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The Caliphates - 4. The Umayyads

Mu'awiyah ascended to the leadership of the Umayyad Caliphate after Ali's son and heir, Hasan, surrendered the Rashidun Caliphate in 661 A.D. A new era in Islamic government had arrived.

The Dome of the Rock built by the Umayyads
over the remains of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
The name "Umayyad" comes from Umayya ibn Abd Shams, who was Mu'awiyah's great-grandfather. The family lineage is significant because a good bit of the discontent and civil war during Imam Ali's caliphate arose when Ali dismissed many of the Umayyad family members from their offices, including Mu'awiyah who was the governor of Syria in Damascus.

The lineage is even more "involved" than that, though. Tradition holds that the Umayyad family and Muhammad's line share an ancestor. They came from the same city, Mecca, and the same tribe, but as the lineage split, they separated into different clans.

The two clans fought through the years. The fighting outlasted most of the combatants as the battles between the clans ultimately progressed to Muhammad's lifetime when the Umayyads opposed him and the new Islamic religion. One notable - very notable - exception to the Umayyad disdain for Muhammad and Islam was Mu'awiyah's cousin, Uthman ibn Affan, the eventual third Rightly Guided Caliph. The Umayyad clan was not pleased with Uthman over his allegiance to Muhammad, but his loyalty to the Prophet paid off for him.

Ultimately, Muhammad's forces began to find some success on the field of battle and turned the momentum against the Umayyad clan. Finally, many in the Umayyad clan, afraid for their lives, converted to Islam, and among the converts was Mu'awiyah, the future Umayyad Caliph.

While reconciled to Islam, Mu'awiyah still harbored ill will toward Ali and his family. That bitterness was stoked by Mu'awiyah's belief that Ali didn't do enough to find and punish his cousin Caliph Uthman's assassins, and then when Ali expelled Mu'awiyah as governor.

Civil war was Mu'awiyah's answer as his forces grew larger than Ali's; they fought repeatedly throughout Ali's reign, but Mu'awiyah wasn't Ali's only problem. Aisha, one of Muhammad's wives, led an army against Ali too, but the effort was quickly defeated.

Ali was later assassinated after only five years as caliph. Ali's son, Hasan, became caliph, but was deposed by Mu'awiyah after only seven months. With the fall of the Rashidun Caliphate, Mu'awiyah established the Umayyad Caliphate in its place.

Some scholars insist that Mu'awiyah was not the first Umayyad caliph, but the second. They say that Uthman was actually the first Umayyad caliph because he was in that bloodline and had placed his family members in prominent positions of power throughout the caliphate. He might have had the bloodline, but he wasn't quite of the same "mind" as many of his kinsmen. He was caliph as a Patriarch of the faith, and while there was quite a lot of nepotism in his caliphate, he saw himself as the third in the line of the Patriarchs much more than he saw himself as the first in a new line of caliphs. Evidence of this is in the fact that he did not name an heir from his family to follow him as caliph.

The Umayyad Caliphate at its height.
So, under Mu'awiyah's leadership, the caliphate grew westward from its capital in Damascus into Al-Andalus (Spain and Portugal) and north and east into Persia and modern-day Afghanistan.

When Mu'awiyah died in 680 A.D., he was succeeded as caliph by his son, Yazid, but not without some opposition. Among those who resisted Yazid's hereditary rise to power was - ironically - Husayn, brother of Hasan, son of Ali, and grandson of Muhammad. After he was defeated by Yazid in battle, Husayn ran to Kufa, Iraq to regroup. Kufa was where his brother had been unseated by Mu'awiyah some twenty years earlier. As Husayn hurried to Kufa, however, Yazid sent an army to catch up to what was left of his army. They fought in Karbala, and Husayn and his family were slaughtered, and Husayn's head was put on display in Damascus.

As the first century of the Umayyad Caliphate neared an end, another caliphate arose in the east: the Abbasid Caliphate. When the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in Damascus in 750 A.D., the Umayyads withdrew to Al-Andalus. At its height, though, the Umayyad dynasty became one of the largest empires in the history of the world.

Inside the Great Mosque of Cordoba
built by the Umayyads.
The caliphate the Umayyads established in Cordoba lasted nearly another 300 years until 1031 A.D. The caliphate there featured great innovations in technology and culture, including the construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba which still stands today. As construction of the mosque was originally begun as a Visigoth church before the Muslim conquest, Christians were permitted to share the building for their worship. Ultimately, however, the entire complex and the grounds came to be occupied by the Muslims only.

Unlike many of the Muslim rulers before him, Mu'awiyah endured very few internal battles. The only significant uprising was backed by descendants of Ali who wanted to reestablish Muhammad's bloodline at the head of the Muslim caliphate.

It might be surprising that in spite of Mu'awiyah's rampant expansion of Muslim lands, he generally indulged Christians and Jews in the caliphate as he consolidated new territories. Tribes that Muslims fought against and conquered were generally required to convert to Islam if they weren't slain. Others were required to pay homage, live in certain areas and under certain rules, were not permitted to proselytize, and so on. They were subjects of the caliphate of the lowest order, for sure, but they weren't wiped out. Christians and Jews of the time might disagree with modern characterizations that they were treated well. They were treated with a degree of contempt, tempered by the pragmatic understanding that they were an important part of the commercial engine of the caliphate.

The Umayyads were finally defeated on the Iberian peninsula by none other than the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. After reclaiming Spain and Portugal, they returned the Great Mosque to service as a Christian church.

Remnants of the caliphate lingered in the region until the 16th century.

Tomorrow: The Abassids

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