Previous page Page 2 of 4 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
From the 7th century AD
     The Umayyad caliphate
     Arabs and Muslims
     The Abbasid caliphate
     Islam and other religions
     Arab civilization

Spread of the faith
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
The Umayyad caliphate:661-750

Mu'awiya, the leader of the struggle against Ali and his supporters, establishes himself after Ali's death in 661 as the undisputed caliph. His power base has been Syria. Damascus now becomes the capital of the first Muslim dynasty and the centre of the new Arab empire.

Mu'awiya is a member of one of the most prominent families of Mecca, the Umayya. Against considerable opposition he establishes a new principle - that the role of caliph shall be hereditary rather than elected. For the next century and more it is passed on within his family. The Umayyad dynasty will rule from Damascus until 750 and then will establish another kingdom at Cordoba, in Spain.


The Shi'as: from the 7th century

After the death of Ali, opponents of the new Umayyad dynasty promote the claims of Ali's two sons, Hasan and Husayn (grandsons of Muhammad). Their party becomes known as Shi'at Ali (the 'party of Ali'). The political cause crumbles after the death of the brothers (Hasan dies in about 669 and Husayn, subsequently the most holy of Shi'ite martyrs, is killed in the battle of Karbala in 680). But their faction has from now on a lasting religious disagreement with the Islam of the caliphs.

The main group under the caliphate becomes known as Sunni (those following Sunna, the orthodox rule) and the new schismatic sect acquires the name of Shi'as or Shi'ites, from the original name of their party.


Sufis: from the 8th century

As early as the 8th century, a reaction sets in against the worldly interests resulting from the rapid rise of the caliphate to the status of a great temporal power. Devout Muslims struggle to retain the purity and mystical fervour of the early years of their religion. Insisting on a simple life, like the desert fathers of early Christianity, they are recognizable by their choice of plain woollen garments.

The Arabic for someone wearing wool is sufi. This name becomes attached, in later centuries, to any Muslim inclined to the mysticism which has always been part of Islam.


There have been, and still are today, many different Sufi sects. They often begin as the followers of one particular holy man, and pilgrimage to the tomb of a saint has been an important part of Sufi devotion. So has the use by ascetic Sufis (or dervishes) of repetitive phrases and actions, conducive to mystical experience. A well-known but extreme example is the whirling of the so-called dancing dervishes, a Sufi sect founded in the 13th century by the Persian mystical poet Jalal-ud-din Rumi.

But Sufism is a form of religious experience and commitment open to any Muslim, without membership of a particular sect. In keeping with its name, it runs through Islam like a thread within a woollen garment.


Arabs and Muslims: 8th century

During the explosive first century of Arab expansion, the relationship subtly changes between two concepts - Arab and Muslim. At first they are inseparable. The Muslim armies are made up entirely of Arab tribesmen, and it is taken for granted that only Arabs can be Muslims. Between campaigns the Arab armies stay together in winter camps or garrison towns. They are an occupying force, having little link with the inhabitants of the conquered territories.

But by the early 8th century, when the Muslim expansion has reached something approaching its peak, there are not enough Arabs to provide the troops.


Out of necessity, people of other groups begin to be received into Islam, fighting alongside the Arabs. Berbers do so in the west, and Persians in the east. Inevitably there are resentments. Non-Arabs often feel they are treated as second-class Muslims, particularly when it comes to sharing out loot after a campaign. And the conversion of outsiders to Islam brings a financial burden. Non-Muslims are charged a poll tax, which is not paid by believers. The spread of the faith is a drain on the treasury.

These various tensions, and the inevitable difficulty of controlling the vast new empire, result in a rebellion in 747 against the Umayyad caliph.


The Abbasid caliphate: from750

Persia is the region in which resistance comes to a head against the caliphate of the Umayyads in Damascus. The uprising is partly a simple struggle between Arab factions, each of impeccable pedigree in relation to the pioneers of Islam. A revolt in Persia in 747 is headed by descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. Their new caliphate, established in 750, will be known as Abbasid.

The involvement of Persia is also significant. The Umayyad caliphate in Damascus derives from the early days of Islam when all Muslims are Arabs. But many Muslims in the east are now Persian, and Persian sophistication is beginning to divert Muslim culture from its simple Arab origins.


Abbasid forces reach and capture Damascus in 750. Abul Abbas is proclaimed the first caliph of a new line. Male members of the Umayyad family are hunted down and killed (though one survives to establish a new Umayyad dynasty in Spain).

The centre of gravity of the Muslim world now moves east, from Syria to Mesopotamia. In 762 a new capital city, Baghdad, is founded on the Tigris. It is about twenty miles upstream from Ctesiphon, one of the leading cities of the preceding Persian dynasty, the Sassanians.


Baghdad: 8th century

In their new city of Baghdad the Abbasid caliphs adopt the administrative system of the long-established Persian empire. Persian Muslims are as much involved in the life of this thriving place as Arab Muslims. Here Islam outgrows its Arab roots and becomes an international religion. Here the Arabic and early Persian languages coalesce to become, from the 10th century, what is now known as Persian - combining words from both sources and using the Arabic script. Here Mesopotamia briefly recovers its ancient status at the centre of one of the world's largest empires.

At no time is this more evident than in the reign of the best-known of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid.


The luxury and delight of Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, in the late 8th century, has been impressed on the western mind by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature - the Thousand and One Nights. Some of the stories are of a later date, but there are details in them which certainly relate to this period when for the first time a Muslim court has the leisure and prosperity to indulge in traditional oriental splendour.

The caliphate is now at its widest extent, with reasonable calm on most borders. The international fame of Harun himself can be judged by the emphasis of Charlemagne's biographers on the mutual esteem of these two contemporary potentates, who send each other Rich gifts.


Islam and other religions: from the 7th century

Muslims are instructed in the Qur'an to be tolerant of the two older and closely related religions, Judaism and Christianity, which share with Islam the essential characteristics of monotheism and a sacred book; they are all linked in the phrase 'people of the book'. Jews and Christians have therefore, through most of history, fared better under Islam than has been the fate of Jews or Muslims in Christian countries.

Zoroastrianism does not feature in the Qur'an. But it also has one god and a sacred book. The Muslim conquerors of Persia therefore show a degree of tolerance to the state religion of the previous dynasty.


Arab civilization: from the 8th century

By the end of the 8th century a distinctive Arab civilization is emerging in widely separated regions. It is evident from the 8th century in Baghdad in the east and in Cordoba in the west. By the 10th century, between the two, there is a similar centre in the new city of Cairo.

The shared characteristics of these great cities are Islam, the Arabic language and a tolerance which allows Christians and Jews to play a full part in the community. The results include an expansion of trade (making these places the most prosperous of their time, apart from T'ang China), and a level of scholarship and intellectual energy superior to contemporary Christian cities.


Together with the spread of Islam, a lasting result of the events of the 7th century is the triumph of Arabic as a language in the middle east and north Africa. In Palestine and Syria it gradually replaces Aramaic as the popular tongue; in Egypt it does the same with Coptic; further west along the north African coast, it edges the language of the Berbers into a minority status.

The sense of identity of Arabs in subsequent centuries does not necessarily involve descent from the tribes of Arabia. It depends instead on the sharing of Arabic as both language and culture (implying also in most cases a commitment to Islam). It is this which provides the strong Arabic element in the civilization of the Middle Ages, from Mesopotamia to Spain.


Previous page Page 2 of 4 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF ISLAM