ABŪ MOSLEM ʿABD-AL-RAḤMĀN B. MOSLEM ḴORĀSĀNĪ, prominent leader in the ʿAbbasid cause. He was born either at Marv or in the vicinity of Isfahan ca. 100-01/718-19 or 105-09/723-27. Sources differ regarding his original name and his origin. Some make him a descendant of Gōdarz and of the vizier Bozorgmehr and call him Ebrāhīm; some name him Behzādān, son of Vendād Hormoz (e.g., Moǰmal al-tawārīḵ, p. 315); and others relate him to the ʿAbbasids or to ʿAlī’s family. These suggestions are all doubtful. In any case, Abū Moslem received his familiar name from the ʿAbbasid imam when he joined the ʿAbbasid cause and became responsible for its propaganda in Khorasan.
Most sources agree that Abū Moslem grew up in Kūfa, which was a center for the growing social and political unrest directed against the Omayyads. That dynasty followed an ethnocentric policy which discriminated against non-Arabs and even new Muslims, thus contradicting the Muslim principle of equality and angering non-Arab mawālī (clients). Such injustice as the persecution of the Shiʿites and of adherents of the Banū Hāšem, and some caliphs’ revelry and luxury, antagonized many, especially Shiʿites, mawālī, and pious believers. In this atmosphere the Shiʿite call to support the Prophet’s family gained momentum. But from about 100/718-19 the ʿAbbasids cleverly turned to their advantage this assertion that the caliphate was restricted to ʿAlī’s family. They based their own claim on an interpretation of the term al-reżā men āl Moḥammad as meaning any person from the Prophet’s family on whose rule the community agreed. Kūfa became a center for the anti-Omayyad forces, with the concentration there of Shiʿites and ʿAlids. In 124/741-42 Abū Moslem made his first contact with ʿAbbasid agents there, and eventually he was introduced to the imam Ebrāhīm b. Moḥammad in Mecca.
The ʿAbbasids realized that Iran, and especially Khorasan, would be an appropriate sphere for missionary activity. The eastern province was far from the Omayyad capital; Arab influence was not strong; and it had been the scene for other religiousmovements with political overtones. Omayyad power there had been weakened when the caliphate took sides in the Arab tribal disputes between the Nezārīs and Yamānīs. In 128/745-46 the imam Ebrāhīm sent Abū Moslem to Khorasan, during the tenure of the Nezārī governor Naṣr b. Sayyār. The imam wrote to his partisans to obey Abū Moslem; but the Shiʿite leaders in Khorasan, including Solaymān b. Kaṯīr al-Ḵozāʿī, one of the most important of the original twelve ʿAbbasid disciples, did not accept him. They presumably objected to his youth or (as some sources indicate) the obscurity of his lineage. Imam Ebrāhīm reconfirmed Abū Moslem when they met with Shiʿite leaders at Mecca during the pilgrimage. Returning east, Abū Moslem settled in a village belonging to the Ḵozāʿī Arabs in Marv. He devoted himself to spreading ʿAbbasid propaganda and sent missionaries throughout the province. The number of his adherents increased steadily.
In early 129/746-47 Abū Moslem received from the imam the standard (lewā-ye ẓell) and banner (rāyat-e seḥāb) and instructions to openly proclaim the ʿAbbasid daʿwa. He raised these symbols in Sefīdanǰ, and his followers donned black garments, either assuming the color of the Prophet’s standard or else mourning the martyrs of ʿAlī’s family. As a signal to his adherents, Abū Moslem ordered a fire to be lit; those in other areas (such as Ṭoḵārestān, Ṭālaqān, and Ḵᵛārazm) had already been instructed. On the second day large groups of villagers took the road to Sefīdanǰ and joined him. For seven months, while awaiting an opportunity to conquer Khorasan, Abū Moslem strengthened his position through continued missionary activity. Eventually he wrote to Naṣr b. Sayyār demanding submission. The governor dispatched an army, whose defeat enhanced Abū Moslem’s reputation. The latter remained in Sefīdanǰ another forty-two days after the battle, then moved to Māḵᵛān, a large village and Shiʿite center near Marv, to organize his army.
Naṣr found himself caught between Abū Moslem and the leader of the Yamānīs, Kermānī (and later ʿAlī b. al-Kermānī). He sought reinforcements from the caliph Marwān, but in vain. He then attempted (129/746-47) to unite the Arab tribes of Khorasan, but Abū Moslem frustrated the confederation, and Naṣr again fell into conflict with the Yamānīs. Both Arab sides sought Abū Moslem’s support, and he chose to side with Yamānīs. Meanwhile his rebellion was consolidated with the capture of Herat, Balḵ, Abīvard, and Nesā. He held back from Marv, Naṣr’s capital, until he felt sure of Yamānī assistance; with ʿAlī b. al-Kermānī he took it on 9 Jomādā I 130 (or else 7 or 9 Rabīʿ II/December, 747-January, 748). As Naṣr withdrew to Saraḵs and then to Ṭūs and Nīšāpūr, twenty-four of his commanders were executed by the victors. The revolt paused while Abū Moslem defeated Šaybān Ḵāreǰī, an aspirant to the caliphate (130/747-48), quelled a revolt in Balḵ, and eliminated Kermānī’s sons ʿAlī and ʿOṯmān with the help of his commander, Abū Dāʾūd.
Naṣr amassed 30,000 men but was defeated later that year by Abū Moslem’s commander, Qaḥṭaba b. Šabīb Ṭāʾī. The Omayyad force suffered heavy loss, including Naṣr’s son Tamīm. Qaḥṭaba took Nīšāpūr, and Naṣr fled to Qūmes. Two months later Qaḥṭaba hastened to Gorgān to confront Omayyad reinforcements sent by the governor of Iraq. This army, which greatly outnumbered the rebels, was put to flight after fierce fighting, and Gorgān fell. Qaḥṭaba, hearing that the inhabitants of that city intended to revolt, had many executed. Naṣr, again in flight, died at Sāva on Rabīʿ I 131/748; and Arabs and other supporters of the Omayyads continued retreating to Hamadān. Qaḥṭaba’s son Ḥasan soon took Ray and Hamadān and besieged Nehāvand; Qaḥṭaba followed these triumphs with a victory over a large force in Isfahan, in which he captured much booty (Raǰab, 131/February-March, 749). This event disheartened the defenders at Nehāvand, where Qaḥṭaba proceeded next to intensify the attack. Three months later, the city which had witnessed the fatḥ al-fotūḥ, the Arab victory over the Persians a century earlier, beheld the Arab’s defeat at the hands of the Iranians and Abū Moslem’s supporters.
Next, Abū Moslem directed Qaḥṭaba to send a force under Abū ʿAwn ʿAbd-al-Malek b. Yazīd al-Ḵorāsānī into northern Iraq, where it defeated ʿAbdallāh b. Marwān (Ḏu’l-ḥeǰǰa, 131/July-August, 749). Marwān himself gathered the armies of Syria, Mosul, and Jazīra province and slowly advanced; four months later he confronted the rebels on the greater Zāb. Meanwhile Qaḥṭaba entered Iraq via Kermānšāh and Ḥolwān, while Ebn Hobayra, the governor of Iraq, marched east to Jalūlāʾ to meet him. The army advanced to the Euphrates and moved on Kūfa, Qaḥṭaba on the west bank and Ebn Hobayra on the east. Qaḥṭaba perished in defeating the Omayyad governor on 8 Moḥarram 132/27 August 749, and his son Ḥasan became commander. At Kūfa a Yamānī chief, Ḵāled b. ʿAbdallāh al-Qaṣrī, raised the ʿAbbasid standard and seized the governor’s palace. Having won over the Omayyad garrison and gained control of the city, he invited Ḥasan b. Qaḥṭaba, and the latter set out for Kūfa. Abū Salama Ḵallāl, head of the ʿAbbasid propaganda, came out of hiding and took over the government of Kūfa and the direction of local and Khorasani troops.
Shortly before Kūfa fell, the imam Ebrāhīm had been killed at Marwān’s order; the imam’s brothers, Abu’l-ʿAbbās ʿAbdallāh and Abū Jaʿfar Manṣūr, subsequently fled to Kūfa and were concealed by Abū Salama for forty days. Abū Salama’s tentative plan, with Ebrāhīm now removed, was to make caliph a descendant of Abū Ṭāleb’s family; but this was frustrated when the Khorasani leaders discovered the concealed ʿAbbasids and made Abu’l-ʿAbbās caliph with the name al-Saffāḥ. Abū Salama swore allegiance during the official ceremonies (Friday, 12 Rabīʿ II 132/28 November 749) and eventually was appointed vizier. Marwān was finally killed after retreating into Egypt (27 Ḏu’l-ḥeǰǰa 132/6 August 750).
During the campaigns in Syria and Iraq, Abū Moslem remained in Khorasan, and there he took the oath of allegiance to Saffāḥ. Though far away, he held the caliph’s respect. For instance, when Saffāḥ had become suspicious of Abū Salama, he did not immediately execute him. Fearing Abū Moslem would support the vizier, Saffāḥ dispatched his brother Abū Jaʿfar Manṣūr to obtain Abū Moslem’s consent; the latter not only agreed, but sent Marār b. Anas to carry out the murder. Perhaps Manṣūr was also supposed to evaluate Abū Moslem’s loyalty; during his stay (and, by one report, in his presence), Abū Moslem accused and executed Solaymān b. Kaṯīr without consulting Manṣūr (132/749-50). He returned to Kūfa apprehensive of the Khorasani’s power and assertiveness; he warned Saffāḥ that he would not truly be caliph as long as Abū Moslem was alive.
Abū Moslem exercised absolute power in Khorasan and even sent Moḥammad b. al-Ašʿaṯ to Fārs to overthrow officials appointed by Abū Salama. Saffāḥ appointed his uncle ʿĪsā b. ʿAlī as governor of Fārs; but when he arrived lacking any authorization from Abū Moslem, Moḥammad refused to recognize him and almost had him executed (132/749-50). During Saffāḥ’s caliphate (132-36/749-54) Abū Moslem suppressed various rebels. At Bokhara he eliminated Šarīk b. Šayḵ al-Mahrī, who claimed to be revolting against the Omayyads (133/750-51). His troops, under Abū Dāʾūd Ḵāled b. Ebrāhīm, then seized the city of Kaš. Fortifications were built in Nīšāpūr; Abū Moslem’s constructions also included a Friday mosque and a dār al-ʿemāra (with dome and four ayvāns). In 136/753-54 Abū Moslem prepared to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and sought the caliph’s permission. The ensuing correspondence indicates the two rulers’ lack of mutual trust: Abū Moslem was to enter Iraq with only 50 men; in fact he set out with 8,000 men and approached the capital with 1,000. He seems to have felt that his security depended on numbers, while Saffāḥ in turn was apprehensive of his strength. In any case the caliph sent a delegation to greet him, bestowed honors, and gave his permission for the pilgrimage. He cautiously resisted Manṣūr’s advice to kill Abū Moslem. Saffāḥ did, however, appoint Manṣūr as amīr al-ḥāǰǰ; and the enforced companionship on the pilgrimage further aggravated Manṣūr’s mistrust and jealousy of Abū Moslem. The latter’s generosity and consequent popularity contrasted sharply with his own miserliness.
Saffāḥ died at Anbār on 16 Ḏu’l-ḥeǰǰa 136/754, having named Manṣūr as his successor. Abū Moslem and Manṣūr were then on their return journey; Abū Moslem swore allegiance and accompanied Manṣūr to Kūfa. The new caliph’s uncle, ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAlī, rebelled at his accession, and Abū Moslem was sent to subdue him. The rebel troops were nearly victorious, but after six months’ campaigning Abū Moslem defeated ʿAbdallāh and captured a great amount of booty (137/754-55). Manṣūr first granted his uncle safe conduct, then imprisoned and killed him. Relations between caliph and commander then began to deteriorate. Abū Moslem was angered when an agent was sent to inventory the captured spoils; Manṣūr then changed his appointment to that of governor of Egypt and Syria, but Abū Moslem defiantly set out for his base of power, Khorasan. An increasingly acrimonious correspondence ensued, toward the end of which Manṣūr threatened his commander with death. Abū Moslem first resolved not to return and was so advised by his supporters. But he wavered after the caliph’s final threat and the urging of his deputy in Khorasan, Abū Dāʾūd (instigated by the caliph), not to disobey. He sent Abū Esḥāq, a supporter, to confer with the caliph. Suborned by the latter’s promise to make him governor of Khorasan, Abū Esḥāq advised Abū Moslem to return to court and ask forgiveness, since he was well liked there. To indicate that he was still in favor, Manṣūr requested his agreement to the appointment of a wālī.
Abū Moslem, now fully deceived, left Ḥolwān (or Ray) and proceeded to the capital. He was greeted outside the gates, at the caliph’s command, by the Banū Hāšem and others. Manṣūr had also picked five men to perform his assassination. They were concealed by a palace portico. When Abū Moslem entered and was relieved of his sword, the caliph began to recount examples of his misconduct. As the commander spoke of his efforts to enthrone the ʿAbbasids, Manṣūr clapped his hands, and the assassins emerged and slew Abū Moslem (24 Šaʿbān 137/13 February 755). His age is said to have been thirty-seven, and his legacy “five serving girls, fame, and notoriety” (Moǰmal al-tawārīḵ, p. 328). Other sources mention a brother, Yasār b. ʿOṯmān, and two daughters, Fāṭema and Asmāʾ. Manṣūr ordered the mutilated body to be thrown into the Tigris and bribed Abū Moslem’s generals into acquiescing to the murder. To justify his action to the people, he delivered a ḵoṭba in which he reasoned that anyone who broke his allegiance to the caliph deserved execution—hence Abū Moslem’s fate.
Opinions vary on Abū Moslem’s ultimate goal in the ʿAbbasid revolution. Some claim he wished to establish a national Iranian government and that he fought the Omayyads, under the guise of a religious uprising, to gain control of the caliphate. Others attribute a purely religious motivation devoid of ethnic overtones. One may suggest that he sought simply to destroy the Omayyads and that the social and political aspects of the revolution were stronger than the religious; perhaps he eventually would have moved against the ʿAbbasids as well. In any case the revolt marked a revival of Persian culture, which would long dominate the caliphal government; it was also a prelude to the rise of the local dynasties.
Speculation has occurred regarding a connection between Abū Moslem and Zoroastrianism; this is encouraged by his effort to crush Behāfrīd (q.v., who introduced innovations into that religion) and by the fact that the mage Sonbād (q.v.) sought to avenge his death. Other anti-Islamic uprisings also were launched in his name. But Abū Moslem, seen as an Islamic hero, opposed Behāfrīd of necessity, while Iranian and anti-Arab feelings expressed in rebellions after his death derived from the relations between Arab and non-Arab Muslims in Khorasan at that time. Abū Moslem’s revolt attracted others besides non-Arabs, and his execution need not have had a religious motive—his prestige and strength were sufficient inducements. Some later sources (especially folktales) make Abū Moslem a Shiʿite, but such a claim seems doubtful.
Abū Moslem is described as short and swarthy, a man who rarely displayed emotion (Moǰmal al-tawārīḵ, pp. 327-28). He seems to have been well educated and fluent in Arabic and Persian (judging by the eloquence of speeches attributed to him). He is praised as generous, resourceful, statesmanlike, chivalric, and ambitious; but he is criticized as severe to his opponents, executing people at the slightest provocation. After his death he became a legendary figure and was sometimes regarded as a messiah. His name was envoked in the risings of Esḥāq the Turk, Sonbād, Moqannaʿ, and the Rāwandīs (see Ebn al-Rāwandī); some leaders even claimed to be he. A variant on this theme is the claim that Bābak Ḵorramī was a descendant of Abū Moslem’s daughter. Eventually there emerged various groups (e.g., the Rezāmīya, Abū Moslemīya, and Barkūkīya) who believed in the commander’s imamate or in his divinity or who proclaimed his return.
Abū Moslem’s career provided material for legendary epic, as found in, e.g., the Aḵbār Abī Moslem ṣāḥeb al-daʿwa by Abū ʿAbdallāh Moḥammad b. ʿOmrān Marzobānī and the Abū Moslem-nāma of Abū Ṭāher Ṭarsūsī. In the latter Persian romance and its Turkish translation, Abū Moslem has been turned, by the writer’s imagination and by the tastes of reciters over the centuries, into a mythical upholder of right and suppressor of tyranny and injustice. He is depicted as a wonder-worker, blessed by the Prophet and devoted to the house of ʿAlī. The popularity of this romance is sometimes thought to be linked to the spread of groups of aḵī or fotūwa (q.v.) organizations. He is explicitly associated with the Bektashis; in their monasteries a small axe (his special weapon) is hung on the wall. He is honored as a hero among the Uzbe g s and Turkomans of Central Asia and by the mountaineers of Daghestan.
A revisionist approach to Abū Moslem was attempted in the mid-11th/17th century by a certain Moḥammad b. Moḥammad Mūsawī Sabzavārī, Mīr Lawḥī. He wrote a book asserting that Abū Moslem was the one who established the ʿAbbasid caliphate; hence he was in fact lacking in devotion to the house of ʿAlī. Lawḥī also discussed the various reports about the commander’s origins and concluded that his death was the outcome of his own behavior. Lawḥī met with hostility and harassment, but the ʿolamāʾ produced some seventeen books and treatises in his defense. Two of these have survived—Eẓhār al-ḥaqq wa meʿyār al-ṣedq and Ṣaḥīfat al-rešād.
Ṭabarī, Cairo, 1939, V, pp. 316-17, 439, 512-13, 622; VI, pp. 14-15, 24-38, 43-56, 62-68, 80-92, 97, 104-20, 127-49, 367. Ebn al-Aṯīr, V, pp. 20, 69, 90-100, 127-42, 149-88.
Dīnavarī, Cairo, 1960, pp. 332-43, 351, 357-84, 402, 405. Yaʿqūbī, Beirut, 1960, II, pp. 296-98, 327, 332, 341-46, 350-54, 364-68.
Ebn Ḵallekān, Cairo, 1950, II, pp. 324-30.
Taʾrīḵ al-ḵolafāʾ, ed. P. Gryaznevich, Moscow, 1962, fols. 250bf.
Taʾrīḵ Baḡdād X, pp. 207-10.
Ebn Qotayba, ʿOyūn al-aḵbār, Cairo, 1930, I, pp. 26, 134, 204-08.
Idem, al-Maʿāref, Cairo, 1060, pp. 370, 406-08, 420.
Moǰmal al-tawārīḵ, pp. 308, 315-16, 322-28.
J. Zaydān, Abū Moslem al-Ḵorāsānī, Cairo, 1933; for Persian translations, see Mošār, Fehrest I, cols. 103-04.
Ḡ. Ḥ. Yūsofī, Abū Moslem sardār-e Ḵorāsān, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966, (with extensive bibliog.).
ʿA. Zarrīnkūb, Do qarn-e sokūt, Tehran, 1336 Š./1957, pp. 216-17.
ʿA. A. Fayyāż, “Abū Moslem Ḵorāsānī,” Našrīya-ye farhang-e Ḵorāsān II, 1338 Š./1959; III, 1339-40 Š./1960-61.
Ḏ. Ṣafā, “Abū Moslem Ḵorāsānī,” Maǰalla-ye arteš 7, 1327 Š./1948, pp. 2-10.
M. J. Maḥǰūb, “Abū Moslem-nāma,” Soḵan 10, 1338 Š./1959, p. 36.
ʿAzīzī, La domination arabe et l’ épanouissement du sentiment national en Iran, Paris, 1938, pp. 100, 126, 131f.
R. N. Frye, “The Role of Abū Moslem in the Abbasid Revolt,” The Museum World 37, 1947, pp. 28-38.
R. Guest, “A Coin of Abū Muslim,” JRAS 1932, pp. 555-56.
S. Moscati, “Studi su Abū Muslim,” Rend. Lincei 4, 1949-50, pp. 323-25, 474-95; 5, 1950-51, pp. 89-105.
G. H. Sadighi, Les movements religieux iraniens au II e et III e siècle de l’Hégire, Paris, 1938, see index.
M. A. Shaban, The ʿAbbāsid Revolution, Cambridge, 1970, pp. 60, 137, 148-49, 153-63, 168.
G. van Vloten, Die Opkomst der Abbasiden in Chorasan, Leiden, 1890, pp. 61-75. J. Wellhousen, Das Arabische Reich und sein Sturz, Berlin, 1902, pp. 492-566.
Camb. Hist. Iran III, pp. 1003f.
On the Abū Moslem-nāma, see I. Melikoff, Le “porte-hache” du Khorasan dans la tradition épique turco-iranienne, Paris, 1962.
For the works resulting from the Lawḥī controversy, see al-Ḏarīʿa IV, pp. 150, 495-98; VI, p. 386; Shaikh, pp. 205-09; XI, p. 91; XVII, p. 236; XIX, pp28-29, 251, 292, 388.
(Ḡ. Ḥ. Yūsofī)
Originally Published: December 15, 1983
Last Updated: July 19, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 4, pp. 341-344