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Al-Mu'tasim al-'Abbasi

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Personal Information
Name Muhammad or Ibrahim b. Harun al-Rashid
Epithet al-Mu'tsaim billah
Birth 180/796
Death Rabi' I 8, 227/December 26, 841
Father Harun al-Rashid
Mother Marida al-Sughdi
Children Harun al-Wathiq
Religion Mu'tazilite Islam
Burial Place Samarra
Dynasty Abbasid
Reign 218/833-227/841
Contemporary with Imam al-Jawad (a)
Capital Samarra
Activities Eighth Abbasid caliph
Remnants Many palaces, touristic locations, bazars, mosques, and huge buildings were constructed in Samarra.
Predecessor Al-Ma'mun

Al-Muʿtaṣim al-ʿAbbasī (Arabic: المُعتَصِم العباسي) (b. 180/796 - d. 227/841) was the eighth Abbasid caliph and a son of Harun al-Rashid. On some accounts, Imam al-Jawad (a), the Ninth Shiite Imam, was poisoned and martyred at his command.

There were many uprisings and riots during his caliphate, all of which were suppressed, including an uprising led by Muhammad b. al-Qasim Taliqan, an Alid who launched his uprising upon the motto: "al-Rida min Al Muhammad" (Rida from the Family of Muhammad). During his reign, al-Mu'tasim led a military expedition towards Rome and conquered the city of Amorium.

He continued al-Ma'mun's policy of inquisition of people as to creation or eternity of the Qur'an, and punished those opposing the creation of the Qur'an. Thus, his period is referred to as the Period of Inquisition or Test (al-Mihna).

Since he did not trust Arab and Persian figures, he appointed Turks as his viziers and agents. Because of the huge number of Turks in his army and public discontent over the issue, al-Mu'tasim left Baghdad and established a new capital in Samarra.


Lineage and Characteristics

Muhammad or Ibrahim b. Harun al-Rashid b. al-Mahdi b. al-Mansur al-'Abbasi, known with his regnal name, al-Mu'tsaim billah (the one who makes recourse to God). His teknonym was Abu Ishaq, and his mother was an umm al-walad (a concubine impregnated by her owner) named Marida al-Sughdi. Al-Mu'tasim was born in 180/796-7. He was the third child of Harun al-Rashid.

He is also known as Muthman (the eighth) or Abu l-Thumani (a man of eights), because he was the eighth generation of children of 'Abbas b. 'Abd al-Muttalib and the eighth caliph who accomplished eight conquests, and his caliphate lasted eight years and eight months and eight days. He was born in 180/796 in the month of Sha'ban which is the eighth lunar month, and died at the age of forty-eight. Moreover, he had eight sons and eight daughters, although al-Ya'qubi says that he had six children.

He was physically strong. He was a brave warrior and was trained in wars. He was infatuated with constructions and agriculture, devoting most of his time to construction of palaces and gardens. He was the first caliph to adopt the title, "al-Mu'tasim billah," in order to make his caliphate seem divine and religious.[1]

Beginning of Caliphate

Prior to his caliphate, al-Mu'tasim was the ruler of Syria and Egypt. In his deathbed, al-Ma'mun appointed al-Mu'tasim as his successor, despite the popularity of his own son, 'Abbas, within the army, because he deemed al-Mu'tasim as more competent in protecting the Abbasid rule. The allegiance to al-Mu'tasim occurred on the day of al-Ma'mun's death. At first, the army refused to pledge their allegiance to him and wanted, instead, to pledge their allegiance to 'Abbas the son of al-Ma'mun. Out of respect for his father's will, however, 'Abbas was the first to pledge his allegiance to his uncle, al-Mu'tasim, and the army followed suit. Allegedly, there was a dispute between them in the meeting, and finally, 'Abbas pledged his allegiance to al-Mu'tasim.


Al-Mu'tasim died on Rabi' I 8, 227/December 26, 841 and was buried in Samarra. It is said that the cause of his death was that he did Hijama or medicinal bleeding on Muharram 1, 227/October 21, 841 as a result of which he contracted a disease with symptoms such as strong fevers. He finally died of the disease. He had appointed his son, Harun al-Wathiq, as his crown prince, who was unrivaled in the position.

'Abbasi Dynasty
al-'Abbas b. 'Abd al-Muttalib
'Abd Allah b. al-'Abbas
'Ali b. 'Abd Allah
Muhammad b. 'Ali
Ibrahim al-Imam
(r. 132/749-50 - 136/753-54)
(r. 136/753-54 - 158/775)
(r. 158/775 - 169/785-86)
(r. 169/785-86 - 170/786-87)
Harun al-Rashid
(r. 170/786-87 - 193/808-9)
Muhammad al-Amin
(r. 193/808-9 - 198/813-14)
(r. 198/813-14 - 218/833)
(r. 218/833 - 227/841-42)
(r. 227/841-42 - 232/846-47)
(r. 232/846-47 - 247/861-62)
(r. 255/869 - 256/870)
(r. 247/861-62 - 248/862)
(r. 251/865 - 255/869)
(r. 256/870 - 279/892-93)
(r. 248/862 - 251/865)

Political Measures

When al-Mu'tasim took over the power, he imposed political changes in order to establish his government. Since he did not trust Arabs and Persians, he appointed Turks as his viziers and commanders, and for further oversight, he left Baghdad and established a new capital in Samarra and continued al-Ma'mun's policy concerning the creation of the Qur'an and inquisition of people's beliefs.

Employment of Turks

Al-Mu'tasim did not trust Persians and Arabs, and thus, he tried to deploy Turkish soldiers. Since his own mother was a Turk, he tried to exploit Turkish biases in favor of solidifying his own government. Thus, he widely employed Turkish servants. Al-Mu'tasim assigned crucial positions and great provinces to Turks. When Turks entered the caliphate system, an intense rivalry emerged between them, on the one hand, and Arabs and Persians, on the other. With this act, al-Mu'tasim paved the path for the decline of the Abbasid government.[2]

Establishment of a New Capital in Samarra

In 221/835, al-Mu'tasim al-'Abbasi moved the capital from Baghdad to Samarra. According to Ibn Athir's report, al-Mu'tasim justified the establishment of the new capital by threats from army riots and murder of his servants. Thus, al-Mu'tasim al-'Abbasi looked for a place as a capital where he could oversee his army, and if required, he could control them through lands and waters. Others believe that the new capital was required because of the great number of Turkish soldiers employed by al-Mu'tasim, Baghdad had no room for such a huge army, people caused troubles for the army, and were discontent and felt threatened by the presence of the army in Baghdad. Thus, al-Mu'tasim looked for a better place for his army base until he finally homed in on Samarra. He constructed the place and called it "Dar al-Khilafa" (House of the Caliphate), where he accommodated his Turkish soldiers and military staff. In the period of al-Mu'tasim, Samarra was at the peak of its flourish, and many palaces, touristic locations, bazars, mosques, and huge buildings were constructed there.

Continued Enforcement of al-Ma'mun’s Inquisition Period

In his will, al-Ma'mun asked al-Mu'tasim to pursue his policy of inquisition or test. Al-Mu'tasim was not a scholar, but he had Mu'tazilite tendencies and appointed Mu'tazilites as his viziers and courtiers. Thus, he appointed Ahmad b. Abi Dawud, a Mu'tazilite leader, as Qadi l-Qudat (the Judge of Judges). He pursued al-Ma'mun’s policy of inquisition concerning the creation of the Qur'an. Ahmad b. Hanbal was one of the best-known people who was tortured because of his belief in the eternity of the Qur'an. Ahmad b. Nasr al-Khuza'i was excuted, and Bushr b. al-Walid, a former Judge of Judges, was sentenced to house arrest.

Military Measures

According to some historical researches, in the period of al-Mu'tasim which coincided with the Imamate of Imam al-Jawad (a), over fifty uprisings were launched by Alids and Arabs, and six uprisings were launched by Persians, all of which were quenched. The most important among these were: the riot of Zuts, the riot of Babak Khorramdin, the riot of Mazyar, the riot of Mubarqa', the riot of Ja'far Kurd, and the riot of 'Ujayf b. 'Anbasa, and the riot of 'Abbas b. al-Ma'mun.

After defeating Babak, al-Mu'tasim immediately launched a military expedition towards Rome, and upon defeating an army dispatched by the Roman Empire, he conquered Amorium in 223/837.

Combat with Alids

Al-Mu'tasim's policy with respect to Alids was very strict. Unlike al-Ma'mun, al-Mu'tasim adopted a stringent policy against Shi'as and closely monitored their activities. This led to some uprisings.

The Uprising of Muhammad b. al-Qasim Taliqan

Muhammad b. al-Qasim b. 'Ali, known as Sufi[3], was from the progeny of Imam al-Husayn (a). In 219/834, he launched an uprising against al-Mu'tasim with the motto: "al-Rida min Al Muhammad" (al-Rida is from the Household of Muhammad). The uprising erupted in Taliqan in Khurasan located in Merv areas. The reason underlying the uprising was that when al-Mu'tasim became the caliph, he summoned Muhammad b. al-Qasim so as to examine and investigate his activities. As soon as Muhammad b. al-Qasim found out about al-Mu'tasim's decision, he fled from Kufa to Khurasan. Many people in Khurasan gathered around him. His move was, nevertheless, unorganized and constituted no serious threat to al-Mu'tasim's government.

Al-Mu'tasim commanded the ruler of Khurasan, 'Abd Allah b. Tahir, to counter Muhammad. Muhammad was defeated and fled to Nishapur, where he was finally arrested and was then imprisoned in Samarra. He managed to escape the prison with the help of his followers, and lived secretly until his death. Abu l-Faraj al-Isfahani believes that he secretly lived in al-Wasit after his prison escape. Some people believe that he was arrested in the period of al-Mutawakkil and died in the prison. The uprising is the most prominent Alids revolution after the martyrdom of Imam al-Rida (a).

Martyrdom of Imam al-Jawad (a)

Imam al-Jawad (a) was poisoned and martyred at the command of al-Mu'tasim. In order to closely monitor Imam al-Jawad's activities, al-Mu'tasim arrested him and banished him to his capital, Samarra. In the same year, the Imam (a) was martyred.

Many reasons are cited for why Imam al-Jawad (a) was martyred by al-Mu'tasim. One reason is that he had concerns over the Imam's marriage with al-Ma'mun's daughter, Umm Fadl. Al-Mu'tasim feared that if a child is conceived in this marriage, his caliphate would face a serious threat, because the child could easily claim the position of caliphate because of his lineage to both the Imam (a) and al-Ma'mun. Al-Mu'tasim lured Umm Fadl into poisoning and martyring Imam al-Jawad (a).

Some people believe that the reason why al-Mu'tasim martyred the Imam (a) was that ibn Abi Dawud slandered the Imam (a) in the presence of al-Mu'tasim. As a result, the Imam (a) was poisoned by al-Mu'tasim. Notwithstanding this, al-Shaykh al-Mufid believes that there is no evidence for the martyrdom of Imam al-Jawad (a), holding that he died of natural causes. In the period of Imam al-Hadi (a), the Abbasid government was economically thriving, which diminished Alids ability to launch military operations. Thus, al-Mu'tasim's policy in this period was tolerance towards Alids.


  1. Abbasid rulers tried to make it seem that they were supported by God. Thus, they dubbed themselves as Zill Allah fi l-Ard (God’s Shadow on the Earth), adding titles to their names which implied moral or religious attributes.
  2. This is because Arabs were not disposed to humiliate themselves and flatter the caliphs and obey without questioning, and Persians tended to follow 'Abbas the son of al-Ma'mun, and were not thus trusted by al-Mu'tasim.
  3. His followers called him “Sufi,” because he always put on rough clothes made up of white wool, and was well-known in asceticism and piety.