Mind of the Musulman: Islam Under the Abbassids
Islam under the Abbassids — The Caliphate is transferred from Damascus to Bagdad, where it comes under Greco-Persian influence — Through the administration of the Barmecids, ministers of Persian origin, the Caliphs surround themselves with foreign savants and men of letters, who give to their reign an incomparable splendor; but, in their desire to organize Muslim legislation, the Caliphs, under the inspiration of the Old Muslims, fix the Islamic doctrine immutably and render all progress impossible — This was the cause and the beginning of the decadence of Mohammedan nations — Spain breaks off from the Empire, setting an example of insubordination which is to find imitators later on.
THE revolution which carried the Abbassids to power was the result of a threefold reactionary movement: First, the reaction of the Old Muslims, of the pious believers, faithfully attached to the traditions of Mohammed, who regarded the Ommeyads not only as usurpers — since they were not descended from the Prophet and had not accepted the principle of election for the nomination of the Caliph — but also as bad Muslims, because their ancestors had persecuted Mohammed, and because they themselves, indifferent in matters of religion, had adopted Syrian manners and had allowed Greco-Latin civilization to develop.
Then, there was the reaction of Eastern against Western Asia; the populations of Irak, roughly handled by the Ommeyads because they had defended the cause of the Alids, and held in a condition of servile dependence, had given their support to the Old Muslims, not from any respect for tradition or from religious scruples, but from the spirit of revenge, to get rid of their oppressors.
Finally, the reaction of the Arab or Bedouin spirit against Greco-Latin and Christian civilization which threatened to absorb Islam.
There was also a question of egoistic interests, as to the seat of the Caliphate. The Old Muslims intended that it should be brought back to the Hedjaz, either to Mecca or to Medina; the people of Eastern Asia were equally determined to uphold the claims of their own cities. The two parties came to an understanding at first to fight the Ommeyads, and to avenge themselves upon Syria and the Syrians whom they overwhelmed with reprisals and whose prosperity they did their best to ruin. Similarly, they were of one mind in deciding that Damascus should no longer be the seat of the Caliphate; but, when it came to choosing the new capital of Islam, their agreement came to an end.
Abdul-Abbas (750-754), who was not particularly anxious to go either to Mecca or to Medina, set up his court first at Anbar. On his death, his brother, Almansur (754-775), who succeeded him, chose Kufa as his residence; but as this town contained too many zealous partisans of the Alids, he decided to found a new city: Bagdad, on the banks of the Tigris, near the former Seleucia, in the middle of Eastern Asia.
This choice aroused discontent among. The Syrians, the Ommeyads, and even among the Old Muslims of the Hedjaz; and since all these parties, though divided by burning rivalries, were strongly represented in Spain and in the Maghreb, they stirred up risings in those countries. Spain proclaimed a Caliph of her own choice, naturally an Ommeyad (755). Without going to this length, the Maghreb nevertheless isolated itself, and the two provinces lived apart from the rest of the Empire.
It was ordained as the destiny of the Arabs that they should undergo foreign influence. With no intellectual culture of their own, no artistic, literary or scientific past, devoid of creative genius, they were obliged in all that related to the domain of the mind to accept the help of the foreigner. The Ommeyads had come under Syrian, that is to say, Greco-Latin influence; the Abbassids came under Persian or rather Greco-Persian influence; for Hellenic thought, more or less distorted, had penetrated everywhere in the ancient world.
The administrative methods of the Ommeyads were copied from those of the Byzantines; the government of the Abbassids was inspired by Persian methods. The provincial governors remind us of the former Satraps. Endowed with the most extensive powers, they administered the country, and collected the taxes, by means of which they raised and maintained armies, paid the officials, provided for the construction and maintenance of public buildings, and sent any surplus there might be to the Caliph.
This system of administration had one advantage: it enabled each province to be given the sort of government best suited to its necessities and its customs; but it had also a corresponding disadvantage: inasmuch as it left too much independence to populations insufficiently penetrated by the Muslim ideal, and gave too much authority to the Governors.
The latter enriched themselves by scandalous exactions, and surrounded themselves with devoted followers; then, when they felt themselves sufficiently strong, they rebelled against the central power. This is what had already happened in Khorassan and in Spain; it was to take place later in almost all parts of the Empire.
Almansur tried to remedy this defect by frequent changes of the Governors, and by keeping the representatives of the great families out of these appointments: but it was a vain precaution — the nobodies he substituted for them committed worse exactions still, and were no more loyal.
Bagdad was the case of Damascus over again: the Arabs adopted the manners of the country which were no better than those of the Syrians and Byzantines. Almansur was surrounded by a pomp copied from that of the Sassanian kings. The revenues of the Empire were estimated at thirty millions sterling, which permitted him to display a luxury hitherto unheard of and which was fatal to the Arab character. Surrounded by a brilliant court, dwelling in a wonderful palace, the Caliph became an Asiatic potentate, who only appeared in public on rare occasions, in the midst of an impressive pomp that one finds reflected in the “Thousand and One Nights.”
This desire to shine produced at the same time some fortunate results. Wishing, like the Persian sovereigns, to surround himself with all that could contribute to heighten the splendour of power, Almansur showed favor to men of learning and writers and, as there were none of these among the Arabs, his liberality went necessarily to foreigners. There were numerous men of letters in Persia.
Certain Christian schismatics and philosophers exiled from the Platonic school of Athens in consequence of the persecutions of Justinian, had introduced into the East the seeds of Western civilization. As in Syria, these men of letters were able to continue their labours from which the Arabs were to benefit at a later date.
Almansur caused translations to be made by Syrian and Persian scribes of the principal Greek authors: Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, Archimedes, and Ptolemy; it was these translations, more or less accurate, that initiated the Arabs into the scientific discoveries of antiquity. As in Syria, and for the same reasons, there was a reawakening of civilization behind a Muslim front, but this blossoming owed nothing to Arab genius; all its sap and all its color proceeded from Hellenic thought, modified and sometimes distorted by Asiatic influences.
Moreover, it was not so much the Caliphs themselves who favored art and letters as their ministers, the Barmecids, of Persian origin, who for a century exercised a preponderant influence at the court of the Abbassids. It was these highly educated and widely cultivated men who supplemented the intellectual deficiencies of the Caliphs; who educated them and filled their court with men of learning and of letters. It was they, too, who took in hand the adornment of the city and who designed and carried out those works of public utility that the Arab authors attribute to the Abbassids. The sole authors of the Muslim splendor of this
period were the Barmecids, that is to say, Persians, so little Islamized that their enemies accused them of remaining pagans.
Mohammed al Mohadi (785) and his son, AI Hadi (786), who succeeded Almansur, followed his example; or, to put it more correctly, the Barmecids kept them in the right way, for it was they who in reality wielded power; but the pomp and opulence of the earlier Abbassid Caliphs were surpassed by Haroun-al-Raschid (786-809) who has remained in history as the most complete type of Oriental sovereign.
Sometimes incredibly generous, ready to pardon any offender and to give lavishly, picking up beggars in the street to raise them to high dignities, protecting the widow and orphan, helping the unfortunate, punishing crime like a knight errant, and then, cruel beyond belief, when the old Arab instincts came through the thin varnish of borrowed civilization, the murder and exile of the Barmecids who had been the builders of Abbassid prosperity. At one time all smiling good-nature, and then odiously proud; brave to fool-hardiness, and then degrading himself in the lowest orgies; vindictive and magnanimous, crafty and loyal; always actuated by excess of feeling: in short, all the qualities and all the defects of the Bedouin appeared in him in the most startling way, still further enhanced by the influence of Asia.
With the exception of two expeditions, against the Empress Irene of Constantinople (790) and against her successor, Nicephorus (802), both successful, and entailing on the vanquished the payment of a tribute of sixty thousand dinars, the reign of Haroun-al-Raschid was quiet and devoted entirely to administrative reform. It was an immense task. A complete organization had to be created, as much from the financial as from the legislative point of view.
It was necessary to centralize the payment of public expenses and the collection of the State revenue. This was made up of the produce of the taxes: djezieh [jizyah], or poll tax on infidels living in a Muslim country; kharadj, land tax paid by non-Muslims; tithes levied on Muslims ; excise duties on the exploitation of mines; estates reverting to the State for want of heirs; and the tribute imposed on foreign nations.
Acting on the wise counsels of the Barmecids, Haroun-al-Raschid employed the immense revenues of the Empire in useful ways. High schools and libraries were founded for the diffusion of scientific knowledge borrowed from the works of Greek antiquity. The Arab language was propagated in all parts of Asia and finally dethroned the former dialects.
In order to comply with the exigencies of a new nomenclature, it had to be enriched by foreign words taken from Greek and Aramaic. Greek, Syrian, Persian and Indian savants, attracted by the liberality of the Caliph, gave instruction to the Arabs.
Thanks to their efforts, mathematics, astronomy and astrology, medicine, chemistry and alchemy were held in honor and made some progress. The Arabs, still ignorant, were slowly emerging from their barbarism by drawing from the treasury of Greco-Latin labors the knowledge they lacked. They were diligent pupils and remarkable compilers; and if, for want of creative spirit, they may have added nothing to the discoveries of antiquity, they did certainly help to spread them abroad. For this reason the Abbassids, and above all their ministers, the Barmecids, deserve to figure among the benefactors of humanity.
It was also necessary to establish a Muslim legislation. Up to that time, the Caliphs or their representatives were dispensing justice by drawing upon the Koran and tradition. This resulted in the formulation of judgments and interpretations often contradictory; and the necessity soon became urgent to fix a doctrine of jurisprudence, to draw up a code which while giving some direction to the judges should also afford some guarantee of justice to the contending parties.
This was a work of capital importance, and one that has had considerable influence upon the destinies of the Empire; since by fixing the Islamic doctrine immutably, it has rendered all progress impossible, and has had a paralyzing effect upon the Muslim community. It will be dealt with in a special chapter; but we may here remark with astonishment that this work, undertaken in a liberal spirit by the Abbassids should have led to results so completely opposed to the ideas which had inspired it; and that, drawn up as it was by the order of sovereigns so tolerant that many of them were accused of irreligion, this code should have become the instrument of the most bigoted fanaticism.
The great mistake of the reign of Haroun-al-Raschid, a gross fault that was fatal to the future of the Abbassids and even to that of the Empire, was the disgrace of the Barmecids. These Persian ministers, men of eminent intellectual capacity and of a genius that enabled them to face the vastest enterprises, had given enlightened guidance to the Muslim Empire. They were the builders of the prosperity of the Abbassids and of Muslim grandeur.
With their disappearance, the Arab sovereigns, left to themselves, were quite unable to direct this immense concourse of dissimilar nations, and the Empire fell into decay. It affords one more proof of the incapacity of the Arabs for government and especially for administration.
The successor to Haroun-al-Raschid was his son, Amin, an incapable and effeminate man, who after some years of fruitless reign, had to hand over power to his brother Al Mamun (818-883).
Al Mamun, who cared less about pomp but was a more cultivated man than his father, exercised a most fortunate influence. Surrounded by the elite of Greek, Syrian, Persian, Copt and Chaldean savants, he collected at great expense the works of the school of Alexandria, and had them translated into Arabic and distributed. He multiplied the existing establishments for instruction and even founded a school for girls, at which the professors were women from Athens and Constantinople. Educated by foreign savants in the cult of Greek literature, indifferent to religious ordinances, he displayed a very liberal spirit towards non-Muslims. He entrusted the greater part of the work of government to Greeks and Persians. His tolerance even caused him to be accused of irreligion, especially when he refused to rage against a new sect, Zendekism, that had arisen in Khorassan by contact with Mazdaism. His love of knowledge was so great that it gave rise to the legend that he declared war upon the Emperor of Constantinople because the latter had refused to send him a certain celebrated mathematician by the name of Leon. Arab authors were given to exaggeration, and it is probable there were other causes for this war, notably the extreme reluctance of the Greeks to pay the annual tribute formerly imposed by Haroun-al- Raschid.
From this time (829), hostilities were resumed between the Greeks and Arabs and continued with varying fortunes until 842, under the reign of Al Motassem, who succeeded Al Mamun.
Al Motassem followed the example of his predecessors; like them, he encouraged science and literature; and like them he was not disposed to favor fanaticism. The struggle of the Old Muslims against the influence of foreign civilizations, born under the first Ommeyad Caliphs, continued more fiercely than ever.
From the remotest times, there had always been two parties in Islam: the fanatical party, bound to a narrow interpretation of the Koran and to a rigorous submission to its dogmas, and the party of those who sought to enable the Muslim community to benefit by the progress realized by other nations — Greeks, Syrians, Persians, etc.
In reality, the Old Muslims were originally the men of Medina, that is to say, the representatives of the Mohammedan reaction against the old pagan Arab traditions upheld by the men of Mecca. But when the Caliphate was transferred to Damascus by the Ommeyads, and later to Bagdad by the Abbassids, Medinans and Meccans joined forces to resist Greco-Syrian and Greco-Persian influence. They represented, therefore, the Arab, the Bedouin spirit moulded by Islam. It was these two conflicting tendencies that brought into being so many sects all mutually unyieldingly antagonistic.
Under Al Motassem, one of these sects, drawing its inspiration from Greek philosophic thought, assumed a development peculiar to itself, that of the Motazelites, who upheld the doctrine of free will.
This sect was furiously opposed by the religious party. Al Motassem protected the Motazelites; if their principles had prevailed, the Muslim world would have been able to develop along the lines of progress and civilization; but the fanaticism of the Old Muslims carried the day, and the Caliph was unable to lead his liberal ideas to victory.
His successor, Wathiq (842-846), renewed these efforts in favor of the Motazelites and of the liberty of conscience; but he too failed. He had other anxieties; the Greeks wishing to free themselves from the obligation of paying tribute, resumed hostilities. The Emperor Basil was successful in recovering possession of the towns in Cilicia lost by his predecessors.
This was the beginning of the fall of the Abbassids, and, it may be said, of the conquering Arab. From this date, troubles followed closely upon one another. Caliphs incapable and without authority led a useless existence. Religious schisms, palace intrigues, popular risings, revolts of the conquered provinces, the competition of rival pretenders to the supreme power, insubordination in the army and the ambition of military leaders ruined the prosperity of the Muslim community. The immense Arab Empire, too hastily founded, by a people devoid of intellectual culture and especially of political and administrative capacity, crumbled and sank in the throes of anarchy.