After the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphate, in which Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali led the Muslim world, the caliphate came to the Umayyad family in 661. Mu’awiya, the first Umayyad caliph, led the Muslim world from his capital of Damascus, and passed on rule to his son, Yazid, in 680. This marked the beginning of the caliphate being a family dynasty, as it would continue until its abolition in 1924. During the 1292 years of the caliphate, the title has passed a few times between different families. The first time this happened was during the upheaval of the late 740s, when the Abbasid family overthrew the Umayyads and came to power, establishing one of the most powerful Muslim empires of all time.
Problems With The Umayyads
During the 89 years of Umayyad rule, the Muslim world experienced exponential growth geographically, militarily, and economically. Muslim armies pushed into India in the east and into Spain and France in the west. With an economy buoyed by such conquests, the Umayyad caliphate became incredibly wealthy, leading to a relatively stable society.
Despite these achievements and power, there was trouble for the Umayyads brewing under the surface of the society. The first problem was the inequitable treatment of non-Arabs. As the Muslim empire pushed into non-Arab lands in North Africa, Spain, and Persia, huge numbers of non-Arab non-Muslims came under Umayyad control. For the most part, their lives were left undisturbed, with freedom of religion being one of the core principles of Islamic government. In Islamic law, non-Muslims in a Muslim state are required to pay a tax known as the jizya, or poll-tax. For most parts of the empire, this tax was lower than the pre-Islamic taxes of the Byzantine or Sassanid Empires, so no discontent came from this aspect of the government.
For Muslims however, the Umayyad caliphate chose not to tax them at all, besides the zakat, which is an obligatory form of worship involving donating a certain percentage of wealth towards the needy. For non-Muslims newly under Umayyad rule, conversion to Islam clearly had some financial advantages. If they converted, they would be exempt from the jizya tax and would instead have to pay the zakat, which would be lower in most cases. While the jizya was not oppressively high, a lower tax rate is always attractive to a logical human beings, thus the logical thing to do was to convert.
However, the Umayyad caliphate saw a major problem with mass conversions to Islam based on tax rates. If a big enough proportion of the population converted to Islam and stopped paying the jizya, tax revenues would go way down, leading to financial instability. To combat this problem, the Umayyads decided to continue to tax recent converts as if they were still non-Muslims. The implications of this were huge.
First of all, doing so contradicted Islamic law, which legitimized the Umayyads to an extent. Equal treatment of all Muslims had been one of the most attractive messages of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, and this policy clearly went against his teachings. Furthermore, most of the converts who were being taxed were non-Arabs. The vast majority of the Arabs of the empire were in the Arabian Peninsula and had converted during the life of the Prophet ﷺ, and were thus not subject to the jizya. This created a unequal society based on race. Arab Muslims had more privileges while non-Arab Muslims were treated as inferior.
The Umayyad caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, who ruled from 717 to 720 recognized the numerous problems with this policy and reversed it as soon as he came to power. Due to his Islamically-based reign, historians and Islamic scholars consider him the “fifth rightly guided caliph” after Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali. The rest of the Umayyad ruling family opposed his reforms however, and he was poisoned after 3 years in power. With his death, the equitable treatment of all races in the Umayyad Empire also ended, and serious plans to remove the Umayyads from power began.
From the beginning of Umayyad rule in 661, one of the major problems they had was legitimacy. Unlike the first four caliphs, the Umayyads were not chosen by popular opinion or by respected community leaders. Umayyad rule was essential based on their ability to keep the Muslim world united and organized after the upheaval of ‘Ali’s time.
One group that offered an alternative to Umayyad rule was the people who favored the rule of ‘Ali’s family. They reasoned that since ‘Ali was the Prophet ﷺ’s cousin and son-in-law, his family had the most right to rule. This ideology found supporters among the people of Iraq as well as the Hejaz, where the descendants of ‘Ali lived. Later, this political ideology would morph into a new sect known as the Shi’a, but in the 700s, they were indistinguishable from traditional Islam, and only differed on politics.
The problem with the people who supported rule being given to the Prophet ﷺ’s family was that they lacked the organizational skills and power to overthrow the Umayyads and establish themselves. That is where another group that was related to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ stepped in – the Abbasids.
The Abbasid family was descended from the uncle of the Prophet ﷺ, ‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib. By the early 700s, the family had settled in Humayma, an oasis town in what is now the sandy country of Jordan. Being close to the center of Umayyad power in Damascus, the Abbasids could clearly see when subtle cracks began to develop in Umayyad society based on inequality, and chose to use that as a springboard to claim power for themselves.
The Abbasids sent secret missionaries to the Persian provinces of the empire in the 730s and 740s, where discontent against the Umayyads was a common sentiment. Since most Muslims in this area were non-Arabs, the Abbasids knew they could count on the support of these people. In order to get the support of the more pious-minded, the Abbasids claimed that one of the descendants of ‘Ali had officially transferred the right to rule to the Abbasid family. Whether or not this actually happened, it helped give the Abbasids some legitimacy as the rightful rulers of the Muslim world, something the Umayyads lacked.
In 747, after years of secretly getting promises of support throughout the eastern part of the Muslim world, the Abbasids decided the time was ripe to openly revolt. Their distinctive black banners and flags were raised near the ancient city of Merv, in the province of Khurasan, where popular support was very strong for the revolutionaries.
Led by a mysterious figure known as Abu Muslim, the supporters of the Abbasid family in Khurasan promised a return to the utopian ideals of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and the early caliphs. Other than that, the promises of the Abbasids were vague, and intentionally so. The important thing to the Abbasids and their supporters was the removal of the Umayyad family from power, other issues would be solved afterwards.
After securing the city of Merv and exiling the Umayyad governor, Abu Muslim began to send the Abbasid armies westward, towards the rest of Persia and Iraq. The Umayyad position had never been particularly strong in Persia, probably due to the fact that their rule was resented by the large non-Arab population, and the Abbasid revolution began to snowball into a larger movement as it rolled through the Iranian plateau.
Meanwhile, the Abbasid family had fled Humayma for the relatively safer Iraq. After an arduous journey through the Syrian desert, they arrived in Kufa, not long before the armies that were fighting for their rule began to appear on the eastern horizon. With the support of the local people, the Abbasids organized an overthrow of the local Umayyad government, installing the Abbasids as the rulers of the city. It was in Kufa that the first public show of allegiance was given to Abul-Abbas, who was declared the first Abbasid caliph in 749.
All of this symbolic transfer of caliphate would have meant nothing without the forceful removal of the Umayyads. The Abbasid army finally met the bulk of the Umayyad forces near the Zab River in northern Iraq. The two armies could not have been more different. The Umayyads with their white flags represented the Arab Syrians who had been the most important social group in the 89 years of Umayyad rule. The black flag-waving Abbasid soldiers represented the undermined and forgotten non-Arabs of the empire and those who desired a more Islamic-based government.
At the climactic Battle of the Zab in early 750, the Abbasid force completely smashed the Umayyad army. The Syrian army was effectively routed and ceased to exist. The Abbasids were able to march right into the Umayyad homeland in Syria and take control of Damascus, relatively peacefully. The last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, fled to Egypt, where he was found by Abbasid agents and executed. In the transitional mayhem, the Abbasids managed to round up almost every member of the Umayyad family and execute them in the years after 750, except for one young man, Abd al-Rahman. Fleeing from the Abbasid armies during his teen years, he managed to escape to al-Andalus – the Iberian Peninsula – and establish Umayyad rule there, where it would last until 1031.
After the revolution, the Abbasids managed to create a more equitable Islamic society as they had promised, but failed to fulfill all the hopes that came along with their overthrow of the Umayyads. From their new capital in Baghdad, the Abbasids established a dynasty much like the Umayyads that came before them. Despite giving non-Arabs a more equal role in society, the Abbasids failed to honor their vague promises to go back to the early days of the caliphate and that utopian society. Like the Umayyads, and every other dynasty in Islamic history, there were positive and negative aspects to Abbasid rule.
When studying Islamic history, it is important to avoid painting any one group as 100% good or 100% bad. With the exception of the Prophet ﷺ and his companions, almost every historical figure, movement, and empire has good and bad qualities. When applying this understanding to the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, we can appreciate the achievements and lofty ideals of both, while still understanding that they were both less than perfect and had their flaws.
Hourani, Albert Habib. A History Of The Arab Peoples. New York: Mjf Books, 1997. Print.
Kennedy, Hugh. When Baghdad Ruled The Muslim World, The Rise And Fall Of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. Da Capo Pr, 2006. Print.
Ochsenwald, William, and Sydney Fisher. The Middle East: A History. 6th. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. Print.