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Collapse and Continuity in the Umayyad and Abbasid Regimes

I have not been able to update this blog nearly as often as I would like, but more importantly I’ve realized that for a site intended to cover sweeping arrays of Muslim history this blog has had a near-exclusive focus on the modern age, with perhaps a reference or two to bygone times. Part of the reason is that most of the work I’m doing right now has to do with current affairs and requires cl:se study of modern events–the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya, for instance–not leaving much time to sink happily into the realm of the premodern age, which can be slightly addictive once I get into it. Nonetheless, I shall try to address this issue by posting a report I did a few months back as a sample article for a job application: it regards the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphate, the turmoil that bridged them and the continuity that survived: among its consequences was the crystallization of a religious difference between Sunnis and Shias. Along with the good ole Muhammad b. Jarir Tabari, the work of the modern scholar Khalid Yahya Blankinship was particularly useful. Note that Abbasis and Alouis refers to the families of Abbas b. Abdul-Muttalib b. Hashim and Ali b. Abi Talib b. Abdul-Muttalib respectively, may Allah be pleased with them.

Collapse and Continuity in the Umayyad and Abbasid Regimes

Ibrahim Moiz

The collapse of the Umayyad caliphate in the tumultous decade of 740-50 remains one of the most violent and tumultuous periods of upheaval in Islamic history. A state that had stretched and managed to wield a considerably centralized control over a stretching from India to Spain suddenly collapsed in a dizzying series of separate revolts, civil wars and fragmentation that were eventually dominated by the Khurasani-based Abbasid movement, which managed to conquer and impose its authority over most of its predecessors’ domain. The bloody takeover of the Abbasid caliphate and the eradication from its Levantine heartland of the once-powerful Umayyad clan was rooted in long-simmering racial, ethnic and tribal tensions, the overextension of a relentless expansionist state and a skilful exploitation by the Abbasid family of the same dynastic politics that had propped up its predecessor.

In monitoring the bloody two decades centred on the Abbasid triumph of 750, the first of which saw the Umayyad caliphate collapse in a series of mostly spontaneous revolts throughout its provinces and the second of which saw the Abbasids ruthlessly stamp their authority over these revolts to emerge as the Umayyads’ unquestioned successor, it is easy to forget that the Umayyads themselves had come to power mainly through a forcible and usually violent coup that changed the dynamics of rule in the Islamic world forever. The four “righteously guided” caliphs after Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings on His prophet and slave and messenger) while never unquestioningly instated, did not base their rule on a familial or dynastic base. Though Abu Bakr Abdullah b. Qahafa and Umar b. Khattab were father-s-in-law of Muhammad while Uthmaan b. Affan and Ali b. Abi Talib were sons-in-law to Muhammad, more relevant to their nomination was their experience, perceived qualities and well-known self-sacrifice in the cause of the early Islamic campaigns than their relation to the Prophet Muhammad, which was not an uncommon feature in the close-knit communities in which Islam was founded; several competing candidates to the caliphate, for instance, were not in-laws or otherwise close relatives of Muhammad, but more relevantly longtime companions in arms.

Though Ali, and more pressingly his relatives and sympathizers, may have felt hard done by at being repeatedly passed over till his eventual, troubled arrival to the fore in 656, he did put aside those slights in the greater interest and contributed significantly to the cordial running of the “rightly guided” caliphate in its remarkably successful first few decades. But the otherwise apparently successful regime of Uthmaan b. Affan, mainly characterized as a well-meaning but malleable leader, was beset by perception of a partiality for his kinsfolk for important posts—even when, as in the case of Uthmaan’s inexperienced but talented nephew, the conqueror of Khurasan Abdullah b. Aamir, they turned out to succeed in those posts. Though the caliph does not seem to have intended to let nepotism creep into his administration, he could not and more importantly was perceived at not stopping his more forceful kin, such as the Syrian governor Muawiah b. Abi Sufian, from setting up familial power bases. After Uthmaan’s assassination in 656 during a reactive revolt, Muawiah thereby managed quite skilfully and unscrupulously to exploit the situation as a cause for bringing justice to the culprits, overthrow Ali in a divisive campaign and establish himself as caliph by 661, bringing to an end what is remembered in fond nostalgia by most Muslims as the age of the “Righteously Guided Caliphs”.

Despite Muawiah b. Abi Sufian’s controversial rise, his undoubted skills as an administrator managed to keep the swiftly expanding Islamic state, now based in his own centre at Damascus, running smoothly; apart from the more extreme Kharijites, a fanatical but relatively powerless fringe who had been a third party in his conflict with Ali b. Abi Talib, the majority of the Muslim populace, including Ali’s son Hasan, reconciled themselves with the caliph in the interest of order after the fractious civil strife. A segment of aggrieved Muslim veterans, including Hasan’s more dynamic brother Husain and the equally ambitious but more calculating Abdullah b. Zubair, only rose in open opposition to Muawiah when in his final years the caliph decided to bypass the traditional avenues of succession and instead unilaterally appoint his unprepossessing son Yazid as heir to the caliphate, while probably ordering the unnecessary assassination of the unassuming but popular Hasan. Unsurprisingly, the already aggrieved parties in Medina objected to Yazid’s rule and what was seen as a dynastic tyranny, and the subsequent conflict resulted, most infamously, in Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala, and over a decade later to Abdullah b. Zubair’s own martyrdom at Makkah in 692, each of them at the hands of an infamously merciless Umayyad commander, Ubaidullah b. Ziad and Hajjaj Thaqafi, apiece.  By 692, the Umayyad caliphate, now under a member of a rival branch of the clan, Abdul-Malik b. Marwan I, had after a generation of division and bloodshed stamped its unquestioned authority over the Islamic world.

These incidents have been well documented, but their significance is often missed. While many historians have wrongly seen these events, and in particular the Karbala massacre, as the culmination of the Sunni-Shia religious divide in Islam, there was in fact no religious difference at all between what are now termed “Sunni” and “Shia” factions. The supporters of Ali were never considered a separate sect, and in fact usually collaborated and had indistinguishable interests from what are now termed “Sunnis”. When Husain, the second imam after Ali in Shia tradition, took up arms at Karbala, he was not fighting to impose his own dynastic rule but rather to oppose the imposition of another dynasty, that of the Umayyads, and open up the field for a number of more qualified candidates than Yazid, which included himself; most accounts, indeed, add that Husain had agreed to lay down arms so long as several criteria, mostly related to justice and among them the abandonment of the dynastic model, were met; quite unnecessarily, they were not, and opened up a division that broadened over the next century into a not only political but religious split. Only after Karbala did the long-dormant grievances of Husain’s family bear a distinctly political note, and that in direct response to the Umayyad dynasty. The plight of the jilted Aloui family would make them a permanent symbol for opposition to Umayyad tyranny, both for what are now often wrongly separated as “Sunni” and “Shia” factions.

In the meantime, however, the Umayyad caliphate was thriving on its own terms. Successive caliphs sent a wave of zealous believers out to oppose the disbelievers and spread the influence of Islam by writ, persuasion or force. The civil strife of 656-92 may have somewhat interrupted the expansion of the Islamic caliphate, but it accelerated anew under the regimes of Abdul-Malik b. Marwan I and his sons. Abdul-Malik himself had come to power following a relatively minor rift in the Umayyad family, when his unscrupulous father Marwan I b. Hakam successfully manipulated the succession from Yazid I’s branch of the family; by his death, Abdul-Malik had managed to entrench the Umayyads as the most powerful family in the world, a seemingly immovable force that had with dizzying speed outstripped its main rival, the Byzantine Empire.

Despite the heady success of the early 700s, however, the Umayyads’ seizure of power and the inherent contradictions that their method of government entailed slowly opened up a number of rifts that would gradually broaden to leave the state on the brink of collapse within a generation. Though Umayyad armies fought under the banner of Islam and the vast majority of laws were more or less in tune with the Islamic law, the bedrock of the Umayyad state was the distinctly secular power of the Umayyad family and its clients. Because the Umayyads rode to power on and applied a system that, though often flexible and not nearly as tyrannical as its successors would claim, partially contradicted certain tenets of the same Islamic principles that it claimed to uphold, there was considerable fuel for resentment to seep in.

The most emphatic example of this phenomenon is presented in the taxation system. Under traditional Islamic law, non-Muslim subjects had to pay, in return for an exemption from Muslim financial and military obligations and protection under the state, a tax called the jizia. But the Umayyads, who found that their coffers took a hit when Muslim conversion in conquered territories cut down the jizia taxes, decided in most cases to change the distinction for an entirely practical, material purpose: now the distinction for the jizia was not between Muslim and non-Muslim but Arab and non-Arab. Non-Arabs who converted to, followed the law of and fought for Islam nonetheless had to pay the jizia taxes that under Islamic principle applied only to non-Muslim subjects; in other words, they bore the burdens of both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens.

It is a mark of the resentment that such laws caused that a conscientious tactful caliph like Umar b. Abdul-Aziz, who ruled for only two years but made a number of sweeping changes that conformed more directly with Islamic sensibility and ideas of justice, is remembered with such admiration in Muslim history, often—quite unfairly to some of his colleagues—as the only good Umayyad. In addition to streamlining the bureaucracy of Umayyad administration and taking a more direct control to undercut corruption in far-flung provinces, Umar—incidentally a rare Umayyad caliph who did not succeed his father, but was instead appointed by his predecessor and cousin Sulaiman b. Abdul-Malik—also reinstated the jizia rules to their original Muslim vs non-Muslim, as opposed to Arab vs non-Arab, purpose and innovated new land tax rules to compensate the treasury. Few of Umar b. Abdul-Aziz’s rules survived his suspicious death in 720, however, and most of the reforms were eventually abandoned.

With the majority of the earliest Muslims having passed away or distanced themselves prudently from politics into lives of study, contemplation and seclusion, the Umayyad state derived its power from the familial, tribal and ethnic bases that had a long history in the Arab world. Accordingly a significant proportion of high posts were awarded to members of the Umayyad family, some of them more competent than others. Among the most famous Umayyad commanders, for instance, was Maslama b. Abdul-Malik, who as the son of a concubine presented no threat to the succession of his brothers during their caliphates and who accordingly could be entrusted with important posts. Maslama’s flamboyance and ambition were not always matched by his chequered record, which contained both some remarkable victories and a couple of disastrous defeats. On one occasion, outshone by the obscure but competent Saeed b. Amr, who repulsed a massive Khazar attack from the Caucasus in 731, Maslama promptly had Saeed replaced for no practical reason.

Though the 740s saw a number of revolts erupt throughout the Umayyad caliphate, the revolt that most directly concerned the caliphate was related to a massive Qaisi-Yamani rift in Syria itself. The controversial regime of the corrupt and amoral Waleed II b. Yazid II (743-44) is usually accredited for the conflict, which erupted in full force when his pietistic cousin Yazid III b. Waleed I led a Yamani-dominated uprising that captured Damascus and killed Waleed, though a Qaisi-dominated faction led by the aged but vigorous Marwan II b. Muhammad soon seized power again. Marwan II, as a harsh but essentially fair ruler, tried to rise above the factionalism that had consumed the caliphate, appointing Yamanis as well as Qaisis to important positions in a gesture of trust, but the breach was by then irreparable; many of the Yamanis revolted, joined by ambitious Umayyad upstarts like Marwan’s great-nephew Sulaiman b. Hisham, aristocrats and while Marwan tried to stamp out the revolts in the Umayyad heartland, revolts in other provinces spiralled out of his control.

Outside the Umayyad family, with its own inevitable factions, came the divisions in the mostly Syrian Arab tribes that formed the backbone of the Umayyad army and administration. The Syrians, known as exceptional cavalry troops, were split along tribal lines into two large and often confusing federations, the Qais and Yaman, a division that either predated the rise of Islam or crystallized in the early years of the Umayyad caliphate. Qaisi-Yamani politics were closely entwined with those of the Umayyad court; some caliphs supported Qaisis in the administration and army, others Yamani; often the arrival of a new caliph would bring a possibly violent purge of officials and officers from the other confederation. This became an increasingly common and fractious scenario in the Umayyad caliphate’s final years, and was a major cause for the feuds between rival positions.

The eastern and western blocs of the caliphate were governed from Kufa and Kairouan respectively by powerful, usually partisan viceroys; the most infamous of these was Hajjaj Thaqafi, who sealed Umayyad dominance in 692 and whose tyranny and disregard for human life was a byword. These viceroys, largely independent in their own right, cultivated their own cadres of officers, mainly from their own tribe and often plucked either from their own families or from obscurity to ensure their loyalty to the viceroy; the viceroy’s lieutenants and appointees themselves would draw mainly on their own family, group or, in cases where they sought to enfranchise the locals of their provinces, freedmen. Often their loyalty to the viceroy and his group outstripped their loyalty to the caliph, so that Qutaiba b. Muslim, an appointee and loyalist of Hajjaj whose conquests in Transoxania were based on his own and his brothers’ leadership, declared a revolt when the new caliph, Sulaiman b. Abdul-Malik, purged Hajjaj’s appointees in 715; to Qutaiba’s dismay, few of his troops backed him up and he was instead killed. This in turn was matched by sometimes undue suspicion on the caliph’s own part; during the same purge, he imprisoned Hajjaj’s nephew, the teenage conqueror of Sind Muhammad b. Qasim, a capable and popular commander cut from a very different cloth to his uncle but who was nonetheless jailed just in case. In the perilous sphere of partisan politics, appointees could rise and fall with dizzying speed.

Cases such as those of Muhallab b. Abi Suffrah, an early commander particularly noted for his integrity in an otherwise tumultuous time of civil war during the Umayyad family’s rise to power, and whose family survived as prominent officers and officials some five centuries in various parts of the Islamic world, were outliers. Most commanders, even those of prominent families, could rise and fall with dizzying speed, particularly in terms of the Qaisi-Yamani faction. During a 721 campaign in the parched desert of Central Asia, for instance, the Umayyad commander Muslim b. Saeed, scion of an established Qaisi frontier family, could not budge the Yamanis in the frontier towns, and had to set out with a depleted army. In the middle of a sapping campaign Muslim received orders from Iraq, where administration for the eastern provinces was based and where a Qaisi administration had just been replaced by a Yamani one, to stand down and surrender his post to the Yamani lieutenant Abdul-Rahman b. Naeem. If illustrative of the abrupt uncertainty that tribal politics brought, this was also an unusually cordial transition: Muslim stood down and Abdul-Rahman arranged an honourable departure. This was an exception to the increasingly partisan, hostile trend of administrative transitions.

This partisan trend continued and intensified in the final decades of the Umayyad caliphate and was a significant contributor to its downfall. By its final years, Umayyad viceroys, governors and officers were regularly imprisoning or torturing their predecessors mainly for factional difference thinly disguised as an attempt to extort illegally hoarded money. Perhaps the most arbitrary and sadistic instance was that of Yusuf b. Umar, a Qaisi viceroy of Kufa who had long coveted his Yamani predecessor Khalid b. Abdullah’s post but upon assuming it showed a nearly psychotic desire to have Khalid tortured. Incessant lobbying for permission on Yusuf’s part, painting his predecessor as an ambitious ingrate, finally moved the caliph Hisham b. Abdul-Malik, who had personally appointed Khalid, to agree to a “restrained” use of torture; Yusuf duly tortured a defiantly stoic Khalid to death, opening up a Qaisi-Yamani rift that quickly intensified into civil war and ensured a permanent mutual hostility between Qaisi and Yamani troops, so that when the Abbasid revolution erupted and stormed west from Khurasan, Yusuf’s relatively respectable brother and successor Yazid b. Umar was hung out to dry by his Yamani colleagues.

Along with the Qaisi-Yamani suspicions that the Umayyads’ tribal power structure exacerbated was a natural competition between established families who had settled on the frontier. While many Arab soldiers and officials mixed easily with and enjoyed a mutual respect with the local populations of their provinces, others, particularly those whose own interests were threatened by up-and-coming promotions, competed fiercely. This was especially true in the cases of those commanders or governors who had been plucked, as several were by viceroys, out of obscurity, and who were easier to undermine than more established families; this was further exacerbated when such swift risers enjoyed mutual respect and sympathy with the “native” populaces and sought to cultivate their own support system from the locals.

A particularly poignant example is presented in the formidable viceroy of the Maghreb, Musa b. Nusair, who governed at the turn of the eighth century. An aged but ambitious and energetic freedman, Musa had been promoted to the post amid some controversy by the governor of Egypt Abdul-Aziz b. Marwan I, brother of the caliph, who wanted to assert his own authority with a mildly defiant act. An excellent commander who swiftly conquered the entirety of North Africa, Musa also gelled well with the Berbers, who had recently been won over from a huge nationalistic revolt by his predecessor Hasan b. Nauman and had secured a number of rights from Hasan, including the abolition of the controversial jizia on non-Arab converts. As well as continuing this prudent policy, Musa integrated Berbers into administration, military and civil posts—most notably his own freedman Tariq b. Ziad, who spearheaded the conquest of Iberia in 711. But this meteoric success provoked the enmity of the established Arab aristocracy, especially the Fihri family, who had led the initial conquest of North Africa. When Musa was recalled by the suspicious incoming caliph Sulaiman as part of the wider purge of officers, the Fihris and other families quickly stamped out the family’s influence, murdering or imprisoning members of the family on flimsy pretexts. The reforms, which had helped bring and integrate vast swathes of Berbers and other non-Arab natives into the Islamic world, were abolished within a few years, and the return of the jizia and a policy of extortionate taxation to benefit a particularly voracious viceroy, Ubaidullah b. Habhab, in the 730s helped provoke another massive revolt in 740-43 that would expel the Umayyads from North Africa.

Another governor and commander who rose from humble origins was the Khurasian campaigner Nasr b. Sayyar—like Musa b. Nusair, a grizzled but vigorous soldier who briefly supervised a sharp improvement  in military, social and financial affairs in the notoriously troublesome province of Khurasan. Nasr had earned terrific popularity among the rank and file as a soldier in the Umayyad army, particularly in the campaigns against the Central Asian Turgash. Nasr also enjoyed far greater popularity with the Khurasani and Arab rank-and-file, partly through and a mixture of boldness in wartime and prudent fairness in peacetime, quietly building up a support base even to the point of openly disobeying and irritating superiors. When the caliph Hisham b. Abdul-Malik promoted Nasr to govern the province, however, his fellow Qaisi, the viceroy Yusuf b. Umar, who already had several supporters lined up for the post, would have none of it; with even more persistence than in the campaign to torture old rivals, Yusuf tried to undermine Nasr, bribing or otherwise inciting lieutenants to undermine the governor’s reputation in the Umayyad court. Though Yusuf’s campaign here failed, Nasr’s misfortune was to govern, quite competently, the Khurasan province at a time when several potent anti-Umayyad movements had already taken root; despite a skilful counterinsurgency strategy to try and play off these revolutionaries against one another and several treatises for reinforcement to Damascus in the 740s, Nasr would be ousted and pursued to his death during the Abbasid revolt of the 740s.

While factionalism played a major role in the downfall of the Umayyad caliphate, the inability to deal with it was exacerbated by the overextension of the Umayyad state. While jihad, military and spiritual, is a fundamental tenet in Islam, the Umayyads continued, even at their most vulnerable moments, to wage expensive campaigns that drained the treasury and spread the army reserves thin. The recruitment of local converts to the Muslim armies had helped sustain the conquests and subsequent administration of the provinces, but the steady disenfranchisement of non-Arab Muslim troops, particularly but not solely on the basis of the jizia discrimination described above, ensured that armies were less coordinated, campaigns steadily less successful and morale increasingly low.

Until recently Western scholarship, epitomized by that master hyperbolist Edward Gibbon, liked to paint the 732 Frankish triumph at Tours over an Umayyad army, killing in the process its commander Abdul-Rahman b. Abdullah, as a seismic turning point that halted a century of Islamic invasion; the resilience of this myth is all the more astonishing for its ridiculous lack of context or factual correctness.  Quite apart from the fact that that particular army had been conducting nothing more ambitious than a large-scale foray for plunder, not a conquest of mainland Europe, it was simply one, and among the least prominent, of a number of the military defeats that Umayyad armies suffered at this time.

More traumatic was the 730 Khazar annihilation of an Umayyad army, killing its commander Jarrah b. Abdullah and surging southwards to briefly threaten the centre of the Islamic world; even better-documented was the disastrous defeat to the Central Asian Turkish Turgash confederation in 731. This rout inspired a wide library of Khurasani poetry and prose lamenting the predominantly Khurasian casualties and taking bitter swipes at the commander, Junaid b. Abdul-Rahman, who was attacked—despite having played a major, successful role in Umayyad forays into India—as being an inexperienced, careless glory hunter from faraway Syria with more regard for his own promotion than the lives of his troops. No other defeat better epitomized the sharp loss of morale and the distrust of disinterested foreign commanders.

Loss of morale in turn led to a wide range of dissident movements, most of which harkened to the ideals of early Islamic history. The most extreme of these movements was the famous anti-authority Kharijite trend, a revolutionary trend as old as the Umayyads’ rise to power that enjoyed considerable traction in the rural tribes of the east Arabian desert; a number of Kharijite revolts would explode across the Islamic world in the Umayyads’ final decade of power, reflecting the power that a revolutionary, radically idealistic movement could have against an unpopular and corrupt regime.

But the Kharijite label, too, must be treated with some caution; in North Africa, particularly Morocco, where in 740-43 a number of self-appointed Berber caliphs led a huge revolt that expelled foreign powers for good from Morocco, the Kharijite label was applied liberally by the Umayyad government to stick to and justify the suppression of any remotely dissident group, unintentionally adding to the Kharijites’ own popularity, especially when a disproportionately violent crackdown alienated those Berbers who had not been inclined towards Kharijism. Among the critics of the government accused of Kharijism was a freedman of the Abbasi family named Ikrima, considered a mainstream enough figure in orthodox Muslim circles to be considered a reliable traditionist. Though the Kharijite movement wielded considerable power in anti-Umayyad North Africa and Khurasan, therefore, it is important not to fall into the trap of using the label too readily. The Kharijites, or nominal Kharijites, who established a short-lived dynasty in modern Morocco, for example, appear to have be far less rigid and more inclusive than the Kharijites of Arabia, whose extremism can be gouged from the thunderous sermon of their leader Abu Hamza Mukhtar b. Auf upon his conquest of Medinah at the height of the Umayyad turmoil: “Whoever fornicates is a disbeliever; whoever doubts it is a disbeliever! Whoever steals is a disbeliever; whoever doubts that he is a disbeliever is also a disbeliever!”

Other purportedly Islamic movements, such as Harith b. Suraij’s “Murjiah” (revivalist) revolt in Khurasan—which earned the controversial distinction of being the first Muslim group to band with a non-Muslim enemy of the Umayyads when they briefly joined the Turgash confederation in 737—and the “Qadiriah” (self-deterministic) movement—which earned such prominent converts as even the caliph Yazid III—soon fizzled out thanks to a perception of heresy as well as the political ineptitude and obviously self-serving moves of their propagators. But they came at a critical time in the early 740s, where the Umayyad state was already engulfed in civil turmoil and its armies thinly spread. By Hisham b. Abdul-Malik’s death in 743, the Syrian corps that constituted the Umayyads’ backbone had been dispatched to Iraq, Iberia and in particular North Africa, where massive numbers, including two huge dispatches under successive governors, were required and were slain in suppressing the Berber Revolt, a task accomplished by a bare whisker. Those drained Syrian troops left in Syria would plunge into the Umayyad family’s own civil war later that year, leaving a once-impregnable state now shockingly vulnerable.

Though no revolt hesitated to refer to Islam when required, less definitively religious revolts also occurred throughout the Umayyad caliphate by ambitious families and tribes. In Khurasan, for instance, the Umayyads’ struggles to deal with the Murjiites and Kharijites were compounded, and exploited, by a Yamani officer called Judayy Kirmani b. Ali, who cited Yamani discontentment with the Qais-tilted bias of the Khurasan administration. In the Maghreb, meanwhile, the hectic conflict of the Berber Revolt was exploited by members of another local dynasty, the Fihris. The unscrupulous governor of Iberia, Abdul-Malik b. Qatan, sought both to free himself of Umayyad dependence and to appease his province’s considerable Berber constituency by refusing to help a desperately embattled Umayyad garrison in North Africa that was surrounded by the Berber Revolt; Abdul-Malik was encouraged by Abdul-Rahman b. Habib, a Fihri officer whose infighting with the Syrian reinforcements had partially exacerbated the situation to begin with.

When the North African branch of the revolt was finally quelled, however—with Berber rule imposed in Morocco and Umayyad authority halved down to the eastern segment of North Africa—Abdul-Malik b. Qatan’s own Berber consistuency rebelled, forcing him to appeal for help; in a grim joke of fate, the commander who arrived, Balj b. Bishar, had led the same garrison that Abdul-Malik had earlier jilted; once the revolt was suppressed, Balj promptly executed Abdul-Malik, leading to another feud between the pair’s tribes that eventually ended with the appointment of a Fihri puppet, Yusuf b. Abdul-Rahman, to rule a province now officially independent of the crumbling Umayyads. So too, by then, was North Africa, overtaken either by various Kharijite rebel groups, or, in the case of the provincial capital Kairouan, usurped by the opportunistic Fihri turncoat Abdul-Rahman b. Habib, who returned to a becalmed North Africa and promptly overthrew its competent governor Hanzala b. Safwan—who, already exhausted after a draining acampaign to rescue Umayyad North Africa, promptly retired in disgust.

But if local dynasties had carved out niches in the Maghreb, the most meaningful, dynamic and ultimately successful revolt came under the banner of another family, the Hashemite family of Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings on His prophet). Driven to the fringe, the Aloui family had secured the support, and protection, of another wing of the family descended from Ali b. Abi Talib and Prophet Muhammad’s uncle Abbas b. Abdul Muttalib. With the Umayyad regime increasingly unpopular after the death of Umar b. Abdul-Aziz, both the Abbasids and Alouis had launched a clandestine campaign, largely drawn in response to the Umayyads’ dynastic rule, that claimed not, as their progenitors had done, that the caliphate did not belong to a particular family, but that if any family deserved to lead the Muslim world it was Muhammad’s Hashemite family.

It was a mixture of Islamic sensibility and political pragmatism that had great appeal, particularly in Khurasan, which would provide the pool for most of the next wave of officer and official recruitment over the next few generations. Just as disaffected North Africans had comprised the Berber Revolt in the Maghreb, disaffected Persians and local settler Arabs flocked to the call of the Hashemite cause, along with the contingent of pious Muslims that disapproved of Umayyad rule. Though the Abbasids and Alouis initially cooperated well together, the political nous of the former family far outstripped the latter. While the Alouis had largely assumed that the rule would extend to them, the Abbasid wing of the family discreetly applied the Hashemite rather than Aloui label, which would open up the field for them as well as the family whose interests they had been hitherto represented in a show of solidarity.

The generalissimo and enforcer of the revolt was a charismatic and utterly ruthless Persian named Abu Muslim, a client handpicked from relative obscurity by Abbasid leader Ibrahim b. Muhammad. Abu Muslim skilfully attracted more and more recruits to the Hashemite cause and played off the other factions in Khurasan’s civil turmoil—the Murjiites, Yamanis, Kharijites and Qaisis—against one another before eradicating the remnants and storming west to wipe out the Umayyads and their supporters in a tremendous bloodbath; the entire Umayyad family was systematically slaughtered, with the exception of a handful of refugees that under the remarkable leadership of Abdul-Rahman b. Muawiah, a grandson of Hisham b. Abdul-Malik, fled to Iberia in a hair-raising escapade and established a successful independent dynasty there. The widespread slaughter under Abu Muslim put to shame the Umayyads’ own violent yet far less uncompromising rise to power a century earlier.

As with their predecessors, the Abbasids—despite giving their movement a respectably Islamic-friendly veneer of pietism by removing Arab-discriminatory laws and gradually integrating more sophisticated, Persian-influenced systems of governance into the state—had effectively turned the caliphate into a family venture; the major officials of the state were either drawn from the Abbasid family or from their lieutenants. There was a difference in the makeup of the Abbasids’ appointments, more open and nuanced than those of the Umayyads, but to a large extent it was also superficial; where once positions of prestige had gone to Arabs of either Qaisi or Yamani stock, they now went not only to Arabs but to the cadre of Khurasani officers who had helped launch the revolt. This mixture of pragmatic political contuinity and prudent judgment ensured the survival of the Abbasids; unlike the unquenchably expansionist Umayyads, for instance, very few Abbasid caliphs would launch external military campaigns, and those too only when judged expedient. In most respects, too, Islamic sensibilities under Abbasid stewardship were tactfully better respected than under its predecessors, while research into both Islamic and other studies was encouraged and patronized. Despite these differences, however, continuities also remained: the interests of the ruling family still took precedence, and as in the Umayyad caliphate potential rivals to the Abbasids included the Alouis.

Once the Umayyads were eradicated, the ruthless first two Abbasid caliphs, Saffah Abdullah I and his brother Mansur Abdullah II, turned their sights on the Alouis. Mansur on behalf of the Abbasids had earlier sworn loyalty to a particularly respectable Aloui, Muhammad Nafs-ul-Zakia (Pure Soul) b. Abdullah, but with the Abbasids now ensconced in power that was a trivial detail. Through a mixture of political cunning and murderous persecution sharpened by an overwhelming paranoia, Mansur launched a frighteningly systematic persecution of potential rivals, including his own ominously powerful and ambitious commander-in-chief Abu Muslim, and most prominently the Alouis. The most notorious Umayyad tactics of harassment, persecution or marginalization of the Alouis continued and were initially intensified under the Abbasids’ first decade of rule, which was as violent as had been the last Umayyad decade. Even well-respected Muslim leaders—such as the prominent scholars Abu Hanifa Nauman b. Thabit and Malik b. Anas—who dared criticize the crackdown or voice sympathy for the short-lived 763 final revolt of Nafs-ul-Zakia and his brother, Ibrahim b. Abdullah, were liable for vindictive punishment. Though Mansur’s successors would relax the treatment of the Alouis, even briefly reconciling, old grievances remained and returned with a vengeance whenever either family was in a moment of insecurity; this would eventually crystallize in the Sunni-Shia polarization, which took on an increasingly religious as well as political overtone and continues to the present day.

The bloody transition from the calamitous Umayyad collapse to the forceful Abbasid rise was marked by a contuinity the patterns of patronage that had characterized and been targeted for criticism under the Umayyads. Judicious improvement of Abbasid institutions, legislature and infrastructure, and the marked prosperity of the Abbasid regime at its peak, ensured the continuation of a dynastic and occasionally despotic regime was tolerated. The Abbasids learned through their own chequered rise to power not to repeat the fatal mistakes of the Umayyads; at the core, however, the politics of their regime’s dynastic retained the similar dynamics.

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