Islamic History, part 23: another civil war and the caliphate of al-Maʾmun (809-833)

Islamic History Series

Assuming that I manage to keep going with this series, things are going to get a lot more, well, a lot more everything, really, moving forward. The political situation is going to get more complicated, because, believe it or not, this whole caliphate thing isn’t going to remain stable much longer (actually stability has already gone out the window, but I’m getting ahead of myself). Lots of regional and local principalities are going to start popping up here and there, and eventually a few of them are going to prove to be pretty strong indeed. But fighting and ruling aside, we’re entering the period of really transformative intellectual development where Baghdad could realistically have made a claim to being the center of the world. Islamic scholars and artists made incredible advances in science, medicine, philosophy, theology, literature, and more, and these advances are going to have to be accounted for alongside the political context in which they were made. The difficulty is that these things don’t necessarily map neatly onto each other, so the overall story becomes a lot more complicated. But hey, we’re on a blog, which means I can write as many of these as I feel like writing, about whatever subjects seem important, and I can even change the order if I realize I’ve left something out and want to go back and fill in. So let’s just plow on forward, shall we?

When last we checked in, Harun al-Rashid, the archetypal caliph and yet not one who really accomplished all that much, had died and left the caliphate to his son, Muhammad b. Harun, who took the royal name “Al-Amin” or “The Trustworthy.” Well, sort of, anyway. Traditionally the story goes that Harun’s succession plans left Amin with the title of caliph and direct control over the western half of the empire, but installed his other son, Abu Jaʿfar b. Harun (better known as Al-Maʾmun, also “The Trustworthy” — both names come from the same root) as autonomous governor in the eastern half. That’s probably not true, by which I mean the idea of Maʾmun’s autonomy was probably a later invention of historians trying to explain the events that we’re about to cover here. It’s more likely that Harun stipulated that Maʾmun was to be Amin’s governor in the east, with some special authority but not autonomy, and that Maʾmun was to succeed his brother as caliph. Harun went so far as to have the documents stipulating this succession posted inside the Kaaba in Mecca, which presumably neither of his sons would dare violate. Whatever the intent, the practical result was that the empire and its political and military elites were divided. Amin’s closest advisers, particularly Harun’s last vizier (who retained that office under Amin), Fadl b. al-Rabi, told him that Harun’s succession plan was unsustainable and that Amin would need to act quickly to displace Maʾmun and put one of his own sons next in line for the throne. They recalled the army back to Baghdad and thus out of Maʾmun’s sphere of control, and Amin appeared to the throngs in Baghdad to announce his father’s death and assume the caliphate. Maʾmun made a similar announcement in the eastern city of Merv, which had no political significant but was heavily symbolic, considering that Merv was the city where the Abbasid revolt had really begun.

Fadl b. al-Rabi, along with the former governor of Khurasan and the leader of the Abna faction (“Sons,” descendents of the original Abbasid soldiers), Ali b. Isa b. Mahan, ingratiated themselves with Amin and really encouraged him to appoint his son, Musa, as heir apparent over Maʾmun (presumably they were afraid that they would lose their status and possibly their heads if Maʾmun were to take the throne). Maʾmun had his own scheming adviser, Fadl b. Sahl, who was part of the rebellious Persian aristocracy that Harun had been traveling east to deal with when he died. To be perfectly honest the historical record doesn’t really tell us what Maʾmun and Amin thought of each other, because both were being so completely managed by their advisers that the run up to the impending civil war almost appears to have been out of their hands entirely. Amin, through his advisers, demanded that Maʾmun turn over some provinces to his control; Maʾmun, through his advisers, told Amin to get bent. Maʾmun asked Amin to kindly send Maʾmun’s wife and kids along to Khurasan; Amin politely explained that they would stay in Baghdad because Amin wanted them as hostages was afraid that the journey to Khurasan was too dangerous. Finally, in November 810, Amin ordered that Friday sermons throughout the empire would no longer identify Maʾmun as the heir apparent, and it was on. Civil war! Again! The Fourth Fitna! How exciting!

Administrative divisions of the caliphate under Harun al-Rashid; if you look in the eastern part of the map you'll see Merv and Rayy.
Administrative divisions of the caliphate under Harun al-Rashid; if you look in the eastern part of the map you’ll see Merv (“Merw”) and Rayy.

Ali b. Isa managed to convince Amin to put him in charge of the army he was about to send east to defeat Maʾmun, presumably planning to reinstall himself as governor out there. Maʾmun couldn’t have asked for a better gift from his brother, since Ali was so loathed in the east that Maʾmun suddenly had a well-organized opposition forming behind him. Ali’s large army and Maʾmun’s pretty small one, under the command of one Tahir b. Husayn, met outside Rayy in May 811. Despite the disparity in numbers, Ali was apparently killed (somehow, reports disagree) early on in the fighting and his leaderless army mostly fell apart. The battle saved Maʾmun and changed the terms of the war; instead of fighting to maintain his position as heir apparent, Maʾmun was now fighting to overthrow his brother and become caliph. Tahir smartly decided to press his advantage without waiting for orders from Merv; if he had stopped in Rayy and waited, Amin’s army could have regrouped and been reinforced. The caliph was still in the better long-term position here, so it was better for Maʾmun’s forces to strike while the enemy was still in disarray. Tahir marched west toward Iraq, defeating a relief army near Hamadan, in western Iran, and arrived in Iraq just in time to watch the rats fleeing Amin’s sinking ship.

Amin was reportedly, and we have to take this with a grain of salt because it was written later, by the victors, more interested in making time with his palace eunuchs than in governing, and Fadl b. al-Rabi had completely lost faith in the Abna, who were insisting that they be given huge financial and political rewards for their military service despite the fact that they weren’t exactly proving themselves to be world conquerors. Fadl turned to the Iraqi Arab tribes, appointing Ahmad b. Mazyad al-Shaybani, nephew of one of the most important early pro-Abbasid Arab chiefs (Maʾn b. Zaʿida al-Shaybani), who took a combined Bedouin and Abna army east to face Tahir, who was now at Hulwan, in the Zagros Mountains, very close to the geographic border between the Iranian highlands and the Iraqi lowlands. Again outnumbered, Tahir decided this time not to engage the enemy army, but instead to send agents provocateur into their camp to work on the Bedouin and Abna factions, convincing members of each that the other guys were getting a better deal out of the caliph for going to war on his behalf. This worked amazingly well, and Ahmad’s army just kind of fell apart. Amin sent another commander to raise troops in Syria, whose formerly very pro-Umayyad tribes had been all but ignored by the Abbasids, but amazingly the Abna managed to block this effort as well before inevitably beginning to fight amongst themselves. While staying safely ensconced at Hulwan, Tahir had effected the complete disintegration of the caliphal armies.

Maʾmun and Fadl b. Sahl sent a relief force to Hulwan to plan an assault on Baghdad, while Tahir was instructed to take a smaller army and sweep up southern Iraq. He was very successful taking major cities like Basra almost without a fight. Meanwhile, Amin’s governor in Mecca, Dawud b. Isa, swore allegiance to Maʾmun, ostensibly to protest Amin’s order that his father’s succession papers be taken out of the Kaaba and burned, but probably also because he saw which way the wind was shifting. Amin was reduced to being caliph of Baghdad; the rest of the empire belonged to Maʾmun. In August 812 Maʾmun’s armies besieged Baghdad, which held out for over a year, but in late 813 the city fell and Amin was executed.

Maʾmun’s reign as undisputed caliph got off to a rocky start. He didn’t even set foot in Iraq until 819, mostly because Fadl b. Sahl thought that he could control the new caliph in Merv and wouldn’t allow him to leave. Iraq, consequently, nearly fell apart as various factions vied for power in and around Baghdad (the citizens of the city even acclaimed another Abbasid prince, Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi, as the new caliph), and Syria and Egypt were only nominally under caliphal authority. In order to help quell the unrest in Iraq, Fadl managed to get Maʾmun to appoint Ali al-Rida, a descendent of Ali and considered by modern Imami Shiʿa to be the Eighth of the Twelve Imams, as his heir apparent, thinking this would bring Alid loyalists and sympathizers over to Maʾmun’s side (it really seems to have had no effect in that regard, and in fact alienated Maʾmun from some of the strongest Abbasid backers in Iraq). By 818, Maʾmun was tired of ruling from the periphery, so he and his entourage finally began to move toward Baghdad. He was also tired of being managed by Fadl b. Sahl, whom he had murdered along the way. He may even have been tired of having this Alid, Ali al-Rida, as his heir apparent, because Ali, too, didn’t survive the journey to Baghdad. He ostensibly died from eating too many grapes (!), but Shiʿa tradition (and common sense) holds that he was poisoned by Maʾmun in order to get the succession back in house and win back the support of wavering Abbasid loyalists.

In order to keep Iraq and the famously restive Khurasan under control, Maʾmun turned to our buddy Tahir b. Husayn, to whom he really owed his accession to the caliphate. Tahir had been predictably sidelined by Fadl b. Sahl but now was given first a military governorship in Baghdad and then, in 1821, the governorship of Khurasan, with considerable autonomy to rule the eastern province as he saw fit. Tahir seems to have harbored plans to declare Khurasan’s independence from Baghdad, but his sudden death in 822 quashed those plans (he may have been executed on Maʾmun’s orders). However, Maʾmun then appointed his son, Talha, as the next governor of the province, creating a dynasty of governors, the Tahirids (go figure), who ruled Khurasan until they were toppled by the eastern Iranian Saffarid Dynasty in 873.  Tahir’s other son, Abdullah, succeeded Talha in 828 and really established the dynasty, reigning as autonomous governor in the east until 845. A letter, supposedly written by Tahir to Abdullah, advised him how to be a good ruler and became a model of the “advice for rulers” literature. The sources say that Abdullah followed Tahir’s advice and ruled fairly and justly, looking after his least-fortunate subjects and never separating himself from the people he was ruling.

The caliphate, with the region governed by the Tahirids in yellow.
The caliphate, with the region governed by the Tahirids in yellow.

There is a decentralizing trend in the empire that begins to gather steam in this period, likely a result of natural desires for local control being exacerbated and given room to develop by the centrifugal forces exerted on the empire by the civil war and its mismanaged aftermath. Aside from the movement for Khurasani autonomy, which was really driven by a reassertion of a sense of Iranian nationhood distinct from the Arab conquerors and rulers, local governors in the Maghrib and Ifriqiyah (modern Algeria and Tunisia, with a small part of modern Morocco) were establishing a dynasty called the Aghlabids (descended from and named for Harun’s governor in Ifriqiyah, Ibrahim b. al-Aghlab) that controlled the region from 800-909. We’ll talk about them in a little more detail next time, but the important thing to understand for now is that both the eastern and western extremes of the empire are starting to really fall out of the caliph’s control.

The Aghlabid Dynasty at its territorial height
The Aghlabid Dynasty at its territorial height

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Maʾmun set about reconciling all the bad blood that remained from the war and his long reign in far-off Merv. He made peace with Amin’s mother, with Ibrahim the would-be caliph (though he wound up under a generous house arrest), and even with Fadl b. al-Rabi, who really instigated the war and who would have been the likeliest of Amin’s advisers to lose his head under the new administration. The healing went so well that by the end of the decade the caliphate was unified enough to re-institute the annual military campaign against the Byzantines to which Harun had devoted so much attention and which annually amounted to pretty much nothing. At some point during one of these campaigns, Maʾmun seems to have ordered that Abd al-Malik’s name be stricken from the inscriptions on the walls of the Dome of the Rock and replaced with Maʾmun’s. He also spent time, unusually for an Abbasid caliph, in Damascus and Egypt, undoubtedly as part of his overall program to restore some unity to the empire. Maʾmun died in 833, on the way to another Byzantine campaign. He was only 46 years old. When he fell ill, he stipulated that his brother, Abu Ishaq Muhammad b. Harun, should succeed him, which he did under the regal name al-Muʿtasim bi’illah (“He who takes refuge with God”).

So we’re going to start getting off the chronology here [EDIT: well, eventually]. The Fourth Fitna is generally where most books on the period break away from relating events to talk about things like culture, theology, philosophy, and the law. I extended us through Maʾmun’s death because I didn’t want to leave you guys hanging in mid-reign like that. We’re going to start our exploration of these other topics by looking at the rise of theology as a discipline within Islam, an area that Maʾmun was particularly interested in [EDIT: but first we’re going to talk about what’s happening in Spain and the rest of North Africa in this period].

Next: Early Islamic theology Spain again, and (western) North Africa

Further Reading:

The best pieces on the various regional principalities that start cropping up in this period are usually found in The Cambridge History of Islam, or The New Cambridge History of Islam, or in any of the regional Cambridge Histories (Iran, Egypt, Africa), but be forewarned that these tend to be pretty dry reading.

The situation in North Africa is covered in detail in Jamil M. Abun-Nasr’s A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period.

Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam (vol. 1)

Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050, and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty


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