The Muslim caliphates

The Arab expansion

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, the various families, clans, and tribes that made up the population of the Arabian peninsula seemed prepared to return to their previous ways of life, which included perpetual rivalries and occasional cases of outright warfare. Yet a small but influential group of the prophet’s followers, the sahabah, sought to preserve the teachings which he had left them and to keep the Arabs united. This, the sahabah believed, could best be achieved if their energies were directed towards external, non-Arab targets. Moreover, they were on a mission from God. The sahabah were the custodians of the revelation as given to Muhammad and their task was to spread the word and convert infidels to the new faith. The new leader of the community must consequently, many felt, combine the qualities which had characterized Muhammad — to be a religious leader but also a politician and military commander. In 632, it was the prophet’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, who best exemplified these qualities, and he was elected to be the first caliph of what later came to be known as the Rashidun, or “rightly guided,” caliphate. During his short rule, 632-634, Abu Bakr consolidated Muslim control over the Arabian peninsula, but he also attacked the southern parts of Iraq, occupied by the Persians, and the southern parts of Syria, held by the Byzantine Empire.

The term jihad, “holy war,” is often used to describe this military expansion, yet political control, not religious conversion, was its main objective. The expansion may best be explained not by a religious but by a military logic. Since the troops of the caliphate were paid by the spoils of war — by what they could lay their hands on in the lands they conquered — the army could only be maintained as long as it continued to be successful. Raids are consequently a better term for many of these engagements than battles, even if the raids eventually turned into permanent occupations. Thus when the advance of the Muslim forces throughout Europe eventually was stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732, this was regarded as a major triumph by European observers but merely as a temporary setback by the Arabs themselves. They simply retreated in order to fight another day. Moreover, since their occupations in many cases were quite superficial, it was often easy enough for the local population to reassert their independence. As a result, in several cases, the Arabs had to reconquer the same territory over and over again.

The secret behind this astounding military success was a lightly armed and highly mobile fighting force. Although Muhammad and his immediate followers were merchants and city-dwellers, most of the population of the Arabian peninsula were Bedouins. Mobility was key to survival in the harsh environment of the desert, and thanks to horses and camels, the Bedouins could cover large distances with great speed. Once they were formed into an army their horses could be used for swift attacks and their camels for transporting supplies. The neighboring empires — the Greeks in Byzantium to the west and the Persians to the east — were both stationary by comparison. As soon as the Arabs had mastered the basics of siege warfare, these sedentary societies were easily defeated.

Moreover, the Arabs were able to benefit from the fact that Byzantines and Persians already for centuries had been each other’s worst enemies. After decades of relative peace, the wars between the two superpowers flared up again at the beginning of the seventh century, with devastating effects for both parties. Thus, when the Arab forces began their incursions from the south, both Byzantines and Persians were already considerably weakened. Yet it was far more difficult for the Arabs to expand wherever they encountered people who resembled themselves. This was the case in northern Africa where the Berbers, after some costly engagements, were not defeated as much as bought off and incorporated into the new Arab elite.

During the second caliph, Umar, who succeeded Abu Bakr in 634 and ruled for ten years, these military campaigns were dramatically extended. The caliphate now became an imperial power. They occupied the eastern parts of the Byzantine Empire, including Syria, Anatolia and Egypt in the 630s; and then all of the Persian Empire in the 640s, including present-day Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. Umar’s greatest achievement, however, was to give an administrative structure to the new state. Clearly, the institutions once appropriate for the cities of Mecca and Medina were not appropriate for the vast political structure which the caliphate now had become. Umar’s answer was the diwan, a state bureaucracy with a treasury and separate departments responsible for tax collection, public safety and the exercise of sharia law. Coins were minted by the state and welfare institutions were established which looked after the poor and needy; grain was stockpiled to be distributed to the people at times of famine. The caliphate engaged in several large-scale projects, building new cities, canals and irrigation systems. Roads and bridges were constructed too and guest houses were set up for the benefit of merchants or for pilgrims going to Mecca for the hajj. Umar, the second rightly guided caliph, has always been highly respected by Muslims for these achievements and for his personal modesty and sense of justice.

Although the occupation of lands outside of the Arabian peninsula happened exceedingly quickly, converting the occupied populations to the new faith took centuries to accomplish, and in many cases, it never happened. As a result of its military victories, Islam became a minority religion everywhere the Arabs went and forced conversions were for that reason alone unlikely to prove successful. Moreover, conversions were financially disadvantageous to the authorities. Since non-Muslims were required to pay a tax, the jizya, which was higher than the tax for Muslims, a change of religion meant a loss of tax revenue for the caliphate.

Instead, the various non-Muslim communities, known as the dhimmi, were allowed to practice their religion much as before. As the new Arab rulers saw it, monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism were precursors of Islam which the teachings of the prophet had made redundant. The military success of his followers, in their own eyes, had proven the viability of the new faith. Other religions were regarded as the colorful remnants of an older order, but not as threats to Islam itself. Indulging them, the Arab rulers allowed them to govern their respective communities in accordance with their own customs. Christians, for example, could continue to drink alcohol and eat pork. Though the dhimmi lacked certain political rights that came with membership in the community of Muslim believers, they were regarded as equal with Muslims before the law, and they were not expected to become soldiers in the caliphate’s armies.

In 644, Umar was assassinated by a slave during a hajj to Mecca, apparently as a revenge for the wars which the Arabs had made on the Persian empire. This time around the problem of succession became acute. The question of who should take over as caliph concerned how power should be distributed among the small elite of the prophet’s Arabian followers. The most obvious choice was Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, who had married Fatimah, the only one of the prophet’s children who survived him. Yet it was instead Uthman ibn Affan who became the third caliph. Uthman too was an early convert to Islam and one of the prophet’s closest companions but — and probably more importantly as far as the question of succession was concerned — he was a member of the Umayyads, one of Mecca’s oldest and best-established families.

Once elected, Uthman dispatched military expeditions to recapture regions in Central Asia which had rebelled against Arab rule. He also made war on the Byzantine Empire, occupying most of present-day Turkey and coming close to besieging Constantinople itself. Rather, more surprisingly for a military force largely made up of Bedouins, Uthman constructed an impressive navy which occupied the Mediterranean islands of Crete, Rhodes, and Cyprus and made raids on Sicily. At the end of the 640s, when the Byzantine attempt to recapture Egypt failed, all of North Africa came under the caliphate’s control.

Despite these military advances, it was difficult to maintain peace between the various factions of the caliphate’s elite. Indeed, the rich spoils which the Arab armies encountered in countries such as Syria and Iraq constituted a new source of conflict. During Umar’s reign, the soldiers had been paid a stipend, been quartered in garrisons well away from traditional urban areas, and been banned from taking agricultural land. During Uthman, these policies were reversed. This led to resentment as a new land-owning Arab elite came to develop and to replace traditional leaders. Uthman was also accused of favoring members of his own family when it came to appointing governors to the new provinces. Another source of conflict was Uthman’s attempt to standardize the text of the Quran and thereby to force all believers to accept his interpretation of its message.

Resentment against these policies was channeled into support for Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, and before long an uprising against Uthman was underway. In 656, three separate armies marched on Medina, laid a siege on Uthman’s house and killed him. Now it was finally time for Ali to become the new leader. He remained in power for five years, 656-661, but his rule was undermined by continuous conflicts. Uthman’s followers wanted revenge and insisted that Ali should punish the people who had murdered him. This, however, was difficult for Ali to do since it was thanks to them that he had come to power. In addition, Uthman’s relatives and associates in the provinces wanted to protect their assets and their new landholdings. The result of these conflicts was the First Fitna, the first civil war between Muslims, which broke out in 657. Ali’s forces met the forces of the Umayyads at Siffin, in today’s Syria, but instead of a military confrontation, Ali decided to settle the matter by means of negotiations. This led some of his supporters to abandon his cause, and in 661 he was murdered by one of them. Muawiyah, the leader of the Umayyads, now established himself as the new caliph. However, this succession was disputed by Husayn, Ali’s son, and once again war broke out. In the year 680, Husayn was ambushed and killed together with all of his family.

This is the historical origin of the split between the Sunni and the Shia, the two largest denominations of Muslims in the world today. According to Shia beliefs, Ali had been designated as the prophet’s immediate successor, and his son and Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn, was thus the rightful heir. Shia Muslims continue to believe that the caliphate was taken away from them by the Umayyad family and that authority in the Muslim world is illegitimately exercised to this day. They even blame themselves for Husayn’s killing, since too few of his followers came to his support. On the day of his death, Ashura, a festival of mourning and repentance is celebrated by Shia Muslims. The processions held in Karbala, Iraq, where Husayn died, are the most spectacular, with millions of believers attending. These festivals have often been the targets of violence by non-Shia groups. Although only about 10 percent of all Muslims are Shia, they constitute today around 30 percent of the population of the Middle East.

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