Historical Tales and Anecdotes of the Time of the Early Khalifahs/The Beginning of the Abbasside Dynasty

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THE founder of this dynasty was Abu-Muslim, el-Khurasâny, and his name was ʾAbd-er-Rahmán-ibn-Muslim. Amongst his sayings are the following lines:

Tho' they were reinforced, I obtained by vigilance and secrecy
What fell away from the Kings of the Benu-Marwân.
I ceased not striving with might for their overthrow,
And the people were careless and verily the men slept.
Never before had been such slumber. But with the sword
I fell upon them, and from their slumber woke them.
For he who sleeps while tending his flock where wild beasts roam,
Will find that the lion constitutes himself their shepherd.

The first of these Abbasside Khalîfahs was Abu-ʾAbd-Allâh, es-Saffâh.


Upon the death of Hishâm, A.H. 125 (A.D. 742), el-Walîd, the son of Hishâm's brother and predecessor, Yezîd, succeeded to the throne. (See Note *, p. 222.) But so immoral was el-Walîd's life, and so impious were his religious opinions, that the people of Syria unanimously resolved to depose him the following year. They accordingly chose Yezîd, the son of el-Walîd I. (see pp. 192–194), el-Walîd's cousin-german, for their leader, and inaugurated him Khalîfah. He marched against el-Walîd, dispersed his troops, besieged him in his palace, and finally slew him, after he had reigned a year and three months. Yezîd himself died of the plague at Damascus, after he had reigned six months, and was succeeded by his brother Ibrahîm. In the beginning of the year 127 (A.D. 744), however, Marwân-ibn-Muhammad-ibn-Marwân-ibn-el-Hâkim, who was the governor of Mesopotamia and surrounding provinces, and who had rebelled against Yezîd under pretext of avenging the murder of el-Walîd II., marched against Ibrahîm, intending to besiege Damascus, and depose the Khalîfah. At Kinnafrin and Hems he was joined by many of the Khalîfah's subjects, who took the oath of allegiance to him; but Sulaimân-ibn-Hishâm, Ibrahîm's general, marched against him with an army of a hundred and twenty thousand men. Sulaimân's army was, however, routed with great slaughter, and he himself was forced to fly to Damascus. Marwân released his many prisoners upon condition of their taking an oath of fidelity to el-Hâkim and ʾOthmân, el-Walîd's sons, who, since the murder of their father, had remained in prison at Damascus. But Sulaimân, being well assured of Marwân's intention to place one of them upon the throne, no sooner arrived at Damascus than in concert with Ibrahîm he ordered their execution, and then made his escape from the city. El-Hâkim and ʾOthmân, however, foreseeing what would happen, took care before their deaths to transfer their right to Marwân, and declared, in presence of a fellow-prisoner, that in case they should be slain, Marwân ought to be regarded by all Muslims as the lawful Khalîfah and Imâm. So after Sulaimân's flight, the citizens of Damascus opened their gates to Marwân, and, there being no other person in the empire capable of disputing his title or standing in competition with him, he was declared Khalîfah, Ibrahîm himself recognizing his authority, A.H. 127. So short indeed was Ibrahîm's reign, that many writers scarcely mention him. He died A.H. 132. But the manner of his death is uncertain: some say he was assassinated, some that he was drowned, and others that he was poisoned.

Marwân, however, though proclaimed Khalîfah, did not long enjoy peace. The very same year (A.H. 127) the people of Hems rebelled against him. The Damascenes followed their example, and also the people of el-Básrah, who had proclaimed Sulaimân-ibn-Hishâm Khalîfah at that place. And though Marwân was successful in, to a certain extent, quelling these insurrections, yet the partisans of the house of el-Abbâs were now beginning to grow powerful in some of the interior provinces of the empire. El-Abbâs was the Prophet's uncle; and the first of the family who made any considerable figure was his descendant in the third generation, Muhammad-ibn-ʾAly, who flourished in the time of ʾOmar-ibn-ʾAbd-el-Azîz. ʾOmar succeeded Sulaimân-ibn-ʾAbd-el-Mâlik A.H. 99 (A.D. 717). Muhammad-ibn-ʾAly was nominated chief or Imâm of the house of el-Abbâs in the hundredth year of the Hijrah. He is reported to have said to the deputation sent to him on this occasion, "I shall soon die, and my son Ibrahîm will be your leader till he shall be slain. After his death, my other son, ʾAbd-Allâh, surnamed Abu-ʾl-ʾAbbâs, es-Saffâh, shall preside over you, and settle the government of the Muslims upon a solid and lasting basis." Muhammad died A.H. 125, and was succeeded in the honourable post of Imâm by his son Ibrahîm. It was Ibrahîm who two years later appointed Abu-Muslîm-ʾAbd-er-Rahmân-ibn-Muslim, el-Khurasâny, then a youth of nineteen, to go as his representative to Khorassân. Abu-Muslim is called in the text the founder or establisher of the Abbasside dynasty. Ibn-Khalikân calls him the champion and asserter of the rights of the Abbassides to the Khalîfate. He was not of the house of el-Abbâs, nor do historians seem agreed as to his birth, some even maintaining that he was originally a slave of Kurd extraction. Be that as it may, he attached himself to the house of el-Abbâs, and so great were his talents as a general, that the Khalîfah Marwân's troops could make no head against him, and in A.H. 129 all Marwân's commandants of fortresses in Khorassân were obliged either to take an oath of fidelity to Ibrahîm, or within a limited time to quit the province. In A.H. 131, Ibrahîm, while on his way to perform the pilgrimage to Mekkah, was seized by the troops of Marwân, which came up with him near Harrân, carried him to that city, and confined him in prison, where he soon after died. His brother Abu-ʾAbd-Allâh, es-Saffâh, succeeded him, and mainly owing to the exertions and ability of Abu-Muslim, Marwân and his forces were driven from point to point until at length he retreated to Egypt, where he was slain, A.H. 132 (A.D. 750), and es-Saffâh took possession of the Khalîfate without further resistance.

Es-Saffâh after this treated Abu-Muslim with the highest honour for his services, and the talents he had displayed in conducting this important enterprise. And from that time he constantly repeated aloud the lines given in the text. Ibn-Khalikân gives a slightly different version of them.

Es-Saffâh died of smallpox at el-Anbâr, or at el-Hâshimiyyah, a city erected by him at a short distance from the former, A.H. 136, on the very day that he completed his thirty-third year. He was succeeded by his brother Abu-Jaʾafar, el-Mansûr. But though the house of el-Abbâs owed its elevation to the Khalîfate almost entirely to Abu-Muslim, there had for some time been a considerable misunderstanding between that general and Abu-Jaʾafar. The latter, indeed, observing the devotion of the people of Khorassân to Abu-Muslim, would even during his brother's lifetime have persuaded the latter to put Abu-Muslim to death. But es-Saffâh could not so far forget all sense of gratitude. Some writers assert that it was the intention of this great general to transfer the Khalîfate from the house of el-Abbâs to the descendants of ʾAly, and that that was the principal cause of his destruction. Be that as it may, he was treacherously inveigled into the palace of Abu-Jaʾafar, el-Mansûr, and there, in presence and by order of the Khalîfah, was more treacherously slain, A.H. 137 (A.D. 755). He was a man of indisputable talent, though with regard to his intellectual abilities and humanity authors are not agreed, some representing him as prudent, merciful, and discreet; while others have characterized him as of a fierce, merciless, and intractable disposition. A certain Muslim being once asked whether Abu-Muslim or el-Hajjâj (see Note *, p. 151) was the better man, replied, "I will not say that Abu-Muslim was better than any other man, but that el-Hajjâj was worse than he." Abu-Muslim is said to have killed six hundred thousand men in the various battles he fought for the house of el-Abbâs and on other occasions.