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Umayyad Caliphate

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Umayyad Caliphate

    The Umayyad caliphate ruled the Islamic world from 661 to 750 . A clan in the powerful Quraysh tribe, the Umayyads dominated economic and political life in Mecca in the early 600s. Although they opposed Muhammad early in his career, the Umayyads converted to and became a strong force within Islam. After Muhammad's death in 632 , the Umayyads became embroiled in disputes over leadership. Uthman, a leading Umayyad, became caliph in 644 . He caused resentment by appointing many of his clan to positions of power. An assassin ended Uthman's reign in 656 , and Muhammad's cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib became caliph. Mu'awiyah, the Umayyad governor of Syria, opposed Ali's rule, as did many others. After Ali's murder in 661 , Mu'awiyah seized control of the caliphate and began the Umayyad dynasty.

    The early Umayyad caliphs faced serious unrest. Several Muslim factions rejected their leadership. One group invited Ali's son Husayn ibn Ali from Medina to fight the Umayyad rulers. When Umayyad troops massacred Husayn and his family at Karbala in Iraq, outraged followers of this group turned the Shi'i branch of Islam into an important movement. Civil wars divided the empire. Even within the Umayyad clan, rival groups battled each other for power.

    The Umayyads, however, maintained their dominant position in the Islamic world. They embarked upon an ambitious campaign of Muslim expansion. Prior to Mu'awiyah's reign, Islamic armies had occupied Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and most of Iran. During the early 700s, Umayyad forces added North Africa, Spain, and Portugal to the empire. Muslim armies even threatened France before their defeat at the Battle of Tours in 732 . The Umayyads retained the southern French city of Narbonne until 759 . In the east, Umayyad troops marched through Iran and entered Central Asia and northwest India. Muslim advances in the north brought Umayyad troops to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. These armies besieged the city, suffering devastating losses before the defenders pushed them back.

    The Umayyads ruled their vast empire from Syria. They combined Arab and local political ideas to create effective government. A trusted amir ruled each province and reported directly to the caliph. Syrian warriors formed the core of Umayyad military strength. The Umayyads established Arabic as the official language of government and religion, and Arabs settled throughout the empire.

    Islam served as the unifying force of the caliphate. Umayyad rulers claimed legitimacy as the defenders and promoters of the faith. They developed the concept of succession sanctioned by God and not subject to questioning. Many non-Arabs converted to Islam. The Umayyads contributed to the development of a uniquely Islamic culture. Scholarship, poetry, and art thrived under their rule. They built mosques, lavish palaces, roads, and canals. They supported charities for the poor and disabled. Trade flourished as caravan routes spread across the empire.

    Despite the Umayyad successes, divisions continued to plague the empire. The members of the small ruling class enjoyed special privileges, paying fewer taxes than the rest of the population and sharing in the prizes of war. Non-Arab Muslims, however, suffered discrimination. Christians and Jews had a lower social status and faced a higher tax burden. For a short period, leaders even discouraged conversion of non-Muslims to Islam in order to maintain a large tax base. The resentment of minority groups boiled over into open rebellion. The Abbasids, descendants of Muhammad's uncle al-Abbas , raised an army of non-Arabs in northern Iran. In the 740s, they defeated the Umayyads in several battles. After killing Umayyad leaders, the Abbasids gained control of the caliphate and established their capital in Baghdad.

    One prominent Umayyad family member, however, survived the carnage. Abd al-Rahman fled to Spain and set up an independent Islamic state. The Abbasids remained unable to conquer this last Umayyad stronghold. The Umayyads retained their power there for nearly three centuries, battling the Christian kingdoms in the northern part of the country. Internal disorder finally brought down their government in 1031 , but they left a lasting legacy in southern Spain with mosques, gardens, palaces, and libraries. See also Abbasid Caliphate; Andalusia; Caliphate; Husayn ibn Ali ; Shadow of God; Ta'ziyah.

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