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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – The Abbasid Caliphate

The Abbasid Caliphate was the third and final dynasty of the Muslim empires that ruled the Middle East and North Africa between the death of the Prophet Muhammad and the Mongol invasions. Overthrowing the previous Umayyad caliphate, the Abbasids ruled from their capital in Baghdad from approximately 750 AD to 1258 AD. The period of Abbasid rule is remembered today as the Golden Age of Islam, an unprecedented time of cultural and scientific discovery. 

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on the Abbasid Caliphate


The Umayyad Caliphate had ruled over the Muslim world from 660 to 750 AD, with controlled lands stretching from the borders of India to the southernmost reaches of France. However, the caliphate’s size made it difficult to govern effectively from its capital of Damascus. Provincial Umayyad governors antagonized locals with their corruption, and non-Arabs were discriminated against. The Abbasid family mounted a rebellion against the Umayyads for these and other reasons. The Abbasid army, commanded by Saffah, scored a convincing victory against the Umayyads at the 750 Battle of the Zab in what is now present-day Iraq. 


Harun al-Rashid was one of the best-known Abbasid caliphs. Reigning from 786-809, Harun oversaw a massive influx of wealth into the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. This wealth is remarked upon in the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales known as The Thousand and One Nights. For much of his reign Harun entrusted the day-to-day running of the caliphate to the ambitious Barmakid family. Eventually, however, Harun would move against the Barmakids. This action would destabilize the caliphate and cause lasting tensions.  


During his reign Harun established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Initially a library, the House of Wisdom eventually became an academy of knowledge. Topics discussed within the House of Wisdom included astronomy, mathematics, and zoology. The House of Wisdom also compiled and preserved texts of many ancient philosophers, including Aristotle. 


The Battle of Talas was a consequential battle not just in Abbasid history but in the history of all of Asia. The 751 AD battle pitted Abbasid forces commanded by Ziyad ibn Salih against an army from China’s Tang Dynasty. The battle took place near the current border of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. General Salih won a decisive victory. Chinese influence in Central Asia would wane as a result, leading to the widespread adoption of Islam in the region.  


The grandson of Genghis Khan, Hulagu was the fourth great Khan of the Mongols. Reigning from 1256-1265, Hulagu Khan expanded Mongol power over Abbasid territory. The Abbasids had fallen far from their earlier heights of military power, and in 1258 Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad. The last Abbasid caliph, al-Musta’sim, was killed by Mongol forces, allegedly by being wrapped in a carpet and trampled by Mongol horsemen. 


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out: 

  • Check out this article to learn more about the strategic context leading up to the Battle of Talas.

  • Visit this website to learn more about the House of Wisdom and the scholars who frequented it.  

  • Islamic nations were leaders in science, medicine, and the arts during this period.  Read this article for more specifics on the scientific and literary legacy of the Abbasids. 

  • Hulagu Khan did not show any mercy towards the Abbasids. Watch this video about his campaign of conquest.

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