Islamic History, Part 17: the later Umayyads (705-750)

Islamic History Series

The Umayyads didn’t have a very long run as top muckety-mucks in the Islamic World, less than a century even, if we start their dynasty with the beginning of Muʿawiyah I’s reign in 661 (and I’m not sure how you could start it any earlier). When you look at the list of successors to ʿAbd al-Malik, and their relative dearth of any kind of achievement, that short run at the top is easier to understand. For that reason this entry is going to spend some time focusing on the emerging opposition to the Umayyad reign, although there will be a lot more discussion along those lines when we talk about the Abbasid Revolution in a couple of entries. The one really significant event of this period, the Arab/Berber conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the French efforts to stop the invaders at the Pyrenees, is significant enough that it gets its own entry.

Let’s trace the rapid and complicated (sorry!) decline of the Umayyad Dynasty.

ʿAbd al-Malik was succeeded by his son, al-Walid I (d. 715), who relied heavily on our friend al-Hajjaj in his dual role as governor, really almost co-ruler, of Iraq and the eastern half of the caliphate and as de facto commander-in-chief of the caliphal armies. Hajjaj sent hand-picked generals to lead armies in every direction, looking to recover the last bits of territory that had been lost during the Second Fitna and, ideally, to get back to expanding the empire rather than simply reconquering it. North Africa, all the way to the Atlantic coast, was taken fairly easily under Musa b. Nusayr (d. 716), who employed diplomacy and religious conversion to bring the native tribes (which we collectively know as the Berbers) over to his side without much fighting–they had nominally been Roman subjects, but the Byzantines lost control over North Africa after the Arabs conquered Egypt. The Iberian expedition would launch from here, but that’s for next time. Speaking of the Byzantines, another expedition was launched into Anatolia with the goal of besieging and conquering Constantinople, but like every such expedition before it, it failed and no territory north of the Taurus Mountains could be held by the Arabs. Caliphal armies fared better in former Byzantine territory in the Caucasus, where Muhammad b. Marwan (d. ~720) and Maslamah b. ʿAbd al-Malik (d. 738) led the conquest of eastern or Persian Armenia (which denotes the Caucasian Armenia, as opposed to the western or Turkish Armenia, which is the part of Anatolia that used to have a heavy Armenian population). Hajjaj had a difficult time with one of his appointees, Yazid b. al-Muhallab (d. 720), governor of Khurasan in eastern Iran, possibly in part over the Qays/Yaman rivalry; Hajjaj was a northerner (Qaysi) and his supporters tended to be as well, while Ibn al-Muhallab was a southerner (Yamani) and had a lot of supporters among that faction.

The caliphate also expanded considerably into Central Asia, under a general named Qutaybah b. Muslim (d. ~716), which had several repercussions. Chiefly, these Central Asian conquests brought the native Iranian and Turkic peoples of the region into the Islamic World, and it wouldn’t be long before they made their mark in it (Iranians were in fact already playing important bureaucratic roles in the empire). They also brought the Arabs into direct contact with Tang China, which was also expanding into Central Asia, in Sogdiana (far eastern Uzbekistan today). Finally, they, introduced significant numbers of Buddhists into the empire, raising the question of how to treat these non-Muslims at a time when the idea of being “Muslim” was just starting to crystallize in comparison to what it meant to be a “Christian” or a “Jew.” Buddhists would be given the same “protected but second-class” dhimmi status that was given to Christian and Jewish subjects, which meant that they were taxed more heavily than Muslims but could not be forced to covert or die the way that pagans could be (many/most Buddhists seem to have preferred this arrangement to continuing life under Hindu rulers). We’ll talk more about what it meant to be a dhimmi at a later point (it’s a pretty complex topic that gets at the core question of when “Islam” really became its own confessional faith), maybe after the expansion into India and the subsequent need to accomodate a whole lot of new Hindu subjects. Along those lines, it was during Walid’s reign, starting in 711, that the first Caliphal military expeditions reached the Indus valley, where they encountered surprisingly little resistance; these early probes would turn into something much bigger within a few centuries. All these conquests brought the caliphate to what was probably its greatest territorial extent; while Islam and Islamic empires would expand further from this point, they wouldn’t be doing so as part of a single, unified empire.

The caliphate at its largest in terms of territory (via)
The caliphate at its largest in terms of territory (via)

In non-military matters, Walid continued his father’s centralization policies and completed a number of high-profile building projects, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the famous Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (built from the Basilica of St. John the Baptist), and a major renovation of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (via)
Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (via)
The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, at least as it was before the war (via)
The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, at least as it was before the war (via)

With the benefit of a few centuries of hindsight, it’s clear that the cracks were already starting to form during Walid’s reign–or, rather, that they’d never really healed after the two civil wars. The Arab language and Arab tribal culture were now indisputably the dominant social forces in the empire, due to ʿAbd al-Malik’s Arabization campaign and the centralizing reforms that were its centerpiece. Tribal rivalries (particularly the Qays and Yaman rivalry) flared up from time to time, but also helped provide the Arabs with a cultural identity even at the farthest corners of the empire when they were thousands of miles away from Arabia; no matter how far afield you might go, there were always Qays and Yaman communities there to offer shared tribal heritage and customs. New subjects of the empire (except pagans) were not required to convert to the emerging Islamic faith, but those who did convert were required to make themselves clients (mawla, plural mawali) of an Arab tribe, although they were still treated as outsiders. For most of this period, non-Arab converts to Islam, who as Muslims should have been exempt from the extra tax burden placed on non-Muslims, were still required to pay taxes as though they had not converted, while Arab Christians, who should have been subject to additional taxation, were instead exempted from it. This, then, was the source of most of that ethnic resentment I mentioned earlier, and it even impacted the ongoing Qays/Yaman conflict (the Yamanis are thought to have been much more open to assimilating the non-Arabs than the Qays were, and Hajjaj, a Qaysi, had even banished non-Arabs from the garrison cities under his control for fear of intermingling).

Walid was succeeded by his brother, Sulayman b. ʿAbd al-Malik (d. 717), who was fortunate that Hajjaj was already dead since the general had opposed Sulayman’s succession. He installed Ibn al-Muhallab in Hajjaj’s old job as Governor of the East, reflecting Sulayman’s strong affiliation with the Yaman faction but in the process alienating the Qays factions who had supported Hajjaj. Sulayman was then succeeded by his cousin, Umar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAziz or Umar II (d. 720). Umar II was considered such a wise, pious, and effective ruler that he was celebrated as a model caliph even under the Abbasid Dynasty, who (SPOILER) are going to overthrow the Umayyads in 750 and will, from that point on, refer to their Umayyad predecessors as “kings” (muluk) rather than caliphs–except for Umar II, who was deemed worthy of the office even in retrospect. Even today, Umar II is considered by some to have been (even though the concept was invented long after his reign) the first mujaddid (“renewer”), someone who is supposedly sent to the community by God once every century or so to right wrongs, correct errors, and renew the faith based on Muhammad’s example. He was held in such high esteem basically because he was the one Umayyad ruler who attempted to reform the official treatment of the mawali that I mentioned above. He recognized that, extra tax revenues be damned, a non-Arab convert to Islam should be subject to the same laws, taxation, and treatment as any other Muslim, not saddled with the extra taxes that were required of non-Muslim dhimmis. We don’t know much more than that, first because so little has survived from the Umayyad period and second because the guy only ruled for three years.

We know that the classical system of taxation in the empire had three parts: the zakat, or the charitable contribution required of all Muslims; the jizyah, the poll tax that was supposed to be levied only on non-Muslims; and the kharaj, a land tax levied on everybody who owned land. We also know that, in Umayyad times, this system wasn’t really in place yet, so there were poll and land taxes that were required throughout the empire, but that the tax burden was lighter for some (Muslims in theory, Arabs in practice) than for others (non-Muslims in theory, non-Arabs in practice). Umar II seems to have tried to bring the tax practice closer to the theory, and when his tax collectors complained that revenues were declining he declared that he had become Caliph to bring people to Islam, not to collect taxes. Realistically, though, he also must have been doing something to replace the revenue that would be lost in reducing taxes for non-Arab converts, and we simply don’t know what that was (he may have tried barring Muslims from purchasing taxable land, since taxable land owned by Muslims brought in less revenue than land owned by non-Muslims). At any rate, it seems his successors reversed whatever he did, because the sources suggest that non-Arab Muslims were once again been unfairly taxed after Umar II’s death. But it seems that he got a lot of points for trying to reform things, and for the modest, un-regal way in which he lived his life, a stark contrast to the rest of the caliphs in this period.

Aside from the ethnic and tribal tensions that gripped the empire in this period, there was also the rise of what is known as the “pious” (or “Islamic”) opposition. The Umayyads had really begun the process of transforming the caliphate into an absolute monarchy, which was fine as far as running an empire is concerned but seemed to many as though it were unworthy of the movement that Muhammad had begun. The community at Medina, which after all had been Muhammad’s city even if it was no longer the political capital, was particularly influential in terms of setting a religious agenda for the empire, and many there began to feel that the faith was taking a backseat to more mundane, monarchical considerations (Umar II was the exception, again for his efforts to make all Muslims equal under the law). The rampant immorality of most of the Umayyad caliphs (again, Umar II excepted) was another point of criticism. One man, Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), grew up in Medina before moving to Basra where he became a famous ascetic, preacher, and judge, and really the spiritual and intellectual leader of this emerging religiously-oriented opposition movement. He was critical of the Umayyads when he felt they deserved criticism, but was so well-respected that no caliph could touch him. We’ll talk in more detail about these guys in a later entry, along with the Shiʿi and Khariji elements who were also resisting the Umayyads on more-or-less religious grounds.

The remaining Umayyad caliphs are noteworthy mostly for the fact that they oversaw the rapid decline of the dynasty. Umar II was succeeded by another of Walid’s brothers, Yazid b. ʿAbd al-Malik or Yazid II (d. 724), who faced revolts throughout the empire, especially from Ibn al-Muhallab in Iraq, who had been imprisoned by Umar II on account of being a crook but escaped and led a rebellion that had considerable Yamani support. None of these revolts succeeded but this was certainly a sign that things were beginning to come apart, and Yamani resentment in Iraq over the Ibn al-Muhallab affair was a significant concern (ironically, given that Marwan I had won the caliphate with Yamani support, the Umayyads were now almost completely reliant on Qaysi support for their survival). Hisham b. ʿAbd al-Malik (d. 743) succeeded his brother, and had to put down a Hindu rebellion in India, a Berber one in North Africa, and a Shiʿi one in (naturally) Kufa under Husayn’s grandson Zayd b. Ali (d. 740). He also faced a revolt among the mawali in Central Asia (led by figures like al-Harith b. Surayj, who died in 746) in the 730s that really looked like it might sever that region from caliphal control before it was eventually quashed. The complaints of the rebels, chiefly that they were being treated as second-class subjects despite having converted, reflect the ethnic resentments we’ve talked about and, the idea of a mawali uprising in the east was a preview of events to come.

Hisham had his own notorious governor in Iraq, a man named Khalid al Qasri (d. 743), who seems to have belonged to one of the few non-aligned Arab tribes in the Qays/Yaman feud. Hisham probably did appointed Khalid for that reason, figuring that putting a neutral governor in place might tamp down some of the increasing hostility, but instead he wound up angering the Qays (Khalid was replacing a Qaysi governor) without winning any support from Yaman. Khalid was removed from office, after a pretty quiet term, in 738, for reasons unknown; there seem to have been rumors that he was a closet Christian (his mother was Christian) or perhaps even an atheist, and Hisham may have been envious of the fact that Khalid had grown even richer than Hisham (both of them were keenly interested in skimming whatever they could out of their respective treasuries and taking land for their own personal use), but the major reason for his removal (and imprisonment, I might add) was probably because the Qays hated his rotten guts (the Yamanis, who never warmed to Khalid, still resented his removal because he was replaced by another Qaysi). If a pattern seems to be emerging, that the Syria-based Umayyads keep sending governors to Iraq (Hajjaj for ʿAbd al-Malik, Ibn al-Muhallab for Sulayman, and Khalid for Hisham) who keep abusing their power and causing discord among the local population, then you’re paying attention. It’s no real mystery why the Caliphal capital is about to move from Damascus to Baghdad.

Hisham was succeeded by Yazid II’s son, Walid b. Yazid or Walid II (d. 744), who was known more for his boozing than anything else and whose reign begins the Third Fitna, an inter-Umayyad civil war that then became a full-blown civil war that saw the end of the Umayyads altogether (at least in Damascus; Spain was another story). There seem to have been a lot of folks at court who wanted to see one of Hisham’s sons succeed him, but Yazid had designated that Walid would succeed his uncle, and Walid made sure he had a network of agents in Hisham’s palace who would see to it that he did. Hisham wasn’t popular, but Walid was pretty universally hated, both for his personal flaws and because of the general hostility to the dynasty that kept building up. He was toppled by one of Walid I’s sons, Yazid b. al-Walid or Yazid III (d. 744), who had the support of the Yamanis and a big chunk of the pious opposition, but who died (natural causes) all of six months after becoming Caliph. He was succeeded by his brother, Ibrahim b. al-Walid (d. 750), who promptly abdicated for fear his political enemies, specifically Marwan II (d. 750), the son of the aforementioned Muhammad b. Marwan and thus a grandson of Marwan I.

Marwan II had, since the early 730s, been governor of the northern part of modern Iraq and Syria, the Jazirah (the word means “island” but reflects the land’s geographical position between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers), which was a post that brought with it command over all raids into Byzantine territory. There was considerable prestige that went with this post, along with the opportunity to build up a large army whose loyalties to their general/the governor, were considerably stronger than its loyalties to the caliph. Marwan was beloved by his troops, almost all of whom were Qaysi, and when Yazid III took power it’s likely that they were already planning a coup. After Yazid’s death they marched Marwan into Damascus, ostensibly as the champion of the succession rights of Walid II’s sons, but he quickly assumed the throne in his own right and then moved the capital to the northern city of Harran, the better to be enveloped by his Qays supporters. Now the rest of Syria revolted along with the ever-agitated Iraqis, and new Shiʿi and Khariji threats emerged as well. Some of the immediate threats, like the Kharijites and the Shiʿites, were eliminated by 747, but the factional fighting in Syria seems to have broken the one reliable geographic base of support that the Umayyads still had, and now factionalism was just as much a problem at the imperial center as it had been on the periphery for so long.The loss of Syrian stability left Marwan II in a very precarious position, and as we’ll see he wasn’t able to pull himself out of it.

Next time: The Conquest of Iberia

Further Reading

I’ve been remiss in not recommending the Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, run out of Fordham, which offers primary and rare/hard to find secondary material on the full sweep of Islamic history. As the Islamic world expands (into India, for example) it might also pay to check out their other sourcebooks as well, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.

G. R. Hawting’s The First Dynasty of Islam is invaluable, particularly in this later period where things really started to fall apart in such a big way.

Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam (vol. 1) is important generally, but particularly in his discussion of the emerging religious opposition to the Umayyads.

Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050 and his The Armies of the Caliphs: military and society in the early Islamic State.

Suliman Bashear’s Arabs and Others in Early Islam

Patricia Crone’s God’s Rule – Government and Islam: Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought and her God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam (with Martin Hinds).

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

10 thoughts

  1. I am eagerly awaiting your analysis of the Conquest of Iberia!

    And on a sad note, I am grateful that I was able to see the Jesus Minaret at The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus before some damn fool blows it up.

  2. Must thank you for these wonderfully written, clear and concise summaries. It’s been so easy to follow and stay interested. These have been helping me study for a final I feel I otherwise would have failed. THANK YOU!

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