From New World Encyclopedia

Al-Wathiq ibn Mutasim (Arabic الواثق) (died 847) was the ninth Abbasid caliph who reigned from 842 until 847 C.E. (227-232 AH in the Islamic calendar). Al-Wathiq faced various rebellions but continued to preside over a court where scholarship and intellectual life flourished. People of various faiths took part in exchange and engaged in collaborative pursuits. Al-Wathiq continued the inquisition imposed by his two predecessors demanding conformity to his preferred version of Sunni Islam. When he died, he was succeeded by his brother.

Al-Wathiq is remembered for his generosity and for his patronage of culture, although he is said to have left a weakened caliphate that within a century would be effectively stripped of temporal authority. Yet his own emphasis on the pious role of the caliph may have contributed to its survival. Even when 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.


He succeeded his father, Al-Mu'tasim, being hailed caliph on the day his father died, December 26, 841.[1] All three predecessors were uncles, sons of Harun al-Rashid so he was the first grandson of Harun to become commander-of-the-faithful. Al-Wathiq was the son of the Byzantine concubine Qaratis. She accompanied al-Wathiq's brother Jafar ibn al-Mu'tasim (the future caliph al-Mutawakkil) on the pilgrimage in A.H. 227. However, she died on the way on August 16, 842. She was buried in Kufa.[2]

In A.H. 229 (843-844) al-Wathiq, remembering Harun al-Rashid's handling of the powerful Barmakids, arrested some of his prominent officials. These were tortured to encourage them to surrender funds they allegedly misappropriated.[3] His grandfather had seized "vast sums" from the Barmakids estates, accusing them of fraud. They were a wealthy family from Khorasan who had supported the Abbasid coup against the Umayyads.

In A.H. 230 (844-845) al-Wathiq sent one of his Turkish generals, Bugha al-Kabir (the Elder), to handle lawlessness in Arabia. A rebel tribe had defeated and killed the forces of Hammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari. Bugha al-Kabir promptly brought order there arresting a good number of miscreants. The next year, when Bugha was quelling disturbances elsewhere in Arabia, these prisoners attempted to escape. They were prevented and killed.

In A.H. 231 al-Wathiq secured an exchange of captives with the Byzantines. Al-Tabari records that 4,362 Muslims were reported freed in this exchange.[4] This was the first time there was such a prisoner exchange since A.H. 194 (809-810) or 195 (810-811) in al-Amin's reign.

That same year there was a planned rebellion in Baghdad centered on Ahmad ibn Nasr ibn Malik. Ibn Malik belonged to a family that had long supported the Abbasids but he dissented from the Mu'tazili doctrines that Al-Wathiq, as had the two previous caliphs, enforced. William Muir describes Malik as "a Muslim saint."[5]The uprising was scheduled for the night of April 4, 846. However, those who were supposed to sound the signal to rise did so a day early. There was no response. Authorities intervened. Ahmad ibn Nasr was arrested and brought before al-Wathiq. The caliph interrogated him, though more on approved religious belief than on scheming rebellion. Al-Wathiq, using a famous sword called Samsama, personally joined in the execution.[6]

The same year there was a break in at the palace treasury in Samarra, where the capital had been relocated under al-Mutasim. Thieves made off with 42,000 dirhams and a small amount of dinars. Security chief Yazid al-Huwani was tireless in his pursuit of them. They were caught.

In A.H. 232 (846-847) al-Wathiq sent Bugha al-Kabir to stop the lawlessness of the Banu Numayr. In al-Yamamah on February 4, 847 he fought a major engagement against them. At first he was hard pressed. Then some troops he had out raiding returned, fell upon the forces attacking Bugha and completely routed them.

During his reign, a number of revolts broke out, the largest ones in Syria and Palestine. These revolts were the result of an increasingly large gap between Arab populations and the Turkish armies that had been formed by Wathiq's father, al-Mutasim. The revolts were put down, but antagonism between the two groups continued to widen, with the Turkish forces gaining power.

Patron of Learning

Al-Wathiq showed an interest in learning similar to that of his father; he was a great patron of scholars, as well as artists. He was renowned for his [[music|musical[[ talents, and is reputed to have composed over 100 songs. Christians, especially Nestorians and Jews continued to thrive in the open and collaborative intellectual climate, and to be employed in the administration.

Death, Personality, Influence

Al-Wathiq died on August 10, 847 of high fever. He was succeeded by his brother, al-Mutawakkil. He died, though, without having designated a successor. El-Hibri suggests that this contributed to the "discord" that "set in" during his successors reign, which marked the beginning of the end of Abbasid power.[7] The tolerant policy towards Jews and Christians would also be discontinued under al-Mutawakkil.

Al-Tabari records that al-Wathiq was of medium height, handsome and well-built. He was fair with a ruddy complexion. His left eye was paralyzed.[8] Muir describes his brief reign as tyrannical but adds that he was also generous with his "generosity and benefactions, enjoyed especially by the poor of Mecca and Medina."[9]


A heavily fictionalized version of Al-Wathiq appears in William Thomas Beckford's classic nineteenth-century gothic fantasy novel Vathek.

The celebrated poet Ali ibn al-Jahm wrote of him:

Both the worldly and the pious/ Thrive during the regime of al-Wathiq Harun.
He abounds with justice and generosity,/ Sustaining this world along with religion.
Goodness prevails through his kindness,/ And people are at comfort and ease.
How many wish him a long life/ And how many intone "Amen."[10]

Such a positive evaluation smacks of panegyric given that he is generally credited with leaving the caliphate weaker than it was when he inherited it from his father. By 945, real power would be in the hands of the Shi'a Buyid dynasty, who accepted the titular authority of the caliph but exercised political power. On the other hand, despite loss of political power, the Abbasid caliphs would continue for many more centuries to function as symbols of Muslim unity, a unity that was effectively maintained despite political fragmentation, since most rulers still recognized the theoretical supremacy of the caliph.

By stressing the pious role of the caliph rather than the temporal, Al-Wathiq may have contributed to its survival. In practice, even when governed by autonomous Sultans, the Muslim world maintained a strong sense of unity, while the life experience of Muslims was similar regardless of where they lived. The law 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 some degree, it sometimes succeeded.

Born: unknown; Died: 847
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by:
Caliph of Islam
842 – 847
Succeeded by: Al-Mutawakkil


  1. Tabari and Kraemer 1989, 3.
  2. Tabari and Kraemer 1989, 4.
  3. Tabari and Kraemer 1989, 12.
  4. Tabari and Kraemer 1989, 22.
  5. Muir 1924, 520.
  6. Muir 1924, 521.
  7. El-Hibri 1999, 179.
  8. Tabari and Kraemer 1989, 52.
  9. Muir 1924, 847.
  10. Tabari and Kraemer 1989, 55.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beckford, William, and Roger H. Lonsdale. 1970. Vathek. London, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192553379.
  • El-Hibri, Tayeb. 1999. Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Hārūn al-Rashīd and the Narrative of the ʻAbbasid Caliphate. Cambridge studies in Islamic civilization. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521650236.
  • Muir, William. 1924. The Caliphate: its rise, decline and fall: from orig. sources. Edinburgh, UK: Grant. Retrieved February 25, 2009.
  • Tabarī, 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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