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 [saw] both descended from a common ancestor, Abd Manaf ibn Qusai, and they originally came from the city of Mecca. Muhammad [saw] 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, nor my lash where my tongue is enough. And even if there be one hair binding me to my fellowmen, I do not let it break: when they pull I loosen, and if they loosen I pull.
Nevertheless, Mu’awiyah was never able to reconcile the opposition to his rule nor solve the conflict with the Shi’is. These problems were not unmanageable while Mu’awiyah was alive, but after he died in 680 the partisans of ‘Ali resumed a complicated but persistent struggle that plagued the Umayyads at home for most of the next seventy years and in time spread into North Africa and Spain.
The Umayyads, however, did manage to achieve a degree of stability, particularly after ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan succeeded to the caliphate in 685. Like the Umayyads who preceded him, ‘Abd al-Malik was forced to devote a substantial part of his reign to political problems. But he also introduced much needed reforms. He directed the cleaning and reopening of the canals that irrigated the Tigris-Euphrates Valley – a key to the prosperity of Mesopotamia since the time of the Sumerians – introduced the use of the Indian water buffalo in the riverine marshes, and minted a standard coinage which replaced the Byzantine and Sassanid coins, until then the sole currencies in circulation. ‘Abd al-Malik’s organization of government agencies was also important; it established a model for the later elaborate bureaucracies of the ‘Abbasids and their successor states. There were specific agencies charged with keeping pay records; others concerned themselves with the collection of taxes. ‘Abd al-Malik established a system of postal routes to expedite his communications throughout the far flung empire. Most important of all, he introduced Arabic as the language of administration, replacing Greek and Pahlavi.
Under ‘Abd al-Malik, the Umayyads expanded Islamic power still further. To the east they extended their influence into Transoxania, an area north of the Oxus River in today’s Soviet Union, and went on to reach the borders of China. To the west, they took North Africa, in a continuation of the campaign led by ‘Uqbah ibn Nafi’ who founded the city of Kairouan – in what is now Tunisia – and from there rode all the way to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
These territorial acquisitions brought the Arabs into contact with previously unknown ethnic groups who embraced Islam and would later influence the course of Islamic history. The Berbers of North Africa, for example, who resisted Arab rule but willingly embraced Islam, later joined Musa ibn Nusayr and his general, Tariq ibn Ziyad, when they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. The Berbers later also launched reform movements in North Africa which greatly influenced the Islamic civilization. In the East, Umayyad rule in Transoxania brought the Arabs into contact with the Turks who, like the Berbers, embraced Islam and, in the course of time, became its staunch defenders. Umayyad expansion also reached the ancient civilization of India, whose literature and science greatly enriched Islamic culture.
In Europe, meanwhile, the Arabs had passed into Spain, defeated the Visigoths, and by 713 had reached Narbonne in France. In the next decades, raiding parties continually made forays into France and in 732 reached as far as the Loire Valley, only 170 miles from Paris. There, at the Battle of Tours, or Poitiers, the Arabs were finally turned back by Charles Martel.
One of the Umayyad caliphs who attained greatness was ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, a man very different from his predecessors. Although a member of the Umayyad family, ‘Umar had been born and raised in Medina, where his early contact with devout men had given him a concern for spiritual as well as political values. The criticisms that religious men in Medina and elsewhere had voiced of Umayyad policy – particularly the pursuit of worldly goals – were not lost on ‘Umar who, reversing the policy of his predecessors, discontinued the levy of a poll tax on converts.
This move reduced state income substantially, but as there was a clear precedent in the practice of the great ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, and as ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz was determined to bring government policy more in line with the practice of the Prophet, even enemies of his regime had nothing but praise for this pious man.
The last great Umayyad caliph was Hisham, the fourth son of ‘Abd al-Malik to succeed to the caliphate. His reign was long – from 724 to 743 – and during it the Arab empire reached its greatest extent. But neither he nor the four caliphs who succeeded him were the statesmen the times demanded when, in 747, revolutionaries in Khorasan unfurled the black flag of rebellion that would bring the Umayyad Dynasty to an end.
Although the Umayyads favored their own region of Syria, their rule was not without accomplishments. Some of the most beautiful existing buildings in the Muslim world were constructed at their instigation – buildings such as the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the lovely country palaces in the deserts of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. They also organized a bureaucracy able to cope with the complex problems of a vast and diverse empire and made Arabic the language of government. The Umayyads, furthermore, encouraged such writers as ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Muqaffa’ and ‘Abd al-Hamid ibn Yahya al-Katib, whose clear, expository Arabic prose has rarely been surpassed.
For all that, the Umayyads, during the ninety years of their leadership, rarely shook off their empire’s reputation as a mulk – that is, a worldly kingdom – and in the last years of the dynasty, their opponents formed a secret organization devoted to pressing the claims to the caliphate put forward by a descendant of al-‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib, an uncle of the Prophet. By skillful preparation, this organization rallied to its cause many mutually hostile groups in Khorasan and Iraq and proclaimed Abu al-‘Abbas caliph. Marwan ibn Muhammad, the last Umayyad caliph, was defeated and the Syrians, still loyal to the Umayyads, were put to rout.
Under ʿAbd al-Malik (reigned 685–705) the Umayyad caliphate reached its peak. Muslim armies overran most of Spain in the west and invaded Mukrān and Sindh in India, while in Central Asia the Khorāsānian garrisons conquered Bukhara, Samarkand, Khwārezm, Fergana, and Tashkent. In an extensive program of Arabization, Arabic became the official state language; the financial administration of the empire was reorganized, with Arabs replacing Persian and Greek officials; and a new Arabic coinage replaced the former imitations of Byzantine and Sāsānian coins. Communications improved with the introduction of a regular post service from Damascus to the provincial capitals, and architecture flourished (see, for example, khan; desert palace; mihrab).
The decline began with the disastrous defeat of the Syrian army by the Byzantine emperor Leo III (the Isaurian; 717). Then the fiscal reforms of the pious ʿUmar II (reigned 717–720), intended to mollify the increasingly discontented mawālī (non-Arab Muslims) by placing all Muslims on the same footing without respect of nationality, led to the financial crisis, while the recrudescence of feuds between southern (Kalb) and northern (Qays) Arab tribes seriously reduced military power.
Hishām ibn ʿAbd Al-Malik (reigned 724–743) was able to stem the tide temporarily. As the empire was reaching the limits of expansion—the Muslim advance into France was decisively halted at Poitiers (732), and Arab forces in Anatolia were destroyed (740)—frontier defenses, manned by Syrian troops, were organized to meet the challenge of Turks in Central Asia and Berbers (Imazighen) in North Africa. But in the years following Hishām’s death, feuds between the Qays and the Kalb erupted into major revolts in Syria, Iraq, and Khorāsān (745–746), while the mawālī became involved with the Hāshimiyyah, a religio-political sect that denied the legitimacy of Umayyad rule. In 749 the Hāshimiyyah, aided by the western provinces, proclaimed as caliph Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Saffāḥ, who thereby became the first of the ʿAbbāsid dynasty.
The last Umayyad, Marwān II (reigned 744–750), was defeated at the Battle of the Great Zāb River (750). Members of the Umayyad house were hunted down and killed, but one of the survivors, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, escaped and established himself as a Muslim ruler in Spain (756), founding the dynasty of the Umayyads in Córdoba.
The Umayyad caliphate was marked both by territorial expansion and by the administrative and cultural problems that such expansion created. Despite some notable exceptions, the Umayyads tended to favor the rights of the old Arab families, and in particular their own, over those of newly converted Muslims (mawali). Therefore they held to a less universalist conception of Islam than did many of their rivals. As G.R. Hawting has written, “Islam was in fact regarded as the property of the conquering aristocracy.”
During the period of the Umayyads, Arabic became the administrative language. State documents and currency were issued in the language. Mass conversions brought a large influx of Muslims to the caliphate. The Umayyads also constructed famous buildings such as the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, and the Umayyad Mosque at Damascus.
According to one common view, the Umayyads transformed the caliphate from a religious institution (during the rashidun) to a dynastic one. However, the Umayyad caliphs do seem to have understood themselves as the representatives of God on earth, and to have been responsible for the “definition and elaboration of God’s ordinances, or in other words the definition or elaboration of Islamic law.”
The Umayyads have met with a largely negative reception from later Islamic historians, who have accused them of promoting a kingship (mulk, a term with connotations of tyranny) instead of a true caliphate (khilafa). In this respect it is notable that the Umayyad caliphs referred to themselves not as khalifat rasul Allah (“successor of the messenger of God”, the title preferred by the tradition), but rather as khalifat Allah (“deputy of God”). The distinction seems to indicate that the Umayyads “regarded themselves as God’s representatives at the head of the community and saw no need to share their religious power with, or delegate it to, the emergent class of religious scholars.”In fact, it was precisely this class of scholars, based largely in Iraq, that was responsible for collecting and recording the traditions that form the primary source material for the history of the Umayyad period. In reconstructing this history, therefore, it is necessary to rely mainly on sources, such as the histories of Tabari and Baladhuri, that were written in the Abbasid court at Baghdad.
Modern Arab nationalism regards the period of the Umayyads as part of the Arab Golden Age which it sought to emulate and restore. This is particularly true of Syrian nationalists and the present-day state of Syria, centered like that of the Umayyads on Damascus. White, one of the four Pan-Arab colors which appear in various combinations on the flags of most Arab countries, is considered as representing the Umayyads.