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The Umayyad caliph Muawiya on a silver coin

Islamic government: The Umayyad caliph Muawiyah

Caliphs and viziers

From the beginning, the Islamic Empire was a monarchy like the Roman Empire or the Sassanian Empire before it. One man ruled the Islamic Empire.  In the beginning, people called this man a caliph (KAY-liff), and his assistant was a vizier (vizz-EER). Those were Arabic words for leaders and their assistants.

What is a monarchy?
Roman government
Sassanian government
All our Islamic Empire articles

Governors and city councils

silver coin of Toregene

Coin of Toregene

Under the caliphs and viziers were governors for each province of the Islamic Empire. But each town continued to have its own city council, too. Most of these rulers were men, because the Islamic government didn’t usually allow women to get political power. But women did get power sometimes, as Tamta, for example, ruled her town Ahlat in the 1200s AD, and Queen Toregene ruled the Mongols in the 1200s with her vizier Fatima.

More about Toregene

Islamic government: Sultans and Khans

Later on, as the Islamic Empire broke up into smaller kingdoms, these less-powerful rulers kept the title of caliph. The Umayyads in Spain had a caliph, and the Fatimids in Egypt did too (though the real power in later Fatimid Egypt was in the hands of the army generals).

Who were the Umayyads?
And the Fatimids?
Saladin and the Ayyubids
The Seljuk Turks

A Seljuk fort near Istanbul at Alanya, built in 1226 AD

A Seljuk fort near Istanbul at Alanya, built in 1226 AD

But by around 1000 AD, new rulers tended to be called “sultan” instead, which was a Turkish word for a ruler. The Ayyubid and Seljuk rulers, the Hafsids and the Marinids called themselves Sultans. The Mongols called their leader a Khan (KANN). After the collapse of the Mongols, the Ottomans called their leader a Sultan again. But the assistants were still viziers. These viziers were very powerful men (they were nearly all men), and they often were really more powerful than the caliphs or sultans.

Who were the Mongols?
The Ottoman Empire

The walled city of Baghdad, not long after al Tabari

The city of Baghdad, not long after al Tabari

At first the Islamic Empire paid for roads and soldiers with the plunder that its soldiers took when they captured more land. When they stopped conquering new places, about 750 AD, they had to find a new way to raise money, and like other empires they began to collect taxes. At first, the Islamic caliphs only collected taxes from men and women who weren’t Muslims – from BuddhistsZoroastriansManichaeansChristians, and Jews.

What are taxes?
More about mawali

Even once these people did convert, the Islamic government kept on trying to tax just them, calling them mawali – Muslims who weren’t Arabs. But once most people had converted to Islam – partly to get out of paying taxes – the government had to start taxing Arabs too.

Learn by doing: watch the movie Aladdin
More about the mawali
More about the Abbasids

Bibliography and further reading about Islamic government:

More about the Abbasids
And more about Empires
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