The Abbasid Caliphate ruled much of the Muslim world from 750 c.e. until 1258. Many Muslims consider it to have been the Golden Age of Islam, a period when the visual arts, sciences, mathematics, and literature flourished. The Abbasid family came to power in a revolution that brought down the Umayyad Caliphate, which had ruled the Islamic Empire since the death of the fourth caliph, Ali, in 661. The new dynasty traced its origins to Abbas (d. 653), the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad (570–632), and sought to make a clean break with its predecessors by building a new city to serve as their capital in 762. The Abbasids called the city Madinat al-Salam (City of Peace), but everyone else called it Baghdad, after a village that previously existed on the site, and that was the name that stuck. By the late ninth century its population is estimated to have reached half a million, making it one of the largest cities in the world in that era. The population declined in the following centuries as the power of the dynasty diminished, but Baghdad remained one of the most important centers for the study and production of philosophy, religious studies, mathematics and science in the Muslim world, attracting scholars, philosophers, and poets from across North Africa and the Middle East.
When the Abbasid family came to power some Muslims hoped that they would take a more forceful role in making the caliphate a religious, as well as a political, office. The people in this group had favored one of the surviving descendants of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and the father of the Prophet’s only grandchildren, to be the caliph. This faction believed that only someone from the Prophet Muhammad’s direct line should rule as caliph, but many acquiesced to the rule of a family descended at least from the Prophet Muhammad’s more extended relations. Besides the question of who should serve as Muhammad’s successor or caliph, there was also the question of what the office of the caliphate should entail. The debate was between those who wanted a more spiritual caliph and those who wanted a merely administrative one. The Abbasids offered a compromise whereby they promised to rule according to Islamic law but would make no claim to spiritual authority for themselves. As long as they did so, the religious scholars would recognize the legitimacy of their rule. Western historians have coined the term the Abbasid Compromise to refer to the agreement. It provided a balance between religious and secular authority that all subsequent states embracing Sunni Islam would follow until the modern era. This was in contrast to the Shia Islam model of government, which envisioned the caliph also as the imam, a spiritual leader and model for the world’s Muslims, thereby giving the office both political and religious authority.
At the height of its power in the early ninth century, the Abbasid state controlled territories stretching from Morocco to the borders of China; however, it weakened over time. By the 11th century it had lost control over most of its territory to local Muslim dynasties. According to Muslim political theory as it developed during this period, the world’s Muslims should acknowledge one political ruler, the caliph. Due to the strength of that ideal, most of these independent Sunni Muslim rulers, who emerged as the power of the Abbasids declined, maintained a nominal allegiance to the caliph. The alternative for such a ruler was to declare that he was the caliph (or, with Shii Muslims, the imam), something no Sunni leader would do as long the Abbasid family survived. Thus even as its actual power diminished, the Abbasid Caliphate remained a potent symbol for political unity. That dream came to an end with the destruction of Baghdad and the murder of the last reigning caliph, al-Mustasim, by the Mongols in 1258.
For the sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire beginning in the early 14th century, the Abbasid Caliphate served as a model for good government as it had been the last strong, centralized Sunni Muslim state. The Ottomans chose as their official interpretation of Islamic law the Hanafi school favored by the Abbasid state. Political treatises written by scholars in the Hanafi tradition, such as those of Abu Yusuf (d. 798) and al-Mawardi (d. 1058), served as the basis of Ottoman legal and political theory. The Ottomans also consciously modeled many of their state’s political and religious institutions after those of the Abbasids. In the 17th century, Ottoman court historians began to include an account that the last surviving descendant of the Abbasid line, the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, handed his robe of office as caliph to Sultan Selim I (r. 1512–20) after his conquest of Egypt in 1517. Although no contemporary accounts recorded such a transfer, the story became the justification for the Ottoman sultan’s claim to be caliph of all Muslims during the 19th century.
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