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أبو إسحاق عباس المعتصم بن هارون
Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate
Reign 9 August 833 – 5 January 842
Predecessor al-Ma'mun
Successor al-Wathiq
Full name
Abu Ishaq 'Abbas al-Mu'tasim ibn Harun
Dynasty Abbasid
Father Harun al-Rashid
Born 794
Died 5 January 842
Religion Islam

Abu Ishaq 'Abbas al-Mu'tasim ibn Harun al-Rashid (Arabic: أبو إسحاق عباس بن هارون الرشيد‎; 795 – 5 January 842), better known by his regnal name al-Mu'tasim bi-'llah (المعتصم بالله, "he who seeks refuge in God") was the eighth Abbasid caliph, ruling from 833 to his death in 842.[1] A son of Harun al-Rashid, he succeeded his half-brother al-Ma'mun, under whom he served as a military commander and governor. His reign was marked by the introduction of the Turkish slave-soldiers (ghilman or mamalik) and the establishment for them of a new capital at Samarra. This was a watershed in the Caliphate's history, as the Turks would soon come to dominate the Abbasid government.[1][2] Domestically, Mu'tasim continued Ma'mun's support of Mu'tazilism and its inquisition (mihna). Mu'tasim is also notable as a warrior caliph, waging almost continuous wars, both against the Byzantine Empire, where he personally led the celebrated Sack of Amorium, as well as against various internal rebels, most notably achieving the final suppression of the Khurramite rebellion.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

Abu Ishaq was born to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (ruled 786–809) and Marida, a Turkic slave concubine.[1] As one of Harun's younger sons, he was initially of little consequence.[3] During the civil war between his elder half-brothers al-Amin (r. 809–813) and al-Ma'mun (r. 813–833) he remained in Baghdad, and, like most members of the Abbasid dynasty, supported the anti-caliph Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi in 817–819.[4] Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari records that Abu Ishaq led the pilgrimage in A.H. 200 (815–816) and in 201.

At the same time, from ca. 814/815 he began forming his famous corps of slave-soldiers. The first were domestic slaves he bought in Baghdad (the distinguished general Itakh was originally a cook) whom he trained in the art of war, but they were soon complemented by Turkish slaves sent directly from Central Asia after an agreement with the local Samanid rulers. This private force was small—it probably numbered between three and four thousand at the time of his accession—but it was highly trained and disciplined, and turned Abu Ishaq into a power factor in his own right, as Ma'mun increasingly turned to him for assistance.[5] Abu Ishaq's Turkish corps was also politically useful to Ma'mun, who aimed to lessen his own dependence from the mostly Iranian leaders who had supported him in the civil war; to this end, alongside recognizing his brother's Turks, Ma'mun placed the Arab tribal levies of the Mashriq in the hands of his own son, al-Abbas.[6]

Al-Tabari mentions that in 202 Abu Ishaq commanded a force sent against some Kharijite rebels. One of the happenings on this campaign was that one day in combat one of the Turkish military clients ghilman there advanced in between a Kharijite lancer and the future caliph. The Turk shouted, "Recognize me!" (In Persian "Ashinas ma-ra.") To express his appreciation, Abu Ishaq on that same day granted this man the name Ashinas and he became known as Abu Ja'far Ashinas. Abu Ishaq defeated these Kharijites.

In 828, Ma'mun appointed Abu Ishaq as governor of Egypt and Syria in place of Abdallah ibn Tahir, who departed to assume the governorship of Khurasan.[7] In A.H. 214 (829–830) Abu Ishaq subdued Egypt and executed some leading rebels. He returned in 215 to join al-Ma'mun in a campaign against the Byzantines. Abu Ishaq commanded forces that captured thirty Byzantine strongholds.


In August 833, al-Ma'mun died while preparing to lead his army in a large-scale invasion of the Byzantine Empire. Despite the support of some military leaders for Ma'mun's son al-Abbas, Mu'tasim, as the designated successor, was able to secure his rise to the throne. Mu'tasim immediately cancelled the invasion and returned to Baghdad.[1][7][8] He sent Ishaq ibn Ibrahim ibn Mu'sab against a Khurramite revolt centred near Hamadhan. Ishaq soundly defeated the rebels. Their survivors, under Nasr, fled to the Byzantines.

In A.H. 219 (834–835) Muhammad ibn Qasim (al-Alawi) rebelled in Khurasan. He was defeated and brought to the caliph. He was imprisoned, but escaped and was never heard of again. 'Ujayf ibn 'Anbasa defeated the Zutt in Iraq. The next year he brought them before al-Mu'tasim in an impressive naval parade. The Zutt were sent to the Byzantine frontier where they fell fighting Byzantines.

One of the most difficult problems facing this Caliph, as faced his predecessor, was the uprising of Babak Khorramdin. Babak first rebelled in A.H. 201 (816–817) and overcame a number of caliphate forces sent against him. Finally, al-Mu'tasim provided clear instructions to his general al-Afshin Khaydhar ibn Kawus. Following these al-Afshin patiently overcame the rebel, securing a significant victory of this reign. Babak was brought to Samarra in A.H. 223 (837–838). He entered the city spectacularly riding on a splendid elephant. He was executed by his own executioner and his head sent to Khurasan. His brother was executed in Baghdad.

In that same year of Babak's death, the Byzantine emperor Theophilus launched an attack against a number of Abbasid fortresses. Al-Mu'tasim launched a well planned response. Al-Afshin met and defeated Theophilus on 21 July 838, known as Battle of Anzen. Ankyra fell to the Muslim army of 50,000 men (with 50,000 camels and 20,000 mules) and from there they advanced on the stronghold of Amorium. A captive escaped and informed the caliph that one section of Amorium's wall was only a frontal facade. By concentrating bombardment here, al-Mu'tasim captured the city.

On his return home, he became aware of a serious conspiracy centred on al-Abbas ibn al-Ma'mun. A number of senior military commanders were involved. Al-Abbas was executed, as were, among others, al-Shah ibn Sahl, Amr al-Farghana, 'Ujayf ibn 'Anbasa and Akhmad ibn al-Khalil. This situation may help explain the increased reliance of this caliph and his successors upon Turkish commanders.

The ghilman (sing. ghulam) were introduced to the Caliphate during al-Mu'tasim's reign. The ghilman were slave-soldiers taken as prisoners of war from conquered regions, in anticipation of the Mamluk system, and made into caliphal guard. The ghilman, personally responsible only to the Caliph, were to revolt several times during the 860's, killed 4 caliphs, and be replaced by the Mamluk system, based on captured Turkish children, trained and moulded within the Islamic lands.

The ghilman, along with the shakiriya which had been introduced in the reign of al-Ma'mun, had irritated the Arab regular soldiers of the Caliph's army. The Turkic and Armenian ghilman agitated the citizens of Baghdad, provoking riots in 836. The capital was moved to the new city of Samarra later that year, where it would remain until 892 when it was returned to Baghdad by al-Mu'tamid.

The Tahirid dynasty, which had come to prominence during al-Ma'mun's reign after the military province of Khurasan was granted to Tahir bin Husain, continued to grow in power. They received the governorships of Samarqand, Farghana, and Herat. Unlike most provinces in the Abbasid Caliphate, which were closely governed by Baghdad and Samarra, the provinces under the control of the Tahirids were exempted from many tributes and oversight functions. The independence of the Tahirids contributed greatly to the decline of Abbasid supremacy in the east.

In A.H. 224 (838–839) Mazyar who detested the Tahirids rebelled against them. Previously, he had insisted on paying the taxes of his Caspian region directly to al-Mu'tasim's agent instead of to Abdallah ibn Tahir's. Al-Afshin, desiring to replace Abdallah as Khurasan's governor, intrigued with Mazyar. Mazyar imprisoned people from Sariya, demolished Amul's walls and fortified Tamis, causing apprehension in Jurjan.

Abdallah and al-Mu'tasim despatched forces to quell this uprising. Abdallah's commander Hayyan ibn Jabalah convinced Mazyar's vassal Qarin I to betray Mazyar. Qarin sent Hayyan Mazyar's brother and other commanders Qarin had taken by surprise. The people of Sari rose against Mazyar. Hayyan arrived there and then advanced into the Wandahurmuz mountains where he seized some of Mazyar's stored wealth. Quhyar betrayed Mazyar. He was brought, along with his correspondence, some implicating al-Afshin, to al-Mu'tasim. Mazyar's commander al-Durri was defeated, captured and executed.

Al-Hasan ibn al-Afshin had a splendid wedding celebration with al-Mu'tasim personally providing for the guests. Al-Afshin's kinsman Minkajur rebelled in Adharbayjan. He was quickly defeated. Al-Afshin fell under suspicion. When Mazyar entered Samarra on a mule, al-Afshin was arrested. Al-Afshin was intently interrogated. Mazyar supplied testimony against him. He faced further charges of diverting wealth from the Babak campaign to al-Afshin's realm of Ushrusanah, of having idolotrous books, etc., of being addressed in Persian by his correspondents as "Lord of Lords," etc. Although al-Afshin tried to explain such things, al-Mu'tasim had him imprisoned in a special prison built for him. Here he was killed in May or June 841.

The Khurramiyyah were never fully suppressed, although they slowly vanished during the reigns of succeeding Caliphs. Near the end of al-Mu'tasim's life there was an uprising in Palestine. Al-Mu'tasim sent Raja ibn Ayyub al-Hidari to restore order. Al-Hidari defeated the rebels and captured their leader Abu Harb al-Mubarqa.

The great Arab mathematician al-Kindi was employed by al-Mu'tasim, and tutored the Caliph's son. al-Kindi had served at the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom. He continued his studies in Greek geometry and algebra under the caliph's patronage.

Ideologically, al-Mu'tasim followed the footstep of his half-brother al-Ma'mun. He continued his predecessors support for controversial Islamic sect of Mu'tazila, applying his brutal military methods for torturing Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal.


Many of the children and grandchildren of al-Mu'tasim succeeded him on the caliphal throne

Al-Tabari states that al-Mu'tasim fell ill on 21 October 841. His regular doctor had died the previous year and the new physician did not follow the normal treatment, and this was the cause of the caliph's illness. Al-Mu'tasim died on 5 January 842 (p. 207). This caliph is described by al-Tabari as having a relatively easy going nature, being kind, agreeable and charitable. He was succeeded by his son, al-Wathiq.

According to the Orientalist C.E. Bosworth, "Not much of [al-Mu'tasim's] character emerges from the sources, though they stress his lack of culture compared with his brother al-Mamun, with his questing mind; yet al-Mu tasim's qualities as a military commander seem assured, and the Abbasid caliphate remained under him a mighty political and military entity".[1]

Al-Mu'tasim in Literature[edit]

The name al-Mu'tasim is also used for a fictional character in the story The Approach to al-Mu'tasim by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, which appears in his anthology Ficciones. The al-Mu'tasim referenced there is probably not the Abbasid Caliph of the name, though Borges does state, regarding the original, non-fictional al-Mu'tasim from whom the name is taken: "The name is the same as that of the eighth Abbasside, who was victor in eight battles, engendered eight male and eight female children, left behind eight thousand slaves and reigned during eight years, eight moons, and eight days."


  1. ^ a b c d e f Bosworth (1993), p. 776
  2. ^ a b al-Muʿtaṣim (Abbasid caliph) at Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. ^ Kennedy (2004), p. 156
  4. ^ Kennedy (2004), pp. 151, 156
  5. ^ Kennedy (2004), pp. 156–157
  6. ^ El-Hibri (2011), p. 290
  7. ^ a b Kennedy (2004), p. 157
  8. ^ El-Hibri (2011), pp. 291, 296


Born: 794 Died: 842
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by
Caliph of Islam
Succeeded by