Umayyads - Early Islamic History
Welcome to Study Guides!

The Umayyads

October 2016 - 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.

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 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

LIMITED TIME OFFER FOR TEACHERS: Using this article with your class? Show us your class page where you're using this article, and we'll send you a free subscription so all your students can use Study Guides with no distractions! (Not a teacher? Paid subscriptions are also available for just $16/year!)
Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Study Guides
  • Publisher:
  • Date Published:
Did you find what you needed? Ask your teacher to link to this page so other people can use it too! Send it in and win a "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article

Does your class page honor diversity, celebrate feminism, and support people of color, LBGTQ people, and people with disabilities? Let us know, and we'll send you a Diversity Banner you can proudly display!
Looking for more? is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 28 April, 2017