Empire of the Umayyads

40-120 AH
661-737 CE

OF COURSE, MU’AWIYA did not present himself as the man who ended the religious era. He titled himself khalifa and said he was continuing the same great mission as his predecessors. Toward the end of his life, however, he convened a council of Arab tribal leaders to discuss who hissuccessor would be, a meeting that had the outward form of a shura, a consultative committee like the one Omar established. The chieftains thought their opinions were sincerely being solicited and began discussing the merits of this and that candidate. Suddenly one of the khalifa’s henchmen jumped to his feet and glowered around the circle. “Right now,” he scowled, “this is the commander of the faithful.” He pointed to Mu’awiya. “After he dies, it’s this one.” He pointed to Yazid, the emperor’s eldest son. “And if any of you object, it’s this one!” He pulled out his sword.”1

The chiefs got the point. They went on through all the proper Muslim-democratic forms and made all the appropriate noises and gestures, but in the end they dutifully chose Yazid to be their next khalifa, and when they went home that night, they all knew the principle of succession would never come up for discussion again.

When Yazid succeeded to the throne, however, he knew his father had not eliminated but merely suppressed rebellious elements. Yazid therefore kept close tabs on all who might challenge his power, especially Ali’s relatives and descendents. Hassan had passed away by this time, but his brother Hussein was still alive, and just to be on the safe side, the emperor decided to have this man assassinated on his next pilgrimage to Mecca.

Hussein was now in his forties. He knew his father’s partisans considered him to be the true khalifa; he knew that zealous Muslims looked to him to keep the spiritual revolution alive; but no one man could shoulder such a heavy mantle. Hussein had opted out of politics and lived a quiet life of prayer and contemplation all these years, meditating on his grandfather’s mission.

But when he learned of the plot to have him killed, and that Yazid’s assassins planned to murder him in the Ka’ba itself, Hussein could take no more. He had no troops and no military experience. Yazid had a network of spies, a treasury, and an army. Even so, in the year 60 AH (680 by the common calendar), Hussein announced that he was going to challenge Yazid and left Medina with a force of seventy-two people.

Actually, calling it a “force” goes too far: the seventy-two included Hussein’s wife, his children, and some doddering elderly relatives. Only a handful of the company were fighting-age males. What was the man thinking? Did he really imagine he could topple the Umayyad monarch with this tiny band? Was he perhaps thinking that if he just started marching, he would ignite a firestorm of revolt and inspire the tribes to join him?

Probably not. In a final sermon before his departure, Hussein told his followers that he was sure to be slain but was not afraid, because death “surrounds Adam’s offspring as a necklace surrounds a young girl’s neck.”2 He noted a Qur’anic verse that told people to stand up to unjust rulers like Yazid. If the son of Ali and Fatima, the grandson of the Prophet himself, did not stand up to tyranny, who would? As portrayed in traditional accounts, therefore, Hussein was determined to make an example of his own life: right from the start, he saw himself as embarking on a pilgrimage with ritual significance. In a sense, he was committing noble suicide.



When Yazid heard that the Prophet’s younger grandson was on the move, he sent an army to swat him down. Hussein posed no real threat to the empire, but Yazid wanted to crush him with overwhelming force as a warning to other radicals who might be tempted to play the God-chose-me card. The army he sent outnumbered Hussein’s little group by enough to make it no contest. Legends put that number at anywhere from four hundred to forty thousand.

Whatever its size, this imperial army caught up with Hussein in the desert just south of Karbala, a city near the southern border of Iraq. If you glance at weather reports for that part of the world on any summer day, you’ll see temperatures ranging upward of 115 degrees. On just such a sweltering day, the emperor’s army trapped Hussein’s little band within smelling distance of the Euphrates River but cut off from the water. Hussein, however, did what his father had failed to do. He refused to settle, compromise, or bargain. God had chosen him to lead the community of virtue, he said, and he would not disavow that truth.

One by one, the warriors in Hussein’s band sallied forth to fight Yazid’s army. One by one they fell. The women, children, and old folks, meanwhile, all died of thirst. When the last of the party was gone, the victorious general swooped in, cut off Hussein’s head, and shipped it to the emperor with a gloating note.

The severed head arrived just as Yazid was entertaining a Byzantine envoy, and it spoiled the whole dinner party. The Byzantine envoy said, “Is this how you Muslims behave? We Christians would never treat a descendant of Jesus in this manner.” The criticism angered Yazid, and he had the “Roman” thrown into prison. Later, however, he saw that keeping the severed head might be bad public relations, so he sent it back to Karbala to be buried with the body.

Yazid no doubt believed he had solved his problem: surely Ali’s descendents would never make trouble again. He was quite wrong, however. By crushing Hussein at Karbala, this emperor lit a spark. The passionate embrace of Ali’s cause now became a prairie fire called Shi’ism. What is Shi’ism? One often hears it summed up as if it were just another quarrel about dynastic succession, like the battles between Maud and Stephen in twelfth-century England. If that had really been the case, the movement would have faded out after Ali died. Who today calls himself a Maudist or a Stephenist? Who today even cares which of these two had the more legitimate claim to the English throne? Ali, however, kept gaining new adherents after his death. The ranks of his Shi’i kept on swelling. People who were not even born when Ali died grew up to embrace his cause and shape their identities around the conviction that he should have been the first khalifa. How could this be?

The answer, of course, is that the dispute about the khalifate was no mere dynastic struggle. Key religious issues were embedded in it, because the choice involved not just who but also what the leader would be. Ali’s partisans saw in him something that they did not see in other claimants to the khalifate: a God-given spiritual quality that made him more than an ordinary mortal, a quality they had seen in Mohammed as well. No one said Ali was another Messenger of God. No one would have made that claim (at that point, anyway), and so they gave Ali a different title. They said he was the imam.

Originally, imam was simply the term for a person who led communal prayer. To most Muslims, that’s still what the word means today. It’s a title of respect, to be sure, but no more grandiose than, say, reverend or honor-able . After all, every time a group of Muslims gathers to pray communally, one person among them has to lead the prayer; and he does nothing different than the others do; he just does it standing alone in front of the others to help keep the group moving in tandem through the ritual. Every mosque has an imam, and when he’s not leading prayer, he might be sweeping the floor or patching the roof.

But when Shi’i say “imam,” they mean something considerably more elevated. To Shi’i there is always one imam in the world, and there is never more than one. They proceed from the premise that Mohammed had some palpable mystical substance vested in him by Allah, some energy, some light, which they call the baraka of Mohammed. When the Prophet died, that light passed into Ali, at which moment Ali became the first imam. When Ali died, that same light passed into his son Hassan, who became the second Imam. Later, the spark passed into Hassan’s younger brother Hussein, who became the third imam. When Hussein was martyred at Karbala, the whole “imam” idea flowered into a rich theological concept that addressed a religious craving left unnourished by the mainstream doctrines of that time.

The mainstream doctrine, as articulated by Abu Bakr and Omar, said that Mohammed was strictly a messenger delivering a set of instructions about how to live. The message was the great and only thing. Beyond delivering the Qur’an, Mohammed’s religious significance was only his sunna, the example he set by his way of life, an example others could follow if they wanted to live in God’s favor. People who accepted this doctrine eventually came to be known as Sunnis, and they comprise nine-tenths of the Muslim community today.

The Shi’i, by contrast, felt that they couldn’t make themselves worthy of heaven simply by their own efforts. To them, instructions were not enough. They wanted to believe that direct guidance from God was still coming into the world, through some chosen person who could bathe other believers in a soul-saving grace, some living figure who would keep the world warm and pure. They adopted the term imam for this reassuring figure. His presence in the world ensured the continuing possibility of miracle.

When Hussein went to Karbala, he had no chance of winning. His only hope lay in the possibility of God producing a miracle—but then, the continuing possibility of miracle was the principle he embodied. He and his band chose death as symbolic refusal to disavow this possibility, and, in the final analysis, to Shi’i, a miracle did occur at Karbala, the miracle of Hussein’s martyrdom.

To this day, Shi’i around the world commemorate the anniversary of Hussein’s death with a day of cathartic mourning. They gather in “lamentation houses” to recount the story of the martyrdom, a religious narrative that casts Hussein in the role of a redemptive figure on an apocalyptic scale. By his martyrdom, Hussein has gained a place next to God and earned the privilege of interceding for sinners. Those who embrace him and believe in him will be saved and go to heaven, no matter what transgressions may foul their record. Hussein gave Shi’i this back door to the miracle they had hoped for all along. Believing in Hussein could not get you gold or high office or luck in love, but it could get you into heaven: that was the miracle.

And now for the political story that unfolded after Mu’awiya took power. The Umayyad ascension may have ended the birth of Islam as a religious event, but it launched the evolution of Islam as a civilization and a political empire. In the annals of conventional Western history, the Umayyads marked the beginning of Muslim greatness. They put Islam on the map by kicking off a golden age that lasted long after they themselves had fallen.

Whatever his shortcomings as a saint, Mu’awiya possessed tremendous political skill. The very qualities that helped him defeat the tormented Ali made him a successful monarch, and his reign institutionalized practices and procedures that would hold an Islamic empire together for centuries.

This is all very ironic because, let us not forget, when Mohammed’s prophetic career began, the Umayyads were a leading clan among the rich elite of Mecca. When Mohammed as Messenger denounced the malefactors of great wealth who ignored the poor and exploited the widows and orphans, the Umayyads were some of the main people he was talking about. When Mohammed still lived in Mecca, the Umayyads outdid each other in harassing his followers. They helped plot the assassination of Mohammed before the Hijra and led some of the forces that tried to extinguish the Umma in its cradle after the Muslims moved to Medina.

But once Islam began to look like a juggernaut, the Umayyads converted, joined the Umma, and climbed to the top of the new society; and here they were again, back among the new elite. Before Islam, they were merely among the elite of a city. Now, they were the top elite of a global empire. I’m sure many among them were scratching their heads, trying to remember what they ever found to dislike in this new faith!

As rulers, the Umayyads possessed some powerful instruments of policy inherited from their predecessors, especially Omar and Othman. Omar had done them a great favor by sanctifying offensive warfare as jihad so long as it was conducted against infidels in the cause of Islam. This definition of jihad enabled the new Muslim rulers to maintain a perpetual state of war on their frontiers, a policy with pronounced benefits.

For one thing, perpetual war drained violence to the edges of the empire and helped keep the interior at peace, reinforcing the theory of a world divided between the realm of peace (Islam) and the realm of war (everything else), which developed in the days of the first khalifas.

Perpetual war on the frontiers helped to reify this concept of war and peace, first of all, by making the narrative seem true—the frontier was generally a violent place, while the interior was generally a place of peace and security—and second, by helping to make it actually be true. By unifying the Arab tribes against a surrounding Other, this concept of jihad reduced the incessant internecine warfare that marked Arab tribal life before Islam and thus really did help to make the Islamic world a realm of (relative) peace!

You can see this dynamic more clearly when you consider who fought the early wars of expansion. It wasn’t so much a case of emperors dispatching armies of professional soldiers to do their bidding according to some master plan. The campaigns were fought by tribal armies who went off to battle more or less when they felt like it, as volunteers for the faith, responding more to the wishes than the orders of the khalifa. If they hadn’t been fighting at the borders to expand the territory under Muslim rule, they might well have been fighting at home to wrest booty from their neighbors.

Perpetual war also worked to confirm Islam’s claim to divine sanction, so long as it kept leading to victory. From the start, astonishing military and political success had functioned as Islam’s core confirming miracle. Jesus may have healed the blind and raised the dead. Moses may have turned a staff into a snake and led an exodus for which the Red Sea parted. Visible miracles of this ilk proved the divinity or divine sponsorship of those prophets.

Mohammed, however, never really dealt in supernatural miracles such as those. He never solicited followers with displays of power that contradicted the laws of nature. His one supernatural feat, really, was ascending to heaven on a white horse from the city of Jerusalem, and this was not a miracle performed for the multitudes. It happened to him unseen by any public, and he reported it later to his companions. People could believe him or not, as they wished; it didn’t impact his mission, because he wasn’t offering his ascent to heaven as proof that his message was true.

No, Mohammed’s miracle (aside from the Qur’an itself and the persuasive impact it had on so many who heard it) was that Muslims won battles even when outnumbered three to one. This miracle continued to unfold under the first khalifas as Muslim-ruled territory kept expanding at a breathtaking pace, and what could explain success like that except divine intervention?

The miracle continued under the Umayyads. The victories didn’t come as fast, nor as dramatically, but then, the opportunity for truly dramatic victories diminished over time simply because Muslims rarely found themselves as outnumbered as they were at first. The bottom line was that the victories kept coming and the territory kept expanding—it never shrank. So long as this was true, perpetual war continued to confirm the truth of Islam, which fed the fervor that enabled the victories, which confirmed the truth that fed the fervor, which enabled the victories that confirmed the truth . . . and so on, round and round.

Perpetual war had some tangible benefits too. It brought in revenue. As Muslims told it, some Allah-defying potentate would tax his subjects until his coffers were overflowing; then the Muslims would appear, knock him off his throne, liberate his subjects from his greed, and take his treasures. This made the liberated people happy and the Muslims rich: everybody ended up ahead except the defeated princes.

One-fifth of the plunder was sent back to the capital, and at first all of it was distributed among the Umma, with the neediest taken care of first. But with each khalifa, an increasing percentage went into the public treasury; when the Umayyads took over, they started funneling virtually all revenue into the public treasury and using it to cover the costs of government, which included lavish building projects, ambitious public works, and extravagant charitable endowments. Revenue from the perpetual border wars thus enabled the Umayyad government to operate as a positive force in society, lavishing benefits on citizens without raising taxes.

Then there were precedents bequeathed to the Umayyads by Khalifa Othman, who allowed Muslims to spend their money any way they wanted, so long as they followed Islamic strictures. Based on Othman’s rulings, the Umayyads allowed Muslims to purchase land in conquered territory with money borrowed from the treasury. Of course one had to be very well connected to get such loans, even more so than in Othman’s time, and since Islam outlawed usury, these loans were interest-free, which is nice financing if you can get it.

Omar had ordered that Muslim Arab warriors moving into new territories stay in garrisons apart from local populations, in part to avoid trampling on the rights and sensibilities of the locals, in part to keep Muslims from being seduced by pagan pleasures, and in part to keep the minority Muslims from being absorbed into the majority locals. In Umayyad times, these garrisons evolved into fortified Arab cities housing a new landed aristocracy, who owned and profited from vast estates in the surrounding countryside.

Islamic society bore no resemblance to feudal Europe, however, where manors were largely self-sufficient economic units, producing for immediate consumption. The Umayyad Empire hummed with handicrafts, and it was sewn together by intricate trade networks. Wealth milked out of the vast estates didn’t just sit there but proliferated into trade goods that flowed to distant lands and brought other trade goods flowing back. Garrison cities softened into busy commercial entrepôts. The Islamic world was dotted with vigorous cities. It was an urbane world.

Mu’awiya himself, reviled by the devout as a poor show next to such spiritual giants as the Rightly Guided Khalifas, proved himself no slouch as an economic manager and politician. Ruthless but charming, he gained the cooperation of fractious Arab chieftains, mostly with persuasion, using his military and police powers largely to put down revolts and impose law and order, which benefited him but also smoothed the way for civilized life.

Consider the mixture of stick and carrot in this warning to the people of Basra, issued by Mu’awiya’s adopted brother Ziyad, whom he had appointed governor of Basra: “You allow kinship to prevail and put religion second; you excuse and hide your transgressors and tear down the orders which Islam has sanctified for your protection. Take care not to creep about in the night. I will kill every man found on the streets after dark. Take care not to appeal to your kin; I will cut off the tongue of every man who raises that call. . . . I rule with the omnipotence of God and maintain you with God’s wealth. I demand obedience from you and you can demand uprightness from me . . . I will not fail in three things: I will at all times be there for every man to speak to me. I will always pay your pensions punctually and I will not send you into the field for too long a time or too far away. Do not be carried away by your hatred and anger against me; it would go ill with you. I see many heads rolling. Let each man see that his own head stays upon his shoulders!” 3



Worldly tough guys though they were, the Umayyads nurtured the religious institutions of Islam. They supported scholars and religious thinkers, built mosques, and enforced laws that allowed the Islamic way of life to flourish.

Under the Umayyads, it wasn’t just Arab-inspired commercial energy that permeated the Muslim world but also Islam-inspired social ideals. Nouveau riche lords made abundant donations to philanthropic religious foundations called waqfs. Social pressure drove them to it, but so did religious incentives: everyone wants the esteem of his or her society, and a rich man could garner such esteem by patronizing a waqf.

In theory, a waqf could not be shut down by its founder. Once born, it owned itself and had a sovereign status. Think of it as a Muslim version of a nonprofit corporation set up for charitable purposes. Under Muslim law, the waqfs could not be taxed. They collected money from donors and distributed it to the poor, built and ran mosques, operated schools, hospitals, and orphanages, and generally provided the burgeoning upper classes with a means for expressing their religious and charitable urges and to feel good about themselves even while lolling in wealth.

Of course, someone had to administer a waqf. Someone had to conduct its business, set its policies, and manage its finances, and it couldn’t be just anyone. To possess religious credibility, a waqf had to be staffed by people known for piety and religious learning. The more famously religious its staff, the more prestigious the waqf and the more respect accrued to its founders and donors.

Since the waqfs ended up controlling real estate, buildings, and endowment funds, their management offered an avenue of social mobility in Muslim society (even though many waqfs became a device by which rich families protected their wealth from taxation). If you acquired a reputation for religious scholarship, you might hope to gain a position with a waqf, which gave you status if not riches, and you didn’t have to hail from a famous family to become a famous religious scholar. You just had to have brains and a willingness to practice piety and study hard.

On the other hand, you did have to know Arabic, because it was the sacred language: to Muslims, the Qur’an itself, in Arabic, written or spoken, is the presence of God in the world: translations of the Qur’an are not the Qur’an. Besides, all the pertinent scholarly books were written in Arabic. And you did, of course, have to be Muslim. What’s more, the Umayyads soon declared Arabic the official language of government, replacing Persian in the east and Greek in the west and various local languages everywhere else. So Umayyad times saw an Arabization and Islamification of the Muslim realm.

When I say Islamification, I mean that growing numbers of people in territories ruled by the khalifa abandoned their previous faiths—Zoroastrian, Christian, pagan, or whatever—and converted to Islam. Some no doubt converted to evade the poll tax on non-Muslims, but this probably wasn’t the whole story, because after conversion people were liable for the charity tax incumbent on Muslims but not on non-Muslims.

Some may have converted in pursuit of career opportunities, but this, too, can be overstated, because conversion really only opened up the religion-related careers. The unconverted could still own land, operate workshops, sell goods, and pursue business opportunities. They could work for the government too, if they had skills to offer. The Muslim elite did not hesitate to take from each according to his abilities. If you knew medicine, you could be a doctor; if you knew building, you could be an architect. In the Islamic empire, you could become rich and famous even if you were a Christian or a Jew, the “Abrahamic” religions, or eventually Zoroastrian, even though this was more distant from Islam.

But most people, I think, in the world Muslims came to rule, converted to Islam because it looked like the Truth. Certainly, no other force or movement in the Middle World at this time had the muscular self-confidence and the aura of inexorable success of Islam. Who would not want to join the Umma if they could?

And they could. It was easy! All a person had to do was say “La illaha il-Allah wa Muhammad ur-Rasulillah”: “There is no god but God and Mohammed is his messenger.” That’s all it took to gain membership in this triumphant club.

But the core creed was much more loaded than it may have looked at first blush.

“No god but God”—that phrase alone has engendered countless thousands of volumes of commentary, and no one has yet come to the end of what it means.

And on top of that: “Mohammed is his messenger!” Sign on to that one, and you’ve accepted everything Mohammed prescribed as Messenger. You’ve committed yourself to five daily prayers; to avoidance of pork; to the Ramadan fast; to sobriety; and to much, much more.

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