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Coin Mutawakkil.JPG
A coin from 233 A.H (847 C.E) with Mutawakkil Ala Allah inscribed on the back
Abbasid Caliph
Reign 847 - 861
Predecessor Al-Wathiq
Successor Al-Muntasir
Born 821
Died 861
Al-Mutawakkil Ala Allah Ja'far ibn al-Mu'tasim (Arabic المتوكل على الله جعفر بن المعتصم) was the tenth Abbasid caliph, who ruled for 14 years between 847 C.E to 861 C.E. He succeeded his brother Al-Wathiq and his reign marked the second most extensive phase of developing the city of Samarra; construction of the Grand Mosque of Sammara being one of his achievements. His relationship with the 10th Shi'ite Imam Ali al-Hadi was tyrannical in nature and he is known for persecuting, imprisoning and placing economic blockades on the Imam.

He was killed during an assassination plot orchestrated by his own son al-Muntasir who then succeeded him as the caliph.



Mutawakkil was the son of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mu'tasim and his mother was a slave from Khwarizm named Shuja. As a young man he held no political or military position of importance, however after the death of his brother al-Wathiq he succeeded him in becoming a caliph at the age of 27. It was during the course of his caliphate that the Abbasid dynasty began to see definite signs of political disarray and fragmentation.

Al-Wathiq held an intense grudge against Mutawakkil and did not wish for him to succeed as caliph after him. The vizier of al-Wathiq, namely Muhammad ibn Abd al-Malik ibn al-Zayyat encouraged him to designate his infant son Muhammad as his successor. Mutawakkil was forced to approach other ministers within the court of the caliphate; however he was rebuffed by both Ibn al-Zayyat and the financial clerk Umar bin Faraj ar-Rakhji.[1] In 847, after the sudden death of al-Wathiq, a council which included Ibn al-Zayyat and Umar bin Faraj convened in order to select his successor. After a brief debate, Mutawakkil was selected as the caliph.

As a caliph, he immediately began punishing government officials who had mistreated him during the caliphate of his brother. In his personal and palace life he was known for his excessive joking, drinking and was often times occupied with his sexual life. Historians have recorded that his concubines numbered approximately five-thousand and he had slept with all of them. He was also known for his encounters with Mahbuba, one of the closest bondmaids of Mutawakkil. She was a skilled singer, poety and lutenist who was originally purchased as a gift for the caliph by Ubaydillah bin Tahir and given amongst four-hundred other bondmaids.

Various rebellions and revolts took place during the reign of Mutawakkil, notably by the Armenians and by the Bujah, both of which resulted in victory for Mutawakkil.


Mutawakkil's reign has been characterized as both an era of commercial growth, but as well as a reign that was occupied with injustice and tyranny. Soon after ascending to the position of caliphate, Mutawakkil continued work on the development of the city of Samarra which was initiated by his father Mu'tasim. Mutawakkil assigned existing palaces to two of his sons al-Muntasir and al-Mu'ayyad, and ordered a third one to be built for his son al-Mu'tazz. One of his largest projects was the construction of the Great Mosque of Sammara which was at one point the largest mosque in the world.

During his reign, he brought upon a strong opposition against the Mu'tazallites whose doctrines were banned and discussion about them was forbidden. He put an end to the Mihna, the inquisition launched by al-Ma'mun in the year 849 C.E. He called together a number of legal scholars and hadith transmitters and after distributing to them gifts and alloting them stipends, instructed them to go out among the people and recite hadith condemning the doctrines of the Mu'tazila.[2]

In terms of his policies towards the general population, Mutawakkil was known to possess deep enmity towards the Shi'ites. During the span of his reign, Mutawakkil ordered for the shrine of Imam Husain ibn Ali to be destroyed multiple times. He also subsequently forbid the pilgrimage to his shrine and would arrest or kill anyone who tried to do so.[3] On four occasions the entire city of Karbala was demolished with the lives of many Shi'ite residents affected. Some of the governors of Mutawakkil who demolished the shrine of Imam Husain were Ibrahim ad-Daizaj who demolished the tomb in 233 and 236 AH, and Umar bin Faraj who demolished the tomb in 237 AH.

Mutawakkil imposed economic sanctions on the Shi'ite population and officially prohibited anyone from assisting them. Poverty among the Shi'ite residents reached such an extent that many women would share one dress with each other. One of them would wear it to offer prayers and then another. Women would sit at their spindle semi-naked with unveiled heads due to the sanctions and poverty that befell them.[4] Mutawakkil would offer poets various monetary gifts if they would compose poetry defaming the Shi'ites and their beliefs.

Mutawakkil also heavily persecuted the Jews and the Christians who lived under his regime. Under him, they were ousted from government posts and were required to wear a distinctive colour of dress, honey-coloured hoods and belts of a particular type. They were also made to put coloured patches on the garmets of their slaves, ride only on mules and attach wooden devilts to their doors.

Relations with Imam Ali al-Hadi

Imam Ali al-Hadi had a positive reputation in the city of Medina where he would utilize the mosque of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to teach about matters pertaining to the religion. Abdullah ibn Muhammad, a guardian of the city of Medina appointed by Mutawakkil misinformed the caliph of the growing number of followers that the Imam was gaining could pose a threat to the government. Shortly after, the Imam was forced to move to Samarra and was placed under house-arrest by Mutawakkil. He generally displayed a strange relationship with the Imam, often using and trusting him with his own personal affairs that benefited him, but otherwise showed resentment towards him.

Mutawakkil imposed an economic blockade on the Imam and his family and prevented finances to reach him and his followers. Often times the followers of the Imam would pretend to sell oil and in the bottles of oil they would conceal money for the Imam and his family. The Imam's house in Samarra was once attacked after Mutawakkil was informed that arms were being delivered to the Imam. Out of fear, Mutawakkil ordered his Turk henchmen to raid the house and arrest him. Nothing substantial was found during the raid. For a short time, Mutawakkil had also imprisoned the Imam and ordered for a grave to be dug in the prison cell in order to intimidate the Imam.

Despite his efforts to undermine Imam al-Hadi, Mutawakkil grew tired of seeing his efforts go to vain. He devised a plot to assassinate the Imam and put an end to his life, but failed. Having given up on killing the Imam, he decided to humiliate and degrade him further through other means. He ordered that the Imam, along with some of his other officials, would have to travel on foot during a hot day while he himself would remain mounted on a horse. One of the chamberlain of Mutawakkil by the name of Zuraqa wiped the sweat off the Imam with his handkerchief. The Imam recited the Qur'anic verse to him: Enjoy yourselves in your abode for three days, that is a promise not to be belied.[5] Zuraqa narrated the event to a teacher of his, who was Shi'a. The teacher informed him that the Imam had predicted the death of Mutawakkil and that he would die after three days. Mutawakkil did not live for more than three days after this event.


Al-Mutawakkil and his vizier Fath ibn Khaqan were killed during the month of December in the year 861 C.E. Mutawakkil's assassination was orchestrated by his son al-Muntasir who was hated by his father. Furthermore, Mutawakkil's constant negative attitude towards his son implied that he would have his own son killed. Thus fearing his own death, Muntasir devised a plot with the help of two Turks: Wasif and Bugha. During the execution of the plot, Turkish soldiers attacked Mutwakkil in the night and cut him and his vizier into pieces to the extent that their flesh could not be distinguished from each other. Al-Masudi records the last moments of Mutawakkil's life as follow:

Meanwhile, Mutawakkil had become very drunk. It was the custom for the eunuchs who were in attendance to sit him up again when his body slumped under the effects of drunkenness.

At this moment - it was about the third hour of the night - Baghir appeared, accompanies by ten Turks. Their faces were veiled and the swords which they were holding in their hands glittered in the light of the candles. They hurled themselves at us, making straight for the Caliph. Baghir and another Turk having climbed onto the throne, Fath cried to them:

"Wretched creatures, that is your master!"

Meanwhile, the pages, courtiers and guests had fled in all haste. Fath remained alone in the room, fighting the assassins and driving them back.

"I heard," adds Buhtari, "the cries given by Mutawakkil when Baghir struck him on the right side with the sword which the Caliph had given him and cut him to the hip. Then he struck him again on the left side and gave him a similar wound.

. . . The two corpses, rolled in the carpet on which they had been struck down, were pushed into a corner, where they remained that night and for most of the following day. At last, when Muntasir was recognized as Caliph, he gave the order for them to be buried together.[6]

The assassination of Mutawakkil's began the nine-year period of troubles known as the Anarchy at Samarra.


  1. Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Hārūn Al-Rashīd and the Narrative of the ʻAbbāsid Caliphate, by Tayeb El-Hibri; pg 180 | ISBN 0521650232
  2. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800, by Jonathan P. Berkey; pg 128 | ISBN 0521588138
  3. E.J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936, by M. Th Houtsma; pg 786 | ISBN 9004082654
  4. Maqaatil al-Talibeen (مقاتل الطالبيين), by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani
  5. Qur'an, Surah Hud (11); verse 65
  6. Meadows of Gold, by Al-Masudi, Translated and edited by Paule Lunche and Caroline Stone; pg 260 | ISBN 0710302460
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