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The Abbasids

Published on 17 March, 2008 at 9:55 pm



In 750, the Ummayad caliphate was replaced by the Abassid caliphate. They came to power by carefully presenting themselves in a Shii light, but they quickly abandoned this stance once they came to power. In 762, they moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad. The move signified the move away from the old tribal model and the Abassids ruled their empire in an egalitarian manner.

However, from 786 to 809, Caliph Harun al-Rashid ruled like an old-style absolute monarch. Courtiers now kissed the ground when they came into his presence and he was styled the ‘Shadow of God on Earth’. The caliph no longer supervised ummah affairs himself and the army was no longer open to any Muslim, but reserved for Persians only. Despite this, a great cultural renaissance happened during al-Rashid’s caliphate. Many philosophical and medical texts of classical Hellenism from Greek and Syriac into Arabic, and many Muslim scholars made scientific discoveries during this time.

Under the Abassids, the jurists were pressed to develop a more unified system of law. A more streamlined system and recognized religious institution was required to regulate Islamic life for the masses. A new class of ulama (religious scholars) began to emerge and two outstanding scholars made outstanding contributions. In Medina, Malik ibn. Anas (d.795) produced his masterpiece, al-Mutawattah, The Beaten Path, which was a comprehensive account of the customal law and religious practice of Medina and Malik’s disciples developed his theories into the Maliki madhab. The Maliki school believed that present-day Medina could be a guide to pristine Islam.

Muhammad Idris ibn al-Shafii (d.820), however, argued that it was dangerous to emulate any one Islamic city. Shafii taught four ‘roots’ of sacred law: the Quran, the sunnah of the Prophet, qiyas (analogy) and ijmah, the ‘consensus’ of the community. Shafii’s theories soon developed into the Shafii school.

Political disintegration within the Abassid empire from 800 onwards also resulted in the consolidation of what would become known as Sunni Islam. By observing the sunnah of the Prophet in every aspect of their lives, Muslims now identified themselves with Muhammad and not any other individual. To the Sunnis, the unity of the ummah was a sacred value and it was far more important than any sectarian division. The consolidation of Sunni Islam significantly resulted in lesser Muslim communities embracing Shiah Islam, and up till today, majority of Muslims, including those in Southeast Asia are followers of Sunni Islam.

The success of the Crusade in 1096 in taking over Jerusalem and establishing Crusade states in Syria., Palestine and Anatolia emphasised the gradual decline of the Abassid empire. Due to constant fighting amongst the rulers of the politically autonomous provinces, the rulers were unable to cooperate against an external foe. The event that triggered the First Crusade was the Seljuks’ advance into Byzantine. This first crusade marked the beginnings of open conflict and tense relations between the Muslim world and the European-Christian world, and European attitudes towards Muslims and also Muslim dominance of world trade up till the 16th century soured further.


(The Empires)

(A Short History of Islam)

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