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Abu Jafar al-Ma'mun ibn Harun (also spelled Almamon and el-Mâmoûn) (September 13, 786August 9, 833) (المأمون) was an Abbasid caliph who reigned from 813 until his death in 833. He succeeded his brother al-Amin.

Abbasid Civil War Edit

In 802 Harun al-Rashid, father of al-Ma'mun and al-Amin, ordered that al-Amin succeed him and al-Ma'mun serve as governor of Khurasan and as caliph after the death of al-Amin. Al-Ma'mun was reportedly the older of the two brothers, but his mother was a Persian woman while al-Amin's mother was a member of the reigning Abbasid family. After al-Rashid's death in 809, the relationship between the two brothers deteriorated. In response to al-Ma'mun's moves toward independence, al-Amin declared his own son Musa to be his heir. This violation of al-Rashid's testament led to a civil war in which al-Ma'mun's newly recruited Khurasani troops, led by Tahir bin Husain (d. 822), defeated al-Amin's armies and laid siege to Baghdad. In 813, al-Amin was beheaded and al-Ma'mun recognized as caliph throughout the empire.

Internal Strife Edit

There were disturbances in Iraq during the first several years of al-Ma'mun's reign, while the caliph was in Merv. On November 13, 815, Muhammad Jafar claimed the Caliphate for himself in Mecca. He was defeated and he quickly abdicated asserting that he'd only become caliph on news that al-Ma'mun had died. Lawlessness in Baghdad led to the formation of neighborhood watches. When in A.H. 201 (817 CE) al-Ma'mun named Imam Reza the Seventh descendent of Muhammad his heir, this was not accepted by people in Baghdad. This was a political move by al-Ma'mun since most of Persia was sympathetic to the Hashemites. Al-Ma'mun's opponents in Baghdad gave allegiance to Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi. His forces fought Kharijites, al-Ma'mun's, and arrested the neighbourhood watch commander Sahl ibn Salamah.

Imam Reza informed al-Ma'mun of happenings in Baghdad and al-Ma'mun set out for the City of Peace on the day the fast ended, April 12, 818. At Tus, he stopped to visit his father's grave. On the last day of Safar in 203 AH, al-Ma'mun poisoned Imam Reza through grapes in Toos. Imam Reza was buried beside the caliph's grave. Following the death of Imam Reza a great revolt took place in Khurasan, Persia. Al-Ma’mun wept and mourn for Imam Reza and tried to show himself innocent of the crime. But for all he did, he could not get himself acquitted and prove his innocence. Al-Ma'mun wrote to Hasan ibn Sahl, his governor in Iraq, the Hijaz, etc. informing him of his grief on the Imam's death. The governor fell ill and al-Ma'mun appointed Dinar ibn Abdallah to replace him. Some of Ibn al-Mahdi's commanders deserted him, and he died.

After Arrival in Baghdad Edit

Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari states that al-Ma'mun entered Baghdad on August 11, 819 (v. 32, p. 95). He wore green and had others do so. Informed that compliance with this command was despite popular opposition to the colour, on August 18th he reverted to traditional Abbasid black. While Baghdad became peaceful, there were disturbances elsewhere. In A.H. 210 (825-826) Abdallah ibn Tahir secured Egypt for al-Ma'mun freeing Alexandria from Andalusians and quelling unrest. The Andalusians moved to Crete where al-Tabari records their descendants were still living in his day (see Abo Hafs Omer Al-Baloty). Abdallah returned to Baghdad in 211 (826-827) bringing defeated rebels with him.

Also, in 210 there was an uprising in Qum sparked by complaints about taxes. After it was quashed, the tax assessment was set significantly higher. In 212 there was an uprising in Yemen. In 214 (829-830) Abu al-Razi who had captured one Yemeni rebel was killed by another. Egypt continued to be unquiet. Sind was rebellious. In 216 (831-832) Ghassan ibn Abbad subdued it. An ongoing problem for al-Ma'mun was the uprising headed by Babak Khorramdin. In 214 Babak routed a Caliphate army killing its commander Muhammad ibn Humayd.

There was also struggle against the Byzantines. In 215 (830), al-Ma'mun led a victorious force across the border. He captured several fortresses, sparing the surrendering Byzantines. The next year, learning Byzantines had killed some sixteen hundred people, he returned. This time some thirty forts fell to the Caliphate forces. The following year Byzantium's Theophilus wrote to al-Ma'mun. The caliph replied that he carefully considered the Byzantine ruler's letter, noticed it blended suggestions of peace and trade with threats of war and offered Theophilus the options of acknowledging divine unity, paying tax or fighting. Al-Ma'mun made preparations for a major campaign and died on the way.

Wars with Byzantine Romans Edit

By the time Al-Ma'mun became Caliph, the Arabs and the Byzantines were settled down into border skirmishing, with Arab raids into Anatolia replied in kind by Byzantine raids that "stole" Christian subjects of the Abbasid Caliphate and forcibly settled them into the Anatolian farmlands to increase the population and hence provide more farmers and more soldiers. The situation changed however with the rise to power of Michael II in 820 CE. Forced to deal with the rebel Thomas the Slav, Michael had few troops to spare against a small Andalusian invasion of 40 ships and 10,000 men against Crete, which fell in 824 CE. A Byzantine counter offensive in 826 CE failed miserably. Worse still was the invasion of Sicily in 827 by Arabs of Tunis. Even so, Byzantine resistance in Sicily was fierce and not without success whilst the Arabs became quickly plagued by internal squabbles. That year, the Arabs were expelled from Sicily but they were to return.

In 829, Michael II died and was succeeded by his son Theophilos. Theophilos received a mixed diet of success and defeat against his Arab opponents. In 830 CE the Arabs returned to Sicily and after a year-long siege took Palermo from their Christian opponents and for the next 200 years they were to remain there to complete their conquest, which was never short of Christian counters.The Caliph Al-Ma'mun meanwhile launched an invasion of Anatolia in 830 CE. Al-Ma'mun triumphed and a number of Byzantine forts were taken; he spared the surrendering Byzantines. Theophilos did not relent and in 831 captured Tarsus from the Muslims.The next year, learning Byzantines had killed some sixteen hundred people, Al-Ma'mun returned. This time some thirty forts fell to the Caliphate forces, with two Byzantine defeats in Cappadocia. This would be followed by the destruction of Melitene, Samosata and Zapetra by the vengeful Byzantine troops in 837 CE.

Theophilos wrote to Al-Ma'mun. The Caliph replied that he carefully considered the Byzantine ruler's letter, noticed it blended suggestions of peace and trade with threats of war and offered Theophilos the options of acknowledging divine unity, paying tax or fighting. Al-Ma'mun made preparations for a major campaign and died on the way while leading an expedition in Sardis.

Al-Ma'mun's relations with the Byzantine Romans is marked by his efforts in the translation of Greek philosophy and science. Al-Ma'mun gathered scholars of many religions at Baghdad, whom he treated magnificently and with tolerance. He sent an emissary to the Byzantine Empire to collect the most famous manuscripts there, and had them translated into Arabic. It is said that, victorious over the Byzantine Emperor, Al-Ma'mun made a condition of peace be that the emperor hand over of a copy of the "Almagest".

Al-Ma'mun's Reign Edit

Al-Ma'mun conducted, in the plains of Mesopotamia, two astronomical operations intended to determine the value of a terrestrial degree. The crater Almanon on the Moon is named in recognition of his contributions to astronomy.

Al-Ma'mun's record as an administrator is also marked by his efforts toward the centralization of power and the certainty of succession. The Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, was established during his reign. The ulama emerged as a real force in Islamic politics during al-Ma'mun's reign for opposing the mihna, which was inisiated in 833, only four months before he died.

The 'mihna', is comparable to Medieval European inquisitions only in the sense that it involved imprisonment, a religious test, and a loyalty oath. The casualties of 'Abbasid inquisition would not approach a fraction of those executed in Europe under similar circumstances. This is because the people who were subject to the mihna were traditionalist scholars whose social influence and intellectual quality was uncommonly high. Al-Ma'mun introduced the mihna with the intension to centralize religious power in the caliphal institution and test the loyalty of his subjects. The mihna had to be undergone by elites, scholars, judges and other government officials, and in consisted of a series of questions relating to theology and faith. The central question was about the createdness of the Qur'an, if the interrogatee stated he believed the Qur'an to be created, he was free to leave and continue his profession.

The controversy over the mihna was exacerbated by al-Ma'mun's sympathy for Mu'tazili theology and other controversial views. Mu'tazili theology was deeply influenced by Aristotelian thought and Greek rationalism, and stated that matters of belief and practice should be decided by reasoning. This opposed the traditionalist and literalist position of Ahmad ibn Hanbal and others, according to which everything a believer needed to know about faith and practice was spelled out literally in the Qur'an and the Hadith. Moreover, the Mu'tazilis stated that the Qur'an was created rather than coeternal with God, a belief that was shared by the Jahmites and parts ofShi'a, among others, but contradicted the traditionalist-Sunni opinion that the Qur'an and the Divine were coeternal. The fact that the Mu'tazili school had its foundations in the paganism of Greece further disenchanted a majority of Islamic clerics.


Although al-Mahdi had proclaimed that the caliph was the protector of Islam against heresy, and had also claimed the ability to declare orthodoxy, religious scholars in the Islamic world believed that al-Ma'mun was overstepping his bounds in the mihna. The penalties of the mihna became increasingly difficult to enforce as the ulema became firmer and more united in their opposition. Although the mihna persisted through the reigns of two more caliphs, al-Mutawakkil abandoned it in 848. The failure of the mihna seriously damaged Caliphal authority and ruined the reputation of the office for succeeding caliphs. The caliph would lose much of his religious authority to the opinion of the ulema as a result of the mihna.

The ulema and the major Islamic law schools became truly defined in the period of al-Ma'mun and Sunnism, as a religion of legalism, became defined in parallel. Doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shi'a Islam began to become more pronounced. Ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali legal school, became famous for his opposition to the mihna. Al-Ma'mun's simultaneous opposition and patronage of intellectuals led to the emergence of important dialogues on both secular and religious affairs, and the Bayt al-Hikma became an important center of translation for Greek and other ancient texts into Arabic. This Islamic renaissance spurred the rediscovery of Hellenism and ensured the survival of these texts into the European renaissance.

Al-Ma'mun had been named governor of Khurasan by Harun, and after his ascension to power, the caliph named Tahir as governor for his military services in order to assure his loyalty. It was a move that al-Ma'mun soon regretted, as Tahir and his family became entrenched in Iranian politics and became increasingly powerful in the state, contrary to al-Ma'mun's desire to centralize and strengthen Caliphal power. The rising power of the Tahirid dynasty became a threat as al-Ma'mun's own policies alienated them and his other opponents.

The shakiriya, which were to trigger the movement of the capital from Baghdad to Samarra during al-Mu'tasim's reign, were raised in al-Ma'mun's time. The shakiriya were military units from Central Asia and North Africa, hired, complete with their commanders, to serve under the Caliph.

Al-Ma'mun, in an attempt to win over the Shi'a Muslims to his camp, named the eighth Imam, Ali ar-Rida, his successor, if he should outlive al-Ma'mun. Most Shi'ites realized, however, that ar-Rida was too old to survive him and saw al-Ma'mun's gesture as empty; indeed, ar-Rida died in 818. The incident served to further alienate the Shi'ites from the Abbasids, who had already been promised and denied the Caliphate by al-'Abbas. Later Ma'mun, fearing an uprising, had Ali Ar-Rida poisoned.

Al-Ma'mun also attempted to divorce his wife during his reign, who had not borne him any children. His wife hired a Syrian judge of her own before al-Ma'mun was able to select one himself; the judge, who sympathized with the caliph's wife, refused the divorce. Following al-Ma'mun's experience, no further Abbasid caliphs were to marry, preferring to find their heirs in the harem.

The Abbasid empire grew somewhat during the reign of al-Ma'mun. Hindu rebellions in Sindh were put down, and most of Afghanistan was absorbed with the surrender of the leader of Kabul. Mountainous regions of Iran were brought under a tighter grip of the central Abbasid government, as were areas of Turkestan.

Shortly before his death, during a visit to Egypt in 832, the caliph ordered the breaching of the Great Pyramid of Giza looking for knowledge and treasure. He entered the pyramid by tunneling into the Great Pyramid near where tradition located the original entrance. (At this time the pyramid was covered with a smooth outer layer of casing stones. The Roman historian Strabo visited the pyramid in 24 BC and records that the entrance was hinged and indistinguishable from the surrounding casing stones.) Since the upper passages were blocked from access by a concealed granite plug until Al Mamun's forced entrance, it's probable that no one had been in the upper passages since the time of its construction. Debate regarding the reason for the construction of the Great Pyramid continues since no body was ever found.

Personal Characteristics Edit

Al-Tabari (v. 32, p. 231) describes al-Ma'mun as of average height, light complexion, handsome and having a long beard losing its dark colour as he aged. He relates anecdotes concerning the caliph's ability to speak concisely and eloquently without preparation, his generosity, his respect for Muhammad and religion, his sense of moderation, justice and his love of poetry.

Death Edit

At Tabari (v.32, pp. 224-231) recounts how Al-Ma'mun was sitting on the river bank telling those with him how splendid the water was. He asked what would go best with this water and was told a specific kind of fresh dates. Noticing supplies arriving, he asked someone check whether such dates were included. As they were, he invited those with him to enjoy the water with these dates. All who did this fell ill. Others recovered. But Al-Ma'mun died. As he was dying he spoke, expressing his belief in the unity of God and his reliance on God's mercy. He encouraged his successor to continue his policies and not burden the people with more than they could bear. This was on August 9, 833.

Al-Ma'mun died near Tarsus and the city's major mosque contains a tomb reported to be his. He was succeeded by his half-brother, al-Mu'tasim.

BibliographyEdit

  • Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari History vol. 31 "The War Between Brothers," transl. Michael Fishbein, SUNY, Albany, 1992; vol. 32 "The Reunification of the Abbasid Caliphate," SUNY, Albany, 1987.
  • John Bagot Glubb The Empire of the Arabs, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1963.
  • Peter Tompkins, "Secrets of the Great Pyramid", chapter 2, Harper and Row, 1971.
  • E. de la Vaissière, Samarcande et Samarra. Elites d'Asie centrale dans l'empire Abbasside, Peeters, 2007 [1]
  • Michael Cooperson, Al-Ma’mun, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2005
  • Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic culture: the Graeco-Arabic translation movement in Baghdad and early Abbasid society Routledge, London, 1998
  • Hugh Kennedy, The Early Abbasid Caliphate, a political History, Croom Helm, London, 1981
  • John Nawas, A Reexamination of three current explanations for Al-Ma’mun’s introduction of the Mihna, International Journal of Middle Easten Studies 26, (1994) pp. 615-629
  • John Nawas, John The Mihna of 218 A.H./833 A.D. Revisited: An Empirical Study, Journal of the American Oriental Society 116.4 (1996) pp. 698-708

See also Edit

External links Edit

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