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Abbasid caliph
The basics
Date of birth Baghdad, Baghdad Governorate, Iraq
Date of death 908 Baghdad, Baghdad Governorate, Iraq
Children: Al-Mustakfi
Father: Al-Mu'tadid
Brother(s): Al-Muqtadir
Authority VIAF id Library of congress id
The details

Abū Muḥammad ʿAlī ibn Aḥmad (Arabic: أبو أحمد علي بن أحمد‎‎; 877/878 – 13 August 908), better known by his regnal name al-Muktafī bi-llāh (Arabic: المكتفي بالله‎‎, "Content with God Alone"), was the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad from 902 to 908. More liberal and sedentary than his militaristic father al-Mu'tadid, al-Muktafi essentially continued his policies, although most of the actual conduct of government was left to his viziers and officials. His reign saw the defeat of the Qarmatians of the Syrian Desert, and the reincorporation of Egypt and the parts of Syria ruled by the Tulunid dynasty. The war with the Byzantine Empire continued with alternating success, although the Arabs scored a major victory in the Sack of Thessalonica in 904. His death in 908 opened the way for the installation of a weak ruler, al-Muqtadir, by the palace bureaucracy, and began the terminal decline of the Abbasid Caliphate.

Early life

Ali ibn Ahmad was born in 877/8, the son of Ahmad ibn Talha, the future caliph al-Mu'tadid (r. 892–902) by a Turkish slave-girl, named Čiček ("flower", Jījak in Arabic).

At the time of his birth, the Abbasid Caliphate was still reeling from the decade-long civil war known as the "Anarchy at Samarra", which had begun with the assassination of Caliph al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861) by dissatisfied soldiers and ended with the accession of al-Mu'tamid (r. 870–892). Real power, however, lay with al-Mu'tamid's brother, al-Muwaffaq, Ali's paternal grandfather. Al-Muwaffaq enjoyed the loyalty of the military, and by 877 had established himself as the de facto ruler of the state. Caliphal authority in the provinces collapsed during the "Anarchy at Samarra", with the result that by the 870s the central government had lost effective control over most of the Caliphate outside the metropolitan region of Iraq. In the west, Egypt had fallen under the control of Ahmad ibn Tulun, who also disputed control of Syria with al-Muwaffaq, while Khurasan and most of the Islamic East had been taken over by the Saffarids, who replaced the Abbasids' loyal client state, the Tahirids. Most of the Arabian peninsula was likewise lost to local potentates, while in Tabaristan a radical Zaydi Shi'a dynasty took power. In Iraq, the rebellion of the Zanj slaves threatened Baghdad itself, and it took al-Muwaffaq and al-Mu'tadid years of hard campaigning before they were finally subdued in 893.

Following his rise to the throne, al-Mu'tadid continued his father's policies, and restored caliphal authority in the Jazira, northern Syria, and parts of western Iran. He established an effective administration, but the incessant campaigning, and the need to keep the soldiery satisfied, meant that it was almost totally geared towards providing the funds necessary to maintain the army. Nevertheless, al-Mu'tadid managed to accumulate a considerable surplus in his ten-year reign. At the same time the bureaucracy grew in power, it also saw a growth in factionalism, with two rival "clans" emerging, the Banu'l-Furat and the Banu'l-Jarrah. The two groups represented primarily different factions in a struggle for office and power, but there are indications of "ideological" differences as well: many of the Banu'l-Jarrah families hailed from converted Nestorian families and employed Christians in the bureaucracy, in addition to maintaining closer ties with the military, while the Banu'l-Furat tried to impose firm civilian control of the army and (not quite openly) favoured Shi'ism.

Al-Mu'tadid took care to prepare Ali, his oldest son and heir-apparent, for the succession by appointing him as a provincial governor: first in Rayy, Qazvin, Qum and Hamadan, when these provinces were seized from the semi-autonomous Dulafid dynasty in ca. 894/5, and in 899 over the Jazira and the frontier areas, when al-Mu'tamid deposed the last local autonomous governor, Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Shaybani. The future al-Muktafi took up residence at Raqqa.


When al-Mu'tadid died on 5 April 892, al-Muktafi succeeded him unopposed. His father's vizier, al-Qasim ibn Ubayd Allah, ordered the oath of allegiance to be taken in his name, and took the precaution of locking up all Abbasid princes until al-Muktafi arrived in Baghdad from Raqqa (20 April).

Character and government

The new caliph was 25 years old. The historian al-Tabari, who lived during his reign, describes him as of "medium size, handsome, of a delicate complexion, with [a full head of] beautiful hair and a luxurious beard". He inherited his father's love of buildings—he completed al-Mu'tadid's third palace project, the Taj ("Crown") Palace, in Baghdad, and added a Friday mosque to it—but also his avarice and parsimony, which allowed him to leave, despite a short reign with almost continuous warfare, a considerable surplus. Thus, in May 903, al-Muktafi left Baghdad and went to the old capital of Samarra, with the intention of moving his seat there; but was quickly dissuaded by the high cost the rebuilding of the city would entail. His easy-going nature, however, was the antithesis of his father, who was famous for his extreme severity and the cruel and imaginative punishments he inflicted, and al-Muktafi became popular when, soon after his accession, he destroyed his father's underground prisons and gave the site to the people, released prisoners and returned lands confiscated by the government.

Blank map of the Middle East, with green shaded areas for the Abbasid Caliphate, and the major regions and provinces marked
Map showing the result of al-Mu'tadid's campaigns of consolidation, ca. 900: areas under direct Abbasid control in dark green, areas under loose Abbasid suzerainty, but under autonomous governors, in light green

On the other hand, he was not as steadfast as his father, and was easily swayed by the officials at court. The early period of his caliphate was dominated by the vizier al-Qasim ibn Ubayd Allah. A very able man, he was also ambitious; he had plotted to assassinate al-Mu'tadid shortly before the latter's death, and now ruthlessly eliminated any rivals for influence over the new caliph. Thus al-Qasim ordered the execution of the imprisoned Saffarid ruler, Amr ibn al-Layth, when al-Muktafi, immediately after his arrival in Baghdad asked after his well-being and indicated that he wanted to treat him well. Shortly after, the vizier managed to discredit al-Mu'tadid's loyal commander-in-chief, Badr al-Mu'tadidi. Badr was forced to flee Baghdad but surrendered after being promised a pardon by the vizier's agents, only to be executed on 14 August. A few days later, al-Qasim ordered the arrest of an uncle of the Caliph, Abd al-Wahid, a son of al-Muwaffaq, who never heard from again; and in September 903 al-Husayn ibn Amr al-Nasrani, a Christian secretary, whom al-Muktafi initially favoured and who opposed al-Qasim, was denounced and exiled, his offices being given to al-Qasim's sons, al-Husayn and Muhammad. Al-Qasim even succeeded in having his little daughter betrothed to one of al-Muktafi's infant sons, and his eminent position in the state was highlighted by the award, for the first time in the Islamic world, of a special honorific title, Wali al-Dawla. In the bureaucratic struggles of the period, al-Qasim ibn Ubayd Allah favoured the Banu'l-Jarrah and resisted the pro-Shi'ite leanings of the Banu'l-Furat. The leading representative of the Banu'l-Furat, Abu'l-Hasan Ali ibn al-Furat, only escaped death due to the vizier's own death in 904. Before his death al-Qasim had nominated as his successors either al-Abbas ibn al-Hasan al-Jarjara'i or Ali ibn Isa al-Jarrah, but the latter refused the post, and Ali ibn al-Furat quickly gained the favour of al-Abbas al-Jarjara'i and the Caliph.

Al-Muktafi's brief reign was dominated by warfare, but he was unlike his father, the "ghazī caliph" par excellence. Al-Mu'tadid had actively participated in campaigns, setting a personal example and allowing for the formation of ties of loyalty, reinforced by patronage, between the ruler and the soldiers. Al-Muktafi, on the other hand, did not "in his character and comportment [...], being a sedentary figure, instill much loyalty, let alone inspiration, in the soldiers", according to the historian Michael Bonner.

Campaigns against the Qarmatians

The early caliphates were always threatened by the radical Kharijite sects, which were especially prevalent among the marginalized populations "who inhabited the borderlands between the desert and the sown" and were hostile to the central authorities. During the 9th century, however, a range of new movements emerged on the basis of Shi'ite doctrines, which replaced Kharijism as the main idiom for opposition to established regimes. Zaydi imams had already established independent dynasties in the fringes of the Abbasid empire, in Tabaristan (864) and Yemen (897), but by the time of al-Muktafi's accession, the core regions of the Caliphate itself were menaced by the Qarmatians, a radical Isma'ili Shi'ite sect. The Qarmatians denounced mainstream Sunni Islam for practices they viewed as deviations from the true teachings of the religion, such as the hajj and the worship of the Kaaba, as well as the dwelling in cities and the marginalization of the Bedouin. Consequently the Qarmatians gained many adherents among the latter—although the Qarmatian leadership overwhelmingly came from the urban settlers—and began assaulting the neighbouring Muslim communities. Their missionary efforts soon spread: in 899, the Qarmatians seized Bahrayn, while another base was established in the area around Palmyra. From there the Qarmatians began launching raids against the Abbasid and Tulunid provinces of Syria. In 902, the Qarmatians defeated the increasingly feeble Tulunids and laid siege to Damascus. Although the city withstood the siege, the Qarmatians proceeded to ravage other Syrian towns. At the same time, a Kufan Isma'ili missionary, Abu Abdallah al-Shi'i, made contact with the Kutama Berbers. His proselytization efforts made rapid headway among them, and in 902, he began his attacks on the Aghlabid emirate of Ifriqiya. Its conquest was completed in 909, laying the foundations of the Fatimid Caliphate.

In July 903, al-Muktafi decided to personally campaign against the Qarmatians, and left Baghdad for Raqqa at the head of the army. While al-Muktafi remained at Raqqa, actual command was given to the head of the department of the army (dīwān al-jund), Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Katib. Other Abbasid forces, under Badr al-Hammami and al-Husayn ibn Hamdan, also operated against the Qarmatians, defeating them near Damascus. On 29 November 903, near Hama, Muhammad ibn Sulayman came upon the main Qarmatian army and routed it, capturing or killing its main leaders and dispersing their troops. Al-Muktafi returned to Baghdad with the senior captives, who were thrown into prison. Muhammad ibn Sulayman remained at Raqqa to scour the countryside and round up the remaining rebels. He too then returned to Baghdad, which he entered in triumph on 2 February 904. Eleven days later, on 13 February, Muhammad and the sahib al-shurta (chief of security) of the capital, Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Wathiqi, presided over the public execution of the Qarmatian leaders and Qarmatian sympathizers rounded up from Kufa and Baghdad.

The Abbasid victory near Hama did not yet fully eradicate the Qarmatians from the area. Taking advantage of the absence of the local governor, Ahmad ibn Kayghalagh, who went to suppress a revolt in Egypt, in 906, a part of the Banu Kalb Bedouin rose up in rebellion, led by the Qarmatian Abu Ghanim, called Nasr. They raided the Hawran and Tiberias, and launched an attack on Damascus. Although they defeated its garrison, they could not take the city itself, and moved onto Tiberias, which they pillaged. Al-Husayn ibn Hamdan was sent to pursue them, but they withdrew to the desert and poisoned the water holes behind them and escaped. On 16 June 906, they attacked Hit on the Euphrates. The generals Muhammad ibn Ishaq ibn Kundajiq and Mu'nis al-Khadim marched against them from Baghdad, while al-Husayn ibn Hamdan moved against them from the west, trying to encircle them. To escape their predicament, the Bedouin killed Nasr and received a pardon by the caliphal authorities. The remaining Qarmatians moved south to Kufa, on the orders of the chief missionary Zikrawayh ibn Mihrawayh. On 2 October they launched an attack on the city, but although repulsed, they defeated a relief army sent from Baghdad to aid Kufa. Zikrawayh then marched to attack the caravans returning from the pilgrimage to Mecca. In November, three caravans where overwhelmed; the Qarmatians massacred indiscriminately—some 20,000 were reportedly killed in the second caravan alone—and carried off women and children as slaves, along with enormous booty. Finally, in early January 907, caliphal troops under Wasif ibn Sawartakin caught the Qarmatians near al-Qadisiyya and destroyed them. With these defeats, the Qarmatian movement virtually ceased to exist in the Syrian Desert, although their counterparts in Bahrayn remained an active threat for several decades to come.

Recovery of Tulunid Syria and Egypt

The defeat of the Qarmatians at Hama also opened the way for the Abbasids to recover the provinces of southern Syria and Egypt, held by the Tulunids. The Tulunid regime had already been weakened by internal strife and the rivalries of the various ethnic groups in the army, which led to the defection of the commander Badr al-Hammami and other senior officers to the Abbasids; the regime was further weakened by the destructive raids of the Qarmatians and its inability to deal with it. On 24 May 904, Muhammad ibn Sulayman left Baghdad at the head of an army, numbering 10,000 according to al-Tabari, and tasked with recovering southern Syria and Egypt itself from the Tulunids. His campaign was to be assisted from the sea by a fleet from the frontier districts of Cilicia under Damian of Tarsus. Damian led a fleet up the river Nile, raided its coasts, and prevented supplies for the Tulunid forces from being ferried over it.

The Abbasid advance was mostly unopposed, and in December, the Tulunid emir Harun ibn Khumarawayh was murdered by his uncles Ali and Shayban. Shayban took over the reins of the state, but the murder caused further defections to the Abbasids, including the governor of Damascus, Tughj ibn Juff. In January, the Abbasid army arrived before Fustat, Egypt. Shayban abandoned his troops during the night, and the Tulunid capital surrendered. The victorious Abbasids razed the Tulunid-founded capital al-Qata'i with the exception of the great Mosque of Ibn Tulun. The members of the Tulunid family and their leading adherents were arrested and deported to Baghdad, while their properties were confiscated. Isa al-Nushari was appointed governor of Egypt. His tenure was troubled from the start: within months, he was forced to abandon Fustat and flee to Alexandria due to a secessionist rebellion under a certain Ibrahim al-Khalanji. He was possibly the same person as a certain Muhammad ibn Ali al-Khalij, who also led a pro-Tulunid revolt at about the same time. Reinforcements arrived from Baghdad under Ahmad ibn Kayghalagh. Al-Khalanji proved victorious in the first encounter with Ibn Kayghalagh at al-Arish in December 905, but in the end he was defeated and captured in May 906 and brought prisoner to Baghdad.

In 906, al-Muktafi married a daughter of the second Tulunid ruler, Khumarawayh. She was probably a half-sister of the famous Qatr al-Nada, another daughter of Khumarawayh who was intended for him but ended up being married to his father in 893.

The Byzantine front

Al-Muktafi also kept up the perennial conflict with the Byzantine Empire, with varying success. In May 902, al-Qasim ibn Sima al-Farghani was appointed in command of the frontier districts of the Jazira. In 902 or 903, a naval raid reached the island of Lemnos, dangerously close to the Byzantine capital, Constantinople; the island was plundered and its inhabitants carried off into slavery. Nevertheless, in May 903, the newly appointed governor of Tarsus, Abu'l-Asha'ir Ahmad ibn Nasr, was dispatched to the frontier districts with gifts for the Byzantine ruler, Leo VI the Wise (r. 886–912), and in return, Byzantine envoys arrived in Baghdad for negotiations on a prisoner exchange. The exchange eventually took place in September–October 905, at the river Lamus in Cilicia, but was interrupted because the Byzantines reneged on the agreed terms. After further negotiations, the exchange was completed in August 908.

The Sack of Thessalonica by Leo of Tripoli, miniature from the Madrid Skylitzes

In the summer of 904, a Byzantine renegade in Abbasid service, Leo of Tripoli, led a major naval expedition of 54 vessels from the Syrian and Egyptian fleets, whose initial target reportedly was Constantinople itself. The Arab fleet penetrated the Dardanelles and sacked Abydos, as the Byzantine navy under the droungarios Eustathios Argyros was reluctant to confront them. Emperor Leo replaced Argyros with the more energetic Himerios, but Leo of Tripoli forestalled the Byzantines, turning back west and heading for the Empire's second city, Thessalonica, which he sacked after a three-day siege on 31 July 904. The sack of the city brought the Muslim fleet enormous booty and many captives who were taken to be sold as slaves, including the eyewitness John Kaminiates, who wrote the main account of the city's siege and fall.

On land, however, the Byzantines held the upper hand: al-Tabari reports that in spring/early summer 904, a major Byzantine army, "ten crosses with one hundred thousand men", had invaded the borderlands and plundered as far as Hadath. In November, possibly as a retaliation for the sack of Thessalonica, the Byzantine general Andronikos Doukas invaded Arab territory, and won a major victory over the forces of Tarsus and al-Massisah (Mopsuestia) at Marash (Germanikeia). Further successes followed for both sides, including the Byzantine capture of Qurus (Cyrrhus) in July 906, the raid by Ahmad ibn Kayghalagh and Rustam ibn Baradu in October 906 that reached as far as the Halys River, and Himerios' victory over an Arab fleet on St. Thomas's day, 6 October 906. In spring 907, however, Andronikos Doukas and his son Constantine defected to the Abbasids, the victims of the intrigues of Leo VI's powerful eunuch chamberlain, Samonas.

Death and legacy

Al-Muktafi was a successful ruler, "a man of sensibility, a gourmet and an appreciator of the verses of poets like Ibn al-Rumi". As the historian Harold Bowen writes, "the Caliphate seemed in his day almost to have regained its former glory", having overcome the Qarmatian challenge and regained Egypt and Syria. His fiscal policies, building upon those of his father, also ensured prosperity and a full treasury, despite the drain and devastation of continuous warfare.

Al-Muktafi, however, was of a sickly disposition since childhood; he had been gravely ill for some time before his death, and may have been ill for much of his reign. As a result, the issue of the succession was left unresolved. The vizier, al-Abbas al-Jarjara'i, sounded out the leading officials of the bureaucracy on the issue—an unprecedented act that demonstrated the monopoly of power now exercised by the civilian bureaucrats. Muhammad ibn Dawud al-Jarrah favoured the experienced and capable Abbasid prince Abdallah ibn al-Mu'tazz, but the vizier eventually followed the advice of Ali ibn al-Furat, who suggested al-Muktafi's 13-year-old brother Ja'far, on the grounds that he would be weak and pliable, and easy to be manipulated by the senior officials. The choice of Ja'far, who became Caliph al-Muqtadir (r. 908–932), was, in the words of historian Hugh N. Kennedy, "a sinister development" and inaugurated one "of the most disastrous reigns in the whole of Abbasid history [...] a quarter of a century in which all of the work of [al-Muqtadir's] predecessors would be undone".

Al-Muktafi seems to have recovered just enough to sanction his brother's nomination, before dying on 13 August 908. Like his father, he was buried in the palace of the Tahirid Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Tahir. Al-Muktafi's death marked the "high point of the Abbasid revival" spearheaded by his father and grandfather. Over the next 40 years, the Caliphate would face a succession of power struggles, and lose its outlying provinces to ambitious local dynasts; with the rise of Ibn Ra'iq to the post of amir al-umara in 936, the caliphs became mere puppet rulers, and Baghdad itself would finally be captured by the Shi'a Buyids in 946.

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