The Imperial Caliphates

narrated by Chris Gratien

featuring Hugh Kennedy, Joshua White, Fahad Bishara, Maryam Patton, and Jeannie Miller

The first decades of Islam were characterized by a rapid territorial expansion accompanied by conflicts over leadership following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Despite opposition from the supporters of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan would become Caliph and establish a dynasty for his clan: the Banu Umayyah. 

The next centuries of Islamic history would be defined by the imperial Caliphates of the Umayyads and Abbasids, who controlled empires stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India. This episode of The Making of the Islamic World focuses on the creation of these Islamic empires, their institutional legacy, and the intellectual life of the Abbasid Caliphate during its height. We conclude with the Abbasid luminary al-Jahiz and what his writings tell us about the changing social fabric of the Abbasid world during the 9th century.

"The Making of the Islamic World" is an ongoing series aimed at providing resources for the undergraduate classroom. The episodes in this series are subject to updates and modification.

Hugh Kennedy is Professor of Arabic at SOAS, London. He has been studying the history of the caliphate for almost fifty years and has written numerous books including “The Courts of the Caliphs” (2004), “The Great Arab Conquests” (2007), and "The Caliphate: A Pelican Introduction" (2016).
Joshua M. White is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean (Stanford University Press, 2017).
Fahad Ahmad Bishara is Rouhollah Ramazani Associate Professor of Arabian Peninsula and Gulf Studies at the University of Virginia. He specializes in the legal and economic history of the Indian Ocean and Islamic world, and is now spends his time thinking about dhows, the sea, and world history.
Maryam Patton is a PhD candidate at Harvard University in the joint History and Middle Eastern Studies program. She is interested in early modern cultural exchanges, and her dissertation studies cultures of time and temporal consciousness in the Eastern Mediterranean during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Jeannie Miller is an associate professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at University of Toronto. Her book entitled Al-Jahiz, the Quibbler: Equivocations in Kitab Al-Hayawan and Beyond is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press.


Interviews by Chris Gratien and Taylan Güngör
Sound production by Chris Gratien
Additional thanks to Nada Moumtaz and Shireen Hamza
Music (by order of appearance): Aitua - Volcano; A.A. Aalto - Sneak; Chad Crouch - Charcoal; Aitua - The Trap; Chad Crouch - Skatepark; A.A. Aalto - Entonces; A.A. Aalto - Canyon; Chad Crouch - Tuscan Sun; Chad Crouch - Ruby 


After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the question of succession became a contentious issue that was never settled within the Muslim community. Even the reigns of his first four successors, the rashidun Caliphs, were characterized by disputes over leadership and sharing of power. The dispute between the supports of Ali ibn Abi Talib and the founders of the Umayyad dynasty created a political rupture that has remained relevant throughout Islamic history: the Sunni-Shia split. With the victory of the Banu Umayyah, the succession of Caliphs would become dynastic. The first dynasties of Islam, the Umayyads and the Abbasids, would preside over a period of territorial expansion and empire building.

Listen to Taylan Güngör's interview with Hugh Kennedy to learn more about the history of the idea of the Caliphate

The Umayyads and Abbasids incorporated many aspects of statecraft from the Byzantine and Sasanian territories they conquered. At first, the Islamic Empires were largely grafted onto those structures. For example, the coins minted in the time of the first Umayyad Caliph Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan strongly resembled the representations found on Sasanian coins. With time, the new empires developed new state structures that would define Islamic polities for centuries to come. In the podcast, we talk about the economic foundations of the Abbasid Caliphate and how its land tenure regime incorporated the imperial tradition of an agrarian state into Islamic legal structures. 

Arab-Sasanian coin of Muawiyah I. Source: Wikipedia

The Abbasid Caliphate in particular witnessed a major intellectual transformation with the translation of Greek and Persian knowledge into Arabic, often via the non-Muslim bureaucrats from the former Byzantine and Sasanian realms such as scribes literate in Greek, Syriac, and Arabic. In addition, the advent of paper production in the region further allowed for book production of a quality and volume never before seen. For the first time, scholars in Abbasid centers like Baghdad and Basra produced written works meant to be copied and circulated among wider audiences. Cheap paper and plentiful support for scholarship in the 9th century fueled prolific writers like al-Jahiz whose works touched on everything from rhetoric and law to jokes and encyclopedic writings on the animal world. 

The writings of al-Jahiz also reveal that Abbasid society was transforming as more people entered the service of the Abbasid state and the arena of Islamic scholarship. In the podcast, we discuss the writings on al-Jahiz concerning the place of the Turkic military personnel who had suddenly become integral to the Abbasid state. We also discuss a work entitled "The Boasts of the Blacks Over the Whites," which seemed to confront anti-Black discourses which, however different from modern understandings of race, reflected the social tensions of an increasingly diverse empire ruled by a largely Arab elite. 

The issue of inclusion within the Abbasid state and echelons of power was at the center of a number of rebellions and internal crises faced by the empire at the end of the 9th century. One of the most significant was what has become known to history as the "Zanj Rebellion," which began in 869 and ended in 883. Centered on the Basra region of Southern Iraq, the Zanj Rebellion has often been cast as a mass revolt by enslaved and formerly enslaved people working in the salt flats and new agricultural spaces born out of Abbasid economic expansion. The Abbasid historian Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari wrote a long account of the rebellion in his History of the Prophets and Kings, which provides some clues about the diverse set of actors in the Basra region who made up the rebellion. In addition to Volume 36 and 37 of al-Tabari's history in translation, it's worth checking out some of the different scholarly perspectives on the rebellion. See:

There is a wealth of history to explore in the imperial Caliphates of the 7th-9th centuries. For those who want more to listen to, we recommend the scholar interviews of the Abbasid History Podcast hosted by Talha Ahsan. It's a great way to find out what new scholarship is revealing and debating about the history of the classical Islamic world.

Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.


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