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Al-Ma'mun

From Academic Kids

Abu Jafar al-Ma'mun ibn Harun (786 - 833) (المأمون) was an Abbasid caliph who reigned from 813 until his death in 833. He succeeded his brother al-Amin.

Al-Ma'mun came to power by defeating his brother in battle. The father of the two brothers was Harun al-Rashid who had ordered that al-Amin be his successor and al-Ma'mun be the governor of Khurasan. Al-Ma'mun was to succeed al-Amin upon the latter's death. However, al-Amin would ignore his father's decision, declaring his own son Musa to be his heir. This led to a conflict between the brothers. Al-Ma'mun would come out on top, with his victorious general Tahir bin Husain (d. 822) storming Baghdad and taking the head of al-Amin. Al-Ma'mun would continue to rule the empire for a few years from the city of Merv in Khurasan. But eventually he would be forced to return to Baghdad.

Al-Ma'mun's record as an administrator is marked by his efforts as a humanist and toward the centralization of power and the certainty of succession. The Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, was established during his reign. The ulama emerged as a real force in Islamic politics during al-Ma'mun's reign for opposing the mihna, which was instituted in 827.

The mihna, or 'ordeal,' is comparable to Medieval European inquisitions only in the sense that it involved imprisonment, a religous test, and a loyalty oath. The casualties of Abbasid inquisition would not approach a fraction of those executed in Europe under similar circumstances. In the effort to centralize power and test the loyalty of his subjects, al-Ma'mun required elites, scholars, judges and other government officials to undergo the test, which was a series of questions relating to theology and faith. The penalty for failing the mihna could include death.

The controversy over the mihna was exacerbated by al-Ma'mun's adoption of Mu'tazili theology. Mu'tazili theology was deeply influenced by Aristotelian thought and Greek rationalism, and stated that the understanding of the Qur'an was to be found on logical bases from reality and the world. This defied the mystical element of Islam that stated that understanding of God was only to be found in the Qur'an itself. Moreover, the Mu'tazilis stated that the Qur'an was created rather than eternal, in opposition to general Moslem opinion that the Qur'an and the Divine were coeternal. The fact that the Mu'tazili school had its foundations in the paganism of Greece further disenchanted conservative Islamic clerics.

Although al-Mahdi had proclaimed that the caliph was the protector of Islam against heresy, and had claimed too the ability to declare orthodoxy, religious scholars in the Islamic world believed that al-Ma'mun was overstepping his bounds in the mihna. The penalties of the mihna became increasingly difficult to enforce as the ulama became firmer and more united in their opposition. Although the mihna persisted through the reigns of two more caliphs, al-Mutawakkil abandoned it in 848. The failure of the mihna seriously damaged Caliphal authority and ruined the reputation of the office for succeeding caliphs. The caliph would lose much of his religious authority to the opinion of the ulama as a result of the mihna.

The ulama and the major Islamic law schools became truly defined in the period of al-Ma'mun and Sunnism, as a religion of legalism, became defined in parallel. And doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia began to become more pronounced. Ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali legal school, became famous for his opposition to the mihna. Al-Ma'mun's simultaneous opposition and patronage of intellectuals led to the emergence of important dialogues on both secular and religious affairs, and the Bayt al-Hikma became an important center of translation for Greek and other ancient texts into Arabic. This Islamic renaissance spurred the rediscovery of Hellenism and ensured the survival of these texts into the European renaissance.

Al-Ma'mun had been named governor of Khurasan by Haroun, and after his ascension to power, the caliph named Tahir as governor for his military services in order to assure his loyalty. It was a move that al-Ma'mun soon regretted, as Tahir and his family became entrenched in Iranian politics and became increasingly powerful in the state, contrary to al-Ma'mun's desire to centralize and strengthen Caliphal power. The rising power of the Tahirid dynasty became a threat as al-Ma'mun's own policies alienated them and his other opponents.

The shakiriya, which were to trigger the movement of the capital from Baghdad to Samarra during al-Mu'tasim's reign, were raised in al-Ma'mun's time. The shakiriya were military units from Central Asia and North Africa hired, complete with their commanders, to serve under the Caliph.

Al-Ma'mun, in an attempt to win over the Shi'a Muslems to his camp, named the eighth Imam, Ali ar-Rida, his successor, if he should outlive al-Ma'mun. Most Shi'ites realized, however, that ar-Rida was too old to survive him and saw al-Ma'mun's gesture as empty; indeed, ar-Rida died in 818. The incident served to further alienate the Shi'ites from the Abbasids, who had already been promised and denied the Caliphate by al-'Abbas.

Al-Ma'mun also attempted to divorce his wife during his reign, who had not borne him any children. His wife hired a Syrian judge of her own before al-Ma'mun was able to select one himself; the judge, who sympathized with the caliph's wife, refused the divorce. Following al-Ma'mun's experience, no further Abbasid caliphs were to marry, preferring to find their heirs in the harem.

The Abbasid empire grew somewhat during the reign of al-Ma'mun. Hindu rebellions in Sindh were put down, and most of Afghanistan was absorbed with the surrender of the leader of Kabul. Mountainous regions of Iran were brought under a tighter grip of the central Abbasid government, as were areas of Turkestan. Battles against the Byzantine continued in Asia Minor, and al-Ma'mun would die while leading an expedition in Sardis.

Al-Ma'mun died in 833, and was succeeded by his brother, al-Mu'tasim.


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