- The Establishment of the Muslim State
- Conflict of Succession
- Further Conquests
- The Abbasid Revolution
- The Abbasid Caliphate
The death of ‘Ali at the hands of the Kharijis and the rise of Mu‘awiya to the caliphate marks the end of the era commonly referred to as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”. The nature of Muslim government and society fundamentally changed during the nineteen years of Mu‘awiya’s rule from 661 to 680.
Coming to power at a time when disunity and chaos reigned from Egypt to Iran, Mu‘awiya’s political skill and competence helped prevent the Muslim world from falling into total anarchy—from which it may never have risen.
Yet at the same time, some of his policies and actions were controversial, and formed the basis for some of the biggest divisions in the Muslim world today. His reign marks the beginning of the Umayyad Caliphate, when succession to the position became hereditary and stayed in the Umayyad family until 750, when it was replaced by another old family of Mecca, the Abbasids.
Despite the attempts at arbitration, a real solution to the dispute between ‘Ali and Mu‘awiya never took shape, and the last years of ‘Ali’s caliphate were marked by de facto division between the realms of Mu‘awiya and ‘Ali.
With the death of ‘Ali, however, Mu‘awiya was free to extend his control over the areas formerly loyal to ‘Ali and reunify the Muslim world under his command. Indeed, he was probably the only man at the time that had enough support to manage such a monumental task.
He was incredibly popular in Syria, a province he had looked after as governor for twenty years before the start of his caliphate, and Syrian army formed the backbone of his military.
He was not without enemies, however, particularly in Iraq, where popular opinion was in favor of the caliphate being inherited by ‘Ali’s son, Hasan. Ever the pragmatic statesman, Mu‘awiya had no desire to plunge the Muslim world into further warfare over leadership.
So instead of mobilizing the army to violently crush the opposition, he negotiated a deal with ‘Ali’s son in which Hasan would give up any claims to leadership and retire to a life of worship and scholarship in Mecca.
Desire among some for rule by the house of ‘Ali remained, although under the surface, and it never materialized into a real threat to the reign of Mu‘awiya.
The Dome of the Rock Mosque was built in the late 690s as part of the alAqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem. Its design is largely Byzantine, and was partly engineered by Christians.
The caliph also relied upon negotiation and deal-making with other potential opponents. In many ways, Mu‘awiya ruled like an Arab tribal leader from preIslamic Arabia, using family relations, an unwritten code of honor and gifts to get his way politically.
Having been a youth in Mecca who saw how his father led Quraysh, these old traditions were no doubt ingrained in his political persona. At the same time, however, Mu‘awiya began to change the caliphate into something new: a monarchy.
He was the first caliph to sit on a throne and the first to pray in an enclosed area in the mosque, protecting him from possible assassins. He no longer followed in the modest and simple footsteps of the first four caliphs.
Instead, royalty and court culture became a part of the caliphate as it had been part of the Roman and Sassanid Empires. For the first thirty years after the death of the Prophet, the caliph was simply a first among equals, and numerous anecdotes survive of the asceticism of those first four leaders, such as ‘Umar being mistaken for a commoner or refusing the service of bodyguards.
Mu‘awiya was the bridge between the simple caliphate that came before him and the monarchy that succeeded him. He would walk in the markets of Damascus in his patched clothing as enormous and elaborate mosques were built by his architects.
As part of his overall program to de-emphasize political divisions among Muslims, Mu‘awiya chose to focus on expanding the borders of the caliphate. Reminiscent of ‘Umar, who focused on outward expansion after the infighting of the Wars of Apostasy, Mu‘awiya sent armies to continue the war against the Byzantine Empire by land and sea.
The important islands of Rhodes and Crete in the Aegean Sea were occupied by the navy first established under ‘Uthman. Buoyed by these victories, the Muslim armies were, for the first time, able to lay siege of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.
The legendary city had been a prize since the earliest days of Islam, when the Prophet promised that eventually a Muslim army would conquer that distant and seemingly impenetrable city. As Muslim armies approached the city for the first time in 674, fulfilling that promise seemed to be within reach.
From 674 to 678, the Umayyad armies laid siege to the city’s massive walls, but lacked the manpower or technology to conquer the city. Among the casualties of the siege was the elderly Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, a notable Companion of the Prophet who lodged Muhammad in his home when he arrived in Medina.
He was buried near the walls of Constantinople, and almost 800 years later would become a mythic legend for the Ottoman armies that eventually managed to overcome Constantinople’s walls.
Expansion also continued in North Africa, where the Byzantines still had control west of modern Libya. The fringes of Umayyad-controlled land west of Egypt were governed by ‘Uqba ibn Nafi‘, another Companion originally from Mecca.
In 670, he was ordered to advance into Byzantine Africa in conjunction with the ongoing advances into Byzantine territory in the Aegean. ‘Uqba’s army consisted of 10,000 Arab horsemen who were aided by huge numbers of local Berbers who had recently converted to Islam.
Because of the Byzantine preoccupation with other fronts, ‘Uqba was able to advance unchallenged into modern Tunisia, where he established the garrison city of Qayrawan. The main threat ended up not being the Byzantine forces, but the local Berbers who had to be slowly subdued before any more advances towards the West could be embarked upon.
Following a short period from 675 to 680 during which ‘Uqba was replaced as governor of Ifriqya (the province of Africa), ‘Uqba continued his westward raids. By 680 the Umayyad armies were well-established enough in North Africa to embark on serious conquests across modern Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, collectively known as the Maghreb, to the Atlantic Ocean. ‘Uqba’s role in these conquests would raise him to a legendary status for North Africa’s Muslim population.
After leaving Qayrawan in 680, ‘Uqba’s army marched generally unopposed through the desert plateau south of the coastal mountain ranges that run along the Mediterranean. Advancing from one Byzantine outpost to the next, ‘Uqba’s army was able to quickly annex hundreds of kilometers of territory along the coast with relative ease, even as disunity and civil wars raged in the heartland of the Islamic empire.
One possible explanation for this seemingly miraculous conquest was linguistic, cultural and religious division between the Berbers of North Africa and the Byzantine rulers. The Byzantines who ruled over North Africa could not be more different from the Berbers under their control.
The Berbers were a desert people, closer to the Arab nomads who arrived in the 600s than the urban Latins and Greeks who had administered the area for centuries.
Their language shared no history with the Greek used in administration, and few Berbers went out of their way to learn the language of their governors. The lack of common cultural traits meant a constant social divide between the two, and examples of full assimilation of the Berbers into Roman/Byzantine society are scarce.
Religion, however, seems to be a larger factor that led to Berber support for the Arab Muslim armies. Early Islamic accounts speak of entire tribes of Berbers converting to Islam immediately upon arrival.
There were certainly divides between North Africans and the Byzantines on issues within Christianity: the main issue was the nature of divinity and humanity. Separatist Christian movements such as Arianism and Donatism openly disputed the official orthodoxy promoted by the Byzantines and may well have caused North Africans to lean closer to Islam.
But even if they did not all convert immediately, as early chroniclers claim, the Berbers certainly had practical reasons to rise up against the Byzantines in conjunction with arriving Muslim armies.
Thus it was possible for ‘Uqba’s army to continue gaining momentum as it did through the early 680s until they were able to push into modern Morocco and to the shores of the Atlantic.
His legendary words when he rode his horse into the crashing waves of the ocean hint at the deeply religious nature of these conquests: “O Lord, if the sea did not stop me, I would go through the lands like Alexander the Great, defending your faith and fighting the unbelievers!” Whether or not he actually said those words is not as important as the role that heroic image would play in the minds of generations of military leaders that would rise out of the Islamic Maghreb.
Despite his success in unifying the Muslim world after the troubles of ‘Ali’s caliphate, one decision Mu‘awiya made would make him a controversial character and change the nature of Islamic government for the next 1300 years.
He appointed his son Yazid as his successor well before his own death and demanded oaths of allegiance from the notables of Damascus.
Muslim historians throughout the ages have speculated as to his reasoning for doing so, especially considering the subsequent opposition that arose to Yazid. However, keeping in mind the historical context of Mu‘awiya’s time makes it easier to understand why the switch to a hereditary system made sense. Mu‘awiya’s time as caliph showed the emphasis he placed on political unity and harmony.
After the political upheaval of ‘Ali’s caliphate, Mu‘awiya’s main challenge was keeping the Muslim world united under one command. Although he largely succeeded, there was no guarantee that all subsequent caliphs would be able to use external threats or political maneuvering to minimize internal divisions.
Mu‘awiya thus felt that the only way to preserve social unity and harmony was to simply bypass wars of succession and make the caliphate hereditary.
As it happened, however, the choice of Yazid was not without controversy. Unlike his father, he had never known the Prophet, and was thus without the aura that comes with being a Companion. Furthermore, rumors swirled in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina of the sinful life that Yazid led.
Alcohol, singing girls and excessive luxuries were to be found in Yazid’s presence, a far cry from the pious and simple lifestyle Muhammad had preached.
Whether or not these allegations of wickedness were accurate, they were enough for some to revolt, such as ‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr, the son of the Zubayr who opposed ‘Ali. Compounding the problem were the desires of some in Iraq to see a descendant of ‘Ali take the title of caliph of the Muslim world. ‘Ali’s oldest son Hasan had already died in Mecca during Mu‘awiya’s reign, so support fell to his younger brother, Husayn.
This grandson of Muhammad was attracted to the city of Kufa in Mesopotamia by promises of support from its people. Against the advice of ‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr, who warned him that the people of Iraq will desert him at their first opportunity, Husayn set out to establish a base in Iraq in 680 from which he could oppose the Syrian Umayyads, as his father had done twenty-five years earlier.
True to ‘Abdullah’s prediction, the people of Kufa abandoned their support for Husayn before he even arrived. Yazid had already sent a new governor to the city to root out any opposition and ensure that the population does not rise up in revolt against him, and it appears to be this show of force that persuaded the people to abandon their promises of support.
Husayn had been counting on that support and only travelled with about seventy family members and friends, hardly a force capable of overthrowing Yazid. At the plain of Karbala about 80 kilometers north of Kufa, Husayn was surrounded by Yazid’s forces, which proceeded to kill the would-be rebel and most of his supporters. The Battle of Karbala would later become one of the founding legends of a new, divergent strain of Islam, the Shi‘a.
‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr’s revolt did not fare much better. After the killing of Husayn, popular support throughout the Muslim world was against the Umayyad government.
Husayn was, after all, the Prophet’s dearly beloved grandson, and killing someone who had the Prophet’s blood flowing through him was a shock to many of the more pious-minded. ‘Abdullah used this opposition to Yazid to bolster his own revolt against the Umayyads, which he declared in Mecca in 680, after Husayn’s death.
With such support, ‘Abdullah’s revolt could not be stamped out as easily as Husayn’s. In fact, Yazid was never able to do away with the revolt in the Hijaz and died in 683 without complete control over the Empire. After Yazid’s death, it seems that Umayyad control collapsed almost everywhere in the Muslim world.
Yazid’s successor, a youth who seems to have had no interest in government, only ruled for a few months before his own death. ‘Abdullah declared himself caliph, and was given oaths of allegiance by people in Iraq, Egypt, and even the fringes of Syria itself.
But through a mix of tribal politics and open fighting, the Umayyads managed to regain control of the caliphate under Marwan, a cousin of Mu‘awiya. Under Marwan and his son ‘Abd al-Malik, the Umayyads regained control of Syria, Egypt and Iraq, and eventually stamped out ‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr’s rebellion in Mecca by 692.
The Umayyads had come back from the brink of extinction to regain complete control over the Muslim empire. This certainly was not the tranquility and harmony Mu‘awiya had hoped for when he appointed his son as caliph, but once the Umayyads were reestablished, the period of civil wars between 680 and 692 seemed like nothing more than a small hiccup.
In the late 600s and early 700s, the Umayyads continued with a second period of rapid military expansion and economic growth that would rival any period of expansion in Islamic history before or since.
The fact that the Umayyads conquered most of Iberia in just four years with a few thousand soldiers indicates that they received support from the local population.
Full consolidation of ‘Uqba’s conquests in North Africa had to be completed before further conquests could be undertaken. The caliph ‘Abd al-Malik sent armies to conquer Carthage, the final outpost of Byzantine control in North Africa in 698.
With this, the last remnants of Byzantine North Africa disappeared for good, as the former rulers of the land were forced to retreat to Sicily and Greece.
Now the Muslim armies were primed for one of the most spectacular and unlikely conquests in history. Legend has it that a former Byzantine official, Julian, appealed to the new Muslim governors of North Africa to punish the Visigothic king of the Iberian Peninsula, Roderic, who had supposedly seduced Julian’s daughter while she was under his care.
Julian even promised to ferry a Muslim expeditionary force across the strait to Spain to exact his revenge upon the tyrant king. Whether or not Julian really existed, reports of unrest in Visigothic Spain along with pleas from persecuted Jews and unorthodox Christians must have played a role in the decision to cross the strait and venture into the Iberian Peninsula.
Musa ibn Nusayr, the Umayyad governor of the Maghreb sent a force under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Berber convert to Islam, who in early 711 landed near a giant monolithic promontory on the south shore of Spain.
He established his camp near the mountain, which became known as Jabal Tariq (the Mountain of Tariq), Anglicized as Gibraltar. From this base, Tariq led raiding parties throughout the south of Spain, which proved to be generally successful— especially since Roderic and the main bulk of the Visigothic army was in the north of the peninsula dealing with a Basque rebellion.
By the time Roderic was able to march his army south to meet the Muslim forces in the summer of 711, Tariq had managed to bring over an army that numbered around 10,000 soldiers from Muslim North Africa. At the decisive Battle of Guadalete, Tariq’s army crushed the amassed forces of Roderic, who suffered from disloyalty in his army’s ranks along with the effects of an exhaustive march to meet the Muslim invaders.
Roderic himself was killed in the battle, and the underlying weakness of the Visigothic kingdom soon became apparent. Central control collapsed throughout the peninsula. Tariq advanced to take Roderic’s old capital city of Toledo within a few months of the battle, and soon afterwards, cities began to fall one by one to the invading Muslims. Tariq’s superior, Musa, also crossed over into Spain to aid in the ongoing conquest.
Tariq was the conqueror and Musa was the consolidator. As expeditionary forces under Tariq took cities as far north as the Ebro Valley, Musa’s larger army followed up to fully establish Muslim rule in conquered areas and set up civil government.
In the years from 711 to 715, Tariq and Musa managed to bring the vast majority of the peninsula under Umayyad control. The seemingly improbable conquest of such a large territory by relatively small invading armies (no more than ten to twenty thousand soldiers) was reminiscent of the conquest of North Africa just a generation before.
Many of the early Indian converts to Islam were Buddhists and members of lower castes, who were attracted to the egalitarian nature of Islam.
Further raids to the north into Gaul initially proved to be as successful as the conquest of Spain. The Muslim armies managed to advance into the south of modern France, establishing their rule in Aquitaine and Septimania in the 720s.
The climax of the Muslim invasion of Gaul was in 732, when armies under the Muslim governor of al-Andalus, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi, were defeated by the Franks under Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours, in northern France. The importance of this battle has been thoroughly debated by historians. Some argue that a Muslim victory would have led to the eventual complete conquest of Europe and its subsequent conversion to Islam in the 700s.
Others downplay the battle, making the point that al-Ghafiqi’s advance to northern France was nothing more than a summer raid with no aims at conquest. Whether or not the battle really was that important cannot be determined, but one has to wonder at the implications of what Muslim rule in France and beyond could have meant for European history in the Middle Ages.
What makes Umayyad expansion in the early part of the eighth century so extraordinary is that it was not confined to North Africa and Spain. Simultaneously, on the opposite side of the Empire, Umayyad armies were marching into an unknown land into which even Alexander’s armies dared not venture.
The impetus was a Muslim trade vessel returning from Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) that was attacked by pirates based in the northwest corner of India, Sindh. When the king of Sindh, Raja Dahir refused to return the Muslim captives taken from the ship, Umayyad armies were again spurred to action to push the empire’s borders even further.
Under the command of Muhammad bin Qasim, a young man who hailed from the tribe of Thaqif, based in Ta’if (the same city that according to Islamic tradition Prophet Muhammad chose not to destroy).
Although he was in his teens, Ibn Qasim proved to be an able leader under the tutelage of Hajjaj bin Yusuf, the governor of Iraq. He was sent with an army of 6,000 Syrian soldiers across Persia and into the Indian subcontinent in 711, the same year as Tariq ibn Ziyad’s foray into Spain. Upon reaching the Indus River, several small communities capitulated to the invading force once given the promise of religious freedom.
Aided by Buddhist temple officials, the Muslim army marched from city to city with relatively little resistance. When bin Qasim’s force finally met Dahir in battle along the Indus River, the Muslims, along with locals discontented with Dahir’s rule, managed to inflict a devastating blow on the Sindhi army.
Dahir himself was killed in the chaos of the battle, his war elephants being no match for the flaming arrows employed by the Muslims. Like in Spain, the loss of a major battle and the death of the king led to the complete collapse of local government.
Muhammad bin Qasim’s forces mopped up the remaining organized opposition within months, and established Muslim rule in Sindh. For the first time, a part of India was under Muslim control, although it would be centuries before Muslims would manage to establish control further into the subcontinent.
For the locals living in Sindh, the Muslim conquest did not change their daily lives much. On the advice of his superiors in Iraq, Ibn Qasim extended the same religious freedom to Buddhists and Hindus that was already given to Christians and Jews elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Temples and idols destroyed in the fighting were allowed to be rebuilt by the new Muslim governors. Once again, the relaxed terms offered by the conquering Muslims created little discontent with Muslim rule and relative social harmony.
The rapid expansion meant that a huge number of peoples came under Muslim control who were not Muslims themselves. The percent of the population that was Muslim in the early to mid-700s is estimated to be around just 10 per cent, the rest being a blend of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Hindus.
According to Islamic law, these groups were granted religious freedom and were exempt from military service in exchange for payment of a poll tax, the jizya. Muslims on the other hand, were only subject to a land tax and the zakat, a mandatory tax meant to be distributed to the poor.
Although the jizya was usually lower than the pre-Islamic taxes of the Byzantines or Sassanids, it was still higher than the taxes paid by the Muslims. A natural economic reaction to this system would be for non-Muslims to convert to Islam in order to pay less tax.
But this solution posed a problem for the Umayyad government: if all the non-Muslims in the empire converted to Islam, it would lead to a huge fall in tax revenue, making further military expeditions (not to mention luxurious Umayyad palaces) financially unfeasible. Consequently, a safeguard to protect revenue was put into place.
Non-Muslims who converted to Islam were required to continue to pay the same jizya tax they had paid before their conversion. In theory, this would protect the Umayyad caliphate from losing a valuable tax base, and ensure that all conversions would be sincere.
In practice, it meant institutionalized discrimination based on race. Since the Arabs had almost entirely converted to Islam before the Umayyad caliphate began, the only people who were converting into the religion were non-Arabs such as Copts, Greeks, Berbers, and especially Persians.
They were the only Muslims paying the jizya, while their Arab brothers in faith were exempt. The intention of the Umayyads may have been to protect their tax base, but the policy ended up having a racial aspect, keeping non-Arabs at the bottom of society while Arabs rose to the top.
From a religious perspective, this directly contradicted Prophet Muhammad’s call for unity during the Farewell Pilgrimage, when he famously proclaimed, “No Arab is better than a non-Arab and no non-Arab is better than an Arab.”
An attempt was made by the caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz to undo the unIslamic taxation policy during his reign from 717 to 720. Although his reforms were wildly popular with the non-Arabs of the empire, he was distrusted by his own family for his views of equality and was poisoned by the Umayyad clan just two years after taking power.
Later Muslims would give Umar II the honorary title of the “Fifth Rightly Guided Caliph” because of his religious-minded reforms, but in the end, his reign would be nothing more than a small hiccup in Umayyad policy.
With ever increasing numbers of non-Arabs accepting Islam, dissatisfaction at the unequal tax policy of the Umayyads grew. Riding this wave of discontent, another old family of Mecca rose to take control of the caliphate for themselves: the Abbasids.
The Abbasid Revolution
The Abbasids take their name from the uncle of the Prophet, Abbas, who was the patriarch of the clan. They had settled in the land east of the Jordan River after the conquest of Syria, and generally stayed out of politics as the civil wars of the 600s raged.
But sometime in the early 700s, they began to circulate a rumour that one of the descendants of ‘Ali had officially transferred the right to rule to the Abbasids. Why he may have done this, or if it even happened in the first place, is a mystery. From a practical standpoint, it gave legitimacy to the Abbasids. Not only were they more closely related to the Prophet than the Umayyads were, but they could also claim to uphold the desires of those who supported ‘Ali’s descendants as leaders of the Muslim world.
From their base in southern Syria, and later in Iraq, they sent agents east to Khurasan, where the Persian population could be counted on to support a revolt against the oppressive Umayyads.
Throughout the 730s and 740s, oaths of allegiance and networks of allies were formulated, far from the Umayyad base in Damascus. With promises of a more equal society under their caliphate and vague assurances that the descendants of ‘Ali would play a greater role in Muslim government, which was major desire for many Muslims in the eastern part of the empire, the Abbasids were able to secure backing from a wide spectrum of society.
Support came from pious-minded worshippers who desired to see a government more in line with the Prophet’s ideals, non-Arab Muslims who resented their second-class status, and loyalists to the house of ‘Ali, who believed rule should belong to the Prophet’s family.
In 747 the Abbasids formally declared their open revolt, unfurling their distinctive black banners in the skies above the city of Merv, in the far east of the Muslim world in modern-day Turkmenistan. The revolutionaries were led by a mysterious figure known as Abu Muslim. Not much is known about him, but he does not appear to have been a member of the Abbasid family, and was probably ethnically Persian.
Under his brilliant political and military leadership, the Abbasid revolution quickly secured control of Khurasan, which was soon to serve as a base for the movement. Abu Muslim sent armies westward, into the heart of Persia, where local Persian Muslims rose up against the Umayyads and joined in revolutionary fervor.
What initially seemed like an insignificant expression of discontent in distant Merv now became a danger to the existence of the Umayyad dynasty as Abbasid armies flowed out of Persia and into the Arab world.
Kufa, ever a hub of anti-Umayyad sentiment, rose up against its Umayyad governor and expelled him when the black Abbasid banners appeared on the eastern horizon.
Once Kufa was liberated, formal oaths of allegiance could be given to the Abbasid claimant to the caliphate, Abu al-‘Abbas. The revolution had a clear goal, widespread support throughout Persia, and now, a leader to unite behind. Everywhere the Umayyads were on the defensive as more people flocked to support the Abbasids.
Meanwhile, rousing the Umayyad supporters proved to be a challenge. It had been decades since the last real threat to the Umayyad position, and the Syrian army officers were content to remain on their estates, erroneously thinking the revolution would peter out. By the time the Umayyad caliph Marwan II could muster together the Umayyad forces, the Abbasids had already taken control of the majority of Iraq.
In early 750 at the climactic Battle of the Zab in central Mesopotamia, the Abbasid forces completely routed the Umayyad army. Organized resistance to the Abbasids effectively ended after the battle, as Umayyad control collapsed throughout the Muslim world.
Now nothing stood between the Abbasids and the Umayyad capital, Damascus. One by one, cities capitulated and accepted Abbasid sovereignty, and one by one, members of the Umayyad family were hunted down and executed.
Marwan himself was captured in Egypt, where he was unsuccessful in building an army that would drive back the Abbasids and reestablish Umayyad control.
Only one member of the defeated family managed to escape the revolutionaries. The teenaged ‘Abd al-Rahman, a relatively obscure member of the Umayyad family, found a way to escape in disguise to North Africa. Pursued by Abbasid armies from Palestine to Egypt to the Maghreb, and aided only by a slave who had once worked for his family, his legendary journey led him eventually to al-Andalus, where he would establish an Umayyad emirate far from Abbasid reach that would last almost 300 more years.
The Abbasid Caliphate
The Abbasid Revolution of the mid-700s inaugurated the second dynasty to control the caliphate. The revolt was based on the ideas of building a government more in line with Prophetic ideals, giving non-Arabs a more equitable role in society, and giving the descendants of ‘Ali some role in leadership.
These broad and idealistic promises were necessary to secure the support of various groups of people that made the revolution successful.
Once the Abbasids were in power, however, the reality of their caliphate fell far short of expectation. The revolution did not mean a return to the era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs where piety, and not politics, dictated the decisions of the caliph.
If anything, the Abbasid caliphs continued the same authoritarian traditions that they had denounced the Umayyads for. The caliphate remained a hereditary title in the possession of a Qurayshi family, and those who supported ‘Ali’s family as caliphs were left with unfulfilled promises.
The Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid was known for his immense wealth and diplomatic relations with distant states. In 802, he sent an embassy to Charlemagne in France that included an elephant and a water clock.
The one area where the Abbasids made real progress was the role of nonArabs in society. Although the caliphate itself remained in Arab hands, administration was increasingly Persianized. For hundreds of years before Islam, the Persians had developed a complex but efficient bureaucratic system.
Now that non-Arabs were no longer systematically discriminated against, this experience would be put to use in the administration of the Empire. Recognizing the usefulness of the Persians caused the Abbasids to move the capital of the Muslim world closer to the Persian heartland.
The second Abbasid caliph, AlMansur, established a new city to serve as his capital in the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in 765 near the old Persian capital of Ctesiphon.
Within twenty years, Baghdad became the largest city in the world, with over one million residents. The seat of the Muslim empire would become a metropolitan center where government, culture,science and art would all intersect.
A true understanding of the accomplishments of the Abbasid age does not come with discussions of military exploits and distant conquests, as it did with the Umayyads.
In fact, outward expansion essentially halted when the Abbasids came to power. Seasonal raids across the border with the Byzantines remained, but the campaigns were generally indecisive. In the West, the Battle of Tours in 732 in Umayyad times meant the end of Muslim expansion into Europe, and consolidation of gains in al-Andalus was the main focus of the Umayyad refugees who controlled it.
In the East, only incremental gains were made in creating inroads into Central Asia. The Turks who roamed the Central Asian plains would not come into Islamic civilization through conquest, but through migration into the heartland of Islam in the 800s and 900s.
The era of Muslim military conquest was over for the time being. Instead, the era of Muslim intellectual conquest was about to begin.
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