A lively study of the Abbasid caliphate, the greatest power in the Islamic world for 200 years.
A century after Muhammad’s death, the Middle East was largely controlled by the Ummayad dynasty, which was not descended from the founder of Islam. Relatives of Muhammad resented that fact, reasoning that if they “could restore the rule of the Family of the Prophet, inequity and evil would be banished for ever.” It didn’t work out so neatly, writes Kennedy (History/Univ. of St. Andrews), for some of the Abbasids, who overthrew the Ummayads, had their share of problems—and, as Kennedy gamely promises, no small interest in “booze and sex.” The tone-setting second caliph, Mansur, was conventionally pious; he was best known for being tight with a dirham, driving contractors to distraction with his mania for cutting costs while building his magnificent capital at Baghdad. (Arab history knows him as “Abu’l-dawaniq, the father of pennies, because he counted them all.”) Yet Mansur was also “a political operator of genius” who had a knack for playing enemies off one another and for surviving intrigue; though not as monstrous as other regimes, his caliphate had plenty of blood on its hands. The fourth caliph, Harun al-Rashid, quite a political creature himself, made Baghdad a capital of an early golden age rightly celebrated in the Arabian Nights; yet on his death the country was plunged into civil war, rent by divisions that would take a more thoroughgoing sort of dictator to control. Saddam Hussein, it seems, learned a few lessons from his Abbasid predecessors, particularly Mutawwakil, “a prodigious builder of palaces” who constructed a string of expensive properties up and down the Tigris and Euphrates. His glory was short-lived; Mutawwakil was assassinated, and the caliphate that Mansur had painstakingly built collapsed. That event, Kennedy notes, marked “the demise of the unity of the Muslim world under a single sovereign” and the last time a major empire centered on Iraq.
Nicely written, accessible history, rich in detail and most timely.