing as they did in the fourth/tenth
century. Arabic high culture was no longer confined to a few centres but
had become much more widespread. At the same time sectarian divisions
became much more firmly established in the Muslim community. The
emergence of militant Ismacilism, which led to the rebellion of the
Qaramitah (Carmathians) in the Syrian desert and al-Bahrayn, and to the
emergence of the Fatimid caliphate, first in North Africa from 297/909 and
in Egypt from 358/969, led to this sharpening of divisions.6 In Baghdad
itself there developed a deep split between those who supported the party of
the ImamI (Twelver) Shfls and those groups who opposed them. (Twelver
Shfls believed that the line of visible imams had ended with the eleventh
imam, and that the twelfth would return to rule the world only at the end of
time, as Mahdi\ meanwhile, however, mankind was guided by the invisible
line of his successors.) This split widened throughout the fourth/tenth
century and was exacerbated if not originated by Buyid (or Buwayhid)
amirs, who supported the Shlcah in the hope of winning some popular
support for their rule. One effect of these disputes was to encourage the
development of polemical literature, all written in Arabic, which attempted
to define and defend religious positions. The hub of this activity was
Baghdad which, despite its appalling political and economic problems,
never ceased to be the centre of religious learning.
The kuttab continued to be important as patrons or creators of literature,
and a good education in classical Arabic was still a passport to bureaucratic
success. The role and origins of the viziers of this period were different
6
See p. 12.

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THE ABBASID CALIPHATE

however. The kuttab of the early cAbbasid period owed their position to
their ability to run a complex taxation system, especially in the Sawad of
Iraq. The viziers of the successor states served more as intermediaries
between the rulers and their subjects. The early Buyid rulers in both Iraq
and central Iran were ill-educated; Mucizz al-Dawlah (amir of Iraq 334-56/
945-67) hardly knew Arabic although he ruled Baghdad for over twenty
years, and was heavily dependent on his viziers, notably the famous al-
Muhallabl. It was from this Buyid milieu too that the most celebrated of the
literary viziers, the Sahib Ibn cAbbad, renowned both as poet and patron,
emerged, as well as the most distinguished historian of the age, Abu cAli
Miskawayh. Viziers who fell out of favour in one area could seek
employment elsewhere, and even the great Ibn Sina (Avicenna) took
service with the local rulers of Isfahan. Religious and political diversity had,
in many cases, a stimulating effect on culture; even in the Buyid domains,
where a dynasty of Iranian origin ruled over a predominantly Iranian
population, the language of government and court culture was Arabic.
Only in the extreme east of Iran, in the realms of the Samanid rulers, was the
position of Arabic threatened by the emergent New Persian language.7

The Buyids or Buwayhids


Of the states which succeeded the dormant cAbbasid caliphate, the most
extensive was the confederation of amirates ruled by the Buyid family. The
Buyids came originally from the area of Daylam at the south-west corner of
the Caspian Sea and they were supported in their rise to power by the
martial energies of the mountain people of the area, the Daylamis. The
Buyid dominions were not one state but at least three and sometimes more,
combining and dividing according to the interests of the members of the
family and their supporters. The first and most important of these amirates
was the one founded in 322/934 by cImad al-Dawlah (d. 338/949). Buyid
rule, which lasted in Fars until around 440/1048, was something of a golden
age of peace and prosperity for the area. By contrast the history of the Buyid
amirate of Baghdad was a catalogue of disasters. The financial problems
which had plagued the later cAbbasids were aggravated by the strife
between Buyid princes and the war within the city between Sunnis and
Shicis and Turks and Daylamis. Outside Baghdad, the countryside was
increasingly under the control of bedouin chiefs like the cUqaylids of the
Jazirah, or the Mazyadid chiefs of the Banu Asad in the Hillah area. Only
when a strong ruler like cAdud al-Dawlah (amir in Baghdad 367-72/978-
83) could use the resources of Fars to sustain his rule in Baghdad was
7
CHIrany iv, 145.

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H. N. KENNEDY

anything like peace and security established. Otherwise the first half of the
fifth/eleventh century saw most of Iraq under the control of the bedouin
tribes, while the unfortunate Buyid ruler of Baghdad, Jalal al-Dawlah (416-
35/1025-44), was obliged by poverty to dismiss his servants and set loose
his horses since he could no longer feed them.
The third Buyid amirate, based on Rayy, Isfahan and Hamadhan in
central Iran, was always separate from the other two, ruled at first by Rukn
al-Dawlah (333—66/947—77) and later divided between a western Hama-
dhan and Isfahan state and an eastern one based on Rayy. Real power in this
state lay as much with the viziers, the elder and younger Ibn al-cAmid and
above all the famous Sahib Ibn cAbbad, as it did with the Buyid princes
themselves. The Buyid amirate in central Iran disappeared a full generation
before those in Fars and Baghdad; in 420/1029 Rayy fell to the Ghaznavid
ruler Mahmud advancing from the East, while at about the same time
Hamadhan passed into the family of the Kakuyids, related to the Buyids,
who ruled it until the coming of the Saljuqs.
Despite its chaotic political history, the period of Buyid rule saw many
achievements in the field of Arabic literary culture; apart from cAdud al-
Dawlah, none of the rulers seems to have been greatly interested in learning
or literature and the patronage came rather from the viziers, who, with their
great wealth and power, were able to make up for the deficiencies of the
semi-educated rulers; al-Muhallabi and Fakhr al-Mulk in Baghdad, Bahram
b. Mafanna in Shiraz in the early fifth/eleventh century, and Ibn cAbbad,
greatly encouraged literature and learning. Stress is frequently laid on the
fact that the Buyids were Shicis, but too much weight should not be
attached to this. In Baghdad some Buyid amirs certainly tried to manipulate
Shicl opinion in their own interests, a process which led, in the early fifth/
eleventh century, to the re-emergence of the cAbbasids, not as a political
force but as spiritual leaders of the Sunnis. In Fars and central Iran, by
contrast, the religious affiliations of the rulers seem to have caused few
problems and there is no evidence that the Buyids encouraged Shici
propaganda; indeed they sought the support of the cAbbasid caliphs against
the much more radical claims of the ShIcI Fatimids. The Buyids also tried to
make use of the old Iranian heritage, adopting the title Shahanshah for the
leader of the Buyid confederation and using Iranian personal names (cAdud
al-Dawlah for example was called Fana-Khusraw), but this was no
thoroughgoing Iranian revival; the language of administration and
literature remained Arabic throughout the Buyid period.

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THE ABBASID CALIPHATE II

The Hamdanids
Of the various small amirates which succeeded the cAbbasid caliphate in
northern Iraq and Syria, the best known was the state of the Hamdanids.
The Hamdanid ruling family came from the bedouin tribe of Taghlib,
established in the Jazlrah since pre-Islamic times, and it was their power as
tribal leaders which initially attracted the attention of the cAbbasid
authorities at the beginning of the fourth/tenth century when they were
looking for allies against the Qaramitah in the Syrian desert. The leaders of
the family made their way as generals in the cAbbasid army and, despite
setbacks, they were able to take advantage of the final disintegration of the
c
Abbasid state to carve out principalities for themselves, Nasir al-Dawlah
(317-58/929-69) in Mosul and his more famous younger brother Sayf al-
Dawlah (333-56/945-67) in Aleppo. Despite the bedouin origin of their
families, the Hamdanid rulers tended to model their government on the
later cAbbasids, keeping armies of Turkish soldiers rather than relying on
bedouin tribesmen, and living in cities rather than in nomad encampments.
While Nasir al-Dawlah's long reign and that of his son Abu Taghlib (3 5 8—
69/969—79) were comparatively undistinguished, being largely occupied
with the struggle to keep Mosul independent from the Buyid amirate of
Baghdad, Sayf al-Dawlah achieved immortality as a leader of the Muslims
against resurgent Byzantine power. The early days, up to the mid-third/
ninth century, when the Muslims usually held the initiative, were long since
past; by Sayf al-Dawlah's time a strong and aggressive Byzantine empire
was pursuing a policy of expansion against a deeply divided Muslim world,
an expansion which culminated in the fall of Antioch to the Byzantines in
3 5 8/969. Despite a good deal of popular enthusiasm for the,jihad Q\o\y war)
in Baghdad and elsewhere, Sayf al-Dawlah was effectively left to bear the
brunt of the Byzantine attack on his own. In the end, he was not militarily
very successful: much territory was lost by the Muslims, and Aleppo itself
was sacked by the enemy; but his bold and spirited campaigns against
greatly superior forces captured the imagination, and his prowess and
patronage, celebrated by such poets as al-Mutanabbi, raised him to the
status of a great Arab hero. After Sayf al-Dawlah's death in 356/967, the
state he had founded declined rapidly. His son Sacd al-Dawlah (356—81/
967—91) had great difficulty in establishing himself in Aleppo and was
unable to defend his principality against outside aggression. The Hamdanid
state was now squeezed between the Byzantines in the North and West and
the Fatimids in Egypt and could no longer thrive in these changed
circumstances. From 414/1023 Aleppo was a semi-independent buffer state

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12 H. N. KENNEDY

between the two great powers, ruled, with interruptions, by the Mirdasid
family, chiefs of the Banu Kilab bedouin, who lived in the deserts to the east
and south of the city.

The Fatimids
The most formidable of the states which replaced the cAbbasid caliphate in
the Middle East was the Fatimid caliphate of Egypt. Early Islamic Egypt
was a wealthy country, but Arab settlement in the area had been restricted
to a few areas, notably the capital city of Fustat (Old Cairo), Alexandria and
some of the desert areas. This had meant that conversion to Islam was fairly
slow and that Egypt did not play as important a political role as its size and
wealth would suggest. In 254/868, during the anarchy of the cAbbasid
caliphate at Samarra, power in Egypt was assumed by the governor Ahmad
b. Tulun who made himself independent ruler not only of Egypt but also of
most of Syria and Palestine as well; he built up an army of Turks and
Nubian slaves and demonstrated that Egypt could be ruled as an
independent state. The dynasty he founded ended with the cAbbasid
reconquest of 292/905, but others took up the idea of an independent
Egypt. From 323/935 until 3 5 8/969 the country was ruled by the Ikhshidid
family, another military dynasty of eastern Iranian origin, although for
much of the time from 349/961 onwards effective power was in the hands of
the Nubian slave Kafur, one of the patrons of the poet al-Mutanabbi.
The Ikhshidids were in their turn overthrown by the Fatimids. The
Fatimids were adherents of the militant Ismaclll branch of the Shicah. The
first ruler of the dynasty, called, in disparagement by his enemies, cUbayd
Allah, a diminutive of cAbdullah, began to proclaim that he was not only a
direct descendant of CA1I and Fatimah through the seventh imam — by
Ismacili reckoning — Ismacil, but also that he was the long-awaited Mahdi
(divinely guided leader). He began his mission in Syria but was forced to
leave by the Qaramitah, a rival sect of Ismacilis who refused to accept the
Fatimid claims to the imamate. cUbayd Allah moved to Ifriqiya (Tunisia)
where a supporter of his had already been conducting missionary activities.
Here in 297/909 he seized power and proclaimed himself caliph and imam.
The Fatimids claimed to be the rightful rulers of the whole Islamic world,
but for the first sixty years they were confined to North Africa; they made
two unsuccessful attempts to invade Egypt and conducted a protracted
struggle with the Umayyad caliphate of Cordoba for the control of North
Africa. In 358/969, however, the Fatimid general Jawhar finally took
Egypt, and shortly afterwards the Fatimid caliph al-Mucizz abandoned his
Tunisian capital of al-Mahdiyyah and moved to Egypt, where he

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THE ABBASID CALIPHATE 13

established his court at the newly founded city of Cairo (al-Qahirah, "the
Victorious"), which lay just to the north of ancient Fustat.
The coming of the Fatimids to Egypt marked a major revolution in the
Islamic world. There were now two rival caliphates, the active and
expanding Shici caliphate of the Fatimids and the shadowy cAbbasids of
Baghdad, effectively controlled by their Buyid protectors, and these two
powers struggled for influence. The scenes of the conflict were essentially
Syria and Palestine, which the Fatimids sought to control as the Tulunids
had before them. They faced the opposition of the Byzantines and the
Buyids and, most seriously of all, of the bedouin of the Syrian desert who
continually threatened Fatimid control of the inland cities. The conflict
with the cAbbasid caliphate was greatly exacerbated after the strongly
Sunni Saljuqs, a Turkish dynasty, took Baghdad in 447/1055, and
established themselves as protectors of the cAbbasids; when the Crusaders
arrived in the East in 491/1097, the Fatimids' first thought was not to defeat
these new enemies of Islam, but to see if they would be useful allies against
their Sunni Saljuq enemies.
Within Egypt, Fatimid rule was, on the whole, a period of great
prosperity. This was partly because of the agricultural wealth of the
country, but also because of the textile industry and the growing
importance of Egypt in international trade. From the beginning of the fifth/
eleventh century, the Fatimid dominions saw the arrival of a growing
number of merchants from the Latin West, notably from Italy, not only in
Egypt itself but also in the Fatimid-ruled ports of the Levant. The
Mediterranean was becoming once again, as it had been in classical times, a
major route for international commerce, and the Fatimids were the main
beneficiaries.
Writers at the time comment on the contrast between the wealth and
prosperity of Fatimid Egypt and the poverty and misery of much of the
Islamic East. The Fatimid period seems to have seen a great increase in the
proportion of Muslims in the Egyptian population, although non-
Muslims, especially Christians, remained important in the Fatimid
bureaucracy. It was at this time that an indigenous Arabic culture was
developed in Egypt, and Arab Egypt, so to speak, came of age to the extent
that it was able to rival older centres like Baghdad as a seat of learning and
intellectual activity.
It might be imagined that the coming to power of the Shici Fatimids in
largely Sunni Egypt would create serious religious tensions, but this does
not seem to have been the case. The Ismacill faith remained the belief of the
ruling class and the city of Cairo with its newly founded mosque of al-Azhar
a centre of Ismacili education, but most of the country was allowed to

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14 H. N. KENNEDY

adhere to its traditional beliefs, and the old city of al-Fustat was a
stronghold of Sunnism; only in the time of the unbalanced caliph al-Hakim
(386—411/996—1021) was there any serious religious persecution, and by
and large Egypt saw less tension between Sunni and Shici than
contemporary Baghdad. (Al-Hakim, who seems to have believed himself
divine, persecuted Sunnis, Shicis and Christians alike and seems, in the end,
to have abandoned Islam entirely. After his death, a section of the Shicah
who accepted al-Hakim's claims established themselves in Syria and
Lebanon, where, known as Druzes, they survive to the present day.)

Rulers of the Yemen


In the Yemen, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, cAbbasid authority had
largely disappeared by the end of the third/ninth century. From then on the
country was the scene of confused struggles between local dynasts and
representatives of powers from elsewhere in the Islamic world. Perhaps
because of its remoteness, the Yemen became a centre of Shici activity.
From about 280/893 Sacdah and the north of the country were ruled by
Imams of the Zaydl division of the Shicah (which was also influential in the
areas to the south of the Caspian Sea in Iran). Their efforts to assert their
control over the whole area were thwarted, partly by a local family, the
Yucfirids of Shibam, and partly because missionaries from the rival Fatimid
Ismacili Shfis were active there as well. Between 439/1048 and the end of
the fifth/eleventh century, power in the south of the country was in the
hands of the Sulayhids, who gave their allegiance to the Fatimids, and
conducted correspondence with the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir (427—87/
1036—94), although the country never came under effective Fatimid
control. With the fall of the Sulayhids, Ismacili power waned, although the
Zaydl Imams continued to retain their position in the north of the country.
Thereafter power was shared in the area between the Zaydis in the north
and, after the Ayyubid conquest in 569/1173, two staunchly Sunni
dynasties: the Ayyubids (569-628/1173-1229) and the Rasulids (628-858/
1229-1454). The Fatimids may have been interested in the commerce
passing through the ports of the Yemen; the Ayyubids certainly were, and
took an active part in it, the Egyptians and Yemenis both being concerned
to foster Red Sea trade. The complexity of political affairs did not inhibit the
development of a significant local literary culture, and the period was an
important one for Yemeni civilization.8

8
See R. B. Serjeant, "Yemeni merchants and trade in Yemen 13th-i6th centuries", D. Lombard and J.
Aubin, Marchands et hommes d'affaires asiatiques (Paris, 1987).

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THE ABBASID CALIPHATE 15

The Saljuqs
Other areas of the Middle East saw the emergence of dynasties of local,
often tribal, origin at this time; some, like the cUqaylids of Mosul and the
Mazyadids of Hillah, were Arab; others, like the Hasanuyids of the central
Zagros mountains or the Marwanids of Mayyafariqin, were Kurdish. The
history of these small states is complex, but they shared certain
characteristics; they were all Muslim and acknowledged the authority of
one of the caliphates, and they all used Arabic as their official and
administrative language. Political divisions did not impede cultural unity
and the interchange of scholars and ideas. The careers of such figures as
Avicenna and the poet al-Mutanabbi show how the existence of these
different centres could actually stimulate and encourage cultural
developments.
The whole face of Middle Eastern history was changed by the arrival of
the Ghuzz Turks under their Saljuq leaders during the course of the fifth/
eleventh century.8 Unlike the previous Turkish immigrants into the
Muslim world, who had been either military slaves or professional soldiers,
the Ghuzz came in a series of tribal migrations, and the changes they caused
were ethnic as well as political, people like the Kurds of the Zagros and the
Greeks of Anatolia being displaced from their homelands by these new
arrivals. The Saljuqs swept away the last of the Buyids in Shiraz and, in 447/
105 5, in Baghdad, and forced the bedouin chiefs of Iraq and Syria to accept
their authority. Only the power of the Fatimids could resist them. Saljuq
rule had many achievements in terms of administration and architecture to
its credit, but in terms of Arabic literature the coming of these Turkish-
speaking rulers and their Persian-speaking bureaucrats marked the end of a
great period. That is not to say that there were no longer religious scholars
and historians producing Arabic writing, but the insistence on SunnI
orthodoxy seems to have muzzled something of the vigorous discussion
that was possible in the more open, pre-Saljuq society when the free-
thinking speculation of Abu Dl-cAla al-Macarri or the humanist political
philosophy of Miskawayh could be developed. If the Saljuqs did patronize
literature, it tended to be Persian rather than Arabic, and the numerous little
courts which had contributed to the cultural activity of the previous
century were swept into oblivion.
9
See C. Cahen, Pre-Ottoman Turkey (London, 1968); CHIran, v.

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