Anarchy at Samarra

The term "Anarchy at Samarra" refers to the period 861–870 in the history of the Abbasid Caliphate, which was marked by extreme internal instability and the violent succession of four caliphs, who became puppets in the hands of powerful rival military groups.

Abbasid Caliphate
اَلْخِلَافَةُ ٱلْعَبَّاسِيَّةُ
Abbasid Caliphate at the time of al-Mutawakkil's death in c. 861
Abbasid Caliphate at the time
of al-Mutawakkil's death in c. 861
Common languagesArabic
Sunni Islam
• 861–862
• 862–866
• 866–869
• 869–870
• Assassination of al-Mutawakkil began the Anarchy at Samarra.
• Deposition and murder of al-Muhtadi.
Amir al-Mu'minin (أمير المؤمنين), Khalifa (خليفة)

The term derives from the then capital and seat of the caliphal court, Samarra. The "anarchy" began in 861, with the murder of Caliph al-Mutawakkil by his Turkish guards. His successor, al-Muntasir, ruled for six months before his death, possibly poisoned by the Turkish military chiefs. He was succeeded by al-Musta'in. Divisions within the Turkish military leadership enabled Musta'in to flee to Baghdad in 865 with the support of some Turkish chiefs (Bugha the Younger and Wasif) and the Police chief and governor of Baghdad Muhammad, but the rest of the Turkish army chose a new caliph in the person of al-Mu'tazz and besieged Baghdad, forcing the city's capitulation in 866. Musta'in was exiled and executed. Mu'tazz was able and energetic, and he tried to control the military chiefs and exclude the military from civil administration. His policies were resisted, and in July 869 he too was deposed and killed. His successor, al-Muhtadi, also tried to reaffirm the Caliph's authority, but he too was killed in June 870. With Muhtadi's death and the ascension of al-Mu'tamid, the Turkish faction around Musa ibn Bugha, closely associated with Mu'tamid's brother and regent al-Muwaffaq, became dominant in the caliphal court, ending the "anarchy".

Although the Abbasid Caliphate was able to stage a modest recovery in the following decades, the troubles of the "Anarchy at Samarra" inflicted great and lasting damage on the structures and prestige of the Abbasid central government, encouraging and facilitating secessionist and rebellious tendencies in the Caliphate's provinces.

Family tree of the Abbasid dynasty in the middle and late 9th century

Al-Muntasir (861–862)Edit

Al-Muntasir became caliph on December 11, 861, after his father al-Mutawakkil was assassinated by members of his Turkic guard.[1] Although he was suspected of being involved in the plot to kill al-Mutawakkil, he was able to quickly take control of affairs in the capital city of Samarra and receive the oath of allegiance from the leading men of the state.[2] Al-Muntasir's sudden elevation to the Caliphate served to benefit several of his close associates, who gained senior positions in the government after his ascension. Included among these were his secretary, Ahmad ibn al-Khasib, who became vizier, and Wasif, a senior Turkic general who had likely been heavily involved in al-Mutawakkil's murder.[3] Al-Muntasir's reign lasted less than half a year; it ended with his death from unknown causes on Sunday, 7 June 862, at the age of 24 years (solar). There are various accounts of the illness that led to his death, including that he was bled with a poisoned lancet.

Al-Musta'in (862–866)Edit

After the death of previous Caliph, al-Muntasir (who had not appointed any successors), the Turkic military leaders held a council to select his successor. They were not willing to have al-Mu'tazz or his brothers; so they elected Ahmad ibn Muhammad, son of the Abbasid prince Muhammad ibn al-Mu'tasim, who took the regnal name al-Mustaʿin. He reigned for four and half years and then abdicated in favor of al-Mu'tazz because of the Abbasid civil war. As part of the terms of al-Musta'in's abdication, he was to be given an estate in the Hijaz, and allowed to travel between the cities of Mecca and Medina. On January 12, Muhammad brought a group of judges and jurists to witness that al-Musta'in had entrusted his affairs to him. Delegates carrying the terms of abdication were sent to Samarra, where al-Mu'tazz personally signed the document and agreed to the conditions. The delegates returned to Baghdad with the signed document on January 24, accompanied by a group of emissaries sent to secure al-Musta'in's allegiance to al-Mu'tazz.[4] On Friday, January 25, al-Mu'tazz was acknowledged as caliph in the mosques throughout Baghdad.[5]

Instead of finding a refuge at Medina, al-Musta'in found himself kept in Baghdad. There he was put to death on 17 October 866 by the order of al-Mu'tazz. Carrying al-Musta'in's head to the Caliph, "Here," cried the executioner, "behold thy cousin's head!" "Lay it aside," answered al-Mu'tazz who was playing chess, "till I have finished the game." And then, having satisfied himself that it was really al-Musta'in's head, he commanded 500 pieces to be given to the assassin as his reward.

Al-Mu'tazz (866–869)Edit

Originally named as the second in line of three heirs of his father al-Mutawakkil, al-Mu'tazz was forced to renounce his rights after the accession of his brother al-Muntasir, and was thrown in prison as a dangerous rival during the reign of his cousin al-Musta'in. He was released and raised to the caliphate in January 866, during the civil war between al-Musta'in and the Turkish military of Samarra. Al-Mu'tazz was capable and determined to reassert the authority of the caliph over the Turkic military, but had only limited success. Despite these successes, the Caliph could not overcome the main problem of the period: a shortage of revenue with which to pay the troops. The financial straits of the Caliphate had become evident already at his accession—the customary accession donative of ten months' pay for the troops had to be reduced to two for lack of funds—and had helped bring down the regime of al-Musta'in in Baghdad.[6] The civil war and the ensuing general anarchy only worsened the situation, as revenue stopped coming in even from the environs of Baghdad, let alone more remote provinces.[7] As a result, al-Mu'tazz refused to honour his agreement with Ibn Tahir in Baghdad, leaving him to provide for his own supporters; this led to unrest in the Baghdad and the rapid decline of Governor's authority.[8] The turmoil in Baghdad was worsened by al-Mu'tazz, who in 869 dismissed Ubaydallah, and replaced him with his far less capable brother Sulayman.[9] In the event, this only served to deprive the Caliph of a useful counterweight against the Samarra soldiery, and allowed the Turks to regain their former power.[10]

As a result, by 869 the Turkic leaders Salih ibn Wasif (the son of Wasif al-Turki) and Ba'ikbak were again in the ascendant, and secured the removal of Ahmad ibn Isra'il.[9] Finally, unable to meet the financial demands of the Turkic troops, in mid-July a palace coup deposed al-Mu'tazz. He was imprisoned and maltreated to such an extent that he died after three days, on 16 July 869.[9] He was succeeded by his cousin al-Muhtadi.[9]

Al-Muhtadi (869–870)Edit

After the deposition and murder of his cousin al-Mu'tazz (r. 866–869) on 15 July 869, the leaders of the Turkic guard chose al-Muhtadi as the new Caliph on 21/22 July.[11] As a ruler, al-Muhtadi sought to emulate the Caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz,[11] widely considered a model Islamic ruler.[12] He therefore lived an austere and pious life—notably removing all musical instruments from the court—and made a point of presiding in person over the courts of grievances (mazalim), thus gaining the support of the common people.[11][13] Combining "strength and ability", he was determined to restore the Caliph's authority and power,[11] that had been eroded during the ongoing "Anarchy at Samarra" by the squabbles of the Turkish generals.[14] Al-Muhtadi faced Alid risings in the provinces, but the main threat to his power were the Turkic commanders.[11]

When Musa ibn Bugha left to campaign against the Kharijites, al-Muhtadi took the opportunity to incite the people against him and his brother, Muhammad ibn Bugha. Muhammad was brought to trial on accusations of embezzlement and was condemned. Although al-Muhtadi had promised a pardon, Muhammad was executed. This cemented the rift with Musa: the latter marched on the capital with his army, and defeated the troops loyal to the Caliph. He refused to abdicate, but tried to preserve his life and office by recourse to the religious status of the caliph, and the support of the people. He was nevertheless murdered on 21 June 870, and replaced by his cousin, al-Mu'tamid (r. 870–892).[11]


Gold dinar of Caliph al-Mu'tamid (r.870—892), minted in c. 884/5, with the names of Commander in chief al-Muwaffaq and the Vizier Sa'id ibn Makhlad (Dhu'l-Wizaratayn), The Zanj Rebellion was active during al-Mu'tamid's reign from 870s until c. 883

At the end of Anarchy at Samarra a rebellion broke out famously known as Zanj Rebellion. It grew to involve slaves and freemen, including both Africans and Arabs, from several regions of the Caliphate, and claimed tens of thousands of lives before it was finally defeated.[15]

Several Muslim historians, such as al-Tabari and al-Mas'udi, consider the Zanj revolt to be one of the "most vicious and brutal uprisings" of the many disturbances that plagued the Abbasid central government.[15]


  1. ^ Bosworth, "al-Muntasir" 1993, p. 583.
  2. ^ Kennedy 2006, pp. 266–268.
  3. ^ Gordon 2001, pp. 88–91.
  4. ^ Saliba 1985, pp. 106–108.
  5. ^ Saliba 1985, p. 113.
  6. ^ Kennedy 2001, pp. 138–139.
  7. ^ Kennedy 2001, p. 138.
  8. ^ Kennedy 2001, p. 139.
  9. ^ a b c d Bosworth, "al-Muʿtazz Bi’llāh" 1993, p. 794.
  10. ^ Kennedy 2004, p. 172.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Zetterstéen & Bosworth 1993, pp. 476–477.
  12. ^ Cobb 2000, pp. 821–822.
  13. ^ Kennedy 2004, p. 173.
  14. ^ Kennedy 2004, pp. 169–173.
  15. ^ a b Furlonge 1999, p. 7.