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Religion Library: Islam

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

When the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali was killed in 661, the Age of the Rashidun, or rightly-guided ones, came to an end. Mu'awiyah, a member of the powerful Umayyad clan and governor of Syria, assumed the office of caliph and moved the capital of Islam from Medina to Damascus. This marked the beginning of the Umayyad Caliphate, which ruled the Islamic world until 750. By appointing his son Yazid as his successor, Mu'awiyah founded the tradition of family dynasties, which effectively ended the original Islamic practice of electing the caliph by a council of elders, or shura.

Umayyad caliphate at its greatest extent (750 CE). Source: Public Domain

Throughout their reign, the Umayyad caliphs faced civil war and rebellion, but maintained their dominance and engaged in a spectacular campaign of territorial expansion. Before the founding of the Umayyad Caliphate, Muslim armies had already occupied what are today Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Iran. In the first part of the 8th century, Umayyad forces completed the conquest of north Africa, Spain, and Portugal, and invaded territories as far east as central Asia, Afghanistan, and India. Poetry, art, and architecture thrived under Umayyad rule, as did scholarship and trade. Arabic was the official language of the government and of religion, and Arab settlers traveled far and wide.

Major Muslim Dynasties
"Age of Rashidun"capital in Medina632-661
Umayyad Caliphatecapital in Damascus661-750
Abbasid Caliphatecapital in Baghdad750-1258

The Umayyad dynasty fell over the issue of taxes. The small ruling class paid lower taxes, while the lower classes and minority non-Muslims paid higher taxes. For a short while, the Umayyads even discouraged conversion to Islam in order to maintain higher tax revenue. Resentment turned into rebellion, and descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, raised an army in northern Iran. The Abbasids defeated the Umayyad army and killed many of the Umayyad leaders, winning the caliphate for themselves.

Abbasid Caliphate (green) at its greatest extent, c. 850. Source: Public Domain


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