Umayyad Empire

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Umayyad Empire

Type of Government

The Umayyad Empire was headed by an absolute monarch called a caliph. This title—meaning “successor to Muḥammad” (c. 570–632), the prophet and founder of Islam—was bestowed upon Islamic leaders after Muḥammad’s death and became a hereditary title under the Umayyad. The Muslim states making up the empire were headed by emirs, provincial authorities who were answerable to the caliph. The Umayyad built a formidable bureaucracy to administer their holdings, which at their greatest extent reached the south of Spain.


In the year 622, the followers of the prophet Muḥammad were forced to leave the Middle Eastern city-state of Mecca, ultimately settling two hundred miles away in the city of Medina–which, like Mecca, is in modern-day Saudi Arabia. What followed was an eight-year war between the two cities that polarized the Arab world, as many tribal leaders converted to Islam in order to avoid conflict with Muḥammad’s army and followers.

By 630, the Prophet’s forces took Mecca, but two years later Muḥammad fell ill and died. The Muslims had been held together by Muḥammad’s teachings and by the belief that he was the true prophet of God. At the time of his death, however, Muḥammad had not selected an heir, nor given instruction as to how the faith should proceed after his demise.

The remaining Muslim leaders created the position of caliph to fill the power vacuum in the growing Islamic empire. The first four caliphs, later known as the rashidun, were all selected from among Muḥammad’s male relatives, chosen by a consensus of Muslim leaders. The reign of the third caliph, ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān (d. 656) ended with his assassination, leaving the empire in civil war, and placing last of the rashidun caliphs, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (c. 600–661) in conflict with ʿUthmān’s cousin, Muʿāwiyah I (c. 602–680), the governor of Damascus.

Muʿāwiyah’s supporters fought ʿAlī’s to a standstill, and finally ʿAlī decided to accept arbitration to settle the dispute. This displeased many of the more extreme elements in ʿAlī’s government, who considered seeking arbitration tantamount to heresy. Ali was assassinated, and Muʿāwiyah became the fifth caliph, and the first of the Umayyad dynasty. Muʿāwiyah made Damascus the new capital of the Islamic empire. Besides offering significant political and military support for the caliph, Damascus was set in a fertile countryside that could sustain a royal court, a growing government bureaucracy, and an active army. A new ruling group consisting of military officials and tribal chiefs emerged, and the leading families of Mecca and Medina, in Islam’s distant birthplace, grew less important. Followers of Islam built great mosques in cities throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and later in Cordoba, Spain. Intended to meet the needs of ritual prayer, they also served as meeting places for the community to gather and discuss public issues.

Umayyad caliphs and their officials attempted to impose uniform policies throughout the empire, but eliminating local customs was difficult due to the great distances and cultural differences. At the same time, some conquered peoples became intent on imposing their own ideas on representatives of the ruling caliphs. These attempts gained momentum toward the end of Umayyad rule.

Government Structure

From the earliest days of the Islamic empire, caliphs carried the title “Prince of the Believers,” a description that implied supreme political and military authority, as well as responsibility for preservation of the religious community. The Umayyad dynasty and the later ʿAbbāsid dynasty shared a systemized and organized governmental structure supporting the caliph. Ministers and ranking officials at the head of various diwans (bureaus) served and advised the caliph. From the 690s onward, the language of Islamic administration everywhere in the empire was Arabic. Scribes fluent and literate in Arabic were often drawn from population groups who had served previous Islamic caliphates well: the Greeks in the west and the Pahlavi Persians in the east. Umayyads and subsequent caliphs stopped thinking of themselves as tribal chieftains and took on the traditional practices of rulers in Byzantium and Persia, receiving their subjects and guests with elaborate ceremony in palaces and audience halls.

Political Parties and Factions

The manner in which the Umayyad dynasty assumed the caliphate left two powerful factions in opposition to them within the Muslim faith. One group, the Shia, considered Ali to be Muḥammad’s rightful heir, and considered the Umayyad caliphs usurpers. Another group, the Khariji, were strict interpreters of the Koran, the holy book of Islam, as well as proponents of equality among Muslims. They were responsible for Ali’s assassination, and they objected to the Umayyad’s autocratic tendencies.

Major Events

Muʿāwiyah’s death in May 680 left a power vacuum, despite his assignment of his son, Yazīd ibn Muʿāwiyah (c. 645–683) as his successor. ʿAlī’s son, Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī (c. 629–680), moved to challenge the power of the Umayyad. In October 680, Ḥusayn was killed in battle by Umayyad troops. His martyrdom remains a pivotal event for Islam’s Shia sect.

Neither Yazīd nor his son and successor, Muʿāwiyah II ibn Yazīd (d. 684), would last long as Umayyad caliphs, with Yazīd dying suddenly and Muʿāwiyah II abdicating before his death. A new branch of the Umayyad dynasty, the Marwānid branch, began with Marwān ibn Al-Hakam (d. 685). The Marwānids would focus on shoring up the legitimacy of the caliphate, particularly through spectacular public works such as the famous Dome of the Rock mosque. The Dome of the Rock was built around 692, under the rule of the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān (c. 646–705). The mosque remains controversial because it was constructed near the site of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, and the rock that it was constructed on is considered a holy place by Orthodox Jews, as the place where the patriarch Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac.


Umayyad rulers faced opposition successfully until the 740s, when their power collapsed in the face of civil war and a coalition of opposition movements. A particularly strong opposition movement was based in the Iranian province of Khorāsān, among Arabs who had settled there and the Iranian elite who were subjects of the Umayyad Empire. The Khorāsānis formed an army and pursued the last Umayyad caliph, Marwān II (d. 750), to Egypt, where he was killed. The ʿAbbāsid dynasty, rumored to be descended from the family of the prophet Muḥammad, assumed power over the Islamic world and eventually moved its capital to Baghdad.

Berkey, Jonathan P. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600–1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Egger, Vernon O. A History of the Muslim World to 1405: The Making of a Civilization. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991.