Caliph Al Musta’sim
Al Musta’sim Billah (1213 -1258) was the last ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate, and Islam’s last Caliph. A weak ruler ruling a weak rump of what had once been a mighty empire, Al Musta’sim was surrounded by ineffectual advisors who offered conflicting advice when the Mongols demanded his submission. He rejected the demands, ignoring some and answering others with bluster and empty threats, but failed to prepare adequate defenses against what was sure to follow such rejection.
The Mongols first erupted into the Islamic world in the 1220s, when Genghis Khan destroyed the Khwarezmian Empire and conquered as far west as western Persia up to the edges of Mesopotamia. That outburst was followed by a decades-long relative lull, as far as the Middle East and the Islamic world were concerned, when the Mongols directed their energies elsewhere, against China, Kievan Rus, Eastern Europe, and in internal squabbles amongst themselves. The lull ended in the 1250s, when a new Mongol ruler, Genghis Khan’s grandson Mongke, turned his attention to the Middle East and sent his brother, Hulagu, to assert Mongol power over the region.
Hulagu began by first destroying the Assassins, a murderous cult led by a shadowy mystic known as The Old Man of the Mountain, that operated from a string of mountain holdfasts and which had terrorized the Middle East for over a century and a half. Completing that task by 1256, Hulagu turned his attention to the Abbassid Caliphate, based in Baghdad, and ordered its Caliph, Al Musta’sim, to submit to Mongol suzerainty and pay tribute.
The Abbassids, once a powerful dynasty that ruled the world’s largest, strongest, and most prosperous empire, were centuries removed from their heyday by the time Al Musta’sim became Caliph. By the 1250s, the Abbasid Caliphate’s sway did not stretch far beyond Baghdad, and the Caliph had been reduced to a mostly ceremonial figurehead, a puppet of Turkish or Persian sultans wielding real power and acting in his name. What the Caliph did have left was a remnant of spiritual and moral authority, and enough pride to refuse Hulagu’s summons to submit.
The Abbasids were not prepared to face the Mongols, who had conquered bigger and tougher opponents than the small rump which still remained to the Abbasid Caliphate. However, Al Musta’sim believed that the Mongols would not be able to seize Baghdad, and that if the city was endangered, the Islamic world would rush to its aid. Hulagu marched on Baghdad, the Islamic world did not rush to its aid, and after a 12-day siege, the city fell. The Mongols sacked Baghdad, massacred its inhabitants, burned its vast libraries, and put the city to the torch. Al Musta’sim was captured, but the Mongols had a taboo against spilling royal blood. So they had him executed by rolling him in a carpet, and their army rode over him when it marched off to further conquests, their horses trampling the last Caliph to death.