232-247 A.H. / 847-861 A.D.
"WITH Motassem," writes Gibbon, "the eighth of the 'Abbasids, the glory of his family and nation expired." The glory of the Nationthe Arabianhad already paled before the rise of their Turkish rivals; the glory of the Family was fast setting under the outrage and violence of these same barbarians, whom they had summoned from the East to "the City of Peace." The Royal house were apt scholars, as well as abject slaves. In the Turkish school of tyranny and extortion, perfidy, and bloodshed, they quickly became their masters' equals. And so the Caliphate hurried on to its decline and fall, with only here and there an impotent struggle to arrest the downward course.
On the death of Al-Wathik the courtiers would have done homage to his son, but being yet a boy, the royal turban robes and sceptre were all too great for his small frame; and so they chose instead, Al-Mutawakkil, Al-Wathik's brother.1 The new Caliph was not long in showing his cruel and vindictive nature. A couple of months had hardly passed before the Wazir, who under Al-Wathik's reign had treated him with contumely, was cast into prison, and his property throughout the Empire confiscated. For months the unfortunate man was subjected to the refined torture of being unceasingly kept awake
1 The 'Abbasid Caliphs are no longer known by
their proper names, but by their royal title signifying some attribute of faith
or trust in the Almighty as here, Al-Mutawakkil, or "He that putteth his trust
(in the Lord)." And so with all the future names.
1 The 'Abbasid Caliphs are no longer known by their proper names, but by their royal title signifying some attribute of faith or trust in the Almighty as here, Al-Mutawakkil, or "He that putteth his trust (in the Lord)." And so with all the future names.
while he would have slept. At last he was left alone and slept a day and night. Thus strengthened for the trial, he was put into a barbarous press (instrument of torture invented by himself) so narrow that the sufferer was with difficulty forced within it, and lined with spikes which made shift impossible. Thus in agony he lay for days, and died. This as a specimen must suffice. Various other officers of state were victims of the cruel rapacity of the Caliph; and specially the Commander-in-chief, who too had been wanting in respect, and would have shared like fate with the Wazir, had he not purchased pardon by the fine of eleven million pieces.
Another dark picture casts a lurid light upon the Court and Caliph's life. Itakh, a general of renown in the Amorian war, and in the campaign against Babek, a favourite also of the preceding Caliph, was now commandant of the bodyguard, and boon companion of Al-Mutawakkil. In a brawl over their cups one night, Itakh, steeped in wine, so far forgot himself as to fall upon the Caliph and threaten his life. Next morning, coming to himself, he begged that the affair might be forgotten, and it was apparently forgiven. Advised to proceed to Mecca, he was placed over the pilgrim escort with a robe of honour, and given command of all the towns through which the pilgrims were to pass.
It was but an artifice to put him off his guard. As he returned through Bagdad, the Governor went forth to meet him with a royal robe and gifts and on pretence of presenting him to a Hashimi assembly, closed the door upon his escort as he entered. "Had it been elsewhere than Bagdad," cried the victim, "he had not dared thus"; for Bagdad hated the Turks, and Itakh's friends were all at Samarra, the Caliph's court. Cast into prison, he lingered for some months, weighted with heavy chains, and at last, being denied water to drink, died of thirst. His secretary and sons were also kept in durance till the Caliph's death. Al-Mutawakkil's reign was marked by the return to orthodoxy. The heresies of Al-Ma'mun were abjured; and the Mo'tazili professors had now their turn to suffer persecution. The eternity of the Kor'an was reasserted (234 A.H.), and even to discuss the question of its creation proscribed throughout the Empire. The body of Ahmed ibn
Nasr, the confessor, was brought back with due solemnity to Bagdad and there, the head rejoined, prepared for burial; while innumerable crowds pressed round, if they might but touch the saintly relics. Among others who suffered for the now discarded faith, was the noble and learned Ibn abi Duwad, who had held the office of chief Kadi under the three preceding reigns. He was deposed and with his family cast into confinement, and their wealth and lands confiscated. One of the sons purchased freedom for the incredible sum of sixteen million golden pieces: but the father died a few years after, still a prisoner.
Even more violent was the reaction against the descendants of 'Ali, on whom such favour had of late been lavished. Al-Mutawakkil hated them, and their teaching also. In company with his boon companions he treated the memory of 'Ali the Prophet's son-in-law with indecent contumely. A bare-headed buffoon, with a pillow stuffed in front, dared dance before the Caliph, while they sang around, Behold the pot-bellied bald one, the Caliph of Islam.1 And Al-Mutawakkil, enjoying the scene, joined in laughter with the rest. Such ribald and profane contempt of that which was most dear and sacred to the Muslim heart, alienated his followers at large and met with reproaches from his own son.2 So far indeed did Al-Mutawakkil carry his hostility that he had the tomb of 'Ali's son Al-Hosein razed to the ground, ploughed over and sown with corn; and he even threatened with imprisonment any pilgrims who ventured to visit the shrine of Kerbala. On the other hand, he honoured the first three Caliphs and even the Umeiyad dynasty, and we read of one beaten to death for speaking opprobriously of Abu Bekr, 'Omar, and 'Aisha. He was thus a thorough Syrian, and loved the Arab race.
With the return to orthodoxy, the sumptuary laws against Jews and Christians, long fallen into desuetude under the tolerant reigns preceding, were now reimposed
1 See above, p. 304.
2 The profane buffoonery must have produced profound
sensation; for the annalist adds, "This was one of the causes which justified
Al-Muntasir in taking his father's life." But that no doubt is an afterthought.
1 See above, p. 304.
2 The profane buffoonery must have produced profound sensation; for the annalist adds, "This was one of the causes which justified Al-Muntasir in taking his father's life." But that no doubt is an afterthought.
with the utmost stringency, and with new marks of degradation.
Coloured stripes must be sewn upon their garments and those of their slaves, with restrictions as to flowing girdles; their women to wear yellow veils abroad; riding confined to mules and asses, with wooden stirrups and knobs upon their saddles; the figure of Satan must be on the door-posts of their houses, on which moreover was imposed a special tax; tombs must be level with the ground; they were debarred from offices of State; their children forbidden to be taught in Muslim schools or by Muslim masters; churches recently built to be demolished; and no Cross paraded at their festivals, or erected in any street. To such extent did intolerance march hand in hand with orthodoxy.1
Early in his reign Al-Mutawakkil divided the provinces among his sons, giving the Western to Al-Muntasir the eldest, and the Eastern to Al-Mo'tazz. But gradually the latter became his favourite. He was placed in possession of the mint and treasuries; and his name was stamped upon the coinage, indicating him thus as successor to the throne.
With such a ruler, and so demoralised a Court, we need not wonder that the bonds of order were everywhere relaxed. Abroad, as at home, rebellion more or less prevailed. In Sijistan the Saffarid adventurers began to supplant the Tahirid family. Azerbijan rebelled, and was with difficulty reduced. Lower Egypt was attacked by a Byzantine fleet which for some time held Alexandria,
and Upper Egypt by pagan tribes, which withheld the tribute due from the gold mines, and spread terror over the land. To check these ravages, troops were sent to the southern districts, which (as in our own day) were supplied with provisions by sea from the Suakin coast. The insurrection was quelled, but not without much bloodshed. The leader, 'Ali Baba, admitted to terms, was carried to Samarra, where he was received with special honour by the Caliph, and put in charge of the pilgrim
1 A Christian apothecary who embraced Islam,
but after several years returned to his ancestral faith, refusing to recant
was put to death, and burned (242 A.H.). This, however, would be held by Muslims
to be in accordance with their law.
1 A Christian apothecary who embraced Islam, but after several years returned to his ancestral faith, refusing to recant was put to death, and burned (242 A.H.). This, however, would be held by Muslims to be in accordance with their law.
road between Egypt and Mecca. His tribe still held to their fetish faith, and 'Ali Baba shocked the men of Samarra by carrying with him an idol of stone, the object of his daily worship. It is strange to see the heathen thus tolerated and honoured with an important trust, while Christian captives, refusing Islam, were put to death.
In Armenia, which in the war with Babek had been on friendly terms with the Muslim court, the overbearing conduct of a Muslim general, who treacherously sent some of their patricians to Samarra, led to a serious outbreak, in which the hated officer was slain and his troops cut to pieces or scattered in the hills to perish in the cold. A heavy campaign under Bogha "the elder" took a signal revenge: 30,000 were slain and great numbers sold into slavery. Bogha then advanced to Tiflis, where a prince of the Umeiyad line had established himself as independent ruler. The city, built of wood, was destroyed by streams of naphtha, and 50,000 perished in the flames. He then advanced to the shores of the Caspian and the Black Sea. Certain Armenian princes were sent from thence to the Caliph's court, who, refusing to accept Islam, fell martyrs to their faith.1
On the side of Asia Minor, the border was the scene of raids first by the Muslim troops and then by their enemies. The Greeks carried off so many prisoners, that thousands are said to have been put to death by the Empress Theodora, and only those spared who embraced the Christian faith. Some 900 men and women alone were left for ransom.2 In the next few years, the Greeks again advanced towards Syria and laid siege to Sumeisat; and then the Muslims, aided by the Paulician enemies of the Emperor, made reprisals, carried off immense booty in herds and flocks, and took the town of Lu'lu'a. It was restored in return for a thousand captives, but beyond this, and large moneys paid in ransom, no permanent gain
1 This, told by the Byzantine writers, is not
mentioned by our annalist; see Weil, ii. 362.
2 The number put to death by the empress is given
at 12,000. Bar Hebraeus speaks of 20,000 prisoners, of whom 8000 were given up,
and 12,000 put to death. We must hope that in such statements there is vast
1 This, told by the Byzantine writers, is not
mentioned by our annalist; see Weil, ii. 362.
2 The number put to death by the empress is given at 12,000. Bar Hebraeus speaks of 20,000 prisoners, of whom 8000 were given up, and 12,000 put to death. We must hope that in such statements there is vast exaggeration.
accrued on either side.
At home, the northern tracts of Syria were in a disturbed condition. Hims expelled its governor, and continued in rebellion for a length of time. Troops from Damascus and Ramleh at last restored order, and many captives were sent to Samarra. But it was the Christians that here as elsewhere suffered most. Having made common cause with the rebels, they were expelled the city, their churches demolished, and one that adjoined the Great Mosque taken within its bounds.
After holding his court for twelve years at Samarra, the Caliph transferred it to Damascus. His predilections were always with the West; and at the capital of the Umeiyads, while regaining the friendship of the Syrians, he would be free from the tyranny of the Turkish soldiery. But after a residence of two months, he found the climate too severe, and returned to Samarra.1
In that neighbourhood he spent his later years, and lavished untold sums in founding a new residence called after himself Al-Ja'fariya, on the river bank. There he built the Pearl, a beautiful palace, and the Hall of Delight, surrounded with parks and streams and gardens, and crowded with every means of enjoyment, music, song, and gay divertisement. Vast treasures thrown away, for on his death the fairy scene soon became a deserted ruin.
To supply the means for such extravagance, recourse was had to all kinds of extortion. The offices of State were given to such as bid the highest for them. The case of Najah ibn Selama, chief of the exchequer, is a sample of what prevailed. He made a demand on two officers for arrears of revenue at four million pieces. 'Obeidallah the Turk whose help, as Al-Mutawakkil's Wazir, the debtors sought, bade them give him a note acknowledging two millions. At the same time he persuaded Najah to tell the Caliph that he had made the demand in error when under the influence of wine, and now withdrew it altogether. Thereafter the Wazir went to his Master, and showed the note of hand admitting half the claim. Delighted to get even
1 He went, we are told, in the months of Safar and
Rabi' I, i.e., May to July, and began to build offices for the various
departments of State, but was driven away by the boisterous weather, cold, and
snow;a strange experience there for the middle of summer.
1 He went, we are told, in the months of Safar and Rabi' I, i.e., May to July, and began to build offices for the various departments of State, but was driven away by the boisterous weather, cold, and snow;a strange experience there for the middle of summer.
so much, the Caliph was equally enraged at the apparent deceit and malversation of Najah, who was accordingly made over to the two debtors to punish as they willed. These subjected him to torture under which he expired, and confiscated the entire property of the family, which just equalled the debt they had to pay.1 Intemperate hatred of the house of 'Ali was kept up to the end. The famous grammarian Ibn as-Sikkit, tutor in the house of Tahir, and employed in the same capacity by Al-Mutawakkil himself, happening to enter while the young Princes were present, the Caliph asked him, "Which dost thou prefer, Ibn as-Sikkit?these my two sons, or Al-Hasan and Al-Hosein?" Making no pretence of preferring the former, Al-Mutawakkil bade his Turkish guard trample on his body, and he was carried out dying to his home.
The Caliph, gradually estranged from his eldest son Al-Muntasir, had already, as we have seen conferred Al-Mo'tazz, the second son, marks of superior favour. His preference became year by year more marked, and Al-Muntasir was not only subjected to indignities whenever he appeared at Court, but Al-Mutawakkil, when unable to preside at the public prayer, sent the brother in pomp to take his place. Things became worse and worse: and one night after a carousal, the Caliph, overpowered with wine, abused Al-Muntasir so grossly that he could bear it no longer, and resolved on putting an end to his father's life. This could the more easily be done, as Al-Mutawakkil had alienated Wasif and other Turkish leaders, confiscated their estates, and made them over to new favourites of his own. So during the night, when he had well drunk and gone to sleep, and the gates had been closed by the guards already gained over by Al-Muntasir, Bogha "the less" surnamed "the Winebibber," Musa (acting for his father Bogha the elder, who was in command at Sumeisat), and other conspirators of barbarous name, rushed in upon the senseless Monarch and despatched him with their swords. By his side, a favourite Turk who never left him was also slain. The report was spread that Al-Mutawakkil had been assassinated by this favourite, whom for the crime they had
1 The torture applied to Najah is too gross
to be repeated.Ibn Khallikan, iii. 61.
1 The torture applied to Najah is too gross to be repeated.Ibn Khallikan, iii. 61.
put to death,a tale which of course found little credence anywhere.
Praise given by the annalists to this reign of fifteen years for the Caliph's return to orthodoxy and generous patronage of poets and men of learning, makes but sorry amends for a life of cruel tyranny, bigotry, and self-indulgence.
The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]
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