The History of the Muslim World: The Umayyad Caliphate

Syrie - Mosquée Damascus, territoire historique des Musulmans
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The beginning of the reign of Caliph Muawiyah signified a dramatic change in the nature of the Prophet’s state founded by him after the migration of the Muslim ummah from Mecca to Medina in 622. After the death of Muhammad the Muslim ummah began to be known as the Caliphate, i.e. the state ruled by Caliphs. This was the appellation assumed by Muhammad’s successor, his best friend and son-in-law Abu Bakr. He announced that he was no more than the Prophet’s ‘deputy’, in Arabic, a ‘caliph’.

After the Prophet’s death there were four consecutive ‘caliphs’ at the head of the ummah. The last of them, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, got himself bogged down in a civil war. His opponent, the governor of Syria Muawiyah, challenged Ali out of discontent with his election, his policies and his personality whom many believed to be unworthy of holding the position of ‘the Prophet’s deputy’. The formal pretext that sparkled the hostilities was alleged unwillingness of Ali to punish the assassins of the previous Caliph Uthman. Syria rebelled against Medina. A civil war started which later became known as the First Fitna.

It ended with Muawiyah’s victory. Ali was assassinated by kharijite conspirators who planned to kill both Ali and Muawiyah to end the showdown in such an eccentric way, however Muawiyah managed to stay alive. All he had to do now was defeat Ali’s son Hasan who had assembled a mighty army and began an advance on Muawiyah. Muawiyah managed to demoralize Hasan’s army, it was splitting apart. As a result, Hasan agreed to recognize Muawiyah as the caliph on the condition that Muawiyah would declare him, Hasan, his heir. Hasan’s brother Hussein vehemently opposed this settlement however he had no means to carry on the fighting.

Muawiyah belonged to the Umayyad dynasty, the founder of which, his grandfather Umayya ibn Abd Shams, was the Prophet’s first cousin twice removed. The name ‘Umayya’ means ‘little slave-girl’. His reign as well as the reign of his descendants meant a lot of good for the state; the tumult died down, the conquest continued. However, the Prophet’s state became a new political formation in principle, which had far-reaching consequences for the Muslim community.

Firstly, the ummah got split asunder: the followers of Caliph Ali continued to claim power in this or that way, they formed their own religious doctrine and began to be known as ‘Shiites’ (‘the adherents’). In this or that way the Shiites would oppose the supporters of the Umayyads, would found their own states (like the Fatimid Caliphate, for instance), would wage wars against the ‘Sunnites’ (‘people of the Sunnah’), as the supporters of Muawiyah began to be referred to from now on.

Secondly, the Prophet’s state was turned into a classical secular monarchy. Muawiyah bequeathed the throne to his son Yazid (in place of Hasan), elections of the Caliphs were made a thing of the past for good. There came into existence government bureaucracy and ministries (divans) – the ministry of religious affairs, the war ministry, the ministry of finance and the ministry of postal services. The capital was moved to Damascus, the caliphs started minting their own coins, the golden dinars and the silver dirhams, to replace the Byzantine coins in use so far. The Caliphate adopted Byzantine system of government. The country was divided into provinces headed by local authorities, emirs, sultans, naibs, a tax system had been developed.

The Umayyads remained in power for almost 100 years before they were replaced by the Abbasids. The territory of the Muslim state extended dramatically under them; they completed the conquest of Iran which became one of the Caliphate’s provinces, in Africa Caliphate lands went as far as Algiers, Europe and Constantinople had a very narrow escape having been a stone’s throw away from conquest.

The Umayyad Caliphate turned the Prophet’s state into a powerful empire which continued its development under the next dynasty, the Abbasids.