Ummayads:—The effective state formation process of the Ummayads begins in 661 (CE), after the assassination of Ali by the Kharijites, when Mu’awiya compelled Hasan to renounce his claim to the Caliphate and took control of Damascus. His acceptance as a Caliph soon followed. which resulted in the unification of the Caliphate, which had been divided between him and Ali after the Battle of Siffin in 657 CE.
While the pivotal victories over the empires occurred during the reign of the second caliph, ‘Umar (r. 634–44), it was under the Umayyad caliphs (r. 661–750) that Arabic culture and Islamic rule spread, to some degree or another, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Punjab, more or less fixing the frontiers of the Islamic world for centuries to come.
To some Muslims in the late 7th century, and to almost all Muslims since then, the Umayyads should not have been caliphs at all. Their four predecessors—Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman (r. 644-56), and Ali (r. 656–61)—had all been related to Muhammad either by marriage or by blood (or both, in Ali’s case), and the reign of these four caliphs, known (to Sunnis in subsequent centuries) as “Rightly Guided Ones” (rashidun), is remembered as having been a sort of Golden Age during which the umma was governed according to “Islamic” principles (“Shiites” are those who believe that Ali should have succeeded Muhammad immediately.) The Umayyads, by contrast, were not directly related to the Prophet and, moreover, are said to have openly resisted him, only converting out of necessity, relatively late in Muhammad’s career. Although Uthman R.A. himself was of the Umayyad family, he had converted early on, was Muhammad SAW’s son-in-law, and is credited (though, to some at the time, discredited) with ordering the assembly of an authoritative version of the Quran, amongst other good deeds. Things began to go wrong when ‘Uthman R.A. was murdered, and two claimants to the caliphal office emerged: Ali R.A., whose supporters had been championing his candidacy since 632, and Mu’awiya, an Umayyad kinsman of ‘Hazrat Uthman’s, who demanded the right to avenge ‘Hazrat Uthman’s blood. Ali R.A. became caliph in 656 and struggled to exert his influence widely. By 657, he (R.A.) had entered into negotiations with Mu’awiya. To many of Hazrat Ali’s supporters, this should never have happened; “Judgement belongs to God alone,” was their slogan, and they seceded from his (R.A.) camp, for which reason they are known as “seceders” or “Kharijites. Their strongly held views on the right to rule impelled them to deem dissenters as infidels worthy of death. Their most high-profile victim was Ali R.A. himself in 661, though Kharijite groups would continue to oppose the caliphs for the next century and beyond.
With Hazrat Ali’s death, the age of “Rightly Guided” caliphs ended. The bloody rivalry that led to Mu’awiya’s accession became known as Islamic history’s first civil war, or fitna (‘strife,’ marking the end of a period of perceived unity within the umma.The Umayyads were thus off to a bad start, and, according to sources written by those hostile to them, things continued to get worse. Mu’awiya moved the capital to Damascus and designated his son Yazid (r. 680–3) as his successor, thereby establishing the principle of hereditary succession for which the Umayyads were criticised (by those, it should be added, who created dynasties themselves). Yazid ran into trouble early on, killing Hazrat Ali’s son Hussein R.A. at Karbala (Iraq) in 680, which has cemented his infamy in the minds of Shiites, and his authority was challenged by another caliph in the Hijaz. Neither Yazid nor his son Mu’awiya II (r. 683) lasted long. A second fitna caused great disruption at this time (680–92), and it is only with the reign of Abd al-Malik (r. 692-705) that Umayyad sovereignty was restored; 692 became known as a “year of unity,” and administrative measures were taken to tighten the caliph’s control over his subjects, to prevent future challenges to his authority.
Abd al-Malik and his successors, though generally maligned in our sources as being impious kings (rather than pious caliphs), are grudgingly acknowledged as having made lasting contributions to Islamic civilization. They imposed Arabic as the official administrative language in Islamic lands and extended these lands as far west as Spain and Morocco and as far east as Pakistan and Central Asia. The caliph’s control over his provinces was tightened, with decentralized, tribal traditions giving way to better-organized imperial ones, and a consciously Arabic and Islamic identity was developed and imposed on caliphal institutions. ‘Islamic’ coins were minted; Arabic replaced Greek, Persian, and Coptic in administrative bureaus (allowing Muslim participation); and, most notably, the Dome of the Rock was built on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, confronting (or, according to some scholars, meeting) Judaism’s messianic expectations and bearing an inscription that challenges Christianity’s fundamental doctrines.The point was clear for all to see: Islam had arrived.
But what did “Islam” mean in this period? The Umayyads’ biggest problem was that their answer to this question differed fundamentally from that of the (self-appointed) religious scholars, the “ulama” (sing. alim), as they would come to be known, who commanded popular support at the time and who wrote the history books later on. For the Umayyads, Muhammad’s death was indeed the end of an era; as Muhammad was the “seal” of prophets, God’s will would no longer be communicated through men bearing scriptures. Instead, it was the caliphs who served as his representatives on earth. This was the era of caliphs, and it was they who possessed religious authority. To the religious scholars, this was nonsense. God provided the Umma with all it needed to know: whatever was not in the Quran could be inferred from Muhammad’s own statements and actions. Since nobody knew more about these things than the ulama themselves, religious authority should rest with them.
Unfortunately for the Umayyads, not only did a decisive proportion of their Muslim subjects side with the scholars, but many other Muslims had their own theological objections to their claim to the caliphate. Moreover, for much of the period (with one or two exceptions), conversion of the conquered peoples to Islam was discouraged by the caliphs, which meant two things: yet more people resented them (non-Muslims paid more taxes), and a majority of the caliphs’ subjects were non-Muslim. Arab Muslims, non-Arab Muslims, Arab non-Muslims, and non-Arab non-Muslims all had cause to oppose the caliphs in Damascus. In 750, they were overthrown by what was basically a “Shiite” revolt from the East that brought the Abbasid dynasty to the throne.
The Abbasids (750–1258) claimed descent from one of Muhammad’s uncles and promised, in words and through select actions, to make a dramatic break with Umayyad injustices. They moved the centre of power from Syria to the east. In 762, they built a new capital city at Baghdad and gave themselves messianic names to show that things were not going as usual.Of course, it was in many ways: they, like the Umayyads before them, shed the blood of charismatic Muslim leaders (the architects of their own revolution were brutally murdered), established a dynasty, and, as far as we can tell, claimed religious authority for themselves.They also intensified the transition from a loose, tribally-based state into a sophisticated empire. Abd al-Malik had begun this process half a century beforehand, but he had done so in Damascus, a city that, despite its formidable antiquity, had never been the seat of an empire. The Abbasids were just down the road from the old Sasanid capital of Ctesiphon, and while the wine-women-and-song of pre-Islamic Arabia appears to be no different from the wine-women-and-song of the Abbasid court, by the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), the Near East had been set on a path that would see it transformed beyond recognition.
Under Mu’awiya, the nature of the Islamic state, as understood by the previous Caliphs, began to shift in a considerable way, from caliphate to hereditary rule. The other major shift was that his methods of governance and modes of living were also different. In fact, he can be called the first Caliph who was distanced from his people. More so, higher than his people. as he sat on a throne and prayed in an isolated chamber. This highlights two things:
1: Before him, the Caliph was First Among Equals. Now, the Caliph was afraid of his equals.
2: The introduction of the throne shows the beginning of royal attitudes in the Islamic state. He was not someone who could be mistaken as a commoner like Umar R.A.