By Adam Ali
In 750 the Umayyad caliphal dynasty was overthrown by a popular revolution that had its origins in the eastern regions of the Muslim world, primarily in Khurasan. A new dynasty, the Abbasids, replaced the Umayyads and ruled the Muslim caliphate until the Mongol conquest and sacking of Baghdad in 1258. Although the Abbasids emerged from the revolution as the powerful and autocratic leaders of the caliphate, they were not actually directly involved in planning and executing the revolution until its very last stages. In this article I will discuss the role played by a sectarian group called the Hashemites and one Abu Muslim, who were on the ground and on the ground and the frontlines in Khurasan in planning and executing the revolution that brought the Abbasids to power and how the Abbasids consolidated their position after they replaced the Umayyads as the caliphs.
To fully understand the complex events that led up to the Hashimite/Abbasid Revolution we have to a briefly summarize of the important events that led up to it. The prophet Muhammad died in 632, he was succeeded by four caliphs, referred to as the Rashidun (or “rightly guided”). These caliphs were Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali ibn Abi Talib (the prophet’s cousin and son in law). Some of Ali’s Shia (this term means partisans or supporters) were convinced that Ali should have succeeded the prophet before the others. This early split in the Muslim community, which started off as a political dispute, would eventually lead to the formation of some of Islam’s major sects. However, these sects, the Sunni and the Shia, would not crystalize and take on a form similar to what they are today for several centuries. Furthermore, with time the Shia split into several subsects, some of which held very extreme views, which were rejected by both Sunnis and mainstream Shias alike.
The Rashidun caliphs ruled from 632-661. During these three decades the caliphate underwent a significant expansion. The Muslims conquered Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and parts of North Africa and Central Asia. It is important to note here that converting the conquered populations to Islam was not one of the primary objectives of the conquerors. In fact, the Muslims were a ruling minority in their newly conquered empire for at least the first 100-200 years. Garrison towns were established to house the conquering Arab armies. These amsar, as they were called included: Basra, Kufa and Wasit in Iraq; Fustat in Egypt; and Qayrawan in North Africa. These towns were established to ensure that the forces of the conquerors (a minority) were concentrated in strong points. These amsar were also situated along the fringes of deserts, so if there was a concerted counter attack by the Byzantines or the Persians, the Arabs could withdraw to a habitat that they knew well and in which they held the advantage. Finally, the garrison towns served to insure that the conquerors were not culturally and religiously assimilated into the conquered populations, which outnumbered them greatly. These towns started off as military camps, but by the late 7th and early 8th centuries they had become major bustling urban centers.
There were two major civil wars that occurred within the caliphate before the revolution that toppled the Umayyads. The First Civil War took place during Ali ibn Abi Talib’s reign (656-661) and saw him lose power and support to Muawiya, the governor of Syria. Muawiya was from the Umayyad (or Banu Umayya) clan, which was a part of the Quraysh tribe (the prophet’s and Ali’s clan, the Banu Hashim, was another branch of this tribe, so in essence they were relatives). With the Assassination of Ali by a Kharijite sectarian, Muawiya assumed the caliphate and ushered in a new period in which his family, the Banu Umayya or the Umayyas, ruled the Muslim world.
A second civil war was fought upon Muawiya’s death in 680 and did not come to an end until 692. The reason that this civil war took place was because Muawiya had named his son, Yazid, as his successor, and in essence ushered in the first Muslim dynasty. The Rashidun caliphs had all been chosen through election and the consensus of the community (or at least the most powerful members of the community). Yazid’s accession to the throne saw several groups rebel against Umayyad rule. One group supported Ali’s second son al-Husayn, whose revolt ended with his death and a small party of his followers at Karbala. A more significant proto-Shia rebellion was Mukhtar’s revolt. This revolt was led by an Arab from the Thaqif tribe named al-Mukhtar from Kufa (Ali’s former power base) in the name of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, another of Ali’s sons. However, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, unlike al-Husayn, was not a descendent of the prophet. He was Ali’s son with one of his concubines, a woman from the Banu Hanifa tribe. The Umayyads once again emerged victorious from this civil war defeating all opposition to their rule.
However, Mukhtar’s revolt would have a continuing impact that would eventually lead to the downfall of the Umayyads. It was under Mukhtar that non-Arab converts to Islam (primarily Iranians) were politically and militarily active in a mass social movement representing themselves and their political ambitions. Although the rebellion was defeated and Mukhtar was killed, his followers continued supporting Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya’s son, Abu Hashim, and were therefore referred to in the sources as the Hashimiyya(or the Hashimites). Another important development was the broadening of the rift between the supporters of Ali and his descendants and those who supported other members of the Quraysh tribe as caliphs. It is important to note that most of the early proto-Shias supported Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya (although he is not recognized by most Shias today as one of the imams) and Mukhtar during this revolt. In fact, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya was the first Shia imam who was proclaimed the Mahdi (the guided one/savoir), giving a messianic aspect to what would become the Shia sect of Islam.
The Umayyads could be described as an Arab dynasty ruling over an empire in which the Arabs, primarily those in Syria, were a privileged class. The sources (most coming down to us from the Abbasid period) are unkind to the Umayyads. They describe them as being impious, unjust, corrupt, worldly, and as being poor Muslims. By the 8th century, larger numbers of non-Arabs were converting to Islam. There were several reasons for the increase in conversions. Some desired upward social mobility, for example through enlisting in the army, a privileged position that guaranteed a stipend during this era. Others wanted to escape the poll tax (jizya), a tax that survived from the Sasanian period and found its way into Islam. Under the Sasanians it was the nobility (who formed the army) and Zoroastrian elites who were exempt from this tax, which was seen as humiliating. Under Islam there was a similar arrangement. The Muslims, who formed the new military and religious elites, were exempt, while the non-Muslims had to pay this tax. Of course, we cannot discount that many, if not most, of the converts were sincere in their conversion and conviction to their new faith.
In her book The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran Patricia Crone argues that despite the seemingly worldly reasons for the conversion of many Iranians, they were also very sincere and believed in their new religion. She states that “like other non-Arabs the Iranians had to enter the Muslim community to acquire visibility.” She also says “The fact that conversion enabled people to change their lives for the better in material terms in no way implies that they converted insincerely” and “converts trying to secure entry to the privileged ranks of the Muslim conquerors must be presumed similarly to have been convinced of the truth of the religion that was taken to be the key to Muslim power” adding that “…most converts are likely to have embraced their new life with enthusiasm, exhilarated by the idea that the deity who had allowed the Arabs to conquer the world should be willing to include the defeated peoples among his devotees.” Thus, when a revolution, carried out primarily by non-Arab Muslims, did overthrow the caliphate the victors did not opt to restore their ancestral polity (i.e. the Sasanian Empire) but rather to restore the “rightful position of the prophet’s family” in a new and “just” caliphate.
The Umayyads, rather than pushing for the conversion of the conquered peoples, often attempted to stop mass conversions. For example, in the year 700 thousands of Iranian peasants left Khurasan and travelled to Wasit, the seat of the Umayyad governor, al-Hajjaj, to convert to Islam. Al-Hajjaj did not accept this mass conversion and sent the peasants back to work on their lands and to continue paying their taxes. Crone explains that the conversion of Iranian peasants to Islam posed a major problem for the Arabs. On the one hand, they were pleased that their subjects saw the truth in Islam and these new converts were sorely needed to shore up the numbers of the overstretched armies of the caliphate; on the other hand the entire system upon which the early caliphate was based was predicated upon the assumption that the Arabs were Muslims and formed the army and the non-Arabs were the peasants who cultivated the land and paid taxes. Even when the non-Arabs did convert, they continued to pay the poll tax under the Umayyads. These converts felt betrayed because they expected to be exempted from the humiliating poll tax and to be treated equally and get the same privileges as the other Muslims as taught by Islam. In fact, they were further humiliated because it was the remnants of the Persian aristocracy, most of who were still Zoroastrian or followed other Iranian cults and religions, who were charged by the Umayyads with the collection of taxes. These non-Muslim Persian nobles, the dihqans, exploited the new converts to Islam by continuing to collect the poll tax from them and even penalized them with an extra tax (some of which they kept for themselves) for converting to Islam.
There was widespread anger, resentment, and opposition to Umayyad rule by the early 8th century, especially in Khurasan. Medieval Khuarasn, with its capital in Merv was the huge province that dominated most of the eastern portion of the caliphate. It included Eastern Iran and parts of Central Asia or in other words of the region between Nishapur and the Oxus river, in addition to the northwestern area of modern day Afghanistan. In fact, the current province of Khurasan in Iran only consists of less than one third of this area. The Arab warriors and tribesmen living in Iraq and Khuarasan were just as angry as the new converts to Islam with their Umayyad rulers. As mentioned earlier, the Syrian soldiers and tribes held a privileged position in the caliphate because they formed the backbone of the Umayyads’ support. They received higher salaries and better promotions than their Iraqi and Khurasani counterparts. Furthermore, in 671 50,000 Arab warriors from Kufa and Basra were settled in Khurasan with their families by the Umayyads. In 730, another 20,000 Arabs were sent to the region. The settlement of Arabs in Khurasan differed greatly to the other regions of the caliphate because they were not settled in garrison towns but lived among the locals and intermarried with the local Iranian population. Unlike their peers in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, who were linked to one another and to their homeland, Arabia, these colonists in the east were separated from their home and their brethren by the vast Iranian plateau. Therefore, by the mid-8th century, many of the descendants of these Arab warriors were half Iranian and spoke both Iranian and Arabic. Furthermore, these Arab warriors made common cause with the locals in the defense of the caliphate’s eastern frontier against the frequent incursions by Turkic tribes (most of whom were still pagans at this point) and other pastoralists from the Eurasian Steppe. This martial frontier life not only created a large pool of experienced soldiers and warriors, but also a sense of solidarity and brotherhood among some of the Arabs and Iranians inhabiting this region. In fact, the Syrian army, dominated by tribesmen from the Syrian Desert, which policed the empire, was increasingly viewed as “alien” by the other Muslims, who were converts, freedmen, slaves, and the offspring from mixed marriages.
The Hashimites/Hashimiyya, who were the followers of Abu Hashim, were instrumental in laying the foundations for the revolution. They formed a very early sect among the Alids and their ranks were primarily composed of non-Arab converts to Islam and freedmen. Prior to Mukhtar’s revolt, this group was called the Kaysaniyya, after Kaysan Abu Amra who represented Alid non-Arabs in Kufa. They supported Mukhtar, pledged allegiance to Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, and after his death devoted themselves to his son, Abu Hashim. Abu Hashim transformed this group into a secret missionary organization that spread his beliefs throughout Iraq and Iran. His followers became experts at disseminating propaganda and worked to organize an uprising that would eventually overthrow the Umayyads decades after Abu Hashim’s death in 716. Abu Hashim and his followers were accused of being extremists or ghulat because they supported and propagated extreme Shia beliefs (known as ghuluww in Arabic). These beliefs are not attested to by mainstream Sunnis and Shias (i.e. Twelver Imamis, Zaydis, and Ismailis). Some of these ideas included: the divinity of the imam/leader (i.e. the incarnation of the spirit of God in human form), the transmigration of the soul, reincarnation, and messianism, believing that their slain leaders were really alive and would return as saviors. A lot of these influences came from local Iranian pre-Islamic religions and cults collectively known as Khurramism and we will see that many of the revolutionaries who responded to the Hashimite propaganda were either Khurramis or new converts to Islam from Khurramism, and they brought their beliefs and ideas with them into their new faith.
After Abu Hashim’s death his followers split into two groups. One of these groups pledged their support to Muhammad ibn Ali, the great grandson of al-Abbas, who was the prophet’s uncle. According to the Abbasids, in his final testament, Abu Hashim had named Muhammad ibn Ali as his successor because he died childless. It is only at this point in 716 that the Abbasids started to become politically active and they used Abu Hashim’s testament, be it true or not, as a legitimizing factor after they ascended to rule the caliphate.
The Hashimiyya spent decades laying the foundations of the revolution that would topple the Umayyads in 750. They operated primarily in Khurasan spreading propaganda and recruiting followers for the revolt. Khuarasan was the perfect base from which to stage the uprising. It was far from the capital, Damascus. It had a high population which included discontented Arabs, Muslim Iranians, mixed Arab-Iranians, and non-Muslims. The Hashimite missionaries travelled from village to village recruiting young men, and in the case of non-Muslims converting them to their brand of Islam, and leaving them there until the appointed time for the uprising. Sometimes the opposite happened and the missionaries were absorbed into the local culture and religion of the regions where they operated. This was the case with the Hashimite missionary Khidash, who was denounced by his fellows for adopting the religion of the Khurramiyya and deviating from Islam. He was arrested in 736 and executed by the Umayyad governor of Khurasan. In addition to the Hashimites there were other groups involved in the revolution including other Alids (i.e. early Shias) and Arab tribesmen from Iraq and Khurasan. All these groups were working towards one goal, which was to overthrow the Umayyads. The various factions that formed the revolution, however, had different ideas. For example, Abu Salama, the head of the Alid resistance in Kufa wanted to place a descendent of Ali and Fatima (the prophet’s daughter) on the throne as did many of the more moderate Shias. However, one of the main slogans and propaganda lines of the revolution was to raise al-rida min al Muhammad (the acceptable one from the family of the prophet) as the new caliph. This “acceptable one” meant different things to the various groups working together in the revolution and was ultimately decided by Abu Muslim, one of the most important figures of the movement.
Abu Muslim was a freedman (or mawla) of the Abbasids. His background is hazy, but most likely he was of Iranian origin. The Abbasids sent him to Khurasan to take over the leadership and organization of the revolution. This was an important move on the part of Ibrahim ibn Muhammad, who now headed the Abbasid family after his father’s death. Abu Muslim was in essence a member of the Abbasids’ household and represented them directly in Khurasan, unlike many of the other rebels, whose true leanings and loyalty may have been elsewhere. Abu Muslim arrived in Khurasan sometime in 745-746 and got to work right away. One must give credit to Abu Muslim’s energy, skill, tact, and strategical thinking. He was able to overcome the resistance and hostility of the other chiefs and missionaries among the revolutionaries who had been operating in the region for years and managed to take full control of the revolutionary movement after eliminating his internal rivals in a series of purges and executions. In essence, Abu Muslim was able to reap the fruits of years of propaganda, preparation, and revolutionary activity shortly after his arrival.
In 747 he openly declared the revolution and publicly raised the black banners that came to characterize the revolution and the Abbasid regime. Abu Muslim was also able to take advantage of the tribal discord within the Umayyad army between the Arabs of Northern and Southern origin. He was able to win over the Yemenites (the southerners) and thus greatly weakened the position of the Umayyads in Khurasan. By the end of 747 he took the provincial capital of Merv and used it as his headquarters from which he directed several armies to secure Khurasan and to drive the Umayyads eastward to Iraq and Syria. Upon entering Kufa, Abu Muslim had his agents proclaim Abu al-Abbas as caliph (Ibrahim ibn Muhammad had been murdered in 749). He took the regnal title of al-Saffah (the blood spiller). It was only late in the revolution in Iraq that some members of the Abbasid family got directly involved in the action. Abu Jafar (al-Saffah’s brother) and Abdallah ibn Ali (al-Saffah’s uncle) both led armies against the Umayyads. The former besieged and took Wasit, the last Umayyad stronghold in Iraq and the latter defeated the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, at the Battle of the Zab River in 750. The Umayyads were unable to muster another army after this battle. Marwan II fled but was caught by the pursuing Abbasid forces in Egypt that same year.
After ousting the Umayyads al-Saffah and the Abbasids concentrated their efforts on consolidating and securing their new position as the rulers of the caliphate. Al-Saffah shifted the center of the caliphate eastward and made Kufa his capital. His brother and successor Abu Jafar (who would take the regnal title of al-Mansur) would build a new capital, Baghdad, in 762. The supporters of the Abbasids were rewarded with prominent positions in the royal court and the provinces. Christians, Jews, and Iranians were all present in their administration. Importantly, the Khurasanis, whose martial prowess brought the Abbasids to power, replaced the Syrians as the new military elite of the empire. Al-Saffah feared an Umayyad resurgence and in a very “red wedding-like” manner invited the surviving members of the Umayyad clan to a banquet in a gesture of reconciliation. The Umayyads who attended the banquet were massacred, the remaining male members of the family were hunted down by Abdallah ibn Ali in Syria. The only prominent member of the Umayyad clan to survive was Abd al-Rahman. He fled west and established an independent polity in Spain, the Umayyad emirate (then later caliphate) of Cordoba. Abbasid family members were given high positions at court and governorships in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Khurasan was ruled by Abu Muslim, who was the commander of the Khurasani army, the king maker, and true power behind the Abbasids.
Al-Saffah died in 754 after a short four year reign. He was succeeded by his brother, Abu Jafar al-Mansur. Al-Mansur was challenged for the position of caliph by his uncle, Abdallah ibn Ali, who believed that he had a stronger claim to the throne because it was he who defeated Marwan II in the final battle of the revolution. Al-Mansur called on Abu Muslim to help him defeat his rebellious uncle. As a matter of fact, both Abu Muslim and al-Mansur had been on their way to Mecca on pilgrimage when they received news of al-Saffah’s death. Both men were powerful, ambitious, clever, and energetic and had little love for one another. Al-Mansur especially resented Abu Muslim’s power in Khurasan, where he ruled almost as an independent potentate. He was accompanied everywhere by his executioner, whose services he used frequently, putting to death all those who opposed his rule. Furthermore, the people of Khurasan only accepted the governors appointed by the Abbasids when Abu Muslim gave his blessing.
Abdallah ibn Ali had been named the governor of Syria after the fall of the Umayyads. Al-Saffah had commanded him to invade the Byzantine Empire and he had prepared a large force composed of Khurasanis and Syrians (in an attempt to reconcile them) for the task. Upon hearing of the caliph’s death he turned his army around and marched it toward Iraq. He was met by Abu Muslim and his army. The Khurasanis in Abdallah ibn Ali’s army refused to fight against Abu Muslima and their brethren and the Syrians fled, as they were not willing to fight and die for the man who only recently defeated them. Abdallah ibn Ali was taken prisoner and Abu Muslim’s victorious army captured vast amounts of loot and war material.
Despite this victory the rift and enmity between the new caliph and Abu Muslim grew. Things came to a head when al-Mansur sent an agent to take an inventory of the spoils Abu Muslim’s forces had taken from Abdallah Ibn Ali’s defeated army. Even though the tradition was that the caliph should receive one fifth of all spoils, Abu Muslim did not look too kindly on al-Mansur trying to take what he believed were his spoils and he made that known to the caliph. What made things even worse was that al-Mansur appointed Abu Muslim as the governor of Egypt and Syria, an appointment that Abu Muslim refused because he recognized that it was an attempt by his rival to separate him from his power base in Khurasan. Abu Muslim quickly set out for the east, knowing that once he entered Khurasan he was untouchable. This was another slight towards the caliph because Abu Muslim did not appear before him to pay his respects and to take his leave before departing for home. Al-Mansur on the other hand knew that he could not let Abu Muslim get away. One can easily label al-Mansur as an ingrate towards his powerful subordinate who was instrumental in establishing the Abbasid dynasty. However, his presence not only split the caliphate in two, but also divided the loyalty of the Khurasani army. Al-Mansur had no choice but to get rid of this powerful man in order to maintain the integrity of the empire and of the army. After several letters of invitation, Abu Muslim was convinced to return to meet with al-Mansur. Several of his generals had been bribed to convince him to meet the caliph. Upon entering into al-Mansur’s presence Abu Muslim was chastised by the caliph for all the wrongs he had committed. Abu Muslim remonstrated and stated that he had always been loyal and that without him the Abbasids would never have risen to the position of caliphs. It was all in vain, the caliph clapped his hands and four or five concealed guards jumped out of their hiding places and cut down the unarmed Abu Muslim. His mutilated corpse was rolled in a carpet and thrown into the Tigris River.
Abu Muslim’s murder in 755 had far ranging consequences for the Abbasids. The northern and eastern parts of the caliphate were plagued with Khurramiyya rebellions that were sparked by the treacherous murder of the man many looked upon as the hope for their future. Many of Abu Muslim’s soldiers and officers revolted. Since religion and politics were tied closely, their rebellion against the caliphate was also a rebellion against the version of Islam the Abbasids represented, which would become the Sunni Orthodox version of Islam. They rejected Islam in “its normal form” and claimed that they were the ones who were the bearers of the true Islam, an Islam that was heavily influenced by extremist Shia ideas (ghuluww) and old Iranian religious beliefs primarily from Khurramism. These rebels were viewed as heretics and apostates by the mainstream Muslims (both Sunnis and Shias) and the sources are very unkind to them. Many of them deified Abu Muslim, and later the leaders of the other Khurramiyya rebellions, because they saw them as redeemers and the ones who would lead them into a period of justice and bounty. There were those among the Hashimiyya who also deified the Abbasids in a similar manner, a group of them known as the Rawandiyya were among the most extreme of the Abbasids’ devotees. They had moved west with the revolutionary armies and settled in Baghdad in the Harbiyya quarter, famed for its extremist sentiments during the early Abbasid period. They worshipped al-Mansur and saw him as their savior and redeemer. The caliph had to take extreme measures against them including killing and imprisoning their leaders in order to show that he represented the more moderate and orthodox version of Islam that was acceptable to the mainstream Muslim population. I hope to discuss these heterodox groups and their movements during the 8th and 9th centuries in more detail in future articles on this website.
The Abbasids came to power on the heels of a successful revolution organized and carried out for the most part by various groups of people with different goals. They were able to seize the throne with the help of their very capable servant Abu Muslim, who had himself hijacked the revolution in their name and raised them to power. It is unclear what role Abu Muslim had envisaged for himself, he was too savvy and ambitious to be content to remain a subordinate servant of the Abbasids for too long. He controlled some of the richest and most populous regions of the caliphate and commanded its most powerful army. A clash between him and his Abbasid overlords was inevitable. In the end, al-Mansur was able to get rid of him. Dealing with the rebellions that were the fallout of his murder would last through the reigns of the next four caliphs. However, one could argue that if the Abbasids had not dealt with Abu Muslim when they did, they would have had to face him and the might of a united Khurasan, a clash that they would not have been guaranteed to survive.
Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.
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