The outcome of the ‘Abbasid Revolution of 747-750 CE was unambiguous: the ruling Umayyad dynasty was deposed from the caliphate, at that time the supreme political and religious authority in the Islamic empire, and in their place was installed a member of the ‘Abbasid family, which traced its origins back to the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle al-‘Abbas. As for the rest, there is considerable confusion, particularly over the basis of the ‘Abbasid family’s claim to be legitimate rulers of the empire. In order to make sense of this confusion, and to properly understand the events of 747-750, it is necessary to appreciate the nature of authority in Islam, and in particular the divide between Sunnis and Shi’a on this issue, as well as the particular political situation in the Middle-East in the 8th century.
The Muslim World Divided
The Sunnis and the Shi’a make up the wider nation of Muslims. The divide between the two is essentially political in origin, dating from the debate over who should succeed Muhammad as leader of the ummah(Islamic nation). The Shi’a are so named because they descend from the shi’at ‘Ali, the Party of ‘Ali, Muhammad’s nephew and son-in-law. This party proposed that the religious and political leader of the Muslims, whom they called the imam, should be a descendant of the Prophet. In time, mainstream Shi’ism would insist that the imam be descended from Muhammad through the line of ‘Ali and his wife Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter. At the time of the ‘Abbasid Revolution, however, there was not such a fixed Shi’i orthodoxy regarding the lineage of the imam. Indeed, to talk about Sunnis and Shi’a at this point at all is something of an anachronism, as there was by no means the clear split that one sees today. What is most important to remember is that in the mid-8th century there were several proto-Shi’i movements who stirred up rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate in the name of a member of the noble family of the Prophet.
Criticism of the Umayyads
These proto-Shi’i movements were one of the many challenges facing the Umayyads in the 740s. Pious opposition to the Caliph was not limited to those calling for the rule of Muhammad’s household. Though the sources that have come down to us, written during the period of ‘Abbasid rule, are perhaps overly critical of the Umayyad family, there does seem to have been a widespread feeling that the caliphs were betraying the true spirit of Islam. The Umayyads were criticised for turning the Caliphate into a dynastic institution, for their over-dependence upon the bureaucracy of the preceding Byzantine Empire, for levying taxes forbidden by the Qur’an, and for their ethnocentric policies. (Pictured is either side of an Umayyad coin which shows the Byzantine influences on their administration).
Muhammad’s vision had been an egalitarian one, and now the Umayyads were resorting to the old Arab tribalism, favouring Syrian Arabs over other Muslims, and using Syrian military terror to subdue the provinces in the name of Arab unity. Non-Arab converts existed as second class Muslims, paying the taxes reserved normally for non-Muslims and being barred from positions in the government. Added to all of this, the sources paint a picture of the Ummayads’ own lack of Islamic piety: drinking parties, hunting and singing slave girls were the order of the day. In the face of all this, opposition to the Umayyads was expressed in terms of a pious Islamic ideology: what was required was a return to the ways of the Prophet and the Qur’an.
The ‘Abbasid claim
It was in the context of this religious revolutionary spirit that the ‘Abbasids emerged. Of all the revolutionary groups of the 740s, the ‘Abbasids were among the most secretive, which makes their ideology difficult to pin down. Some have seen in them one of the many proto-Shi’i movements around this time. Their call to revolution was made in the name of an unidentified descendent of Muhammad, and was part of a broader proto-Shi’i movement called the Hashimiyya. This Shi’i connection was symbolised by the black flag that the revolutionaries brought into battle, black being the colour of the ever-mourning Shi’a. Unlike the later Shi’a, however, the ‘Abbasids did not claim authority by means of descent through ‘Ali, though at some later point they did claim that one of ‘Ali’s grandsons, Abu Hashim, had designated an ‘Abbasid as his successor as imam at his death. Yet the original ‘Abbasid claim was based upon descent from al-‘Abbas, Muhammad’s uncle and oldest surviving relative on his death. From this perspective, the ‘Abbasid claim was based upon their status as members of the Prophet’s Hashemite clan, by contrast to the Umayyads, who were of a different clan of the Quraysh, Muhammad’s tribe. Here we can see then how the Shi’i view was not yet fixed by the mid-8th century, with claims to religious and political authority being made on behalf of the wider family of the Prophet rather than just his direct descendants.
An alternative to the proto-Shi’i interpretation of the ‘Abbasid claim is that they were part of a broader movement of predominantly Persian revolutionaries fighting against the political dominance of Arab Muslims. It is clear that the Umayyads’ oppression of non-Arabs and the second-class status of non-Arab converts and their descendants contributed a great deal to the widespread discontent with Umayyad rule. The ‘Abbasids clearly played upon this discontent, and relied heavily on Persian military strength, particularly from the Khorasan region in North-East Iran, where there was both Arab and non-Arab opposition to the regime. From 747, the ‘Abbasid armies, led into battle by the fierce warrior Abu Muslim, swept westwards through Persia. By 748 they had taken Iraq, and the next year unveiled their previously hidden leader Abu al-‘Abbas, who declared himself caliph at Kufa. This was a symbolic gesture, since this former garrison town on the banks of the Euphrates had long been a centre of rebellion against the Umayyad dynasty. (Pictured – the Great Mosque at Kufa, c1915). By proclaiming Abu al-Abbas caliph at Kufa, the ‘Abbasids were positioning their movement as the culmination of revolutionary activity against the Umayyads.
The aftermath and the revolutionaries’ disappointment
Whether the ‘Abbasids were really a proto-Shi’i or a Persian nationalist movement is something of a moot point. Most likely is that the ‘Abbasid family co-opted pre-existing sentiments to further their own cause. Like the Umayyads whom they despised, their right to rule in the end came down to their ability to harness the multiple competing forces of the early Islamic world to their own advantage. Their supporters who expected either a period of Shi’i rule or an end to the injustices of the Umayyad era were to be sorely disappointed. The years following the revolution saw several rebellions led by disaffected supporters of the claims of the descendants of Ali, and many of these ‘Alids who had supported the ‘Abbasid revolution were murdered by the new regime. Like the Umayyads, the ‘Abbasids quickly adopted a dynastic principle of succession, disregarding their revolutionary ideology that had called for the appropriate member of the Prophet’s family to be elected imam through consultation of the Muslim community.
What is important about the ‘Abbasid revolution is that, though little seems actually to have changed, it gives us an insight into the various competing approaches to politics in the Islamic world during this formative period. This was a time when little was fixed in terms of orthodoxy, and several groups struggled to articulate their own vision of how an Islamic empire should be governed. Whether the ‘Abbasids merely exploited this situation or were players in a more established proto-Shi’i movement, it was they who ultimately were able to bring down the Umayyad caliphate, and shift the centre of power in Islam from Damascus to Baghdad.
See also Sufism – the Mystical Path of Islam