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Umayyad Caliphate

By:
William Montgomery Watt, Khaled M. G. Keshk
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Umayyad Caliphate

Although it is generally accepted that the first Umayyad to come to the position of the caliphate was ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān (r. 644–656), because of his status as a very close companion of the Prophet, he is not seen as the precursor of the dynasty that started to rule in earnest around 658. At that time, Muʿāwiyah ibn Abī Sufyān (d. 680) became recognized by a sizeable portion of the Islamic Empire as caliph. But it was not until the death of the fourth caliph, ʿAlī, in 661 that the whole of the community came under Muʿāwiyah's rule. Muʿāwiyah had been appointed governor of Syria by the second caliph, ʿUmar; after 656, at the beginning of the first fitna (civil war), an attempt by ʿAlī as caliph to replace him led to intermittent hostilities between the two. After the assassination of ʿAlī in 661, Muʿāwiyah gained control of the whole caliphate and was recognized as caliph. By the time of his death in 680, he had established, with Damascus as the capital, a system of administration for the caliphate that gave it a degree of stability.

Muʿāwiyah's successor, his son Yazīd I, defeated at Karbala an attempt by ʿAlī's son Ḥusayn to become caliph. When Yazīd died in 683, leaving only a young son, Muʿāwiyah II, ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr in Mecca claimed the caliphate. Most of the Syrians and the Umayyad clan were about to recognize ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr when the son of the former governor of Iraq, ʿUbayd Allāh ibn Ziyād ibn Abīh, persuaded another Umayyad, Marwān ibn al-Ḥakam, to vie for the caliphate. In the famous battle of Mardj Rāhiṭ in 684, Marwān was able to recover Syria and become caliph; his son ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 685–705) restored Umayyad rule over the whole caliphate, though it was not until 692 that ʿAbd-Allāh ibn al-Zubayr was defeated and this second civil war ended. It is from within this particular conflict that the seeds of tribal rivalries were cultivated. The rivalry between the Qays and the Yemen was to plague the Umayyad dynasty until its demise in 750. ʿAbd al-Malik, during his rule, strengthened the organization of the empire. Up to this time, administrators from the previous Byzantine and Sassanian regimes had continued to work for the caliphs, but he now made Arabic the official language of government and replaced the Byzantine and Sassanian coinage with one with Arabic inscriptions. ʿAbd al-Malik was able to secure the reign not only to one but to four of his sons with little or no resistance.

Although the caliphate of al-Walīd (r. 705–715) was a period of continuing prosperity, continuing rivalry between two groups of Arab tribes, the Qays and the Yemen, threatened the unity of the empire. Al-Walīd is famous for his building efforts in and around Syria. He also tried to appoint his own son, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, to succeed him, counter to his father's wishes—which were that his brother Sulaymān would succeed him. Sulaymān (r. 715–717) did in fact succeed al-Walīd, and it was his appointment of his cousin ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-Azīz or ʿUmar II (r. 717–720) that would have long-term repercussions for the dynasty and the empire.

ʿUmar II tried to reform the empire by introducing many reforms that were meant to solve some of the ongoing threats to the empire. None but two of these reforms, the stopping of the official cursing of ʿAlī and the writing of history, outlasted his reign. The remainder—his fiscal reforms, which were designed to redress the inequity of the taxes paid by the new non-Arab converts (mawālī) and the Arabs; an attempt at bringing back to the fold many of the groups that had separated during the first and second civil wars; and the halting of the expansionist policy of the empire—were all reversed immediately after his death by his successor Yazīd II ibn ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 720–724).

It was during the long reign of the next caliph, Hishām ibn ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 724–743), that the empire began to wane. His reign saw a number of defeats at the hands of outsiders, as well as large rebellions that were eventually put down but at a high cost. After Hishām there were no fewer than three caliphs in a period of one year, two of which were removed by force by other members of the Umayyad dynasty. By the time the thirteenth and final caliph, Marwān II ibn Muḥammad ibn Marwān I (r. 744–750), was able to ascend to the caliphate, a rebellion was brewing in the eastern part of the empire. The ʿAbbāsids, descendants of Muḥammad's uncle al-ʿAbbās, raised an army in Khurasan in Iran, which included many mawālī. The Umayyads were unable to offer effective resistance, and Marwān II was killed in Egypt in 750. One member of the Umayyad family escaped and in 755 founded in Spain the Umayyad emirate of al-Andalus, which was never incorporated into the ʿAbbāsid Empire.

The Umayyads were responsible for a great expansion of the Islamic state. By 661 the Arabs occupied Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and most of Iran. The Umayyads continued the westward advance through North Africa until they reached the Atlantic. In 711 they crossed into Spain and rapidly conquered most of the country, establishing a forward base at Narbonne in southern France. In 732 their defeat by Charles Martel between Tours and Poitiers checked the advance, but Narbonne remained in Arab hands until 759. Eastward the Umayyads pressed on, from Iran into Central Asia (Bukhara and Samarkand) and into northwest India. In the north, however, despite frequent expeditions, little progress was made because of the strength of the Byzantine Empire. A long, unsuccessful siege of Constantinople began in 672; when Sulaymān b. ʿAbd al-Malik attacked that city, the Arabs were repulsed and lost almost all of their fleet and army.

This great expansion was primarily military and political, not religious. Indeed, there was a short period when conversion to Islam was discouraged because it reduced the amount collected in taxes. Non-Arabs who became Muslims were also required to become mawālī of an Arab tribe; the mawālī, who were often called “clients,” were persons incorporated into the tribe and reckoned as belonging to it, but without having the rights of those who were members by birth. Christians and Jews who kept their religion normally became dhimmī (protected minorities with limited autonomy). In the conquered provinces the center of government was sometimes a city, such as Kairouan (Qayrawān), which had first been a forward army base and then a garrison town, which increased in size as many of the local population settled around it to serve the needs of the army. Originally the armies were exclusively Arab and Muslim, but in time numerous mawālī were added, mostly of Iranian and Berber origin.

Most of the histories related to this period originated under the ʿAbbāsids and accuse the Umayyads of being irreligious, which has led some modern scholars to view the Umayyads as a “secular” dynasty. Recent scholarship has shown this picture to be highly problematic and indicates that the Umayyads in fact relied on and cultivated religious foundations to champion their cause. The Umayyads claimed to be upholders of Islam, as demonstrated in the works of contemporary court poets and private secretaries.

See also ʿABBāSIDCALIPHATE and MUʿāWIYAH IBN ABī SUFYāN.

Bibliography

  • Brockelmann, Carl. History of the Islamic Peoples. London and New York, 1944.
  • Donner, F. M.The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton, 1981.
  • Hitti, Philip K.History of the Arabs. London, 1937.
  • Holt, P. M., Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, eds.The Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 1. Cambridge, 1970.
  • Shaban, M. A.Islamic History: A New Interpretation, Vol. 1, A.D. 600–750 (A.H. 132). Cambridge, 1971.
  • Tabari. Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk. Vols. 18–27. Albany, 1996.
  • Wellhausen, Julius. The Arab Kingdom and Its Fall. Translated by Margaret G. Weir. Calcutta, 1927; reprint, Beirut, 1963. Deals with the Umayyad period in detail.
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