From New World Encyclopedia
Genealogic tree of the Abbasid family (Caliphs of Baghdad and Cairo).

Muhammad ibn Mansur al-Mahdi (Arabic: محمد بن منصورالمهدى ) (ruled 775–785), was the third Abbasid Caliph. He succeeded his father, al-Mansur and reigned for ten years. Al-Mahdi, whose name means "Rightly-guided" or "Redeemer," was proclaimed caliph when his father was on his deathbed. His peaceful reign continued the policies of his predecessors, including rapprochement with the Shi'a Muslims in the Caliphate and Islamization of the administration. The powerful Barmakid family, which had advised the Caliphs since the days of al-'Abbas as viziers, gained even greater powers under al-Mahdi's rule, and worked closely with the caliph to ensure the prosperity of the Abbasid state. Reaching out to Shi'a, he appointed them to senior posts.

The cosmopolitan city of Baghdad, founded by his father, blossomed during al-Mahdi's reign. The city attracted immigrants from all of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Persia, and lands as far away as India and Spain. Baghdad was home to Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Zoroastrians, in addition to the growing Muslim population. It became the world's largest city outside China. He also engaged in dialogue with the leader of the Nestorian Church, an early episode in Christian-Muslim relations. His reign is remembered as a period of prosperity, scholarly excellence and religious freedom although he did persecute the Manichaeans.


The name Muhammad ibn Mansur al-Mahdi was deliberately chosen because of the popular hadith that:

Even if there remains for the world but one single day, God will extend it until He sends a man from the people of My House … whose name will be the same as mine, and the name of his father will be that of my father. He will fill the earth with equity and justice, just as it is now filled with tyranny and oppression.[1]

He was the son of the 2nd Abbasid caliph Al Mansur (754-775) and Sallama, a Berber slave.[2] He succeeded his father in 775, when he died while on his way to Mecca for the hajj. Al-Mansur's brother had founded the dynasty but it was Al-Mansur who consolidated the new regime's authority.


Al-Mahdi continued to expand the Abbasid administration, creating new diwans, or departments, for the army, the chancery, and taxation. Qadis or judges were appointed, and laws against non-Arabs put into place by the Umayyads were dropped. Shariah began to develop, neglected under the Umayyads as part of an Islamization process. The Abbasids had swept the Umayyads from power promising to restore Islam to the center of the what, effectively, was an imperial polity. The Umayyads had privileged Arabs over non-Arabs.

The Barmakid family staffed these new departments. The Barmakids, of Persian extraction, had originally been Buddhists, but shortly before the arrival of the Arabs, they had converted to Zoroastrianism. Their short-lived Islamic legacy would count against them during the reign of al-Mahdi's son Haroun al-Rashid, who removed them from office, and had them killed. According to Matthew Gordon, they had Shia sympathies.[3]

The introduction of paper from China in 751, which had not yet been used in the West – the Arabs and Persians used papyrus, and the Europeans used vellum – had a profound effect. The paper industry boomed in Baghdad where an entire street in the city center became devoted to sales of paper and books. The cheapness and durability of paper was vital to the efficient growth of the expanding Abbasid bureaucracy. Shariah began to develop, neglected under the Ummayads.

Al-Mahdi had two important religious policies: the persecution of the zanadiqa (atheists), and the declaration of orthodoxy. The zanadiqa ridiculed the Qur'an, but admired Muhammad as a human law-maker.[4] The zanadiqa were almost certainly followers of Mani, or Manichaeans.[5] Al-Mahdi singled out the persecution of the zanadiqa in order to improve his standing among the Shi'i, whom he also presented with gifts and appointed to posts, including the Viziership as well as releasing political prisoners. His was able to use the considerable financial legacy left by his father.[6] Related to the family of the Prophet but from an uncle, not as descendants the Abbasids nonetheless represented themselves as his heirs, pointing out the Shi'a Imams claimed descent through a woman, Fatimah while their familial link was through a man. Al-Mahdi took custody of two members of the Alide line, Ahmad and Zayd and Zayd and supervised their upbringing.[7] Al-Mahdi declared that the caliph had the ability – and indeed, the responsibility – to define the orthodox theology of Muslims, in order to protect the umma against [[heresy[[. Although al-Mahdi did not make great use of this broad, new power, it would become important during the 'mihna' (inquisition) of al-Ma'mun's reign.

Scholarship flourished, including the translation of Greek philosophical works into Arabic. Al-Mahdi "enlarged and beautified the Mosques of the Holy Cities, and of the capital towns elsewhere."[8]

Al-Mahdi also began the practice of withdrawing into isolation, to emphasize the sanctity of the office of caliph. He therefore depended heavily on his Vizier.[9] Ultimately, this led to a weakening of the temporal power of the caliphate, although it may have enhanced the caliph's spiritual status. Drawing on Persian notions of the king as God's "shadow on earth", they began to sit behind a curtain when receiving visitors; this emphasized their status as Khalifat Allah (they dropped the "rasul Allah" (deputy of the prophet of God" from their title.)


Al-Mahdi continued the war with the Byzantine Empire throughout his reign, extending the caliphate as far as Ankara. His son Harun pushed as far North as the Bosphorus. In 775-778 he had to deal with a revolt in Korasan.

Dialogue with Catholicos Timothy II

In 781, a two-day dialogue took place between al-Mahdi and the Catholicos of the Church of the East (Nestorians), Mar Timothy II. Throughout, the Caliph treats the Patriarch with respect, and is addressed as "victorious King." The dialogue finishes, "our victorious King rose up and entered his audience chamber, and I left him and returned in peace to my patriarchal residence."[10]

The Caliph shows sophisticated knowledge of Christian theology as well as of Muslim thought and belief.

At this time, the caliphate's Muslim population was still as little as 15 percent of the total; the dialogue suggests that "Islam was not forced upon the people living in the Caliphate" but that "Converts converted with their own will and initiative."[11] Al-Mahdi used a single tax for the people of the books and for Muslims, not a differentiated tax.

Wife and Daughter

Banuqa (c767 - c783) was a Muslim Abbasid princess, the daughter of Al-Mahdi, Caliph of Baghdad, and his wife Al-Khaizuran, and sister to Harun Al-Rashid. Al-Mahdi did not like to be separated from his daughter, so he used to dress her as a boy so that she could accompany him when he traveled. he was "inconsolable" when she died.[12] Banuqa had her own palace in the grounds of the royal palace in Baghdad. Beautiful and elegant, she was her father's favorite daughter. The caliph allowed her to ride in his own retinue, disguised in male attire and carrying a sword. She died tragically young, and contemporary poets produced many elegiac works to honor her memory. Al-Khaizuran was a former slave. She "became a powerful political figure" especially after her husband's death.[13] Mernissi says that she persuaded Al-Mahdi to name both of her sons as his heirs.[14]


In the words of Ibn_Khallikan (1211-1282):

This prince had great talent as a singer and an able hand on musical instruments; he was also an agreeable companion at parties of pleasure. Being of dark complexion, which he inherited from his mother, Shikla- who was a Negro-he received the name "At-Thinnin" (the Dragon).[15]


Al-Masudi relates some anecdotes in his Meadows of Gold that illumine a little the character of this caliph. There is the story of al-Mahdi out hunting stopping to take a simple meal from a peasant. With him on this occasion was one companion who felt the peasant should be punished for serving such food. Al-Mahdi rewarded the peasant.[16]

Another tale has the caliph dining with a Bedouin unaware of the identity of his guest. After tasty food the Bedouin offers al-Mahdi liquid refreshment. Progressively al-Mahdi tells the Bedouin that his guest is one of the caliph's eunuchs, one of the caliph's generals and then the caliph himself. The Bedouin says: "No more for you. Next you'll be claiming you're the Messenger of God."

Al-Mahdi alarmed his treasurer by charitably spending the vast amount that al-Mansur had left him. However, the caliph was unconcerned and, indeed, incoming revenue soon arrived, enabling his bounty to continue. His generosity was compared to the waves of the sea.

Just before his death, al-Mahdi is supposed to have had a supernatural visitation who recited to the caliph ominous verses. Muir describes him as "by nature mild and generous."[17] He is said to have enjoyed wine and music.


Al-Mahdi's caliphate is remembered as a prelude to the Golden Age of the Abbasid Caliphate. It was a prosperous period marked by internal stability and peace although territorial expansion continued. On the one hand, al-Mahdi dealt severely with what he saw as heresy. On the other hand, he tried to build bridges with Shi'a Muslims and was tolerant and even magnanimous in his dealings with the "people of the book".

He was succeeded by his first son, al_Hadi who died a year later then by his second son, Harun al-Rashid, immortalized in the Arabian Nights. Harun continued to patronize scholarship and entered diplomatic relations with Charlemagne. Al-Mahdi had taken the unusual step of requiring recognition of both sons as heirs before his death. Technically, the caliphate was never hereditary, since the succession had to be recognized by the taking of an oath, even though it remained within the same lineage after the establishment of the first dynastic caliphate in 661 C.E.

Preceded by:
Succeeded by:


  1. Malise Ruthven. 2006. Islam in the world. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195305036.), 189.
  2. Fatima Mernissi and Mary Jo Lakeland. 1993. The forgotten queens of Islam. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816624393), 57.
  3. Matthew Gordon. 2005. The Rise of Islam. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313325229), 108.
  4. Anouar Majid. 2007. A call for heresy: why dissent is vital to Islam and America. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816651283), 207.
  5. William Muir. (1924) 2004. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall. (Edinburgh, UK: John Grant; New Delhi: Cosmo. ISBN 9788130700090), 460.
  6. W. B. Fisher et al. 1968. (The Cambridge History of Iran. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521069359), 57.
  7. Clifford Edmund Bosworth. 1980. The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., supplement. (Leiden, NL: Brill. ISBN 9789004061675), 48.
  8. Muir, 467.
  9. Fisher et al., 1968, 67.
  10. Alphonse Mingana. (1928). 2007. Apology of timothy the patriarch before the caliph mahdi. (Cambridge, UK: H. Heffer & Sons; Piscataway: Gorgias Press. ISBN 9781593338275), 90.
  11. Ahmed Abdelhafid. 2008. The Islamic Golden Age and the Abbasids. Europe Muslims.
  12. Mernissi and Lakeland, 1993, 58
  13. Kirstin Olsen. 1994. Chronology of women's history. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313288036), 33.
  14. Mernissi and Lakeland, 1993, 57.
  15. J.A. Rogers, 1996. World's great men of color, Vol. 1. (New York, NY: Touchstone. ISBN 9780684815817), 148.
  16. Al-Masudi, Paul Lunde, and Caroline Stone. 1989. The Meadows of Gold. (London, UK: Kegan Paul International. ISBN 9780710302465), 34f.
  17. Muir, 467.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Abdelhafid, Ahmed. 2008. The Islamic Golden Age and the Abbasids. Europe Muslims. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  • Al-Masudī, Paul Lunde, and Caroline Stone. 1989. The Meadows of Gold. London, UK: Kegan Paul International. ISBN 9780710302465.
  • Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. 1980. The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., supplement. Leiden, NL: Brill. ISBN 9789004061675.
  • Fisher, W.B., Ilya Gershevitch, Ehsan Yarshater, R.N. Frye, J.A. Boyle, Peter Jackson, Laurence Lockhart, Peter Avery, Gavin Hambly, and Charles Melville. 1968. The Cambridge History of Iran. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521069359.
  • Gordon, Matthew. 2005. The rise of Islam. (Greenwood guides to historic events of the medieval world.) Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313325229.
  • Kennedy, Hugh. 2005. When Baghdad ruled the Muslim world: the rise and fall of Islam's greatest dynasty. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. ISBN 9780306814358.
  • Mernissi, Fatima, and Mary Jo Lakeland. 1993. The forgotten queens of Islam. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816624393.
  • Mingana, Alphonse. (1928). 2007. Apology of timothy the patriarch before the caliph mahdi. Cambridge, UK: H. Heffer & Sons; Piscataway: Gorgias Press. ISBN 9781593338275.
  • Muir, William. 1924. (2004). The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall. Edinburgh, UK: John Grant; New Delhi: Cosmo. ISBN 9788130700090.
  • Olsen, Kirstin. 1994. Chronology of women's history. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313288036.
  • Rogers, J.A. 1996. World's great men of color, Vol. 1. New York, NY: Touchstone. ISBN 9780684815817.
  • Ruthven, Malise. 2006. Islam in the world. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195305036.


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