The Abbasid Civil War: Chaos in Iraq (813-819)

By Adam Ali

Despite al-Ma’mun’s victory in the war against his brother, al-Amin, the fighting did not end in Iraq. The six years after the siege of Baghdad were punctuated by factional fighting, violence, bloodshed, and social and political turmoil and unrest.

The war between Harun al-Rashid’s (r. 786-809) sons, al-Amin (r.809-813) and al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833) came to a dramatic conclusion in September 813. After a hard-fought and destructive thirteen-month siege, Baghdad fell to al-Ma’mun’s armies. Al-Amin, hoping to survive the predicament in which he found himself, attempted to surrender to one of al-Ma’mun’s generals, Harthama ibn A‘yan, believing the loyal veteran would protect him and help negotiate a rapprochement with his brother.


However, this plan was foiled by another of al-Ma’mun’s generals, Tahir ibn Husayn. Prior to the civil war, Tahir was an unknown petty landowner. He rose to prominence during the conflict after leading his often-outnumbered forces to spectacular victories against superior enemy armies. His primary concern was that he would be left out of any arrangements made by the other power brokers and denied the rewards he felt he had earned through his service to al-Ma’mun. His men waylaid the boat carrying the caliph to Harthama’s camp, captured him, and that same night (Sept. 27, 813) murdered him in the house where he was imprisoned.

Al-Amin’s soldiers and supporters were either defeated and scattered or had defected to al-Ma’mun during the conflict, Baghdad had fallen, al-Amin was dead, and al-Ma’mun was the sole caliph. Based on the situation in the Autumn of 813, the war should have ended. However, it raged on for another six years, causing untold economic and structural damage to the heartland of the caliphate and accelerating the decline of caliphal power that would see the rise of independent and semi-independent dynasties to take control of various parts of the empire. By the 10th and 11th centuries, some of these dynasties, such as the Buyids and the Seljuks, even controlled caliphs in Baghdad, who had become powerless and politically impotent, as their puppets.


Fadl ibn Sahl, al-Ma’mun’s wazir/vizier and right-hand man during the civil war, and his family, the Sahlids, were at the center of the struggle for power after al-Amin’s death. Several sources and modern scholars place the blame on the continuation of the fighting on Sahlid policies that aimed to concentrate power in their hands at the expense of both the military men of Baghdad and those who had supported al-Ma’mun against his brother. These policies alienated large swaths of the population and many of the other power brokers of the caliphate, which resulted in instability and continued fighting, violence, and destruction in Iraq until 819. Fald ibn Sahl sought to control the caliph and the best way to do that was to keep him in Marw (or Merv), in Khurasan. When Fadl ibn Sahl’s aggressive policies were vindicated by Tahir and Harthama’s victories against the abna’, he was able to silence his opponents and to take full control of the caliph’s government and administration in Marw. Convincing the caliph to remain in Khurasan would ensure Fadl ibn Sahl’s monopoly of power.

As a matter of fact, Fadl ibn Sahl received the title of Dhu al-Ri’asatayn (he of the two commands) on the same day that al-Ma’mun was proclaimed caliph. This title was indicative of his control over both the civil administration and the military. He was very aware that he would face some serious challenges for the ear of the caliph if al-Ma’mun were to return to Baghdad. Al-Ma’mun listened to his vizier and decided to remain in Khurasan; after all, was it not Fadl ibn Sahl’s advice, guidance, loyalty, and energy that resulted in his victory against his brother?

As a result of this fateful decision to remain and rule from the east, the civil war was prolonged. The caliph was kept in the dark regarding the situation in Iraq. Fadl ibn Sahl, being in control of the administration and intelligence service, only fed the caliph partial bits of information and handled most of the issues personally. The choice of ruling the caliphate from Marw greatly insulted the people of Iraq and Baghdad, particularly the soldiers and the government officials. This move had the potential of reducing the once glorious city to the status of a provincial town. To add insult to injury, Fadl ibn Sahl named his brother, Hasan ibn Fadl, as the governor of Iraq. It is this appointment and Hasan’s inept rule that ignited the next series of battles of the civil war.

Abbasid gold dinar, naming Caliph al-Ma’mun and al-Fadl, with his title Dhu ‘l-Ri’āsatayn – image by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

The second phase of the Abbasid civil war was a struggle between multiple factions vying for political and economic supremacy at the expense of the others. Most of these factions were composed of soldiers or ex-soldiers who wanted to secure their salaries and a say in government policies, primarily regarding the taxes and how these funds were spent.


There were four major Abbasid parties involved in the struggle. The first of these was the government of Marw, which was completely under Sahlid control. This group aimed to keep the center of power at Marw in Khurasan through their influence on the caliph to monopolize political power and control of the finances and resources of the caliphate. The second faction was composed of Tahir ibn Husayn and his supporters. Towards the end of the fight with al-Amin, Tahir became more and more suspicious of the Sahlids and concerned about being deprived of enjoying the fruits of the victory, to which he had made significant military contributions through his leadership in the field.

The third party was led by Harthama ibn A‘yan. He initially supported the Sahlids in their efforts to bring Iraq under their control. His prestige and military experience were invaluable to them. But he came as a double-edged sword because he was very powerful and independent and could never be reduced to the status of “underling” to the Sahlids. The fourth group were the people of Iraq. This group was represented by the army, particularly the adbna’, and the people of the Sawad region (the area between the two rivers). They initially acknowledged and recognized al-Ma’mun as the new caliph, but were opposed to Fadl ibn Sahl and his policies, particularly those that reduced them and their region to secondary status.

In addition to these four Abbasid factions, the Alids of Kufa also played a role in the struggles and the fighting that took place. Furthermore, with all the chaos and infighting plaguing the central government, rebellions erupted on the peripheries of the empire. For instance, it was in 816 that Babak launched his Khurramiyya revolt that would only be subdued during the reign of al-Mu‘tasim (r. 833-842) after some semblance of order was restored in Iraq.

Map of Iraq and surrounding regions in the early 9th-century – image by Ro4444 / Wikimedia Commons

An Alid Rebellion in Kufa

Trouble started in 814 after the arrival of Hasan ibn Sahl in Iraq. He was accompanied by two Khurasanis; one of them was his cousin, Ali ibn Abi Sa‘id, and the other a friend, Ali ibn Hisham, who, like Tahir, came from a family of Khurasani magnates or dihqans. None of these men had ever set foot in Iraq prior to this point. Now Hasan was its ruler, while Ali ibn Abi Sa‘id was put in charge of taxation in the province, and Ali ibn Hisham was appointed the governor of Baghdad. The people of Iraq, primarily the abna’ in Baghdad, were very unhappy with this arrangement and began to agitate against Sahlid rule. The Banu Khalid, a prominent Khuarasani family among the abna’, stepped into the leadership vacuum left by Ali ibn ‘Isa’s family, which had formerly represented the interests of the abna’ during the early phases of the civil war.

The unrest in Baghdad and the agitation of the abna’, in addition to the fiscal problems in the province led to an Alid uprising in Kufa. This revolt was launched in the name of Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Tabataba, a descendent of al-Hasan (one of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s sons). This seemed like the perfect opportunity for the Alids to rise and take the caliphate in the name of a descendent of Ali as many of them had felt cheated after the Abbasid Revolution when the Khurasani army placed the Abbasids on the throne at the expense of the Alids. He was supported in his revolt by Abu al-Saraya, an ex-soldier from Harthama’s army. In fact, there were probably many demobilized and unemployed soldiers who rallied to his banners. The main grievance of many who joined this revolt seems to have been anger at the Sahlid takeover of the government and the idea that the caliph was being manipulated and played like a puppet by his wazir/vizier’s in Marw.

Initially, the rebellion was very successful. Hasan ibn Sahl’s army was defeated near Kufa. The rebels quickly took Basra and extended their control over the area between Basra and Kufa in addition to expanding into the rich Sawad region. This rebellion revealed the true extent of Sahlid weakness in Iraq. Hasan and his supporters, being mostly foreigners in the region, lacked a local power base and local support. Hasan ibn Fadl was compelled to rely on elements of the abna’ and other former supporters of al-Amin but was unable to muster a force large enough to defeat the rebels. Additionally, to secure his position as governor of Iraq, Hasan got rid of the two most experienced military men. He had dispatched Tahir to Raqqa to “restore order” in Syria and along the frontier. Tahir was happy to sit on the sidelines, bide his time, and to watch as the events unfolded. Harthama, bitter about being deprived the governorship of Iraq by the Sahlids, had started making his way back to Khurasan.

The Great Mosque of Kufa – photo by Ali Alturaihy / Wikimedia Commons

Hasan now needed them to save the situation. Abu al-Saraya had taken al-Mada’in (or Ctesiphon, the former capital of the Sassanian Empire) and was preparing to march on Baghdad. Hasan had no choice but to appeal to one of these men for support. Tahir, being the shrewder of the two, would have only helped on his own terms, which would have probably meant the removal of Sahlid power from Iraq. Harthama, who was travelling to Khurasan, was still at Hulwan. Hasan sent court officials with whom Harthama was well-acquainted after him. They were able to convince him to return to Iraq to deal with the rebels.


Harthama’s return to Iraq was the beginning of the end for the Alid rebels. The veteran Abbasid general commanded widespread respect and his prestige, reputation, and experience, which was what the Sahlids needed to save the situation in Iraq. Men who had refused to support Hasan ibn Sahl now flocked to Harthama’s banner.  Harthama divided his army into two sections and launched a two-pronged attack on the rebels. He led the main force driving Abu al-Saraya and his army back towards Kufa. A second Abbasid army under Ali ibn Abi Sa‘id retook territory that the rebels had occupied including al-Mad’in and Wasit. Harthama decisively defeated the rebels outside Kufa. Shortly after this defeat, the notables of Kufa surrendered the city.

Abu al-Saraya attempted to flee to Basra, the last city still in rebel hands. He met an Abbasid force on the way and was wounded in the fighting. Ali ibn Abi Sa‘id took Basra shortly afterward. Abu al-Saraya decided to take refuge with his fellow tribesmen in the Jazira region. However, he never made it. He was captured, sent to Hasan ibn Sahl, and executed, bringing the Alid uprising to an end. Even though the Sahlids were victorious, their weakness had been revealed. Without the support of generals such as Harthama or Tahir, they commanded little military power in Iraq.

Hasan, even after being given a second chance by Harthama’s defeat of the Alid rebellion, continued to blunder as a governor in Iraq. He quarrelled with his cousin, Ali ibn Sa‘id, who was the only other military leader who commanded a significant army and had gained some respect through his actions against the Alid rebels. This quarrel resulted in Ali ibn Sa‘id returning to Khurasan. Thus, with his departure, Hasan was once again deprived of any significant military support.

The ruins of Marw – photo by John Pavelka / Wikimedia Commons

Harthama’s Demise

Harthama once again decided to set out for Khurasan. After dealing with the Alid rebels, he decided to return to Marw to appraise the caliph of the dire situation in Iraq and to expose the Sahlid’s machinations and lies to stay in power. He knew that there could never be peace while the Sahlids controlled the caliph and Iraq and he hoped to convince al-Ma‘mun to return to Iraq and assume his seat in the ancestral capital of the Abbasids, Baghdad.

Fadl ibn Sahl first tried to dissuade Harthama from carrying out his plan by offering him the governorship of Hijaz or Syria. Neither of these offers were very appealing to the Abbasid commander. Syria was in turmoil and Harthama would have had to fight a series of campaigns against various factions of rebels and warlords, and he may have even had to fight Tahir, who as at Raqqa. The Hijaz, on the other hand, was out of the way and far from the political and economic heart of the empire. Going to the Hijaz would have been little more than an honourable exile. Harthama refused both offers and continued his journey to Marw. Fadl ibn Sahl then resorted to another tactic, turning the caliph against Hathama. He was able to convince al-Ma’mun that Harthama had been in league with Abu al-Saraya (since he had been an officer in Harthama’s army) and the Alid rebels and was coming to Khurasan to raise a rebellion. Turning the caliph against his loyal general demonstrates the wazir/vizier’s influence and power over al-Ma’mun.

Harthama arrived at Marw in June 816. The unfortunate general did not know he had fallen out of favor and believed that the Sahlids would hide his arrival from the caliph. He had drums beaten loudly as he approached the palace. Al-Ma’mun, who had already been turned against Harthama, was irritated when he learned the source of the ruckus. He ordered Harthama to be brought before him and upbraided him, believing what the Sahlids had said about him. Al-Tabari records al-Ma’mun’s words to his general as follows:

“You have conspired with the people of Kufah and the ‘Alids, and you have intrigued and plotted with Abu al-Saraya until he came out in revolt and perpetrated his various misdeeds. He was one of your retainers, and if you had really wanted to arrest the whole lot of them, you could have done so; but you let the rope around their throats be slack and you let the halter on their necks hang loosely.”

Harthama tried to defend himself against these accusations, but the caliph would not listen. He ordered him to be imprisoned. Harthama was struck on the nose and in the abdomen before being ignominiously dragged away. A few days later he was murdered in his cell on the orders of Fadl ibn Sahl. The wazir/vizier reported to the caliph that his general died in his cell and no further inquiries were made into the matter. This action by the wazir/vizier may have safeguarded his position in Marw in the short term, but it only made things worse in other parts of the caliphate. Harthama’s son Hatim, who was the governor of Armenia rose in revolt but died within a year before his rebellion could get anywhere. More importantly, Harthama’s demise sparked a revolt in Baghdad that Hasan ibn Fadl was ill-equipped to fight.

The Fighting Resumes in Iraq

The situation in Baghdad was already tense and Harthama’s death was the spark that led to an all-out confrontation between Hasan and his supporters and the abna’ and the inhabitants of Baghdad. A precarious peace was established between the main leader of the abna’, Muhammad ibn Abi Khalid, and the Sahlid governor, Ali ibn Hisham. However, the abna’ and other soldiers were suffering. They had depended on their salaries to live, and with the court so far away, they were not receiving pay regularly and when they were paid, they were given reduced wages. Whether this was a deliberate policy or due to the unavailability of funds is unclear. In one account al-Tabari implies this was a matter of policy. He states that Hasan ibn Fadl sent a message to Ali ibn Hisham with the following instructions:

“Delay payment of their stipends to the army, both the Harbiyyah and Baghdad troops; inspire them with promises of payment, but do not actually give it to them.”

The result, however, was anger at the regime. There were frequent skirmishes and battles, sometimes severe, between the abna’ and the governor’s men. But rivalries within the ranks of the abna’ (i.e. East Bankers and West Bankers) prevented them from forming a united front against the Sahlids and allowed Hasan and Ali ibn Hisham to play them off against one another, sometimes paying one faction and not the other. Harthama’s death changed everything. The abna’ factions set their differences aside and united under Muhammad ibn Khalid to oppose the Sahlids, who, they now knew more than ever, could not be trusted. United, the abna’ drove Ali ibn Hisham out of Baghdad without much difficulty.

View of the River Tigris in Baghdad. A miniature painting illustrating text by Nasir Bukhara’i, from a fifteenth century anthology. Wikimedia Commons

The abna’ and the people of Baghdad were fighting for their very survival. The situation was so desperate that even Ali ibn ‘Isa’s sons and family agreed to serve under Muhammad ibn Abi Khalid. They were backed by the descendants of the old Abbasid generals (i.e. Qahtaba and others who had served alongside Abu Muslim) who had fought and won the revolution for the Abbasid family. Members of the Abbasid family also sided with the rebels, giving the movement additional legitimacy. It is at this point that the rebels offered the caliphate to an Abbasid, Mansur ibn al-Mahdi. Mansur refused the offer but supported the people of Baghdad in their revolt. Hasan did not have anyone to turn to for help. Harthama was dead, and Tahir, watching the events in Baghdad unfold from a distance, refused to budge from Raqqa. Hasan was in an unenviable position. He lacked the leadership skills and charisma necessary to handle such a volatile situation. He also lacked independence. He received his directive from his brother in distant Marw, and more often than not, these orders were out of date and did not address the situation on the ground.

Hasan ibn Sahl and Ali ibn Hisham withdrew to Wasit and gathered their supporters to them to meet the inevitable onslaught of the Baghdadis. It is at this point that two fortunate events occurred that saved the situation for the beleaguered governor. First, Humayd ibn Abd al-Hamid al-Tusi arrived in Iraq from Khurasan. He was a military leader and became Hasan’s top general. His father was a relative of Qahtaba and one of the leaders of the Abbasid revolution but had fallen out of favour for rebelling afterwards. Despite this, Humayd’s family did retain their prestige in their home city of Tus. It is unclear why he came to support Hasan at this critical juncture. It is also not certain if he brought an army with him. He must have come with a retinue, as it is unlikely that such a figure would travel alone, but the sources do not indicate its strength.

The second fortunate event occurred during the battle that took place outside Wasit between Hasan’s motley army and the Baghdadis. A sudden dust storm blew up in the face of the advancing abna’, who were driven back. During the battle, Muhammad ibn Abi Khalid was mortally wounded. This was the heaviest blow to the rebels because there was no one else in the rebel camp who commanded the prestige and respect to unite the disparate factions against the Sahlids. Initially, his son ‘Isa ibn Muhammad took over leadership of the rebel army, while the Abbasid, Mansur ibn al-Mahdi, ruled Baghdad as its governor. At first, things did not look very bad but with time rifts began to reappear dividing the rebels.

A Volatile Peace

‘Isa ibn Muhammad opted to seek terms with the Sahlids rather than continue the fight. He had a large army, 125,000 strong according to some sources. Such numbers must be taken with a grain of salt, but the figure indicates that this army must have been large. Even it if was one-third of the given size, at 40,000 men, it was still a very large force by medieval standards and very expensive to maintain. Additionally, one should imagine that this force was composed of different groups of men with various military skills including retired or disbanded soldiers, artisans, and peasants. In other words, this was not a disciplined and well-organized force. Knowing the shortcomings of his followers and probably seeking to avoid any further fighting, bloodshed, and damage to the region, ‘Isa sought to end the conflict through diplomacy with Hasan. However, he did demand the caliph sign the agreement that they made. Since this meant apprising the caliph of the situation in Iraq, the Sahlids refused, and the war dragged on.

The situation became difficult for the rebels in 817. Low on funds and supplies, many of ‘Isa’s soldiers survived by pillaging the towns and villages of Iraq. This led to the formation of local home defence units to stave off the marauding soldiers. Two of these vigilante groups grew so large that they formed a threat to the Baghdadis and, more importantly, cut off a major means of their subsistence. With the situation becoming more desperate in Baghdad, ‘Isa wrote to Hasan, once again asking for terms. This time an agreement was reached. The Baghdadi soldiers were to be paid six months’ salary and the ‘Isa ibn Muhammad and a Sahlid (a cousin of Hasan and Fadl) would share in ruling Baghdad and the Sawad. By the spring of 817, Baghdad and Iraq were in a state of peace unseen since the beginning of the war between al-Amin and al-Ma’mun.

A New Succession Arrangement Reignites the War

The peace negotiated by ‘Isa and Hasan was not to last very long. That same year word arrived in Baghdad from the east regarding the succession to the caliph. Al-Ma’mun named the Alid eighth imam, Ali ibn Musa ibn Ja‘far al-Rida, as his heir. He even adopted the Alid green as his color, discarding the Abbasid black. To further cement this deal, Ali al-Rida married al-Ma’mun’s daughter.

There are several possible reasons for this move. Al-Ma’mun may have been continuing the policies of his grandfather, al-Mahdi, who tried to reconcile with the Alids. This was a policy strongly supported by the Barmakids. With this move, the caliph may have been attempting to bring the two main branches of the Banu Hashim clan, the family of the prophet, together and to bring the supporters of the Alids under his banner. Al-Tabari states that al-Ma’mun chose Ali al-Rida after considering all the members of both the Alid and Abbasid houses and finding him the most suitable.

Orders were sent out to all the soldiers and notables to swear allegiance to the new heir and to adopt green as their colour. The soldiers and people of Baghdad refused. The Abbasids in Iraq were also taken aback and banded together to resist what they saw as an insult and threat to their house, their position, and their prestige; many saw it as a handing over of power and the caliphate to the Alids. In Marw, Fadl ibn Sahl supported this decision. In fact, he was one of those involved in orchestrating this scheme. It may have been a ploy on the wazir/vizier’s part to harness the Alid militant manpower in Iraq to the Sahlid cause. One of the main weaknesses of Hasan ibn Sahl in Iraq had been his lack of a reliable army and manpower. If the Alids could be wooed, then the Sahlids could dispense with the troublesome soldiers of Baghdad.

A copy of the Quran ascribed to al-Rida is now kept in a museum in Qom, Iran. Photo by Mohammad mahdi P9432 / Wikimedia Commons

The news of the new heir shattered the fragile peace. The Baghdadis, supported by the Abbasid family, rose in open rebellion in opposition to the decision. The people of Baghdad swore allegiance to Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, an uncle of al-Ma’mun and the half-brother of his father, Harun al-Rashid.

Hasan ibn Sahl’s position in Iraq was deteriorating. His army was composed of two main groups Khurasanis and al-Amin’s former supporters. The second group was not thrilled about the Alid succession. Additionally, there was also enmity between them and the Khurasanis, commanded by Humayd. These soldiers quickly deserted to the Baghdadis, leaving Hasan much weakened. Furthermore, Fadl ibn Sahl’s gamble did not pan out. Hasan did not receive mass support from the Alids of Iraq. Many of the Alids were suspicious of the arrangement of the succession because the caliph was two decades younger than his designated successor, Ali al-Rida. Other Alids saw Ali as a part of the regime and not the change that they desired. Regardless, some Kufan Alids rallied to Hasan.

At the end of 817, the Baghdadis and the Alids fought a battle outside Kufa. The Alids were defeated and driven back to the city. Kufa’s notables, who had never supported the Sahlids, negotiated the city’s surrender to the attackers. The forces of Hasan ibn Sahl and the Baghdadis then engaged in a series of battles and skirmishes, but none of these were decisive and the conflict would come to an end through the decisions and actions of the caliph, al-Ma’mun.

Al-Ma’mun takes Action and Ends the Civil War

Early in 818, Ali al-Rida spoke with the caliph and persuaded him to return to Iraq. He told al-Ma’mun about the deception and lies of the Sahlids and how they had kept him in the dark. He also revealed to al-Ma’mun that Iraq had been in a state of perpetual war since his assumption of power. He produced several witnesses who verified this information. Having been appraised of the reality, al-Ma’mun made the decision to return to Iraq. Fadl ibn Sahl had some of those who bore witness flogged, jailed and tortured. These actions further confirmed his guilt to the caliph. The wazir/vizier fled from Marw to Sarakhs, where a group of assassins caught him in his bathhouse and hacked him to pieces. There is no doubt that these men were operating under al-Ma’mun’s direction. But when they were caught, the caliph disavowed them and had them executed.

The caliph’s journey to Iraq was slow. It took him six months to arrive at Tus. It is here that Ali al-Rida suddenly died. The Alid heir to the caliphate is said to have eaten poisoned grapes. There is no direct evidence implicating al-Ma’mun in the killing of his heir. However, this death did serve him well. He sent messages to his family and the people of Iraq stating that their opposition was to his appointed heir and not to him. As the caliph approached Baghdad, Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, the “anti-caliph,” gradually lost his supporters. It is at this point that al-Hasan sent his army to retake the city. The attackers faced very little resistance and the city was secured and Ibrahim went into hiding.

Al-Ma’mun continued his slow progress to Baghdad. As he approached, he was met by his Abbasid relatives, military commanders, and dignitaries. Tahir ibn Husayn had also left Raqqa to meet his sovereign at Baghdad. He had observed the chaos from a distance without getting involved. It can be argued that he was the only one who could have brought the conflict to a quick end. However, his actions indicate that he knew of the hold that the Sahlids had on the caliph and decided not to risk his neck in a conflict, which could result in him suffering the same fate as Harthama. The Abbasid Civil War formally ended when al-Ma’mun entered Baghdad on August 10, 819.

The Abbasid Civil War was the beginning of the end for the Abbasids. Although the Abbasid caliphs were to sit on the caliphal throne in Baghdad until the Mongol conquest of the city more than four centuries later in 1258, their prestige and power would never fully recover. Al-Ma’mun and his successor, his brother, al-Mu‘tasim, would revive the power and authority of the caliph. They ruled much like their predecessors, with absolute power. However, they were forced to rely on others. Tahir was given the governorship of Khurasan, where his family would establish themselves as hereditary rulers. Although they were loyal to the caliph, the Tahirids, would always retain some independence from central rule in Khurasan and members of their family were also appointed to lucrative positions at court and in the army. They were also instrumental in bringing the western provinces of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt back under caliphal control. It was Tahir’s son, Abdallah ibn Tahir, who subjugated these regions that had fallen into a state of anarchy.

Almost a decade of fighting, mostly in Iraq, also caused immense damage to its cities and farmlands, one of the main sources of revenue, which means that the royal treasury also suffered. By the end of his reign, al-Ma’mun was able to bring most of the caliphate, including Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Khurasan, and Transoxiana under his control. His brother and successor al-Mu‘tasim, completed the reconstitution of the empire by bringing some of the northern regions such as Azerbaijan back under caliphal control. However, North Africa, was forever lost. Ifriqiya was ruled by the Aghlabids, and several other dynasties would emerge to control the region.

As mentioned in the previous article, the killing of al-Amin shattered the prestige of the Abbasid caliphs and their inviolability. There have been some suggestions that both al-Mu‘tasim and his son al-Wathiq (r. 842-847) were murdered; the former was poisoned and the latter was left in an oven to die (he was in an oven to cure the dropsy from which he suffered). Al-Mutawakkil (r. 847-861), al-Mu‘tasim’s other son, was murdered by his Turkic guardsmen. Al-Mutawakkil’s murder was the final blow to caliphal prestige, and most of the subsequent rulers (with a few of exceptions) were puppets under the control of powerful military men and administrators.

With the passage of time, the caliphs’ power was limited to Baghdad, the other parts of the caliphate were ruled by regional dynasties. In the east the Tahirids, Saffarids (861-1002), Samanids (819-999), Ghaznavids (977-1163), and Seljuks (1037-1194) ruled. Small dynasties emerged in the Caspian region in the north, one of these, the Buyids (934-1055), managed to gain control of much of Iran and Iraq and reduced the caliph to the status of a puppet. In the west the Tulunids (868-905), Ikhshidids (935-969), Fatimids (973-1171), and Ayyubids (1171-1250/1260) controlled Egypt and much of Syria.

The Abbasid Civil War also resulted in a military revolution of sorts. The armies of the caliphs and all the independent and semi-independent dynasties that emerged transformed into primarily cavalry forces. These armies were smaller than the militaries of the earlier Abbasids and the Umayyads but were composed of highly trained professional soldiers and mercenaries. Traditions of steppe warfare, such as mounted archery, became more prevalent in the caliphate. Additionally, the more complete incorporation of Transoxiana into the Muslim world brought the Muslims into more direct contact with the Turks. Contrary to popular belief, these cavalry units were composed of heavily armed and armoured men. They formed versatile units that could skirmish with the enemy and/or engage them in close combat. When it came to fighting at close quarters, units of heavy mamluk cavalry were just as effective as the most heavily armored knights of the west. Many of these Turks served in al-Mu‘tasim’s elite regiment of slave soldiers, ushering in the institution of military slavery. These military slaves would dominate most of the Muslim world for the next millennium as the military and political elites, and in some cases (i.e. the Mamluk sultanate) as the sovereign rulers.

The Abbasids, in the long run, were never able to recover from the civil war that ravaged the very heart and center of the caliphate. The conflict that began as a quarrel between the sons of Harun al-Rashid, was in fact a regional struggle between their supporters for power, influence, and control in the caliphate. It could have potentially ended in 813 with the death of al-Amin and the fall of Baghdad but dragged on for another six years due to al-Ma’mun’s trust in his advisors, the Sahilds, and their ability to keep him in the dark in order to maintain their own personal power.

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

Top Image: A dish from Iran, 9th–10th century – image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art