An accidental empire. 680-740, generations 435-437.

During Mohammed’s lifetime the Arabian peninsula was united into a single polity. After he died in 632 the expansion of arab-controlled land accelerated. The rate of expansion was astounding and unprecedented. The latest dynasty of the Persian empire, the Sasanian dynasty, had the misfortune that its capital, Ctesiphon, was not easily defensible against the arab armies. After losing a battle against the invaders in 636, the Sasanian royal family abandoned Ctesiphon. Once the capital was gone, the rest of the empire could be picked off bit by bit. The arabs repeatedly attempted to take Constantinople too, but failed. Emperor Constantine had chosen a defensible location three centuries previously, on a promontory encircled by the Bosphorus. So the Roman empire, although dramatically reduced in size, was not wiped from the map in the way that the Sasanian one was, and its rump continued to be administered from Constantinople.

Within fifty years of Mohammed’s death the Umayyad dynasty was established in Damascus. From this base it controlled the whole of the ex-Persian empire as far as China, a large part of the Roman empire (Anatolia, the eastern Mediterranean, north Africa) and, by the year 720, most of the Iberian peninsula. The map of the world had changed, irrevocably.

The Umayyads appointed arab governors to each region, who collected taxes and sent them back to Damascus. There was a vigorous slave trade. It was said that after the defeat of the Visigoths in southern Spain, 30,000 blond Visigothic slaves were on sale in the slave markets of Damascus. This was beginning to look more like an empire than a religious arising. The arab elite grew rich.

Tensions began to show. The arab rulers came from the desert of Arabia. Hitherto, their main contact with the empires administered from Constantinople and Ctesiphon had been as traders and raiders: people on the move, not city-dwellers. There were not many of them: they were a tiny minority in their vast unexpected empire. They did not have the infrastructure or the traditions to manage it. How to administer these lands and retain their distinctive identity?

One way was not to move into the pre-existing cities. In Mesopotamia the arabs set up encampments, which became garrison towns in Kufa and Basra. In Egypt they set up a semi-permanent camp on the banks of the Nile at Fustat, which is now a suburb of Cairo. They left the Roman and Sasanian administrative structures in place and almost untouched. For those living in the villages of the new empire, the regime change must have been hardly noticeable. The fact that the annually-collected taxes now went to Damascus instead of Constantinople or Ctesiphon probably didn’t impinge. Otherwise, life continued unchanged.

However, there was unrest. There were repeated uprisings all over the new empire. The arabs came with a powerful new religion and a book which proclaimed a bright future for the Believers. The book seemed to say that bloodlines and tribal loyalties were secondary to what a person chose to believe. For an open-minded, thinking person this appeared to offer a way out of their current situation . It was possible to be a part of this powerful wave that had swept over the world, simply by declaring one’s adherence to the new religion. But it didn’t work out like that in practice. When several hundred escaped slaves moved to Basra and Kufa and declared themselves to be muslims, the governor had them arrested, branded and sent back to their masters. Evidently, in this new world some were more equal than others.

The pervasiveness of slavery may have been an escape-valve. The slave trade was a fact of life, seen as a necessary evil. Attempts had been made since ancient times to regulate it, but never to outlaw it. This posed new dilemmas for the arab rulers. What was the legal status of the offspring of an arab father and his non-arab slave? Could they become a muslim? Over the years a complicated hierarchy emerged. A person with two arab parents was at the top of the tree, followed by one with one arab parent, and so on. There was movement between the categories. For example, the general who led the conquest of Spain in 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, was probably an ex-slave. Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq) is named after him.

Another area addressed by the Umayyads was the coinage. In the early years of Umayyad rule the empire continued using the Sasanian and Roman currencies. This meant that, long after the arabs had taken control, images of the Roman Emperor were still on each coin in the purses of the traders of Alexandria and Damascus. In the 680’s the Umayyad emperor had his own coins made, with his image, modelled on the Roman solidus minted in Constantinople.


Here is a coin from 693, showing an image of the caliph Abd-al Malik. Courtesy Muslim Heritage

Whereas the Roman Emperor’s solidus had his image on one side and the christian cross on the obverse, Abd-al Malik’s dinar had an image of himself holding a sword on one side and the symbol shown here on the back of the coin. Evidently the muslim prohibition of depicting the human form had not yet kicked in. His image was encircled by the testimony of Islam written in Arabic: “In the name of God, there is no deity but God; He is One; Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Interestingly, Abd-al Malik had grown up in Medina, the final home of the Prophet and base for an uprising against Umayyad rule on the grounds that it was not following the way of the Believers. By placing the Testimony of Islam on his coins, maybe Abd-al Malik was nailing his colours to the mast.

In Abd-al Malik’s next minting, in 697, there were no images.


These coins were made compulsory throughout the empire. Persian and Roman coins were melted down and restamped, on pain of death. The language of the administration was declared to be arabic rather than greek or persian as it had been. The conquered territories began the process of cohering into a single entity, the dar al-islam, the abode of islam.

Sunni, shia and caliphs: the world from 900-1000AD

By generation 450, 1000 AD, there were three caliphs: one each in Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba. As the word ‘caliph’ implies one-and-only successor to the prophet, clearly something had gone off-script.

This post gives some broad brush-strokes to the map of the world we are exploring.

After Mohammed died in 632 AD, the official story tells us that the umma, the community, elected his uncle Abu Bakr as their leader. He gave himself the title ‘khalifa’, caliph, successor to the prophet. When he died another companion of the prophet, Omar, was elected. When Omar died, the umma elected another companion of the prophet. Othman was a devout man and also a very successful businessman. His skills were put to use to administer the rapidly-growing world that the muslims were moving into. He appointed other members of his wealthy family, the Umayyads, as governors in Egypt and Damascus.

But then it went wrong. Othman was assassinated when the people began to suspect that his family were getting rich at the expense of the rest of them. Othman’s family refused to accept the legitimacy of the next caliph elected by the umma: the prophet’s son-in-law Ali. The Ummayads defeated Ali in battle and set themselves up as caliphs in Damascus. The caliphate became hereditary.

But there were some in the umma who believed that Ali carried the authority, the spark that had been transmitted through Mohammed. Instead of caliph, they called him ‘imam’, the person who leads them to prayer. The Umayyads hunted down and killed Ali’s two sons, Hassan and Hussein, who in their turn had each been designated imam. When Hussein was killed his followers began to be known as shi’i, partisans. And so there was schism in the muslim world traceable back to thirty years after the death of the prophet.

Under the Umayyads, Damascus prospered. The muslim world continued to expand. Its policy of religious tolerance of other ‘people of the book’, christians and jews, meant that it was welcomed by christians in the Anatolian peninsula who adhered to a different version of their religion than their rulers in Constantinople. This was the start of the golden age. The official language of the empire was arabic. There was craft, trade and learning across the vast new realm.

Everyone flourished, but arabs were more equal than non-arabs, and Damascus and the Umayyads flourished most of all. This inevitably led to questioning of the authority of the Umayyads, whether they were really following the path as stipulated by the prophet. He had folded a blanket to sleep on and now these rulers wore fine silks. The discontent found strongest expression outside the arab world, in Persia, and among the shi’a. The rebels found a figurehead in one Abbas, who claimed descent from an uncle of Mohammed. To cut a very long story short (I’m not interested in politics and bloodshed, I confess) the rebel forces defeated the Umayyad army in 750 and Abbas was proclaimed caliph.

Enter the Abbasids. Once installed, Abbas forgot his interest in shi’ism and a lot of the promises he had made to his supporters. He rounded up the remaining Umayyads – and had them all killed. The caliphate became hereditary again. He built a new capital city at Baghdad. He invited scholars from all over the known world to work in its libraries, translating books from Greek, Persian and Hindu into arabic. The golden age went up a gear.

abbasid box

This inlaid ivory box comes from early in the Abbasid dynasty, around 800AD. Courtesy of Islamic Arts

But one of the Umayyad family, Abd al-Rahman, managed to escape the Abbasid soldiers and made his way to the far west, to the new province of al-Andalus. There he was welcomed as a member of the imperial family. He mustered enough support to take over the peninsula and defeat the Abbasid army that came from Africa to overthrow him. He established his capital in Cordoba. A couple of hundred years later his successors felt confident enough to designate themselves caliphs once more.


The christian church in Cordoba was converted into a mosque and massively enlarged under Umayyad rule. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And so there were two caliphates: the Abbasids in Baghdad in the east and the Umayyads in Cordoba in the west.

The third caliphate was halfway between them, in north Africa. The shi’a Fatimids traced their descent through a line of imams from Fatima, Mohammed’s daughter who was married to Ali. In the early tenth century these shi’a teachers gathered enough support to overthrow the local rulers in north Africa. The Fatimid caliphate was established first in Tunisia. Then in 969 they created a new capital at Cairo in Egypt.

rock crystal ewer This drinking jug made from a single piece of rock crystal, hollowed out and carved, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It comes from Fatimid Egypt.

The Fatimids also participated in the exchange of learning and creativity, as the arabic language was shared across the three caliphates. They ruled Palestine (where christian pilgrims were welcomed as fellow people of the book), Sicily and southern Italy and across north Africa.

The stage is set for us to launch into the glory of the islamic golden age.