World History 1 177 - 11.2.4 Islam’s First Dynasty

The Rashidun caliphs are remembered not just for overseeing the process of conquest in the region but also for helping to articulate what Muhammad’s ummah should look like, and what made Islam different from other monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Christianity. The first four caliphs committed to writing a canonized Quran and helped interpret and articulate the religious law. For matters of faith the Quran did not directly address, they played a crucial role in transmitting the hadith, the sayings and actions of Muhammad and his closest confidants, to help answer those questions. Together, the Quran and the hadith make up the bulk of religious law for Muslims to the present day, and the Rashidun caliphs have long been regarded as interpreters of this material for later Muslims who were not able to interact with Muhammad themselves. Critical for the transmission of the hadith were those who had spent the most time in Muhammad’s presence, not only the Rashidun but also his wives. Among the most important for the hadith was Muhammad’s youngest wife Aisha, whose achievements as a transmitter and interpreter of Islamic law in the decades following her husband’s death cannot be understated.

The rule of the “rightly guided,” despite their name, did not escape challenge and controversy. The reign of the fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, resulted in the first Islamic civil war, which proved devastating for the long-term unity of the new religion. The war was fought over the murder of the third caliph, Uthman, in 656, and his successor’s inability to bring the killers and their collaborators to justice. Uthman’s family—the tribe of Umayya—rose to resist Ali’s claim to the caliphate. It was a conflict that deeply wounded the unity of the Islamic world and saw many early family members and supporters of Muhammad take up arms against one another. For example, Aisha played a leading role in opposing Ali at the Battle of the Camel at the outset of the civil war. The eventual murder of Ali in 661 deepened the divide between his supporters and other Muslims.

With Ali’s death, the Umayyads, led by Mu‘awiya ibn Abi Sufyan, established Islam’s first hereditary dynasty. Moving the capital of their state from the Prophet’s city of Medina to the Syrian city of Damascus, they became a major imperial power in the region while beginning to articulate what made Islam different from other religious traditions in the region. As the founder of the dynasty, Mu‘awiya proved to be a particularly shrewd politician, but his preference for nepotism meant his family’s long-term legacy was mixed. Despite a second civil war in the 680s and 690s, his successors continued to favor their own, while at the same time the conquest of further territory slowed and then stopped.

After the Muslims met defeat at the walls of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, the later Umayyad period, which ended in 750, was defined by the dynasty’s struggle for legitimacy. At first the Umayyads followed the tactics of the Rashidun, creating everything from art to buildings with forms and symbols that were familiar to the Byzantine and Persian worlds. In doing so, they attempted to provide continuity with the old empires they replaced, while at the same time earning authority among the largely non-Muslim population they now ruled. Within the running of the state, too, many government officials in these early decades—in positions from tax collector to scribe at the court of the ruler—were non-Muslim holdovers from the Byzantines and Persians. They helped the early Muslim rulers establish and administer a government the size of which they had never experienced.

As time passed, however, the Umayyads achieved a more successful demonstration of what made Islam distinct. They did this by changing the symbols and style of their art, embracing written Arabic—the language of the Quran—as unique to Muslims, centering the Islamic prophet Muhammad as the “seal” on a long line of Rabbinic (Jewish) and biblical (Christian) prophets, and asserting an anti-Trinitarian message. This last decision, about the nature of Jesus in the Christian tradition, proved the source of growing tension between Muslims and Christians as time passed.

Beyond the Book

Early Islamic Art and Architecture

Little written material of the seventh-century Arab-Muslim conquerors survives. As the century waned, however, Arabic script began to appear on coins and buildings, offering important sources for historians.

The earliest Islamic caliphs had mimicked the styles and motifs of their Byzantine and Persian rivals to justify their rule and demonstrate a continuity of government. What would have happened, for instance, if they had immediately minted coins utterly different from those their citizens were using (Figure 11.14)? Would anyone accept them?

An image of two gold coins is shown. Both are oval in shape, gold colored, with a circular ridge on the perimeter of the coin, with parts faded and missing. (a) The one on the left depicts two men’s heads with hair to their ears, large round eyes, a thin nose, beard, and detailed robes. A cross is shown between the heads. The letters “HERACLIO CONSVLI BA” are shown surrounding the heads around the top. (b) The coin on the right shows a cross with four horizonal lines underneath, each getting longer as it heads down. The letters “VICTORIA” are on the left perimeter and the letters “CONSABIA” are on the right perimeter. Below the lines are the letters “CONOB.”
Figure 11.14 A gold coin called a solidus from about 608 CE shows the (a) Byzantine emperor Heraclius the Elder and his son on the front and (b) a Christian cross on the reverse. The coin, minted by Byzantine rulers in today’s Turkey or Cyprus, includes inscriptions in Greek celebrating victory over a usurper. (credit: “Revolt of the Heraclii solidus, 608 AD” by Classical Numismatic Group, LLC/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5)

The culture started to change after the second Islamic civil war in the early 690s. The victors, a branch of the Umayyad family, began to make the empire look increasingly Arab. Their governmental reforms included the gradual removal of signs and symbols associated with the old Byzantine and Persian rulers, such as Christian crosses on coins ).

Another reform was the introduction of Arabic as the official language of the Islamic empire. Here again, gold coins demonstrate how widely this change was made, and how inscriptions specific to Islam began to appear (Figure 11.15).

An image of two gold coins is shown. Both are uneven circles, gold colored, with a ridge around the perimeter of the coin that is faded and uneven in some areas. Both coins are inscribed with three lines of scripted text in the middle and more scripted text circles the perimeter.
Figure 11.15 (a) (b) On this gold dinar minted by the Umayyad caliph around 700, images common on Byzantine and Sasanian coins have disappeared and Greek replaced by the Umayyads’ official language, Arabic. The inscriptions are invocations of the Muslim faith, including “There is no God but God, He is Alone, He has No Associate.” (credit: “Gold dinar of Abd al-Malik 697-98” by American Numismatic Society/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

It took time for the Muslims to dramatically change the style and forms of their art. In the intermediate period—as illustrated by two of the earliest mosques constructed by the Muslims, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus—rulers married the old empires’ traditions with new design elements (Figure 11.16, Figure 11.17). These examples reveal an early Islamic state beginning to articulate its own identity.

A picture of a hexagonal building is shown against a blue sky and on a bright white stone pavement. Three sides of the building are showing in the front, the bottom half decorated with various shapes of white mosaic tiles and the top with half blue mosaic tiles. Arched decorated windows surround the building in the middle with the blue tiles. An arched blue doorway with white columns for support is seen on the left and on the right side of the building. The top of the building is a gold gridded dome atop a green circular base with scaffolding surrounding the green base. A statue in the shape of a “Y” is located atop the gold dome. Smaller buildings with arched openings are seen in the right and left background as well as trees.
Figure 11.16 The Dome of the Rock mosque in the Old City in Jerusalem is one of Islam’s holiest sites. Its hexagonal shape is very unusual, but it had a precedent in nearby Byzantine Christian churches. (credit: “Exterior of Dome of the Rock or Masjid Al Sakhrah, in Jerusalem” by Thekra A. Sabri/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)
A picture of a rounded, red and gold mosaic wall in shown. The top half of the wall shows barbell shaped red lines surrounding red and gold mosaic tiles. A thick red band of tile runs below with an inscription in scripted writing running in the middle in gold on black tile. Richly decorated arched openings show below that in gold and red and at the bottom a highly decorated wall is seen with colorful tiles and arched sections with more decorated tiles.
Figure 11.17 Mosaics inside the Dome of the Rock include depictions of the mythological Senmurv bird, popular in Sasanian Persia, while the medium of mosaic tile itself was Byzantine. Arabic inscriptions from the Quran are found throughout the interior—a distinctly Islamic feature. (credit: “Mosque Of Omar 1914” by National Geographic/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • Why did the Arab-Muslims finally change their gold coins more dramatically at the end of the seventh century from the imitative versions they first minted?
  • How can art and architecture help historians understand this early period of Islamic history? What do coins and the Dome of the Rock reveal?

The Umayyads also struggled within the ummah, however, when it came to their treatment of Arab ethnicity. As they worked to establish a new empire that was quickly growing beyond their ability to administer on their own, the Arab-Muslims relied on the continued employment of former Byzantine and Persian bureaucrats to help with the running of the state. These non-Muslim and primarily non-Arab government officials were critical to the early governance of the Rashidun and the Umayyad dynasty, but by the eighth century they were rapidly being shunned in favor of Arabs. In some cases, non-Muslims were passed over for the best positions, while in other situations, new converts to Islam grew increasingly frustrated at not being considered full members of the conquering elite.

As more people encountered the message of Islam, interest grew among non-Arabs wanting to convert to the new faith. The Umayyads largely pushed back against this trend, and not just because for the upkeep of the state they relied on revenue from taxes Muslims did not have to pay. They also perceived their faith as a religion by Arabs for Arabs. As they saw it, God had sent the Arabs his last prophet—Muhammad, an Arab—to spread his message in their language, Arabic. Becoming a Muslim was not just a religious conversion but a cultural one as well. Non-Arab converts needed, in essence, to convert to an ethnically Arab culture, to be adopted by an Arab tribe as a protected member called a mawali, before any religious conversion could occur. This was an onerous process that discouraged conversion. But as more Arab-Muslims settled in the conquered regions and intermarried with the Indigenous population, more children were born of mixed parentage, bringing the increasing focus on “Arabness” and pure Arab dominance of the Umayyads under even greater scrutiny. It was the treatment of mawali as second-class citizens that proved the Umayyads’ undoing, and that ushered in a more universalist view of Islam that further solidified the religion’s hold in the region.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax