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First abbasid caliph
The basics
Date of birth Humeima
Date of death 754 Al Anbar Governorate, Iraq
Father: Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Abdallah
Authority VIAF id
The details

Abu al-‘Abbās ‘Abdu'llāh ibn Muhammad al-Saffāḥ, or Abul `Abbas as-Saffaḥ (Arabic: أبو العباس عبد الله بن محمد السفّاح‎‎; 721/722 – 10 June 754) was the first caliph of the Abbasid caliphate, one of the longest and most important caliphates (Islamic dynasties) in Islamic history. (Due to different traditions of transcribing Arabic names, the spellings As-Saffah and Al-Saffah may both be found.)

Abū'l ‘Abbās' laqab or caliphal title was "As-Saffāḥ" (السفّاح), meaning "the Blood-Shedder" for his ruthless tactics and perhaps also to instill fear in his enemies.

Family origins and earlier history

As-Saffāḥ, born in Humeima (modern-day Jordan), was head of one branch of the Banu Hāshim from Arabia, a subclan of the Quraysh tribe who traced their lineage to Hāshim, a great-grandfather of Muhammad via 'Abbās, an uncle of Muhammad, hence the title "Abbasid" for his descendants' caliphate. This indirect link to Muhammad's larger clan formed sufficient basis for As-Saffah's claim to the title caliph.

As narrated in many hadith, many believed that in the end times a great leader or mahdi would appear from the family of Muhammad, to which Ali belonged, who would deliver Islam from corrupt leadership. The half-hearted policies of the late Umayyads to tolerate non-Arab Muslims and Shi'as had failed to quell unrest among these minorities.

During the reign of late Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik this unrest led to mutiny and revolt in Kufa in southern Iraq, mainly from the slaves of the town. Shi'ites revolted in 736 and held the city until 740, led by Zayd ibn Ali, a grandson of Husayn and another member of the Banu Hashim. Zayd's rebellion failed, and was put down by Umayyad armies in 740. The revolt in Kufa indicated both the strength of the Umayyads and the growing unrest in the Muslim world.

During the last days of the Umayyad caliphate, Abu al-‘Abbās and his clan chose to begin their rebellion in Khurasān, an important, but remote military region comprising eastern Iran, southern parts of the modern Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and northern Afghanistan. In 743, the death of the Umayyad Caliph Hishām provoked a rebellion in the east. Abu al-`Abbās, supported by Shi'as and the residents of Khurasān, led his forces to victory over the Umayyads and The civil war was marked by millennial prophecies encouraged by the beliefs of some Shi'as that As-Saffāḥ was the mahdi. In Shi'ite works such as the Al-Jafr faithful Muslims were told that the brutal civil war was the great conflict between good and evil. The choice of the Umayyads to enter battle with white flags and the Abbasids to enter with black encouraged such theories. The color white, however, was regarded in much of Persia as a sign of mourning.

As-Saffah's Caliphate

In early October 749 (132 AH), Abu al-'Abbās as-Saffāh's rebel army entered Kufa, a major Muslim center in Southern Iraq, and as-Saffah was not yet declared caliph. One of his priorities was to eliminate his Umayyad rival, caliph Marwan II. The latter was defeated in February 750 at a battle on the (Great) Zab river north of Baghdad, effectively ending the Umayyad caliphate, which had ruled since 661 AD. Marwan II fled back to Damascus, which didn't welcome him, and was ultimately killed on the run in Egypt that August.

In one far-reaching, historic decision, as-Saffāh established Kufa as the new capital of the caliphate, ending the dominance of Damascus in the Islamic political world, and Iraq would now become the seat of 'Abbassid power for many centuries.

Later tales recount that, concerned that there would be a return of rival Umayyad power, as-Saffāh invited all of the remaining members of the Umayyad family to a dinner party where he had them clubbed to death before the first course, which was then served to the hosts. The only survivor, Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu'awiya, escaped to the province of al-Andalus (Spain), where the Umayyad caliphate would endure for three centuries in the west in the Emirate of Córdoba. Another version is that as-Saffāḥ's new governor to Syria, 'Abd Allāh ibn 'Ali, hunted down the last of the family dynasty, with only Abd al-Rahmān escaping. Ultimately, 'Abbasid rule was accepted even in Syria, and the beginning of the new Islamic dynasty was "free from major internal dissensions."

As-Saffāh's four-year reign was marked with efforts to consolidate and rebuild the caliphate. His supporters were represented in the new government, but apart from his policy toward the Umayyad family, as-Saffāh is widely viewed by historians as having been a mild victor. Jews, Nestorian Christians, and Persians were well represented in his government and in succeeding Abbasid administrations. Education was also encouraged, and the first paper mills, staffed by skilled Chinese prisoners captured at the Battle of Talas, were set up in Samarkand.

Equally revolutionary was as-Saffāh's reform of the army, which came to include non-Muslims and non-Arabs in sharp contrast to the Umayyads who refused any soldiers of either type. As-Saffāh selected the gifted Abu Muslim as his military commander, an officer who would serve until 755 in the Abbasid army.

Not all Muslims accept the legitimacy of his caliphate, however. According to later Shi'ites, as-Saffāh turned back on his promises to the partisans of the Alids in claiming the title caliph for himself. The Shi'a had hoped that their imam would be named head of the caliphate, inaugurating the era of peace and prosperity the millennialists had believed would come. The betrayal alienated as-Saffāh's Shi'a supporters, although the continued amity of other groups made Abbasid rule markedly more solvent than that of the Umayyads.

Caliph Abu al-`Abbās `Abdu’llāh as-Saffāḥ died of smallpox on June 10, 754 (136 AH), only four years after taking the title of caliph. Before he died, as-Saffah appointed his brother Abu Ja'far al-Mansur and, following him, the caliph's nephew Isa ibn Musa as his successors. (Ibn Musa, however, never filled the position.)

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