Not to be confused with al-Musta'sim, the last Abbasid caliph in Baghdad.


Oberse and reverse of silver coin with Arabic inscriptions

Silver dirham of al-Mu'tasim, minted at al-Muhammadiya in 836/7
8th Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate
Reign 9 August 833 – 5 January 842
Predecessor al-Ma'mun
Successor al-Wathiq
Born October 796
Khuld Palace, Baghdad
Died 5 January 842 (aged 45)
Jawsaq Palace, Samarra
Burial Jawsaq Palace, Samarra
Issue Harun al-Wathiq, Ja'far al-Mutawakkil, Muhammad, Ahmad, Ali, Abdallah
Full name
Abu Ishaq 'Abbas ibn Harun al-Rashid al-Mu'tasim bi'llah
Dynasty Abbasids
Father Harun al-Rashid
Mother Marida
Religion Sunni Islam

Abū Isḥāq Muḥammad ibn Hārūn al-Rashīd (Arabic: أبو إسحاق محمد بن هارون الرشيد; October 796 – 5 January 842), better known by his regnal name al-Muʿtaṣim bi’llāh (المعتصم بالله, "he who seeks refuge in God"), was the eighth Abbasid caliph, ruling from 833 to his death in 842.[1] A younger son of Harun al-Rashid, he rose to prominence through his formation of a private army composed predominantly of Turkish slave-soldiers (ghilmān or mamālīk). This proved useful to his half-brother, Caliph al-Ma'mun, who made use of al-Mu'tasim and his Turkish guard to counterbalance other powerful interest groups in the state, as well as employing them in campaigns against rebels and the Byzantine Empire. When al-Ma'mun died unexpectedly in campaign in August 833, al-Mu'tasim was thus well placed to succeed him, overriding the claims of his nephew, al-Abbas ibn al-Ma'mun.

Al-Mu'tasim continued many of his brother's policies, like the partnership with the Tahirids and the support for Mu'tazilism and the miḥna, backed by the powerful chief qādī, Ahmad ibn Abi Duwad. Despite his own disinterest in literary pursuits, al-Mu'tasim also nurtured the scientific renaissance begun under al-Ma'mun. In other ways, however, his reign marks a departure and a watershed moment in Islamic history, with the creation of a new regime centred on the military, and particularly his Turkish guard. In 836, a new capital was established at Samarra to symbolize this new regime and remove it from the populace of Baghdad. The power of the caliphal government was increased by centralizing measures that reduced the power of provincial governors in favour of a small group of senior civil and military officials in Samarra, and the fiscal apparatus of the state was more and more dedicated to the maintenance of the professional army, which was dominated by the Turks. An abortive conspiracy against al-Mu'tasim in favour of al-Abbas in 838 resulted in a widespread purge of the previous Arab and Iranian elites that had played a major role in the early period of the Abbasid state, and the strengthening of the position of the Turks and their principal leaders, Ashinas, Wasif, Itakh, and Bugha. Another prominent member of al-Mu'tasim's inner circle, the prince of Ushrusana, al-Afshin, fell foul of his enemies at court and was overthrown and killed in 840/1. The rise of the Turks would eventually result in the troubles of the "Anarchy at Samarra" and lead to the collapse of Abbasid power in the mid-10th century, but the ghilmān-based system inaugurated by al-Mu'tasim would be widely adopted throughout the Muslim world.

Al-Mu'tasim's reign was also marked by continuous warfare. His generals led the fight against internal rebellions. The two major internal campaigns of the reign were against the long-running Khurramite uprising of Babak Khorramdin in Adharbayjan, which was suppressed by al-Afshin in 835–837, and against Mazyar, the autonomous ruler of Tabaristan, who had clashed with the Tahirids and risen up in revolt. Al-Mu'tasim himself led a major campaign in 838 against the Byzantine Empire, with his armies defeating Emperor Theophilos and sacking the city of Amorium. The Amorium campaign was widely celebrated, and became a cornerstone of caliphal propaganda, cementing al-Mu'tasim's reputation as a warrior-caliph.

Early life

The future al-Mu'tasim was born to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (ruled 786–809) and Marida, an otherwise unknown slave concubine. Marida was born in Kufa, but her family hailed from Soghdia, and she is usually considered to have been of Turkic origin.[1][2] He was born in the Khuld ("Eternity") Palace in Baghdad, but the exact date is unclear: according to al-Tabari, his birth was placed by various authorities either in October 796 (Sha'ban AH 180), or earlier, in AH 179 (i.e. spring 796 or earlier).[3] Al-Tabari describes the adult al-Mu'tasim as "fair-complexioned, with a black beard the hair tips of which were red and the end of which was square and streaked with red, and with handsome eyes". Other authors stress his physical strength and his love for physical activity—an anecdote recalls how during the Amorium campaign he went ahead of the army riding on a mule and searched in person for a shallow crossing-point across a river—in stark contrast to his more sedentary predecessors and successors. Later authors claim he was almost illiterate, but as the historian Hugh Kennedy comments, this "would have been most improbable for an Abbasid prince", and most likely simply reflects his disinterest in intellectual pursuits.[4][5]

As one of Harun's younger sons, he was initially of little consequence, and did not figure in the line of succession.[6] During the civil war between his elder half-brothers al-Amin (r. 809–813) and al-Ma'mun (r. 813–833) he remained in Baghdad, and, like most members of the Abbasid dynasty and the Abbasid aristocracy (abnāʾ al-dawla), supported the anti-caliph Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi in 817–819.[7] Al-Tabari records that Abu Ishaq led the pilgrimage in 816, accompanied by many troops and officials, among whom was Hamdaway ibn Ali ibn Isa ibn Maham, who had just been appointed to the governorship of the Yemen and was on his way there. During his stay in Mecca, his troops defeated and captured a pro-Alid leader who had raided the pilgrim caravans.[8] He also led the pilgrimage in the next year, but no details are known.[9]

Formation of the Turkish guard

Multi-color map of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, showing the phases of Muslim expansion to the 10th century
Map of the Muslim expansion and the Muslim world under the Umayyad and early Abbasid caliphates

From ca. 814/5, Abu Ishaq began forming his corps of Turkish troops. The first members of the corps were domestic slaves he bought in Baghdad (the distinguished general Itakh was originally a cook) whom he trained in the art of war, but they were soon complemented by Turkish slaves sent directly from Central Asia after an agreement with the local Samanid rulers. This private force was small—it probably numbered between three and four thousand at the time of his accession—but it was highly trained and disciplined, and made Abu Ishaq a man of power in his own right, as al-Ma'mun increasingly turned to him for assistance.[10] Abu Ishaq's Turkish corps was also politically useful to al-Ma'mun, who tried to lessen his own dependence on the mostly eastern Iranian leaders who had supported him in the civil war, and who now occupied the senior positions in the new regime. In an effort to counterbalance their influence, al-Ma'mun granted formal recognition to his brother and his Turkish corps, as well as placing the Arab tribal levies of the Mashriq in the hands of his own son, al-Abbas.[11]

The nature and identity of al-Mu'tasim's "Turkish slave soldiers" is a controversial subject, with both the ethnic label and the slave status of its members disputed. Although the bulk of the corps were clearly of servile origin, being either captured in war or purchased as slaves, in the sources they are never referred to as slaves (mamlūk or ʿabid), but rather as mawālī ("clients" or "freedmen") or ghilmān ("pages"), implying that they were manumitted, a view reinforced by the fact that they were paid cash salaries.[12][13] In addition, although the corps are collectively called simply "Turks", atrāk, in the sources,[12] prominent early members were neither Turks nor slaves, but rather Iranian vassal princes from Central Asia like al-Afshin, prince of Usrushana, who were followed by their personal retinues (Persian chakar, Arabic shākiriyya).[14][15][16]

Campaigns under al-Ma'mun

Al-Tabari mentions that in 819 Abu Ishaq commanded a force sent against some Kharijite rebels. During this campaign, one of the Turkish ghilmān placed himself between a Kharijite lancer and the future caliph, shouting, "Recognize me!" (in Persian "ashinas ma-ra"). To express his appreciation, Abu Ishaq on that same day granted this man the name Ashinas.[17]

In 828, al-Ma'mun appointed Abu Ishaq as governor of Egypt and Syria in place of Abdallah ibn Tahir, who departed to assume the governorship of Khurasan, while the Jazira and the frontier zone (thughūr) with the Byzantine Empire passed to al-Abbas.[14][18] Egypt had just been brought back under caliphal authority and pacified after the tumults of the civil war with Ibn Tahir,[19] but the situation remained volatile. When Abu Ishaq's governor, Umayr ibn al-Walid, tried to raise taxes, the Nile Delta and Hawf regions rose in revolt. In 830, Umayr tried to forcibly subdue the rebels, but was ambushed and killed along with many of his troops. With the government troops now confined to the capital Fustat, Abu Ishaq intervened in person, at the head of his 4,000 Turks. The rebels were soundly defeated and their leaders executed.[20][21] In 831, however, soon after his departure, the revolt flared up again, this time encompassing both the Arab settlers and the native Christian Copts under the leadership of Ibn Ubaydus, a descendant of one of the original Arab conquerors of the country. The rebels were confronted by the Turks, led by al-Afshin, who engaged in a systematic campaign, winning a string of victories and engaging in large-scale executions. Thus the male Copts were executed, and their women and children sold into slavery, while the old Arab elites who had ruled the country since the Muslim conquest of Egypt were practically annihilated. In early 832, al-Ma'mun visited the province, and soon after that the last bastion of resistance, the Copts of the coastal marshes, were subdued.[21][22]

In July–September 830, al-Ma'mun, encouraged by perceived Byzantine weakness and suspicious of collusion between Emperor Theophilos and the Khurramite rebels of Babak Khorramdin, launched the first large-scale invasion of Byzantine territory since the start of the Abbasid civil war, and sacked a number of Byzantine border fortresses.[23][24] Following his return from Egypt, Abu Ishaq joined al-Ma'mun in his 831 campaign against the Byzantines. After rebuffing Theophilos' offers of peace, the Abbasid army crossed the Cilician Gates and divided into three columns, with the Caliph, his son al-Abbas, and Abu Ishaq at their head. The Abbasids seized and destroyed several minor forts as well as the town of Tyana, while al-Abbas even won a minor skirmish against Theophilos in person, before withdrawing to Syria in September.[25][26] In 832 al-Ma'mun repeated his invasion of the Byzantine borderlands, capturing the strategically important fortress of Loulon, a success that consolidated Abbasid control of both exits of the Cilician Gates.[27] So encouraged was al-Ma'mun by this victory that he repeatedly rejected Theophilos' ever more generous offers for peace, and publicly announced that he intended to capture Constantinople itself. Consequently al-Abbas was dispatched in May to convert the deserted town of Tyana into a military colony and prepare the ground for the westwards advance. Al-Ma'mun followed in July, but he suddenly fell ill and died on 7 August 833.[28][29]


Al-Ma'mun had made no official provisions for his succession. His son, al-Abbas, was old enough and had acquired experience in the border wars with the Byzantines, but had not been named heir.[6] According to the account in al-Tabari, on his deathbed, al-Ma'mun dictated a letter nominating his brother, rather than al-Abbas, as his successor,[30] and Abu Ishaq was acclaimed as Caliph on 9 August, with the name of al-Mu'tasim.[31] It is impossible to know whether this reflects actual events, or whether the letter was an invention and Abu Ishaq merely took advantage of his proximity to his dying brother, and al-Abbas's absence elsewhere, to propel himself to the throne. As Abu Ishaq was the forefather of all subsequent Abbasid caliphs, historians had little desire to question the legitimacy of his accession, but it is clear that his position was far from secure: a large part of the army favoured al-Abbas, and even went to him and tried to proclaim him as the new Caliph. Only when al-Abbas himself refused, whether out of weakness or out of a desire to avoid a civil war, and himself took the oath of allegiance to his uncle, did the soldiers acquiesce to al-Mu'tasim's succession.[32][33] The precariousness of his position is further evidenced by the fact that al-Mu'tasim immediately called off the expedition, abandoned the Tyana project and returned with his army to Baghdad, which he reached on 20 September.[34][35][36]

New elites and administration

Whatever the true background of his accession, al-Mu'tasim owed his rise to the throne not only to his strong personality and leadership skills, but principally to the fact that he was the only Abbasid prince to control independent military power in the form of his Turkish corps.[10] Unlike his brother, who tried to use the tribal Arabs and the Turks to balance out the Iranian troops, al-Mu'tasim relied almost exclusively on his Turks, and established "a new regime that was militaristic and centred on the Turkish corps" (Tayeb El-Hibri).[15][37] The rise of al-Mu'tasim to the caliphate thus heralded a radical change in the nature of Abbasid administration, with the eclipse of the previous Arab and Iranian elites, both in Baghdad and the provinces, in favour of the Turkish military, and an increasing centralisation of administration around the caliphal court. A characteristic example is that of Egypt, where the Arab settler families, who still nominally formed the country's army (jund) and continued to receive a salary from the local revenues. Al-Mu'tasim discontinued the practice, removing the Arab families from the army registers (diwān) and ordering that the revenues of Egypt be sent to the central government, which would then pay the ʿaṭāʾ only to the Turkish troops stationed in the province.[38] Another departure from previous practice was al-Mu'tasim's appointment of his senior lieutenants, such as Ashinas or Itakh, as nominal super-governors over several provinces. This measure probably intended to allow his chief followers immediate access to funds with which to pay their troops, but also, according to Hugh Kennedy, "represented a further centralizing of power, for the under-governors of the provinces seldom appeared at court and played little part in the making of political decisions".[39] Indeed, al-Mu'tasim's caliphate marks the apogee of the central government's authority, in particular as expressed in its right and power to extract taxes from the provinces, an issue that had been controversial and had faced much local opposition since the early days of the Islamic state.[39]

The one exception to this process were the Tahirids, who remained in place as autonomous governors of their Khurasani super-province, encompassing most of the eastern Caliphate. In addition, the Tahirids provided the governor of Baghdad, a focus of opposition to the Caliph under al-Ma'mun, which helped keep the city quiescent. The post was held throughout al-Mu'tasim's reign by Ishaq ibn Ibrahim ibn Mus'ab, who was "always one of al-Mu'tasim's closest advisers and confidants" (C. E. Bosworth).[1][40] Apart from the Turkish military and the Tahirids, al-Mu'tasim's administration depended on the central fiscal bureaucracy. As the main source of revenue were the rich lands of southern Iraq (the Sawad) and neighbouring areas, the administration was staffed mostly with men drawn from these regions. The new caliphal bureaucratic class that emerged under al-Mu'tasim were thus mostly Persian or Aramean in origin, with a large proportion of newly converted Muslims and even a few Nestorian Christians, who came from landowner or merchant families.[41] On his accession, al-Mu'tasim appointed as his chief minister or vizier his old personal secretary, al-Fadl ibn Marwan. A man trained in the traditions of the Abbasid bureaucracy, he was distinguished for his caution and frugality, and try to shore up the finances of the state. These traits eventually caused his downfall, when he refused to authorize the Caliph's gifts to his courtiers on grounds that the treasury could not afford it. He was dismissed in 836, but was lucky enough not to suffer further punishment other than being sent into exile to the village of al-Sinn.[42][43] His replacement, Muhammad ibn al-Zayyat, was of a completely different character: a rich merchant, he is described by Hugh Kennedy as "a competent financial expert but a callous and brutal man who made many enemies", even among his fellow members of the administration. Nevertheless, and even though his political authority never exceeded the fiscal domain, he managed to maintain his office throughout the reign, and under al-Mu'tasim's successor al-Wathiq (ruled 842–847) as well.[1][44]

Rise of the Turks

Al-Mu'tasim's reliance on his Turkish ghilmān grew over time, especially in the aftermath of an abortive plot against him discovered in 838, during the Amorium campaign. Headed by 'Ujayf ibn 'Anbasa, a long-serving Khurasani who had served al-Ma'mun since the civil war against al-Amin, the conspiracy rallied the traditional Abbasid elites, dissatisfied with al-Mu'tasim's policies and especially his favouritism towards to the Turks. Discontent with the latter grew due to their servile origin, which offended the Abbasid aristocracy; their mood is conveyed by al-Tabari, who reports two of the leading conspirators, Amr al-Farghani and Ahmad ibn al-Khalil ibn Hisham, grumbling about being humbled by Ashinas, "this slave, the son of a whore", and that they would rather defect to the Byzantines than continue to serve under him. The plotters aimed to kill the Caliph and raise al-Ma'mun's son al-Abbas in his stead. According to al-Tabari, al-Abbas, although privy to these designs, rejected Ujayf's urgent suggestions to kill al-Mu'tasim during the initial stages of the campaign for fear of appearing to undermine the jihād. In the event, Ashinas grew suspicious of al-Farhgani and Ibn Hisham, and the plot was soon uncovered. Al-Abbas was imprisoned, and the Turkish leaders Ashinas, Itakh, and Bugha the Elder undertook to discover and arrest the other conspirators. The affair was the signal for a large-scale purge "of almost Stalinesque ruthlessness" (Kennedy) of the army. Al-Abbas was forced to die of thirst, and his male offspring were arrested, and likely executed, by Itakh, and the other leaders of the conspiracy were executed in ingenious and excessively cruel ways, which were widely publicised as a deterrent to others. According to the Kitab al-'Uyun, some seventy commanders and soldiers were executed, including some Turks.[45][46][47]

As the historian Matthew Gordon points out, these events are probably connected to the disappearance of the abnāʾ from the scene, and correspondingly they must have increased the standing of the Turks and their chief commanders, particularly Ashinas: in 839, his daughter, Utranja, was wed to the son of al-Afshin, and in 840, al-Mu'tasim appointed him as his deputy during his absence from Baghdad, and when he returned, he publicly placed him on a throne and had him crowned. In the same year, Ashinas was appointed to a super-governorate over the provinces of Egypt, Syria, and the Jazira. When Ashinas participated in the ḥajj of 841, he received honours on every stop of the route.[48][49] In 840, it was the turn of al-Afshin to fall victim to the Caliph's suspicions: despite his distinguished service as a general, he was very much the "odd man out" (Kennedy) in the Samarran elite due to his Iranian princely origins. His relations with the Turkish generals were marked by mutual antipathy, bred of their different origins, and his interference in Tabaristan (see below) now served to alienate him from the Tahirids as well, who might under other circumstances have been his natural allies.[50] In addition, al-Tabari reports other allegations against al-Afshin: that he was plotting to poison al-Mu'tasim, or that he was planning to escape to his native Ushrusana with his vast sums of money.[51] According to Hugh Kennedy, however, the very variety of allegations against him, is grounds for skepticism about their truthfulness, and it is likely that he was framed by his enemies at court.[50] Whatever the true events, these allegations discredited al-Afshin in the eyes of al-Mu'tasim. He was dismissed from his position in the caliphal bodyguard (al-ḥaras),[52] and a show trial was held at the palace, where he was confronted with a variety of witnesses, including Mazyar. Al-Afshin was accused, among other things, of being a false Muslim, and of being accorded divine status by his subjects in his native Ushrusana. Despite putting up an able and eloquent defence, al-Afshin was found guilty and thrown into prison. He died soon after, either of starvation or of poison; his body was publicly gibbeted in front of the palace gates, burned, and thrown in the Tigris.[53][54] Once more, the affair enhanced the standing of the Turkish leadership, and particularly Wasif, who now received al-Afshin's revenue and possessions.[55]

Nevertheless, it seems that al-Mu'tasim was not entirely satisfied with the men he had raised to power. An anecdote dating from his last years, relayed by Ishaq ibn Ibrahim ibn Mus'ab, recalls how the Caliph, in an intimate exchange with Ishaq, lamented that he had made poor choices in this regard: while his brother, al-Ma'mun had nurtured four excellent servants in the Tahirids, he himself had raised al-Afshin, who was dead; Ashinas, "a feeble heart and a coward"; Itakh, "who is totally insignificant"; and Wasif, "an unprofitable servant". Ishaq himself then suggested that this was because, while al-Ma'mun had used men with local connections and influence, al-Mu'tasim had used men with no roots in the Muslim community, to which the Caliph sadly assented.[56][57]

Foundation of Samarra

The Turkish army was at first quartered in Baghdad, but quickly came into conflict with the remnants of the old Abbasid establishment in the city and the city's populace. The latter resented their loss of influence and career opportunities to the foreign troops, who were furthermore often undisciplined and violent, spoke no Arabic, and were either recent converts to Islam or still pagans. Violent episodes between the populace an the Turks thus became more and more common.[58]

This was a major factor in al-Mu'tasim's decision in 836 to found a new capital at Samarra, some 80 miles (130 km) north of Baghdad, but there were other considerations at play as well. Founding a new capital was a public statement of the establishment of a new regime, while allowing the court to be "at a distance from the populace of Baghdad and protected by a new guard of foreign troops, and amid a new royal culture revolving around sprawling palatial grounds, public spectacle and a seemingly ceaseless quest for leisurely indulgence" (Tayeb El-Hibri), an arrangement compared by Oleg Grabar to the relationship between Paris and Versailles after Louis XIV.[59][60] In addition, by creating a new city in a previously uninhabited area, al-Mu'tasim could reward his followers with land and commercial opportunities without cost to himself and free from any constraints, unlike Baghdad with its established interest groups and high property prices. In fact, the sale of land seems to have produced considerable profit for the treasury—in the words of Hugh Kennedy, "a sort of gigantic property speculation in which both government and its followers could expect to benefit".[59]

Space and life in the new capital were strictly regimented: residential areas were separated from the markets, and the military was given its own cantonments, separated from the ordinary populace and each the home of a specific ethnic contingent of the army (e.g. the Turks, Faraghina, Maghariba and Shakiriyya regiments). The city was dominated by its mosques (most famous among which is the Great Mosque of Samarra built by Caliph al-Mutawakkil) and palaces, built in grand style by both the caliphs and their senior commanders, who were given extensive properties to develop.[59][61] Unlike Baghdad, however, the new capital was an entirely artificial creation. Poorly sited in terms of water supply and river communications, its existence was determined solely by the presence of the caliphal court, and when the capital returned to Baghdad, sixty years later, Samarra was rapidly abandoned.[62] Due to this fact, the ruins of the Abbasid capital are still present on site, and the city can be mapped with great accuracy by modern archaeologists.[63]

Mu'tazilism and the miḥna

Ideologically, al-Mu'tasim followed the footsteps of al-Ma'mun, continuing his predecessor's support for Mu'tazilism, a theological doctrine that attempted to tread a middle way between secular monarchy and the theocratic nature of rulership espoused by the Alids and the various sects of Shi'ism. Mu'tazilis espoused the view that the Quran was created and hence fell within the authority of a God-guided imām to interpret according to the changing circumstances. While revering Ali, they avoided taking a position on the righteousness of the opposing sides in the conflict between Ali and his opponents.[64] Mu'tazilism was officially adopted by al-Ma'mun in 827, and in 833, shortly before his death, al-Ma'mun made its doctrines compulsory, with the establishment of an inquisition, the miḥna. During his brother's reign, al-Mu'tasim played an active role in the enforcement of the miḥna in the western provinces, and continued on the same course after his accession: the chief advocate of Mu'tazilism, the head qādī Ahmad ibn Abi Duwad, was perhaps the dominant influence at the caliphal court throughout al-Mu'tasim's reign.[65][66][67]

Thus Mu'tazilism became closely identified with the new regime of al-Mu'tasim, and adherence to Mu'tazilism was transformed into an intensely political issue, since to question it was to oppose the authority of the Caliph as the God-sanctioned imām. While Mu'tazilism found broad support, it was also passionately opposed by traditionalists, who held that the Quran's authority was absolute and unalterable as the word of God, as well as providing a vehicle for criticism by those who disliked the new regime and its elites.[68] In the event, the active repression of the traditionalists was without success, and even proved counterproductive: the beating and imprisonment of one of the most resolute opponents of Mu'tazilism, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, in 834, only helped to spread his fame. By the time Caliph al-Mutawakkil abandoned Mu'tazilism and returned to traditional orthodoxy in 848, the strict and conservative Hanbali school had emerged as the leading school of jurisprudence (fiqh) in Sunni Islam.[66][69]

Science and learning

As a military man, al-Mu'tasim's outlook was utilitarian, and his intellectual pursuits could not be compared with those of al-Ma'mun or his successor al-Wathiq, but he continued his brother's policy of promoting writers and scholars.[70] Baghdad remained a major centre of learning throughout his reign. Among the notable scholars active during his reign were the astronomers Habash al-Hasib al-Marwazi and Ahmad al-Farghani,[71] the polymath al-Jahiz,[72] and the distinguished Arab mathematician and philosopher al-Kindi, who dedicated his work On First Philosophy to his patron al-Mu'tasim.[73]

Domestic campaigns

Although al-Mu'tasim's reign was a time of peace in the Caliphate's heartland territories, al-Mu'tasim himself was an energetic campaigner, and "acquired the reputation of being one of the warrior-caliphs of Islam".[74] With the exception of the Amorium campaign, most of the military expeditions of al-Mu'tasim's reign were domestic, directed against rebels and areas that, although nominally part of the Caliphate, had remained outside effective Muslim rule and where native peoples and princes retained de facto autonomy.[74] The three great campaigns of the reign, Amorium, and the expeditions against the Khurramite rebellion and against Mazyar, ruler of Tabaristan, were in part also a conscious propaganda exercise, in which al-Mu'tasim could solidify his regime's legitimacy in the eyes of the populace by leading the war against the infidels.[75]

An Alid revolt led by Muhammad ibn Qasim broke out in Khurasan in early 834, but was swiftly defeated and Muhammad brought as a prisoner to the Caliph's court. He managed to escape during the night of 8/9 October 834, taking advantage of the Eid al-Fitr festivities, and was never heard of again.[76] In June/July of the same year, 'Ujayf ibn 'Anbasa was sent to subdue the Zutt. These were people brought from India by the Sassanid emperors and settled in the Mesopotamian Marshes. The Zutt had rebelled against caliphal authority since ca. 820, and had been regularly raiding the environs of Basra and Wasit since that time. 'Ujayf was successful in encircling the Zutt and forcing them to surrender after a seven-month campaign, making a triumphal entry into Baghdad in January 835 with his numerous captives. Many of the Zutt were then sent to Ayn Zarba on the Byzantine frontier, where they fell fighting against the Byzantines.[77][78]

Babak parlays with al-Afshin, from Balami's Tarikhnama, 14th century

The first major campaign of the new reign was directed against the Khurramites in Adharbayjan and Arran.[1] The Khurramite revolt had been going on since 816/7, aided by the inaccessible mountains of the province and the absence of large Arab Muslim population centres, except for a few cities in the lowlands. Al-Ma'mun had left the local Muslims largely to their own devices, although a succession of military commanders tried to subdue the rebellion on their own initiative, and thus gain control of the country's newly discovered mineral resources, only to be defeated by the Khurramites under the capable leadership of Babak.[79] Immediately after his accession, al-Mu'tasim sent the Tahirid ṣāḥib al-shurṭa of Baghdad and Samarra, Ishaq ibn Ibrahim ibn Mus'ab, to deal with an expansion of the Khurramite rebellion from Jibal into Hamadan. Ishaq achieved success swiftly, and by December 833 had suppressed the rebellion, forcing many Khurramites to seek refuge in the Byzantine Empire.[80] It was only in 835 that al-Mu'tasim took action against Babak himself, when he assigned his trusted and capable lieutenant, al-Afshin, to command the campaign against him. After three years of cautious and methodical campaigning, al-Afshin was able to capture Babak at his capital of Budhdh on 26 August 837, extinguishing the rebellion. Babak was brought captive to Samarra, where, on 3 January 838, he was paraded before the people seated on an elephant, and then publicly executed.[81][82][83]

The second major domestic campaign was against another autonomous ruler, Mazyar of the Qarinid dynasty, ruler of Tabaristan.[84] Tabaristan had been subdued in 760, but Muslim presence was limited to the coastal lowlands of the Caspian Sea and their cities, while the mountainous areas remained under native rulers—chief among whom were the Bavandids in the eastern and the Qarinids in the central and western mountain ranges—who retained their autonomy in exchange for paying a tribute to the Caliphate.[85] With the support of al-Ma'mun, Mazyar had established himself as the de facto ruler of all Tabaristan, even capturing the Muslim city of Amul and imprisoning the local Abbasid governor. Al-Mu'tasim confirmed him in his post on his accession, but trouble soon began when Mazyar refused to accept his subordination to the Tahirid viceroy of the east, Abdallah ibn Tahir, instead insisting on paying the taxes of his region directly to al-Mu'tasim's agent.[84][86][87] According to al-Tabari, the Qarinid's intransigence had been secretly encouraged by al-Afshin, who hoped to discredit the Tahirids and assume their vast governorship in the east himself.[88] Tension mounted as the Tahirids encouraged the local Muslims to resist Mazyar, forcing the latter to adopt an increasingly confrontational stance against the Muslim settlers and turn for support on the native Iranian, and mostly Zoroastrian, peasantry, whom he encouraged to attack the Muslim landowners. Open conflict erupted in 838, when his troops seized the cities of Amul and Sari, took the Muslim settlers prisoner, and executed many of them. In return, the Tahirids under al-Hasan ibn al-Husayn ibn Mus'ab and Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Mus'ab invaded Tabaristan. Mazyar was betrayed by his brother Quhyar, who also revealed to the Tahirids the correspondence between Mazyar and al-Afshin. Quhyar then succeeded his brother as a Tahirid appointee, while Mazyar was taken captive to Samarra. Like Babak, he was paraded before the populace, and then flogged to death (6 September 840).[89][90][91] While the autonomy of the local dynasties was maintained in the aftermath of the revolt, the event marked the onset of the country's rapid Islamization, including among the native dynasties.[92]

At about the same time, Minkajur al-Ushrusani, whom al-Afshin had appointed as governor of Adharbayjan after the defeat of the Khurramites, rose up in revolt, either because he had been involved in financial irregularities, or because he had been a co-conspirator of al-Afshin's. Bugha the Elder marched against him, forcing the rebel to capitulate and receive a safe-passage for Samarra in 840.[93][94] Near the end of al-Mu'tasim's life there were a series of uprisings in the Syrian provinces, including the revolt by Abu Harb, known as al-Mubarqa or "the Veiled One", which brought to the fore the lingering pro-Umayyad sentiment of a part of the Syrian Arabs.[1][95]

Confrontation with Byzantium

Main articles: Sack of Amorium and Battle of Anzen
Map of the Byzantine and Arab campaigns in the years 837–838, showing Theophilos's raid into Upper Mesopotamia and al-Mu'tasim's retaliatory invasion of Asia Minor, culminating in the conquest of Amorium.

Taking advantage of the Abbasids' preoccupation with the suppression of the Khurramite rebellion, the Byzantine emperor Theophilos had launched a number of attacks on the Muslim frontier zone in the early 830s, and scored a few successes. His forces were also bolstered by some 14,000 Khurramites who under their leader, Nasr, fled into the Empire, became baptized and enrolled into the Byzantine army under the command of Nasr, better known by his Christian name of Theophobos.[96] In 837, Theophilos, urged by the increasingly hard-pressed Babak, launched a major campaign into the Muslim frontier lands, with an army reportedly numbering over 70,000 men, whom he led in an almost unopposed invasion around the upper Euphrates. The Byzantines took the towns of Zibatra (Sozopetra) and Arsamosata, ravaged and plundered the countryside, extracted ransom from Malatya and other cities in exchange for not attacking them, and defeated a number of smaller Arab forces.[97][98] As refugees began arriving at Samarra, the caliphal court was outraged by the brutality and brazenness of the raids: not only had the Byzantines acted in open collusion with the Khurramites, but during the sack of Zibatra all male prisoners were executed and the rest sold into slavery, and some captive women were raped by Theophilos' Khurramites.[99][100]

The Caliph took over preparations for a retaliatory expedition himself, as the campaigns against Byzantium were customarily the only ones where caliphs participated in person.[74] Al-Mu'tasim assembled a huge force—80,000 men with 30,000 servants and camp followers according to Michael the Syrian, or even bigger according to other writers—at Tarsus, and declared his target to be Amorium, the birthplace of the reigning Byzantine dynasty. The Caliph reportedly had the name painted on the shields and banners of his army. The campaign began in June, with a smaller force under al-Afshin attacking through the Pass of Hadath in the east, while the Caliph with the main army crossed the Cilician Gates on 19–21 June. Theophilos, who had been caught unaware by the two-pronged Abbasid attack, tried to confront al-Afshin's smaller force first, but suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Dazimon on 22 July, barely escaping with his life. Unable to offer any effective resistance to the Abbasid advance, the emperor returned to Constantinople. A week later, al-Afshin and the main caliphal army joined forces before Ancyra, which had been left defenceless and was plundered.[101][102][103]

Byzantine envoys before al-Mu'tasim (seated, right), miniature from the Madrid Skylitzes

From Ancyra, the Abbasid army turned to Amorium, to which they laid siege on 1 August. Al-Afshin, Itakh, and Ashinas all took turns assaulting the city with their troops, but the siege was fiercely contested, even after the Abbasids, informed by a defector, effected a breach in a weak spot of the wall. After two weeks, however, taking advantage of a short truce requested by one of the Byzantine commanders of the breach for negotiations, the Abbasid army stormed the city. The city was thoroughly plundered and its walls razed, while the populace, numbering into the tens of thousands, was carried off to be sold into slavery.[104][105][106] According to al-Tabari, al-Mu'tasim now pondered extending his campaign to attack Constantinople, when the conspiracy headed by his nephew, al-Abbas, was uncovered. Al-Mu'tasim was forced to cut short his campaign and return quickly to his realm, without bothering with Theophilos and his forces, encamped in nearby Dorylaion. Taking the direct route from Amorium to the Cilician Gates, both the caliph's army and its prisoners suffered in the march through the arid countryside of central Anatolia. Some captives were so exhausted that they could not move and were executed, whereupon others found the opportunity to escape. In retaliation, al-Mu'tasim, after separating the most prominent among them, executed the rest, some 6,000 in number.[107][108][109]

The sack of Amorium brought al-Mu'tasim much acclaim as a warrior-caliph and ghāzī, and was celebrated by contemporaries, most notably in Abu Tammam's famous ode.[1] The Abbasids, however, did not follow up on their success. Warfare continued between the two empires with raids and counter-raids along the border, but after a few Byzantine successes a truce was agreed in 841. At the time of his death in 842, al-Mu'tasim was preparing yet another large-scale invasion, but the great fleet he had prepared to assault Constantinople perished in a storm off Cape Chelidonia a few months later. Following al-Mu'tasim's death, warfare gradually died down, and the Battle of Mauropotamos in 844 was the last major Arab–Byzantine engagement for a decade.[110]

Death and legacy

Family tree of the descendants of al-Mu'tasim. All subsequent Abbasid caliphs were al-Mu'tasim's descendants.[6]

Al-Tabari states that al-Mu'tasim fell ill on 21 October 841. His regular doctor, Salmawayh ibn Bunan, whom the Caliph had trusted implicitly, had died the previous year and the new physician Yahya ibn Masawayh did not follow the normal treatment of cupping and purging, which according to Hunayn ibn Ishaq worsened the caliph's illness and brought about his death on 5 January 842, after a reign of eight years, eight months and two days according to the Islamic calendar.[111] He was buried in the Jawsaq al-Khaqani palace in Samarra.[112][113] The succession of his son, al-Wathiq, was unopposed, and his reign, through unremarkable, was essentially a continuation of al-Mu'tasim's own, as the government continued to be led by the men al-Mu'tasim had raised to power: the Turks Itakh, Wasif, and Ashinas, the vizier Ibn al-Zayyat, and the chief qādī Ahmad ibn Abi Duwad.[114]

Al-Tabari describes al-Mu'tasim as having a relatively easygoing nature, being kind, agreeable and charitable,[115] while according to the Orientalist C. E. Bosworth, "Not much of [al-Mu'tasim's] character emerges from the sources, though they stress his lack of culture compared with his brother al-Ma'mun, with his questing mind; yet al-Mu'tasim's qualities as a military commander seem assured, and the Abbasid caliphate remained under him a mighty political and military entity".[1] Al-Mu'tasim's reign represents a watershed moment in the history of the Abbasid state, and had long-lasting repercussions in Islamic history. Al-Mu'tasim and his Turkish guard set a pattern that would be widely imitated: not only did the military acquire a predominant position in the state, but it also increasingly became the preserve of minority groups from the peoples living on the margins of the Islamic world. Thus it formed an exclusive ruling caste, separated from the Arab-Iranian mainstream of society by ethnic origin, language, and sometimes even religion. This dichotomy would become a "distinctive feature" (Hugh Kennedy) of many Islamic polities, and would reach its apogee in the Mamluk dynasties that ruled Egypt and Syria in the late Middle Ages.[15][116]

More immediately, although al-Mu'tasim's new professional army proved militarily highly effective, it also posed a potential danger to the stability of the Abbasid regime, as the army's separation from mainstream society meant that the soldiers were entirely reliant on their cash salary (ʿaṭāʾ) for their very survival. Consequently, any failure to provide their pay or policies that threatened their position were likely to cause a violent reaction. This became evident less than a generation later, during the "Anarchy at Samarra" (861–870), where the Turks played the main role. The need to cover military spending would henceforth be a fixture of caliphal government, and that at a time when government income began to decline rapidly—partly through the rise of autonomous dynasties in the provinces and partly through the decline in productivity of the lowlands of Iraq that had traditionally provided the bulk of tax revenue. Less than a century after al-Mu'tasim's death, this process would lead to the bankruptcy of the Abbasid government and the eclipse of the caliphs' political power with Ibn Ra'iq's rise to the position of amīr al-umarāʾ.[117]

Al-Mu'tasim in literature

Al-Mu'tasim is featured in the medieval Arabic and Turkish epic Delhemma, helping the heroes pursue the traitor and apostate Uqba across several countries "from Spain to Yemen", before having him crucified before Constantinople. On its return, the Muslim army is ambushed in a defile by the Byzantines, and only 400 men, including the Caliph and most of the heroes, manage to escape. In retaliation, al-Mu'tasim's successor al-Wathiq launches a campaign against Constantinople, where he installs a Muslim governor.[118]

The name al-Mu'tasim is used for a fictional character in the story The Approach to al-Mu'tasim by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, which appears in his anthology Ficciones. The al-Mu'tasim referenced there is not the Abbasid caliph, though Borges does state, regarding the original, non-fictional al-Mu'tasim from whom the name is taken: "the name of that eighth Abbasid caliph who was victorious in eight battles, fathered eight sons and eight daughters, left eight thousand slaves, and ruled for a period of eight years, eight moons, and eight days".[119]

While not strictly accurate, Borges' quote paraphrases al-Tabari, who notes that he was "born in the eighth month, was the eighth caliph, in the eighth generation from al-‘Abbas, his lifespan was eight and forty years, that he died leaving eight sons[120] and eight daughters, and that he reigned for eight years and eight months", and reflects the widespread reference to al-Mu'tasim in the Arabic sources as al-Muthamman ("the man of eight").[121]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Bosworth 1993, p. 776.
  2. Kennedy 2006, pp. 173, 213.
  3. Bosworth 1991, pp. 208–209.
  4. Bosworth 1991, p. 209.
  5. Kennedy 2006, p. 215.
  6. 1 2 3 Kennedy 2006, p. 213.
  7. Kennedy 2004a, pp. 151, 156.
  8. Bosworth 1987, pp. 37–39.
  9. Bosworth 1987, p. 45.
  10. 1 2 Kennedy 2004a, pp. 156–157.
  11. El-Hibri 2011, pp. 288, 290.
  12. 1 2 Kennedy 2001, pp. 121–122.
  13. Gordon 2001, pp. 6–8.
  14. 1 2 Kennedy 2004a, p. 157.
  15. 1 2 3 El-Hibri 2011, p. 296.
  16. Gordon 2001, pp. 7–8.
  17. Bosworth 1987, pp. 67–68.
  18. Bosworth 1987, p. 178.
  19. Kennedy 1998, pp. 81–82.
  20. Kennedy 1998, pp. 82–83.
  21. 1 2 Brett 2011, p. 553.
  22. Kennedy 1998, p. 83.
  23. El-Hibri 2011, p. 290.
  24. Treadgold 1988, pp. 268, 272–273.
  25. Bosworth 1987, pp. 186–188.
  26. Treadgold 1988, pp. 275–276.
  27. Treadgold 1988, pp. 278–279.
  28. Bosworth 1987, pp. 198–199.
  29. Treadgold 1988, pp. 279–281.
  30. Bosworth 1987, pp. 222–223, 225.
  31. Bosworth 1991, p. 1.
  32. Kennedy 2006, pp. 213–215.
  33. Bosworth 1991, pp. 1–2 (esp. note 2).
  34. Kennedy 2006, pp. 215–216.
  35. Treadgold 1988, p. 281.
  36. Bosworth 1991, p. 2.
  37. Kennedy 2004a, pp. 155, 156.
  38. Kennedy 2004a, pp. 158–159.
  39. 1 2 Kennedy 2004a, p. 159.
  40. Kennedy 2004a, pp. 159–160.
  41. Kennedy 2004a, pp. 160–161.
  42. Bosworth 1991, pp. 28–35.
  43. Kennedy 2006, pp. 216–217.
  44. Kennedy 2004a, p. 161.
  45. Bosworth 1991, pp. xv, 121–134.
  46. Gordon 2001, pp. 48–49, 76–77.
  47. Kennedy 2006, pp. 224–227.
  48. Gordon 2001, p. 77.
  49. Bosworth 1991, p. 178.
  50. 1 2 Kennedy 2006, p. 227.
  51. Bosworth 1991, pp. 180–185.
  52. Bosworth 1991, p. 179.
  53. Bosworth 1991, pp. 185–193.
  54. Kennedy 2006, pp. 227–229.
  55. Gordon 2001, pp. 77–78.
  56. Bosworth 1991, pp. 212–215.
  57. Kennedy 2006, pp. 230–231.
  58. Kennedy 2006, pp. 218–219.
  59. 1 2 3 Kennedy 2004a, p. 163.
  60. El-Hibri 2011, pp. 296–297.
  61. El-Hibri 2011, pp. 297–298.
  62. Kennedy 2004a, pp. 163–164.
  63. Kennedy 2006, pp. 219–220.
  64. Kennedy 2004a, pp. 161–162.
  65. El-Hibri 2011, pp. 291–292.
  66. 1 2 Bosworth 1991, p. xvi.
  67. Kennedy 2004a, p. 162.
  68. Kennedy 2004a, pp. 162–163.
  69. El-Hibri 2011, pp. 293–295.
  70. Kennedy 2006, pp. 215, 244.
  71. Freely 2015, p. 31.
  72. Freely 2015, p. 52.
  73. Freely 2015, pp. 48–51.
  74. 1 2 3 Kennedy 2004a, p. 164.
  75. Kennedy 2006, p. 220.
  76. Bosworth 1991, pp. 5–7.
  77. Bosworth 1991, pp. 7–12.
  78. Zetterstéen 1987, p. 785.
  79. Kennedy 2004a, pp. 164–165.
  80. Bosworth 1991, pp. 2–3, 7.
  81. Mottahedeh 1975, p. 75.
  82. Bosworth 1991, pp. 14–24, 36–93.
  83. Kennedy 2001, pp. 131–133.
  84. 1 2 Kennedy 2004a, p. 165.
  85. Madelung 1975, pp. 198–202.
  86. Mottahedeh 1975, pp. 75–76.
  87. Madelung 1975, p. 204.
  88. Bosworth 1991, pp. 137–138.
  89. Mottahedeh 1975, p. 76.
  90. Madelung 1975, p. 205.
  91. Bosworth 1991, pp. 162–172, 179–180.
  92. Madelung 1975, pp. 205–206.
  93. Gordon 2001, p. 78.
  94. Bosworth 1991, pp. 175–178.
  95. Bosworth 1991, pp. 194–196, 203–206.
  96. Treadgold 1988, pp. 280–283.
  97. Treadgold 1988, pp. 286, 292–294.
  98. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 137–141.
  99. Treadgold 1988, pp. 293–295.
  100. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 141–143.
  101. Treadgold 1988, pp. 297–302.
  102. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 144–160.
  103. Bosworth 1991, pp. 97–107.
  104. Treadgold 1988, pp. 302–303.
  105. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 160–172.
  106. Bosworth 1991, pp. 107–117.
  107. Treadgold 1988, p. 303.
  108. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 172–173.
  109. Bosworth 1991, pp. 118–119.
  110. Vasiliev 1935, pp. 175–176, 192–193, 198–204, 284.
  111. Bosworth 1991, pp. 207–209.
  112. Bosworth 1991, p. 208.
  113. Kennedy 2006, p. 147.
  114. Kennedy 2006, p. 231.
  115. Bosworth 1991, pp. 210ff..
  116. Kennedy 2004a, pp. 157–158.
  117. Kennedy 2004b, pp. 4–5, 10–16.
  118. Canard 1991, pp. 233–239, esp. 236.
  119. "The Approach to al-Mu'tasim". Translated and published by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
  120. Only six sons are listed by Ya'qubi, however: Harun al-Wathiq, Ja'far al-Mutawakkil, Muhammad, Ahmad, Ali, and Abdallah. Bosworth 1991, p. 209, note 620.
  121. Bosworth 1991, p. 209, esp. note 621.


Born: 796 Died: 5 January 842
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by
Caliph of Islam
Abbasid Caliph

9 August 833 – 5 January 842
Succeeded by
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