“The Abbasid Caliphate” by Tayeb El-Hibri


The Abbasid Caliphate, Tayeb El-Hibri (Cambridge University Press, April 2021)
The Abbasid Caliphate, Tayeb El-Hibri (Cambridge University Press, April 2021)

Few families have had as much success shaping history as the Abbasids. Descended from one of the Prophet Muhammad’s four uncles, they used their reputation for probity and piety to take over and rule the Arab Empire for 37 reigns. Deftly managing family feuds, they enjoyed a century of unimaginable splendor, followed by four centuries of highs and lows. They survived by pitting powerful external forces against one another: Arabs versus Persians, Northern Arabs versus the Southerners, Muslims versus non-Muslims, Sunni versus Shi’a. They allied with Charlemagne to put pressure on the Byzantines, with the Tang Dynasty to contain the Turks. They were the ultimate dynasty of fixers.

As a result of their balancing and inclusiveness, the culture and art of the ancient world flourished in their palaces in Baghdad, Raqqa and Samarra, where Greek and Persian were spoken alongside Arabic. Like their allies the Tang dynasty, they were open to new products or ideas: “It should be no shame for us to honor truth and make it our own, no matter whence it may come, even though from far distant races and peoples who differ from us”, said al-Kindi, one of their great philosophers. As a result, we look upon the Abbasid era not only as the golden age of Islam, but one of the world’s golden ages, period.

Given the importance of the Abbasids, it is surprising how little has been written in recent years about them. The last decade has seen just one book each on Harun Al-Rashid, on the early Abbasids, and on the Abbasid Revolution. Dynastic histories have fallen out of favor, and historical narrative has been neglected in favor of thematic histories or idea-based histories. The result, writes author Tayeb El-Hibri, is to detach the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of this golden age from the lives of the men and women who delivered them. The Abbasid Caliphate addresses this lacuna.

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