The Structures of Power in Abbasid Iraq

The Structures of Power in Abbasid Iraq

Under the Abbasids, a number of changes occurred in the political and administrative structures of the empire. Among the most important were those that underlined the transformation of the caliphate from an Arab monarchy to an Islamic empire. While the Umayyads had relied on the old Arab military and civilian elite, the Abbasids fl ung open the doors of their empire to people from every ethnicity and sect.

As a result of the concerted effort to diversify the structures of state and society in keeping with the pluralistic character of the new imperial government, recruits from all over the empire were brought in to staff the provincial administrations of the extended state. Even so, and as with any state determined to succeed in a region prone to endemic instability, there was a deliberate effort to create a new set of loyalties to the Abbasid dynasty by creating fresh constituencies in key provinces.

Formerly marginalized groups such as the Khurasanis, made up of a mix of Persian and Arab settlers, were now placed in highly sensitive government positions. Nestorian Christians and Jews were also granted opportunities in the new Islamic empire; as were the Shia, or partisans of Ali, who had provided the Abbasids with their early ideological legitimization.

The very multiplicity of the new governing group buttressed the cosmopolitanism of Abbasid Islam and reinforced the empire’s wide latitude for social distinctions and differences.In Baghdad itself, government became more effi cient as an elaborate bureaucracy grew around the caliph. The offi ces of the qadi (judge), the controller of state fi nances, and the barid (courier) expanded as their functions became more complex.

An entirely new post—that of the wazir, or chief minister—came into existence to execute the instructions of the caliph; eventually, this position, which may well have been adapted from Sassanian example, was to become the most powerful in the Abbasid state. Nurturing this newly installed administrative tradition was the use of Arabic as the lingua franca of the empire (replacing Persian in former Sassanian territories), which created incentive to write instruction booklets and other how-to manuals important for the development of the bureaucratic class.

The wide usage of Arabic also allowed a new form of literature to emerge in the Abbasid realm that drew from several cultural traditions within the larger empire. Finally, military reorganization followed in the wake of this administrative shake-up, as the caliph dismissed the Arab regiments that had been the mainstay of the Umayyad caliphate and relied instead on the Khurasani troops that had brought him and his family to power.

For an example of the changes in administration under the Abbasid state, a look at Syria, the home region of the defeated Umayyad, is relevant. On the provincial level, the shift from Damascus to Baghdad was accompanied quite naturally by a diminution of the power of Syrian Arab notables. In their place, however, the caliphs in Baghdad either appointed younger Arab kinsmen, who, while capable governors, did not enjoy the same legitimacy as the Abbasid ruling family and therefore could not inspire revolts against the center, or military men from Khurasan, the heartland of the Abbasid revolt.

Syria was divided into fi ve administrative sections (ajnad), namely, Palestine (Filastin), Jordan (al-Urdunn), Damascus (Dimashq), Homs, and Quinnesrin (Cobb 2001, 11). Whereas under Umayyad rule Damascus had been the hub of the universe, under the Abbasids, Jerusalem took on more importance because of its association with the Muslim pilgrimage and its holy sites.

Because the Muslims were locked in perpetual hostilities with the Byzantine Empire to the west, the frontier in Syria became central to Abbasid strategy: border districts demarcating Syria from the Byzantine territories were heavily defended by Abbasid troops. Those fl uctuating borders, called al-awasim or al-thughur by Muslim historians, were a central theme of Islamic history and were given considerable attention by the Muslim chroniclers of the medieval period. Finally, as in most other Abbasid provinces, the governor of Syria was sometimes also the chief tax collector, as well as the prayer leader on Fridays, the chief judge, and overall military commander.

Syria, like Iraq, Egypt, and Iran, was directly governed. After the first flush of conquest had begun to make way for a more complex administration, a cadre of provincial offi cials, of which the governor was not always the longest serving, gradually took the reins of power.

As the empire became more bureaucratic, posts became more specialized, and a division of functions occurred so that provincial bureaus of taxation, the judiciary, and the military commander began to make their appearance.

Try as it might, however, the Abbasid state was not able to control all the provinces under its rule with equal effi ciency. Distant provinces, such as those in Central Asia and in North Africa, fell back on local family rule.

For example, as early as the mid-ninth century, a local dynasty, the Tahirids, began to govern the important province of Khurasan. Meanwhile, regions of Central Asia came under the rule of the Samanids in the same period.

In North Africa, Tripolitania (now in Libya) and regions that are now in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia threw out their Arab commanders and formed new, sometimes short-lived dynasties with the support of non-Arab, Berber tribes; signifi cantly, some of these states adopted forms of the Khawarij or pro-Shia positions, which were by then completely inimical to Abbasid interests.

Faced with the reality of local warlords taking over the reins of power, the Abbasids acquiesced in their rule, so long as the required taxes to the empire were paid. While the warning signs of an overstretched empire crumbling at the edges were all but ignored for the sake of realpolitik considerations, mutinies and rebellions rumbled on, particularly those mounted by religious-political parties, such as the Khawarij and Shia.

By the beginning of the ninth century, and as a result of the vicious civil war between two sons of the fi fth caliph, Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), al-Mamun and al-Amin, the caliphate had become a shell of its former self, relying almost totally on foreign councillors and armies and facing prolonged revolts against central authority.

Trade and Agriculture under the Abbasids

Prior to the civil war, during the reign of al-Rashid, Abbasid prosperity reached such heights that the real motors of imperial expansion may not have been as much military and political in nature as they were economic. Starting from the late eighth century onward, trade and agriculture connected the empire with the entire known world through networks of land and sea routes.

By the 13th century, it is estimated that empire-wide trade had become the vital linchpin of a world system, tying the eastern Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and both of them to China. The Abbasid Empire, a key player in world trade, was at the heart of this world system, if not its chief conduit, as Muslim, Christian, and Jewish merchants operating under its patronage bartered, bought, and used credit to ship textiles, food products, and livestock all over the empire and far beyond. Among the fi rst items to be traded were wood, metal, sugar, and paper.

One of the chief reasons for the effi ciency and success of longdistance trade, whether by land or sea, was the unity imposed by Islamic rule. That unity was established from the very fi rst outpouring of Muslim troops into the fertile and cultivable lands of the East Mediterranean and North Africa. Later on, Umayyad and then Abbasid control of the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean created a clearly defi ned and homogeneous area for transempire trade, unifi ed by Islamic customs and mores and tied by the Arabic language.

However, historians have pointed out that while the Abbasid Empire at its height controlled a large proportion of the known world, there were at least two other economic zones that cooperated as well as came into confl ict with the Muslim realm, and those were China and the yet-to-be unifi ed and largely underdeveloped European states.

Sociologist Janet Abu Lughod has written that there were striking similarities between economic systems in Asia, the Islamic world, and the West, and that contrary to the belief that capitalism or a moneydriven economy only developed in Europe, both the Islamic empire and China had created capital-intensive economies that competed fairly well with each other (Abu Lughod 1989, 15– 18). The Abbasids and, later on, the Italian merchant citystates minted coins in their rulers’ names; in China, paper money was introduced in the early ninth century. Credit was widely available so that traders could buy in one place and guarantee payment in another.

Banking appeared initially in the Islamic world and was later copied by Europeans: members of merchant families worked for family fi rms in disparate regions of the world and guaranteed long-term credit and cash payments in a premodern system of family banking. As a result, Muslim traders were able to establish trading posts as far away as India, the Philippines, Malaya, the East Indies, and China. Abu Lughod also shows that even in small Islamic city-states, there was a controlling oligarchy at the head that monopolized trade and organized traders.

According to historian K. N. Chaudhuri, there were four great Asian commodities bought and exchanged in medieval times: silk, porcelain, sandalwood, and black pepper (Chaudhuri 1985, 39). Other products complemented transregional trade, such as shipments of horses from the Gulf; incense from southern Arabia; and ivory, cloth, and metal. There were many important port cities that facilitated this regional trade.

Until the advent of the Abbasid Empire, trade was mostly land based and carried out by camel caravans passing from ports such as Jeddah (western Arabia) to Egypt and Yemen. After the conquest of the eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, Abbasid merchants were able to use the sea to great effect. New port towns developed or, in some cases, were redeveloped from small coastal communities to large trading emporia. For instance, Basra in southern Iraq, although built as a garrison town for Islamic troops, quickly became a major trans-shipment route for goods from Syria, Baghdad, and the coastal Gulf islands to India.

Until the 20th century, Basra remained the main port of shipment to Bombay (present-day Mumbai) and other cities in western India. Other famous commercial centers in the Abbasid era were Siraf, a short distance away from Basra on the Persian side of the Gulf, Hormuz at the tip, Sohar in Oman, and Aden in Yemen. There were also the famous East African ports of Kilwa and Mombasa, from which sailors traveled across the Indian Ocean in ships that had been constructed without the use of a single nail.

Cultural and Intellectual Developments

The political and socioeconomic achievements of the Abbasid state were accompanied by riveting developments in the spread of human knowledge and the growth of the sciences, which came to be seen as the determining features of the far-fl ung Abbasid Empire.

The sophistication of its literate elites, the mass appeal of its educational establishments, the systematization of its legal and societal structures, and the receptivity to the world are what underpinned the true Abbasid revolution.