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The Caliphates - 5. The Abbasids

The descendants of Muhammad had competed unsuccessfully for years to wrest control of Islamic authority. First, Ali failed in his bid to succeed Muhammad immediately after the Prophet's death. Then, he was overlooked as Umar and Uthman succeeded Abu Bakr as Rightly Guided Caliphs.

Finally, Ali was named the fourth and final Rightly Guided Caliph. He's also known today by Shiites as the First Imam in the line of twelve Imams who were all Ali's descendants. Their legacy as Imams is colored, however, by the fact that Ali's sons were both killed by Umayyads and the next eight Imams were poisoned by Umayyad or Abbasid assassins. Every single one of the Imams was assassinated except for the Twelfth Imam who simply disappeared at the age of 5 and remains hidden until he reappears to preside over the Worldwide Caliphate.

Spherical Astrolabe
Finally, however, descendants of Muhammad's uncle established the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 A.D. in modern-day Turkey. The linkage to Muhammad's bloodline gave the Abbasids a claim to a tie to the Prophet that the Umayyads couldn't make. The Abbasids strengthened their political position by converting (for the time being) to Shiism and fighting alongside the Shiites against the Umayyads. Joining up with the Shiites strengthened the Abbasid claim to strong ties to Muhammad since Shiites also claimed heritage to the Prophet.

The conversion to Shiism was short-lived, though. Once the Abbasids pushed the Umayyads out to Al-Andalus, they turned away from Shiism in favor of the Sunni Islam. They consolidated their hold on Islam by assassinating 100 years worth of Imams - six in all (the Sixth through Eleventh Imams) - again, all descendants of Ali.

The Abbasids are known for advances in science, mathematics, literature, and architecture. They brought the Greek classics to the West, adopted the Indian number zero and gave us the Arabic numbering system we use today, and invented the astrolabe. They made excellent use of the cultures and innovations of the people they conquered, as many innovations they've been credited with were either adopted or improved creations of Iranians, Indians, and others.

The Abbasids adopted the Hadith, "the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr," a teaching that is clearly out of step with modern jihadists and many of their own more militant predecessors. Of course, the Abbasids had the luxury of presiding over a caliphate that was already in Islamic hands when they captured it. By contrast, the preceding caliphates had to conquer Jews, Christians, polytheists, and non-believers, for the most part. When people today refer to Muslim caliphates of the time as benign, they should bear in mind that most Christians and Jews living in caliphates were still largely second-class subjects and had already been assimilated into the population. It's fair to say that none of them felt Islam was particularly benign while they were being conquered generations before and would have lived differently if they'd had a choice in the matter.

Mongol Hulagu Khan imprisons Abbasid
Caliph Al-Musta'sim in Baghdad.
By the time the caliphate was ended by attacking Turkish Mongols, the caliphate had experienced only a few interruptions. The truth is, however, that the caliphs had become largely ceremonial over time and relatively irrelevant near the end. The flair and vigor of their predecessors dwarfed them. The symbolism of the caliph had even become lost on many Muslims. That also accounts for some of the belief they were accommodating of Christians and Jews. They weren't as accommodating as they were ineffective for many of the latter years.

The Turkish Mongols captured the last Abbasid caliph, Caliph Al-Musta'sim in 1258 and imprisoned him without food, but with all his treasures. The story is that the Mongol leader Hulagu Khan locked him up to starve with his possessions, essentially telling him that since he liked his treasures so much, he could try to survive on them. Finally, though, the Mongols grew weary of waiting for him to die. They had a superstition against spilling the blood of royalty so Hulagu had the caliph - a direct descendant of Muhammad's uncle - wrapped in a carpet and trampled by horses until he was dead.

The caliphate established a much smaller presence in Egypt three years later where it endured for another 450 years albeit much of it largely symbolic. Finally, in 1517 the Abbasids were defeated by an Ottoman sultan and made part of the Ottoman Empire. In all, the Abbasid Caliphate endured more than 750 years.

Tomorrow: The Ottomans

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