Abu al-Abbas Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Abd Allah (Arabic: أبو العباس عبد الله ابن محمد ابن علي, romanizedAbū al-ʿAbbās ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī‎; 721/722 – 8 June 754),[1] known by his laqab al-Saffah (Arabic: السفّاح, romanizedal-Saffāḥ), was the first caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate, one of the longest and most important caliphates in Islamic history.

as-Saffah's proclamation as caliph, from a 14th-century illustrated manuscript of Balami's Tarikhnama
1st Abbasid Caliph
Reign25 January 750 – 8 June 754
PredecessorDynasty established
Marwan II as Umayyad caliph
Bornc. 721
al-Humayma, Jordan
Died8 June 754 (aged 33)
al-Anbar, Iraq
SpouseUmm Salama bint Ya'qub al-Makhzumi
Kunya: Abu'l-Abbas
Given name: Abd Allah
Laqab: al-Saffah
Nasab: Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Abd Allah ibn al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim
FatherMuhammad ibn Ali
MotherRayta bint Ubayd Allah
ReligionSunni Islam

His laqab al-Saffāḥ (السفّاح) means "the Blood-Shedder". It may refer to his ruthless tactics, or perhaps it was used 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 its 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-Saffah was the son of Muhammad ibn Ali and his mother was named Rayta was the daughter of a certain Ubayd Allah ibn Abd Allah.[2]

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 a revolt in Kufa in southern Iraq, mainly by the town's slaves. 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 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. 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.[citation needed]

Family tree


Abbasid Caliphate was founded by a dynasty descended from Muhammad's uncle, Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib (566–653 CE), from whom the dynasty takes its name.[3]

Hashim ibn Abd-Manaf
Abd al-Muttalib
al-Abbas (Prophet's uncle)
Abdallah ibn Abbas
Ali ibn Abdallah
Muhammad ibn Ali



In early October 749 (132 AH), Abu al-'Abbās as-Saffāh's rebel army entered Kufa, a major Muslim center in Southern Iraq. As-Saffah had not been 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.[4] As-Saffah would go on to become the first Abbasid caliph, but he did not come forward to receive the pledge of allegiance from the people until after the Umayyad caliph[5] and a large number of his princes were already killed.[5]

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.

Dirham of as-Saffah, Kufa minted, Dated (133 AH) 751 CE

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.[6] The only survivor, Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu'awiya, escaped to the province of al-Andalus (Spain), where the Umayyad dynasty would endure for three more centuries in the form of the Emirate of Córdoba and the subsequent Caliphate 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 considered "free from major internal dissensions."[7]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Caliph Abu al-`Abbās `Abdu’llāh as-Saffāḥ died of smallpox on 8 June 754 (13 Dhu al-Hijja 136 AH), only four years after taking the title of caliph. Before he died, as-Saffah appointed his brother Abu Ja'far al-Mansur[1] and, following him, the caliph's nephew Isa ibn Musa as his successors; ibn Musa, however, never filled the position.[citation needed]

Abbasid Military Activities


During his reign a great battle took place in 751 known as the Battle of Talas or Battle of Artlakh was a military engagement between the Abbasid Caliphate along with their ally the Tibetan Empire against the Chinese Tang dynasty. In July 751 AD, Tang and Abbasid forces met in the valley of the Talas River to vie for control over the Syr Darya region of central Asia. After several days of stalemate, the Karluk Turks originally allied to the Tang defected to the Abbasids and tipped the balance of power, resulting in a Tang rout.

The defeat marked the end of Tang westward expansion and resulted in Muslim control of Transoxiana for the next 400 years. Control of this region was economically beneficial for the Abbasids because it was on the Silk Road. Historians debate whether or not Chinese prisoners captured in the aftermath of the battle brought paper-making technology to the Middle East, where it eventually spread to Europe.[8]

The numbers of combatants involved in the Battle of Talas are not known with certainty; however, various estimates exist. The Abbasid army (200,000 Muslim troops according to Chinese estimates, though these numbers may be greatly exaggerated) which included contingents from their Tibetan ally met the combined army of 10,000 Tang Chinese and 20,000 Karluk mercenaries (Arab records put the Chinese forces at 100,000 which also may be greatly exaggerated).[9]

In the month of July 751, the Abbasid forces joined in combat with the Tang Chinese force (the combined army of Tang Chinese and Karluk mercenaries) on the banks of the Talas river.

Modern view of Talas River, which starts in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and winds down into Kazakhstan. On the right side of the river is the city of Taraz.

The Tang army was subjected to a devastating defeat. The Tang dynasty's defeat was due to the defection of Karluk mercenaries and the retreat of Ferghana allies who originally supported the Chinese. The Karluk mercenaries, two-thirds of the Tang army, defected to the Abbasids during the battle; Karluk troops attacked the Tang army from close quarters while the main Abbasid forces attacked from the front. The Tang troops were unable to hold their positions, and the commander of the Tang forces, Gao Xianzhi, recognized that defeat was imminent and managed to escape with some of his Tang regulars with the help of Li Siye. Out of an estimated 10,000 Tang troops, only 2,000 managed to return from Talas to their territory in Central Asia. Despite losing the battle, Li did inflict heavy losses on the pursuing Arab army after being reproached by Duan Xiushi. After the battle, Gao was prepared to organize another Tang army against the Arabs when the devastating An Shi Rebellion broke out in 755. When the Tang capital was taken by rebels, all Chinese armies stationed in Central Asia were ordered back to China proper to crush the rebellion.[10]

Also in 751, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V led an invasion across the frontier of the Caliphate. The Byzantines captured Theodosiopolis (Erzurum) and Melitene (Malatya), which was demolished. There was no serious attempt to retain control of the captured cities, except for Camachum (modern Kemah, Erzincan), which was garrisoned.[11][12]



As-Saffah died after a five-year reign and al-Mansur took on the responsibility of establishing the Abbasid caliphate by holding on to power for nearly 22 years, from Dhu al-Hijjah 136 AH until Dhu al-Hijjah 158 AH (754 – 775).[13][14] Al-Mansur was proclaimed Caliph on his way to Mecca in the year 753 (136 AH) and was inaugurated the following year.[15] Abu Ja'far Abdallah ibn Muhammad took the name al-Mansur ("the victorious") and agreed to make his nephew Isa ibn Musa his Heir to the Abbasid caliphate. This agreement was supposed to resolve rivalries in the Abbasid family, but al-Mansur's right to accession was particularly challenged by his uncle Abdullah ibn Ali. Once in power, caliph al-Mansur had his uncle imprisoned in 754 and killed in 764.[16]



Al-Saffah was the First Arab caliph from the Caliphal Abbasid dynasty. He nominated his brother Abu Ja'far Abdallah as heir, because his own son was too young to succeeded to the Caliphate. His brother nominated his son (al-Saffah's nephew) as heir. Al-Saffah's nephew nominated his two sons as heir. Even though al-Saffah's son never ascended to Caliphate, his children remained influential. In 761, his nephew Muhammad (future caliph al-Mahdi) married Rayta as his first wife after his return from Khurasan.[17] She gave birth to two sons, Ubaydallah and Ali.[17][18] His elder grandson, Ubaydallah was appointed as governor of Arminiyah and the northwestern provinces in 788/9.[19] He was later appointed to two brief stints as governor of Egypt, in 795 and 796.[20] His second grandson, Ali was the uncle and father-in-law of sixth Abbasid caliph al-Amin through his daughter Lubana.

See also



  1. ^ a b Kennedy 2016, p. 55.
  2. ^ Houtsma 1993, p. 74.
  3. ^ Hoiberg 2010, p. 10.
  4. ^ Kennedy, H. (2004). The prophet and the age of the caliphates. 2nd ed.
  5. ^ a b The Oxford History of Islam, p. 25. Ed. John Esposito. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 9780199880416
  6. ^ Roberts, J: History of the World. Penguin, 1994.
  7. ^ Kennedy, H. (2004). The prophet and the age of the caliphates. 2nd ed. Page 129.
  8. ^ "The Battle of Talas, In Our Time". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 23 October 2016.
  9. ^ The strength of Arabs is not recorded for this battle, but the armies to the east of Khorasan controlled by the Arabs later were estimated by the Chinese in 718 with 900,000 troops available to respond according to Bai Shouyi, Bai however never estimate any Abbasid army figures. (Bai 2003, pp. 225–26).
  10. ^ Bai, pp. 226–28.
  11. ^ Treadgold (1997), pp. 360, 362
  12. ^ Bonner, p. 107
  13. ^ Sanders, P. (1990). The Meadows of Gold: The Abbasids by MAS‘UDI. Translated and edited by Lunde Paul and Stone Caroline, Kegan Paul International, London and New York, 1989 ISBN 0 7103 0246 0. Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, 24(1), 50–51. doi:10.1017/S0026318400022549
  14. ^ Axworthy, Michael (2008); A History of Iran; Basic, USA; ISBN 978-0-465-00888-9. p. 81.
  15. ^ Aikin, John (1747). General biography: or, Lives, critical and historical, of the most eminent persons of all ages, countries, conditions, and professions, arranged according to alphabetical order. London: G. G. and J. Robinson. p. 201. ISBN 1333072457.
  16. ^ Marsham, Andrew (2009). Rituals of Islamic Monarchy: Accession and Succession in the First Muslim Empire: Accession and Succession in the First Muslim Empire. Edinburgh University Press. p. 192. ISBN 9780748630776.
  17. ^ a b Abbott 1946, p. 25.
  18. ^ Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi 2011, p. 310; Ibn Hazm 1982, p. 22.
  19. ^ Bosworth 1989, p. 103; Al-Baladhuri 1916, p. 330. Numismatic evidence for this appointment is summarized by Bates 2019, p. 20. Al-Ya'qubi (Gordon et al. 2018, p. 1178) does not note Ubaydallah's governorship, saying instead that Ibn Mazyad was succeeded by Abd al-Kabir ibn Abd al-Hamid. Łewond (Bedrosian 2006, ch. 41), claims that following a conflict between Harun and Ubaydallah the empire was split in two, with Ubaydallah receiving the northern provinces of Atropatene, Armenia, Iberia/Georgia, and Aghuania; this assertion is however disputed by Bonner 1988, pp. 88–89, who notes that the Arabic sources from the period make no reference to any sort of conflict between the two brothers. Ibn Qutaybah n.d., p. 380, refers to Ubaydallah as a governor of the Jazira.
  20. ^ Al-Kindi 1912, pp. 137–38; Ibn Taghribirdi 1930, pp. 93, 101; Khalifah ibn Khayyat 1985, pp. 463–64 (noting only one appointment to Egypt). During his first governorship he was placed in charge of both prayers/security (salah) and finances (kharaj); in his second administration he is mentioned as only being in charge of the salah.


Clan of the Banu Quraish
Born: c. 721 CE Died: c. 8 June 754 CE
Shia Islam titles
Preceded by
Ibrahim "al-Imām" ibn Muhammad
Eighth Imam of the Hashimiyya
? – 8 June 754
Succeeded by
Preceded byas caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate
25 January 750 – 8 June 754
Succeeded by