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(ISLAMIC EMPIRE and DISINTEGRATION – continued)

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ISLAMIC EMPIRE and DISINTEGRATION (4 of 5)

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Power for the Abbasids and Death for Umayyads, 720-50 CE

Umar II died in 720 at the age of thirty-nine, after less than three years as caliph. He was followed by another son of Malik (caliph from 685-705). This was Yazid II, and with Yazid it was a return to pleasure and self-interest. Yazid enjoyed luxury. He is accused of having been more interested in music and poetry than he was in the Koran. Yazid reversed Umar's reforms and returned to a policy of economic inequality and segregation between Arabs and non-Arabs. Mesopotamians, Berbers, Egyptians and Shia who did not want a return to the old ways, were embittered.

Under Yazid, anti-Umayyad groups began collecting influence. Christians were disturbed by his order in the year 723 that all Christian images, pictures and icons, in churches, marketplaces and homes be destroyed. The following year he died of tuberculosis and another of Malik's sons, Hisham, 33, younger by four years, succeeded him.

Expansions over the last forty years had by now left the Arabs with greater wealth. Grants of money and land had been accruing to members of the Umayyad clan, to Muhammad's family and to various other Arab leaders. The wealthy owned more slaves. But the rise in affluence was accompanied by the state doing more good works. Grants were given to popular poets, and money was spent on improving conditions in Islam's cities – cities that had been growing rapidly. New mosques, roads and hospitals were built, creating employment. A pony express now connected Damascus with distant points in Islam. And money was allocated for subsidies to the blind and the chronically sick, in keeping with the Koran's call for helping the poor.

Hisham is described as ruling effectively, giving a rebirth to reforms, of being a patron of the arts, building more schools and overseeing the translation of numerous literary and scientific masterpieces into Arabic. He is described as impressing others with his simplicity and honesty. He died after 19 years of rule, in 743, at 52, from another toxic bacterial attack little understood at the time: diphtheria.

Hisham was succeeded by his nephew, Walid II, who was favored by those wanting to continue imperial expansion. He has been accused of being a shallow bon vivant, a handsome man who neglected rule, who spent much of the state's money and pursued pleasures that included drink and debauchery at his desert retreats. From among the ruling Umayyad family a conspiracy arose against him, which was joined by some generals from Syria's army – an army tired of constant campaigning. In 744 Walid was assassinated. He was succeeded by Yazid III, who was the choice of the Syrian generals. Yazid III promised to keep the Syrian troops in Syria and to rule the empire without relying on them – perhaps an impossibility. Then late that same year Yazid III died. And the disgruntled Umayyad governor of Armenia, Marwan, arrived in Damascus with his army and assumed power, taking the title Marwan II.

Marwan tried to enforce his rule across the empire by military force. But the good will he needed to rule was lacking. Across the empire the frustrations of non-Arab Muslims were made worse by their seeing themselves as belonging to an older and more highly developed cultural tradition than that of the Arabs. Many of the conquered were still converting to Islam – incidentally saving themselves from the extra taxes applied to non-Muslims. Those who converted to Islam were in theory full citizens of the great Islamic community, but not so in practice. Outside of Syria, Arabs and non-Arabs were still attending different mosques. Arab warriors, veterans and government officials formed an aristocratic caste which others could not enter. In some towns an Arab might be ostracized by his fellow Arabs if he were seen walking with a non-Arab Muslim.

Many non-Arab Muslims were embracing the dissident Shia branch of Islam. Respect for rule from Damascus had deteriorated to the point that it was no longer widely recognized. Even in Syria, rule by the Umayyads had come into question. Among Muslims across the empire the feeling had arisen that the Umayyads had strayed too far from Muhammad's teachings.

It was another time that integration won over segregation. An integrated rebel army of Arab and non-Arab Muslims from Khurasan headed for Damascus, picking up support along the way. Abbas, a descendant of the paternal uncle of Muhammad, was declared caliph. Abbas promised a new era of concord, happiness and just rule in strict accordance with God's law. The rebel army and Marwan's army clashed in Mesopotamia, and the rebel army was victorious. Marwan II fled south through Palestine and into Egypt, where he was overtaken and beheaded. Damascus and other Syrian cities and towns fell to the rebel army without much of a struggle. The graves of the Umayyad caliphs were opened and their corpses burned – except for the pious Umar II, still seen by many as a good caliph.

An uncle of Abbas, Abdallah b Ali, riding high on the success of the revolt, invited eighty princes from the Umayyad clan to a banquet. But this was not to be the gesture of respect and reconciliation that the guests expected. During the banquet a signal brought executioners rushing into the room who clubbed to death the Umayyad princes. The victims were then covered with a leather carpet, those still dying groaning as the host and his Abbasid friends finished their meal.

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