Abu al-‘Abbās ‘Abdu'llāh as-Saffāḥ
أبو العباس عبد الله السفّاح

As-Saffah is proclaimed the caliph, from Balami's Tarikhnama
1st Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate
Reign 25 January 750 – 10 June 754
Predecessor Dynasty established
Marwan II as Umayyad Caliph
Successor al-Mansur
Born 721
Died 10 June 754 (aged 33)
Spouse Umm Salamah bint al-Makhzum
Issue Raitah bint As-Saffah
Full name
Kunya: Abul-Abbas
Given name: Abdullah
Laqab: as-Saffah
Nasab: Abdullah ibn Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Abdullah ibn Abbas ibn Abdul Muttalib ibn Hashim
Father Muhammad
Mother Raita Al-Harsia
Religion Islam

Abu al-‘Abbās ‘Abdu'llāh ibn Muhammad as-Saffāḥ, or Abul `Abbas al-Saffaḥ (Arabic: أبو العباس عبد الله بن محمد السفّاح) (b. 721/722 AD – d. 10 June 754) was the first caliph of the Abbasid caliphate, one of the longest and most important caliphates (Islamic dynasties) in Islamic history. (Due to different traditions of transcribing Arabic names, the spellings As-Saffah and Al-Saffah may both be found.)

As-Saffāḥ (السفّاح) is a messianic religious title from hadith literature on the mahdi, which, in older Arabic, meant the Generous[1] from the Arabic verb yasfaḥ, "to pour out," implying the future ruler would be liberal in dispensing wealth to Muslims. (In Modern Arabic this word has taken a negative connotation: One who pours out blood/thug).[2] The new caliph appropriated this messianic title in his first sermon in Kufa in 749 AD.[3] A weaker alternative explanation of the title is slaughterer or shedder of blood for his ruthless efforts to eliminate the rival Umayyad family - unlikely, however, since no caliph would have appropriated the title for himself if that were the original meaning.

Family origins and earlier history

As-Saffāḥ was head of one branch of the Banu Hāshim from Arabia, a subclan of the Quraysh tribe who traced their lineage to Hāshim, a great-grandfather of Muhammad via 'Abbās, an uncle of Muhammad, hence the title "Abbasid" for his descendants' caliphate. This indirect link to Muhammad's larger clan formed sufficient basis for As-Saffah's claim to the title caliph. However, the tradition that 'Abbās himself never converted to Islam, or only did so halfheartedly, weakened that legitimacy.

As narrated in many hadith, many believed that in the end times a great leader or mahdi would appear from the family of Muhammad, to which Ali belonged, who would deliver Islam from corrupt leadership. The half-hearted policies of the late Umayyads to tolerate non-Arab Muslims and Shi'as had failed to quell unrest among these minorities.

During the reign of late Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik this unrest led to mutiny and revolt in Kufa in southern Iraq, mainly from the slaves of the town. Shi'ites revolted in 736 and held the city until 740, led by Zayd ibn Ali, a grandson of Husayn and another member of the Banu Hashim. Zayd's rebellion failed, and was put down by Umayyad armies in 740. The revolt in Kufa indicated both the strength of the Umayyads and the growing unrest in the Muslim world.

During the last days of the Umayyad caliphate, Abu al-‘Abbās and his clan chose to begin their rebellion in Khurasān, an important, but remote military region comprising eastern Iran, southern parts of the modern Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and northern Afghanistan. In 743, the death of the Umayyad Caliph Hishām provoked a rebellion in the east. Abu al-`Abbās, supported by Shi'as and the residents of Khurasān, led his forces to victory over the Umayyads and The civil war was marked by millennial prophecies encouraged by the beliefs of some Shi'as that As-Saffāḥ was the mahdi. In Shi'ite works such as the Al-Jafr faithful Muslims were told that the brutal civil war was the great conflict between good and evil. The choice of the Umayyads to enter battle with white flags and the Abbasids to enter with black encouraged such theories. The color white, however, was regarded in much of Persia as a sign of mourning.

As-Saffah's Caliphate

In early October 749 (132 AH), Abu al-'Abbās as-Saffāh's rebel army entered Kufa, a major Muslim center in Southern Iraq, and as-Saffah was not really declared caliph. His first or maybe second or third priority was to eliminate his Umayyad rival, caliph Marwan II. The latter was defeated in February 750 at a battle on the (Great) Zab river north of Baghdad, effectively ending the Umayyad caliphate, which had ruled since 661 AD. Marwan II fled back to Damascus, which didn't welcome him, and was ultimately killed on the run in Egypt that August.[4]

In one far-reaching, historic decision, as-Saffāh established Kufa as the new capital of the caliphate, ending the dominance of Damascus in the Islamic political world, and Iraq would now become the seat of 'Abbassid power for many centuries.

Later tales recount that, concerned that there would be a return of rival Umayyad power, as-Saffāh invited all of the remaining members of the Umayyad family to a dinner party where he had them clubbed to death before the first course, which was then served to the hosts.[5] The only survivor, Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu'awiya, escaped to the province of al-Andalus (Spain), where the Umayyad caliphate would endure for three centuries in the west in the Emirate of Córdoba. Another version is that as-Saffāḥ's new governor to Syria, 'Abd Allāh ibn 'Ali, hunted down the last of the family dynasty, with only Abd al-Rahmān escaping. Ultimately, 'Abbasid rule was accepted even in Syria, and the beginning of the new Islamic dynasty was "free from major internal dissensions."[6]

As-Saffāh's four-year reign was marked with efforts to consolidate and rebuild the caliphate. His supporters were represented in the new government, but apart from his policy toward the Umayyad family, as-Saffāh is widely viewed by historians as having been a mild victor. Jews, Nestorian Christians, and Persians were well represented in his government and in succeeding Abbasid administrations. Education was also encouraged, and the first paper mills, staffed by skilled Chinese prisoners captured at the Battle of Talas, were set up in Samarkand.

Equally revolutionary was as-Saffāh's reform of the army, which came to include non-Muslims and non-Arabs in sharp contrast to the Umayyads who refused any soldiers of either type. As-Saffāh selected the gifted Abu Muslim as his military commander, an officer who would serve until 755 in the Abbasid army.

Not all Muslims accept the legitimacy of his caliphate, however. According to later Shi'ites, as-Saffāh turned back on his promises to the partisans of the Alids in claiming the title caliph for himself. The Shi'a had hoped that their imam would be named head of the caliphate, inaugurating the era of peace and prosperity the millennialists had believed would come. The betrayal alienated as-Saffāh's Shi'a supporters, although the continued amity of other groups made Abbasid rule markedly more solvent than that of the Umayyads.

Caliph Abu al-`Abbās `Abdu’llāh as-Saffāḥ died of smallpox on June 10, 754 (136 AH), only four years after taking the title of caliph. Before he died, as-Saffah appointed his brother Abu Ja'far al-Mansur[7] and, following him, the caliph's nephew Isa ibn Musa as his successors. (Ibn Musa, however, never filled the position.)


  1. Mahdi. The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd. ed. Editors P. Bearman et al. (page 1233).
  2. Modern meaning of saffāḥ in Google Translate:السفاح
  3. Mahdi. The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd. ed. Editors P. Bearman et al. (page 1233).
  4. Kennedy, H. (2004). The prophet and the age of the caliphates. 2nd ed.
  5. Roberts, J: History of the World. Penguin, 1994.
  6. Kennedy, H. (2004). The prophet and the age of the caliphates. 2nd ed. Page 129.
  7. History of Banu Abbas's Caliphates


External links

of the Ahl al-Bayt
Clan of the Banu Quraish
Born: 721 CE Died: 10 June 754 CE
Shia Islam titles
Preceded by
Ebrāheem "al-Imām"
The Seventh Imām of
Hashimiyya Kaysanites Shia
Abu'l-`Abbas `Abdu'llāh ibn Muhammad "al-Imām"
The Eighth Imam of Hashimiyya
Kaysanites Shia

? – 9 June 754
Succeeded by
Abu Ja`far `Abdu'llāh ibn Muhammad
Ninth and the last Imām of
Hashimiyya Kaysanites Shia
Born: 721 Died: 754
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by
Marwan II
First Caliph of the Abbasid Dynasty
Succeeded by
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