The Muslim caliphates

Umayyads and Abbasids

The Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750, was a time of military consolidation rather than expansion, but it was above all a time when the caliphate established itself as a proper empire, ruled by institutions and bureaucratic routines. Muawiyah, who had been governor of Syria, began by moving the capital to Damascus. It was here that the caliphate’s first coins were minted, instead of copies of Byzantine originals. It was also now that a regular postal service was set up, a requirement for disseminating information, instructions, and decrees across the empire. And crucially, Arabic was made into the official language of the state, replacing Greek and assorted other languages. Greek had been spoken by administrators throughout the Middle East since the days of Alexander the Great — for close to a thousand years — but from the Umayyad Caliphate onward it was Arabic you had to know if you aspired to an administrative career. As a result, territories in which no Arabic speakers previously had existed, such as Egypt, were Arabized for the first time. And with Arabization, in many cases, came conversion to Islam.

Yet no amount of administrative reorganization could stop political conflicts from tearing also this caliphate apart. In the middle of the eighth century, the Umayyads were challenged by new regional elites, in particular by the governors of Iraq, a fertile and rich part of the empire. Before long a new civil war, the Second Fitna, broke out. In 750 the Umayyads were decisively defeated and the Abbasid Caliphate, 750-1258, took their place. The Abbasids claimed descent from Abbas, Muhammad’s youngest uncle. Their first capital was Kufa, in southern Iraq, but in 762 they constructed a new capital in Baghdad. It was soon to become the largest and richest city in the world and a great center of culture and learning.

In Baghdad many cultures mixed freely and, much as elsewhere in the Muslim world, the dhimmi were given the right to run their own affairs. During the Abbasid Caliphate, the influences from Persia and Central Asia were strong. Persians, or rather Arabized Persians, were employed in the administration of the caliphate as advisers and judges, and Persian scholars and artists populated the caliph’s court. Cultural influences did not only come from Persia, however, but also from far further afield. From the Indians, the Arabs learned about the latest advances in mathematics. Through exchanges with China, the Arabs came to master the secrets of paper-making and soon a paper mill was established in Baghdad. Since paper is far cheaper to produce than parchment or papyrus, it was suddenly possible to gather far larger collections of books. Libraries were established throughout the caliphate which contained hundreds of thousands of volumes. At the time, the caliph’s library in Baghdad had the largest collection of books in the world.

During the Abbasid Caliphate, the Arab world received influences from Byzantium too. Indeed, since Byzantium remained the caliphate’s greatest military enemy, competition with this remnant of the Roman Empire was intense. One cultural expression of their rivalry was the so-called “translation movement” which began during the reign of the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate, al-Mansur, 754-775. Compared to the Greeks, the Arabs were social upstarts and although their cultural sponsorship was paying off handsomely, they had none of the historical prestige of the Greeks. Indeed, the Arabic language had until recently been spoken mainly by Bedouins in the desert and it lacked much of the technical terminology required to express philosophical and scientific ideas. All too aware of these deficiencies, the Abbasid caliphs embarked on a vast project of translating Greek books into Arabic.

Despite its glories and successes, Baghdad was not the only center of the caliphate. Indeed, in Iraq itself, Basra and Samarra were important hubs, and in Central Asia, different cities were run by increasingly self-assertive local rulers. Much like the caliphs in Baghdad they wanted not only political power but also the reputation of running an intellectually and culturally sophisticated court. Thus, the library of the rulers of Shiraz, in Persia, was reputed to have a copy of every book in the world, and the library in Bukhara, in today’s Uzbekistan, had a catalog which itself ran into thousands of volumes — besides, the library provided free paper on which its users could take notes. Meanwhile, the local rulers of Afghanistan made that part of the Abbasid Caliphate into a center of learning. The leading scholar here, Abu Rayhan al-Bīrūnī, went to India and returned with books on astronomy and mathematics which he synthesized and expanded.

As the power of these regional centers grew, the Abbasid rulers in Baghdad became correspondingly weaker. They lost power over North Africa, including Egypt, in the eighth century, and in the tenth century, they controlled little more than the heartlands of Iraq. Even in Baghdad itself, the caliphs lost power to the viziers, their prime ministers. Interestingly, the city seemed to benefit culturally from the political fragmentation and the new influences it provided. The majlis, or salon, was a particularly thriving institution. In the drawing-rooms of the members of the elite, scientists, philosophers and artists would meet to gossip, debate and exchange ideas. Here Muslims, Jews, and Christians could mingle freely and often the political elites, including the caliphs themselves, would participate in the proceedings. The majlis provided a free intellectual atmosphere in which different opinions on matters of philosophy, religion, and science thrived. This is how Muhammad al-Razi’s chemical discoveries — including the discovery of alcohol — became known, together with al-Farabi’s synthesis of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.

The glories of Baghdad, together with the Abbasid Caliphate itself, came to an abrupt end with the Mongol invasion of 1258. What the Mongols did to Baghdad counts as one of the greatest acts of barbarism of all time. A large proportion of the inhabitants were killed — estimates run into several hundreds of thousands — and all the remarkable cultural institutions were destroyed together with their contents. Survivors said that the water of the river Tigris running through the city was colored black from the ink of the books the Mongols had thrown into it, and red from the blood of the scholars they had killed. The caliph himself was rolled up in a carpet and trampled to death by horses. Baghdad never recovered from the devastation.

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