THE UMAYYADS

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December 28, 2012 by theislampost

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.

Photo: Medieval Muslims regarded the Great Mosque built by the Umayyads in Damascus as one of the wonders of the world.

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.

Mu’awiyah 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 neither 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.

Photo: Facing al-Gharbiyah, the western minaret, a muezzin at the Umayyad Mosque calls believers to prayer

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.

Photo: The minaret of the Great Mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia became the prototype for the majority of North African minarets.

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 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.

Photo: The shrine of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built in an area revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike covers the rock from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven with the Angel Gabriel.

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 Khurasan 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. Only one man of importance escaped the disaster – ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu’awiyah al-Dakhil, a young prince who with a loyal servant fled to Spain and in 756 set up an Umayyad Dynasty there.

Islam In Spain:

By the time ‘Abd al-Rahman reached Spain, the Arabs from North Africa were already entrenched on the Iberian Peninsula and had begun to write one of the most glorious chapters in Islamic history.

After their forays into France were blunted by Charles Martel, the Muslims in Spain had begun to focus their whole attention on what they called al-Andalus, southern Spain (Andalusia), and to build there a civilization far superior to anything Spain had ever known.

Reigning with wisdom and justice, Muslims treated Christians and Jews with tolerance, with the result that many embraced Islam. They also improved trade and agriculture, patronized the arts, made valuable contributions to science, and established Cordoba as the most sophisticated city in Europe.

By the tenth century, Cordoba could boast of a population of some 500,000, compared to about 38,000 in Paris. According to the chronicles of the day, the city had 700 mosques, some 60,000 palaces, and 70 libraries – one reportedly housing 500,000 manuscripts and employing a staff of researchers, illuminators, and bookbinders. Cordoba also had some 900 public baths, Europe’s first street lights and, five miles outside the city, the caliphal residence, Madinat al-Zahra.

A complex of marble, stucco, ivory, and onyx, Madinat al-Zahra took forty years to build, cost close to one-third of Cordoba’s revenue, and was, until destroyed in the eleventh century, one of the wonders of the age. Its restoration, begun in the early years of this century, is still under way.

Photo: A forest of eight hundred and fifty pillars connected by Moorish arches lines the great mosque of Cordoba.

By the eleventh century, however, a small pocket of Christian resistance had begun to grow, and under Alfonso VI Christian forces retook Toledo. It was the beginning of the period the Christians called the Reconquest, and it underlined a serious problem that marred this refined, graceful, and charming era: the inability of the numerous rulers of Islamic Spain to maintain their unity. This so weakened them that when the various Christian kingdoms began to pose a serious threat, the Muslim rulers in Spain had to ask the Almoravids, a North African Berber dynasty, to come to their aid. The Almoravids came and crushed the Christian uprising, but eventually seized control themselves. In 1147, the Almoravids were in turn defeated by another coalition of Berber tribes, the Almohads.

Although such internal conflict was by no means uncommon- the Christian kingdoms also warred incessantly among themselves- it did divert Muslim strength at a time when the Christians were beginning to negotiate strong alliances, form powerful armies, and launch the campaigns that would later bring an end to Arab rule.

The Arabs did not surrender easily; al-Andalus was their land too. But, bit by bit, they had to retreat, first from northern Spain, then from central Spain. By the thirteenth century their once extensive domains were reduced to a few scattered kingdoms deep in the mountains of Andalusia – where, for some two hundred years longer, they would not only survive but flourish.

It is both odd and poignant that it was then, in the last two centuries of their rule, that the Arabs created that extravagantly lovely kingdom for which they are most famous: Granada. It seems as if, in their slow retreat to the south, they suddenly realized that they were, as Washington Irving wrote, a people without a country, and set about building a memorial: the Alhambra, the citadel above Granada that one writer has called “the glory and the wonder of the civilized world.”

The Alhambra was begun in 1238 by Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar who, to buy safety for his people when King Ferdinand of Aragon laid siege to Granada, once rode to Ferdinand’s tent and humbly offered to become the king’s vassal in return for peace.

Photo: Pool in the Patio de los Arrayanes reflects the grandeur of the incomparable Alhambra.

It was a necessary move, but also difficult – particularly when Ferdinand called on him to implement the agreement by providing troops to help the Christians against Muslims in the siege of Seville in 1248. True to his pledge, Ibn al-Ahmar complied and Seville fell to the Christians. But returning to Granada, where cheering crowds hailed him as a victor, he disclosed his turmoil in that short, sad reply that he inscribed over and over on the walls of the Alhambra: “There is no victor but God.”

Over the years, what started as a fortress slowly evolved under Ibn al-Ahmar’s successors into a remarkable series of delicately lovely buildings, quiet courtyards, limpid pools, and hidden gardens. Later, after Ibn al-Ahmar’s death, Granada itself was rebuilt and became, as one Arab visitor wrote, “as a silver vase filled with emeralds.”

Meanwhile, outside Granada, the Christian kings waited. In relentless succession they had retaken Toledo, Cordoba, and Seville. Only Granada survived. Then, in 1482, in a trivial quarrel, the Muslim kingdom split into two hostile factions and, simultaneously, two strong Christian sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, married and merged their kingdoms. As a result, Granada fell ten years later.

On January 2, 1492 – the year they sent Columbus to America – Ferdinand and Isabella hoisted the banner of Christian Spain above the Alhambra and Boabdil, the last Muslim king, rode weeping into exile with the bitter envoi from his aged mother, “Weep like a woman for the city you would not defend like a man!”

Photo: A Moorish-built tower soars above Guadalquivir River in Seville.

In describing the fate of Islam in Spain, Irving suggested that the Muslims were then swiftly and thoroughly wiped out. Never, he wrote, was the annihilation of a people more complete. In fact, by emigration to North Africa and elsewhere, many Muslims carried remnants of the Spanish era with them and were thus able to make important contributions to the material and cultural life of their adopted lands.

Much of the emigration, however, came later. At first, most Muslims simply stayed in Spain; cut off from their original roots by time and distance they quite simply had no other place to go.

Until the Inquisition, furthermore, conditions in Spain were not intolerable. The Christians permitted Muslims to work, serve in the army, own land, and even practice their religion – all concessions to the importance of Muslims in Spain’s still prosperous economy. But then, in the period of the Inquisition, all the rights of the Muslims were withdrawn, their lives became difficult, and more began to emigrate. Finally, in the early seventeenth century, most of the survivors were forcibly expelled

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