The Regicide of the Caliph al-Amīn and the Challenge of Representation in Medieval Islamic Historiography

The Regicide of the Caliph al-Amīn and the Challenge of Representation in Medieval Islamic Historiography

By Tayeb El-Hibri

Arabica, Vol. 42, No. 3, (1995)

Introduction: Fifty years after its founding in A.D.762 as the ideal political center of the Abbasid caliphate, Baghdad underwent its first destructive siege during the civil war between the two sons of Haruin al-Rasid, al-Amin and al-Ma’mun. Within the boundaries of the city, and for over a year, the caliph al-Amin held his last ground against the armies of al-Ma’mun, governor of the eastern province of Khuras-an and pretender to the throne. Defended throughout previous battles by the central Abbasid military elite, the Abna’, al-Amin found an unexpected source of popular support during the siege among the city’s commune. While al-Ma’mun continued to reside in Marw, his new capital on the eastern frontier, Hartama b. A’yan, Tahir b. al-Husayn, and Zuhayr b. al- Musayyab, the commanders who led the campaign on his behalf, found themselves unable to overcome or see the reason for the newly emerged resistance against them.

The stalemate was finally broken when Tahir b. al-Husayn succeeded in causing internal division by convincing the merchants of Baghdad to destroy the pontoon bridges that had served as critical communication routes between the resisting forces. This offered the assembled eastern armies the opportunity to attack by the Tigris inside the city. Probably suspecting such a maneouvre, al-Amin now listened to the advice of his associates that he stood a future chance of a counterstrike if he escaped the city to the north and then to Syria or Egypt, where he could reorganize a new power base.

Tahir, however, apparently having caught word of such a plan, sent a message to the Abna’ threatening to retaliate by destroying not only their property inside Baghdad but their estates (diya’) outside as well if they did not dissuade al-Amin from this decision. Al-Amin was soon afterwards convinced, again by his advisors, of the benefit of surrender. His reluctant agreement to take that choice was the beginning of a humiliating fall from power that culminated in a pitiful murder ordered by Tahir.

A cursory review of the narrative of the civil war might at first strike one as overwhelmingly supportive of al-Ma’mu-n, not a surprising feature given that the sources were written after his victory. This essay, however, shall argue that if we analyze the textual representation of al-Amin’s death closely, we can discern beneath the seemingly pro-Ma’munid historical narrative a complex historiographic attitude towards the regicide and the harvest of victory. Al-Amin’s capture and execution was an event that introduced a radically new dimension to the civil war, and critically transformed public perceptions of the caliphal office. For this was the first violent end to befall an Abbasid caliph since the founding of the dynasty. As such it left an indelible mark on the collective religio-political consciousness of a community that had perceived the dynasty to be the ultimate deliverant of stable caliphal rule in the aftermath of the revolution that overthrew the Umayyads in A.D. 750.

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