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Al-Mutawakkil
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Al-Mutawakkil

Al-Mutawakkil Ala Allah Jafar bin al-Mu'tasim (821 - 861) was an Abbasid caliph who reigned (in Samarra) from 847 until 861. He succceeded his brother al-Wathiq.

Al-Mutawakkil was unlike his brother and father in that he was not known for having a thirst for knowledge, but he had an eye for magnificence and a hunger to build. The Great Mosque of Samarra was at its time, the largest mosque in the world; its minaret is a vast spiralling cone 55 m. high with a spiral ramp. The mosque had 17 aisles and its wall were panelled with mosaics of dark blue glass. The Great Mosque was just part of an extension of Samarra eastwards that built upon part of the walled royal hunting park inherited from the Sassanians. Al-Mutawakkil built as many as 20 palaces (the numbers vary in documents). Samarra became one of the largest cities of the ancient world; even the archaeological site of its ruins is one of the world's most extensive.

The caliph's building schemes extended to a new city, al-Ja'fariyya, which al-Mutawakkil built on the Tigris. More water, and al-Mutawakkil ordered a canal to be built to divert water from the Tigris, entrusting the project to two courtiers, who ignored the talents of a local engineer of repute and entrusted the work to al-Farghani, the great astronomer and writer. Al-Farghani who was not a specialist in public works, made a miscalculation and it appeared that the opening of the canal was too deep, so that water from the river would only flow at near full flood. News leaked to the infuriated caliph might have meant the heads of all concerned, save for the gracious actions of the engineer, Sind ibn Ali, who vouched for the eventual success of the project, thus risking his own life. Fortunately for all concerned al-Mutawakkil was assassinated shortly before the error became public.

Al-Mutawakkil was keen to involve himself in many religious debates, something that would show in his actions against different minorities. His father had tolerated the Shia Imam who taught and preached at Medina and for the first years of his reign al-Mutawakkil continued the policy. The Imam Ali al-Hadi's growing reputation inspired a letter from the Governor of Medina, ĎAbd Allah bin Muhammad suggesting that a coup was being plotted, and al-Mutawakkil extended an invitation to Samarra to the Imam, an offer he could not refuse. In Samarra the Imam was kept under virtuial house arrest, and spied upon but no excuse to take action against him ever appeared. After al-Mutawakkil's death, his successor had the Imam poisoned: Imam al-Hadi is buried at Samarra. The general population of Shias faced repression, and this was embodied in the destruction of the shrine of Husayn ibn Ali, an action that was carried out obstensibly in order to stop pilgrimages to that site. During his reign, the influence of the Mutazilites was reversed, and questions about over the divinity of the Quran were ended. This owed to the caliphs' personal devotion to studying the Sunnah of Muhammad.

Minority groups like the Nestorian Christians and Jews fared even worse. In a decree of 850 the caliph ordered that Christians and other ahl al-dhimma (أهل الذمة) be made to wear various specific identifying marks and honey-colored robes and even to make their slaves immediately identifiable in the marketplaces. These decrees also forced the destruction of all churches and synagogues built since Islam was established, confiscated one out of every ten Christian or Jewish homes, with the stipulation that, where suitable, mosques should occupy the sites, or that the sites should be left open. The doors of the remaining houses were to be identified by wooden images of devils that were to be nailed to them. The decree also stipulated that Jewish and Christian graves should be flat against the ground (which would identify them as non-Muslim ones). Al-Mutawakkil barred Jews and Christians from ruling over Muslims, thus effectively removing them from government service, and limited their schooling to that which was taught by Jews and Christians, forbidding Muslims from teaching them. The aggregate of these rulings can very plausibly be interpreted as a means of identifying the infidels, their women and even their slaves, the doorways of their houses, and their graves, in order to expose them to the wrath of the mob.

Despite these actions, al-Mutawakkil's reign is remembered for its many reforms and viewed as a golden age of the Abbasids. He would be the last great Abbasid caliph, and after his death the dynasty would fall into a decline.

Mutawakkil continued to rely on Turkish slave soldiers to put down rebellions and lead battles against foreign empires, notably the Byzantines from who Sicily was captured.

His reliance on Turkish soldiers would come back to haunt him. Al-Mutawakkil would have his Turkish commander-in-chief killed. This coupled with his extreme attitudes towards the Shia made his popularity decline rapidly. Al-Mutawakkil would die in 861. He was murdered by a Turkish soldier. Some have speculated that his murder was part of a plot hatched by his son, Al-Muntasir who had grown estranged from his father.

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Preceded by:
al-Wathiq
Abbasid Leader Succeeded by:
al-Muntasir
Caliph