“The Abbasid Caliphate” by Tayeb El-Hibri


Few families have had as much success shaping history as the Abbasids. Descended from one of the Prophet Muhammad’s four uncles, they used their reputation for probity and piety to take over and rule the Arab Empire for 37 reigns. Deftly managing family feuds, they enjoyed a century of unimaginable splendor, followed by four centuries of highs and lows. They survived by pitting powerful external forces against one another: Arabs versus Persians, Northern Arabs versus the Southerners, Muslims versus non-Muslims, Sunni versus Shi’a. They allied with Charlemagne to put pressure on the Byzantines, with the Tang Dynasty to contain the Turks. They were the ultimate dynasty of fixers.

As a result of their balancing and inclusiveness, the culture and art of the ancient world flourished in their palaces in Baghdad, Raqqa and Samarra, where Greek and Persian were spoken alongside Arabic. Like their allies the Tang dynasty, they were open to new products or ideas: “It should be no shame for us to honor truth and make it our own, no matter whence it may come, even though from far distant races and peoples who differ from us”, said al-Kindi, one of their great philosophers. As a result, we look upon the Abbasid era not only as the golden age of Islam, but one of the world’s golden ages, period.


The Abbasid Caliphate, Tayeb El-Hibri (Cambridge University Press, April 2021)
The Abbasid Caliphate, Tayeb El-Hibri (Cambridge University Press, April 2021)

Given the importance of the Abbasids, it is surprising how little has been written in recent years about them. The last decade has seen just one book each on Harun Al-Rashid, on the early Abbasids, and on the Abbasid Revolution. Dynastic histories have fallen out of favor, and historical narrative has been neglected in favor of thematic histories or idea-based histories. The result, writes author Tayeb El-Hibri, is to detach the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of this golden age from the lives of the men and women who delivered them. The Abbasid Caliphate addresses this lacuna.

El-Hibri, a specialist in Arabic historiography, uses contemporary or near-contemporary sources to bring to life the thrills and spills of the Abbasid era. He places the rock-star personalities of the era in the context of the reigns under which they served. The personalities of the rulers themselves are explored through their prodigious city and palace building, the magnificence of their weddings and festivals, and the contrasting harem intrigues, poisonings and betrayals. The author provides a deep reading of the source texts to make it clear that even those writers struggled to make sense of the saga of the Abbasid family.

Their legacy is uncontestable. The Abbasids created Islam as we know it. The preceding dynasty, the Umayyads, had been content to rule as Arab Kings, paying very little attention to religious dogma or practice. Brought to power on the back of an Islamic revivalist movement, the Abbasids for the first time sought to sacralize their authority, rewarding religious scholars and encouraging the codification of Islamic law and lore. They were the first “Custodians of the two shrines (Makkah and Medina)”, a title used today by the Saudi ruler. This fusion of political and religious authority has been a feature of Islam ever since.

The Abbasids were, however, famously tolerant. Islam today has four schools of law, reflecting the Abbasids’ refusal to impose a single interpretation on the  Muslim communities, unlike the pope or the Byzantine Emperor in the Christian world. This did not reflect a love of diverse opinions, but rather a prudence about potentially backing the wrong horse. On one occasion when the Abbasid ruler took a hard stance it ended in failure. Even in the fraught Sunni-Shi’a, conflict the Sunni Abbasids played a careful game. This is all the more surprising because they had a horse in this race.

The Abbasids descended, and claimed their legitimacy, from Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. The Shi’a argued the claim of the Alids, descendants of the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali. The Shi’a were bitterly disappointed that an Abbasid and not an Alid was chosen to lead the Muslims after the fall of the Umayyads. Yet the Abbasids treated Alid pretenders with kid gloves, in some cases bringing them tantalizingly close to power. The Abbasid ruler Ma’mum designated the Shi’a Imam Reza as his successor. The young Imam then died (and is buried in what is now Iran’s greatest pilgrimage site, Mashhad). Was he poisoned? By Ma’mum? This remains one of those many troubling episodes in the Abbasid saga, and highlights again the Abbasids’ proclivity for frenemies.


In the course of 500 years the Abbasids’ capacity for managing conflicts diminished. The Shi’a constantly strove to undermine their legitimacy. Iranian warlords took advantage of distance to alienate parts of the empire as inherited fiefdoms. Turkish slave soldiers became a law unto their own. Soon the Abbasids were reduced to acting as little more than Islamic popes, with no divisions. El-Hibri shows, however, that they managed, like the popes, to wield immense soft power. Such was the prestige of the last Abbasid that the Mongol conqueror Hulagu Khan, having sacked Baghdad, hesitated to harm him, fearing divine punishment. Only when a Shiite freethinker reassured Hulagu, did the Mongol Khan have the unlucky Abbasid trampled by his horses.

Readers who find themselves getting bogged down by the floods, assassinations, revolts and celebrations should read the last chapter, where El-Hibri steps back from dynastic chronology and tackles thematic questions around the Abbasids. Did they want to be popes or emperors? How successful were they in defining religious and cultural norms? Why did their soft power extend so far across the Muslim world? When they were overthrown why were they not restored?

El-Hibri’s telling is nuanced and well-reasoned, echoing the tone and style of the great Arabic historians. For general readers who want to understand the history of the Middle East, the evolution of Islam, and the Sunni-Shi’a rivalry, this book offers an excellent survey. For students it will serve as an entry point to more specialized studies.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.