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

Abu Ishaq al-Mu'tasim ibn Harun (أبو إسحاق المعتصم بن هارون , 794 – January 5, 842) was an Abbasid caliph (833 - 842). He succeeded his half-brother al-Ma'mun, who nominated him as heir. The third son of Harun al-Rashid who became caliph, he suppressed revolts in several provinces, captured Ankyra from the Byzantine Empire, recruited a Turkish guard (ghulam) patronized the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and continued to impose a creed on his subjects. Two of sons became caliphs. Al-Mu'tasim is remembered for his generosity although he could also be brutal and even vindictive. One revolt was by his nephew, Al-Abbas, who had been by-passed for the succession. He did not hesitate to execute him and other insurgents. By establishing the Turkish Guard, he weakened the Caliphate; ambitious and loyal only to themselves, guards would later murder four caliphs. Abbasid power declined in the years following Al-Mu'tasim. From 945, the caliph's power became nominal and symbolic.

Nonetheless, Al-Mu'tasim did much to maintain the unity of the ummah, the dignity of the office of caliph and continued his brother's enlightened policy of presiding over a court where cultural exchange took place between thinkers and scholars of different religious affiliation. As was true at his brother's court, the type of fruitful dialogue and intellectual exchange for which Andalusia has rightly attracted attention as an example of harmony, also flourished under his rule. This challenges the contention, argued by some, that Islam and other belief-systems cannot co-exist but that encounter between them inevitable results in confrontation and conflict.

Younger Years

Abu Ishaq was born to a Turkic mother who was a concubine of his father, caliph Harun al-Rashid. Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari records that Abu Ishaq led the pilgrimage in A.H. 200 (815-816) and in 201. Al-Tabari mentions that in 202 Abu Ishaq commanded a force sent against some Kharijite rebels. One of the happenings on this campaign was that one day in combat one of the Turkish military clients ghilman there advanced in between a Kharijite lancer and the future caliph. The Turk shouted, "Recognize me!" (In Persian "Ashinas ma-ra.") To express his appreciation, Abu Ishaq on that same day granted this man the name Ashinas and he became known as Abu Ja'far Ashinas. Abu Ishaq defeated these Kharijites.[1]

In A.H. 214 (829-830) Abu Ishaq subdued Egypt and executed some leading rebels. He returned in 215 to join al-Ma'mun in a campaign against the Byzantines. Abu Ishaq commanded forces that captured 30 Byzantine strongholds.


Al-Tabari records that al-Mu'tasim was hailed caliph on August 9, 833 following his half-brother's death, who nominated him as his successor, bypassing his own son, al-Abbas.[2] He promptly ordered the dismantling of al-Ma'mun's military base at Tyana. He sent Ishaq ibn Ibrahim ibn Mu'sab against a Khurramiyyah revolt centered near Hamadhan. Ishaq soundly defeated the rebels. Their survivors fled to the Byzantines. Al-Abbas, popular among his own troops, took the oath willingly. Although his soldiers hailed him as caliph, he replied, "what is the use of this pointless devotion! I have already given allegiance to my paternal uncle."[2]

In A.H. 219 (834-835) Muhammad ibn al-Qasim led a Shi'a rebellion in Khurasan. Defeated he was brought to the caliph, imprisoned, but escaped and was never heard of again. Ujayf ibn Anbasah defeated the Zutt tribesmen along the lower Tigris in Iraq. The next year he brought them before al-Mu'tasim in an impressive naval parade. The Zutt were sent to the Byzantine frontier where they fell fighting Byzantines.

Uprising in Āzerbāijān

One of the most difficult problems facing this Caliph, as faced his predecessor, was the uprising of Babak Khorramdin of Āzerbāijān. Babak first rebelled in A.H. 201 (816-817) and overcame a number of caliphate forces sent against him. Finally, al-Mu'tasim provided clear instructions to his general al-Afshin Khaydhar ibn Kawus. Following these al-Afshin patiently overcame the rebel, securing a significant victory of this reign. Babak was brought to Samarra in A.H. 223 (837-838). He entered the city spectacularly riding on a splendid elephant. He was executed by his own executioner and his head sent to Khurasan. His brother was executed in Baghdad.

War with the Byzantines

In that same year of Babak's death, the Byzantine emperor Theophilus launched an attack against a number of Abbasid fortresses. Al-Mu'tasim retaliated with a well planned response. Al-Afshin met and defeated Theophilus on July 21, 838. Ankyra fell to the Muslim army of 50,000 men (with 50,000 camels and 20,000 mules) and from there they advanced on the stronghold of Amorium. A captive escaped and informed the caliph that one section of Amorium's wall was only a frontal facade. By concentrating bombardment here, al-Mu'tasim captured the city.

al-Abbas' rebellion

On his return home, he became aware of a serious conspiracy centered on al-Abbas ibn al-Ma'mun. A number of senior military commanders were involved. Al-Abbas was executed, as were, among others, al-Shah ibn Sahl, Amr al-Farghana, Ujayf ibn Anbasah and Akhmad ibn al-Khalil. This situation may help explain the increased reliance of this caliph and his successors upon Turkish commanders.

The Turkish Guard

The ghilman (sing. ghulam) were introduced to the Caliphate during al-Mu'tasim's reign. He recruited 4,000. The ghilman were slave-soldiers taken as prisoners of war from conquered regions, in anticipation of the Mamluk system, and made into caliphal guard. The ghilman, personally responsible only to the Caliph, were to revolt several times during the 860s, killed four caliphs, and be replaced by the Mamluk system, based on captured Turkish children, trained and molded within the Islamic lands.

The ghilman, along with the shakiriya which had been introduced in the reign of al-Ma'mun, had irritated the Arab regular soldiers of the Caliph's army. The Turkic and Armenian ghilman agitated the citizens of Baghdad, provoking riots in 836. The capital was moved to the new city of Samarra later that year, where it would remain until 892 when it was returned to Baghdad by al-Mu'tamid. The move was to facilitate giving land grants to the soldiers in return for their service without the need to dispossess existing tenants or owners.

The Tahirid dynasty, which had come to prominence during al-Ma'mun's reign after the military province of Khurasan was granted to Tahir bin Husain, continued to grow in power. They also received the governorships of Samarqand, Farghana, and Herat. Unlike most provinces in the Abbasid Caliphate, which were closely governed by Baghdad and Samarra, the provinces under the control of the Tahirids were exempted from many tributes and oversight functions. The independence of the Tahirids contributed greatly to the decline of Abbasid supremacy in the east.

In A.H. 224 (838-839) Mazyar ibn Qarin who detested the Tahirids rebelled against them. Previously, he had insisted on paying the taxes of his Caspian region directly to al-Mu'tasim's agent instead of to Abdallah ibn Tahir's. Al-Afshin, desiring to replace Abdallah as Khurasan's governor, intrigued with Mazyar. Mazyar imprisoned people from Sariya, demolished Amul's walls and fortified Tamis, causing apprehension in Jurjan.

Abdallah and al-Mu'tasim dispatched forces to quell this uprising. Abdallah's commander Hayyan ibn Jabalah convinced Mazyar's Qarin ibn Shahriyar to betray Mazyar. Qarin sent Hayyan Mazyar's brother and other commanders Qarin had taken by surprise. The people of Sariyah rose against Mazyar. Hayyan arrived there and then advanced into the Wandahurmuz mountains where he seized some of Mazyar's stored wealth—Al-Quhyar ibn Qarin betrayed Mazyar. He was brought, along with his correspondence, some implicating al-Afshin, to al-Mu'tasim. Mazyar's commander al-Durri was defeated, captured and executed.

Al-Hasan ibn al-Afshin had a splendid wedding celebration with al-Mu'tasim personally providing for the guests. Al-Afshin's kinsman Minkajur rebelled in Adharbayjan. He was quickly defeated, and Al-Afshin fell under suspicion. When Mazyar entered Samarra on a mule, al-Afshin was arrested and was intently interrogated. Mazyar supplied the testimony against him. He faced further charges of diverting wealth from the Babak campaign to al-Afshin's realm of Ushrusanah, of having idolatrous books, etc., of being addressed in Persian by his correspondents as "Lord of Lords," etc. Although al-Afshin tried to explain such things, al-Mu'tasim had him imprisoned in a special prison built for him. Here he was killed in May or June of 841.

The Khurramiyyah were never fully suppressed, although they slowly vanished during the reigns of succeeding Caliphs.

Near the end of al-Mu'tasim's life there was an uprising in Palestine. Al-Mu'tasim sent Raja ibn Ayyub al-Hidari to restore order. Al-Hidari defeated the rebels and captured their leader Abu Harb al-Mubarqa.

Patron of Learning

Al-Mu'tasim patronized the House of Wisdom founded by his brother. The great Arab mathematician al-Kindi was employed by al-Mu'tasim, and tutored the Caliph's son, al-Kindi. He continued his studies in Greek geometry and algebra under the caliph's patronage.

Ideologically, al-Mu'tasim also followed the footstep of his al-Ma'mun and, like his predecessor demanded support for his Mu'tazili beliefs, applying military methods for torturing the famous jurist and Imam, Ahmad ibn Hanbal. After refusing to sign the creed following extended questioning by the caliph, he was "scourged and cast scarred and senseless into prison."[3] Yet, sources suggest that Al-Mu'tasim "wanted collaboration, not confrontation with the scholars." He would have preferred to have Ibn Hanbal "by his side."[4]

Christians and Jews continued to work as translators, tutors and in other capacities in what was an open and tolerant intellectual climate.


Al-Tabari states that al-Mu'tasim fell ill on October 21, 841. His regular doctor had died the previous year and the new physician did not follow the normal treatment, and this was the cause of the caliph's illness. Al-Mu'tasim passed away on January 5, 842. This caliph is described by al-Tabari as having a relatively easy going nature, an agreeable manner an "open."[5] William Muirdescribes his "disposition" as "arbitrary" but kind and comments on his "kindness".[6] He was succeeded by his son, al-Wathiq. His short-lived reign ended in 847, when his brother Al-Mutawakkil succeeded him.


Al-Mu'tasim is mainly remembered for his patronage of the House of Wisdom, for continuing what is sometimes called the inquisition and for recruiting his Turkish guard. This may have heralded the decline of Abbasid power, since several future caliphs would be murdered by members of this guard. Nigosian suggests that al-Mu'tasim "may have been the unwitting architect of his dynasty's dissolution" despite his "military and political acumen."[7]

Al-Mu'tasim in Literature

The name al-Mu'tasim is also used for a fictional character in the story The Approach to al-Mu'tasim by Argentina author Jorge Luis Borges, which appears in his anthology Ficciones. The al-Mu'tasim referenced there is probably not the Abbasid Caliph of the name, though Borges does state regarding the original, non-fictional al-Mu'tasim from whom the name is taken: "The name is the same as that of the eighth Abbasside, who was victor in eight battles, engendered eight male and eight female children, left behind eight thousand slaves and reigned during eight years, eight moons, and eight days."[8]

Born: 794; Died: 842
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by:
Caliph of Islam
833 – 842
Succeeded by: Al-Wathiq


  1. Tabari and Bosworth 1987, 68.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Tabari and Bosworth 1991, 1.
  3. Muir 1924, 512.
  4. Zaman 1997, 113.
  5. Tabari and Boswortj 1991, 210.
  6. Muir 1924, 518.
  7. Nigosian 2004, 29.
  8. Borges and Kerrigan 1963, 42.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Borges, Jorge Luis, and Anthony Kerrigan. 1963. Ficciones. New York, NY: Grove Press. ISBN 9780394172446.
  • Fakhry, Majid. 2004. A History of Islamic Philosophy. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231132206.
  • Kennedy, Hugh. 1986. The Early Abbasid Caliphate: A Political History. London, UK: Croom Helm. ISBN 9780709931157.
  • Muir, William. 1924. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall: From Orig. Sources. Edinburgh, UK: Grant. Retrieved February 25, 2009.
  • Nigosian, S.A. 2004. Islam: Its History, Teaching, and Practices. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253343154.
  • Ṭabarī, and Clifford Edmund Bosworth. 1987. The Reunification of the ʻAbbāsid Caliphate. SUNY series in Near Eastern studies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780887060588.
  • Ṭabarī, and Clifford Edmund Bosworth. 1991. Storm and Stress Along the Northern Frontiers of the ʻAbbāsid Caliphate. SUNY series in Near Eastern studies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780791404935.
  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. 1997. Religion and Politics Under the Early ʻAbbāsids: The Emergence of the Proto-Sunnī Elite. Islamic history and civilization, v. 16. Leiden, NL: Brill. ISBN 9789004106789.


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