Abbasids - 750-1258 In-Depth Umayyads - 661-750

Slaves, Soldiers, and Sultans (Part 1)


The concept of slavery is associated with pain, suffering, and most notably powerlessness. It is therefore one of the most curious ironies in Islamic history that for a millennium, certain types of slaves formed an integral part of the power elite and grew to become a political, military and even social class of prominence in their own right. This article will examine the factors that led to the consolidation of a slave elite in Islamic history.

Though Islamic rules and regulations for slavery are beyond the scope of this article—see this excellent lecture by Omar Suleiman for more information on that—it suffices to note that from encouragement of manumission to certain incumbent rights, it was more humane than the treatment of slaves in many other systems, most notably the trans-Atlantic slave trade with which the modern collective memory of slavery is most closely linked. Some slave-owners did, of course, freely ignore these rules and abuse their power—the Basran delta in Iraq during the ninth century provoked a slave revolt on the Abbasid caliphate’s doorstep that was quickly exploited by its enemies and lasted over a decade—nor was slavery anything approaching a panacea. But on the whole, the Islamic concept of slavery was not an immutable, permanent condition of misery bound to racial origins but part of a fluid, mobile social system where it could at times be reversed or at least transformed into opportunity.

Opportunity was to be found near power, and during the heyday of middle-age Islam the slaves of rulers such as caliphs, sultans and amirs were far closer to power than most freeborn citizens. Rulers have always had family members, friends, courtiers and officers who wield significant power, but slaves were more reliable subjects than most. This was because unlike freeborn officers slaves had minimal outer connection in society; they had no family or clan network to fall back on, and they could be expected to show fierce loyalty towards their master.

This first of three articles outlining the history of slave rulers and soldiers in Islamic history will outline the factors that led to the rise of a slave elite.


Since the eighth century, Muslim rulers had wrestled with various concepts of power-sharing. The majority of Umayyad rulers had focused it around the caliph’s family, which could be expected to share the ruler’s interest; it formed the inner core of a hierarchical rung of power where after the ruling family, its clan, then tribe, then federation dominated. Proximity to the ruling family was the most important key to success, and most Umayyad caliphs were content to let different factions outside the core struggle for power. The struggle between the Qays and Yaman tribal federations was the most prominent one, and members of the two confederations constantly competed for influence during the Umayyad period.

Certain Umayyad leaders from outside the family certainly built up independent power bases: the Iraqi regent Hajjāj Thaqafi, infamous for his tyranny and aggressiveness in promoting the Umayyad cause, handpicked and groomed a corps of officers from humble Arab backgrounds who would have to rely on him in some way or other. These included Qutaybah b. Muslim b. ‘Amr, who led the conquest of Transoxania; Jarrāh b. ‘Abd Allah, who governed several fronts at different times; and the regent’s own teenage nephew Muhammad b. Qāsim b. Yūsuf, who captained the conquest of Sind. However, the caliph Sulaymān b. ‘Abd al-Malik—wary of giving Hajjaj’s faction too much power—sacked most of these commanders. Qutaybah tried to incite a mutiny, but his own soldiers killed him instead, while Muhammad b. Qāsim obediently returned to Syria where he died in prison.

Sulaymān also abruptly sacked Musa b. Nusayr, the capable regent of the Umayyad caliphate’s western half. Though he had played an important role in Umayyad governance at North Africa and notably directed the conquest of Spain, Musa had run against the interests of the established Arab elite at North Africa, who were close to the Umayyad family. Having come himself from a humble Arab clan, Musa vigorously encouraged the spread of Islamic preachers through Berber North Africa and he eventually built up a nearly exclusively Berber army, which captained by Musa’s Berber freedman Tāriq b. Ziyād swept into Spain. However, this was the first Umayyad army recruited outside the traditional power base, and while potentially boosting Musa’s strength it also threatened the Arab military elite in North Africa, notably the prominent Fihri family descended from the famous Islamic conqueror ‘Uqba b. Nāfi‘, and now led by his grandson Habīb b. Abu Ubaydah. They duly put out to Sulaymān that Musa had planned to rebel against the Umayyads. This caused Sulaymān to recall Musa and Tāriq immediately. Meanwhile Musa’s sons ‘Abd al-Azīz and ‘Abd Allah, governors of Spain and northwestern Africa respectively, were murdered by the Arab elite and duly replaced.

However, this system backfired spectacularly during the 740s. The first rung of power collapsed when different Umayyad princes, starting with the cousins Walīd II b. Yazīd II and Yazīd III b. Walīd II, plunged into a vicious internal struggle over power. The outermost rung collapsed largely because of the caliphate’s non-Arab Muslim subjects—the mawāli or clientele, thereby called because they were taken in and patronized by Arab tribes—resenting the Islamically unethical taxation levied on them in order in support the caliphate’s ambitious expeditions and projects. A number of different groups—including extremist sects, military adventurers and rival clan federations—exploited this resentment during a bloody conflict that saw the caliphate lose control of much of its western dominions. From these groups, it was the ‘Abbāsid family who emerged triumphant and ruthlessly exterminated the Umayyads.


Though the ‘Abbāsid regime took care to give its government a more palatable Islamic legalism—abolishing, for instance, the hated taxation on non-Arab Muslims—the Umayyad system of patrimonialism was only tinkered with rather than revolutionized. The difference was that now it was the mostly Khurasani mawāli, who had formed the backbone of the ‘Abbāsid sweep to power, who became the new elite. Mawāli viziers, governors, and officers dominated the ‘Abbāsid regime, and their children inherited this influence.

The most famous such case were the Barmakids, who provided two viziers and patronized the celebrated “golden age” of ‘Abbāsid learning. The first-generation Barmakid was Khālid b. Barmak, a member of a Balkhi clerical family that had converted from Buddhism to Islam. Khalid’s own position in the ‘Abbāsid revolt had been relatively minor as a staffer to the ‘Abbāsid family, but that same position gave him close access to the ‘Abbāsid family and Khālid’s son Yahya was raised as a childhood friend to the future caliph Muhammad I Mahdi. Mahdi appointed Yahya his vizier, and Yahya’s own sons—particularly Ja’far, who married Mahdi’s daughter Abbāsa, and Fadl—rose to prominence during the regime of Mahdi’s famous son Hārūn I ar-Rashīd. Fadl’s capable service as both a governor and a commander, and Ja’far’s flamboyant brilliance as a vizier played an important role in the political, social and cultural affairs of Rashīd’s glittering court—until both were executed on rather unconvincing accusations of a coup attempt.

The Barmakids’ dazzling rise and abrupt fall was the most dramatic of the mawāli tales; most mawāli were significantly secure in their posts for three or four generations after the foundation of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate. In one unprecedented case, a mawāli family managed to earn approval to rule North Africa as practically autonomous vassals. This was the family of Aghlab b. Salīm b. Iqal, a mawāli officer who had been killed during a revolt in the 760s. North Africa was a traditionally restive province over which the ‘Abbāsids had tenuous control, so when Aghlab’s son Ibrahīm through a mixture of craft and loyalty managed to secure it, the caliph Hārūn I ar-Rashīd repaid him by giving him effective autonomy to rule North Africa as a vassal of the caliphate. Ibrahīm’s family governed North Africa on behalf of the ‘Abbāsids for over a century, enjoying practical independence even as they acted as the caliphate’s agents in this strategically important area.

For most mawāli, however, their privileges began to change during the mid-ninth century. One reason was the 809-13 civil war between Harun’s sons Muhammad II al-Amīn and Abd Allah III al-Ma’mūn. The mawāli backed different sides; this scattered their ranks and left them exposed to a more distrustful caliph. Many of the established mawāli backed Amīn, whom Rashīd had selected as his successor; many up-and-coming mawāli from second-tier families in the eastern provinces backed Ma’mūn, and many of those in Baghdad backed the two princes’ uncle Ibrahīm Mubārak b. Muhammad I, who at length withdrew his candidacy.

The most important mawāli leader during the conflict was the superb commandant Tāhir b. Husayn b. Mus‘ab, who speared Ma’mūn’s attack on Baghdad and who controversially killed Amīn, an act that shocked contemporaries to the extent that even Ma’mūn, sensing the mood, denounced as having gone too far. Ma’mūn, now caliph, rewarded Tāhir with the regency of Khurasan, but when he began to suspect him of planning sedition he had him quietly poisoned. Like the Aghlab family in North Africa, Tāhir’s progeny inherited his position—his son ‘Abd Allah and his nephew Ishāq b. Ibrahīm b. Hasan played very important roles in the army and court, but they were proven supporters of Ma’mūn and nowhere near as potentially dangerous as Tāhir may have been.

The case of Tāhir b. Husayn shows that even one of Ma’mūn’s most important subordinates among the mawāli, once he was suspected of having overstepped his boundary, was eliminated. The mawali were now a scattered group, and more importantly, they were no longer seen as automatically trustworthy clientele. Though many continued to hold official positions and in some cases considerable wealth, the mawāli families were largely sidelined from their former influence as Ma’mūn and his successors pursued an aggressive policy of centralization before turning to new clientele.


Ma’mūn’s regime saw the introduction of a vast number of newcomers to the political scene. These were slave soldiers, predominantly Turks from Eurasia’s steppes, whose skill at mounted archery—a key component of Muslim armies, and one that became completely dominant over the next five hundred years—made them especially valuable soldiers. Thousands were purchased largely by Ma’mūn’s brother and successor Muhammad III Mu‘tasim-Billāh. They soon became such a burden on Baghdad that Mu‘tasim-Billāh founded a new capital north of Baghdad in 832. This was the garrison town of Samarra, an abbreviation for “he smiles who sees it.” This soon became the seat of power at the ‘Abbāsid caliphate. Not only did it house soldiers and the caliph’s guard, but even princes such as the caliph’s son Ja’far I Muttawakkil were raised alongside prominent Turkish soldiers.

Turkish commandants such as Abu Ja’far Ashinas, Bugha Kabīr, and Aytakh played a major role during the triumphant military campaigns for which Mu‘tasim-Billāh’s regime became famous. At the same time, they were largely secluded from civilian life outside the court, except when directed to crack down on political targets. This did not prevent them from forming their own networks—for instance, Turkish officers married into the Abbasid family and in many cases officers’ sons replaced them in military posts—and gradually becoming political oligarchs. For instance, the caliph Muttawakkil profusely asked Aytakh’s pardon—calling him “my father”—after having insulted him. This was an indication of the increased prestige of the Turkish soldiers, and in fact Muttawakkil had Aytakh murdered and his wealth seized shortly afterward because he had become too powerful.

During the 850s Muttawakkil, determined to shake off his father’s regime, started to stamp down on troublesome subordinates, including the Turkish command. They preempted it, however, by murdering the caliph in 861, probably with the connivance of his son and successor, Muhammad IV Muntasir. Much like the murder of caliph Amīn during 813, this event became notorious in contemporary imagination; poems were written denouncing the perceivedly ungrateful Turkish slaves-turned-oligarchs who had killed their master.


The next decade featured an assembly line of caliphs and would-be caliphs, promoted and suppressed by rival factions in the army command. After Muttawakkil and his shortlived successor Muntasir, the next decade saw an internecine conflict and a siege of Baghdad 865-66 as well as three consecutive caliphs—Ahmad I Musta‘īn, Zubayr Mu‘taz, and Muhammad V Muhtadī—murdered. The 865-66 conflict pitted Musta‘īn, the incumbent caliph backed by the Baghdad non-Turkish mawāli, against his cousin Mu‘taz, Muntasir’s ambitious young brother who was backed by the Samarra Turks. Mu‘taz won out, and he had Musta‘īn murdered; but Mu‘taz himself was murdered once it became clear he had a mind of his own. The same fate befell Muhtadī, a serious and pietistic caliph who had resolved to cut down on the court’s extravagance, a situation that did not suit the Samarran elite. Like the Umayyad collapse in the 740s, the fragmentation in the ‘Abbāsid center emboldened a number of dissident factions, both in far-flung provinces and Iraq, to revolt against the center. After the 860s, the Abbasid caliphate would never enjoy the same measure of control it had across the Islamic world.

The situation of the Turkish slave leaders illustrated a pitfall in the employment of theoretically loyal slaves. Once these slaves settled down into the elite, bringing with them families and connecting with other members of the establishment, they could form a powerful interest group that could even threaten their master. In particular, whatever loyalty the first generation of slave soldiers felt towards masters—and this itself could vary—did not necessarily transfer down to the second generation, after either the slave or master or both were succeeded by children who did not have the same bond.

The Turkish slave elite was itself not unified. In fact, the main conspirators in Muttawakkil’s murder mostly took different sides during the tumultuous events of the 860s. The most hated faction was led by Bugha Saghīr (not to be confused with his namesake, the former army commander Bugha Kabīr) as well as Wasīf and his son Sālih; they had plotted against and murdered another faction leader, Abu Muhammad Baghir, thereby unleashing the chain of events that led to the 865-66 siege of Baghdad. A third faction, led by Musa b. Bugha Kabīr, managed to eliminate the first faction and announced its loyalty to the ‘Abbāsid family. Musa and his faction coalesced under an ‘Abbāsid family member closely affiliated with the army, the caliph Ahmed II Mu‘tamid’s strongwilled brother Talhah Muwaffaq b. Ja’far I.

Muwaffaq, supported by Musa b. Bugha and other army officers, spent the 870s trying to recover the ‘Abbāsid regime’s control against a wide number of threats. Quite remarkably, they succeeded, and during Mu‘tamid’s rule and that of his successor—Muwaffaq’s son Ahmed III Mu‘tadid, another major military leader—the ‘Abbāsid caliphate managed to recover much of its lost prestige. The role of Musa b. Bugha was important, since he had willingly subordinated himself and the Turkish slaves to the ‘Abbāsid family at a time of crisis. In spite of his considerable influence, Musa had even quietly acquiesced when Muaffaq replaced him with a Khurasani soldier, Masrur Balkhi. Because of this, even though Musa had played a role in the murders of two earlier caliphs, Muttawakkil and Muhtadi, he was relatively well-respected among contemporaries who were usually scathing towards the Turkish oligarchs. One particularly dramatic poem denounced the other oligarchs—Sālih b. Wasīf, Wasīf, and Bugha Saghīr—as tyrants, while likening Musa b. Bugha to the prophet Musa.


The events of the 870s had helped to restore Abbasid supremacy to an extent, so that the first wave of executive slave rule was gone. Nonetheless, the ‘Abbāsids had to make significant concessions themselves and outsource their rule outside of Iraq. A wide number of areas were now governed practically autonomously by Turkish soldiers of slave origin. The most important of these was Ahmad b. Tulūn, who governed the important province of Egypt and later annexed much of Syria quite independently of the caliphate. Others, not quite as influential but nonetheless enjoying wide autonomy, included Kaighalagh at Iran, Ishāq b. Kundajiq at the northern Jazira, and Yazaman Khadim on the frontier against the Roman Empire. These Turkish regents built up their own power bases and were usually succeeded by their children or relatives. They received validation certificates from the caliphs, but in practical terms they were a match for the ‘Abbāsid army and rulers rather than governors. Whereas only Ibrahīm b. Aghlab and Tāhir b. Husayn had enjoyed any sort of autonomy a few generations back, now a generation of autonomous regents had emerged. In this sense the slave soldiers of Samarra played an enormously important role in Islamic history, because this episode paved the way for the fragmentation of a formerly centralized caliphate.

About the author

Ishaq Abdul-Rahim

Ishaq is an independent researcher of Islamic history, and especially enjoys learning and writing about the Umayyad and Abbasid periods.


  • This is an interesting article and seems well researched, and well written. However, I think that the idea of relating history from the point of view of rulers and those who are close to them is no longer as interesting as the story of those who are ruled. Admittedly, historical documentation may be inadequate to enable a scholarly analysis of those who used not to feature in any narrative, but my point is perhaps that in the 21st century, Carlyle’s 1840’s idea of 6 types of heroism would need to be broadened to include “The heroism of the common man/woman”. This I think is reflected in 20th Century concepts such as The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”, and James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Perhaps what we really want to know these days is what life was like for the common slave?

    • Salam. This is a great question and unfortunately, as you mention, there is only so much we can derive about the perspective of common slaves. There is certainly some literature about slavery itself, some written by former slaves & others by theoreticians or just people philosophizing on the matter.

      There is also a bit of evidence we have about common slaves’ perspective that we can find during the Zanj Revolt, which took place during the Samarran period of the 860-870s and is one of the “grave threats” to the Abbasids I mentioned above. This was originally a slave revolt/mutiny that was soon hijacked by an opportunistic & rather ruthless leader named Ali b. Muhammad b. Abdul-Rahim, who more or less manipulated his fighters into becoming a ministate that soon became notorious for their own cruelty. However, what is interesting with regards to your point is that many of the original reasons for the slave revolt had to do w/ the cruelty of the slaveowners at Basra towards the slaves, or at least that was a large part of the motivation. (Because Zanj was the word for blacks, this has often been incorrectly cited as a purely black slave revolt, but it was a mixture of backgrounds with the black slaves as the rebels’ shock troopers.) However Basra appears to have been an exceptional case and in fact Muaffaq conducted a campaign that included “soft” incentives for slaves including better treatment and also amnesty. This eventually succeeded.

      One source for this is a Hasan “Shuwailama”, who was a member of the Zanj revolt and who later denounced Ali after this. That may be considered propaganda in return for Shuwailama’s defection, except that he remained an ardent opponent of the Abbasids and he also participated in a Shia rebel group later on, whereupon he was captured and tortured to death during the regime of Muaffaq’s son Caliph Ahmed III Mutadid. In short, he was no sympathizer of the Abbasids even after his defection so his words here carry some weight. Fortunately there are a number of rich accounts of this particular episode in Muhammad Tabari’s “Tarikh-al-Rusul-wal-Muluk”, whose Eng translation has been published by SUNY Press in several volumes. The volume in particular is called “Revolt of the Zanj”

      My article dealt, as you pointed out, mainly with powerbrokers, but another article more broadly based on slave life itself would be very interesting indeed.

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