Islam (part 11)

Islam From The Beginning To 1300

Date: 2002

The Arab Empire Of The Umayyads

Muhammad's victory over the Umayyads, his capture of Mecca, and the
resulting allegiance of many of the bedouin tribes of Arabia created a wholly
new center of power in the Middle Eastern cradle of civilizations. A backward,
non-agrarian area outside the core zones of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia
suddenly emerged as the source of religious and political forces that would
eventually affect the history of much of the known world. But when the prophet
Muhammad died quite suddenly in 632, it appeared that his religion might
altogether disappear. Many of the bedouin tribes that had converted to Islam
renounced the new faith in the months after Muhammad's death, and his
remaining followers quarreled over who should succeed him. Though these
quarrels were never fully resolved, the community managed to find new leaders
who directed a series of campaigns to force those who had abandoned Islam to
return to the fold.

Having united most of Arabia under the Islamic banner by 633, Muslim
military commanders began to mount serious expeditions beyond the peninsula,
where only probing attacks had occurred during the lifetime of the prophet and
in the period of tribal warfare after his death. The courage, military
prowess, and religious zeal of the warriors of Islam and the weaknesses of the
empires that bordered on Arabia resulted in stunning conquests in Mesopotamia,
North Africa, and Persia that dominated the next two decades of Islamic
history. The empire built from these conquests was Arab rather than Islamic.
Most of it was ruled by a small Arab-warrior elite, led by the Umayyads and
other prominent clans, which had little desire to convert the subject
populations, either Arab or otherwise, to the new religion.

Unaccustomed wealth and political power, which was reflected in the
growth of new cities around Arab garrisons and the expansion of older urban
centers, were the Arabs' rewards for these startling victories. The Umayyads,
to the dismay of many of the faithful, developed into autocratic rulers who
were more concerned with perpetuating their dynastic power than advancing the
interests of the Islamic faithful as a whole. Their growing arrogance and
adoption of a life-style stressing luxury and material gain exacerbated
divisions within the Islamic community that had begun to emerge soon after
Muhammad's death.

Consolidation And Division In The Islamic Community

The leadership crisis brought on by Muhammad's death in 632 was
compounded by the fact that he had not appointed a successor or even
established a procedure by which a new leader might be chosen. Opinion within
the Muslim community was deeply divided as to who should succeed him. In
addition, many bedouin tribes broke from the Islamic fold after hearing of the
prophet's passing. Several of these tribes produced prophets of their own and
some of the larger ones launched attacks on Mecca.

In this moment of extreme danger, there was an urgent need to find a new
leader who could rally the faithful and put down the bedouin challenges to the
community and the new faith. On the afternoon Muhammad died, one of the loyal
clans called a meeting to select a new leader who would be designated as the
caliph, the political and religious successor to Muhammad. Several choices
were possible, and a deadlock between the clans appeared likely - a deadlock
that would almost certainly have been fatal to a community threatened by
enemies on all sides. One of the main candidates, Ali, the cousin and
son-in-law of Muhammad, was passed over because he was considered too young to
assume a position of such great responsibility. This decision was later to
prove a major source of division in the Islamic community. But in 632, it
appeared that a difficult reconciliation had been won by the choice of one of
Muhammad's earliest followers and closest friends, Abu Bakr (caliph from 632
to 634). In addition to his personal courage, warmth, and wisdom, Abu Bakr was
well versed in the genealogical histories of the bedouin tribes, which meant
that he was well placed to determine which tribes could be turned against each
other and which ones could be enticed into alliances. Initially at least, his
mandate was very limited. He received no financial support from the Muslim
community. Thus, he had to continue his previous occupation as a merchant on a
part-time basis, and he only loosely controlled the better military commanders
of the faithful.

These commanders turned out to be very able indeed. After turning back
attacks on Mecca, the Islamic faithful routed one after another of the bedouin
tribes. The defeat of rival prophets and some of the larger clans in what were
known as the Ridda Wars soon brought about the return of one tribe after
another to the Islamic fold. Emboldened by the proven skills of his generals
and the swelling ranks of the Muslim faithful, Abu Bakr did nothing to stop
raids to the north of Arabia into the sedentary zones in present-day Iraq and
Syria and eastward into Egypt. There is evidence that Muhammad envisioned
expansion into these areas, but his death left whatever plans he had

The unified bedouin forces had originally intended merely to raid for
booty and then retreat back into the desert. But their initial probes revealed
the deep-seated rot and vulnerability of the Byzantine and Persian empires,
which dominated or ruled directly the territories into which the Muslim
warriors rode. The invaders were also prodded onward by the growing support of
the Arab bedouin peoples who had migrated to the Fertile Crescent decades and
even centuries earlier. These peoples had long served as the vassals and
frontier guardians of the Byzantine and Persian empires. Now they joined their
Arab brethren in a combined assault on the two empires.

Motives For Conquest

The Arab warriors were driven by a number of forces. The unity the
Islamic faith provided gave them a new sense of common cause and strength.
United they could stand up to the non-Arab rulers who had so long played them
against each other and despised them as unwashed and backward barbarians from
the desert wastelands. It is also probable that the early leaders of the
community saw the wars of conquest as a good way to release the pent-up
energies of the martial bedouin tribes they now sought to lead. Above all, the
bedouin warriors were drawn to the campaigns of expansion by the promise of a
share in the booty to be won in the rich farmlands raided and the tribute that
could be exacted from the towns and cities that came under Arab rule. As an
early Arab writer remarked, the bedouins forsook their life as desert nomads
not out of a promise of religious rewards, but due to a "yearning after bread
and dates."

The chance to glorify their new religion may have been a motive for the
Arab conquests, but they were not driven by a desire to win converts to it. In
fact, other than fellow bedouin tribes of Arab descent, the invaders had good
reason to avoid mass conversions. Not only would Arab warriors have to share
the booty of their military expeditions with ever larger numbers if converts
were made, but Muslims were exempted from some of the more lucrative taxes
levied on Christian and other non-Muslim groups. Thus, the vision of Islamic
jihads, or holy wars, launched to forcibly spread the faith, which has been
associated with Islam, distorts the forces behind the early Arab expansion.

Weaknesses Of The Adversary Empires

Of the two great empires that had once contested for dominance in the
Fertile Crescent transit zone, the Sasanian Empire of Persia proved the more
vulnerable. Power in the extensive Sasanian domains was formally concentrated
in the hands of an autocratic emperor. By the time of the Arab explosion, the
emperor was manipulated by a landed, aristocratic class that harshly exploited
the cultivators who made up most of the population of the empire.
Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the emperor, lacked popular roots. By
contrast, the religion of a visionary reformer named Mazdak, which had won
considerable support among the peasantry, had been brutally suppressed by the
Sasanian rulers in the period before the rise of Islam.

At first the Sasanian commanders had little more than contempt for the
Arab invaders and set out against them with poorly prepared forces. By the
time the seriousness of the Islamic threat was made all too clear by decisive
Arab victories in the Fertile Crescent region and the defection of the Arab
tribes on the frontier, Muslim warriors had broken into the Sasanian
heartland. Further Muslim victories brought about the rapid collapse of the
vast empire. The Sasanian rulers and their forces retreated eastward in the
face of the Muslim advance. The capital was taken, armies were destroyed, and
generals were slain. When, in 651, the last of the Sasanian rulers was
assassinated, Muslim victory and the destruction of the empire were ensured.

[See Persian Prisoners]

Despite an equally impressive string of Muslim victories in the provinces
of their empire, the Byzantines proved a more resilient adversary. Their
ability to resist the Muslim onslaught, however, was impeded both by the
defection of their own frontier Arabs and the support the Muslim invaders
received from the Christians of Syria and Egypt. Members of the Christian
sects dominant in these areas, such as the Copts and Nestorians, had long
resented the rule of the Orthodox Byzantines, who taxed them heavily and,
periodically, openly persecuted them as heretics. When it became clear that
the Muslims would not only tolerate the Christians but tax them less heavily
than the Byzantines did, these Christian groups rallied to the Arabs.

Weakened from within and exhausted by the long wars fought with Persia in
the decades before the Arab explosion, the Byzantines reeled from the Arab
assaults. Syria, western Iraq, and Palestine were quickly taken by the Arab
invaders, and by 640 a series of probes had been made into Egypt, one of the
richest provinces of the empire. In the early 640s, the ancient center of
learning and commerce, Alexandria, was taken; most of Egypt was occupied; and
Arab armies extended their conquests into Libya to the west. Perhaps even more
astounding from the point of view of the Byzantines, by the mid-640s the
desert bedouins were putting together war fleets that increasingly challenged
the long-standing Byzantine mastery of the Mediterranean. The rise of Muslim
naval supremacy in the eastern end of the sea sealed the loss of Byzantium's
rich provinces in Syria and Egypt and opened the way to further Muslim
conquests in North Africa, the Mediterranean islands, and even southern Italy.
For a time the Byzantines managed to rally their forces and stave off further
inroads into their Balkan and Asia Minor heartlands. But the early triumphs of
the Arab invaders had greatly reduced the strength and magnificence of the
empire. Though it would survive for centuries, it would henceforth be a
kingdom under siege.

The Lingering Problem Of Succession And Sectarian Strife

The stunning successes of Muslim armies and the sudden rise of an Arab
empire covered over for a time continuing divisions within the community. The
old division between the tribes of Mecca and Medina was compounded by
differences between the tribes of north and south Arabia as well as those who
came to identify Syria as their homeland and those who settled in Iraq. Though
these divisions were often generations old and the result of personal
animosities, resentments had also begun to build over how the booty from the
conquests ought to be divided among the tribal blocks that made up the Islamic
community. In 656, just over two decades after the death of the prophet, the
growing tensions broke into open violence. The spark that began the conflict
was the murder of the third caliph, Uthman, by mutinous warriors returning
from Egypt. Uthman's death was the signal for the supporters of Ali to
proclaim him as caliph. In part Uthman's unpopularity among many of the
tribes, particularly those from Medina and the prophet's earliest followers,
arose from the fact that he was the first caliph to be chosen from Muhammad's
early enemies, the Umayyad clan. Already angered by the murder of their
kinsman, the Umayyads rejected Ali's claims and swore revenge when he failed
to punish Uthman's assassins. Warfare erupted between the two factions.

Ali was a famed warrior and experienced commander, and his deeply
committed supporters soon gained the upper hand. After his victory at the
Battle of the Camel in late 656, most of the Arab garrisons shifted to his
side in opposition to the Umayyads, whose supporters were concentrated in the
province of Syria and the holy city of Mecca. Just as Ali was on the verge of
routing the Umayyad forces at the battle of Siffin in 657, he was won over by
a plea for mediation of the dispute. His decision to accept arbitration was
fatal to his cause. Some of his most fervent adherents repudiated his
leadership and had to be violently suppressed. While representatives of both
parties sought unsuccessfully to work out a compromise, the Umayyads regrouped
their forces and added Egypt to the provinces backing their claims. In 660,
Mu'awiya, the new leader of the Umayyads, was proclaimed caliph in Jerusalem,
thereby directly challenging Ali's position. A year later, Ali was
assassinated, and his son, Hasan, was pressured by the Umayyads into
renouncing his claims to the caliphate.

The Sunni-Shi'a Division

In the generation after the prophet's death, the question of succession,
which has proved to be a persistent problem in Islamic political systems,
generated deep divisions within the Muslim community. The Sunnis, who backed
the Umayyads, and the Shi'as, or dissenters who supported Ali, remain to this
day the most fundamental divisions in the Islamic world. Hostility between
these two branches of the Islaeic faithful was further heightened in the years
after Ali's death by the continuing struggle between the Umayyads and Ali's
second son, Husayn. After being abandoned by the clans in southern Iraq, who
had promised to rise in a revolt supporting his claims against the Umayyads,
Husayn and a small party were overwhelmed and killed at Karbala in 680. From
that point the Shi'as mounted determined and sustained resistance to thec
Umayyad caliphate.

Over the centuries factional disputes about who had the right to succeed
Muhammad, with the Shi'ites recognizing none of the early caliphs except Ali,
have been compounded by differences in belief, ritual, and law that have
steadily widened the gap between Sunnis and Shi'as. These divisions have been
further complicated by the formation of splinter sects within the Shi'a
community in particular, beginning with those who defected from Ali when he
agreed to arbitration of his and the Umayyads' claims.

The Umayyad Imperium

After a pause to settle internal disputes over succession, the remarkable
sequence of Arab conquest was renewed in the last half of the 7th century.
Muslim armies broke into central Asia, thus inaugurating a rivalry with
Buddhism in the region that continues to the present day. By the early 8th
century, the southern prong of this advance had reached into northwest India.
Far to the west, Arab armies swept across North Africa and crossed the Straits
of Gibraltar to conquer Spain and threaten France. Though the Muslim advance
into western Europe was in effect checked by the hard-fought victory of
Charles Martel and the Franks at Poitiers in 732, the Arabs did not fully
retreat beyond the Pyrenees into Spain until decades later. Muslim warriors
and sailors dominated much of the Mediterranean, a position that would be
solidified by the conquest of key islands, such as Crete, Sicily, and
Sardinia, in the early decades of the 9th century. By the early 700s, the
Umayyads ruled an empire that extended from Spain in the west to the steppes
of central Asia in the east. Not since the Romans had there been an empire to
match it; never had an empire of its size been built so rapidly.

Though Mecca remained the holy city of Islam, under the Umayyads the
political center of community shifted to Damascus in Syria, where the Umayyads
chose to reside after the murder of Uthman. From Damascus a succession of
Umayyad caliphs strove to build a bureaucracy that would bind together the
vast domains they claimed to rule. The empire was very much an Arab conquest
state. Except in the Arabian peninsula and parts of the Fertile Crescent, a
small Arab and Muslim aristocracy ruled over peoples who were neither Arab nor
Muslim. Only Muslim Arabs were first-class citizens of this great empire. They
made up the core of the army and imperial administration, and only they
received a share of the booty derived from the ongoing conquests. They could
be taxed only for charity. The Umayyads sought to keep the Muslim warrior
elite concentrated in garrison towns and separated from the local population.
It was hoped that isolation would keep them from assimilating to the
subjugated cultures, because intermarriage meant conversion and the loss of
taxable subjects.

Converts And "Peoples Of The Book"

Umayyad attempts to block extensive interaction between the Muslim
warrior elite and the mass of their non-Muslim subjects had little chance of
succeeding. The citified bedouin tribesmen were soon interacting intensively
and intermarrying in considerable numbers with the local populations of the
areas conquered. Equally critical, increasing numbers of these peoples were
voluntarily converting to Islam, despite the fact that conversion did little
to advance them socially or politically in the Umayyad period. Mawali, or
Muslim converts, in this era still had to pay property taxes and in some cases
the jizya, or head tax, levied on nonbelievers. They received no share of the
booty and found it difficult, if not impossible, to acquire important
positions in the army or bureaucracy. They were not even considered full
members of the umma but were accepted only as clients of the powerful Arab
clans. As a result, the number of conversions in the Umayyad era was low, and
mawali were frequently found in the ranks of the dissident sects generated by
the struggles over succession.

By far the greater portion of the population of the empire were dhimmis,
or people of the book. As the title suggests, it was originally applied to
Christians and Jews who shared the Bible with the Muslims. As Islamic
conquests spread to peoples, such as the Zoroastrians of Persia and the Hindus
of India, the designation "dhimmi" was necessarily stretched to accommodate
the majority groups within these areas of the empire. The Muslim overlords
generally displayed tolerance toward the religions of dhimmi peoples. Though
they had to pay the jizya and both commercial and property taxes, their
communities and legal systems were left intact and they were allowed to
worship as they pleased. This approach made it a good deal easier for these
peoples to accept Arab rule, particularly since many had been oppressed by
their pre-Muslim rulers.

Family And Gender Roles In The Umayyad Age

Broader social changes within the Arab and widening Islamic community
were accompanied by significant shifts in the position of women, both within
the family and in society at large. In the first centuries of Arab expansion,
the greatly strengthened position of women under Islam prevailed over the
seclusion and domination by males that were characteristic features of women's
lives through much of the rest of the Middle East. Muhammad's teachings and
the dictates of the Quran stressed the moral and ethical dimensions of
marriage. The kindness and concern the prophet displayed for his own wives and
daughters did much to strengthen the bonds between husband and wife and the
nuclear family in the Islamic community. Muhammad encouraged marriage as a
replacement for the casual and often commercial sexual liaisons that had been
widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia. He vehemently denounced adultery on the part
of both husbands and wives, though the punishment he recommended (100 lashes)
was a good deal less draconian than the death by stoning later prescribed by
some versions of Islamic law. He forbadr female infanticide, which had
apparently been widely practiced in Arabia in pre-Islamic times.

Though men were allowed to take up to four wives, the Quran forbade
multiple marriages if the husband was not able to support more than one wife
or treat all of his wives equally. Women could not take more than one husband,
but Muhammad gave his own daughters a say as to whom they might marry and
greatly strengthened the legal rights of women regarding inheritance and
divorce. He insisted that the bride-price paid by the husband's family be
given to his future wife, rather than to her father as before. By his own
example, Muhammad greatly strengthened the position of women within the
family. Not only were his wives and daughters prominent figures in the early
Islamic community, but he treated them with great respect and even on occasion
was known to take a hand in the household chores.

The prophet's teachings proclaimed the equality of men and women before
God and in Islamic worship. Women, such as Kadijah, the prophet's first wife,
were some of Muhammad's earliest and bravest followers. They accompanied his
forces to battle (as did the wives of their adversaries) with the Meccans, and
a woman was the first martyr for the new faith. Many of the traditions of the
prophet, which have played such a critical role in Islamic law afd ritual,
were recorded by women, and his wives and daughters played an important role
in the compilation of the Quran. Though women were not allowed to be prayer
leaders, they played an active role in the politics of the early community.
Muhammad's wife Aisha actively promoted the claims of the Umayyad party
against Ali, while Zainab, his daughter by Fatima, went into battle with the
ill-fated Husayn. Through much of the Umayyad period, little is heard of
veiled Arab women, and they appear to have pursued a wide range of
occupations, including scholarship, law, and commerce. Perhaps one of Zainab's
nieces best epitomizes the independent-mindedness of Muslim women in the early
Islamic era. When chided for going about without a veil, she replied that God
in His wisdom had chosen to give her a beautiful face and that she intended to
make sure that it was seen in public so that all might appreciate God's grace.

Umayyad Decline And Fall

The ever-increasing size of the royal harem was just one manifestation of
the Umayyad caliphs' growing addiction to luxury and soft living. Their
legitimacy had been disputed by various Muslim factions from the outset of
their seizure of the caliphate. But the Umayyads further alienated the Muslim
faithful as they became more aloof in the early decades of the 8th century and
retreated from the dirty business of war into their pleasure gardens and
marble palaces. Their abandonment of the frugal, simple life-style followed by
Muha mad and the earliest caliphs - including Abu Bakr, who made a trip to the
market the day after he was selected to succeed the prophet - enraged the
dissenting sects and sparked revolts throughout the empire. The uprising that
would prove fatal to the short-lived dynasty began among the frontier warriors
who had fought and settled in distant Iran.

By the middle decades of the 8th century, more than 50,000 warriors had
settled near the oasis town of Merv in the eastern Iranian borderlands of the
empire. Many of them had married local women, and over time they had come to
identify with the region and to resent the dictates of governors sent from
distant Damascus. The warrior settlers were also angered by the fact that they
were rarely given the share of the booty, which was now officially tallied in
the account books of the royal treasury, that they had earned by fighting the
wars of expansion and defending the frontiers. They were contemptuous of the
Umay-yads and the Damascus elite, whom they viewed as corrupt and decadent. In
the early 740s an attempt by Umayyad palace officials to introduce new troops
into the Merv area touched off a revolt that soon spread over much of the
eastern po tions of the empire.

Marching under the black banners of the Abbasid party, which traced its
descent from Muhammad's uncle, al-Abbas, the frontier warriors were openly
challenging Umayyad armies by 747. Deftly forging alliances with Shi'ite
rebels and other dissident groups that challenged the Umayyads throughout the
empire, their leader, Abu al-Abbas, the great-great-grandson of the prophet's
uncle, led his forces from victory to victory. Persia and then Iraq fell to
the rebels. In 750, they met an army led by the Umayyad caliph himself in a
massive battle on the river Zab near the Tigris. The Abbasid victory resulted
in the conquest of Syria and the capture of the Umayyad capital. Desiring to
eliminate the Umayyad family altogether to prevent recurring challenges to his
rule, Abu al-Abbas invited numerous members ofithe clan to w at was styled as
a reconciliation banquet in the same year. As the Umay-yads were enjoying the
feast, guards covered them with carpets and they were slaughtered by Abbas's
troops. An effort was then made to hunt down and kill all the remaining
members of the family throughout the empire. Most were slain, but the grandson
of a former caliph fled to distant Spain, where he founded the Caliphate of
Cordoba that was to live on for centuries after the rest of the empire had

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