Middle Eastern History: The Caliphate (632-1258)


Figure 1.--Illustrating our Middle Eatern history pages is not easy. Mohammed following Jewish tradition did not believe in representational art. Thus Middle Eastern imagery before the advent of photography comes mainly from the West. And illustrators were often not well informed. This is an example how the Middle East was not really known in Europe even in the 20th century. The illustration here comes from a children's book, 'A Prince of Islam', by Carol Barker published in London during 1976. It is the story of Prince Omar who lived in Baghdad during the 10th century and pictures a young prince in the Caliph's harem. Bagdad of course was the capital of the Caliphate. The illustration, however, looks more like a scene from the Indian Moghul Empire rather than the Arab Caliphate.

Mohammad died (632). The political structure he left was personal rule centered on him. He was a giftd leader. Not only was he a talentd political and military commander, but he was the source of revelation, esentially a direct link to Allah. This is a hard to match combination. Thus for years as Arab armies emerged fom the desert and conquered large reas, the hard decisions were made by Mohammad. And if he had trouble, he simply turnd to Allah. Thus the new Islamic polity faced difficult issues when Mohammed died. From the beginning it was decided to seek revelation in the definitive Koran It would ve used a a kind of constitition and basic legal code, the foundation of Sahria. The immedite problem was who would successd him as both a military and political figure. Mohammed established the precedent, a single leader who ruled with the authority of Allah. No one seems to have given any thought to secession before Mohammd died. Mohamme did not and such discussion may not have been viewed favorably by Mohammed. Mohammed despite his connection with Allah was nevered seen as imortal, but neither was there any planning for the future. The sucesion would be cobbled together by the Prophet's leading followers, but there were important differences. And they would lead to major divisions that would plague the Islamic Ummah to this day. Mohammed's followers were split among two groups. The Meccan (Muhajirun/Emigrants) followers had emigrated with him when he was driven from Mecca and took refuge in Medina (622). The Medinans (Ansar/Helpers) had then become followers. Family connections proved decisive. Finally Muhammad's father-in-law, Abu Bakr (632-34), was named khalifa (Successor). Abu Baker and his immediate sucessors are known as the Rashidun caliphs. They created a new combined religion and polity was formed--the caliphate. Abu Barker put down a rebellion and invaded Iraq but died before the military campaihns contined furher. Abu Bakr chose Omar/'Umaribn Khattab, to succed him and managed to convince Mohammads major followers to accept his judgement. Omar (634-44) the second caliph is one of the graet leaders of history, but his sometimes lost in the focus on Mohammed. His military and political genius played a key role even while Mohammed was still alive. Omar as Caliph continued the aggesive campaign of conquests begun by Abu Bakr. He conquered Persia, drove north into Syria and Byzantine territory and west into Egypt. Islamic armies led by Abu Bakar had brought all of Mesopotamia and most of Syria and Palestine under the say of the new Caliphate. Omar drove into Egypt (642) and then conquere the Persian Empire (643). This was a political earthquake. Islamic armies had defeated well armed and trained armies and conquered some of the richest lands in the known world. Omar not only played a key role in the conquests, but began to construct the political structure of the Caliphate. Omar did not demand conversion to Islam nor did he try to centralize rule as the Byzantines and Persians had done. Under the Caliphate, the conquered peoples were allowed to retain their religion, language, customs, and government with only limited interference and a payment of tribute. The new populations were to be overseen by a governor (amir) and financial officer (amil or agent). Omar was especially focused on the financial structure of the new Caliphate. Many Muslims consider this the golden age of pure Islam. Omar was killed by Piruz Nahavandi, a Persian. The next caliph Uthman Ibn Affan (644-56) was elected by a council of Islamic electors (Majlis). Uthman was killed dy members of a disaffected group. It is then that Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (656-61), returned the Caliphate to rule by Mohammed's family. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed. Ali was, however, not universally accepted as caliph. The governors of Egypt and then some of his own guard resisted. He thus faced two major rebellions and was eventually assassinated by Abdl-alRahman, a Kharijite (661). Ali's rule was tumultuous and dominated by internal rebellion. Muslim scholars refer to it as Fitna (first Islamic civil war). Depite the overwealming military victories of Arab armies, the force of Islam was rocked by the dispute over the succession (661). It was at this time that the schism between the Shiites and Sunis developed. The followers of Ali would evolve ino the Shi'a (shiaat Ali/partisans of Ali) a minority sect of Islam. They reject the legitimacy of the first three caliphs. The Rashidun Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali founded the majority Sunni sect. The Arabs both city dwellers and bedouins by the 8th century had acquired the civilization of the people they conqured adding an Islamic overlay and Arab traditions. They founded a new capital at Baghdad (762). Thuis became a bustling center of world commerce and culture at a time that civilization of the West was mired in the Dark Ages. The Abbasid Caliphate is seen as the golden age of Islam--the pinnacle of Arab culture. While Christian Europe after the fall of Rome descended into a dark age, there was an outpouring of learing and culture in the Islamic world. Baghdad in particular became a renowned center for learning, including science, mathematics, philosophy and literature--especially poetry. An important part of Arab learming was all the ancient texts. Jews played an importnt role as translators. Compated to the Christian West, the Caliphate was notble for its toleration of religious divesitgy. Renounded universities, libraries, and public baths were built at Baghdad. The Seljuk Turks defeated Cliphate armies (1055). Two centuries later the Mongols destoyed the Cliphate (1258).

Mohammed's Leadership

Mohammad after unifyung the arabian tribes and fonding Islam died (632). The political structure he left was personal rule centered on him. He was a gifted leader. Not only was he a talentd political and military commander, but he was the source of revelation, esentially a direct link to Allah. This is a hard to match combination. Thus for years as Arab armies emerged fom the desert and conquered large reas, the hard decisions were made by Mohammad. And if he had trouble, he simply turnd to Allah. Thus the new Islamic polity faced difficult issues when Mohammed died. Mohammed left no annointed sucessoror or guide as to how to determine a sucessor. From the beginning it was decided to seek revelation in the definitive Koran It would ve used a a kind of constitition and basic legal code, the foundation of Sahria. The immedite poblem was who would successd him as both a military and political figure. Mohammed established the precedent, a single leader who ruled with the authority of Allah. No one seems to have given any thought to secession before Mohammd died. Mohammed did not and such discussion may not have been viewed favorably by Mohammed. Mohammed despite his connection with Allah was nevered seen as imortal, but neither was there any planning for the future.

Division

The sucesion would be cobbled together by the Prophet's leading followers, but there were important differences. And they would lead to major divisions that would plague the Islamic Ummah to this day. Mohammed's followers weres split among two groups. The Meccan (Muhajirun/Emigrants) followers had emigrated with him when he was driven from Mecca and took refuge in Medina (622). The Medinans (Ansar/Helpers) had then become followers. Family connections proved decisive.

Rashidun Caliphs (632-661)

The Rashidun Caliphate was the first of Islamic caliphates following Mohammed's death. After considerable discussion and consideration of various contenders as part of Shura (the council of notables), including men of Nohammed's linage, Mohammaed's father-in-law, Abu Bakr (632-34), was named khalifa (duccessor). Abu Baker and his immediate sucessors are known as the Rashidun caliphs. They created a new combined religion and polity was formed--the caliphate. Abu Barker put down a rebellion and invaded Iraq but died before the military campaihns contined furher. Abu Bakr chose Omar/'Umaribn Khattab, to succed him and managed to convince Mohammads major followers to accept his judgement. Omar (634-44) the second caliph is one of the graet leaders of history, but his sometimes lost in the focus on Mohammed. His military and political genius played a key role even while Mohammed was still alive. Omar as Caliph continued the aggesive campaign of conquests begun by Abu Bakr. He conquered Persia, drove north into Syria and Byzantine territory and west into Egypt. Islamic armies led by Abu Bakar had brought all of Mesopotamia and most of Syria and Palestine under the sway of the new Caliphate. Omar drove into Egypt (642) and then conquere the Persian Empire (643). This was a political earthquake. Islamic armies had defeated well armed and trained armies and conquered some of the richest lands in the known world. Omar not only played a key role in the conquests, but began to construct the political structure of the Caliphate. Omar did not demand conversion to Islam nor did he try to centralize rule as the Byzantines and Persians had done. Under the Caliphate, the conquered peoples were allowed to retain their religion, language, customs, and government with only limited interference and a payment of tribute. The new populations were to be overseen by a governor (amir) and financial officer (amil or agent). Omar was especially focused on the financial structure of the new Caliphate. Many Muslims consider this the golden age of pure Islam. Omar was killed by Piruz Nahavandi, a Persian. The next caliph Uthman Ibn Affan (644-56) was elected by a council of Islamic electors (Majlis). Uthman was killed by members of a disaffected group. It is then that Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (656-61), returned the Caliphate to rule by Mohammed's family. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed. Ali was, however, not universally accepted as caliph. The governors of Egypt and then some of his own guard resisted. He thus faced two major rebellions and was eventually assassinated by Abdl-alRahman, a Kharijite (661). Ali's rule was tumultuous and dominated by internal rebellion. Muslim scholars refer to it as Fitna (first Islamic civil war). Depite the overwealming military victories of Arab armies, the force of Islam was rocked and disipated by the dispute over the succession (661).

Schism (661)

Ali became a key figure in Islam. With his death, the schism between the Shiites and Sunis developed. The followers of Ali would evolve ino the Shi'a (shiaat Ali/partisans of Ali) a minority sect of Islam. They reject the legitimacy of the first three caliphs. The Rashidun Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali founded the majority Sunni sect. The Shi'a reject the first three Sunni caliphs and regards Ali, the fourth caliph, as Muhammad's first true successor. The Sunnis would dominate the Caliphate. The Shi'ia would come to dominate Persia after it broke way from the Caliphate.

Umayyad Caliphate (661-750)

The Umayyads were the second of th Islamic caliphates. Ali's son Hasan/Hussein was elected caliph after his father's death. He proved to be ineffecual and abdicated his his title to Mu'awiyah, the powerful governor of Dmascus, a few months later. Hasan is commonly asumed to have abdicated under duress and Mu'awiyah's caliphate was seem to have been orcestrated by a kind of palace coup. Mu'awiyah became the fifth caliph. He was not a relative of Mohammed or Ali and thus estblished his own dynasty--the Umayyad Dynasty, named after the great-grandfather of Uthman and Mu'awiyah, Umayya ibn Abd Shams. The Caliphate expanded substantially xtending the reach of Islam north an east to the Caucasus, Transoxiana, Sindh, and then west to the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus). At its greatest extent, the Umayyad Caliphate is estimated to have covered 5.2 million square miles (13,400,000 km2), making it the largest empire the world had at time seen, exceeding the area of the Roman Empire. It was the sixth-largest empire ever have existed. The borders of the Empire were in a state of flux and the more distant portions if the Empire were often only nominally under Umayyad comtrol. The Umayyad Empire was divided into provinces, the precise boundaries were constantly being adjusted. Each province was administered by a governor appointed by the caliph in Baghdad. From the beginning there was a cloud over the Umayyads associated with the recurent problems with sucession. Unlike the the system developd in the Roman Empire and the developing Christian kingdoms, sucession in the Muslim world was not simply heritary, but a poorly defined combination of heredity and Shura, election by a council of notables. The lack of Shura and rumors of impious behaviour affected the image of the Umayyads within the Muslim community--the Ummah. It is unclear to what extent the Umayyads were impious or perhaps just secular in orientation. The Umayyads were outsiders. Theirorigins were a wealthy clan in Mecca. They had opposed Mohammed. Their secularism and reports of degeneracy leveled aginst their caliphate had the impact of delegitimized them among devout Muslims. And there were others who had a claim to the sucession. Early Muslims like Al-Zubayr had backers. Many belived that only members of Muhammed's clan, the Banu Hashim, had a right to rule. Others wanted those of Mohammed's dirct lineage, meaning Ali to rule. As a result, despite the military victories, there was a degree of instability throughout the Umayyad era. There were constant rebellions against the Umayyads. Even within the family there was division, th primary one was the rivalry between Yaman and Qays. Shimr Ibn Thil-Jawshan is belived to have killed not only Ali's son Hasan, but his entire family at the Battle of Karbala (680). This finalizing the Shi'a-Sunni split. This was a factor in forging a link between the Banu Hashim and the partisans of Ali's linneage which undid the Umayyads (750). The Shi'a (Shi‘at ‘Alī / the Party of Ali, did not achiev thir goal. It was the Abbasids who seized power. The Abbasids were descended from Mohammed's uncle, ‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib rather than Ali.

Abbasid Caliphate--The Golden Age of Islam (750-1258)

The Abbasid Caliphate was the third of the Islamic caliphates to follow Mohammed. The Abbasids unlike the Umayyads could claim descent from Mohammed's family. The Dynasty began with Mohammed's youngest uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, who gave the dynasty it name. Their close kinship to Mohammed proved a persuasive matter to many of the Muslim faithful. Al-'Abbas had been a loyal Companion of the Prophet. During the reign of Umar II, Muhammad ibn 'Ali, a great-grandson of al-'Abbas had begun to proselytize in Persia (718). His goal was to return the caliphate to the family of the Prophet -- the Hashimites. The Abbasids in their rise to power became associated with client Muslims--the mawali. They were foreigners who converted to Islam after the conquest. As foreigners they could not be incorporated into Arab kinship-based society. They had to be voluntarily included or adopted by a clan, essentially becoming 'clients'. While they were Muslims, they were second-class citizens. The Arabs for thir part both city dwellers and bedouins who acquired the civilization of the people they conqured adding an Islamic overlay and Arab traditions (8th century). The Abbasids founded a new capital at Baghdad (762). This reflected a shift in world view. The Umayyads had focused on the West and the Mediterranean world. The Abbasids shifted to the East, especially devlopments in Persia and Transoxania. While the great age of Islamic expansion ended wih the Umayyads. It was the culture of Abbasid Caliphate that led it to be known as the Golden Age of Islam--the pinnacle of Arab culture. The Caliphate became a bustling center of world commerce and culture at a time that the civilization of the West was mired in the Dark Ages. After the fall of Rome, Christian Europe descended into what became known as the Dark Ages. In contrast there was an outpouring of learning and culture in the Islamic world. And this was not just religious learning. Baghdad in particular became a renowned center for learning, including science, mathematics, philosophy and literature--especially poetry. An important part of Arab learming was all the ancient texts. Renounded universities, libraries, and public baths were built at Baghdad. The House of Wisdom/Books became the great repository for texts from the known world, rivaling and probably exceeding the Great Library at Alexandria. Jews played an important role in part as translators. Compated to the Christian West, the Caliphate was notble for its toleration of religious divesity. One of the ironies of the modern world is that the Islamists who want to recreate th glories of the Caliphate are at odds with the defining keys to their sucess--toleration and learning. I find it fascinating the number of Muslims that are aware of the glories of the artistic and scientific glories of the Calphate, but have given no thought as to why the modern Arab and cwider Muslim world is a scientific black hole. Over time the military power of the Caliphate eroded, but its reputation as a great center of learning contined even aftr military defeats at the hands of the rising Seljuk Turks (1055). The Caliphate's response to the Crusaders was ineffectual. In the final years of the Caliphate, religious hardliners began to gain in influence, but it was the Mongols who sacked Baghdad that finally destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate (1258). And as the turns of history would have it, this roughly coinsided with the blossoming of the Renaissance in Italy and the rise of the Christian West.







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Created: 5:28 AM 5/29/2014
Last updated: 5:28 AM 5/29/2014