The Umayyad Caliphate: The Largest Islamic State

A few decades after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, the Islamic World produced its first great empire: the Umayyad Caliphate.

Nov 1, 2022By Ilyas Benabdeljalil, MA Int'l Relations, BA Political Science
Umayyad Caliphate largest islamic state

 

In the years following Mohammed’s death, the Islamic Nation was ruled by four “rightly-guided” Caliphs. It was the era of the Rashidun Caliphate. During this period, the Arabic Peninsula underwent a series of reforms, conquests, and centralization, turning it from a simple desert filled with warring tribes and seasonal merchants to the heart of an expanding civilization.

 

At the time of the death of the Third Caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan, the Islamic Empire conquered Persia, the Levant, Anatolia, and Egypt and was slowly encroaching on North Africa. But Uthman’s murder unleashed an era of instability known as the Great Fitna, which saw the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate.

 

The Origins of the Umayyad Caliphate

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Painting with a view of Mecca, 20th century, via Oriental Art Auctions

 

The Umayyads, or the “Banu Umayya” (Sons of Umayya), were one of the leading clans of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca. They gathered considerable riches through their resourceful trade networks and concluded strong alliances with various Arab tribes of the Peninsula, Syria, and Yemen.

 

Led by Abu Sufyan Ibn Harb, the Umayyads opposed Mohammed and took part in the persecution of early Muslims. But following the fall of Mecca in 630, the Umayyad Clan converted and relocated to Medina, the capital of the early Islamic nation.

 

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In the following years, the Umayyads integrated into the highest levels of Muslim society. Abu Sufyan earned an excellent reputation for heroically fighting at the Battle of Yarmuk under Khalid Ibn Al-Walid. Their trade networks with Syria offered them advanced knowledge of the region, making them a valuable asset for Abu Ubayda Ibn Al-Jarrah, the first Muslim governor of the Levant. When the latter died of a plague in 635, the Caliph Umar named Yazid, Abu Sufyan’s elder son, replaced him as governor.

 

However, Yazid’s rule was short-lived as he also died from the same plague that took the life of his predecessor. Having no better options, the Caliph appointed Mu’awiyya, Yazid’s younger brother, as emir in 639. Once the plague was over, the latter managed to rebuild the province by supporting the trade and integration of locals to the new regime, which gained him strong popularity and the satisfaction of Umar.

 

The Umayyads’ Rise to Power 

imam ali holy shrine najaf irak
Imam Ali Holy Shrine, in Najaf, Iraq, via Medium

 

Mu’awiya continued to govern Syria for the remainder of Umar’s rule and during the reign of Uthman. The latter being close to the Umayyad Clan allowed Mu’awiya to build a solid powerhouse for his kin and allies. Following Uthman’s death, the governor of Syria demanded that justice be done before a new caliph was elected. But despite his influence, he could not prevent the nomination of Ali Ibn Abi Talib.

 

Cousin of the prophet, one of the earliest converts to Islam, war hero, and close advisor to all previous caliphs, Ali enjoyed important support in Medina, but his policy of keeping the peace rather than delivering justice angered many. Among the first to oppose Ali’s leniency were Aisha, Mohammed’s widow, and the prophet’s companions Talha Ibn Ubayd Allah and Zubayr Ibn Al-Awwam. The three of them gathered an army and pursued Uthman’s assassins all the way to Basra in Iraq.

 

prophets mosque medina saudi arabia
The Prophet’s Mosque, Medina, Saudi Arabia, via the Guardian Nigeria

 

After successfully crushing the murderers, Aisha’s party had to face Ali, who was fast on their heels. Ali emerged victorious in the ensuing battle, Talha and Zubayr were dead, and the prophet’s widow returned to Medina. The Caliph established a new capital in Kufa, another Iraqi town, and prepared to face Mu’awiyya.

 

The latter managed to get the support of the previous Egyptian governor Amr Ibn Al-As and marched on Ali. The two armies fought each other to a stalemate at the Battle of Siffin and agreed to establish a neutral arbitration. However, this action provoked the ire of another group of Muslims called the Kharijites, who rose against both parties. Moreover, the diplomatic efforts of the arbitration failed completely in 659, and Mu’awiyya was declared Caliph in Damascus.

 

As the war was about to resume, the Kharijites managed to assassinate Ali in 661. Hassan, Ali’s son, was declared Caliph but resigned later in favor of Mu’awiyya on the condition that he did not name a successor. The Umayyad Caliphate was born.

 

Hereditary Rule & Karbala

shia muslims mourning procession muharran ashura karbala
Shia Muslims take part in a mourning procession on the 10th day of the lunar month of Muharram, which marks the day of Ashura, in the holy city of Karbala on September 10, 2019, via Washington Post

 

With the unification of Muslim rule under Mu’awiyya, the capital of the Empire was moved to Damascus, where the Umayyad Clan had the loyalty of all local tribes. The absence of leadership and divisions in Iraq between Kufans and Basrans made all resistance impossible. Meanwhile, Mu’awiyya’s rule was barely tolerated in the Arabic Peninsula, but his agreement with Hassan kept the peace.

 

His reign also saw the continuation of expansion campaigns. In 670, the Muslim General Oqba Ibn Nafi conquered modern-day Tunisia and built the town of Kairouan to use as a base for further expansion in North Africa. Meanwhile, Arab armies pushed into Khorassan in Eastern Persia and established solid rule in the region.

 

670 was also the year of the death of Hassan, which allowed Mu’awiya to name his son Yazid as heir. This act was met with criticism in Iraq and the Hejaz, but few vocalized their opposition. It was only after Mu’awiyya’s death in 680 that vocal resistance to Umayyad rule emerged, notably in Kufa, where the population called for the nomination of Husain, son of Ali and twin brother of Hassan, as Caliph.

 

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Pilgrims procession during a Karbala Commemoration, 14 December 2014, via BBC News

 

Supported by most of the Hejaz, Husain sent one of his kin to assess the situation in Kufa. Encouraged by reports attesting the city’s allegiance, he traveled with his family to Iraq. As Husain was crossing the desert, Yazid dispatched Ubayd Allah Ibn Zyad, one of his most capable generals, to Kufa to quickly subdue the opposition.

 

An army was sent to apprehend Husain. Despite being barely armed and vastly outnumbered, the latter refused to surrender and died alongside most of his kin. This event is remembered today as the Battle of Karbala, which had a significant impact on all of the Muslim community and is still commemorated today among Shia Muslims.

 

In Medina, an armed resistance gathered around Abd Allah Ibn Zubayr, son of Zoubayr Ibn Al-Awwam. The Second Muslim Civil War had begun.

 

The Second Fitna

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Gold dinar of the time of Abd Al Malik Ibn Marwan, an important ruler during the Umayyad Caliphate, via numisbids.com

 

For the next three years, Abd Allah Ibn Zoubayr’s forces managed to expel the Umayyads from the Hejaz and assemble a powerful army. Nonetheless, Damascus scored a victory against the rebels at the Battle of Al-Harra. Abd Allah Ibn Zoubayr then retreated towards Mecca, where he was besieged until news of Yazid’s death arrived.

 

Yazid’s son, Mu’awiyya II, was declared Caliph. In the Hejaz, Abd Allah Ibn Zoubayr was fast to recover lost territory and challenged Umayyad rule. Iraq and Egypt declared their support for Ibn Zoubayr, thus further isolating the young Caliph. Horrified by the ongoing war and suffering from illness, Mu’awiyya II abdicated and died in 684 without heirs.

 

Marwan Ibn Al-Hakam, a member of the Umayyad Clan and distant cousin of Mu’awiyya I, was declared Caliph by whoever was left of the clan’s supporters in Syria. In August 684, he led his forces at the Battle of Marj Rahit and won a surprising victory against Ibn Zoubayr’s allies, which pushed most Yemenite tribes to switch allegiance. The following year, the Caliph managed to capture Egypt and name one of his sons as governor. A few months later, Marwan died and was replaced by his son, Abd Al Malik.

 

Abd Al Malik’s reign started with the Battle of Khazir in 686, which saw pro-Umayyad forces decimated and Ubayd Allah Ibn Zyad killed. Byzantine raids from the North pushed the Caliph to sign an unfavorable peace treaty with Constantinople, which further weakened his stance in the Muslim community. The Umayyad army was suffering from a lack of coordination and unity as various tribes competed with each other, thus drastically diminishing efficiency.

 

Unification of Muslims & Expansion 

map umayyad caliphate largest
Map of the Umayyad Caliphate at its largest, via historyoftheworldpodcast.com

 

In 691, Abd Al Malik managed to reorganize his army by redistributing privileges among Syrian and Yemenite tribes. The same year, he marched on Iraq and decisively defeated Ibn Zoubayr’s supporters at the Battle of Maskin. In the following months, he sent Al-Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf towards the Arabic Peninsula, which the latter conquered with extensive brutality. In 692, Abd Allah Ibn Zubayr was killed during the siege of Mecca, and the town surrendered. The Second Fitna was over, with the Umayyad Caliphate more solidified than ever.

 

From that point onward, Abd Al Malik enacted numerous financial and social reforms that helped the Umayyad Caliphate recover. The Caliph died in 705, and his heirs oversaw the empire’s expansion. By 710, all North Africa, from Egypt to modern-day Morocco, was firmly in Muslim hands. In 711, the converted Berber commander Tariq Ibn Zyad subjugated the Visigoth Kingdom in modern-day Spain and created the province of Al Andalus.

 

To the East, Umayyad forces conquered Transoxiana and reached Central Asia, where Chinese armies stopped them at the Battle of Aksu in 717. The Umayyad Caliphate also conquered Sind in modern-day India.

 

However, success was limited on the Byzantine front. From 717 to 718, Muslim armies managed to besiege Constantinople but were forced to withdraw and abandon Anatolia. For the next few years, the Caliphate’s expansion progressively came to a halt. However, the Umayyad dynasty had already forged an empire that stretched from the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean to the outskirts of India.

 

The First Failings of the Umayyad Caliphate 

battle tours charles de steuben
Battle of Tours by Charles de Steuben, via World History

 

In 724, Hisham, the last son of Abd Al Malik, became Caliph. His reign lasted for 19 years and saw the Caliphate reach its peak and face its first major setbacks.

 

On the European front, Umayyad armies penetrated the Frankish Kingdom, conquered parts of Southern France, and pushed all the way north until their defeat at the Battle of Tours in 732. This defeat was followed by the Berber Revolt of 740, which saw Umayyad armies decimated by the Berber Tribes of North Africa in modern-day Morocco and Algeria. Exhausted by heavy taxation, the Arab governors’ refusal to recognize the conversion of local populations, and extensive abuse of power, the conquered took up arms and pushed Umayyads out of their lands, leading to the emergence of the first Muslim states that were not subject to the Caliphate in 743.

 

In the Caucasus, the Umayyad Caliphate came head to head with the powerful Khazar Khanate. Both powers fought to a bloody stalemate. Despite limited success, Arab armies established permanent Muslim influence in modern-day Azerbaijan and Northern Caucasus.

 

In India, Muslim armies were stopped by the Chalukya Dynasty in the south and the Gurjara-Pratihara in the north. Meanwhile, Hisham attempted to invade the Byzantine Empire, only to be defeated at the Battle of Arkoinon.

 

But the most significant setback in Hisham’s rule happened in Khorassan when local Persians and Arab settlers rose together in rebellion against heavy taxation, power abuse of governors too close to Damascus, and tribal and ethnic segregation. While contained at first, this rebellion was the crib of a future fire that tore down the Umayyad Caliphate.

 

The Abbasid Revolution

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Coins from the Early Abbasid Era, via numisbids.com

 

Hisham died in 743 and was succeeded by his nephew Al-Walid II. His short rule was marked by oppression against any of his family members who contested his rule. In 744, he was eventually killed by his cousin Yazid, who was proclaimed caliph. His reign lasted merely half a year before he died, naming his brother Ibrahim as heir. The latter was overthrown by Marwan Ibn Muhammad, nephew of the Caliph Abd Al-Malik. This era of troubles is remembered today as the Umayyad Civil War, or the “Third Fitna.”

 

As soon as he became Caliph, Marwan had to face a renewed anti-Umayyad fervor. An underground movement called the Hashimiyya had been active in recruiting members since the end of the Second Fitna in the late 7th century. The Hashimiyya found a lot of popularity among Shia Muslims, especially Persians–who suffered from the heavy taxation imposed upon them by the Umayyads–and Arab tribes that viewed the current dynasty as usurpers.

 

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The Umayyad Dome of the Treasury, via euratlas.net

 

The Umayyad Civil War was the perfect opportunity for the Hashimiyya to boost their recruitment efforts and enroll Abu Muslim Al Khorassani, a charismatic and popular Persian Commander. In 747, the latter declared open rebellion against the Umayyads in Khorassan and quickly conquered the province in the name of the movement. At that time, the Hashimiyya was led by the Abbasids, an Arab Clan related to the prophet, and led by Abu Al-Abbas, known as As-Saffah (the Blood-Shedder).

 

Iraq fell to the rebels in 749, and Abu Al-Abbas was declared Caliph. The following year, the Umayyad suffered numerous defeats at the hands of the Abbasids and lost Damascus. Marwan II was forced to flee to Egypt, where he was eventually caught and killed. The final straw came in late 750, when Abu Al-Abbas issued pardons to Umayyad princes, only to gather them and slaughter them all.

 

The Umayyad Caliphate & Islamic History 

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The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, a major monument from the Umayyad Caliphate built in 715, via islamicarchitecturalheritage.com

 

The Umayyad Caliphate was the continuation of united Islamic rule that dated back to the Prophet Mohammed and the Rashidun Caliphate. Its downfall was followed by a fast disintegration of unity in the governorship. Following the Berber Revolt of 740, local states emerged in modern-day Morocco and western Algeria, such as the Barghwata Confederacy and the Midrarid Dynasty. However, the Umayyads were still the central power in the Muslim world.

 

All of this changed when the Abbasids took power in 750. As is common in history, the new rulers quickly turned on their allies, including the Alids, descendants of Caliph Ali and his closest supporters. The massacre that ensued led to the escape of Idris Ibn Abdallah, who took refuge in the Central Atlas Mountains in Morocco, where he was crowned Sultan in 788.

 

The Umayyad Prince Abd Al-Rahman Ibn Mu’awiyya managed to escape Abbasid persecution in an epic journey from Syria all the way towards Al-Andalus, where he took power with the help of local Syrian garrisons. In a matter of years, his country became a major home to science and progress in the Islamic world.

 

The last major region to gain independence was the Emirate of Kairouan in modern-day Tunisia, where the Arab Aghlabid Dynasty managed to break away from the Abbasids by the end of the 8th century. The Abbasids remained the recognized Caliphs as spiritual leaders, but their authority beyond the Middle East was purely symbolic.

 

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Map of the Abbasid Caliphate in 800, via worldhistory.org

 

The Umayyad Caliphate had to face constant legitimacy issues. Many Muslims strongly resented the way Mu’awiyya I came to power and the massacres perpetrated by his relatives. The Umayyads also imposed heavy taxation on non-Muslims and converts. Finally, the Damascus governorship was based strongly on pre-Islamic equilibriums between tribes, where Syrian and Yemenites Arabs had distinct privileges compared to other groups in society. All of these factors contributed to a growing distaste towards the Umayyad dynasty, which exploded into a full-on revolt at the first signs of weakness.



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By Ilyas BenabdeljalilMA Int'l Relations, BA Political ScienceIlyas holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations. He studied economy, sociology, public policy, and history and worked as a researcher for think tanks and consulting firms. It is his strong passion for political and military history that brought him to TheCollector. Nowadays, he is preparing for a PhD program in International Cooperation and Public Policy.