Al-Muntasir

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Al-Muntasir (died 862) was the tenth Abbasid caliph in Baghdad from 861 to 862. His pious title means He that Triumphs in the Lord. In 849, he had been appointed supreme-governor of Egypt by his father, although there is no record that he visited there in this capacity. By 661, he appeared to have lost favor and feared that his father would move against him. In response, he incited the already unhappy Turkish Guard to assassinate him. They pronounced him caliph, and persuaded him to nominate his son, not a brother, as heir. By June 8, 862 he was dead from unknown causes. He did not live long enough to make a mark on the caliphate, already in decline. The manner by which he succeeded did nothing to stabilize the way in which caliphs were chosen.

When, after his death, the Turkish Guard nominated his successor, many Arab Muslims complained that they had lost control of the highest office the Muslim world offered. Within less than a century of Al-Muntasir's brief caliphate, the caliph would become a figurehead, with real political power exercised by others. Yet the caliphate, in one form or another, would survive until the beginning of the twentieth century. It was too symbolic of Muslim unity to become redundant; the caliphs found a way to survive, and to fulfill a useful function, by representing the oneness of the ummah, validating the rule of Sultans who still acknowledged their theoretical supremacy. At its best, the caliphate was an attempt to create a single, God-fearing community of all mankind. To a degree, it sometimes succeeded. Al-Muntasir probably did not contribute at all to this success but nor did he undermine the office so seriously that it came to an end, at least not for a very long time.

Contents

Life

Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari records that in A.H. 236 (850-851) al-Muntasir led the pilgrimage. The previous year al-Mutawakkil had named his three son's heirs and seemed to favor al-Muntasir.[1]

In 849, Al-Mutawakkil appointed Al-Muntasir supreme governor of Egypt, although there is no evidence that he ever when there in this capacity.[2] Later, Al-Mutawakkil apparently started to favor his younger son and al-Muntasir feared his father was going to move against him. Al-Mutawakkil was renowned for wild drinking sessions, when he would handle his son roughly. This may have been a way of expressing affection but Al-Muntasir was not so sure. One account certainly sounds like abuse:

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the caliph had Al-Muntasir cuffed in front of boon companions, and then mocked him, saying "I named you Al-Muntasir (the Victorious) but because of your folly ... the people named you al-Muntazir (the Expectant.) Now you have become al-Must'ajil (The Impatient).[3]

His "impatience" refers to his alleged ambition to replace his father as caliph.

Earlier, his father had imprisoned Itakh, the governor of Egypt whom Al-Muntasir, for falling against him when drunk. He subsequently died from first. So, it seems he struck first. Al-Mutawakkil was killed by a Turkish soldier on December 11, 861 according to William Muir with al-Muntasir encouragement.[4]

Al-Muntasir succeeded smoothly to the throne of the Caliphate on that same day, with the support of the Turkish faction. The slain caliph had alienated the Turkish guards by removing some from their posts and by giving their land to his newest favorites. The Turkish party then prevailed on al-Muntasir to remove his brothers from the succession, fearing revenge for the murder of their father. In their place, he was to appoint his son as heir-apparent. On April 27, 862 both brothers, though al-Mu'tazz did so after some hesitation, wrote a statement of abdication.[5] al-Mu'tazz was subsequently imprisoned.

Al-Muntasir was praised because, unlike his father, he loved the house of ˤAlī (Shīˤa) and removed the ban on pilgrimage to the tombs of Hassan and Hussayn. This was closer to the tolerant policy practiced by Al-Ma'mun. He sent Wasif, the senior serving Turkish commander (who had feared that Al-Mutawakkil was about to dismiss him) to raid the Byzantines.

Death

Al-Muntasir's reign lasted less than half a year; it ended with his death of unknown causes on June 7 or 8, 862. There are various accounts of the illness that carried him off, including that he was bled with a poisoned lancet. Al-Tabari states that al-Muntasir is the first Abbasid whose tomb is known, that it was made public by his mother, a Greek slave-girl and that earlier caliphs desired their tombs to be kept secret for fear of desecration. Joel L. Kraemer in his translation of al-Tabari notes:

"'Ayni comments, citing al-Sibt (b. al-Jawzi), that Tabari's statement here is surprising since the tombs of the Abbasid caliphs are in fact known, e.g., the tomb of al-Saffah is in Anbar beneath the minbar; and those of al-Mahdi in Masabadhan, Harun in Tus, al-Ma'mun in Tarsis, and al-Mu'tasim, al-Wathiq and al-Mu'tawakkil in Samarra."[6]

Muir comments that Al-Muntasir "is first of the 'Abbasids whose tomb is known; it was made by his mother, a Greek slave-girl" adding that "The earlier Caliphs desired their tombs to be kept secret, for fear of desecration."[7]

Following Al-Muntasir death, the Turkish Guard took it upon themselves to select a successor, choosing Al-Musta'in a grandson of Al-Mu'tasim. This immediately signaled to the Arab world that they had lost control of the caliphate, which was now chosen by Turks and rioting broke out in Samarra, Baghdad and elsewhere. In fact, the Turkish Guard did not allow the caliph any real power, taking this into their own hands. He ended up trying to rebel against them, which resulted in his own abdication. From 945, the Buyid Emirs exercised real power while the caliph took on increased religious and spiritual significance as God's "shadow on earth." Following the ascendancy of the Buyids, the Seljuk Sultans took over political power in 1055. After the Mongol conquest in 1258, a surviving Abbasid fled to Egypt, where he and his heirs were protected by the Sultans of Egypt until they fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1517, and the last Abbasid caliph, Al-Mutawakkil III was taken to Istanbul where he surrendered the caliphate to Selim II, the Ottoman Emperor. Once again, Turks controlled Islam's highest office.

Legacy

Al-Muntasir did not live long enough to leave much of a mark. He was, for a short while, one of the most powerful men in the world at the time. However, the caliphate was becoming weak largely due to uncertainty of succession. The issue of how to select a caliph was one that had caused discussion, dissent and debate from the beginning of the office. Each of the four rightly guided, or Patriarchal caliphs, had become caliph in a different way. Following the usurpation of the office by Muawiyah, the Shi'a split off recognizing only male descendants of Muhammad as the legitimate leader. Both the Umayyads and the Abbasids kept the caliphate within their family but succession was far from automatic. Even when one caliph nominated a successor, this did not prevent argument and rivalry or civil war.

Within less than a century of Al-Muntasir's brief caliphate, the caliph would become a figurehead, with real political power exercised by others. Yet the caliphate, in one form or another, would survive until the beginning of the twentieth century. It was too symbolic of Muslim unity to become redundant; the caliphs found a way to survive, and to fulfill a useful function, by representing the oneness of the ummah, validating the rule of Sultans who still acknowledged their theoretical supremacy, just as Christian kings in Europe looked to the Papacy to validate their rule.

Even when, after 945, the caliphate became a titular, symbolic office, the Muslim world maintained a strong sense of unity, while the life experience of Muslims was similar regardless of where they lived. The legal system was more or less the same throughout the territory of which the caliph was, if only nominally, the head. At its best, the caliphate was an attempt to create a single, God-fearing community of all mankind. To a degree, it sometimes succeeded. Al-Muntasir probably did not contribute anything to this success due to the shortness of his reign but nor did he undermine the office so seriously that it came to an end, at least not for a very long time.


Abbasid
Born:  ?; Died: 862
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by:
Al-Mutawakkil
Caliph of Islam
861 – 862
Succeeded by:
Al-Musta'in

Notes

  1. Tabari and Kraemer.1989, 111.
  2. Petry and Daly 1998, 82.
  3. Lassner 2000, 253.
  4. Muir 1924, 529.
  5. Muir 1924, 531.
  6. Tabari and Kraemer 1989, 223.
  7. Muir 1924, 531 N1.

References

  • Lassner, Jacob. 2000. The Middle East Remembered: Forged Identities, Competing Narratives, Contested Spaces. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 9780472110834.
  • Muir, William. 1924. The Caliphate: its rise, decline and fall: from orig. sources. Edinburgh, UK: Grant. Retrieved February 24, 2009.
  • Petry, Carl F., and M.W. Daly. 1998. The Cambridge History of Egypt. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521471374.
  • Ṭabarī, and Joel L. Kraemer. 1989. Incipient Decline. SUNY series in Near Eastern studies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780887068744.

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