Empires: Umayyad

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The Umayyad dynasty ruled the early Muslim community from 661 to 750 c.e. The Umayyad Empire had its capital in Damascus and was supported through the military strength of Syrian troops. It was characterized by a continuous effort at territorial expansion of the Islamic empire, reaching its apogee in the early eighth century. The territorial growth of the empire set into motion processes of Arabization and Islamization that would shape the culture of the region. Umayyad overexertion of military forces in the continuation of expansionist efforts, together with an unequal treatment of Arab and non-Arab Muslims, and problems of religious and political legitimacy contributed to the weakening of the Umayyad dynasty and its eventual downfall.

Muslim historiographical sources generally portray the Umayyads in a negative light, accusing not only the Umayyad caliphs, but also their ancestors and relatives, of all kinds of moral failings and un-Islamic behaviors. Much of this criticism needs to be sifted carefully for anti-Umayyad biases, as most of the available Muslim sources have been penned in late Umayyad and early Abbasid times, when anti-Umayyad sentiments were extensive, particularly among the emerging religious class that left its imprint on many of the literary sources at our disposal.

Mu˓awiya b. Abu Sufyan, whose caliphate marks the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty, was appointed the governor of Syria under caliph ˓Umar b. al-Khattab (r. 634–644 c.e.). During the first Civil War (656–661 c.e.) the third caliph, ˓Uthman b. al-˓Affan (r. 644–656) had been assassinated by discontented elements in the growing Muslim empire. Mu˓awiya, his relative, challenged the authority of ˓Uthman's successor, ˓Ali b. Abi Talib (r. 656–661) purportedly because the latter did not prosecute the murders of ˓Uthman. While Mu˓awiya's direct challenge to ˓Ali at the battle of Siffin (657) ended in a stalemate, ˓Ali's assassination by a Kharijite (separatist) in 661 effectively put Mu˓awiya in power. During Mu˓awiya's long reign, from 661 to 680, a relative calm returned to the Muslim empire, as Mu˓awiya successfully kept discontented elements in check. The relative stability of the empire allowed Mu˓awiya to reinvigorate the expansionist warfare of the earlier caliphs. Yet the issues that had led to the First Civil War, namely a different understanding of legitimate leadership of the Muslim community, continued to plague the Muslim community. Upon Mu˓awiya's death in 680 c.e., his son Yazid, designated heir apparent, faced revolts by Husayn b. ˓Ali b. Abi Talib, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, and ˓Abdallah b. al-Zubayr, son of a prominent companion of Muhammad. Disorganization and woefully inadequate military support for Husayn brought about his quick defeat and death at the Battle of Karbala in 680 c.e. Yet while Yazid's military success against Husayn was swift, the ideological repercussions of the Battle of Karbala would come to haunt Umayyad ambitions for political legitimacy for centuries. Husayn's martyrdom at Karbala became a powerful symbol for Shi˓ite aspirations.

With the death of Mu˓awiya b. Yazid in 683 c.e., Umayyad control of the empire suffered a nearly total collapse during the Second Civil War (683–692), until Marwan b. al-Hakam assumed the caliphate, inaugurating the Marwanid lineage. Marwan, and later his son ˓Abd al-Malik, gradually restored Umayyad control of the empire, defeating a number of opponents in different parts of the empire. ˓Abd al-Malik reestablished full Umayyad control in 692 c.e., when he defeated counter-caliph ˓Abdallah b. al-Zubayr after a siege on Mecca that had led to a fire, destroying part of the Ka˓ba. The siege itself and the damage done to the Ka˓ba reinforced criticism against the Umayyads as irreligious usurpers of

Umayyad Caliphs
Mu'awiya b. Abu Sufyan661–680 c.e.
Yazid b. Mu'awiyah680–683 c.e.
Mu'awiyah b. Yazid683 c.e.
Marwan b. al-Hakam684-685 c.e.
'Abd al-Malik b. Marwan685–705 c.e.
al-Walid b. 'Abd al-Malik705–715 c.e.
Sulayman b. 'Abd al-Malik715–717 c.e.
'Umar b. 'Abd al'Aziz717–720 c.e.
Yazid b. 'Abd al-Malik720–724 c.e.
Hisham b. 'Abd al-Malik724–743 c.e.
al-Walid b. Yazid743–744 c.e.
Yazid b. al-Walid744 c.e.
Ibrahim b. al-Walid744 c.e.
Marwan b. Muhammad744–750 c.e

power. ˓Abd al-Malik also began the process of making Arabic the lingua franca of the empire, and he built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

After the Second Civil War between the Umayyad forces and the nascent Shi˓a, a new phase of imperial extension was inaugurated. Of particular importance were annual raids against the Byzantine Empire, including further attempts to conquer its capital, Constantinople (716–717). Additionally, successes in North Africa led to a defeat of the last remaining Byzantine outposts. With the conversion of Berber tribes of North Africa, the conquest forces were reinvigorated, leading to the crossing of the straits of Gibraltar in 711 and a vanquishing of the Visigothic kingdom of the Iberian peninsula. After the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty in the Muslim heartlands by the Abbasids in 750, a descendant of the Umayyads would find refuge in Muslim Spain where an Umayyad kingdom and later caliphate was founded, lasting until 1031. The eastward expansion of the empire in the early eighth century included successful conquests into Transoxania and Sind.

Yet the increase of military failures on the frontiers in the second quarter of the eighth century, coupled with growing tensions among different tribal factions in the Syrian army (which had provided the main support for Umayyad power), and growing unrest among different groups of "piety-minded" opponents led to a weakening of Umayyad strength and its final demise. A carefully organized underground movement, coordinated by the Abbasid agitator Abu Muslim in the eastern province of Khurasan garnered support among various groups in opposition to the Umayyads. The Abbasids's initial claim to rally troops against the Umayyads in favor of the family of Muhammad particularly appealed to Shi˓a. Only after the Umayyads had been decisively defeated did the Abbasids reveal their claim to the caliphate, centering its claims to legitimacy on descent from Muhammad's paternal uncle al-˓Abbas.

The geographical spread of the Islamic empire did not directly correlate with the spread of Islam as a religion among the inhabitants of conquered territories. Indeed, during much of the Umayyad caliphate Islam as a religious tradition was in a state of flux and only gradually assumed more identifiable contours. Forced conversion of local populations was rare; conquered peoples usually continued to practice their religious traditions, and Islamization of these territories spanned several centuries. In addition to a gradual spread of Islam among the conquered peoples, Muslim traders and pious preachers spread Islam as a religion beyond the borders of the conquered territories. Likewise, Arabization in the newly conquered territories was a slow process; Arabic as the official language of Umayyad administration seems not to have been prevalent before 700, and specifically Muslim coinage does not seem to have been in use before the end of the seventh century.

The major contribution of the Umayyads to Islamdom consists not only in their military successes, its Islamization and Arabization, but also in its support for the development of Islam as a religious tradition. In spite of the negative attitude in which later sources portray the Umayyads, the first collections of sayings of Muhammad and of early Muslim historiography were undertaken with some support of the Umayyads; likewise, Umayyad patronage in religious buildings produced a first, identifiable Islamic architecture in buildings like the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad mosque of Damascus.

See alsoArabic Language ; Arabic Literature ; Dome of the Rock ; Empires: Abbasid ; Empires: Byzantine ; Husayn ; Islam and Islamic ; Karbala ; Kharijites, Khawarij ; Marwan ; Mu˓awiya ; ˓Umar .


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Hawting, G. R. The First Dynasty of Islam. The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661–750. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam, Vol. 1: The Classical Age. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Wellhausen, Julius. The Arab Kingdom and Its Fall. 1927. Translated by Margaret Graham Weir. Edited by A. H. Harley. Reprint, London: Curzon Press, 1973.

Alfons H. Teipen