The Umayyads and the Abbasids

The Umayyad caliphate lasted almost a century. It oversaw the expansion of Islam, but tensions within the Muslim community brought about its downfall. It was overthrown by the Abbasids, who remained in power until the thirteenth century.

The Umayyads

As the leadership of the Muslim community passed to Mu'awiyah, what became known as the Umayyad Dynasty began. The center of Umayyad rule was in Damascus, Syria, ancestral home of the Umayyad clan. By this time, the Muslim state had become a rather large empire, with governors and armies spread over much of the Middle East, western Asia, eastern Europe, and North Africa. Administration of such a large and diverse region took up much of the energy and attention of the leadership. As with any large empire, secular and practical concerns began to take precedence over more spiritual matters, although faith continued to be an important foundation.

For all their accomplishments, the Umayyad leadership had many critics. Some believed that the caliphs were more concerned with worldly gain and secular concerns and that faith suffered at their expense. Others accused the caliphs of being lavish and self-serving.

During Mu'awiyah's rule, the division between the Sunni and Shi'a Muslims continued to grow. Ali's second son, Hussein, tried to win the caliphate from the Umayyads, but he was killed in a battle at Karbala, Iraq. He is still mourned by Shi'a Muslims in observances that mark the anniversary of his death. The Umayyad leaders that followed Mu'awiyah introduced a number of reforms and projects, including irrigation canals, improved agriculture, and a new minted currency. As the Muslim territory continued to expand, the population became more diverse, forever coloring the mosaic that is the Muslim world. Islam continued to spread — from China and Russia to North Africa and Spain — crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries to unite people into a common faith community.

In the middle of the eighth century, a rebellion that would bring down the Umayyad dynasty unfolded. Control of the Muslim empire fell to descendants of the Prophet's uncle, Abbas.

The Abbasids

When the Abbasids took over, they moved the capital of the Muslim empire from Damascus to Baghdad. Here they began structuring and streamlining the administration of the vast Muslim state. The Abbasids emphasized adherence to the Islamic way of life. They created written manuals that codified government procedures, a postal service, and a banking system. They also helped established trade routes and commercial ventures that connected the far corners of the vast Muslim state.

This streamlining of government and expansion of commerce brought great economic gain and prosperity to the land. Thus, more leisure time was available for scholarly and religious pursuits. Islamic civilization reached its peak during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (“Aaron the Upright”) in Baghdad, from 786–809 C.E.

The Golden Age

The massive intellectual achievements that developed during the Abbasid period became the hallmark of what came to be called the Golden Age of Islamic civilization. Baghdad became a center for knowledge and research, literature and science. Intellectuals, writers, and students gathered in centers of learning, the world's first universities, where they made significant contributions to the studies of astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and alchemy. Muslims, Christians, and Jews from all over the world came together to share knowledge, collaborate on research, discuss, and debate. They translated scientific works from Greek and introduced many original ideas and innovations.

The scholarly work that was done during this period helped propel Europe out of the Dark Ages and preserved ancient knowledge for later generations. At this time, the Islamic world was the cradle of civilization, collecting the best minds from all corners of the earth, preserving the world's wisdom, and exploring new theories and discoveries. Chapter 21 takes a closer look at the significant achievements of this period, and the legacy that was left behind.

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