Exploration and Conquest

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 Medina 632-661
Umayyad Caliphate capital in Damascus 661-750
Abbasid Caliphate capital in Baghdad 750-1258

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

The Abbasids moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, and ruled the Islamic world from 750-1258. After a century or so of quelling uprisings and solidifying control, the Abbasid Caliphate oversaw an era of prosperity and cultural achievement. Industry, agriculture, and commerce all flourished, while Baghdad became an international trade center with a population of nearly a half-million. This wealth funded research in math, science, medicine, architecture and art, poetry, literature, and philosophy. Muslim cities became important centers of learning where Greek and Latin works of science and philosophy were translated, interpreted, revised, and recast to fit an Islamic world view. Quran. Ink on parchment. Dates from the Abbasid Caliphate of the Arab Empire. Source: Howcheng@FlickrCross-cultural exchanges, particularly in science and art, enriched Islamic civilization and neighboring civilizations alike. Christian scholars in Europe studied the work of Muslim scholars, who brought sophisticated mathematics and science, and the translations of Greek and Latin scholarship, to the European cities and schools.

The Abbasids ruled directly over Mesopotamia, Iran, Egypt, and Syria, and collected taxes and tributes from the more distant provinces. In the late 9th century, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, and Iran won autonomy from the Abbasid Caliphate. Changes in leadership in Egypt and Baghdad contributed to growing dissension, weakening the power of the central government. In the late 11th century, Abbasid armies were attacked in the west by invading Christian Crusaders and in the east by Mongol forces. The Mongols captured Baghdad in 1258, and executed the last Abbasid caliph. This event marked the end of the Islamic caliphates.

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