The Abbasid Revolution Islamic History: the First 150 Years

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The Abbasid Revolution

  • Islamic History: the First 150 Years

Session Plan

  • The Banu al-Abbas

  • Mukhtar’s Legacy, the Black Flags & the Fall of the Umayyads

  • The First 150 Years of Islam: a Brief Overview

Section I: The Banu al-Abbas

The Banu al-Abbas

  • The Banu al-Abbas (or family of Abbas) are named after al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (see Family Tree)

  • In other words, Abbas was the paternal uncle of Muhammad and Ali

  • He was therefore an important figure within the Bani Hashim

  • Abbas does not seem to have immediately become a Muslim

  • However, after his conversion, given his relationship to Muhammad, Abbas was an important figure within the early Muslim community (dying in 32AH or 652CE)

  • His descendents were also important

  • His son, Abdullah ibn Abbas was an important companion of Muhammad and later became an acknowledged expert on Quranic exegesis (tafsir)

  • Abdullah seems to have died in 68AH/687CE

The Banu al-Abbas

  • Both Abbas and his son Abdullah were supporters of Ali, although they remained on reasonable terms with Muawiya

  • Abdullah seems to have paid homage to Yazid I

  • He also seems to have been particularly close to Ali’s third son Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya

  • An apocryphal source, Akhbar al-Abbas, states that Muawiya attempted to place Abdullah at the head of the Hashim clan, which failed (fol. 13a, Omar, 61)

  • At any rate, both Muhammad and Abdullah were expelled from Mecca by Ibn al-Zubayr for failing to pledge allegiance

  • Abdullah’s son Ali appears to have been the first member of the family with overtly political ambitions

  • Known as al-Sajjad (‘The Prostrator’) and Dhu al-Nafathat (‘Owner of Callouses’)

  • Ali was thus viewed by the Umayyads as a potential threat and was thus watched closely

  • Despite this, he seems to have a good relationship with Abd al-Malik

The Banu al-Abbas

  • Under Abd al-Malik’s son, al-Walid, Ali was twice flogged

  • For marrying the widow of Abd al-Malik

  • Political intrigues

  • He was also accused of murdering his brother Salit ibn Abdullah and was exiled to Humayma, in the Syrian countryside on the road to Mecca

  • Ali died in 118AH/736CE and his son Muhammad then became prominent

  • Muhammad seems to have continued and expanded his father’s intrigues and also seems to have been particularly close to ibn al-Hanafiyya’s son, Abdullah (known more widely as Abu Hashim)

  • Abu Hashim was also a suspect in the eyes of the Umayyad and was forced to live in Damascus

Section II: Mukhtar’s Legacy, the Black Flags & the Fall of the Umayyads

Mukhtar’s Legacy

  • As we saw last week, the revolt of al-Mukhtar al-Thaqafi involved a number of interesting religious ideas

  • We also looked at Mukhtar’s claim to be the representative of ibn al-Hanafiyya

  • Although defeated, some supporters of Mukhtar continued to believe in the charisma of Ibn al-Hanafiyya

  • As we saw, some of them believed that he was the Mahdi and held that he had not actually died, and would soon return as an avenging Messianic figure

  • Others believed that he had died and that his legacy and authority (in religious and political terms) had passed to his son Abu Hashim

  • Our sources state that some among these groups believed that the imam was more than merely human

  • Although such ideas do seem to have circulated amongst these groups, we also have to account for the bias of our sources

  • Generally speaking, such beliefs are considered heretical and are labelled ‘extremist’ (ghuluww)

Abu Hashim

  • At any rate, the main point is clear

  • Abu Hashim was the leader of a small group of devoted followers

  • Some of these followers believed he had ‘magical powers’ and was more than simply human

  • Furthermore, it is also interesting to note that there do seem to have been differences of belief/opinion within the Hashim clan

  • That is, the Hasanid, Husaynid and Jafarid lines were essentially debating who was the real imam, or the inheritor of Ali’s legacy

  • The claims of Abu Hashim and the Abbasids also reveal further differences of opinion

  • In any case, Abu Hashim dies in 98AH/716-717CE, without issue

  • Our sources indicate that before his death, Abu Hashim passed on his imamate (or rather his claim to it) to Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Abdullah ibn Abbas

  • In other words, Muhammad was now the imam of Abu Hashim’s supporters

  • As this claim was the original justification for the Abbasid revolution we might justly wonder about its actual authenticity

Abu Hashim

  • In some senses, however, its veracity is of secondary importance: the important point being that it was accepted as such

  • Baladhuri (Ansab al-Ashraf fol. 746b) states that Abu Hashim was poisoned by the Umayyads:m

    • ‘We thought that the Imamate and the affair [the caliphate] were in us but now there is no doubt that you are the Imam and the caliphate is in your sons’
  • Other sources differ somewhat in the details, but this is unimportant for our purposes

  • Muhammad seems to have begun organising his followers into an effective underground movement

  • However, his moves came to the notice of the Umayyad government

  • Hashim ibn Abd al-Malik is said to have sharply criticised him:

  • ‘Wait for the realm which you expect and on which you relate traditions ascribed to the Prophet and put up your youngsters as candidates for it’

  • ‘Wait for the black flags and your debt will be paid’ (Ansab fol. 748b; Akhbar fol. 82a)

The Da’wa

  • Most tellingly, he is also said to have remarked that the…

  • ‘Bani Hashim have turned the Prophet into a market [selling false traditions ascribed to him]’ (Ansab fol. 72a)

  • Although this can be seen as Umayyad propaganda, it also suggests that there were an increasing number of Prophetic Traditions in circulation

  • Muhammad’s supporters began drawing others to their cause

  • He concentrated particularly upon Kufa (the home of the Shia)

  • He also concentrated upon the Arab tribes based in Khurasan

  • As we saw previously, these were made of large contingents from Kufa and Basra (many of whom were the most disruptive)

  • Muhammad’s organisation was simply known as al-Da’wa (‘The Call’) and based itself on calls for ‘vengeance for the Ahl al-Bayt’ and by stressing that they had a better title to rule than the Umayyads

  • In other words, the Da’wa was part of the broad Shiite milieu and must, therefore, be considered as another expression of the ideas we looked at in the last session

Al-Rida min Aal Muhammad

  • The Da’wa seems to have strictly organised and to have prohibited premature uprisings, as well as any support for Alid contenders

  • It thus did not co-operate in Zayd’s revolt, nor in that of Abdullah ibn Muawiya

  • Their most famous slogan was to appoint ‘the Chosen from the family of Muhammad’ (al-Rida min Al Muhammad)

  • This meant that the exact leader of the movement was kept secret

  • This was presumably to escape Umayyad hands, as well as attempting to appeal to as broad a Shiite audience as possible

  • After Muhammad’s death in 125AH/742-3CE, leadership passed to his son Ibrahim

  • With Ibrahim, an active and militant phase began

  • Propaganda efforts were stepped up a number of new agents were recruited

  • The most important of these was a man called Abu Muslim

  • Abu Muslim (whose name literally means ‘Father of Muslim’) seems to have been a Persian

  • However, there is much uncertainty about this man’s origins

The Death of Ibrahim ibn Muhammad

  • At any rate, Abu Muslim was able to recruit a large number of malcontents into the Abbasid organisation

  • In other words, the time for action was fast approaching

  • However, before these plans could come to fruition, the Umayyad government discovered the identity and whereabouts of the Abbasid leader Ibrahim

  • He was swiftly arrested and executed in 131AH/749CE

  • This was a devastating blow to the Abbasid movement and his two brothers barely escaped

  • Leadership then passed to the senior brother, Abdullah (who became the first Abbasid caliph, al-Saffah)

  • At this point, no doubt realising that is was now or never, al-Saffah ordered his agents and partisans to proclaim the revolt publicly

  • Abu Muslim is then said to have unfurled the black flags of the movement in Khurasan

  • These black were understood to be apocalyptic symbols and were apparently modelled on Muhammad’s own standard

The Black Flags of Khurasan

  • Abu Muslim’s revolt could not have come at a worse time for the Umayyad forces in Syria

  • Marwan II, who had only recently become caliph, was facing widespread rebellion

  • Indeed, Sulaiman (a disgruntled relative) had made off with most of his treasury

  • There were also a number of revolts throughout the empire, including a number of khariji inspired uprisings

  • Abu Muslim’s forces quickly outmanoeuvred the governor Khurasan, Nasr in Sayyar, who soon found himself besieged in Merv

  • A revolt at Kufa was also instigated by the Abbasid agent there, Abu Salama

  • Thus the Umayyad Syrian troops based at Wasit in Iraq were effectively tied down

  • Although the details are complex, Abu Muslim’s forces (said to be some 50,000 strong) swept into Iraq

  • Marwan’s forces marched to the Zab river to await the onslaught

  • And in 132AH, the two sides met in battle (Battle of the Zab)

  • Tabari gives quite a long account of the battle and its various phases (see Tab. 3.38) onwards

Abbasid Victory

  • Umayyad forces were completely routed and the Khurasani troops of the Abbasids entered Damascus

  • Once firmly established there, the Abbasid general ordered a purge of the Umayyad family

  • The sources relate that almost the entire Umayyad clan was put to death

  • Despite this, an Umayyad prince managed to escape to Spain where he eventually founded a small, rival caliphate at Corduba

  • With the Abbasid capture of Damascus, the conflict effectively ceased

  • However, there was not an immediate return to stability

  • Al-Saffah died shortly afterwards and his brother, known as al-Mansur (‘the Victorious’) became caliph

  • Before his rule was established, he had to face a serious Alid uprising in Kufa and Medina

  • This was led by Muhammad ibn Abdullah, better known to history as Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya (or ‘the Pure Soul’)

  • This marked the effective end of Abbasid links with the broad Shia milieu from which it emerged

  • Subsequent Abbasid caliphs based their rule on a supposed testament from the Prophet to al-Abbas (thereby circumventing Ali)

  • Questions?

Section III: The First 150 Years: a Brief Overview


  • Essentially, in this overview, we will attempt to draw together our study of the first 150 years of Islamic history through a number of key themes

  • Sources

  • Impact of Muhammad

  • Claiming Muhammad's legacy

  • Sources

  • As we have seen, there is a vast range of sources for early Islamic sources

  • Although each individual source has its particular strengths and weaknesses, they can be drawn together to form a reasonably coherent whole

  • We have seen that a number of scholars have done this, from within and beyond the Islamic tradition

  • Methodological approaches to these sources have given rise to differing accounts

  • The traditional Muslim picture

  • The ‘revisionist’ accounts of scholars such as Crone and Wansbrough


  • Impact of Muhammad

  • Although we have not looked at the life of Muhammad during this course, the figure of the Prophet looms large

  • Muhammad’s life and teaching radically altered the religious, cultural, social and political norms of Arabian life

  • These ‘changes’ are wrapped up in the concept of Prophetic Sunna

  • Muhammad’s role as the last Prophet also seems to have been generally acknowledged almost immediately

  • That is, the early Muslim community seems to have been aware from its very beginnings that there would be no prophet after him

  • This again underlined his importance, especially with regards to the attention given to preserving the revelation he received (the Quran) and his own apparent words (the Hadith)

  • Claiming Muhammad’s Legacy

  • His importance is again strongly emphasised by subsequent Islamic history which, in many senses, was about a ‘debate’ (often violent) about had the right to hold and develop his legacy

  • Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali

  • Growth of a religious party

  • Use of Prophetic statements to support all manner of ideas and beliefs

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