A Populist Revolt: The Zanj Movement

A Populist Revolt: The Zanj Movement

Al-Muwaffaq was the brother of al-Mutamid who had become caliph in 870, but for all intents and purposes, al-Muwaffaq was the real power behind the throne. Although he never became caliph himself, his stout defense of the empire eventually allowed his son al-Mutadid (r. 892–902) to become ruler. Al-Muwaffaq’s resolve was put to the test in the 870s and early 880s by the formidable Zanj insurrection in Basra, southern Iraq, and he has largely gone down in history as the commander that broke the back of that revolt in 883.

In southern Iraq, slaves from East Africa had been brought to work in the clearing of salt pans in the lower Shatt al-Arab region. Those plantation slaves came to be known as the Zanj. Their miserable conditions were such that they attracted the attention of a charismatic leader, Ali ibn Muhammad, virtually unknown before the Zanj revolt but identifi ed later on as an Arab brought up in Iran and a self-described descendant of the imam Ali ibn Abu Talib. By virtue of his Shia origins, his religious ideology incorporated both Shii and Khariji symbols, even though his main claims to leadership of the revolt rested on racial equality and the fair distribution of wealth.

Arab historians of the period see the Zanj revolt as highly signifi cant because it was no ordinary rebellion. Begun in 869, it lasted almost 15 years, and at the high point of their insurrection, the Zanj reportedly had built up an army, a navy, and six well-established towns, the most important of which was al-Mukhtara.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Zanj revolt was the diversity of its base; the Zanj were supported by Shii Arabs, mawalis, semi-settled tribesmen, as well as local peasants and African troops who deserted the caliph’s army. More important still is the composition of the leadership; the controversial Ali ibn Muhammad is thought to have been joined at various stages of the rebellion by East African as well as Arab merchants from the Gulf whose interests in protecting long-distance trade must have intersected with his.

Distracted by numerous revolts in the larger empire, the Abbasids were not to confront seriously Ali ibn Muhammad until 10 years after the initial Zanj revolt in 869. In the intervening decade, the revolt not only succeeded in freeing the slaves but in 872, infl icted a major military defeat on the caliph’s troops led by al-Muwaffaq himself.

Prior to the full-fl edged Abbasid attack on the Zanj, the government had imposed an outrageous 20 percent tax on imports into the empire, which threatened to bankrupt merchants throughout the Abbasid realm; the permutations of that hasty decision roiled long-distance trade and affected the empire’s economic base, contributing perhaps to the government’s inability to confront the rebellion militarily.

However, the increase in taxation on Abbasid merchants could also have been a ploy by the government to break the trade monopolies imposed by southern merchants who used Basra, the Zanj base, as a shipment point for goods coming from various areas of the empire. Once the Abbasids began a full-blown military campaign against the Zanj, they fought pitched battles with Ali ibn Muhammad’s troops; despite the offers of amnesties, Ali ibn Muhammad continued fi ghting.

In 883, al-Muwaffaq, with Egyptian assistance, fi nally crushed the Zanj rebellion and brought back Ali ibn Muhammad’s head to Baghdad in triumph. Many of the former slaves who accepted amnesty were incorporated (or in some cases reincorporated) into the caliph’s army to fi ght their former comrades and thus spared execution.

The Zanj revolt has inspired numerous present-day writers to frame the episode in political, economic, and social terms. Marxist writers tend to view it as a movement for egalitarianism and social justice. Others see it as a purely economic revolt, with Ali ibn Muhammad replacing the Abbasids as master of the plantation, eager to control the trade and agricultural revenues made possible by African slave labor. Still others see it in racial terms, as an all-African movement for emancipation. Whatever its actual nature, it is important to realize that at its outset, the Zanj revolt inspired the widespread defection of African troops in the Abbasid army, surely as emblematic a move as any in solidarity with the enslaved Africans in southern Iraq.

The Breakup of the Abbasid Empire and the Eclipse of the Caliphate

By the middle of the 10th century, popular revolts, economic decline, and sheer imperial inertia had begun to make vast inroads in the empire’s fabric. Sectarian divisions on the part of the Shia and the Ismailis, both rival claimants to Muslim legitimacy, instigated empirewide resistance that was put down only with great diffi culty. To make matters worse, various caliphs took to depleting the central treasury through luxurious living and disregarded investment in irrigation agriculture, the mainstay of Iraq’s prosperity, bringing about depopulation, excessive salination of farmlands, and widespread poverty. Once the most prosperous of Middle Eastern regions, Iraq now became a backwater and easy prey for outsiders.

In 945, the Buyids (Buwayhids), a Shii dynasty under the leadership of Muizz al-Dawla (r. 945–967), established a military regime in Iraq and Iran. From the time of the Buyid occupation of Baghdad until its sack by the Mongols in 1258, the Abbasid caliphate was transformed into a ceremonial post. Under the Buyids, Shiism emerged in the open, because it was afforded protection by the rulers of the moment. It is then that Shii hadith, or the orally transmitted traditions of Imam Ali and the later imams, were collected and began to form the body of Shii law. The two most important scholars associated with the compilation of law are al-Kulayni (d. 925) and al-Tusi (d. 1067).

After this Shii interregnum, the Seljuk Turks, fresh from their conquest of Iran, invaded Iraq and defeated the Buyid dynasty in 1055. There is some indication that the Seljuks had been invited to take over Baghdad by the much weakened Abbasid caliph, al-Qaim biAmr-Allah (r. 1031–75), whose more pressing concern was whether to offer resistance to a more immediate enemy, the commander of the Turkish troops in Baghdad, al-Basasiri.

The latter, it was suspected, was not only ready to crush the Abbasid dynasty altogether but to take over the capital in the name of the Fatimid rulers of Egypt, who followed the esoteric Ismaili sect, which was total anathema to the Sunni caliph. As a result, when the Seljuk sultan Tughrul Bey and his army entered Baghdad, they were welcomed as saviors, and Tughrul’s name was immediately associated with the caliph’s in the Friday prayers, the ultimate recognition of leadership in the Islamic world.

The caliph’s gratitude was such that he married Tughrul’s niece. And when Sultan Tughrul fi nally defeated and killed al-Basasiri in 1059, the caliph’s cup overfl owed with such appreciation that he awarded the Seljuk leader the title of “Sultan of the East and the West” (Hassanein 1983, 48–50).The Seljuks spoke a variation of the Turkish language and were nomadic troops that had arrived from the Central Asian steppes. Originally pagan, they became Muslim upon entering the Islamic Middle East, following the Sunni path of the caliph.

They thus shored up the dwindling fortunes of the Sunni caliphate, once deemed under threat in the Shii Buyid era. The Seljuks were also the fi rst to take on the title of sultan for their leaders, which derives from the Arabic word, sulta, or “power,” and connotes a more secular vision of authority than that associated with the caliph, whose infl uence was, in theory, more spiritual than worldly.

Adopting the Buyid model of allowing the caliph to remain the titular sovereign of Iraq, Tughrul Bey was careful not to intrude in the caliph’s religious domain, but he allowed himself a free hand in the administration of Iraq’s revenues, going so far as to expropriate the caliph’s private lands. Tughrul Bey was followed in Iraq by a number of strong rulers, one of whom, Malikshah, set new standards for the courtly patronage of all aspects of learning in Baghdad by establishing universities and theological schools.

Under the Seljuks Iran-Afghanistan, Iraq, Armenia, and Anatolia were ruled by one Sunni Muslim Turkic dynasty. The Seljuk sultanate continued as a unifi ed polity until 1157 when, after the death of the Sultan Ahmad Sanjar, the Seljuk territories broke up into several lesser states. Finally, the Ilkhanid Mongols invaded and took over the Middle East, bringing Seljuk rule to an end. The sack of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols opens up a completely different episode in the history of medieval Iraq.

With the death of the last Abbasid caliph, the tottering Islamic realm of which he had been titular head, collapsed. The Mongols shifted trade back to Asia, and Baghdad and its dependencies fell into rack and ruin, its inhabitants having only incorporated into the Mongol world empire through the sword.

The once magnifi cent Abbasid courts in Baghdad and Samarra, the propagation of an Islamic ideology that tied one corner of the diverse empire to another, the vast trade links with China and Europe, and the well-oiled administrative machinery of state had begun to falter. Under the Mongol and Timurid impact, all those varied features of the Abbasid experience failed at one point or another and were only partially resurrected by the advent of Turkic tribal states in the 13th and 14th centuries.


Prior to its complete destruction by the Mongols, Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire, was above all, an Islamic city, but it was a city that was thronged by native-born Jews and Christians, Persians, Indians, Greeks, and people from Central Asia.

Abbasid culture and science, therefore, were not the monopoly of one or two religious or sectarian or ethnic groups; they literally were the contribution of a pluralistic, polyglot, and even international culture. That, then, is the true Abbasid contribution to history; a city and, at times, an empire that spoke in different tongues and believed in distinctive creeds but ultimately worked for and shared in the ideals of Islamic universalism.

For centuries after the sack of Baghdad, the lure of the city lived on in the memories of men. There is an interesting postscript to the destruction of Baghdad at the hands of Hulegu Khan (1217–65), the Mongol conqueror, and grandson of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan. It is related that Hulegu pondered long and hard before he took the decision to conquer Baghdad and that he asked for advice from both his astrologers and his chief minister, Nasir al-Din Tusi, as to whether he should enter the city.

Hulegu’s astrologers warned him it was not a propitious time to capture Baghdad, on the grounds that the city had been built by a caliph and given the symbolic name of the City of Peace and that it had been foretold that no Abbasid caliph would die there. Tusi, on the other hand, encouraged his master to override the concerns of his astrologers and to forge ahead in his plans.

After the horrifi c onslaught on Baghdad had begun and the last Abbasid caliph was killed, it was revealed that Tusi had agreed with Hulegu to rescue 400,000 scientifi c manuscripts (for the most part, relating to astronomy) prior to the pillage and to store them in an Islamic observatory in the city of Maragha, in northwest Iran.

Tusi then brought together under his auspices the best team of astronomers of the period and commanded them to initiate an exhaustive research project on Islamic astronomy. His hidden agenda, it is claimed, was to create an alternative to the still important tradition of Greek astronomy.

Eventually, two of the mathematical theorems produced by Tusi’s scientists “made their way into the works of Copernicus, the father of European Renaissance astronomy, and by extension [into] modern science” (Saliba 2003, 111). Thus did Abbasid science live on to serve the exalted aims of its very own destroyers.