Islamic dynasties: 2, Umayyad Caliphs

July 12 2014

The Umayyad Caliphs, 661-750

Capital: Damascus

The dynasty starts with Muawiya (ruled 661-80), who had been governor of Syria. Uthman had also been an Umayyad, but is classed as one of the four Rightly-Guided caliphs. Shia Muslims believe that the succession should have gone through Ali.

Muawiya had fought against Byzantium and had a well-trained army to set against the anarchic Bedouin who had followed Ali.

The Shia vilify Muawiya. They believe that his conversion to Islam was superficial, that he was motivated by lust for power and that he secured it by force. They point out that he is the only Sahaba Caliph (companion of the Prophet) who was not regarded as righteously guided by the Sunni. (He was related to the Prophet, like the others.)

His son and heir Yazid I is hated for his actions towards the house of Ali, in particular for sending forces against Ali’s son Husayn ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala in 680.

The great administrators of the dynasty, Muawiya I, Abd al-Malik (ruled 685-705) and Hisham (ruled 724-43) took over many of the systems of the Greeks and Persians.

In 661-71 the Arabs conquered Tokharistan (Bactria), which the Persian Empire had won from the Ephthalite Hun Empire. This put the Islamic state astride the overland route between India and China via the Oxus-Jaxartes basin.

They had completed the conquest of North Africa by 698.

In 706-15 they conquered Transoxiana and Khwarezm, which had been the Turkish steppe-dwellers’ share of the Ephthalite Empire. They consolidated their position there in subsequent decades.

In 710-12 they extinguished the Visigothic Kingdom in Spain.

In 711 they conquered Sind and the southern Punjab, up to and including Multan.

On four fronts, they were defeated.

In order to conquer Asia Minor and take Constantinople, they needed naval command of the Mediterranean. In 669 Muawiya built a fleet. In 674-8 and in 717-18 the Arabs besieged Constantinople by sea and land and were defeated.

In 677 they gained a temporary foothold in the Lebanon. In 741 they were brought to a halt along the line of the Amanus range in southern Turkey. They did eventually carry their frontier beyond the Amanus to the Taurus.

In 732 they failed to conquer Carolingian France. Before reaching the Loire, they were checked at Poitiers.

In 737-38 they failed to conquer the empire of the Khazar nomads, between the Volga (which flows into the Caspian) and the Don (which flows into the Sea of Azov).

The Umayyad caliphs faced the opposition of Shiite Arab tribesmen of Iraq and that of pious elements in Medina who favoured the claims of Ali’s descendants, the Imams of the Shia (Shiʿat Ali or party of Ali).

The masses of non-Arab peoples in the conquered territories, the Mawali, began to stir and to resent their position as second-class citizens.

In 750 the Umayyads were overthrown by a revolution which began in Khurasan in eastern Persia, led by Abu Muslim Khorasani. One of the few members of the Umayyad family to survive was Hisham’s grandson, Abd al-Rahman, who escaped to North Africa and continued the Umayyad line in Spain.

See Clifford Edmund BosworthThe Islamic Dynasties, A Chronological and Genealogical Handbook, Edinburgh University Press, 1967, revised 1980. There have been subsequent revisions. It contains complete lists of rulers. I am partly following it in this series, but leaving out most diacritics used in romanisations of Arabic.

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Umayyad Moque, Damascus, picture: studyblue.com

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