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Al-Muhtadi (Arabic: المهتدي) (d. June, 870) was the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad from 869 to 870. His reign lasted for eleven months. Al-Muhtadi was both elevated to the caliphate and later killed by the powerful Turkish Guard, who had appointed the last three caliphs. Although murdered before he could succeed in reversing the decline in caliphal power, he did introduce some reforms. He improved the morals of his court, restored openness and integrity to the administration of justice, and tried to weaken the power of the Turks, whose hold on the caliphate was alienating other, especially Arab, Muslims.

His short lived career represents a reprieve in the story of greed and rivalry, plot and counter-plot that swirled around the office of caliph during this period. The tradition that he would only accept the caliphate if offered him by his predecessor, with the words that could no longer meet the demands of the post, witnesses his sincerity. Remembered for his piety - a word not readily associated with most of his immediate predecessors - he may have contributed to enabling the caliphate's survival. Although the caliphate would lose even more power, becoming from 945 a titular, symbolic office, it continued to fulfill a valuable function within the Muslim world. Muslim rulers would still look to the caliph to legitimize their rule; he represented the unity of the ummah.


Since the assassination of Al-Mutawakkil in 681, the Turkish Guard had chosen and controlled the caliph, although this was retained within the Abbasid line. After Al-Mutawakkil, his son, Al-Muntasir was made caliph but died in less than a year. Instead of choosing his brother, Al-Mu'tazz whom they had imprisoned, the guards chose Al-Musta'in, grandson of al-Mu'tasim as caliph, expecting that he would be more malleable. His short reign was marked by unrest, revolt, plot and counter plot as the Turkish Guard and Arab Muslims clashed over whose right it was to choose and control the caliphate. Forced to flee from the capital in 865 he had abdicated by 866 ,in favor of his younger brother, al-Mu'tazz, who, before the end of the year ordered his execution. Many Muslims remained furious that Turks were controlling the caliphate, and revolts continued. The target of these revolt was less Al-Mu'tazz himself than the Turks who manipulated him but the result was anarchy, the secession of Egypt under a Turkish commander and bankruptcy at the center. The young caliph was killed when the army, unpaid for months, tricked him into allowing their commanders into the palace.

Classical Muslim texts were more interested in the duties and responsibilities of the caliph that in how he ought to be chosen. Partly, this was because Muslim occupied a vast territory across which it was impossible to debate and agree a mechanism. By default, a quasi-hereditary system developed, although succession was not automatic. The reigning caliph would nominate an heir and require senior Muslim to pledge their allegiance. Often, the caliph appointed an uncle or a brother rather than a son. That son might bide his time, expecting a nomination at a later time or rebel. Brothers rebelled against brothers, nephews against uncles, sons against fathers. The history of the caliphate from this period shows that problems associated with the succession weakened the institution, allowing others, such as the Turkish Guard, to take effective control.


After the death of al-Mu'tazz, the Turks chose his cousin, al-Muhtadi, son of al-Wathiq by a Grecian slave-girl, as the new Caliph. Al-Muhtadi turned out be firm and virtuous compared to the last few Caliphs.[1] If he had succeeded to the caliphate earlier, he might have restored its authority. However, by now the Turks held more power. Ṭabarī has an account of al-Mu'tazz abdicating and handing over power; he stated that "he was unequal to the responsibilities he had to shoulder."[2] Tabari says that Al-Muhtadi refused to accept the caliphate from anybody other than his predecessor and only if he "confirmed his inability to administer matters entrusted to him."

Under him, the Court did see a transformation. Singing girls and musicians were expelled; justice was enacted daily in open court; wine and games were prohibited. He set Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the Umayyad Caliph, as his model and exemplar. Al-Mutawakkil, in contrast, had been renowned for excessive drinking, which indirectly led to his downfall.

There was some early resistance to his appointment, mainly from the Baghdad region where al-Mu'tazz brother, Abu Ahmed, was the favored candidate. He had been imprisoned by al-Mu'tazz to prevent a challenge for power.

Over the last century, the issue of determining the succession had plagued the caliphate, causing rivalry, plots and counter-plots and the frequent incarceration of contenders. Subsequently, when they were released to become caliph, they had accumulated little or no practical experience.

To his credit, Al-Muhtadi attempted to restore caliphal authority and dismissed some corrupt officials and tried to reduce the power of the Turkish Guard. Significantly, he held open court and dealt directly with peoples' grievances.

He succeeded in deposing several Turkish emirs but faced a slave rebellion in Iraq, which may have been led by a Shi'a claimant to the Imamate. The rebel leader claimed to be a descendant of Ali, although he was almost certainly unrelated. He did, however, attract Shi'a support. The rebels appear to have been adventurers who swept into the region from North Africa. Known as the Revolt of the Zanj, this seriously threatened the empire's stability and it was difficult for Al-Muhtadi to respond adequately due to threats closer to home. Troops had began to revolt due to Al-Muhtadi's inability to pay them; this situation had dogged his predecessor.

Two of the deposed Turkish emirs were brothers of Musa, one of the officers who, with Salih (whose father had led the assassination of Al-Mutawakkil) had persuaded Al-Mu'tazz to abdicate, then made Al-Muhtadi caliph. Unhappy with the new caliph's policies, Salih began to extort money from courtiers who had grown rich under the recent caliphs, while Musa helped himself to state-funds. Salih fled, was captured and killed before he could face trial. Musa led an army of insurgents against the caliph; during the battle that followed, some Turkish soldiers on his side deserted and joined Musa's army. Near defeat, Al-Muhtadi mounted a donkey and proceeded to enter negotiations with the enemy. They tried to persuade him to abdicate. He declined. The insurgents then "they fell tumultuously upon him, with blows and kicks, and removed him into confinement, where, a few days after, he died."[3]

Zaman describes Al-Muhtadi as "very pious" and says that he "sought to reform everything from morals to finances."[4]

He was thirty-eight. The early Arab writers praise his justice and piety; and had he not been killed so soon, he might have been placed among the best of Abbasid Caliphs.[3]


The next caliph was also released from prison to become caliph. Another son of Al-Mutawakkil, he took the name Al-Mu'tamid and ruled for twenty-three years, although one of his surviving brothers was the power behind the throne. Dying in 892, his reign almost took the caliphate into the tenth century. Before the mid-point of that century, although Turkish power was weakened, the caliphate lost the final remnants of political power and became a titular, symbolic office. Yet it continued to exist for many more centuries, representing the unity of the Muslim world. That world, despite political fragmentation, retained a remarkable degree of uniformity. Muslims such as Ibn Battuta could travel with ease across a vast territory and work for many different rulers due to the similarity of the law practiced throughout that space.


Despite his brief reign, Al-Muhtadi is remembered for his attempt to reform the caliphate, to place piety, justice and morality at the center of court life. This perhaps laid some foundations on which subsequent caliphs built. As the political significance and power of the office decreased, its spiritual and symbolic importance increased. As the temporal role of the caliph decreased, competition to occupy the post diminished.

Born: ?; Died: 870
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by:
Caliph of Islam
869 – 870
Succeeded by: Al-Mu'tamid


  1. Muir (2000), 539.
  2. Tabari, and Waines (1992), 3.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Muir (2000), 542.
  4. Zaman (1997), 92.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Muir, William. 1924. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall: From Orig. Sources. Edinburgh, UK: Grant. Retrieved February 24, 2009.
  • Muir, William. 2000. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall. Orientalism: Early sources, v.3. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780415209014.
  • Ṭabarī, and David Waines. 1992. The revolt of the Zanj. SUNY series in Near Eastern studies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780791407639.
  • 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: Brill, NL. ISBN 9789004106789.


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