Abu Jafar ibn Muhammad al-Mansur

Abu Jafar ibn Muhammad al-Mansur (712-775) was the second caliph and real founder of the Arab Abbasid dynasty.

Abu Jafar, later al-Mansur, was the son of a Berber slave girl called Sallama and a brother of the first Abbasid caliph, Abu al-Abbas al Saffah. A great-great-grandson of Abd al-Abbas, the uncle of Mohammed, Abu Jafar and advocates of the Abbasid line considered themselves the true heirs of the Prophet as opposed to the Umayyads and the Shiite followers of Mohammed's cousin Ali. The rebellion of Abbasid forces in Khurasan in 747 led to defeat of the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, in 750 and the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty. During the fighting, Abu Jafar distinguished himself, particularly at the siege of Wasit.

Abu Jafar administered Armenia, Azerbaidzhan, and Mesopotamia during the short reign of Abu al-Abbas. Abu Jafar's succession as al-Mansur was announced during a pilgrimage to Mecca but was immediately challenged by an uncle, Abdallah ibn Ali, the governor of Syria. To suppress this opposition, al-Mansur called upon Abu Muslim, the original revolutionary agent his family had sent into Khurasan. This highly popular religious leader successfully eliminated Abdallah but then was summoned to court, where al-Mansur had him murdered.


Revolts against al-Mansur

This was the beginning of a series of revolts which wracked the empire during al-Mansur's reign. The Muslimiya, outraged Persian converts of Abu Muslim, marched against the Caliph. The group was destroyed by an Abbasid general who, in turn, renounced his own allegiance and had to be eliminated himself. About the same time, 756, revolt also rocked Mesopotamia. Not all the uprisings were politically motivated, however. The fanatic Rawandis, who equated the caliph with God, stormed the palace seeking the release of their imprisoned leaders. The fortuitous appearance of a former opponent routed the attackers.

A more serious affair concerned the Alids. The Shiite Hashimiya of Kufa had been allies of the Abbasids in their bid for power, even acknowledging al-Mansur's father, Muhammad, as their imam. Al-Mansur became embarrassed by the devotional attention of this heretical group. After a Shiite demonstration in 758, he suppressed it. This was followed by an outburst of the true Shiites, now united behind a grandson of Hasan ibn Ali. The Hasanite Muhammad was proclaimed caliph in Medina in 762 in opposition to al-Mansur but was defeated. Muhammad's brother Ibrahim was defeated and killed at Bakhamra in February 763, and the Alid threat was over.


Consolidation of Power

With these successes, Abbasid power was firmly established. In 762 al-Mansur began building a new capital at an old market town called Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris near the Euphrates canal. Officially called Madinat as-Salem, "City of Peace," it was finished in 766, built in part of materials taken from the nearby old Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Although originally a circular fortified garrison structure consisting of a mosque and palace, Baghdad ultimately grew into a great metropolis, the center of the world in the days of al-Mansur's grandson Harun al-Rashid.

Al-Mansur failed in his attempts to oust the Umayyad family from its refuge in Spain, but he did succeed, with Khurasanian help, in restoring order to troubled North Africa in 772. Along the Byzantine frontier, raiding was constant, and the Caliph built several fortresses to strengthen his hold on the marches. Tabaristan was added to the empire in 759; a Khazar invasion of Georgia was repelled 3 years later; and expeditions were undertaken into Transoxiana and India but to no permanent advantage.

In government, al-Mansur reorganized the administration. He created the office of vizier, under which were established several ministries (divans) such as army, finance, and posts. His best-known minister was Khalid ibn Barmak, who served as director of finance, was active in the founding of Baghdad, and inaugurated the influence of the Barmacides, or Barmakids.

Al-Mansur had an active interest in literature and was renowned as a public speaker but otherwise lived a simple life with no music or song permitted at court. He was a well-informed ruler, devoted to administration. Particularly concerned with improvement of finances, he left a sizable treasury for his heirs. So firm and thrifty was his system of government that it was over a century before the extravagances of his successors could dislocate the economy. Al-Mansur, an appellation meaning "the victorious" or, in Mahdist terms, "the divinely aided," died in October 775 while on a pilgrimage to Mecca.


Further Reading on Abu Jafar ibn Muhammad al-Mansur

Al-Mansur figures in histories of early Islam, among them John Joseph Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam (1965), and G. E. von Grunebaum, Classical Islam: A History, 600-1258 (trans. 1970). See also Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs from the Earliest Times to the Present (1937; 10th ed. 1970); John Bagot Glubb, The Empire of the Arabs (1963); and Wilson B. Bishai, Islamic History of the Middle East: Background, Development, and Fall of the Arab Empire (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Tabari, Al-Mansur and Al-Mahdi, Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1990.