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Abbasid Dynasty

Abbasid Dynasty

While the myth of a "Dark Age" in Europe has since been dismissed, historians still emphasize the importance of the Islamic world in preserving and building upon the knowledge of the Classical Era. True, the Islamic world is given due credit for its technological advancements, rich culture, and intriguing history of politics, but many still ignore the history behind these buzz words; the history of the Abbasid Dynasty. For over 500 years, the Abbasid Dynasty ruled the world of Islam, bridging the gap between past and present and between east and west.

Abbasid Dynasty Definition

The Abbasid Dynasty is the ruling bloodline of the Abbasid Caliphate, a Medieval Islamic state that ruled North Africa and the Middle East from 750 CE to 1258 CE. For purposes of this article, the terms Abbasid Dynasty and Abbasid Caliphate will be used synonymously, as their histories are inseparable.

Abbasid Dynasty Map

The map below represents the territorial boundaries of the Abbasid Caliphate in the mid-9th century. The Abbasid Caliphate's early territorial holdings largely represent the extent of the Umayyad Caliphate that came before it, except for the Umayyad's former control of the Iberian Peninsula in the west. It is important to note that the Abbasid Caliphate's territories shrunk considerably during its existence; by the beginning of the 13th century, the Abbasid state was about the size of Iraq on the map below.

Abbasid Dynasty Map Study SmarterMap of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th century. Source: Cattette, CC-BY-4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Abbasid Dynasty Timeline

The following timeline provides a brief progression of historical events regarding the Abbasid Dynasty:

  • 632 CE: Death of Muhammed, Prophet, and founder of the Islamic faith.

  • 7th - 11th centuries CE: Arab-Byzantine Wars.

  • 750 CE: The Umayyad Dynasty was defeated by the Abbasid Revolution, marking the beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate.

  • 751 CE: The Abbasid Caliphate emerged victorious in the Battle of Talas against the Chinese Tang Dynasty.

  • 775 CE: Beginning of the Abbasid Golden Age.

  • 861 CE: End of the Abbasid Golden Age.

  • 1258 CE: Baghdad's Siege, marking the Abbasid Caliphate's end.

Rise Of The Abbasid Dynasty

The rise of the Abbasid Dynasty meant the end of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750), a powerful state formed after the death of Muhammed. Importantly, the ruling dynasty of the Umayyad Caliphate was not related to the bloodline of Muhammed, the founder of the Islamic faith. Moreover, many Umayyad rulers were oppressive and did not offer equal rights to non-Arab Muslim people within their state. Christians, Jews, and other practices were also subjugated. The social content brewed by Umayyad policies opened the doors for political upheaval.

Abbasid Dynasty Caliph Study Smarter Art portraying Abu al-'Abbas as-Saffah, proclaimed the Abbasid Caliphate's first caliph. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Abbasid family, well-known descendants of Muhammed, were ready to stake their claim. Rallying support from Arabs and non-Arabs, the Abbasids led a campaign known as the Abbasid Revolution. The Umayyads were defeated in battle, and its leadership began to flee. Despite this, the Abbasids hunted and killed them, desecrated the tombs of hated Umayyad rulers (notably sparing the tomb of the pious Umar II), and gained support for their movement. Abu al-'Abbas as-Saffah led his family to victory in 1750; that same year, he was declared caliph of a new caliphate.

Caliph:

"Successor"; civic and religious leader of an Islamic state, called "Caliphate."

Ready to cement his right to rule, As-Saffah directed his forces to victory in the Battle of Talas in 1751 against the Chinese Tang Dynasty. Victorious, As-Saffah cemented the power of the Abbasid Dynasty and returned the spoils of war from his Chinese foe, including the methods and technologies of papermaking.

Abbasid Dynasty History

The Abbasid Dynasty immediately began expanding its authority, intending to draw support from every citizen within its widespread kingdom and from powers abroad. Soon, the black flag of the Abbasid Dynasty was waving above embassies and political processions in East Africa and China and above Islamic armies assailing the Byzantine Empire in the west.

Abbasid Dynasty Golden Age

The Abbasid Golden Age erupted just two decades after the caliphate was founded. Under the reign of leaders such as Al-Mamun and Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid Caliphate bloomed to its full potential from 775 to 861. This was a golden age within the golden age, as the rule of the Abbasid Dynasty (8th to 13th century) is widely regarded as the Islamic Golden Age.

Abbasid Dynasty Charlemagne Study SmarterArt depicting Caliph Harun Al-Rashid receiving famous Carolingian ruler Charlemagne in Baghdad. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With the move of the Abbasid's capital from Damascus to Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate centralized its role among its Arab and non-Arab citizens. In Baghdad, colleges and observatories arose within its walls. Scholars studied the texts of the Classical Era, building upon the rich history of math, science, medicine, architecture, philosophy, and astronomy. The Abbasid rulers kept their attention on these scholarly pursuits, eager to integrate discoveries into military expeditions and shows of courtly power.

In the Translation Movement, scholars translated ancient Greek literature into modern Arabic, opening the medieval world to legends and ideas of the past.

Thus, the spirit of objective inquiry in understanding physical realities was very much there in the works of Muslim scientists. The seminal work on Algebra comes from Al-Khwarizmī… the pioneer of Algebra, wrote that given an equation, collecting the unknowns on one side of the equation is called 'al-Jabr.' The word Algebra comes from that.

–Scientist and Author Salman Ahmed Shaikh

Advancements in glassmaking, textile production, and natural power through windmills serve as practical technological advancements within the Abbasid Caliphate. These technologies quickly spread worldwide as the Abbasid Dynasty expanded its influence. The Abbasid Dynasty exhibited an excellent example of Medieval Globalization by maintaining relations with foreign powers such as the Carolingian Empire in modern-day France. They both visited and received Emperor Charlemagne in the early 9th century.

Arab-Byzantine Wars:

From the 7th century to the 11th century, the Arabic people waged war with the Byzantine Empire. Rallied under their leader, the Prophet Muhammed, in the 7th century, the Arabs (mainly under the Umayyad Caliphate) pressed deep into western territories. Byzantine holdings in Italy and North Africa were put under attack; even the Byzantine capital of Constantinople was besieged by land and sea several times.

The second largest city of the Byzantine Empire, Thessalonica, was later sacked with support by the Abbasid Dynasty under Caliph Al-Mamun. Gradually, the Arabs of the Abbasid Dynasty diminished in power. Come the 11th century. It was the Seljuk Turks who would face the combined might of Christianity in the famous Crusades of the Middle Ages.

Abbasid Dynasty in Decline

Mile by mile, the Abbasid Dynasty shrunk dramatically after the end of its Golden Age in 861. Whether conquered by a rising state or becoming its caliphate, the territories of the Abbasid Caliphate broke from its decentralized rule. North Africa, Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq all slipped away from the Abbasid Caliphate. The threat of the Ghaznavid Empire and Seljuk Turks proved too much to bear. The authority of the Abbasid caliphs began to fade, and the people of the Islamic world lost trust in Abbasid leadership.

Abbasid Dynasty Baghdad Study SmarterArt depicting the 1258 Siege of Baghdad. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Marking a fairly well-defined end to the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongol Invasion of Hulagu Khan swept through the Islamic world, crushing city after city. In 1258, the Mongol Khan successfully besieged Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Dynasty. He burned its colleges and libraries, including the Grand Library of Baghdad. Centuries of scholarly works had been destroyed, marking not only the end of the Abbasid Caliphate but of the Islamic Golden Age entirely.

After destroying the collection of the Library of Baghdad by tossing thousands of books into the nearby Tigris River, people reportedly saw the river turn black with ink. This metaphor of cultural destruction portrays how the population felt the devastation of their collective knowledge.

Abbasid Dynasty Religion

The Abbasid Dynasty was distinctly Islamic in its rule. The caliphate imposed Islamic laws, taxed non-Muslims through the exclusive jizya tax, and promoted the Islamic faith throughout its territories and beyond. More precisely, the Abbasid ruling elite was Shia (or Shi'ite) Muslims, subscribing to the belief that the rulers of the Islamic faith should be descendants of the Prophet Muhammed himself. This is in direct contrast to Sunni Islam, the style of the Umayyad and later the Ottoman Empire, which holds that the leader of the Islamic faith should be elected.

Despite this, the Abbasid Dynasty was tolerant of non-Muslim people, allowing them to travel, study, and live within their borders. Jews, Christians, and other practitioners of non-Islamic religions were not heavily subjugated or exiled, but they still paid exclusive taxes and did not possess the full rights of Islamic Arab men. Importantly, non-Arab Muslims were fully welcomed into the Abbasid ummah (community), as opposed to the oppressively anti-non-Arab regime of the Umayyad Caliphate.

Abbasid Dynasty Achievements

For many years, the Abbasid Dynasty dominated the Middle East's Islamic caliph. Its reign did not last, as surrounding caliphs grew and absorbed its lands, and the brutal Mongol conquering of Baghdad threatened even the legacy of its achievements. But historians now recognize the absolute importance of the Abbasid Dynasty in preserving and building upon the basis of Classical Era knowledge and culture. The spread of Abbasid technologies such as windmills and hand cranks and the influence of Abbasid technologies in astronomy and navigation defined the shape of the Early Modern Period and our modern world.

Abbasid Dynasty - Key Takeaways

  • The Abbasid Dynasty reigned in the Middle East and parts of North Africa between 750 and 1258 CE. The timeframe of this reign coincides with what historians consider to be the Islamic Golden Age.
  • The Abbasid Caliphate was created through a rebellion against the oppressive Umayyad Dynasty.
  • The Abbasid capital of Baghdad was a global center of learning. The city spawned colleges, observatories, and a host of incredible inventions that permeated throughout the world. Through Baghdad, Islamic scholars preserved the information and knowledge of the Classical Era.
  • The Abbasid Caliphate gradually lost power over the course of its reign, ceding territories to growing powers such as the Seljuk Turks and Ghaznavid Empire. The 13th century Mongol Invasion of Hulagu Khan ended the caliphate's reign in 1258.

Frequently Asked Questions about Abbasid Dynasty

The Abbasid Dynasty reigned in the Middle East and parts of North Africa between 750 and 1258 CE. The timeframe of this reign coincides with what historians consider to be the Islamic Golden Age. 

The Islamic Empire was initially united under a sense of solidarity within the Abbasid Caliphate, especially when considering the fractured political and social atmosphere of the Umayyad Caliphate which preceded it. 

The Abbasid Dynasty's greatest achievements lie in its preservation and advancement of knowledge obtained from Classical Era texts. Abbasid developments in astronomy, math, science, and more permeated throughout the world. 

The Abbasid Dynasty's advancements in science, math, astronomy, literature, art, and architecture are all considered great highpoints in Islamic culture and society. Despite the Abbasid Dynasty's diminishing political power, its undeniable influence on the world mark it as a golden age of advancement in the Islamic world. 

The Abbasid Dynasty was well aware of the mistakes of its predecessors, such as the Umayyads, and did not impose heavily restrictive or forceful laws on non-Muslims within their state. They knew that strict religious laws often sparked discontent and revolution. 

Final Abbasid Dynasty Quiz

Question

Define caliph

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Answer

"successor"; civic and religious leader of an Islamic state (called a caliphate) 

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Question

True or False: The Abbasid Dynasty's territories expanded considerably during its reign. 

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Answer

False 

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Question

What powerful Islamic state preceded the Abbasid Dynasty? 

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Answer

The Umayyad Caliphate 

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Question

Who did the Abbasid Caliphate defeat in the 751 Battle of Talas? 

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Answer

The Tang Dynasty 

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Question

True or False: The reign of the Abbasid Dynasty in the Middle East coincides with the duration of the Islamic Golden Age. 

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Answer

True 

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Question

What was the Translation Movement?

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Answer

Scholars translated ancient Greek literature into modern Arabic, opening the medieval world to legends and ideas of the past. 

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Question

What famous European ruler visited Baghdad in the Abbasid Caliphate in the early 9th century? 

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Answer

Charlemagne 

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Question

Baghdad fell in 1258 to which invading force? 

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Answer

Mongols under Hulagu 

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Question

Did the Abbasid Dynasty practice Shia or Sunni Islam? 

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Answer

Shia Islam 

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Question

True or False: The Abbasid Dynasty could draw blood relation to the Prophet Muhammed, unlike the Umayyad Caliphate. 

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Answer

True 

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