The Abbasid caliphate

Excerpt taken from the internet

What are the reasons for the decline or downfall of the Abbasids? [20]


The history of the Abbasid Caliphate can be divided into two eras, the first(750–842 CE) known as the golden era of the Abbasids, and the second (842–1258 CE) known as the corruption and dissolution era.

Although the Abbasids ruled the Muslim world for almost more than 500 years, but their gradual decline started almost from the beginning of their rule. Contrary to the Ummayyad, the Abbasid dynasty lasted for several centuries and the decline was gradual.

First paragraph [to back up your introduction]

Several reasons can be attributed to this decline, such as their differences with the Shia; their inability to deal with the Barmakids family and the lack of centralized control in administration. Differences also began to appear between the Abbasids and their supporters including the Turks, Persians and people from Khurasan which destabilized the caliphate internally.

Although the Shia and the Abbasids were allies during the Hashemite movement that brought the end of Ummayad Caliphate, but later on differences began to start after a few years of the Empire resulting in weakening of the empire. The Shias became one of their fiercest enemies. Abbasids and Shia were together during Hashemite movement which brought the end of Umayyad Caliphate. But differences between two parties started few years after the start of Abbasid Caliphate. Shia were expecting to become rulers after fall of the Umayyads but instead Abbasids themselves took the throne. It prompted Shia to organize several rebellions against Abbasids during their caliphate and weakened the caliphate due to their revolts and conspiracies. Fatimid (Ismaili Shia) controlled North Africa and Hejaz and the Buyid Dynasty controlled areas of Persia, Iraq and Oman in the 10th Century while Qaramites and Assassins (lead by Hasan bin Sabah) were also such Shia groups who created problems in various parts of Islamic world. Shia was also behind Hulagu Khan during his successful invasion of Baghdad.


Primarily, lack of centralized control and weakness in the administration of the state (ie. The Caliphs) led to various governors taking on more and more responsibilities and thus power, with the Abbasid State being unable to do much to stop it. Eventually, the governors would even declare themselves Sultans and make their governorships hereditary, remaining as a part of the Abbasid State only in name while being de facto independent.

Incompetent leaders:
 When Harun Al Rashid felt the growing power base of Barmakid’s family, he dismissed and imprisoned them so that he could end their influence. But after his death, the last Abbasid leaders did not have the same determination as they were mainly puppets in the hands of army leaders and viziers especially the Iranians and the Turks who wanted to create chaos within the caliphate.

After the death of Caliph Harun Al Rashid, a civil war broke out between his sons, Caliph Muhammad Al Amin in Baghdad and Abdullah Al Ma’mun who primarily had his support base in Khorasan, of which he was governor. This conflict was known as the Fourth Fitna or Fourth Islamic Civil War. Eventually, Al Ma’mun besieged Baghdad in 813, four years after Al Amin succeeded his father; and managed to topple his brother from power and take the Caliphate for himself. Al Amin was beheaded.

After Al Ma’mun’s death in 833, after having reigned for twenty years; his younger brother would succeed to the Caliphate. Caliph Al Musta’simbillah would be the last of the powerful Caliphs and he was the creator of the force that would plague his descendants for centuries to come. For Al Musta’sim billah founded the Ghilman, or the Turkish military force that would play a prominent political role in the Abbasid State.

The Anarchy at Samarra, an example of this political instability; was the first series of these Ghilman revolts. The period from 861–870 saw the violent overthrow of four Caliphs by various Turkish factions, each Caliph being a little more than a puppet to the various factions that installed them. It began when Caliph Al Mutawakkil‘alaAllah was murdered by his own Turkish guardsmen. He was succeeded to the Caliphate by his son, Al Mustansirbillah who ruled for only half a year before his death, possibly being poisoned by the same Turkish guardsmen that murdered his father. He was succeeded by his cousin, Caliph Al Musta’een billah who thanks to divisions between the Turkish forces and aided by the governor of Khorosan was able to escape Samarra and flee to Baghdad. There he ruled from 862–866, before being besieged by the Ghilman who had him overthrown and executed. They installed Al Mustansirbillah’s brother as Caliph, Al Mu’tazz. Al Mu’tazz however sought to restore caliphal authority by separating his military commanders from administration of state. In 869 this was also met by opposition by the Ghilman, and he too was overthrown and executed. He was succeeded by his cousin Al Muhtadi ibn Al Wathiq who was known for his piety; making sure justice was administered and banning wine and musicians from court. He also tried to restore political authority of the Caliphate, but was met, much like his predecessors with resistance, ruling a little less than a year before being murdered by the Ghilman in 870. He was succeeded by another one of Al Mutawakkil’alaAllah’s sons, Al Mu’tamid’alaAllah who capitulated to the demands of his Turkish officers, thus ending the anarchy, reigning until his death in 892.

The Ghilman, from then on, had authority in removing Caliphs as they pleased and staged many a revolt, despite being a potent and powerful military force they would cause much a political crisis in the state, causing the central authority of the Caliphate to weaken, allowing governors to grow more and more autonomous, making their seats hereditary. This effectively led to the splitting up of the Caliphate into many de facto independent states.

This division would cause the downfall of the Abbasid Caliphate. The “State” at this point was too busy fighting itself than being able to confront any external threat to its borders or jurisdiction. The Fatimids took power in Ifriqiya (What is now eastern Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) and spread into Egypt and eventually even took hold of the Hejaz and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Abbasid prestige was at its lowest point. The Fatimids were able to do this with very little resistance.

In 1099, Crusader forces successfully besieged Jerusalem, the third most holy city in Islam. The Crusaders massacred the population of the city, and it was sacked and looted; not a mosque, church, or synagogue spared. The Caliph was unable to do anything, for at this point he was nothing more than a figurehead and a puppet at the hands of Turkish generals and Seljuk governors. Even in the face of the whole of Christendom leading a war into the heart of the Caliphate, the Muslims were too divided, too busy fighting one another than to fight an invasion force of “Franks” that could have been repulsed had a united resistance been put up at all.

Indeed, the Crusader States were able to expand their territory, with some Emirs even allying with them against their rivals, nominally within the bounds of the Abbasid Caliphate. The Crusaders were not repulsed or opposed by the Caliphate, but by its vassals the Zengid Sultans and their Ayyubid successors in the form of Salahuddin Al Ayyubi who managed to assume power in the Fatimid realm and restore it nominally back to Abbasid rule. Salahuddin would recapture Jerusalem in 1187 after 88 years of Crusader rule that was left largely unopposed.

What was the cause of the Abbasid Caliphate’s decline? Division. Division allowed external enemies to launch invasions into the Caliphate unopposed. Division caused people of power within the state to seek support from enemies of the state against rival statesmen. Division is weakness. As they say “a house divided cannot stand” and it did not stand. In 1258, Mongol hordes would lay siege to the seat of the Caliphate, Baghdad. When they fought through Persia, they did not fight Abbasids they fought Khawarezmians. When they entered Damascus, they did not fight Abbasids they fought Mamluk Egyptians. They did not conquer an empire, they conquered warring statelets, divided shadows of their former selves. Once they took Baghdad, threw its treasured books into the Tigris, butchered its populace, and raped its women, they would trample its last Caliph, Al Musta’simbillah to death and with him the Abbasid Caliphate

Autonomous dynasties:
The Umayyads strictly kept the central rule in the whole caliphate but different areas of caliphate started to disintegrate during Abbasid Caliphate and several autonomous and near-autonomous dynasties appeared in the areas away from center during Abbasid Caliphate. The first such autonomous state was the Emirate of Cordoba where Umayyads became sovereign rulers in 756 AD. Later, several other rulers in different parts of the caliphate parted their ways from Abbasids and several dynasties formed in the later centuries. Though, most of these dynasties accepted the suzerainty of Abbasids but they remained independent in their affairs. Losing central control over large areas of empire proved to be an important reason for fall and decline of Abbasid Caliphate.

By the early 10th century, many independent states were established within the caliphate.  North Africa was lost to the Abbasids Fatimid dynasty, they had advanced to Egypt in 969, establishing their capital near Fustat in Cairo.

By 1055, the Seljuqs had wrested control from the Abbasids, and captured Baghdad. Outside Iraq, all the autonomous provinces slowly took on the characteristic of de facto states with hereditary rulers, armies and revenues. Syria and Palestine were in full anarchy before being the theatre of the crusades. The caliphate could do nothing to face the invasion.

Role of Turkish Generals and armies

People from Persia and Khurasan were the initial backers of Abbasid Dynasty. But soon differences occurred between the ruling dynasty and their supporters due to religious and political reasons. It forced the Abbasids to eliminate the influence of Persians. In contrast to Umayyad dynasty, Abbasids were not welcomed by many Arabs and they trusted the newly-converted Turks as their supporters.

initially, Turkish forces assisted the Abbasids to regain control of several areas (especially Iraq) from other dynasties but later the Turks became kingmakers who destabilized the caliphate internally and they established their own autonomous states in several parts of Caliphate where rule of Abbasids was minimal. Rise of Turks on political stage also proved to be an important reason for fall of Abbasid Caliphate.
Armies like the Mamluk (who were retained by the Abbassids for the defense of the Caliphate) were Turks who defended the caliphate, but they began to realize that they had the power and they could create their own states. As a result, there were Mamluk uprisings, Seljuq attacks, and other Turkish Armies turning against Baghdad.

Economic factor:

The economic crisis: the main reason why this happened was the incompetent and weak Caliphs who turned their interests toward luxury and wealth, disregarding the fact that the economical debts of the Caliphate were growing, and that would eventually provoke many counties to rebel against the Caliphate.

The imposition of taxes for the interest of the ruling class discouraged farming and industry.


Other factors

Weakened army predominantly controlled by Turks rather than Arabs, (many of caliph were appointed or killed by Turks)

Living in pleasure (drinking wine all the time, sexual desires, their weakness), while people face harsh lives,

Ethnicity and racial divisions (Arabs, Persians, Turks and etc.), sectarianism and other divisions instigated by the government,

Famine, irrigation problems and shortages, economic problems and others.

Enlightened people most of whom got aware of the lies that Abbassid dynasty based their reign on that,

Internal disagreements among the governor


Finally, the Abbasids met their downfall in the hands of the Mongols. In the start of 13th Century, Mongol tribes united under the leadership of Genghiz Khan and then started to invade and capture areas around Mongolia. Soon, they occupied China, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. Mongols started their invasions against Abbasids in 1236 but most of their invasions failed against the strong military of Abbasids.

The final invasion of Mongols started in 1257 while several Christian kingdoms were also assisting Mongols. After capturing nearby areas from various factions, the Mongols reached near Baghdad in 1258. Last Abbasid caliph was too afraid to fight against the invaders and he surrendered to Mongols after a successful siege. Later, caliph Mustasim was assassinated and the Mongols plundered and destroyed the whole city of Baghdad which marked the end of Abbasid Caliphate. They annihilated Baghdad and killed the Khalifa, the empire never recovered from such devastating destruction.

To read only

Abbasid Empire governed around 524 years. Their Empire started with ‘Abu al-‘Abbas Saffah and ended with Musta’sim by the hand of Mongol attack. The ‘Abbasid caliphate falls into four ages:
1. From 132 to 232 (A.H). The age of power, authority and strength of Abbasid from the time of Saffah to Wathiq period.
2. From 232 to 334 (A.H). The age of influence and power of Turkish nation started at the caliphate of Mutewakkil and ended at the period of Mustakfi.
3. From 334 to 447 (A.H). The era of Iranian ‘Al-e- Buya’s influence started at the mid time of Mustakfi’s caliphate and ended at the time of Qa’im.
4. From 447 to 656 (A.H). The time of influence of Turkish Seljuks. From Qa’im to Musta’sim.
By the entrance of Turkish into the Abbasid state, although at first they helped this empire to spread his territories because they were fighters, gradually and step by step they caused many problems and troubles not only for the Abbasid caliphs, but also for other people. The Turkish men performed social, political and financial corruptions. During the period of time they got power so that they gain the authority of the caliphate. Indeed, they were the real governors of the Islamic society. They had put this right for themselves to choose a caliph and to dismiss him. From the other side, amongst Abbasid caliphs those who wanted to be remained in his status and position for a long time and to have a life of debauchery had to give tribute to them and to entrust to them the administrative jobs. As long as Abbasid caliphs gave them tribute and administrative positions, the Turkish men more strengthened and the caliphs became weaker and more limited.
This situation continued at the time of ‘Al-e-Buya and Turkish Seljuks. We should add to this reason the Allids and others’ discontent from the government which caused different rebellions against the Abbasids. Additionally, there were various semi-independent or independent rules around the Abbasid Empire’s territories who imposed many wars and fighting against the Empire.
Therefore, when the Mongols attacked the Islamic borders, there were not any notable and powerful defense or protection against them. Because there were not enough motivation to do that. Then they entered the lands of Muslims and murdered many people and created a huge massacre.
Finally, the 500-year Abbasid Empire age ended by the murder of Musta’sim by Hulaku Khan.

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