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Abu Muslim: The Architect of the Abbasid Revolution

By Adam Ali

In 747 the black banners of revolt were raised in Khurasan, the huge eastern province of the Umayyad Caliphate. Over the next three years, revolutionary armies marched west, defeating the imperial armies of the Umayyads in a series of bloody battles, culminating in a final showdown at the Zaab River. By 750, the Umayyads were overthrown, and the once-mighty caliphal dynasty was all but obliterated. 

I have already discussed the Abbasid/Hashemite Revolution in a previous article, in this article I will focus on the architect of the Abbasid Revolution, Abu Muslim, often referred to as Abu Muslim al-Khurasani in the sources. Abu Muslim’s role in planning, organizing, and leading the revolution was instrumental to its success. He lived an extraordinary life; he was a servant/slave, a partisan, a revolutionary, a soldier, and rose to be the most powerful man in the caliphate. So powerful was his charisma and his persona that many of his followers worshipped and deified him. When he was treacherously murdered by the caliph, al-Mansur, in 755, Abu Muslim’s devotees rose in rebellion to avenge his death and wholeheartedly held messianic beliefs prophesying his return to save them and usher in an era of justice and prosperity.

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Not much is known about Abu Muslim’s early life and background. He was probably born either near Isfahan (modern-day Iran) or farther east in Khurasan in the city of Marw (also referred to as Marv in modern-day Turkmenistan). The sources are not clear regarding his origin and his real name. Abu Muslim was his revolutionary title, given to him by the Abbasid imam Ibrahim, whom he supported. Some sources state that he was Iranian and a descendent of Godarz and Bozorgmeher (the Sasanian vizier of Khusraw Anushrivan) and give his name as Ibrahim, while others give his name as Behzadan son of Vendad Hormoz. Other sources link him to the Banu Hashim clan as a scion of the Abbasids or Alids. None of these assertions can be ascertained without a doubt. However, the sources do agree that Abu Muslim grew up in Kufa (Iraq), a city that was well-known for political and religious turmoil and had become a center of discontent against Umayyad rule.

The Umayyads’ policies angered several sections of the caliphate’s population. They favored their Arab supporters, primarily the Arab tribes that had settled in Syria and primarily those from Northern Arabia (also known as the Qays/Qaysis). The Arabs of Iraq, those of Southern Arabia (known as the Yaman or Qalb), as well as non-Arab converts to Islam (known as mawali or clients) and many non-Muslims were all unhappy with these policies. In addition to these groups, there were those who had favored a caliph or imam from the prophet’s family, who were the Alids (many of whom would eventually become the Shia sect). At the time of the Abbasid Revolution the Alids held beliefs that varied in intensity from being moderate to extreme – the latter are referred to as the ghulat or extremists in the sources and held such beliefs as the deification of the imams and others such as Abu Muslim as we will see.

It is interesting to note that although the blame for the discrimination and the unequal treatment of the population is laid squarely on the Umayyads, it was their agents in Khurasan who carried out and abused the populace. Many of these agents in the east were Persian and Iranian nobles who were Zoroastrians who had retained their positions after the Arab conquest. They operated much the same way as they had under the Sasanians as the rulers’ agents and tax collectors. Scholars such as Roberto Marin-Guzman and Muhammad Qasim Zaman have noted that these Iranian nobles overtaxed the population, especially those among their countrymen who had converted from Zoroastrianism or one of the local cults/religions to Islam.

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Abbasid silver dirham in the name of Abu Muslim struck at Merv in the year 749-50

Al-Tabari first mentions Abu Muslim as a slave or a servant. He changed patrons several times until Muhammad ibn Ali, the head of the Abbasid family manumitted him. As a freedman, Abu Muslim continued to support and serve the Abbasids (a common practice among freedmen), who were led by Ibrahim ibn Muhammad after his father’s death in 743. Al-Tabari relates an anecdote in which a group of Khurasanis visiting Kufa on their way to Mecca visited some of the Abbasids’ partisans who had been imprisoned on suspicion of spreading anti-Umayyad propaganda. Abu Muslim was among those imprisoned. The sources state that the Khurasanis recognized unusual qualities in him and asked who he was and those with him said that he was a saddle maker. It is noteworthy that the Khurasanis took notice of him, which indicates Abu Muslim’s charisma. This anecdote, whether accurate or not, is also setting Abu Muslim up for “greater things.”

Beginning of the Abbasid Revolution

The Abbasids sent Abu Muslim to organize and lead the revolutionary movement that had started in Khurasan in their name. The Abbasids realized that the vast eastern province was the perfect place from which to launch a revolt. It was far away from the Umayyad center of power, it had a big population, many of its people were veteran warriors due to the constant frontier battles against nomadic raiders, the discontent with Umayyad rule was high, and tribal tensions between the Qaysis and Qalbis had also intensified. Ibrahim, the head of the Abbasid clan, had sent missives to all the missionaries already operating in Khurasan to obey Abu Muslim. However, some of the more notable leaders of the anti-Umayyad movement refused to do so under the pretext that Abu Muslim was too young and inexperienced and due to his obscure lineage. These leaders met in person with Ibrahim in Mecca who confirmed Abu Muslim’s paramount position.

Abu Muslim settled in a village inhabited by Yamani Arabs and sent agents throughout the province to spread pro-Abbasid propaganda and to recruit revolutionaries for the inevitable uprising. He was able to secure the support of the Yamani Arabs in Khurasan (who resented the Umayyads favoring the Qaysis/Northerners) and also gained a devoted following among the Iranians. These supporters included long-standing Arab and Iranian members of Muslim society, recent Iranian converts, and those practicing their local religions and traditional regional beliefs. The latter group probably came from regions that were barely conquered and where Islam had not taken root. The enrollment of such men from these areas into the revolutionary movement constituted their entry into Muslim society. According to Patricia Crone, their opponents saw them as “barbarians” from the backwoods of Khurasan and as being different from the mawali with whom the Arabs had been in contact. These revolutionaries brought with them their pre-Islamic beliefs and practices merging them with their new religion. Their Islam consisted of their hatred of the Umayyads and their supporters and their fierce loyalty to their new Muslim leaders, primary among whom was Abu Muslim. It is noteworthy that Crone points out the devotion of these new converts and their sincerity to their new faith. These Khurasanis were aware of their Iranian past, but they marched on the caliphate’s capital not to restore the Sasanian Empire, but to avenge the prophet’s family and to restore justice by placing someone from the prophet’s family on the caliphal throne.

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Abu Muslim launched a brilliant propaganda movement summoning all to rise against the Umayyads. The vague nature of this propaganda led to the Abbasid/Hashemite Revolution becoming a syncretic movement that combined many groups with varying aims and objectives. Abu Muslim called for replacing the Umayyads with someone from the household (i.e. family) of the prophet or the ahl al-bayt. At this point the idea of who or what ahl al-bayt constituted was not clear and could be anyone from the clan of Banu Hasim (later the Shia sect would restrict the ahl al-bayt to the descendants of Ali and Fatima). Abu Muslim was able to rally non-Arab converts to Islam who felt they were treated unfairly, Yamani Arabs resentful at their Qaysi rivals, Alids who believed that a descendant of Ali would be named caliph, some Iranian nobles who hoped to restore their families’ fortunes, and those who hoped for more equity and justice from a new ruler. The Abbasids and Abu Muslim later also legitimized the Abbasid seizure of the caliphate by stating they were a part of the ahl al-bayt and also claiming that they had received divine designation or nass (very important to the early Alids and later Shias) from a Shia imam, Abu Hashim, who was the son of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib and a concubine. In 685 an unsuccessful revolt that lasted for two years was launched in the name of ibn al-Hanafiyya in Kufa. It was the Alid survivors of this revolt who formed the core of the earliest Abbasid partisans and supporters after the Abbasid Muhammad ibn Ali was allegedly designated as Abu Hashim’s successor as imam.

According to the very detailed account of the Abbasid Revolution that al-Tabari presents in his universal history, Abu Muslim was an excellent leader, organizer, and also very charismatic. He organized the revolutionary army, ensured it was supplied and had the new soldiers trained. He also built fortified camps and occupied abandoned fortresses and had them repaired. There are several accounts of Abu Muslim praying with his followers and treating them to feasts, raising their morale, and ensuring that they tied their success and well-being to his victories. As a result, Abu Muslim created a revolutionary army that was devoted to him.

In 747 Abu Muslim publicly proclaimed his uprising against the Umayyads. He lit a large fire, which was the signal for his troops to assemble. As word spread, the villagers who had pledged their support mustered to his black banner. Nasr ibn Sayyar, the last Umayyad governor of Khurasan, sent an army to deal with the rebels. Abu Muslim dispatched one of his officers with a force that defeated the Umayyads capturing several of them. This further enhanced Abu Muslim’s reputation and his support grew. Nasr, a northerner, attempted to mend fences with the Yamanis to unite the Arab tribes of Khurasan, but was confounded by Abu Muslim’s agents. He also pleaded for reinforcements from the caliph Marwan II, but none arrived. Marwan was busy dealing with Kharijite revolts closer to home. The Qaysis and Yamanis started fighting one another and both sides sought Abu Muslim’s support. Abu Muslim chose to aid the Yamanis. Nasr was driven out of his capital, Marw, which Abu Muslim occupied in early 748. He had also captured Herat and Balkh and his forces continued driving the Umayyad governor west. Before sending his armies further west, Abu Muslim consolidated his position quelling a revolt against him in Balkh and dealing with an aspirant to the caliphate, one Shayban ibn Salama, the leader of the Kharijites in the region of Marw.

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Nasr gathered an army of 30,000 men, but Qahtaba ibn Shabib, one of Abu Muslim’s generals, defeated this force and put its remnants to flight. The rebels took Gorgan, Rayy, Hamadan, Nihavand, and other important cities and towns in Iran as they made their way to Iraq and Syria. At Gorgan, Qahtaba faced a large reinforcement army sent to stem the rebel advance. He defeated this force as well and proceeded to execute a large number of Gorgan’s inhabitants who were planning to revolt in support of the Umayyads. This shows the complex nature of the Abbasid Revolution and that not all Iranians opposed the Umayyads and supported Abu Muslim.

With the fall of Nihavand, the rebels started to advance into Iraq. Marwan II gathered the armies of Syria, Jazira, and Northern Iraq and marched to confront them in person. The situation was deteriorating at a fast pace for the Umayyads. Kufa fell to the rebels after most of the garrison switched sides. Abu Salama, the chief Alid propagandist took over as governor. Ibrahim had been imprisoned and killed by Marwan a few months earlier and his brothers, Abu ‘l-Abbas and Abu Jafar, fled to Kufa where Abu Salama concealed them and attempted unsuccessfully to place an Alid on the throne. An Alid on the throne would have not served Abu Muslim at all, he directed Hasan ibn Qahtaba, now the commander after his father’s death during the march west, and the other Khurasani generals to swear allegiance to an Abbasid. They were able to find Ibrahim’s brother and proclaimed Abu ‘l-Abbas, who took the regnal title al-Saffah, as the new caliph. The final showdown between the Umayyads and the Abbasid revolutionaries took place near the Zab River, where Marwan II’s forces were defeated and routed by a Khurasani army under the command of Abd Allah ibn Ali, the new caliph’s uncle.

After this final battle, all resistance to the Abbasids melted away and Marwan was caught and killed in Egypt as he fled west. Most of the remaining Umayyads were hunted down and killed by the avenging Abbasids.

Abu Muslim as kingmaker

Abu Muslim remained in Khurasan and directed the revolution from Marw. He grew in power and authority and eliminated anyone who opposed his rule. As kingmaker and the individual to whom the most powerful military groups, namely the Khurasanis, were loyal, he was the single most powerful man in the caliphate. Al-Saffah was aware of Abu Muslims power and rightly feared him. The new caliph was suspicious of Abu Salama, who was now his vizier. But before taking any action he sent his brother Abu Jafar to ask his permission to dispose of the vizier, fearing that Abu Muslim may either support the vizier or avenge him. Abu Muslim not only gave his consent to the killing of Abu Salama, but also sent the assassin to carry out the deed. Abu Jafar, the future caliph al-Mansur, was greatly disturbed by what he saw in Khurasan during his stay with Abu Muslim. He observed that Abu Muslim had absolute power in Khurasan and upon his return to Kufa, he warned al-Saffah that he could not really exercise power as the caliph while Abu Muslim ruled in Khurasan. Abu Muslim appointed and deposed governors, ordered the execution of his enemies, collected taxes in his own name, and even minted his own coins. He did all this without seeking the approval of the caliph.

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In 753 Abu Muslim decided to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and set out with an army of 8,000 men. He approached the caliph’s capital with 1,000 men, leaving most of them behind because the caliph would not permit such a large army to enter his domains. There was a clear tension between the Abbasids and the man who had won the throne for them. Abu Muslim also seems to have felt that he needed to surround himself with large numbers of loyal followers to ensure his safety. Al-Saffah sent out a delegation to welcome Abu Muslim and consented to permit him to carry out the pilgrimage. However, he insisted on naming his brother, Abu Jafar, the leader of the pilgrimage, and attached him to Abu Muslim’s entourage. Abu Jafar’s mistrust of Abu Muslim grew as his charismatic personality and generosity made him popular and endeared him to all those with whom he came into contact.

14th-century illustration depicting Abu’l-‘Abbas al-Saffah being proclaimed the first ‘Abbasid Caliph

Al-Saffah died while Abu Muslim and Abu Jafar were on pilgrimage. The latter being named his brother’s successor took the oath of allegiance from everyone including Abu Muslim and assumed the regnal title of al-Mansur. The new caliph was challenged almost immediately by his uncle Abdallah ibn Ali. who claimed that he had more right to the caliphate because it was he who had dealt the final blow to the Umayyads at the Zab River. Abdallah ibn Ali had been dispatched by al-Saffah to attack the Byzantines with a large force of Syrians and Khurasanis. However, upon hearing of the caliph’s death, he turned this army around and intended to use it to press his claim to the throne. Al-Mansur appealed to Abu Muslim, who agreed to lead his army against his rebellious uncle. Abdallah ibn Ali was defeated easily. The Khurasanis in his army refused to fight against Abu Muslim and their fellow countrymen and the Syrians abandoned their commander who only four years earlier had defeated and humiliated them.

Abu Muslim against the Caliph

This victory, rather than bringing al-Mansur and Abu Muslim closer, widened the rift between the two men. Both were ambitious, shrewd, and assertive. With this victory, Abu Muslim once again demonstrated how dangerous he could be. He was able to deprive Abd Allah ibn Ali of the Khurasani element of his army by merely commanding them to stop fighting. Al-Mansur could never rest easy on his throne knowing such a man ruled Khurasan. The relationship between the caliph and Abu Muslim deteriorated further when al-Mansur sent an agent to inventory the spoils of the victory against his uncle. Abu Muslim was furious and reproached him and threatened to kill him. It was only through the intercession of some of Abu Muslim’s commanders that he was spared, and he returned to the caliph and recounted what had happened.

With his fear of Abu Muslim growing, Al-Mansur appointed him to the governorship of Syria and Egypt. Abu Muslim refused the appointment and set out for Khurasan. Both al-Mansur and Abu Muslim knew that the latter was unassailable in his power base in Khurasan. The al-Mansur sent Abu Muslim several messages commanding, threatening, and coaxing him to return to the royal court and to present himself before the caliph. Abu Muslim ignored these summons as he continued his march east and a series of hostile and acrimonious messages passed between the two. However, when Abu Muslim’s deputy in Khurasan and some others within his entourage urged him to return to make amends with the caliph his resolve wavered. He sent a supporter, one Abu Ishaq, to the caliph to ascertain whether it was safe to return or not. Abu Ishaq, who had been promised the governorship of Khurasan, returned to Abu Muslim and advised him to return to the caliphal court and to ask forgiveness and make amends with al-Mansur.

Abu Muslim returned to Iraq and the caliph was encamped at Ctesiphon (al-Mada’in) at the time. He had brought 3,000 soldiers with him, but he left most of them at Hulwan and proceeded to the caliph’s camp with a few men. When he was admitted to the presence of the caliph, Abu Muslim’s sword was taken from him. Al-Mansur then proceeded to reprimand his commander and listed his alleged crimes, treason, and examples of his misconduct. Al-Mansur then clapped his hands. This was the predetermined signal at which five guardsmen who had concealed themselves behind the tent flaps emerged and attacked Abu Muslim and cut him to pieces. His body was rolled in a carpet and thrown in the Tigris River.

Al-Mansur was able to buy off many of Abu Muslim’s generals with bribes. Those elements of the army that were devoted to their slain leader ceased to exist as an army and were disbanded. Many of them deified Abu Muslim. These recruits had a long tradition of deifying their leaders and those they perceived as their redeemers and saviors. In fact, many of those Khurasanis who settled in Iraq and who had formed a part of the armies commanded by al-Mansur during the revolution were just as devoted to him and deified the caliph as their redeemer. Al-Mansur had to separate himself from these extremists in order to maintain his religious legitimacy and deal with them harshly.

Likewise, with Abu Muslim’s death, his followers had lost their redeemer and were back to square one as they had been prior to the revolution. They were once again ruled by what they perceived as an unjust caliph who had betrayed them and the one who had led them to victory. Many of Abu Muslim’s soldiers did not believe that he was dead. They claimed that he turned into a white dove and ascended to heaven. Others asserted that he took up residence in a fortress in the sky along with Mazdak (a heretical Zoroastrian priest whom I will talk about in a future article), and the Mahdi (i.e. the messiah). They believed that all three would one day return to bring justice and equity to the world and usher in a paradisical age.

Others believed that Abu Muslim carried the spirit of God in him (the last in a long chain of such divine men, which included all the prophets) and they deified him. This comes as no surprise because the sources (those written by his enemies) describe him as being well-educated and fluent in both Arabic and Persian. He was charismatic and very eloquent. The sources also state that he was generous, resourceful, statesmanlike, chivalric, and ambitious. He was very likable and certainly knew how to win people’s love and loyalty. At the same time, he was also very harsh and cruel to his enemies. The sources state that he executed anyone he deemed a threat even at the slightest provocation. This seemingly negative trait did not impact his loyal followers’ devotion to him, as those who deified him saw his actions as those of a deity, and thus justified.

Understanding Abu Muslim

What were Abu Muslim’s motives and goals? Like many other historical figures, Abu Muslim has been appropriated and reimagined as an Iranian/Persian nationalist by many Iranian groups. This idea cannot really be substantiated due to the multi-ethnic nature of the Abbasid Revolution and of his support base. He was supported by the Khurasanis, who by the eighth century included various groups of Iranians, Arabs, and men of mixed Arab and Iranian lineage. Additionally, the notion of nationalism as we understand it was non-existent during the medieval era, especially not among the masses. The only group that may have displayed something akin to what we call nationalism in medieval Iran were the elites of the Sasanian Empire (i.e. the higher nobility, the Persian Zoroastrian priesthood that had defined “orthodoxy in the Sasanian Empire, and the remnants of the Royal family), who formed a negligible percentage of the entire population.

His motivations may have been to destroy the Umayyads and to raise more equitable rulers to the throne. Religion may have also played a role. Despite the “heretical” beliefs that many of Abu Muslim’s followers (particularly new Iranian converts) held, the sources describe Abu Muslim as a devout Muslim. His ambitions may have also been personal and political. He may have desired to set himself up as the autonomous ruler of Khurasan or as a kingmaker to control the caliphs with his powerful army. He may not have had such ambitions at the outset of the revolution, but his successes and the astronomical growth of his power and influence in Khurasan may have changed his outlook and objectives. He may have even had designs to eventually move against the Abbasids and to oust them as he had the Umayyads. His true motives and goals can never be known. However, it is doubtful that it was solely one of the above-mentioned. It was probably a combination of these several goals. The creation of an equitable society (at least for his loyal supporters), personal ambition and power, religion, and regionalism/nativism probably all played a role in shaping his objectives.

Whatever the case, Abu Muslim’s actions, while he was alive, facilitated the rise of the Abbasids and changed the course of history. His death had similar repercussions. Abu Muslim’s murder was the spark that set off a series of revolts that plagued the northern and eastern parts of the caliphate for several decades. The rebels who revolted belonged, for the most part,  socio-religious groups referred to as the Khurramiyya in the sources. This group and its revolts will be covered in detail in several upcoming articles.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Further Reading

Kennedy, Hugh. The Early Abbasid Caliphate: A Political History (Barnes & Noble Books, 1981)

Kennedy, Hugh. When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty (Da Capo Press, 2010)

Amabe, Fukuzo. The Emergence of the ‘Abbāsid Autocracy: The Abbāsid Army, Khurāsān and Adharbayjān (Kyoto University Press, 1995)

Bennison, Amira k. The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the ‘Abbasid Empire (Yale University Press, 2009)

Agha, Saleh Said. “Abū Muslim’s Conquest of Khurasan: Preliminaries and Strategy in a Confusing Passage of the Akhbār Al-Dawlah Al- ʿAbbāsiyyah.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 120, No. 3 (2000), pp.333-347.

El-Hibri, Tayeb. The Abbasid Caliphate: a History (Cambridge University Press, 2021)

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