The New Dynasty
Southern Utah University
Mid-East Political Thought
November 27, 2001
By the time of 25 Ramadan 129, the spread of Islam had grown so that the Arabs were a minority in their own empire. The Abbasid revolt and subsequent rise to power took this fact into account, and many changes were made in regard to the way the Arab Empire was governed. But by this time, as pointed out by Dr. G. Michael Stathis, the “Arab Empire” was more properly the “Islamic Empire.” The Abbasid dynasty not only brought changes to the areas controlled by the Abbasids, but also forced political changes in Muslim Spain, where the last surviving Umayyad fled.
Despite the reason given for supplanting the Umayyads, the Abbasids did not essentially change the nature of the caliphate. Like the Umayyads, the Abbasids were of the Quraysh tribe, and also like the Umayyads, a family dynasty was established. However, the Abbasids did not bother with even the facade of nomination and acclaim. The Umayyad rulers, though for all intents and purposes were absolute, at least maintained a public image of consensus when it came to choosing a new Caliph. Their Caliphs were even still considered to be lieutenant to the Prophet. The Abbasids continued in the tradition of monarchy, but were not content to remain second to the Prophet. They claimed the title “Khaliph Allah:” Lieutenant to God.
Abbasid caliphs were answerable only to God and none else, save perhaps their wazirs (viziers), who became the true ruling power at the caliphal court . Even though they were absolute rulers, the Abbasid caliphs still held audiences. These audiences allowed those of all social orders to come and present petitions to the ruler. However, as the true power of the caliph lessened, those who gained access were at the mercy of those who controlled such access.
The Abbasids promised more equality to those in the Empire, but the Dhimi (non-Muslim people of the book-Jews and Christians) saw very little difference. The true difference came in the treatment of non-Arab Muslims, called Mawali. The Mawali, and especially the Persians, became more prominent. Because of this shift, the Abbasids focused more on creating unity through an Islamic identity rather than Arab identity.
The capital of the empire was moved from Damascus to Baghdad, a further indicator of the changing order of things. Baghdad was more centralized for trading purposes. Located near the then seaport of Basara, Baghdad was the crossroads of the ancient world. This was also one of the seats of ancient Persian power. As the Persain Mawali gained more influence, the Arabic language began losing some of its importance. It was still the language of God and the Qur’an, but as the language of learning it was supplanted by Persian.
Meanwhile, in Spain a second Caliphate was being established. When the Abbasids took Damascus they began hunting down and executing all the Umayyads. Abd al-Rahman, an Umayyad prince, managed to escape. He fled to Spain, where he set up a caliphate and began to rule from Cordoba. Muslim Spain enjoyed a period of education and advancement, and independence from Abbasid rule. At first, there weren’t many problems involved in having two separate caliphates. Spain was too distant. However, the growth of the Spanish Muslim Empire soon prompted the Abbasids to form a treaty with Charlemagne for commercial and defensive benefit. This led to the “Way of Peace,” allowing protection for Christians making pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
As can be seen, the rise of the Abbasids gave way to many changes in the ancient Arab/Muslim world. However, the changes were more the result of the Abbasid recognition of the new dynamic in the empire. By catering to these changes, the Abassids were able to maintain power for nearly a century before the largeness of the empire (i.e. the distance of some places from Baghdad especially places like Umayyad Spain), and the delegation of power weakened them to almost figureheads.