Exploration and Conquest

The early Islamic conquests and subsequent Empire are marked features of the development of Islam as a whole. The Umayyad Dynasty, ruling during the greatest period of expansion from the mid-7th to the mid-8th centuries, existed, strictly speaking, in a period known as "formative." That is, designations such as "Sunni" were yet to have acquired any definite sectarian meaning in this early stage of Muslim life. Nonetheless, the Umayyad period is one to which we can trace basic building blocks of what would come to be known as Sunni Islam, with its particular vision of leadership and authority.Umayyad caliphate at its greatest extent (750 CE): Public  Domain

When it comes to assessing persecution and authority in Islamic history, the institution of the caliphate is the one in which tensions and rifts show through most clearly. The term "caliphate" refers, in the first instance, to the position of political and spiritual authority over the Islamic community.  The caliph was referred to as "Amir al-Mu'minin," the "Commander of the Believers." The exact meaning and nuances of this phrase shifted to accommodate differing interpretations of legislative and spiritual jurisdiction.

In spite of its apparent clarity of meaning, the caliphate has been one of the most divisive issues in Islamic history, going as far back as the original succession to Muhammad. While the original caliphate was Muhammad's rule in Medina, over the course of time, several states were led by caliphates, and occasionally by rival ones.  Again, with precedents as early as the election of Abu Bakr's ascension to the role of caliph in 632 C.E., Sunnis believed that a process of consensus, or shura, should determine who holds the position of caliph.  The historical vision of Sunnis includes a consideration of the first four caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman and Ali, as "Rightly Guided" or "Rashidun."

"Golden Age" or "Age of Rashidun"
Death of Muhammad 632 CE
Caliphate of Abu Bakr 632-634 CE
Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab 634-644 CE
Caliphate of Uthman ibn Affan 644-656 CE
Caliphate of Ali Ibn Abi Talib (cousin & son-in-law of Mohammad) 656-661 CE
Fitna: first Islamic civil war 656-661 CE
Arbitration between Ali and Mu'awiyah 658 CE
Death of Ali ibn Abi Talib 661 CE

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.

Beginning as early as the 9th century, Turks had joined the Islamic world, first as slaves and soldiers. The Abbasid Caliph Mu'tasim (833-842) had a Turkish guard. Turkish officers often rose to high rank, even ruling over regions as princes. As the Abbasid Empire disintegrated politically, Turkish tribes streamed into Islamic territory. In western Asia in the second half of the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks constituted a third major constituency to the Islamic World.

A wave of Mongol invasions intruded into the Muslim world in the 13th century, under the famous leader Genghis Khan. This dealt a violent blow to the waning Abbasid caliphate. By the fourth decade of that century, major cities fell to the Mongols, including Baghdad, which was sacked in 1258. Al-Mutasim was to be the final in the long line of Abbasid Caliphs. Syria was next, and Damascus and Aleppo, major centers of administration, fell in 1260. In Egypt, where the Ayyubid dynasty had recently held power, a class of slave soldiers known as the Mamluks was increasing in power as well. At the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260, the Mamluks defeated the Mongols, a victory which was succeeded by another victory for the Mamluks on behalf of Syria. The Ottoman Empire, the last bastion of the Caliphate, declined in the Early Modern period, and collapsed in the 20th century.

Ottoman Empire in 1683Osman I, a Turk, initiated a new regime that would result in the last Sunni caliphate, that of the Ottoman Empire, which endured through the early modern and modern era and then collapsed at the end of World War I.  The institution of the caliphate was eventually abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who established the secular Turkish Republic in 1923.

Departure of Mehmed VI, last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire,  1922Other regions that were part of the Islamic world, especially in South Asia, never instituted caliphates. Especially after the mid-13th century, devolution into a vast and fragmented commonwealth, as opposed to a highly centralized Empire, meant that local governing bodies had power over particular regions. In many ways, the position of the caliph became one that was largely symbolic, one that signified where loyalties could lie, if not where actual power or the authority to govern truly resided.

Islam had been in Africa almost from its inception. In the 7th century, when Muhammad and the earliest Muslims faced persecution in their hometown of Mecca, Muhammad had sent an expedition in search of safe haven in Ethiopia. Existing communities adapted to a diverse array of Islamic practices, including Sufism. In the Early Modern and Modern periods, trade in West Africa empowered the Muslim population.  Today, Islam is practiced mainly in North and Northeast Africa, and in the Sahel.

Study Questions:
     1.     Why is the Umayyad period the “unofficial” beginning of Sunni Islam?           
     2.     How has the institution of the caliphate divided Islam? When did it begin and when was it abolished?
     3.     Why did many Southeast Asian countries choose not to participate in the caliphate?

Back to Religion Library