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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Several dynasties and empires have claimed caliphs, from the 7th until the 20th century. There have been periods in which caliphs were instituted over different parts of the Islamic Empire at the same time. For example, after the overthrow of the Umayyads by the Abbasid Dynasty in 750 C.E., a branch of the former fled to Spain, and after a period of constituting their own emirate or territorial principality under a local commander, instituted a counter caliphate that lasted from the 10th to the 11th century. The Umayyads in Spain continued the Syrian caliphate and only claimed the title of the caliphs after the Fatimids (see below) had done the same. The rapid turnover and various depositions and restorations of the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba reveal the tumultuous circumstances under which this region of the Islamic Empire was ruled.

The Caliphate of Cordoba c. 1000 at the apogee of Al-MansurThe Umayyad Caliphs of Cordoba

  • Abd al-Rahman III - changed the titular rule from emir to caliph, reigned 929-961
  • Al-Hakam II - reigned 961-976
  • Hisham II - reigned 976-1008
  • Mohammed II - reigned 1008-1009
  • Suleiman II - reigned 1009-1010
  • Hisham II - second reign 1010-1012
  • Suleiman II - second reign 1012-1016
  • ‘Abd al-Rahman IV - reigned 1017
  • Interregnum by the Hammudid dynasty 1016-1023
  • The Umayyad dynasty returns - 1023
  •  ‘Abd al-Rahman V - reigned 1023-1024
  •  Muhammad III - reigned 1024-1025
  • Hisham III - reigned 1026-1031

Meanwhile, the Abbasids had instituted their own caliphate, with its seat of power in Baghdad.  Originally, the Abbasids claimed the right to rule on a professed descent from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, one of Muhammad's uncles. For a short time, the Abbasids garnered support on the ground, vilifying the Umayyads (who were descendants of a different clan) and pledging to support Shi‘is.  They even claimed to have become Shi‘i themselves in order to galvanize forces for their revolt against the Umayyads, which was well-timed to coincide with rising resentment on the part of mawali, non-Arab clients of Arab clans within the Muslim community, whose growing feeling of being second-class citizens made them ripe for resistance. The Abbasids quickly abandoned their Shi‘i alliance, however, which was one of the final markers of separation between the Sunni ruling regime and the resulting Shi‘i minority.

By the 10th century, the Shi‘a Fatimids (who based their authority on descent from Muhammad's daughter, Fatima, and her husband, Ali) instituted yet another caliphate, with its base in Cairo.  While the Fatimid Caliphate extended, at its height, over most of North Africa and much of the Arabian Peninsula, its legitimacy eroded when certain governors converted to Sunni Islam.  Egypt was conquered by a general, Shirkuh, who then seized power, initiating the Ayyubid Dynasty (12th-13th centuries). Shirkuh's nephew, Saladin, became a leading historical figure in the solidification of Ayyubid power, extending Muslim rule particularly in Jerusalem. He became one of the chief opponents of the Crusaders in their battle over the Palestinian lands. Ongoing conflict with the Europeans and then the Mongols, who invaded from eastern Asia, diminished the Ayyubid dynasty's ability to sustain power, and the empire splintered into smaller emirates until the rise of Osman I, a Turkish leader, in the early 14th century.


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