Black Banners: The Abbasid Revolution

Revolution is a concept we’re all familiar with. From the American Revolution, through the French, and then the Russian Revolution, modern times have been convulsed by political movements with radical repercussions. In the area of the arts, learning, and technology, too, we recognise revolutions, most notably the Industrial Revolution, which brought about a fundamental shift in the way people lived and worked. Sometimes the term is applied more loosely; scholars, for example, often speak of a Military Revolution–overseeing the transition to gunpowder weapons and professional armies–that began somewhere in the 14th century and ended perhaps as late as the 18th.

Rarely, however, is the term applied to mediaeval times, and the likelihood that these movements will be heard of outside historical circles is rarer still. One such event which had far reaching consequences in its era was the Abbasid Revolution, the movement which brought to an end the first Islamic dynasty and brought to power the lineage which endured until the end of the Caliphate.

A map of the Abbasid Empire in its prime. Khurasan, the cradle of the revolutionary movement, lies southeast of the Caspian Sea in eastern Iran. (Source)

The events of the revolution played out during the first half of the 8th century, culminating in the reign of the first Abbasid Caliph Abu’l ‘Abbas al-Saffah in 750. The roots of the conflict, however, grew from the events of the previous century, in which the Arab conquests reshaped the map of the Middle East and the first Caliphs became leaders of a vast Islamic empire. In the later decades of the 7th century, as wars of conquest were transitioned into a regime of occupation, society was sharply divided. The Arabs, ruled by the Umayyad Caliphs, often lived in settlements separated from the Greek, Syriac, or Persian natives. They paid no head tax–jizya–and often received stipends from the government as recompense for remaining on semi-permanent military deployment.

This pattern, however, failed to play out on the far eastern edge of the caliphate. Here, the region called Khurasan had been only imperfectly conquered, and incoming Arab tribes mingled with local Persian notables. Local troops fought with Arab occupiers to defend the frontiers from incursion, and even became bondsmen–mawalis–of the transplanted tribes. As time went on, social ties became ever more integrated, but government policy, set in the far-away capital Damascus, retained its conquest mentality. This disjunction–which meant that Persian converts to Islam still paid taxes, for example–brewed much local discontent but was not, in itself, the catalyst for revolutionary fervour.

The ideological impulse which eventually rallied together a revolution and deposed the Umayyad caliphs began not in the east, but in Arabia, far to the west of troubled Khurasan. It had been in Arabia that the Prophet had lived, the Arab conquests had begun, and two major dynasties–the Umayyads and the Abbasids–had risen to prominence. The Umayyads traced their legitimacy back to Uthman–the third leader of the Muslims after the death of Muhammad. Many disputed their claim, however, believing that Islamic leadership should reside in the blood relatives of the Prophet alone. The Abbasids, as descendants of Muhammad’s uncle, began to harness these feelings to promote their own claims to political power.

A 19th century interpretation of Abbasid Baghdad. In its heyday, Baghdad rivalled Constantinople in cosmopolitan character, and was a popular destination for international commerce. (Wikimedia)

Uniting religious zeal with social and political dissatisfaction, the Abbasid partisans spent much of the 740s gathering support in Khurasan, a militarised province ideal for challenging the reigning Umayyad Marwan II. Fighting their way westwards, revolutionary armies won victories in Persia and Iraq. Defeated, Marwan II fled for his life, only to lose it later that year. The rapid success of the movement, which achieved its aim of deposing the Umayyads only twenty years after the first stirrings of agitation, testifies to the deep rifts within the Caliphate.

Once in power, the Abbasids brought about many changes in the character and orientation of government in the Caliphate. The capital, for example, was moved from Damascus to the newly founded Baghdad. Located further east, on the fertile banks of the Tigris, Baghdad symbolised a new beginning, to be sure, but one which  acknowledged the previous traditions of Mesopotamian civilisation. Representation in the army, previously monopolised by the Syrian Arabs, was diversified, and a lavish courtly culture–rich in Persian antecedents–was developed.

Thus, although the grandiose claim made by an Abbasid partisan that ‘…as the earth is never without a shadow, so it would never be without an Abbasid caliph to the end of time…’ has been disproved by history, the impact of their revolutionary intent has not. As leaders of the Islamic world (symbolically, if not always in practice), they endured until the advent of the Mongols, and provided over one of the Caliphate’s most creative and prosperous periods. Brought to power through genuine revolutionary fervour, they testify to the dynamism of the Middle Ages politically, socially, and ideologically.

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The quote above is reported in the universal chronicle of al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. XXVII: The Abbasid Revolution, trans. John Alden Williams (Albany, 1985). Writing several centuries after the event, his details are naturally subject to many limitations.

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