The Umayyads: Islam’s first caliphal dynasty

Like his second cousin, ‘Uthman, Mu‘awiya was a member of the aristocratic Banu Umayya clan from which the designation ‘Umayyad’ comes. He was the first caliph of a younger generation but had served as the Prophet’s secretary late in the latter’s life and was generally accepted by the community as a sensible choice of leader. He reunited the empire, which had been fractured by civil strife throughout ‘Ali’s caliphate, and the dynasty he established ruled it for the next 90 years. His successors constructed an imperial identity manifested in administration, architecture and coinage, and presided over the first phase in the creation of the Islamic culture and society which flowered under the ‘Abbasids. The first important change which Mu‘awiya made was to transfer the caliphal seat from Medina to Damascus in recognition of the shifting geopolitical centre of the Islamic empire.

Despite its cachet as the city of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Caliphs, Medina was a small city in remote Arabia from which it was impossible to adequately direct the conquests or administer an empire. Damascus, in contrast, was still in easy reach of Islam’s birthplace to the south, but also placed the caliph in the heart of Byzantine Syria and within striking distance of Mesopotamia.

Damascus was also a city imbued with Byzantine and classical influences which inspired Mu‘awiya’s descendants to develop a new style of rule, using Byzantine models but also proudly Arab and Islamic. This was partly a matter of practicality: when the Umayyads came to power there was still a dearth of educated Arabs who could be recruited into the administration. The Umayyads therefore employed many from the pool of experienced Greek and Aramaic-speaking Christian administrators who had served the Byzantines and Sasanians and who worked very much as they had under their previous masters until the language of administration began to switch to Arabic in the 680s. Even then, many staff learnt Arabic to keep their jobs, and a high level of continuity still characterized administrative practices. At the same time, Muslims, both Arab and non-Arab, became part of the administrative community and contributed to the Islamization of a governmental culture of diverse origins. Although the Umayyad administration seems decentralized and rudimentary in comparison with that of their ‘Abbasid successors, it is largely thanks to their efforts that the ‘Abbasids could inherit an Islamic empire at all. Despite their achievements, the Umayyads became notorious for a number of actions which irrevocably tarnished their reputation and paved the way for the ‘Abbasid revolution in 750. The first of these was Mu‘awiya’s decision to nominate his son Yazid as his successor, thereby introducing hereditary rule to the caliphate. This may have been an honest decision in the sense that Mu‘awiya might genuinely have felt that his legacy was safest with Yazid, but many Muslims felt uncomfortable with the very idea of Yazid’s accession. Al-Tabari even has Mu‘awiya’s right-hand man, Ziyad, worrying about it and confiding to another advisor: ‘Mu‘awiya hopes for the people’s agreement and asks for my advice. Support for Islam and its security is important, while Yazid is easy-going and neglectful, given his devotion to hunting!’ This other advisor wisely suggested secretly informing Yazid of his father’s quandary and recommending that he mend his ways, which he supposedly did. However, according to a circular attributed to the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813–33), and brought out of the archives again in the 890s as part of a drive against lingering popular respect for the Umayyads, this was Mu‘awiya’s most nefarious act, indicating his ‘disdainful attitude to the religion of God, manifested in his calling God’s servants to acknowledge the succession of his son, Yazid, that arrogant drunken sot, that owner of cocks, cheetahs, and monkeys’.

Such vitriol was not really about Yazid but the anomaly of the caliphate becoming hereditary in a clan other than the family of the Prophet, the ‘people of the house’ (ahl al-bayt), which included not only ‘Ali and Fatima’s surviving son, Husayn, but also a plethora of cousins, uncles and nephews who were all part of the extended kin-group which Arabs of the time considered ‘family’. When Yazid succeeded his father in 680, a reaction from ‘Ali’s younger son Husayn, now head of the ‘Alid clan, was not long in coming, leading to the second Umayyad step towards infamy. Husayn decided to militarily challenge Yazid in an episode reminiscent of his father ‘Ali’s fateful encounter with Mu‘awiya 23 years before and started a rebellion in Kufa. This time around, the Umayyad caliph did not personally participate but ordered the governor of Iraq to quell Husayn’s uprising.

As the Umayyad force approached, Husayn’s lukewarm supporters melted away, leaving him isolated with a few family and friends on the dry and dusty plain of Karbala’, with the mirage of the Euphrates shimmering in the far distance, taunting the exhausted and thirsty band who had been prevented from drinking by Umayyad forces. Despite the hesitation of many of the soldiers when faced with the prospect of harming members of the Prophet’s family, a massacre ensued in which the Prophet’s grandson and many of his descendants were murdered in cold blood. The battle is recounted by al-Tabari as a series of shameful and tragic vignettes: Husayn’s radiant sister, Zaynab, pleading for mercy as the women’s tents were set on fire; his teenage nephew, al-Qasim, struck down by a sword blow to his head, carried off the field by his grieving uncle, ‘the two feet of the boy leaving tracks in the ground while Husayn held his breast close to his own’; and, most poignantly of all, Husayn’s infant son, killed by a stray arrow as he sat on his father’s lap before the final onslaught in which Husayn himself died fighting bravely.

Although Yazid is said to have wept when he discovered the extent of the killing and treated well the surviving women and children who were brought to Damascus, this act blackened the name of the Umayyads forever among the Shi‘a and generated consternation and ambivalence among the Muslim community as a whole. That said, it is noteworthy that the amount of real political fall-out from this event was small, and a greater challenge to Yazid’s authority came from the Hijaz, where Ibn Zubayr, the son of one of ‘Ali’s opponents at the Battle of the Camel, declared himself caliph in support of the Medinese rather than Umayyad version of the caliphate. Yazid died trying to evict Ibn Zubayr from Mecca, and his teenage son followed him to the grave shortly afterwards – divine retribution for his killing of Husayn in the eyes of some – but even this succession of blows did not destroy the Umayyad caliphate, which passed instead to the Marwanid branch of the clan who consolidated their hold on power. The Umayyads’ tenacity suggests that despite their later vilification in the historical record and the later religious significance of Husayn’s death as a martyr for Shi‘i Muslims, their claim to the caliphate as the clan of ‘Uthman was acceptable to many Muslims at the time, a view confirmed by repeated ‘Abbasid attempts to discredit their predecessors for the next century and a half.

While the ‘Alid and Umayyad clans competed for the caliphate, Muslim armies continued to bring more of the ancient world under Islamic rule. To the east, Muslim forces moved steadily across the Iranian plateau into Khurasan and crossed the Oxus into Central Asia, a region known in Arabic as ma warra al-nahr (that which lies beyond the river), an almost exact translation of its older Graeco-Roman name of Transoxania, the land across the Oxus. Traders and soldiers also advanced southeastwards into Sind in India, possibly following the trade routes already established in Sasanian times. To the west, the governor of Egypt initiated the conquest of Byzantium’s North African holdings in Tunisia, which became the Muslim province of Ifriqiya, the Arabic word for Africa. Muslim forces then advanced slowly across the rest of North Africa to the Byzantine outposts of Ceuta and Tangiers. In the early eighth century they crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into Visigothic Spain which they captured in a series of campaigns from 711 to 714, stopping at the old Roman limes south of the rugged rain-swept mountains of Galicia and the Basque country. These conquests were often quite superficial, combining the capture of key settlements or the establishment of garrison towns with deals struck with local rulers – Visigothic nobles, Persian kings and Turkic warlords – which gave them autonomy in return for recognition and tribute. This light touch had its advantages and, despite extended periods of resistance in some areas, the conquests everywhere marked the inexorable advance of Islam and the ultimate fading away of the old ways during the ensuing ‘Abbasid era.

The Umayyad century came to an end as a result of vicious infighting within the Umayyad clan itself and broader changes in the social and political circumstances of the now vast Islamic empire. The Umayyads’ enemies accused them of developing delusions of grandeur, of styling themselves ‘God’s deputies on earth’ in the manner of Byzantine emperors, whilst living dissolute and frivolous lives in their luxurious Syrian desert palaces, at odds with the piety and simplicity of the early Muslim community in Medina. There was some truth to these accusations: al-Walid II (r. 743–44) was notorious for his hedonistic lifestyle, his wine drinking in the company of beautiful young men and women, and his passionate poetry. His uncle, the dour but effective caliph Hisham (r. 724–43), is said to have greatly regretted his nomination as heir, and al-Tabari sums up the situation in the following tart lines: We have already given some account of al-Walid b. Yazid, mentioning his immorality, his wantonness and his flippant and frivolous attitude towards religion before he became caliph. When his accession came … he only persisted all the more in his pursuit of idle sport and pleasures, hunting, drinking wine and keeping company with libertines.

More seriously, al-Walid’s negligence triggered disputes within the family, his own murder by his cousin Yazid and fatal internecine strife, but it would be quite unfair to ignore the underlying reasons for the replacement of the Umayyads by the ‘Abbasids. The Umayyad rise to power had been a triumph for the Meccan aristocracy, and their regime had a strongly Arab as well as Islamic identity. Top positions were reserved for Arabs while their clients and other non-Arabs tended to be looked down upon. To preserve such an elitist attitude, the numerically small Arab ruling class would have needed to at least maintain its own cohesion but, as the empire expanded, tensions which had been present in Arabia from the pre-Islamic period coalesced in the form of a long-running feud between the northern Arabs, known collectively as Qays or Mudar, and the southern Arabs, known collectively as Yemen. Qaysi–Yemeni conflict is a recurrent trope in the sources and, although exactly what the Qays and Yemen labels meant changed according to the political circumstances in a particular locality, the division frequently caused damaging factionalism among the Arab elite.

While the Arabs fought among themselves, a much more potentially dangerous rift began to open between the Arab community as a whole and the ever-growing number of non-Arab converts to Islam whom the Arabs viewed in much the same way as the Greeks and Romans had viewed those whose mother tongue was neither Greek nor Latin. Muslims of Arab ancestry greeted the conversion of such people with a great deal of ambivalence. Contrary to the popular myth that Islam was spread by the sword, many Muslim Arabs believed that it was their mission to conquer the world, not change the faith of its inhabitants, and saw Islam as theirs, the religion of the ruling elite, not of their subjects. Although they wanted to convert all the Arabs, they showed little desire or compunction to convert the peoples of the other lands they had conquered, a sentiment reinforced by their belief that Islam was a sister religion to Judaism and Christianity, and that tolerance should therefore be shown to Jews and Christians who were categorized as fellow peoples of God’s book, which had taken material form as the Torah, the Gospels and finally the Qur’an. Similar privileges were extended to Zoroastrians and other religious communities.

Muslim tolerance came at a price: non-Muslim communities were free to practise their faith as long as they submitted to Islamic political authority and paid a poll tax called the jizya. The basic principles of the covenant (dhimma) offered to them were derived from the Qur’an, but their elaboration is attributed to the second caliph, ‘Umar, and his Umayyad namesake, ‘Umar II, to whom the famous Pact of ‘Umar (c. 717), outlining the regulations to which the Christians of Syria should adhere, is attributed. Interestingly enough, the many and varied medieval versions of this pact suggest that Umayyad and early ‘Abbasid practice may well have been based on the Theodosian and Justinian codes on the one hand and Sasanian regulations on the other. Even this quintessentially Islamic institution was thus rooted in previous Middle Eastern ways of handling minorities. Both religious and financial considerations therefore encouraged the Arabs to conceptualize the Umayyad empire as one in which Arab Muslims ruled and taxed non- Arab practitioners of other faiths. Indeed, the association between Arab ethnicity and rule was so strong that they found it easier to offer tax exemptions to Arabs, regardless of their religion, than to non-Arab Muslims!

The one exception to this generally pragmatic approach was the Muslim response to belief systems they considered pagan, following on from Muhammad’s long struggle against the pagans of Mecca which had led him to completely reject their beliefs as the very antithesis of Islam and a sure path to eternal damnation. When the Muslims encountered such ‘pagans’ in North Africa and Central Asia, the religious toleration they offered was much more limited than in predominantly Christian or Zoroastrian areas such as Mesopotamia, Syria or Spain. As is so often the case, there was a political dimension to this apparently religious distinction. In the sedentary heartlands of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish communities were largely civilian and left warfare to the imperial armies. Therefore, people offered relatively little opposition to the Islamic conquests, which they appear to have viewed as the simple swapping of one set of masters for another. In contrast, the pagan fringe was for the most part tribal and every man – and some women – were armed and ready to fight rather than be subjected to any master at all. Just as the Arabs prided themselves on their freedom from servitude to either the land or other men, so too did the Berbers and Turks, and it was they who offered the most concerted resistance to the Arab-Muslim conquerors and elicited least tolerance for their beliefs in nature spirits and local deities. Not only were they denied religious freedom, they were also subjected to slavery if captured in war and required to pay their new masters in human tribute, often young women for the enjoyment of the Arab elite.

However, Arab chauvinism aside, Islam also contained a universalist impulse, and the Prophet had not limited conversion only to Arabs. While this did not mean that conversion was encouraged among those who submitted without a fight, it was offered to the many captives taken during military engagements across the Middle East and North Africa. Because the overlap between Muslim and Arab identity remained so pervasive, such captives were not simply converted but were also assimilated to the Arab tribal structure as clients (mawali) of individual Arabs or tribes. Even though capture and/or conversion were not absolutely essential to become an Arab client, the large numbers of people who did become clients by this route meant that mawali as a collective term quickly came to be a synonym for non-Arab Muslims. Clients were particularly prominent in the bureaucracy, because they had the clerical skills which Arabs by and large lacked, and in the army, where they either served in the entourages of their patrons or as recruits in their own right.

In some areas like Khurasan in northeastern Iran and North Africa, converted war captives and indigenous clients hugely outnumbered Arab Muslims. In the case of the Berbers, Christianity had made little headway outside Byzantine areas and Judaism was so modified by local beliefs and practices as to be almost indistinguishable from the paganism of the majority. Moreover the tribes fought bitterly against the Arabs and only submitted after their military inferiority had been repeatedly demonstrated. Once that had been achieved, however, whole tribes switched to the Muslim side, creating a huge pool of captives and clients of nominally Muslim faith. Some measure of the extent of conversion is provided by the sources describing the circumstances leading up to the conquest of Visigothic Spain in 711. The army is said to have numbered between 7,000 and 2,000 men but three years before, Musa b. Nusayr, the governor of Ifriqiya, who is sometimes described as an Umayyad client of eastern origin himself, left his Berber client Tariq b. Ziyad in charge of Morocco with fewer than 30 Arabs to whom he entrusted the task of instructing the Berbers in their new faith. Although the figures must be taken with a large pinch of salt, Berbers clearly outnumbered Arabs many times over.

The clients of eminent Arab commanders shared in the status of their masters and could hold positions of authority and power, as the example of Musa’s client Tariq b. Ziyad highlights, but the Arabs considered clients in general to be of lower status than themselves and, as the Umayyad century proceeded, the latter began to resent the ‘massive prejudice against them’ and become amenable to Islamic doctrines which emphasized the equality of all Muslims – especially in matters of distribution of booty and taxation – and meritocratic forms of leadership over Arab monopolization of power.(2) Since identity in Muslim society at this time was determined solely by paternity, there were also many ‘Arabs’ whose mothers were non-Arab and who may have felt some affinity with the clients and with doctrines of Muslim egalitarianism, as well as an embryonic cohort of religious scholars who perceived Arab attitudes as contrary to the spirit of Islam.

One group promoting a more egalitarian approach were the Kharijites who had proved to be ‘Ali’s nemesis. Kharijite preachers from the garrison towns of southern Iraq, Kufa and Basra spread across the Umayyad empire and found a ready audience in the Muslim camp towns of North Africa, where hundreds if not thousands of Berber clients congregated under the command of a handful of Arabs. In this sort of environment, Kharijite discourse asserting the equality of all Muslims and the importance of choosing a caliph who was the best-qualified Muslim regardless of his ancestry was very appealing, and in 739 a major Kharijite revolt against the Umayyads erupted across North Africa, temporarily cutting off Umayyad Spain from the Middle East. Although the revolt simmered down after a year, the Umayyads never really managed to regain control of North Africa and, as they tried to reassert their authority over the wayward west, a new and more dangerous rebellion, the ‘Abbasid revolution, began to brew in Khurasan on the northeastern frontier. It gained momentum in the late 740s soon after al-Walid II had begun to squander the Umayyad patrimony and create dissension in his clan.

Source: Amira K. Bennison, The Great Caliphs – The Golden Age of the ‘Abbasid Empire, pp. 17-24

Show More


Madina365 is online magazine which mission is promotion of Islamic history and forgotten Islamic tradition such as liberty, freedom of thought and free market society.

Related Articles

Back to top button