Arabs, Persians, and the Advent of the Abbasids Reconsidered

Article excerpt

The Abbasid revolution, as R. Stephen Humphreys has observed, is "one of the very few topics in Islamic historical studies" to have "engendered a substantial scholarly literature."(1) That literature continues to expand rapidly, as evidenced directly or indirectly by a wealth of recent publications, but the issues involved in understanding the advent of the Abbasid era remain far from settled.

Roberto Marin-Guzman, a talented Arabist at the University of Costa Rica, has provided a concise overview of a number of questions involved in studies of the Abbasid revolution: Who supported the revolt and why? How were the Abbasids able to organize and popularize their opposition movement? Why did it succeed in toppling the Umayyad regime when so many other efforts had failed? After some introductory remarks categorizing the participants in the revolt, critiquing the source materials, and characterizing the secondary literature, the author proceeds in three short chapters to analyze the role of Arab tribes in the revolt, taxation and conversion as sources of discontent, and finally the "popular dimensions" of the revolution. (It might be noted that the author has reorganized and revised much of the material from this book into an article which has recently appeared in Islamic Studies.)(2)

For the most part, Marin-Guzman's handling of these three themes is limited to summarizing the findings of earlier studies. In the case of the tribal element, he portrays disputes between antagonistic "Northern" and "Southern" tribes, aggravated by competition for land, money and administrative posts, with the consequence that Marwanid partiality for the northerners finally drove the southerners in Khurasan into the arms of the Abbasid conspirators. He also parallels the work of M. A. Shaban in depicting the Qays as a faction interested in war and expansion and Yaman as one favoring consolidation and assimilation (p. 22). In the second chapter, the mawali are introduced as one of the most important dissident elements to be aligned with the Abbasids. Marin-Guzman accepts the notion that the mawali in Khurasan and elsewhere were victims of systematic discrimination and that their major grievance was the continued extraction of jizya from them - especially since the desire to escape such taxation was, in the view of the author and many others, a primary reason for their religious conversion in the first place. The perception that this religioeconomic injustice fueled various sectarian movements which in turn became enmeshed in the Abbasid struggle leads Marin-Guzman to a consideration of the Mukhtariyya, Kaysaniyya, and Hashimiyya. He also speculates that other "anti-Umayyad" religious movements, such as the Kharijites, Qadariyya, and Mutazila, may have "contributed to the popular dimensions of the Abbasid revolution" (p. 68) but prudently concedes that this "needs, evidently, further research" (p. 70). The third chapter of Marin-Guzman's book discusses the organization and ideology of the Abbasid propaganda mission, the history of the revolt under the leadership of Abu Muslim, the degree to which these events represented revolutionary change, and the difficulties the Abbasids faced in developing a theory of legitimacy for their rule. There are no real surprises in any of Marin-Guzman's conclusions at the end of the volume: the Umayyads were brought down by a combination of tribal discord, mawali discontent, burdensome taxes, and rivalry between Syria and Iraq. The Abbasids succeeded where others failed because of their efficient, determined organizational. skills and their clever exploitation of popular discontent and religious ideology.

Marin-Guzman notes that his book "is addressed not only to specialists on the topic, but also to students specializing in Middle Eastern history, as well as to the general public interested in this period and the projections of these issues into the modern Middle East" (p. xi). He is undoubtedly most successful in meeting the second of these objectives. …