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Caliphate Becomes Only a Clerical Head, The

The long and slow decline of the Abbasid caliphate based in the city of Baghdad started right after the death of Harun al-Rashid and the succession of his sons. The civil war between his sons ended with Harun’s appointed successor, al-Amin, dead by 813 AD at the hands of his brother, al-Mamun. Large chunks of the empire managed to slip away from al-Mamun’s grasp as Egypt was beset with revolts. The new caliph had mistakenly entrusted Khorasan to the man who helped him wrest the caliphate away from his brother, general Tahir, who then claimed the province as his own. Tahir died before he could make his mark as an independent ruler of Khorasan, but his son, Talhah, declared himself his father’s successor and started the Tahirid Dynasty. Because of this, the Caliphate later became only a Clerical Head during 935 AD according to the Bible Timeline Poster with World History.

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Emirate of Cordoba

Fifty years ago in al-Andalus (modern-day Spain), the survivor of the Umayyad massacre in Damascus, Abd al-Rahman I, deposed the former governor of the province. He then set up the Emirate of Cordoba in 756 AD. It was a domain independent from the rule and whims of the Abbasid caliphate. Al-Rahman recognized the caliph in Baghdad as the spiritual head of the ummah (Muslim community) in Cordoba. The Abbasid caliph made an attempt to recover the province from Abd al-Rahman, but the Umayyad forces were too strong for them to handle. The caliph was forced to recall them from the other side of the Mediterranean.

Abd al-Rahman I

The Rise of the Turks

Back in Baghdad, the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun had died and was succeeded by his brother, al-Mutasim. Fearful that the numerous revolts would finally oust him as caliph, he surrounded himself with elite Turkish warriors who served as his bodyguards and became the Muslim equivalent of the Praetorian Guards. A few years before that, the Arabs kidnapped these Turks beyond the river Oxus and turned them into slaves. The same men converted to Islam later on, enlisted in the military, and rose to power during the time of caliph al-Mutasim. The Turks gained prominence in the Abbasid court which pushed the Persian and Arab allies away .Their resentment intensified when the caliph moved the capital from Baghdad to Samarra. This isolated him from the general population. The Turks had their own quarters in Samarra and there, they became the most powerful and influential forces within the Abbasid court.

Al-Mu’tasim died in 842 AD, and he was succeeded by his sons al-Wathiq and al-Mutawakkil. The younger son, al-Mutawakkil, was deposed when his son, al-Muntasir, conspired against him with the support of the Turkish troops. The same Turkish troops who helped him topple his father later turned on al-Muntasir. He was forced to choose his own successor under the threat of death. The Abbasid caliphs who followed al-Muntasir’s successor became mere figureheads under the Turkish elite, while the fringes of the empire steadily disintegrated into the hands of various ruling families in Persia, North Africa, and Spain.

A Divided Empire

The Tahirid Dynasty in Khorasan lasted only seventy years before they, too, were ousted by the troops led by a coppersmith-turned-warlord named Ya’qub ibn al-Layth al-Saffar in 873 AD. He and the Saffarid troops marched toward Baghdad to gain the recognition of the Abbasid caliph. The Turkish-backed caliph al-Mutamid saw this as a threat and scouted for a possible ally in Samarkand to counter the Saffarid rebellion. A Persian official named Nasr of the Samanid family answered the caliph’s call and fought al-Saffar’s forces. They only succeeded in containing his power in Southern Iran.

The Samanid’s ruled Transoxiana after their victory against al-Saffar’s rebel troops, while the Abbasid caliphs continued to rule from Baghdad (although with less power than before). As the caliphs faded into obscurity and became nothing more than ceremonial heads, the viziers accumulated more power over the years. It also did not help that Maghreb in North Africa had broken away from the Abbasid caliphate after the rise of the Shi’a Fatimid Dynasty (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima). The Fatimids were different in a sense that while the renegade emirates of Cordoba, Khorasan, and Sistan recognized the authority of the caliph, the Fatimid caliphate in North Africa was completely independent of the Abbasids in Baghdad. By the early years of the 10th century, the Fatimids had conquered Tripoli, Cyrenaica, and Alexandria.

Back in Asia, the domination of the Samanid Dynasty in Transoxiana fell apart after the rise of Mardaviz al-Ziyar who took away a small portion of land south of the Caspian Sea and formed his own Ziyarid Dynasty. Al-Ziyar’s own official, Ali ibn Buya, rebelled against him in 932 AD and wrested the city of Karaj away from the Ziyarids. Ibn Buya later extended his dominion up to the province of Fars in the south, while the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir was deposed in the same year by his Turkish puppeteers. He died on the streets of Baghdad and was succeeded by his equally powerless son, al-Radi. By 935 AD, the Abbasid caliphs were nothing more than clerical heads and would remain as such until the domination of the Buyid Dynasty in Baghdad in 945 AD.

Picture By Unknown, Public Domain,
Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Sonn, Tamara. Islam: A Brief History. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
Wollaston, Arthur N. “The Sword Of Islam.” Internet Archive. Accessed August 24, 2016.
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