The Abbassids were the Caliphs of peace, of science, literature, architecture, medicine philosophy and theology. During their reign the arts flourished as at no earlier or later time in Muslim history.
We can roughly divide the rule of the Abbassids into two periods of about one hundred years (750-847) and four hundred years (847-1258). The first period was one of great prestige, the second one of political decline ending in disaster.
The revolution that carried the Abbassids to power was the result of a threefold reactionary movement.
Pious believers who faithfully attached themselves to the traditions of Muhammad, regarded the Umayyads as usurpers since they were not descended from the Prophet. They had not accepted the principle of election for the nomination of Caliph as their predecessors had done. They were indifferent in matters of religion and had adopted Syrian manners and had allowed Greco-Latin civilisation to develop.
The population of Iraq had been handled roughly by the Umayyads because they had defended the cause of the party of Ali and were held in a condition of servile dependence.
There was a strong Arab reaction against the spirit of Greco-Latin and Christian civilisation which threatened to absorb Islam.
The pious Muslims of the Hijaz wanted the Caliphate back in either Mecca or Medina but other provinces were equally eager to uphold the claims of their own cities. When it came to choosing a new capital of Islam the one thing they could agree upon was that they did not want the seat of the Caliphate to be based in Damascus.
Abdul-’Abbas (750-754) himself was not particularly anxious to go either to Mecca or Medina and set up his first court at Anbar. On his death, his brother, Al-Mansur (754-775) who succeeded him chose Kufa as his residence but as there were so many partisans of the Alides he founded a new city – Baghdad. The choice aroused discontent in the provinces so much so that Spain proclaimed a Caliph of her own.
Al-Mansur, after putting down rebellions in his Empire, mostly in Persia, was surrounded by pomp and ceremony which was copied from the Sassanian kings, The revenues were considerable which enabled him to have a brilliant court dwelling in a wonderful palace while he himself only rarely appeared in public an then surrounded with an impressive pomp that one finds reflected in the “Thousand and One Nights.”
The administrative methods of the Umayyads were copied from those of the Byzantines; the government of the Abbassids were inspired by Persian methods with provisional governors acting in a way similar to the former Persian Satraps. They had extensive powers in administering the country and collected taxes by means of which they raised and maintained armies, paid the officials, provided the construction and maintenance of public buildings and sent any surplus there might be to the Caliph.
Wishing, like the Persian sovereigns, to surround himself with all all that could contribute to heighten the splendour of power, Al- Mansur showed favour to men of learning and writers and, as there were none among the Arabs, his liberality went necessarily to foreigners. He caused translations to be made by Syrian and Persian scribes of the principal Greek authors: Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, Archimedes and Ptolemy; it was these translations that initiated the Arabs into the scientific discoveries of antiquity. As in Syria, and for the same reasons, there was a reawakening of civilisation behind a Muslim front, but this blossoming owed nothing to Arab genius.
Moreover, it was not so much the Caliphs themselves who favoured art and letters as their ministers, the Barmakids, of Persian family origin, who for a century exercised a preponderating influence at the court of the Abbassids. It was these highly educated and widely cultivated men who supplanted the intellectual deficiencies of the Caliphs and educated them. It was they, too, who took in hand the adornment of the city and designed and carried out the works of public utility that the Arab authors attribute to the Abbassids. The sole author of the Muslim splendour of this period were the Barmakids, that is to say, Persians, so little Islamised that their enemies accused them of remaining pagans.
The pomp and opulence of the earlier Abbassids was surpassed by Harun al Rashid (786-809). Sometimes incredibly generous, ready to pardon any offender, picking up beggars in the street to raise them to high dignities, protecting the widow and orphan; and then cruel beyond belief as he murdered and exiled the Barmakids who had been the builders of Abbassid prosperity. With their disappearance, the Arab sovereigns, left to themselves, were quite unable to direct this immense concourse of dissimilar nations, and the Empire fell into decay.
One of Harun al-Rashid sons Al-Mamum (813-833), exercised a fortunate influence. Surrounded by the learned elite of Greek, Syrian, Persian, Copt and Chaldean background, he collected at great expense the works of the school of Alexandria and had them translated into Arabic and distributed. He multiplied establishments for instruction and even founded a girls school with women teachers from Athens and Constantinople. Being educated the way he was he was indifferent to religious ordinances and displayed a very liberal attitude towards non-Muslims. The greater part of the work of government was entrusted to Greeks and Persians.
The power struggle in Islam continued those who kept to the narrow interpretations of the Quran and to the rigorous submission to its dogmas continued to oppose the influence of foreign civilisation on the Caliphs and Muslim society.
Drawing on Greek philosophic thought various sets arose. Chief among them were the Mu’tazalites (Lit. Separatists) who divested God of His eternal attributes, upheld the doctrine of free will; believed the Quran was created, denied total predestination holding that God was not the author of evil. The Caliph Al-Mu’tasim (833-842) and Wathiq (842-846) protected them but was overcome by the traditional views of Islam.
As the Abbassid period moved on to the end, the caliphate grew weaker and weaker as troubles followed one another. Caliphs incompetent and without authority had a useless existence. Religious schisms, palace intrigues, popular uprisings, revolts of the conquered provinces, rival pretenders to supreme power ruined the prosperity of the Muslim community as it sank into the throes of anarchy.
The military success, by their power and their wealth had inspired the neighbouring nations with a fear that secured for the Abbassids a long period of peace. Surrounded by luxury and the flattery of their courtiers the Caliphs became despots and the late Caliphs were known for their cruelty.
All the splendour of the Abbassid Caliphs was but a reflection of Greco-Persian civilisation. The conquered, Islamised by force, in spite of the barbarism of the conqueror produced the effort that has been wrongly ascribed to the Arabs; and this effort was completely blocked, when Muslim doctrine, fixed by the Muslim doctors of the faith and made absolutely immutable, stopped all innovation, all progress, all adaptation.
Islam was not a torch, as has been claimed, but an extinguisher, conceived in the desert of Arabia it was incapable of adapting itself. Wherever it has dominated, it has broken the impulse towards progress and checked the development of society.
Islam and the Psychology of the Muslim – Andre Servier.