The Umayyad Caliphate (661–750 AD) was the second of the four major caliphates established after the death of Prophet Muhammad. The caliphate was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty. The third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (r. 644–656), was a member of the Umayyad clan. The family established dynastic, hereditary rule with Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, long-time governor of Syria, who became the sixth Caliph after the end of the First Muslim Civil War in 661. After Mu’awiyah’s death in 680, conflicts over the succession resulted in a Second Civil War and power eventually fell into the hands of Marwan I from another branch of the clan. Syria remained the Umayyads’ main power base thereafter, and Damascus was their capital.
The Umayyads continued the Muslim conquests, incorporating the Transoxiana, Sindh, the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) into the Muslim world. At its greatest extent, the Umayyad Caliphate covered 11,100,000 km2 (4,300,000 sq mi) and 33 million people, making it one of the largest empires in history in both area and proportion of the world’s population. The dynasty was eventually overthrown by a rebellion led by the Abbasids in 750. Survivors of the dynasty established themselves in Cordoba which, in the form of an Emirate and then a Caliphate, became a world centre of science, medicine, philosophy and invention, ushering in the period of the Golden Age of Islam.
The Umayyad caliphate ruled over a vast multiethnic and multicultural population. Christians, who still constituted a majority of the Caliphate’s population, and Jews were allowed to practice their own religion but had to pay a head tax (the jizya) from which Muslims were exempt. There was, however, the Muslim-only zakat tax, which was earmarked explicitly for various welfare programmes. Prominent positions were held by Christians, some of whom belonged to families that had served in Byzantine governments. The employment of Christians was part of a broader policy of religious accommodation that was necessitated by the presence of large Christian populations in the conquered provinces, as in Syria. This policy also boosted Muawiya’s popularity and solidified Syria as his power base.
List of Ummayid Caliphs
- Muawiya I ibn Abu Sufyan (28 July 661 – 27 April 680)
- Yazid I ibn Muawiyah (27 April 680 – 11 November 683)
- Muawiya II ibn Yazid (11 November 683– June 684)
- Marwan I ibn al-Hakam (June 684– 12 April 685)
- Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (12 April 685 – 8 October 705)
- al-Walid I ibn Abd al-Malik (8 October 705 – 23 February 715)
- Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik (23 February 715 – 22 September 717)
- Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (22 September 717 – 4 February 720)
- Yazid II ibn Abd al-Malik (4 February 720 – 26 January 724)
- Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (26 January 724 – 6 February 743)
- al-Walid II ibn Yazid (6 February 743 – 17 April 744)
- Yazid III ibn al-Walid (17 April 744 – 4 October 744)
- Ibrahim ibn al-Walid (4 October 744 – 4 December 744)
- Marwan II ibn Muhammad (ruled from Harran in the Jazira) (4 December 744 – 25 January 750
Battle of Karbala (Ashura)
The Battle of Karbala took place within the crisis environment resulting from the succession of Yazid I. Immediately after succession, Yazid instructed the governor of Medina to compel Husayn and a few other prominent figures to pledge their allegiance (Bay’ah). Husayn, however, refrained from making such a pledge, believing that Yazid was openly going against the teachings of Islam and changing the sunnah of Muhammad. He, therefore, accompanied by his household, his sons, brothers, and the sons of Hasan left Medina to seek asylum in Mecca.
On the other hand, the people in Kufa, when informed of Muawiyah’s death, sent letters urging Husayn to join them and pledging to support him against the Umayyads. Husayn wrote back to them saying that he would send his cousin Muslim ibn Aqeel to report to him on the situation and that if he found them supportive as their letters indicated, he would speedily join them because an Imam should act in accordance with the Quran and uphold justice, proclaim the truth, and dedicate himself to the cause of God. The mission of Muslim was initially successful and according to reports, 18,000 men pledged their allegiance. But the situation changed radically when Yazid appointed Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad as the new governor of Kufa, ordering him to deal severely with Ibn Aqeel.
In Mecca, Husayn learned assassins had been sent by Yazid to kill him in the holy city in the midst of Hajj. Husayn, to preserve the sanctity of the city and specifically that of the Kaaba, abandoned his Hajj and encouraged others around him to follow him to Kufa without knowing the situation there had taken an adverse turn.
On the way, Husayn found that his messenger, Muslim ibn Aqeel, had been killed in Kufa. Husayn encountered the vanguard of the army of Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad along the route towards Kufa. Husayn addressed the Kufan army, reminding them that they had invited him to come because they were without an Imam. He told them that he intended to proceed to Kufa with their support, but if they were now opposed to his coming, he would return to where he had come from. In response, the army urged him to proceed by another route. Thus, he turned to the left and reached Karbala, where the army forced him not to go further and stop at a location that had limited access to water.
Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad, the governor instructed Umar ibn Sa’ad, the head of the Kufan army, to offer Ḥusayn and his supporters the opportunity to swear allegiance to Yazid. He also ordered Umar ibn Sa’ad to cut off Husayn and his followers from access to the water of the Euphrates. On the next morning, Umar ibn Sa’ad arranged the Kufan army in battle order.
The Battle of Karbala lasted from morning to sunset on October 10, 680 (Muharram 10, 61 AH). Husayn’s small group of companions and family members (in total around 72 men and the women and children) fought against a large army under the command of Umar ibn Sa’ad and were killed near the river (Euphrates), from which they were not allowed to get water. The renowned historian Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī states:
… Fire was set to their camp and the bodies were trampled by the hoofs of the horses; nobody in the history of the humankind has seen such atrocities.
Once the Umayyad troops had murdered Husayn and his male followers, they looted the tents, stripped the women of their jewellery, and took the skin upon which Zain al-Abidin was prostrate. Husayn’s sister Zaynab was taken along with the enslaved women to the caliph in Damascus when she was imprisoned and after a year eventually was allowed to return to Medina.
Husayn’s grave became a pilgrimage site among Shia Muslims only a few years after his death. A tradition quickly developed of pilgrimage to the Imam Husayn Shrine and the other Karbala martyrs, known as Ziarat Ashura. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs tried to prevent the construction of the shrines and discouraged pilgrimage to the sites. The tomb and its annexes were destroyed by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil in 850–851 and Shia pilgrimage was prohibited, but shrines in Karbala and Najaf were built by the Buwayhid emir ‘Adud al-Daula in 979–80
Public rites of remembrance for Husayn’s martyrdom developed from the early pilgrimages. Under the Buyid dynasty, Mu’izz ad-Dawla officiated at the public commemoration of Ashura in Baghdad. These commemorations were also encouraged in Egypt by the Fatimid caliph al-‘Aziz. With the recognition of Twelvers as the official religion by the Safavids, Mourning of Muharram extended throughout the first ten days of Muharram
Abbasid Revolution and fall of Ummayids
The Hashimiyya movement (a sub-sect of the Kaysanites Shia), led by the Abbasid family, overthrew the Umayyad caliphate. The Abbasids were members of the Hashim clan, rivals of the Umayyads, but the word “Hashimiyya” seems to refer specifically to Abu Hashim, a grandson of Ali and son of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya. According to certain traditions, Abu Hashim died in 717 in Humeima in the house of Muhammad ibn Ali, the head of the Abbasid family, and before dying named Muhammad ibn Ali as his successor. This tradition allowed the Abbasids to rally the supporters of the failed revolt of Mukhtar, who had represented themselves as the supporters of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya.
Beginning around 719, Hashimiyya missions began to seek adherents in Khurasan. Their campaign was framed as one of proselytism (dawah). They sought support for a “member of the family” of Muhammad, without making explicit mention of the Abbasids. These missions met with success both among Arabs and non-Arabs (mawali), although the latter may have played a particularly important role in the growth of the movement.
Around 746, Abu Muslim assumed leadership of the Hashimiyya in Khurasan. In 747, he successfully initiated an open revolt against Umayyad rule, which was carried out under the sign of the black flag. He soon established control of Khurasan, expelling its Umayyad governor, Nasr ibn Sayyar, and dispatched an army westwards. Kufa fell to the Hashimiyya in 749, the last Umayyad stronghold in Iraq, Wasit, was placed under siege, and in November of the same year, Abul Abbas as-Saffah was recognized as the new caliph in the mosque at Kufa. At this point Marwan mobilized his troops from Harran and advanced toward Iraq. In January 750 the two forces met in the Battle of the Zab, and the Umayyads were defeated. Damascus fell to the Abbasids in April, and in August, Marwan was killed in Egypt.
The victors desecrated the tombs of the Umayyads in Syria, sparing only that of Umar II, and most of the remaining members of the Umayyad family were tracked down and killed. When Abbasids declared amnesty for members of the Umayyad family, eighty gathered to receive pardons, and all were massacred. One grandson of Hisham, Abd al-Rahman I, survived, escaped across North Africa, and established an emirate in Moorish Iberia (Al-Andalus). In a claim unrecognized outside of al-Andalus, he maintained that the Umayyad Caliphate, the true, authentic caliphate, more legitimate than the Abbasids, was continued through him in Córdoba. It was to survive for centuries.
Previté-Orton argues that the reason for the decline of the Umayyads was the rapid expansion of Islam. During the Umayyad period, mass conversions brought Persians, Berbers, Copts, and Aramaic to Islam. These mawalis (clients) were often better educated and more civilised than their Arab overlords. The new converts, on the basis of equality of all Muslims, transformed the political landscape. Previté-Orton also argues that the feud between Syria and Iraq further weakened the empire.