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Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate

(661 - 750 CE)


Upon Muhammad's death, a hastily collected group of prominent Muslim leaders elected Muhammed's father in law, Abu Bakr, to be the secular head of Islam. However, 'Ali, Muhammed's son-in-law and cousin, was not part of this committee nor were other members of Muhammed's immediate family, and many believed that Muhammed had designated 'Ali as a successor, for the Traditions had Muhammed naming him as both his brother and his successor. 'Ali had been raised with Muhammed and was the second person (after Muhammed's wife Khadija) to recognize Muhammed's role as a prophet; he was the first of Muhammed's tribe to declare himself an apostle (rasul ). But the Meccan and Medinan leaders, with no members of Muhammed's house present, gave their allegiance to Abu Bakr as CalipH and attempted through force of arms to coerce 'Ali into acknowledging Abu Bakr as well. However, during the Caliphates of Abu Bakr and his successor, 'Umar, not only did 'Ali not advance any claims to the Caliphate, he even participated in the government of 'Umar. It was not until the Caliphate passed to 'Uthman, who ruled somewhat degenerately and was a member of the Umayya family, which had fiercely fought against Muhammed during his lifetime, that 'Ali was provoked into accepting the Caliphate. 'Uthman placed members of his family in charge of various provinces and they ruled disgracefully; various rebel factions, seeing their grievances unredressed, attacked 'Uthman's house and assassinated him. The prominent families of Medina and other areas persuaded 'Ali to become Caliph, which he did in 656; 'Ali had become the fourth Caliph of Islam and the last of the Patriarchal caliphs.

The Umayyads in charge of the various governments would not accept this arrangement and rose up in rebellion and named Mu'awiyya caliph. Eventually, 'Ali would be forced to flee Medina and settle in Kufa in Iraq. 'Ali would eventually have to contend with dissension in his own army while fighting the Umayyads; after defeating these dissenters in battle, he would be assassinated a few years later by one of them in revenge for this defeat.

From this point onwards, authority was divided in the Islamic world. The Umayyads continued to pass the Caliphate down through the ages among their family; but their now existed in Iraq a separate Islamic community that did not recognize the authority of the Umayyad Caliphs. Rather they recognized only the successors to 'Ali as authorities, and they gave these successors the title Imam, or spiritual leader of Islam, both to differentiate their leaders from the more worldly and secular Umayyads and because Abu Muhammed Hasan ibn 'Ali, the second Imam, ceded the Caliphate to the Umayyads. A grand total of ten Imams succeeded 'Ali, passing the Imamate down to their sons in hereditary succession. However, the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari, died without a son, and the Shi'ites were thrown into disarray. Shi'a Islam divided into several different sects, the most important of which was the Qat'iyya ("those who are certain"). The Qat'iyya believed that Hasan al-Askari did indeed have a son, Muhammed al-Mahdi; one of the Qat'iyya sects believed that Muhammed al-Mahdi, the twelfth Imam, had hidden himself and remained in hiding. This sect was called Ithna-'Ashari (Twelver) or Imami (Imam) Shi'a, and was the form of Shi'a that eventually came to exclusively represent Shi'ism.

The Kharjites

The civil war between the followers of 'Ali (Shi'a 'Ali) and the Umayyads produced another Islamic faction, the Kharjites, which would be a force in early Islamic history. The Kharjites were originally followers of 'Ali who grew disaffected when 'Ali began bargaining with the Umayyads. 'Ali's strength had always been his religious piety and his firm conviction that the Islamic world had strayed from its ethical and religious principles. He attracted followers that were equally devout and equally zealous—when he began to strike bargains with the Umayyads, some of these followers felt that now 'Ali, too, had betrayed Islam. They formed a separate faction, the Kharjites, and took it upon themselves to carry the banner for Islamic purity. One of their most significant first acts was the assassination of 'Ali.

Many people in early Islam agreed in principle with the Kharjites and mourned the steady secularization of the Islamic leadership and the Islamic world. However, many who did not agree with the Kharjites still rallied around them. Throughout the Umayyad and the early Abassid period, the Kharjite movement was the center of almost all the opposition to these two caliphate dynasties. There are still Kharjites around today, mainly in North Africa and southern Arabia, but they were the most significant oppositional group in early Islam.

The Umayyad Dynasty

The Umayyads do not fare well in Islamic history which tells a tale of an unremitting line degenerate and weak caliphs; western historians have for the most part accepted this history. But the truth may be somewhat grayer. The Umayyads saw a great expansion of Islamic empire and were responsible for building a highly efficient and lasting governmental structure. The Umayyad caliphs could be startlingly brilliant both militarily and politically. And there is no question, that Islamic material and artistic culture has its roots in the Umayyad dynasty and the courts of Umayyad power.

This is not to say that the Umayyad caliphate was not unmarred by degeneracy and downright cruelty. But the Umayyads seem to be fairly uninterested in religious questions or the religious obligations of their position—it is rather as secular and secularizing rulers that their interest and greatness lies.

Muhammad and the Patriarchal Caliphs integrated themselves closely with the Islamic community—the entire religion is founded on an unprecedented egalitarianism. These caliphs lived fairly normal and unpretentious lives and did not seek to separate themselves in dress or manner from the community they ruled. Mu'awiyya and the Umayyads, however, adopted models of kingship from surrounding peoples. They separated their court from the Muslim community and surrounded themselves with wealth and ceremony. This was a model of leadership based on the idea that authority was vested in super-normal individuals, a radically different turn of events in the Muslim world. This model, however, is what kept the new empire together. While nomadic and sedentary Arabs were completely accustomed to the tribal patriarchal model that the early caliphs followed, subject populations only understood authority as it was vested in a powerful and distant monarch. Under the Umayyads, then, the caliphate became something much closer to a monarchy rather than a tribal or religious leadership.

The first Umayyad caliph, Mu'awiyya, also introduced a new method of selecting caliphs. The caliphate was a unique institution in that the caliph was elected by a small group of powerful tribal leaders. Mu'awiyya convinced the most powerful to recognize his son, Yazid, as the next caliph. Technically, Yazid was still elected; in reality, he was selected by his father to succeed him. This would become the model of caliphal succession—the reigning caliph would name his successor and the notable would elect that named successor. So the Umayyad caliphate was essentially a hereditary dynasty. It is for this reason that Islamic historians do not call the Umayyad period a caliphate, but rather use the term "kingdom" (mulk).

The Umayyads wrought many changes in Islamic government. The most significant of these was the adoption of Byzantine administrative and financial systems. Mu'awiyya had moved the administrative center of Islam from Medina to Damascus in Syria, right in the heart of the Byzantine presence in the Fertile Crescent. He was persuaded by his closest advisors to adopt the Byzantine administration he found in Damascus and he appointed a large number of Byzantine administrators and counselors—almost all of these were Christians.

The establishment of wealth and monarchical trappings led to bitter opposition among many Muslims. It was seen as a fundamental perversion of the religious and social principles of Islam. At the same time, however, the establishment of a monarchical and court culture began an efflorescence of Islamic culture in art, architecture, and writing.

Despite much of the irreligious character of his caliphate, Mu'awiyya was an enormously brilliant and effective ruler. During his tenure, Islam enjoyed twenty years of internal peace and solidified its control over Iraq and Iran. Mu'awiyya was an effective adminstrator and staffed administrative positions with the best administrators he could find. He also embodied fully the Arabic virtue of hilm, or "leniency," and generously forgave even some of his worst enemies. That forgiveness and leniency is what helped to establish the new administrative structure the Umayyads were building.

Second Civil War (680-694)

With the death of Mu'awiyya in 680 and the succession of his son, Yazid, a second civil war broke out with the followers of 'Ali. Yazid had some of the administrative effectiveness of Mu'awiyya, but none of the moral restraint and certainly no portion of the hilm that characterized his father. Anxious to force 'Ali's son, Husayn, to recognize his authority, Yazid eventually killed Husayn and a handful of his followers at Karbala in Iraq. This intemperate act inspired the people of Medina to revolt—Yazid put down this revolt and then laid siege to Mecca. In the middle of the siege, however, he died, and the caliphate was bestowed on his adolescent son, Mu'awiyya II. But the young boy soon died and the Islamic world fell into disarray over competing claims to the caliphate—the hereditary caliphate was still too young in its establishment.

The Arabian people were by now scattered all over the Islamic world. Two tribes based in Syria, the Qays and the Kalb, rallied around two separate candidates for caliph: Marwan ibn al-Hakam and Ibn al-Zubayr. A bitter war was fought between the two tribes and Marwan, backed by the Kalbites, became caliph in 684 and founded a new Umayyad dynasty. But because he died a year later, the reconquest of Islamic lands would fall to his son 'Abd al-Malik, who ruled from 685 to 705 (65-86 AH). When 'Abd al-Malik became caliph, all of Arabia was under the control of his rival, Ibn al-Zubayr, while much of Iraq had fallen under the control of a rebel named al-Mukhtar. al-Mukhtar was defeated by Ibn al-Zubayr and, in 692, 'Abd al-Malik defeated Ibn al-Zubayr at Mecca. So desperate was he for victory, that he showered Mecca and the Ka'aba with catapults and freely destroyed the holy place.

His victory cemented Umayyad control over Islam; however, both the Shi'a and the Kharjites would remain powerful oppositional forces.

The Later Umayyads

With the Islamic world enjoying a measure of stability, Abd al-Malik's son and successor, al-Walid I (705-715 AD/86-96 AH), began again Islamic conquests and took the early Islamic empire to its farthest extents. He reconquered parts of Egypt from the Byzantines and moved on into Carthage and across to the west of North Africa. Then, in 711, Muslim armies crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and began to conquer Spain using North African Berber armies. By 716, the Visigoths of Spain had been defeated and Spain was under Muslim control. This would be the farthest extent of Islamic control of Europe—in 736, they were stopped in their expansion into Europe south of Tours, France. In the east, Islamic armies made it as far as the Indus River in 710—under al-Walid, the caliphal empire stretched from Spain to India!

Al-Walid also began the first great buiilding projects of Islam, the most famous of which is the mosque at Damascus. The long history of Islamic architecture really begins with al-Walid. This is also the period, however, in which Islamic court culture begins to germinate. With the caliph as a patron, artists and writers begin to develop a new, partly secular culture based on Islamic ideas.

It was also al-Walid that coupled islamicization with arabicization. Conversion was not forced on conquered peoples; however, since non-believers had to pay an extra tax and were not technically citizens, many people did convert for religious and non-religious reasons. This created several problems, particularly since Islam was so closely connected with being Arab—being Arab, of course, was more than an ethnic identity, it was a tribal identity based on kinship and descent. As more and more Muslims were non-Arabs, the status of Arabs and their culture became threatened. In particular, large numbers of Coptic-speaking (Egypt) and Persian-speaking Muslims threatened the primacy of the very language that Islam is based on. In part to alleviate that threat, al-Walid instituted Arabic as the only official language of the empire. He decreed that all administration was to be done only in Arabic. It was this move that would cement the primacy of Arabic language and culture in the Islamic world.

The Fall of the Umayyads

 None of the remaining Marwani caliphs enjoyed long reigns except for Hisham, who ruled from 724-744 (105-132). During this period, the Muslims expanded out of Spain and into France until their advance was finally stopped by the Franks in 736.

When Hisham died in 743, the empire collapsed into a series of rebellions mostly by disaffected non-Arabs and by the Kharjites. It was one such rebellious group, the 'Abassids, that would finally overthrow the dynasty. The 'Abassids were descendants of al-Abbas, the paternal uncle of Muhammad. Like the followers of 'Ali and the Kharjites, the 'Abassids believed that the spirit of Islam had been betrayed by the secular-minded Umayyads—as relatives of Muhammad, their pietism had a concrete character to it.

It was when the 'Abassids allied themselves with the 'Alids that the death-knell of Umayyad power was sounded. With their combined forces, they defeated the last of the Marwani calphis, Marwan II (744-750/127-32), who was later murdered. The leader of the 'Abassids, Abu'l-'Abbas, went about systematically and ruthlessly killing as many Umayyads as he could find.

Sources: Islam from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission.