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Muhammad and the Caliphate >
Apogee of the Caliphal Empire (700–950 c.e. )

The age of the first conquests and the civil wars (roughly 630–700 C.E.) had seen the establishment of the community of Believers as a loosely organized political entity headed by the first caliphs. The early community and state had been united (when they were united) not so much by institutional structures, most of which were still embryonic, but mainly by ideology—that is, by the Believers' conviction that they were engaged in a common effort to establish, in God's name, a new and righteous regime on earth. The depth of this conviction underlay the intensity with which the Believers had disagreed over the legitimacy of various rivals for the caliphate during the civil wars; but their commitment to a common cause also enabled the Believers to come together once again as a single political unit after the wars.

By the end of the second war in 692, the Believers had embraced more clearly than before their identity as Muslims—that is, as a monotheist confession following the teachings of Muhammad and the Quran, and for this reason distinct from other monotheists such as Jews or Christians. During the two and a half centuries that followed the second war (ca. 700–ca. 950 C.E.), the rudimentary institutional structures of the early community of Believers fully matured, providing the caliphs with the military and administrative machinery needed to contain the divisions that have reverberated down through the subsequent history of the Islamic community since the civil wars. The period of 700 to 950, then, represented the apogee of the caliphal empire—an age of political and communal expansion, great institutional and cultural development, and economic growth. The Umayyad dynasty was overthrown in 750 C.E. by a military uprising organized by the Abbasid family, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad's uncle al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (ca. 566–ca. 653), resulting in a shift of the imperial capital eastward from Damascus, in Syria, to Iraq, where the early Abbasids founded a new capital, Baghdad. But several key aspects of the evolution of the caliphate and the empire continued under both the late Umayyad and the early Abbasid caliphs, and for this reason, despite the change of ruling dynasty, it is fair to view the period of 700 to 950 as a single phase in the history of the caliphate and of the Islamic community.

Apogee of the Caliphal Empire (700–950 c.e. )

The mighty land walls of Constantinople, built in the centuries preceding the revelation of Islam, protected the city against repeated invasions, including the unsuccessful Arab campaigns in the seventh and eighth centuries.

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The most basic fact about this period is that the caliphal empire and the Muslim community continued to expand. The early conquests had ground to a halt during the Second Civil War, as the Umayyads and their rivals devoted military resources to fighting each other. After the war, however, the Umayyads inaugurated a second phase of imperial expansion (the first half of the eighth century). Some of the conquests sponsored by the later Umayyads were motivated by a desire to extend Islamic rule. For example, expansion seems to have been the objective of the great (if unsuccessful) campaigns by land and sea against Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (669, 674–80, and 716–17), as well as the annual summer raids into Byzantine border territories (a policy continued under the Abbasids until the middle of the ninth century). The caliphs also doubtless hoped to affirm their legitimacy among Muslims by sponsoring such campaigns of jihad against non-Muslim states. The incentive for launching other campaigns, however, seems to have been the desire to benefit from the seizure of booty, particularly captives who could be employed or sold as slaves; this may have been the case with many raids in North Africa organized by the later Umayyads. The throngs of recruits who participated in these campaigns were, of course, responding to a wide range of motivations—from zeal to spread the faith or the hope of attaining martyrdom on the battlefield (and hence eternal salvation), to lust for booty or hope of finding new lands to settle, to a simple thirst for adventure. Without the organizing activity of the caliphs and their governors, however, most of these campaigns would not have occurred.

Whatever the motivations, the scope of the second phase of conquests was astonishing. In North Africa the Muslims, who during the civil wars had stayed close to their strong points, such as the garrison town of Qayrawan, finally dislodged the last Byzantine outposts, such as Carthage, and pushed all the way to the Atlantic coast of Morocco. The local Berber population began to embrace Islam, and some were drawn into the expansion process. In 711 general Tariq ibn Ziyad led an army consisting largely of Berbers across the Straits of Gibraltar (named after him) into Spain. Other troops, Berber and Arab, poured in and within a few brief years seized the southern and eastern two-thirds of the Iberian peninsula from the faltering Visigothic kingdom, which vanished, leaving small, impoverished Christian kindgoms only in the northern mountains. From Spain the Muslims sent raids across the Pyrenees into the Languedoc and adjacent regions of France, reaching the high water mark of their expansion in the west somewhere near the Loire region, where in 732 they were defeated by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel. Although the Muslims held several cities in southern France for a few decades, ultimately their conquests there were ephemeral; by the late eighth century they seldom ventured north of the Pyrenees. During the ninth century the Abbasids' governors of Tunisia, the Aghlabids, raided Sicily (starting in 827), southern Italy, and the French and Italian Rivieras, and established over much of Sicily a Muslim political presence that endured until the arrival of the Normans in the mid-eleventh century.

In the east, Umayyad governors launched renewed campaigns from their garrisons in Khurasan (in northeast Iran), particularly Marv and Balkh, into the regions beyond the Oxus River on the fringes of Central Asia. Between 705 and 713, Bukhara in Transoxiana, the region of Fergana and its capital, Shash (modern-day Tashkent), the rich district of Khwarizm (modern-day Khorezm) south of the Aral Sea—all located in what is now known as Uzbekistan—and much of Sogdiana, including its capital at Samarqand, were brought into the Umayyad Empire. Despite numerous rebellions and efforts by local groups to overthrow Muslim rule during the early ninth century, these areas remained forever after part of the Islamic world. Meanwhile, between 711 and 713, the caliphate was establishing its first permanent foothold in Sind (part of the Indus River valley); the teenage commander of Muslim troops, Muhammad ibn al-Qasim, marched through southern Iran to conquer and establish an initial base at Daibul, the main city in the Indus delta. From it he conquered other major cities in the region now known as Pakistan, including the religious center at Multan and the political capital of Sind, Brahmanabad (where the city of Mansura would later be built under the Abbasids). These first Muslim colonies in Sind lived on, but little about them is documented, and they were doubtless almost completely autonomous. Nevertheless, recent archaeological evidence suggests that they maintained ties of trade, at least with other parts of the Islamic world such as Iran and Syria.

During the expansion of the caliphal empire, the Islamic community itself spread beyond the empire. Whereas the spread of the empire was carried out mainly by armies, the spread of the Islamic faith beyond the caliphate's borders was usually the work of merchants and pious preachers. Kharijite merchants from North Africa, for example, appear to have been the first to bring Islam to the populations of sub-Saharan West Africa. The main spreading of the Islamic community, however, took place within the caliphal empire itself. In many parts of the empire, even in those conquered early on, such as Egypt or Iran, the population remained predominantly non-Muslim for centuries. With time, more of these conquered peoples embraced Islam; estimates suggest that in the Near Eastern provinces Muslims became the majority only after about 850 C.E. In other words, during the golden age of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates Muslims were still a minority in the lands they ruled. The empire's conquered populations were gradually won over to Islam for various reasons. Forced conversions were rare, but in some cases the imposition of higher taxes on non-Muslims may have created an economic incentive for embracing Islam. For the most part, however, the gradual Islamization of the empire's populations was part of a complex transformation of the whole social environment, involving many factors that impinged simultaneously on the individual and the family: economic and political advantage, social mobility, linguistic and cultural affinities, marriage and kinship requirements, and, above all, the intrinsic appeal of Islam as a belief system.

Another important feature of this period was continuing rivalry for the caliphate itself, that is, for supreme political power in the empire. On the pragmatic side there were grumblings or actual uprisings directed against established caliphs, and various measures (such as transforming the army) were taken by the caliphs themselves to safeguard their power. But the ideological struggle over the meaning of the caliphate and the legitimacy of various contenders' claims to it also continued unabated in this period. Although the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik and his successors were able to build a fairly firm support base for themselves after the Second Civil War, they nonetheless faced widespread opposition. The long-standing opposition of the Shiites and Kharijites continued. The Umayyads used garrison troops to control numerous small Kharijite insurrections as well as more serious uprisings such as that mounted by the Alid leader Zayd ibn Ali in Kufa in 740. But the Umayyads were also opposed by many new converts to Islam, most of them mawali, or clients, of Arab tribes, who felt that their conversion should have entitled them to equal treatment with other Muslims, particularly the lower rate of taxes that Arab Muslims enjoyed. A number of pious Muslims backed the new converts in this claim, however, or felt that the Umayyads had discredited themselves in some other way by their earlier actions. Such concerns may have underlain the obscure qadariyya movement (on the surface, a debate over the degree to which God's omnipotence limited human independence and responsibility) that plagued the last decades of Umayyad rule. On a more mundane level, the later Umayyads faced a crisis as agricultural lands were abandoned in the two richest provinces of the empire, Egypt and Iraq. The full reasons for this phenomenon are not known—it was probably linked in part to the conversion to Islam of the indigenous peasantry—but whatever the causes, this abandonment disrupted the flow of taxes and in some cases was reversed only through draconian measures that further enhanced the Umayyads' reputation for harsh and unjust rule.

Apogee of the Caliphal Empire (700–950 c.e. )

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam. Built over the remains of Solomon's temple, the structure is thought by many Muslims to mark the spot from which Muhammad began his night journey to heaven.

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The Umayyads were not blind to their opponents' varied claims, and they made serious efforts to establish themselves as legitimate heads of the Islamic community and rulers of the state. They encouraged scholars to gather and compile reports about the origins of Islam (the Prophet's life and career, the history of the early community, and so on). In this way, the Umayyads played a central role in establishing a Muslim identity, because the origin story affirmed that the Islamic community they led was the direct descendant of Muhammad's own, and that it followed his teachings and those of the Quran—propositions to which Muslims still adhere. The Umayyads also asserted their legitimacy by continuing the ancient tradition of royal patronage for sumptuous religious buildings, notably the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad mosque in Damascus—two of the first outstanding examples of Islamic architecture. The Umayyads' support for campaigns of expansion and conquest also helped bolster their claim to being legitimate rulers of the Islamic community.

Apogee of the Caliphal Empire (700–950 c.e. )

Courtyard of the Great Mosque in Damascus, founded in the early eighth century. The walls were once entirely covered with glittering mosaics, largely covered with whitewash in this photograph taken in the early twentieth century but now restored.

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Despite these efforts, however, opposition to the Umayyads intensified during the second quarter of the eighth century. At the same time divisions within their Syrian-based army—the product of clashes during the Second Civil War and rivalry over royal patronage—made the army an increasingly unreliable support for the Umayyad regime. Yet it was just at this time that ceaseless campaigning on the Byzantine frontiers and stubborn internal opposition made firm support indispensable. The Alids and their Shiite supporters proved especially troublesome to the Umayyads, fomenting numerous uprisings in the last decades of Umayyad rule. Eventually, it was another branch of Muhammad's family (the Abbasids), however, that finally overthrew the Umayyads and occupied the caliphate in 750. Unlike the Alids and their Shiite partisans, the Abbasids had patiently organized an underground opposition movement and built up a secure power base before rising in open revolt. Moreover, when they organized their rebellion against the Umayyads from the province of Khurasan in northeastern Iran, the Abbasids carefully kept secret their own identity as claimants to the caliphate, rallying supporters instead in the name of “the family of Muhammad.” This vague appeal enabled them both to avoid detection by the Umayyads and to win the backing of many among the Shiites (who naturally assumed that the movement was in favor of an Alid) and of many other disgruntled groups who yearned for more righteous leadership than they thought the Umayyads had provided. Only after decisively defeating Umayyad armies in several battles in Iran and Iraq, and killing the caliph and many Umayyad princes, did the Abbasid leader Abu l-Abbas al-Saffah come out in the open and receive the oath of allegiance as caliph.

For several turbulent years the Abbasid caliphs al-Saffah (r. 750–54) and Abu Jafar al-Mansur (r. 754–75) consolidated their power against rivals within the Abbasid family, disgruntled Alids, and former powerful supporters such as the Abbasids' agent Abu Muslim, who had largely engineered the rebellion in Khurasan. By about 756, however, the Abbasid dynasty's power was securely established, and the Abbasids were to occupy the caliphate for the remainder of its existence (that is, from 750 until 1258), although after about 950 their real power was severely curtailed by a succession of secular powerholders. The first Abbasids claimed to be starting the caliphate anew, purging it of the evils of their Umayyad predecessors. Shortly after coming to power, the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, founded a new imperial capital at Baghdad, on the Tigris River in Iraq, to symbolize this break with the impious Umayyad past. Many Islamic rulers of later periods would follow this precedent by founding new capitals to symbolize the start of what they claimed to be a new era.

Even the Abbasids' overthrow of the Umayyads did not end the struggle over the caliphate, however. The Shiites still believed that only an Alid could legitimately lead the community, so they were usually no more favorably disposed to the Abbasids than they had been to the Umayyads. The complex relationship between these two branches of the Prophet's family, the Abbasids and the Alids, is a central theme of Abbasid history (and of many historical texts written in this and later periods). The reverence that many early Muslims felt for the family of the Prophet Muhammad, indeed for the entire Hashim clan, led some Abbasid caliphs, such as al-Mansur and al-Mahdi (r. 775–85), to favor their Alid contemporaries by including them at court, seeking their advice, and otherwise trying to win their support. Other Abbasids, such as Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), were suspicious of the Alids, whom they assumed to be conspiring for the caliphate. For their part, the Alids were also divided in their attitude toward the Abbasids, which naturally varied in some measure with the Abbasids' policies toward them. Some Alids—such as the brothers Ibrahim and Muhammad ibn Abd Allah (d. 762–763) and al-Husayn ibn Ali (d. 786), and their more radical supporters—could not let go of the idea that they were more entitled to rule than the Abbasid “upstarts,” and rose in rebellion, particularly if the reigning Abbasid had taken a hard line toward them. Others, such as Jafar al-Sadiq (702/3–765), were more prudent in dealing with the Abbasids and advanced a special Alid claim to rule in terms of a strictly religious leadership. By the late eighth century, if not earlier, some Shiites had developed a clearly articulated concept of the imamate (the office of the imam, or head of the community), which posited that only an Alid in a certain line of descent from the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib could rightfully claim leadership of the Muslim community. The social upshot of this was a gradually hardening sense among the Alids' Shiite supporters that they formed a distinct, separate group within the Muslim community, identified with the fortunes of the Alid imams.

This sense of Shiite separateness from what was becoming the Sunni majority in the Islamic community begins to be visible by the beginning of the ninth century at the latest; from that time on, Shiites and Sunnis often appear as rival social and political factions in the life of Baghdad and many other places in the Islamic world, independent of the existence in a particular historical moment of an Alid claimant to power. Following the abortive rebellion of al-Husayn ibn Ali in the Hejaz in 786, some Alids and their supporters seem to have decided that the Abbasids were too powerful near the empire's centers of power to be challenged there, and they established small, independent states in inaccessible regions, such as the wild mountain country south of the Caspian Sea, in Yemen, or in the far western reaches of North Africa. From these new bases, and from underground movements secretly organized in the heart of the empire, the Shiites eventually mounted more effective challenges to Abbasid rule.

This struggle for the position of caliph also raged within the ruling dynasty (whether Umayyad or Abbasid), because there was no clear tradition or rule of succession. Many caliphs found themselves confronted by insurrections mounted by, or in the name of, their own brothers, uncles, or other close relatives. Powerful factions in the army, bureaucracy, caliphal court, and caliphal family (the different mothers of two rival half-brothers, for example) lent their support to the claimant whom they thought would best serve their own interests. Some caliphs, remembering their own close call at accession, hoped to spare their offspring the same tribulations and drew up detailed wills laying out the exact order of succession of several sons. Such arrangements seldom worked out as intended, however.

A major example of this was the bitter civil war that broke out following the death of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid in 809. Despite the fact that al-Rashid had made strenuous efforts to regulate the succession, al-Rashid's son Muhammad al-Amin (r. 809–813) was overthrown by his brother al-Mamun (r. 813–33), who had been governor of Khurasan. Underlying the dispute was a long-lasting tension between Baghdad and Khurasan, with pro-Baghdad and pro-Khurasan factions in the army, the court, and the landed aristocracy backing either al-Amin or al-Mamun. Al-Mamun's attempt to govern the empire from Marv, his capital in Khurasan, aroused great discontent, and in 819 he moved his court to Baghdad. By then, however, the civil war's disruptive events had done much to undermine the Abbasids' legitimacy. These included not only the long siege of Baghdad and its inhabitants and the execution of al-Amin but also al-Mamun's effort to win Shiite support by backing, for a time, an Alid as his heir-apparent—only to drop him from succession later, when the idea proved a political embarrassment. This episode exacerbated tensions between Sunni backers of the Abbasids and the Shiites, both of whom felt victimized in ways that caused people to question Abbasid legitimacy.

Abbasid legitimacy was also undermined by clashes with a religious elite increasingly jealous of its right to interpret nascent Islamic law. By the ninth century religious scholars expert in the Quran and the sayings of the prophet had come to feel that they—not the caliphs—should be the final arbiters in matters of law. The mihna, or inquisition, instituted by the Abbasid caliphs between 833 and 848—which revolved around a theological doctrine known as Mutazilism and focused on the question of whether the Quran text was created or eternal—was in part an effort by the caliphs to enforce their claims to legal absolutism. The main result of this episode, however, was to make heroes out of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855) and other religious scholars in Baghdad who had led the opposition.

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