History of Islam (Part 6)

Harun al-Rashid died in 809 CE after a twenty-three year rule becoming an icon of adventure, chivalry and piety. A patron of learning and arts he is also cited as an impartial judge who had the knack of finding the real culprit behind a crime. Mamun is remembered more for his academic benevolence. He established an academy Dar-ul-Hikamah (the House of wisdom) that was pioneering institution in several continents. He established libraries and observatories and promoted various arts, philosophy and sciences, writes DR ABDUL GHAFFAR KHAN.




The Barmakids: Barmak was an Iranian nobleman. His son Khalid got converted to Islam when the Abbasids launched a campaign on Khurasan Khalid too joined the expedition. Saffah made him a minister when he became victorious. He held that post during Mansur’s tenure. Later on he was appointed governor of Mosul. Yahya was Khalid’s son who was appointed Harun’s tutor, whom Hadi had lodged in prison. When Harun ascended the throne the Barmakids rose in power; Yahya being the Chief Minister ruled the nation along with his two sons – al Fadl and Ja’afar.

They had their palace in eastern Baghdad and lived in grand style. They amassed fabulous fortunes and their generosity became proverbial. Even present day Arabic regards Barmaki as a synonym of generosity. ‘As munificient as Ja’afar’ has became a popular simile.

They deserve credit for developmental projects undertaken which include construction of mosques and canals. Al–Fadl was the first in Islam to introduce the use of lamps in the mosques during the month of Ramadhan. Ja’far’s intimacy with Harun was disliked by his father Yahya which he regarded (suspiciously) immoral.

As they had become too powerful they posed threat to the crown and it became necessary for Harun to get rid of the caucus. First, Ja’afar was slain on charge of having illicit relation with his sister al – Abbasah who is accused of giving birth to a son (secretly) sired by him. The aged Yahya, with his distinguished son Fadl and other sons were imprisoned. They died in confinement. All the property of the family amounting to 30,676,000 dinars in addition to farms, palaces, furniture was confiscated (Hitti : 294 – 96).

Not only was Harun munificent in his charities his cousin–wife, Zubaydah, also had her share of glory. In addition of being a model of fashion and beauty (in rivalry with al–Mahdi’s daughter and Harun’s half–sister, Ulayyah) she would tolerate at her table no vessels not made of gold or silver and studded with gems. She was the first to ornament her shoes with precious stones. In one holy pilgrimage she is reported to have spent three million dinars which included the expense of supplying Makkah with water from a spring twenty-five miles away (Hitti. p.302). The canal is still around Makkah (in ruins).

Harun died in 809 AD after a twentythree year rule becoming an icon of adventure, chivalry and piety. A patron of learning and arts he is also cited as an impartial judge who had the knack of finding the real culprit behind a crime. During his lifetime Harun tried to avert possible war of succession among his sons. He made a will according to which he was to be succeeded by Amin followed by the other two brothers Mamun and Must’asim one by one. The two brothers meanwhile were made viceroys of two regions. The will was hung in Kaa’ba to demonstrate its finality and consensus among the brothers. However, because of his temperament and also because of the instigation of his Chief Minister Fadl bin Rabe’a Amin appointed his own son Musa as his successor and got the documents brought from Kaa’ba and torn into shreds. The two brothers were also deprived of their viceroyalty. Amin was the son of an Arab mother Zubaida while Mamun was of a Persian one hence, the dispute between the two brothers took a racial overtone. The Persians jumped into the fray to demonstrate their allegiance to “son of our sister”.

Mamun’s minister Fadl bin Sahal sent a force under Tahir while Fadl bin Rabe’a dispatched Amin’s royal force under Ali bin Isa. The two forces clashed at Rye in which Ali bin Isa got killed. Tahir reported the news of victory. Fadl bin Sahal conveyed the news to Mamun and congratulated him as Caliph. In several confrontations between Amin’s Baghdadi force with Mamun’s Tahir emerged victorious every time. Ultimately, a three-pronged attack on Baghdad was launched led by Zubayr on one side and Harshama on the other. Amin became utterly hopeless hence sought refuge under Harshama who was ready to oblige; but Tahir’s men arrested him before he could reach Harshama. He was killed and his head was sent to Mamun. He was the first Abbasid Caliph to be killed by his own people (813 AD).

Amin’s death brought the entire land under Mamun who ascended the throne in 813 AD. Fadl bin Sahal had been his great mentor hence he became the Chief Minister. He made the Persians dominate all offices of power making Arabs to turn hostile. Having been in the company of Yahya Barmaki, Fadl bin Sahal had soft corner for the Alids and he created such impression that made many surprised and shocked by actions taken in Mamun’s name. Instead of the black costumes worn by the Abbasids he began wearing green (Alid) costumes. He got his daughter married to Imam Ali Raza and declared him his crown prince. The Abbasids became highly enraged and made Mamun’s uncle their caliph.

Meanwhile the Umayyads also tried to exploit the opportunity to their advantage and tilt power to their favour. Disgruntled Arabs exposed his cause and the Abbasid forces took five years to suppress them. Ibn Taba Taba, a descendent of Hassan, led another uprising in Kufa. He along with Abu Saraya defeated the Abbasid forces and became the master of southern Iraq. Taba was caliph in Kufa. To Mamun’s good fortune the alliance between the two did not last long and Abu Sarayya got Ibn Taba Taba poisoned. With some more luck even Abu Sarayya’s menace came to an end in a battle led by another Alid. Makkans were also not far behind in choosing a new caliph, Muhammad bin Jaafar Sadiq. Abbasid forces besieged the holy city and brought the insurrection to end.

During all such upheavals Mamun was away from the capital Baghdad preferring to live at Merv on the advice of his Chief Minister Fadl bin Sahal. One of the architects of Abbasid victory Harasama went to Merv and bluntly asked Mamun to take stock of situation and return to Baghdad. Mamun was blissfully unaware of all these developments as all such facts were never brought to his notice on Fadl’s instructions. Ali Raza apprised him of all the developments and convinced him to be vigilant of Fadl’s strategies. An angry Fadl had Harasma killed. While Mamun leisuredly marched towards Baghdad the two rivals Ali Raza and Fadl also got killed in separate incidents.

With contenders gone there was no longer any cause for protests. Returning to Baghdad Mamun assumed all power with a totally different orientation. Mamun placated the Abbasids by restoring the black Abbasid costume. A brigand by the name of Babek made himself the master of Mazendaran. A follower of the Khurramiya sect he believed in transmigration of soul and other heretic doctrines. Adopting guerilla tactics he took the Byzantines as allies and caused great havoc to the Abbasids.

In 827 AD Mamun published an edict by which Mu’tazalite doctrine was declared as state religion. Islamic scholars like Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal opposed it strongly, for which he was lodged in prison.

Mamun is remembered more for his academic benevolence. He established an academy Darul Hikamah (the House of wisdom) that was pioneering institution in several continents. He established libraries and observatories and promoted various arts, philosophy and sciences. For such distinction Hitti lavishes praise on the Abbasids, which might make Europe angry:

“All this took place while Europe was almost totally ignorant of Greek thought and science, while al Rashid and al – Mamun were delving into Greek and Persian philosophy their contemporaries in the West Charlemagne and his lords were reportedly dabbling in the art of writing their names” (Hitt : p. 315)

During Mamun’s regime Africa, Yaman and Khurasan saw establishment of three new dynasties Aghlabids, Ziyadids and Tahirids who used to pay annual tribute and had his name recited in the Friday Khutba.


As desired by his father, Harun al Rashid, Mamun nominated his brother Mustasim to the throne against the wishes of his on Abbas’s followers. Abbas showed the magnanimity of taking the oath of allegiance to his uncle.

Till now the Muslim force relied solely on the Arabs. With the Abbasids the tilt turned in the favour of the Persians. Thus the army and court got divided into two hostile camps. In order to be free from the dominance of either of the two Mustasim made the fatal mistake of turning towards the Turks which in course of time became so powerfully strong that they began making and unmaking caliphs at their sweet will which ultimately made the Abbasid caliphs stipendiary servants. Later on Mustasim himself realized his monstrous folly but it was too late to retract. Though totally illiterate, Mustasim was an able administrator. Peace prevailed throughout the land. There were, however, several confrontations with the Romans who used to invade into Muslim settlements. After capturing the Muslims they would blind them. On an occasion they raided a town and captured Muslim women. A female member of Mustasim’s family was among those who were captured and began crying for “help” asking Mustasim to rush to her help. When he was apprised of her pathetic tale he was greatly shocked. At the head of a great force he attacked the Romans and set them right. He died in 842 AD. He was a man of great physical prowess and he could deface inscriptions on coins by rubbing his fingers on it. He could lift a beast of burden, fully loaded, in his hands.

The Turks residing in Baghdad created a great menace. Being in favour of the caliphs they had became too arrogant and would knock down pedestrians while galloping on their horses. This made them extremely unpopular among the Baghdad residents. In order to solve this problem Mustasim decided to build a new city. Samarra was built on lavish scale with palaces and gardens on the banks of river Tigris sixty miles away from Baghdad. He made it his capital. Babek who had caused havoc during Mamun’s reign could not be contained. Several campaigns were undertaken to kill him but in vain. A large force under his Turkish general Haider Afshin assaulted his fortress. Taken captive he was sent in chains to Samarra where he was executed. The victorious general was given a royal welcome and loaded with honours. However, soon after, he was found guilty of instigating the Magian prince of Tabaristan, Maziar to revolt and hatching a conspiracy. Maziar was brought in chains and executed. Afshin was also imprisoned-he died in captivity. During Afshin’s trial it was revealed that many of the caliph’s troop were not even Muslims. Mustasim purged his army of all such people.

Son of a Greek slave mother Wathiq succeeded his father in 842. Continuing the policy of his father he further aggrandized Turks. He appointed a Turkish General, Ashnas, as the Vicegerent of Sultan enjoying more power than the chief minister. He decorated him with a jeweled girdle and sword. This fatal mistake inflamed the Arabs who rose in revolt at several places. They resorted to pillage and even did not spare Makkah and Madinah. It was during his regime that Muslims could continue to occupy a strip on the southern Italian coast. He also managed exchange of 1600 prisoner of wars with the Byzantine. However, when Byzantines became aggressive by invading Muslim lands (Damietta in Egypt) he was claimed by death before any campaign could be launched in 847 AD.

Like Mamun he also patronized literature and science and encouraged commerce and industry. He was a poet and philosopher, well versed in music. He was author of many melodies. He could play skillfully on lyre. He acted more as a constitutional head than as an administrator.

Mutawakkil, a staunch Sunni and conservative, made many persons unhappy. His intolerance not only made Jews and Christians reel but also made Shias uneasy. He was hostile towards Alids to such an extreme that he got Imam Hussain’s grave exhumed. Because of his animosity towards non-Muslims he imposed several restrictions. Jews and Christians were asked not only to dress (distinctly) differently to declare their identity but also were deprived of the permission to ride a horse.

Reacting sharply to the Mutazalite doctrines endorsed by his predecessors Mamun and Wathiq he expelled the rationalists from public office and banned discussions on sciences and philosophy. Fundamentalist scholars imprisoned by the earlier rulers including Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, were set free. Qadhi Daud, his son and other prominent Mutazilities were imprisoned, and their properties confiscated. He banned pilgrimage to Najaf and Kerbala and confiscated the Alid property at Fidak. Ibn–us–Sikkita, a great scholar was tutor to his sons. One day Mutawakkil asked him who was dear to him, the two princes or Hassan and Hussain. The scholar replied that even a freed slave of Ali was dearer to him than the princes. An enraged caliph got the scholar put to death.

Ibn Zayyat, the Chief Minister during Wathiq’s regime, had invented a machine of torture, which was used to kill several fundamentalist scholars. He used to humiliate Mutawakkil then. After assuming power, Mutawakkil ordered Ibn Zayyat’s execution in the machine that he had invented for others.

Sufi Dhun Nun propounded the doctrine of gnosis (the communication of man with God), which was a heresy from fundamentalist perspectives. He was summoned to Samarra where Mutawakkil posed him several questions. As he did not find anything objectionable he was set free. His regime witnessed earthquakes and other natural calamities. He provided large-scale relief measures and led special prayers for protection against such calamities.

Replacing Wathiq’s Turk Vicegerent, General Ashnas, he elevated General Wasif to the post. He had cordial relations with Turk Generals Itkah and Bugah. When he developed differences with his boon companion, Itkah, he got him killed. Later on, General Wasif’s property was confiscated. Bugha also had become too stubborn to manage and Mutawakkil began contemplating a plot to get him killed. However, it was Bugha whose conspiracy with Mutawakkil’s son brought the caliph to an abrupt end. He was the first caliph to be killed by his own army. Later on, this became a routine affair. While Sunnis hold him in high esteem the Shias condemn him as the “Nero of the Arabs” (Ameer Ali).

Turk Generals raised Muntasir, the dead caliph’s son, who was their ally in the conspiracy to the throne. He reversed his father’s anti–Shia policy. Not only did he get the mausoleums of Ali and Hussain rebuilt but also allowed people to go to Najf and Kerbala for pilgrimage. He restored the Fidak property to the Alids. He also withdrew the restrictions imposed on Jews and Christians and allowed them to build new temples. However, he did not enjoy a single day of peace. The ghost of his slain father haunted his nights. At one of the state functions, an inscription on a Persian carpet attracted his attention:

“I am Shiruyah, the son of Khusro, I slew my

father and did not enjoy the sovereignty

for more than six months”.

An unnerved Muntasir became fully convinced that like Shiruyah he too would die within six months. This is what actually happened!

Mustansir denounced the Turkish Generals for their role in the Mutawakkil murder. This made them highly enraged who conspired with the state physician, Ibn Tayfur, to poison him. On pretext of bleeding, the physician poisoned Mustansir to death. He died in 862 (within six months of succession).

Mustain (862–866 AD) was a non-entity with no will of his own – a mere puppet in the hands of Turk Generals. Caliphate lost its prestige. He contributed largely to the disintegration of the Abbasid power. A popular doggerel describe his plight:

“A caliph in cage,

Between Wasif and Bugha

He says what they tell him;

And speaks as a parrot”

After Mustain’s abdication Mutazz (866–869) was elevated to the throne but his too was a similar plight. Within three years his Turk Generals became his greatest foes. The army killed Wasif, in charge of finance, as he could not pay them arrears of salary. Bugha wanted to eliminate Mutazz but before Bugha could act, Mutazz got him killed.

However, murder of Wasif and Bugha did not ease the situation. The army besieged the fort and demanded payment of arrears. Mutazz went to the Queen Mother for a loan of 50,000 dinars, which she declined to do though she had on that day double the amount with her. He was forced to abdicate. Then he was led to a hammam where he was forced to take bath in hot water. When he felt thirsty, water was denied to him. When his thirst grew intense he was given ice cold water. Drinking it, he dropped down dead. What an affectionate mother and how compliant an army!

Abu Abdullah, a son of Wathiq, was offered the throne after Mutazz’s abdication. Pious by disposition, he refused to accept the proposal as he had been under an oath of allegiance to Mutazz. The Turk Generals produced Mutazz who absolved him of the oath of allegiance. Thereafter, he assumed office as Muhatadi in 869 AD. A chaste and firm ruler he tried to emulate Umar bin Abdul Aziz. He followed an austere way of life and forbade all extravagant practices. Putting down all wanton practices he brought singing to an end. The harem intrigues in which the Turk Generals were divided in hostile camps continued unabated. One group tried to overpower the other. They began competing in hostilities. They wanted Muhatadi to abdicate which he declined to do and died fighting valiantly.

Eight years (after Mutawakkil) saw ascension and departure of three caliphs who were done to death by the Turk Generals. Such anarchy made the country drowned in chaos. The Roman atrocities on the borders mounted high and they began occupying territories wherever they could manage. Mustansir’s regime saw establishment of an independent Zaidi state in Tabaristan (250 AH) and a Safavid state in Sejistan (in 253 AH) under the leadership of Yuqub bin Laith. The Tulunids gained power under Ahmad bin Tulun.

Abul Abbas Ahmad, a son of Mutawakkil, was released from prison in 870. Though colourless, his was a very long tenure of 22 years (870–892). The past ten years had seen not only growing of the Turk generals to enormous power but also their internecine quarrels and rivalries. They themselves asked the caliph to appoint a strong man as their commander-in–chief. He appointed his brother Muwaqqif who dealt very strongly with them and reduced them to non-entity. This, however, made him extremely powerful that he became a great menace to caliph. Seeing such affairs of the state the Samanids established themselves in Transoxiana under the leadership of Nasr bin Ahmad.

Mutamid’s period was rocked by two great uprisings which shook the state authority substantially. The first was the rise of Negro slaves as the Zunj revolt. The slaves were pseudo communists sharing not only properties but also women, and were very fanatic. They were led by a Persian Bihbud who claimed to be a divine emancipator. The Zunjs practiced heretic doctrines e.g. they praised Abu Bakr and Umar but abused Uthman, Ali, Talha, A`isha and Zubayr. For their heresies they were condemned as Khabeeth.

Together they captured several cities and let loose a reign of terror. They killed in Basrah 500,000 Muslims in one single day. Muslim women and children were sold as slaves. It took the Abbasids 14 to 15 years to crush them. Bihbud was killed in action.

The second menace, which prolonged for several years much after Mutamid, was the rise of Qaramati who posed as a pious devout Muslim, who introduced several heretic practices. He held that ceremonial uncleanliness did not require ablution. Similarly, he held that only two days of fasting in Ramadhan would suffice. He even changed the Kibla back to Jerusalem. Qaramat was arrested from his Sawad headquarters and lodged in jail wherefrom he escaped to Syria and his followers let loose a reign of terror.

Mutamid smarted under the oppression of his brother Muwaqqif (the commander-in-chief). He tried to escape to Egypt to seek asylum under the Tulunids but he was pursued and brought back. Though Muwaqqif died in 891 his son Abul Abbas proved stronger than his father and he coerced Mutamid to change his will. Thus he was the first Abbasid caliph who changed his will in favour of his son to his nephew’s favour. He died suddenly in 892. It was suspected that he had been poisoned. He brought the capital back to Baghdad from Samarra.

Mutamid’s nephew Mutazid succeeded Mutamid having forcefully revoked the earlier nomination in his favour. He was a powerful person with firm grip on administration. However, the Qaramatian excesses made his success to pale into insignificance. For his ruthlessness he was called Saffah, the second. His marriage with the Tulunid princes Qatr–un–Nada, daughter of Khummaruwayh, was a re-enactment of Mamun’s marriage with Buran. The dowry among other things included 4,000 jewelled waistbands.

He died after a ten-year rule in 902. He was a man of great personal courage. He had the reputation of engaging a lion single-handed. On his deathbed he kicked his physician who fell down dead. His son who assumed the throne as Muktaffi succeeded him.

Muktafi reformed administration and pursued liberal policies. Destroying the underground prisons built by his father he converted them into places of worship. He restored to people their confiscated properties. He used to personally redress the grievances of people. Such measures made him immensely popular. He used to have regular annual campaigns during the summers to push the Byzantine in control. In one of such campaigns the city of Antaliyah was captured; and in another the city of Thessalonica was sacked.

The Qaramatian menace grew in magnitude. In one of the campaigns Yahya bin Zakariya their leader was killed. His brother Hussain became their chief. He had a mole on his face which he described as proof of his Mahdi-hood and took title as al–Muddathir declaring that the Holy Qur’an’s Surah Muddathir (LXXIV) made a reference towards him. Muktafi himself took the field and had Hussain killed. However, their fury remained unabated. In 906 they captured Kufa and began threatening Baghdad. He died in 907 after a five-year rule.

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