Revival Without Improvement: The Inevitable Decline of the ‘Abbāsid Caliphate

The anarchy of S?marr? completely devastated the Islamic Empire, and it was only slowly that the restored ‘Abb?sid caliphate was able to regain most of its former possessions. That there was any revival of the ‘Abb?sid caliphate following this destruction is in

its own amazing. There were two main reasons for this. First the inner rivalries of the Turkish guard were exhausted, and secondly, the house of ‘Abb?s was finally able to produce a man that was capable of bring both the Turkish guard and the civil administration under his control. However, none of the underlying problems which caused the anarchy, and the decline of the caliphate in the first place where corrected, and the ‘Abb?sid dynasty soon fell into decline again.
Though the Turkish guard had had many external enemies in the days of the anarchy, their biggest challenges came from within their own ranks (Kennedy 170). Ut?mish, Was?f, Sh?lih are just a few of the Turkish military men that were killed are deposed in the S?marr?n Anarchy (171-3). This deadly in-house fighting eventually died out and more sensible Turkish leaders arose (Saunders 121). The renewal of ‘Abb?sid power had, in a large part, to do with this dieing down of Turkish rivalry (Kennedy 173).

However, it also had to do with a member of the ‘Abb?sid family who was able to reconcile and command the military; this member was al-Muwaffaq (173). He had been involved with the military campaigns of the Turkish guard for many years, and because of this he was able to gain a favorable report with them, namely with M?s? b. Bugh? (173). Al-Muwaffaq did not himself aspire to the title of caliph, instead he chose to let his brother al-Mu‘tamid ascend to the caliphate knowing that he would be able to direct his brothers policies (173-4). Al-Muwaffaq was himself a part of the civil administration, and soon set about placing other men, who he knew were loyal to him and the military, into the bureaucracy (173-4). In this way both the military, which allowed him to enforce the will of the caliphate, and the civil administration, which allowed him to ensure the payment of the military salaries, where under al-Muwaffaq’s control (173-4). With this arrangement, al-Muwaffaq and his son, and successor to the caliphate, al-Mu‘tadid were able to reclaim much of the empire and bring it under the control of the ‘Abb?sid caliphate (175-85).

However, none of the problems which had led to the caliphate’s breakdown were corrected, and once a weak caliph was installed the ‘Abb?sid caliphate again crumbled. Al-Muwaffaq, his son al-Mu‘tadid, and his son al-Muktaf? all campaigned with Turkish guard before their assent to power, this gave them close and lasting ties to the military (173-84). This was not the case for al-Muqtadir, al-Muktaf?’s successor, who had been installed by the civil administration exactly because he was weak, and they would be able to manipulate him (186). The reign of al-Muqtadir saw the end of ‘Abb?sid power. Because of the same reasons which lead up to S?marr?n Anarchy, the military seized control of the caliphate, and the internally divided civil administration could do nothing to stop it (186-92).
Al-Muqtadir was in many ways a puppet of the civil bureaucracy. This in and of itself would not necessarily have led to the destruction of the caliphate’s power, but it was coupled with fact that the civil administration was divided by competing groups within the framework of the bureaucracy (186). When a strong caliph was in power, he was able to keep these feuds subdued and harmless, but in the presence of a weak caliph they would erupt and wreaked havoc on the central government (186). Part of the problem with a weak caliph and a divided civil administration was that the amount of expenditures from the palace court. Without a strong caliph to curb corruption, the court and the many factions within the civil administration ran ramped with finances (187-8). To make matters worse, the rival groups would constantly depose one another when finances grew tight. One of the factions that was not in power would blame the ruling faction for embezzling the money, depose them, and then, once in control, find that the deposed faction had in fact embezzled very little, no more then the new faction would itself take; the new ruling faction then found themselves in the same bankrupt position that their predecessors had been in, and the cycle would start anew (188-9). Instead of trying to fix the problem of raising tax revenues and decreasing court expenditures they would merely attack one another, and further diminish the treasury.

The inability of the civil administration to come up with founds to pay military salaries, led the still almost exclusively foreign military to become nervous, this was because they were still depended entirely on their salaries for their lively hood; because the civil administration could not come up with these salaries, the military began to take a more and more intrusive role in the central government (190-2). While al-Muqtadir had originally been place in the office of caliphate as a puppet of the civil bureaucracy he eventually became a puppet of the military when the government could not come up with the money need to pay the military, and therefore could not provide for the security of the empire (192). This began the repeat of the anarchy of S?marr?. The execution or deposition of both caliphs and leading military men again became a routine event in Baghdad (193-4). While at first this only meant the military dominance over the caliphate, it was eventually lead to the creation of a new office, the am?r al-umar?’, which had all the powers of the caliphate, except for its religious connotations, and which was given to which ever military strongman could best exert his power over Baghdad (192-5). The caliph’s personally army was disbanded as was their central administration, and they were very much at the will of the the am?r al-umar?’ (195). Thus in 936 the ‘Abb?sid caliphate, which had ruled from 750, became little more then a figure head to be traded between local military complexes, bringing to an end nearly two hundred years of rule (195-7).

The reason for this decline into near nonexistence was because none of the problems which had initially led to decline, in the form of the S?marr?n Anarchy, where corrected. The bureaucracy was still internally divided, and incapable of providing a united front against military intervention, and the military was still completely foreign and dependent on their military salaries, so when those salaries were in danger of being stopped they still felt the need to intervene in the administration of the government, no mater what the cost. The ‘Abb?sid revival happened because the ‘Abb?sids were able to produce a leader strong enough to reinstate order, but without creating a military derived from a local base that would be loyal not only the caliph but to the empire, and by not creating a unified civil administration that could protect the caliph in times of trouble, and effectively raise founds in times of peace, they were doomed to fall back into decay once a weak caliph came to power. However, this time the blow was fatal, because all means of recourse were striped from the caliphate and vested in the am?r al-umar?’, whose interests were independent from that of the ‘Abb?sids.

Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson, 2004.
Saunders, J. J. A History of Medieval Islam. New York: Routledge, 1965.