In This Article Abbasid Caliphate

  • Introduction
  • Archaeology: Baghdad and Samarra
  • The Abbasid Revolution and Early Caliphate
  • The Middle Abbasid Caliphate
  • The Late Abbasid Caliphate and the Ascent of Regional Dynasties
  • Army and Administration

Islamic Studies Abbasid Caliphate
by
Letizia Osti
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0218

Introduction

The Abbasid dynasty ruled the central and eastern Islamic lands, at least nominally, and headed the Sunni Muslim community for five centuries from its capital Baghdad. The Abbasid claim to the caliphate was based on kinship with the Prophet through his uncle al-ʿAbbas (hence the name). For that reason they restored a truly Muslim government. The first Abbasid caliph, Abu al-ʿAbbas al-Saffah, replaced the Umayyad Marwan II in 132AH/749 CE; the surviving members of the Umayyad family fled to al-Andalus, where they ruled the Islamic West for the next six centuries. The last Abbasid caliph, Abu Ahmad al-Mustaʿsim, was killed during the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 656 AH/1258 CE. By that time the political significance of the Abbasids had long been greatly reduced. The caliph, while retaining his religious authority, had lost a large part of his political and military influence. The caesura between the periods of prosperity and decadence is conventionally identified with the appointment of the military governor of Wasiṭ, Ibn Raʾiq, to the newly minted office of amir al-umaraʾ (chief commander) in 324 AH/936 CE, which made him the de facto ruler in Baghdad. Some of the most famous caliphs in history, such as Harun al-Rashid and al-Maʾmun, were Abbasids, and their times are considered the golden age of the Muslim Empire. The foundations of practices that survived into later times were laid down under the Abbasids, for instance, armies made up of slave soldiers (mamluk) and standard administrative practices.

General Overviews

Bennison 2009 and Kennedy 2004a are introductory textbooks on the Abbasids that can be used in undergraduate courses. Hodgson 1958–1974 and Kennedy 2004b treat the Abbasids as part of larger overviews also intended as introductory textbooks. Frye 1975; Holt, et al. 1977; and Cook 2010 are surveys aimed at specialists.

  • Bennison, Amira K. The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire. London: Tauris, 2009.

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    A nonchronological overview of the Abbasid period. After a first chapter on the political history of the caliphate, it deals with cities, social life, trade, and learning. Useful as an introductory text.

  • Cook, Michael, ed. The New Cambridge History of Islam. 6 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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    Replaces Holt 1977 as the standard history of Islamic lands. Of interest for Abbasid studies are Volume 1 (The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries, edited by Chase Robinson), Volume 4 (Islamic Cultures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert Irwin), and for the late Abbasids Volume 3 (The Eastern Islamic World, Eleventh to Eighteenth Centuries, edited by David O. Morgan and Anthony Reid). Each volume contains chronological and thematic entries.

  • Frye, Richard Nelson, ed. The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 4, The Period from the Arab Invasion to the Saljuqs. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

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    The chapter by Roy Mottahedeh (“The ʿAbbāsid Caliphate in Iran,” pp. 57–89) is of interest as an overview of the late Abbasid period in the East.

  • Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958–1974.

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    A monumental history starting with the context in which Islam began and reaching modern times. The Abbasids are seen here in the global context of world history. Relevant chapters are in Volume 1, Book 2 (“The Classical Civilization of the High Caliphate,” pp. 231–495), and Volume 2, Book 3 (“The Establishment of an International Civilization,” pp. 1–368). The book features many detailed charts and maps.

  • Holt, Peter Malcolm, Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, eds. The Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 1a, The Central Islamic Lands from Pre-Islamic Times to the First World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

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    Chapters 4 and 5 (“The ʿAbbasid Caliphate,” pp. 104–139, by Dominique Sourdel, and “The Disintegration of the Caliphate in the East,” pp. 143–174, by B. Spuler, respectively) provide a comprehensive overview of the period as a whole.

  • Kennedy, Hugh N. The Court of the Caliphs: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004a.

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    A narrative history of the Abbasid caliphs up to al-Mutawakkil (r. 232 AH/847 CE–247 AH/861 CE) giving particular attention to court culture. Useful for nonspecialists and undergraduates. Published in the United States as When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2005).

  • Kennedy, Hugh N. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphate: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century. 2d ed. London: Longman, 2004b.

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    This account of Islamic history from the advent of Islam to the 5th century AH/11th century CE also contains a chapter discussing the primary sources available for the period. It is widely used as a university textbook.

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