(ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE – continued)

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ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE, to 677 CE (6 of 6)

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The Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus, to 677 CE

Umayyad Mosque

The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus built during Mu'awiyah's reign as caliph. It replaced the Christian basilica of Saint John the Baptist, which had replaced the Roman Temple of Jupiter, which had replaced the temple dedicated to Haddad, the Aramean god of thunder. Muslims and Christians agreed to partition the church between them, and they began to perform their rituals side by side. For 70 years Christians and Muslims prayed under the same roof.        –click to enlarge–

Mu'awiyah or someone of his clan bribed Ali's son to give up his claim as caliph. This for the time being ended the challenge for the caliphate from the Hashimites. Mu'awiyah shifted the caliphate's city from Medina in Arabia to Damascus in Syria, ending Arabia's primacy over Islam. But Arabs were free to move into areas that their armies had conquered.

In Damascus, Mu'awiyah presented himself as a champion of Islam, but unlike Ali he claimed no religious authority. His rule in Damascus rested on the loyalty of Christians and on Syrian Arabs, most of whom had lived in Syria for centuries and were accustomed to state authority – unlike Arab tribesmen. Mu'awiyah's influential financial counselor was a Christian, and his favorite wife was both a Christian and an Arab. Mu'awiyah was ruling over an integrated Syria, where Christians and Muslims sometimes worshiped together.

Mu'awiyah tried to rule the empire with concern for agreement of an old sheik (chieftain). He met with members of the nobility regularly at his palace. He received delegations from the provinces in order to accept complaints and smooth over differences between tribes. He displayed mild composure and self-control. He used persuasion and compromise, managing the empire through capable governors and maintaining personal relations with local leaders.

Mu'awiyah's fellow Umayyad clan members bribed and cultivated the friendship of various sheiks, whom they made responsible for the behavior of their people. Criticized for the gifts he distributed, Mu'awiyah replied that civil war would cost more. He gave Arabs participation in rule by creating a council of sheiks as a consultative body with local executive powers, and he created another consultative body representing tribes. He wanted to replace kinship ties with identity to the broader Islamic community. He also surrounded himself with splendor and ceremony in an effort to increase the prestige of his office, taking as his model Constantinople's emperors.

Mu'awiyah re-established the tax-system of provinces sending money to the central treasury, and he saw to it that taxes were collected regularly. In the area around Medina and Mecca he supported projects that improved methods of agriculture. He reorganized his army, abandoning tribal units and modeled his army on Constantinople's armies. At his army's core were Christians, Muslims, Syrian Arabs and Yemenites. And he began building a new navy.

Expansion under Mu'awiyah

The end of civil war within Islam made further expansion of Islam possible, and the Umayyads began to extend their empire, beginning with raids from Egypt westward across the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. Constantinople's emperor sent a force across the Mediterranean to defend what he thought was still his territory, and, in 664, the Muslims defeated them in a limited engagement. Constantinople's army withdrew, but Constantinople's officialdom and navy remained in North Africa – the navy stationed at Tunis. There, Latin speaking people remained from Roman times.

Pursuing his war against Constantinople, in 668 Mu'awiyah sent his navy north to Constantinople, and in the spring of 669 he began a siege there. In 670 the Muslims built a military colony at Kairawan, near Tunis – the first attempt at colonizing rather than merely raiding west of Egypt. Berbers there were hostile to the colony, and, in response to Berber attacks, Muslim warriors from Kairawan began making assaults against them.

In 671 Mu'awiyah resettled fifty thousand families in the east of Persia: Khurasan. There were families from the old garrison towns of Kufa and Basra in Mesopotamia, where support for Ali had been strong. From Khurasan, Arab men were obliged to join annual expeditions across the Oxus River into the Turkish east, from which they returned only during winter months. These expeditions brought booty to the Arabs and extended Umayyad rule in Transoxiana, where principalities became Arab protectorates.

In 672 the Muslims took control of the island of Rhodes, which they used as a base of operations in their continuing war against Constantinople. In 674 they took the island of Crete.

In control of Syria and the Levant (eastern Mediterranean), the Arabs sent frequent raiding parties deep into Asia Minor, and from 674 to 678 Caliph Mu'awiyah laid siege to Constantinople. His navy failed him. Constantinople was using "Greek fire" for the first time. It was a mixture of naphtha, quicklime, sulpher and pitch fired from arrows or put on board small boats and set against enemy ships. Also, Constantinople's fortifications were too strong. In 677 Mu'awiyah abandoned the project and again made peace with Constantinople – a thirty years' truce.

The historian John Julius Norwich was to write in 1989 that had the Muslims captured Constantinople in the late 600s instead of 1453 "all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today." note7  This is an opinion made perhaps without appreciation of the political weakness that accompanies great expansions. Islam, with its coming conquests in North Africa and Spain, was on a road to fragmentation.


The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800, by Jonathan P Berkey, 2003

In Search of Muhammad, by Clinton Bennet, 1998

The History of Medieval Islam, J J Saunders, Barnes and Noble, 1965 (available in full online)

Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq, Prometheus Books, 2000

"The Coming of Islam." Chapter Five in Worlds at War, by Anthony Pagden, 2008

No god but God, Reza Aslan, 2005

Islam the Religion and the People, by Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Churchill, 2008

The Monotheists, by F E Peters, 2003

Ancient Persia: from 550 BC to AD 650, by Josef Wiesehofer, 2001

Islam and Research, sources for medieval Islam

Copyright © 2007-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.