Umayyads - Early Islamic History
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The Umayyads

When Mohammed died in 632 AD, his second wife's father, a rich man named Abu Bakr, took over the leadership of the new religion of Islam, and of the newly united Arab tribes. Mohammed left no sons, and in any case there was no tradition of sons taking over in the Arab world. Abu Bakr, who was pretty old, only lived for two years after becoming Caliph, but he managed to unite the whole Arabian Peninsula under Islam.

There was a rebellion of the Arab tribes after Mohammed's death, which we call the Ridda. With their leader gone, the tribes wanted to go back to being independent. Abu Bakr took an army and succeeded in destroying the Ridda and bringing those Arab tribes back under Islamic control.

Almost immediately after becoming the Caliph, or ruler, in 634 AD, the second Caliph Umar led Arab raids into both the Roman and the Sassanid empires. Both raids were very successful. The Arabs, who had been doing most of the fighting for the Romans and the Sassanians, knew that neither the Romans nor the Sassanians had good armies anymore. Umar was assassinated in 644 AD, and succeeded by Uthman. Encouraged by these early victories, Uthman and his army organized a real campaign, and by 651 AD they took over most of West Asia, from the Mediterranean coast to eastern Iran.

Uthman was assassinated in 656, and succeeded by Ali, who had a somewhat more radical view of the Islamic faith. Under Ali, the soldiers of the Islamic Empire fought their way through Egypt and North Africa, and although Ali was assassinated in 661, the armies continued and then crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to attack Spain in 710 AD.

Ribat
A Ribat, or fort, in North Africa

Kairouan, the fourth holy city of Islam, was founded in the late 600s AD.
As the Arabs made their way through North Africa, they built small forts to guard against attack, especially along the coast. These forts are called Ribats. Many of them are still there today. This is one from a small village in Tunisia called Lamta (notice the goats grazing near it).


Another Ribat

After the death of Ali, there was a bitter religious and political struggle between the followers of a more traditional Islamic faith, who were called Sunnis, and the more radical followers of Ali, who were called Shiites (SHE-eye-ts). The Sunnis won, and established the Umayyad dynasty, with its capital at Damascus in Syria.

Dome of the Rock
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, the Umayyads built the first major mosque, the Dome of the Rock, on the site of Solomon's Temple (and the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac). They began building it in 687 AD and finished it in 691 AD.

octagonal white building with gold roof
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Eventually the Umayyad armies met people they couldn't beat. In the West, the Romans stopped Islamic attacks against Constantinople in 674-678 and again in 717 AD. The Frank Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, turned back a series of Islamic raids into France in 732 AD. But the Umayyad dynasty didn't last much longer. In 750 AD, the Abbasid family killed off all the remaining Umayyads but one, and took over as the Abbasid Caliphs. The one surviving Umayyad man fled to safety in Spain, where he established the Umayyad dynasty of Spain.

Learn by doing: playing chess
More about Umayyad Spain
More about the Abbasids

Bibliography and further reading about the Umayyads:

More about the Abbasids
More Islamic Empire
Quatr.us home

Costumes and learning materials:

Dress up in a Caliph Abu Bakr costume and act out his fight with the Ridda.

Put together a 3-D model of the Dome of the Rock, built under the Umayyad dynasty.

Large wall map of the medieval Islamic empires


Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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