The Umayyad Caliphate

The Umayads were the first Muslim dynasty — that is, they were the first rulers of the Islamic Empire to pass down power within their family. According to tradition, the Umayyad family (also known as the Banu Abd-Shams) and Muhammad both descended from a common ancestor, Abd Manaf ibn Qusai, and they originally came from the city of Mecca. Muhammad descended from Abd Manāf via his son Hashim, while the Umayyads descended from Abd Manaf via a different son, Abd-Shams, whose son was Umayya. The two families are therefore considered to be different clans (those of Hashim and of Umayya, respectively) of the same tribe (that of the Quraish). The shift in power to Damascus, the Umayyad capital city, was to have profound effects on the development of Islamic history. For one thing, it was a tacit recognition of the end of an era. The first four caliphs had been without exception Companions of the Prophet – pious, sincere men who had lived no differently from their neighbors and who preserved the simple habits of their ancestors despite the massive influx of wealth from the conquered territories. Even ‘Uthman, whose policies had such a divisive effect, was essentially dedicated more to the concerns of the next world than of this. With the shift to Damascus much was changed. In the early days of Islam, the extension of Islamic rule had been based on an uncomplicated desire to spread the Word of God. Although the Muslims used force when they met resistance they did not compel their enemies to accept Islam. On the contrary, the Muslims permitted Christians and Jews to practice their own faith and numerous conversions to Islam were the result of exposure to a faith that was simple and inspiring. With the advent of the Umayyads, how ever, secular concerns and the problems inherent in the administration of what, by then, was a large empire began to dominate the attention of the caliphs, often at the expense of religious concerns – a development that disturbed many devout Muslims. This is not to say that religious values were ignored; on the contrary, they grew in strength for centuries. But they were not always at the forefront and from the time of Mu’awiyah the caliph’s role as “Defender of the Faith” increasingly required him to devote attention to the purely secular concerns which dominate so much of every nation’s history. Muiawiyah was an able administrator, and even his critics concede that he possessed to a high degree the much-valued quality of hilm – a quality which may be defined as “civilized restraint” and which he himself once described in these words: I apply not my sword where my lash suffices,...