ESSENTIAL QUESTION 1 How did the Abbasids build a powerful empire?
Like the Umayyads, Abbasid rulers looked for ways to strengthen their control and to hold their empire together.
The Abbasids held on to power, first and foremost, through force. They built a huge standing army. A standing army is a fighting force that is maintained in times of peace as well as in times of war.
The Abbasids stationed army units at military posts throughout the empire. So wherever and whenever trouble broke out, the Abbasids could quickly send soldiers to put it down. The Abbasids also used a policy of inclusion to persuade people throughout the empire to accept their rule. All Muslims, whether Arab or non-Arab, were equal, they declared. The Abbasids went further and encouraged Christians and Jews to serve in the government. This way, they made sure that the most talented people would be involved in running the empire.
This illustration shows what the Abbasid capital, Baghdad, and the Tigris River looked like in the late 700s.
A New Capital
The Abbasids also strengthened their power by moving their capital. Their most loyal supporters lived far to the east of the Umayyad capital of Damascus. To be closer to their power base, the Abbasids made Baghdad their new capital in 762. Located on the Tigris River, Baghdad lay on old east-west trade routes. It was, as one Abbasid caliph said, “a marketplace for the world.”
In a very short time, Baghdad became one of the world’s major trading centers. Baghdad’s merchants visited not only lands in the Muslim Empire but also China, India, Northern Europe, and Africa. They brought back with them precious metals and stones, silk and other fabrics, ivory, spices, furs, and porcelain. These goods filled the tables in Baghdad’s many markets.
A Prosperous City
As trade increased, Baghdad prospered and grew. By the early 800s, the city had a population of more than 900,000 people. The need to feed and clothe everyone helped to transform the area around Baghdad from desert to garden. Workers repaired and expanded an ancient network of irrigation canals. Farmers used the newly irrigated land to grow such staples as rice, sugar cane, and cotton. They also grew a variety of fruits and vegetables ranging from apricots to artichokes.
Industry flourished under the Abbasids too. In small workshops in and around Baghdad, craftspeople made leather goods, textiles, carpets, ironwork, and perfumes. Merchants from far and wide readily paid top prices for these goods.
ESSENTIAL QUESTION 1 How did the Abbasids build a powerful empire? Built a huge standing ; encouraged all people, regardless of background, to take part in .
This brisk economy made the Abbasids very rich. Some wanted to display their wealth. So they began to support the arts and learning. As a result, in the years after 800, Muslim culture enjoyed a golden age. A golden age golden age is a period during which a society or culture is at its peak.
Art and Design
Most Muslims thought that it was wrong to use the human form in art. Such images, they believed, took people‘s attention away from their faith. Many religious leaders also felt that people might be encouraged to worship these images rather than God. As a result, Muslim art emphasized plant life and geometric patterns. Abbasid artists became famous for stunning designs using tile, pottery, and wood. One particular design, the arabesque, showed the intertwined stem, leaves, and flowers of a plant.
Muslim art also often used Arabic script. Arabic was very special to Muslims because it was the language of the Qur’an. Many Muslim artists became very skilled at calligraphy, or the art of fine handwriting. The Abbasids employed calligraphers to decorate everything from buildings to swords and armor. When used as decoration, calligraphy often became so fancy that the words were almost unreadable.
Muslims used calligraphy extensively in books. In the 750s, the Abbasids learned how to make paper from the Chinese. By the early 800s, Baghdad had become a major papermaking center. Paper was much better for making books than the parchment used in the Middle East and Europe. As books became more widely available, people became interested in all kinds of learning. In the 830s, the Abbasids opened the House of Wisdom in Baghdad to meet the demand for knowledge. It housed books on all subjects from many parts of the world. Scholars there translated into Arabic works by such ancient Greek thinkers as Aristotle and Plato.
Muslims soon developed literature of their own. The Thousand and One Nights quickly became a favorite with readers in Baghdad. It mixed stories about life in the Abbasid court with tales of adventure and fantasy. A later European edition added stories that were not part of the medieval Arabic collection. Some of these later additions, such as “Sindbad the Sailor,” remain well known today. (For another example of Muslim literature, see pages 126–129.) Poetry flourished during the Abbasid period. A poetic form called the quatrain was especially popular among people in Persia. This is a four-line poem in which the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme. A Persian-born Muslim named Omar Khayyam was a master of this form. (See Primary Source feature below.)
Mathematics and Astronomy
Muslim scholars of the Abbasid period borrowed and built upon the ideas of ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Indians. For example, al-Khwarizmi (al•KWAHR•ihz•mee), who was born in Baghdad around 780, borrowed the numerical system and zero from Indian scholars. His work resulted in the Arabic numbering system that is still used in most of the world today. Al-Khwarizmi also published a set of mathematical calculations titled Hisab al-jabr. Roughly translated, this title means “the addition of one thing to another.” Al-jabr is the origin of the word algebra.
In addition to being a poet, Omar Khayyam was a great mathematician. He drew on Greek ideas to further the work of al-Khwarizmi. He also wrote an examination of Greek studies on geometry. Khayyam applied his knowledge of mathematics to astronomy to develop a very accurate calendar. Astronomers’ work often had a practical use. For example, an astronomer named al-Biruni fixed the direction of Mecca from any point on Earth. This enabled Muslims everywhere in the empire to fulfill the requirement to pray while facing Mecca.
Muslim doctors, like other Muslim scholars, improved upon the discoveries of earlier scientists. Al-Razi, a Persian-born doctor, used old studies to help him identify and describe diseases such as smallpox and measles. Medical scholars also wrote books that combined ancient works with recent Muslim discoveries. For example, the Persian doctor Ibn Sina wrote the Canon of Medicine around 1000. This detailed work organized all known medical knowledge. It even described mental conditions such as “love sickness”! Ibn Sina’s work remained an important medical reference book for more than 600 years.
The Abbasids set up hospitals throughout their empire. Unlike hospitals in most other parts of the world, these medical centers treated poor people who couldn’t pay. The hospital in Baghdad also served as a teaching center. There, young doctors learned to practice medicine by actually attending to patients.
ESSENTIAL QUESTION 2 What cultural advances were made by the Abbasids? Calligraphy, developments in and literature, advances in mathematics, astronomy, and
The Decline of the Abbasids
ESSENTIAL QUESTION 3 What challenges led to the decline of Abbasid rule?
Factions, or opposing groups, challenged Abbasid rule as early as the mid-800s. But many of the Abbasids’ problems were of their own making.
Some Abbasid caliphs were fond of easy living. As a result, they ignored their government responsibilities. Also, they did little to protect merchants from attacks by bandits. This badly hurt trade, which was a major source of caliphs’ wealth. Because of this, the Abbasid caliphs raised taxes. People soon tired of the Abbasids’ selfish behavior.
One group, the Fatimids, challenged Abbasid rule. The Fatimids claimed descent from Fatima, a daughter of Muhammad, and were Shi’a Muslims. The Abbasids, in contrast, followed the Sunni branch of Islam. So the Fatimids had major religious differences with the Abbasids. They especially disliked the Abbasids’ fancy lifestyle. They thought Muslims should live simply.
The Fatimids drove the Abbasids out of what today is Egypt and Tunisia. They set up their own caliphate there, with their capital in Cairo. By the late 960s, they controlled much of North Africa.
The Seljuk Turks
The more opposition the Abbasids faced from within their empire, the more open they were to attacks from outside. In 1055, one of these attacks succeeded. The Seljuk Turks from Central Asia captured Baghdad. The Seljuk leader became ruler of the empire. However, he allowed the Abbasid caliph to remain as a religious leader.
This illustration from an 11th-century manuscript shows a clash between Byzantine and Seljuk cavalries.Over time, the Seljuks converted to Islam. They also began to expand the lands under their control. (See the map below.) In 1071, they captured Jerusalem. By the late 1090s, they were threatening the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. In response, the Christian countries of Europe launched several wars to drive the Seljuks back. (You’ll read more about these wars, called the Crusades, in Chapter 10.)
The Seljuk-Abbasid Empire also faced a challenge from the east. In 1258, a Central Asian tribe called the Mongols overran Baghdad. They destroyed the city and killed the Abbasid caliph. The Abbasid dynasty died with him.
ESSENTIAL QUESTION 3 What challenges led to the decline of Abbasid rule? They were challenged by opposing almost from the beginning of their rule.