At the end of the Pious Caliphate and the abdication by Hasan, Muawiah proclaimed himself the new Khalifah and moved the capital from Kufa to Damascus. From that day on till the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate 89 years later, all Khalifahs came from the House of Umayyah. In each case the reigning Khalifah nominated his successor from his own family. Thus the system of Khilafat that started with Abu Bakr as a democratic institution became, under the Umayyads, a dynasty and a monarchy.
The Umayyads also took over the Public Treasury and made it into a family possession. Similarly, the Shura or the Consultative Body set up under the Pious Caliphate disappeared and free criticism of the state policy was no longer tolerated. While the Pious Khalifahs used to live a very simple life, the Umayyad Khalifahs lived in castles and palaces. The practice of drinking and gambling was re introduced in the society and a new era of worldly pleasures and comforts dawned on the empire of Islam.
During the reign of the Umayyad Caliphate, the borders of the Islamic State were further extended in all directions and the Muslim world produced some of its best generals during this period. Uqbah conquered North Africa and founded the famous city of Kairouan; Qutaybia crossed the Oxus River and brought Transoxiana under Muslim rule; Muhammad bin Qasim took the flag of Islam into Sindh, a province of India; while Tariq bin Ziyad and Moosa bin Nusair marched into Spain, annexing this area to the Islamic State.
With the enlargement of the empire, Umayyads introduced a number of reforms and made numerous innovations and improvements to the administrative system.
There were 14 Khalifahs in all in the Umayyad dynasty. Some of these only reigned for a year or so. The notable Umayyad Khalifahs include Muawiah, Abdul Malik, Walid I, Omar bin Abdul Aziz and Hisham. Omar bin Abdul Aziz is also considered by many Muslims to be the Mujaddid or Reformer of the first century of Islam.
With the rising power of the House of Abbas, the Umayyad Caliphate came to a close in the year 750 A.D. Some members of the House of Umayyah went to Spain and there they founded first an Emirate and later on the Caliphate. We will read more about this in the section on the Umayyad Caliphate of Spain and now we move on to the Abbasid Caliphate.
Towards the end of the Umayyad Caliphate, the people started raising charges of worldliness and neglect of Islamic principles against the Khalifahs. Also, people started showing sympathy and devotion to the Hashemite, the clan of the Holy Prophet. Meantime, the descendants of Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet, started pressing claims to Khilafat. They united with the descendants of Ali to emphasize the rights of the House of Hashim. Finally, a coalition was formed by the Abbasids, the Shiites and the Khurasanians, which opposed the existing Khilafat of the Umayyads and promised a return to orthodox religion and the forming of a religious government.
With the murder of Marwan II, the last of the Umayyad Khalifahs, Abdul Abbas was proclaimed the new Khalifah and the system of Caliphate passed from the House of Umayyah to the House of Abbas. The first act of the new Abbasid Khalifah was to undertake wholesale killing of the members of the Umayyad clan. He also moved the capital of the empire from Damascus to Baghdad.
The authority of the new Abbasid Khalifah, however, was not recognized throughout the Islamic empire. Spain and large parts of Africa remained outside the Abbasid rule and in the eastern part of the empire, independent dynasties arose.
The Abbasid Caliphate lasted over five hundred years. Some notable figures in this period were: Al Mansoor, Haroon al Rashid and al Mamoon. Around the year 946 A.D., the Buwaihids came to power and dominated the Khilafat for the next hundred years. From this time on, the Abbasid Khalifahs were only figureheads and the real power was wielded first by the Buwaihids and later on by the Saljuqs. It was during the period of the Saljuqs that the Crusades were fought against the Christian empires of Europe.
Throughout the Crusades, the Khalifahs of Baghdad remained engrossed in their internal struggles and passed their days idly and extravagantly. This mode of life continued till the capture of Baghdad by Halakoo Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. Halakoo Khan devastated the city of Baghdad and killed al Musta’sim, the last Khalifah of the Abbasid Dynasty, in 1258 A.D.
When the Abbasid Caliphate replaced the Umayyad dynasty, the period of conquests came to a close and the empire of Islam entered a period of civilization. Fields of education, music, agriculture, architecture, painting, calligraphy, science and literature were patronized by the Abbasid Khalifahs and received their special attention. The Abbasid reign, therefore, produced some great Muslim scientists and philosophers, some of whom are mentioned below:
When the first Abbasid Khalifah started the massacre of Umayyad dynasty, a member of the House of Umayyah, Abdur Rahman, escaped to Spain. There he established himself as a ruler and founded the Umayyad dynasty in Spain.
For 173 years (756 929 AD), the Umayyads ruled in Spain under the titles of Amirs and Sultans. Then, in the year 929 AD, Abdur Rahman III assumed the titles of Khalifah and Amir al Mu’mineen, and thus laid the foundation of the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain.
Over the next 102 years, there were nine Khalifahs in this dynasty but only the first three had long reigns. These were:
Abdur Rahman III
Hakam II, and
By the year 1031 AD, the Caliphate system ended in Spain and the country plunged into total anarchy. Out of this disorder emerged a number of small kingdoms. These petty kingdoms continued till Ferdinand conquered Cordova in 1236 AD and Seville in 1248 AD
The period of Umayyad Caliphate in Spain, or Andalus as the Arabs called it, was one of the most glorious in the history of Islam. Both, Abdur Rahman III and his son Hakam II were great patrons of science and literature. Muslim Spain produced some great people in these fields, some of whom are listed below:
Spanish women were not confined to house work, either, and contributed much to the greatness of the Muslim civilization in Spain. Some of the well known names of Muslim women in Spain include:
Nazkun, Zaynab, Hamda, Hafsa, al Kalzyha, Safiyah, Maria, A’isha, Hasana, Umm ul Ula, al Walladha, al Aruziah, Marium, Asma, Umm ul Hina, Itimad, Busina
The Fatimids claimed themselves to be the direct descendents of Ali and Fatimah. According to them, Ubaydullah al Mahdi the founder of the Fatimid Caliphate was the great great grandson of Ismail, the son of the sixth Imam Jafar al Sadiq.
After the death of Imam Jafar al Sadiq, a schism appeared among the Shiites. A majority recognized Moosa al Kazim as the 7th Imam and these Shias are known as the “Twelvers”. The others recognized Muhammad al Mahdi, son of Ismail, as the 7th Imam and these people are known as the Ismailis.
Ubaydullah used to be an Ismailite Imam in Syria and was invited to head the North African Ismailite movement. He accepted the invitation, declaring himself the great great grandson of Ismail. In 909 AD, he reached Tunis, the capital of the Aghlabids and drove Ziadatullah, the last Aghlabid ruler, out of the country. After this he proclaimed himself Imam under the title of Ubaydullah al Mahdi and thus established the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa.
There were 14 Khalifahs in the Fatimid dynasty who ruled North Africa for about 262 years. The last of the Fatimid Khalifahs, al Azid, was dethroned by Salahuddin the Great, the famous warrior of the Crusades.
The contribution of the Fatimids to the progress of science and literature was not as great as under the Abbasids or the Umayyads of Spain. Nevertheless, a number of the Fatimid Khalifahs patronized various fields of learning and the Khilafat produced its share of some well known Muslim scholars. Many schools and colleges were established by the Khalifahs. The famous al Azhar academy was established by Khalifah al Aziz.
Generally speaking, the period of the Fatimid Caliphate was a period of prosperity for the country. Most of the Fatimid Khalifahs were liberal, considerate to their subjects, great warriors and good administrators. The administration of the Fatimids was essentially patterned after the Abbasids. The Khalifah was the spiritual as well as the temporal head of the State.
Like other religions in the world, Islam has its share of religious dissension and sects. At numerous times during the course of Islamic history, political events and ideological and theological issues divided the Muslim community into various groups which then started to identify with specific causes. At present there are more than 72 sects in Islam.
Basically, there are two main divisions in Islam: the Sunnis and the Shias. All other sects developed from these two main streams. To give an idea of their relative proportions, about 85% of all “Muslims” living today belong to the Sunni stream of Islam while about 15% belong to the Shia stream. Some important sects of Islam and their relationship with the two main streams are shown below:
Sunni Stream of Islam:
Ahle Hadith (Traditionists)
Shia Stream of Islam:
Seveners: Nizaris or Ismailis, Musta’lis or Bohras
As mentioned above, the main body of Muslims comprises the Sunnis who accept the authority and the bona fide status of the first four “Pious” Khalifahs and the comprehensive system of Islamic law, the Shari’a. There are four distinct orthodox law schools recognized by the Sunnis. These are: the Malikis, Hanafis, Shafi and Hanbalis. These schools are based on the interpretation of Islamic law by the four well known Islamic jurists and theologians of the first three centuries of Islam: Imam Malik bin Anas, Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Muhammad bin Idris al Shafi and Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal. Although the founders of the four schools of law differ significantly on many matters related to the regulations of worship and the law, there is a certain cohesion within the Sunni community which allows this variance to exist without destroying the fundamental unity of beliefs in this stream of Islam.
The Wahhab sect rose in the middle of the eighteenth century within the Arabian Peninsula. The Wahhabi movement was started by Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (1703-1793 AD) who was a native of Najd, a province in north central Arabia. He preached a strict puritanical Islam which forbade the veneration of holy places, religious relics and holy men. Amir Muhammad ibne Sa’ud of Dar’iyyah accepted Wahhabi beliefs and his descendents, the House of Sa’ud, did much to propagate and establish Wahhabi doctrines in Arabia and surrounding areas. During the spread of the political influence of the House of Sa’ud, numerous armed conflicts occurred with the Ottoman Empire of Turkey.
The Ahmadiyya movement was founded in 1889 as a sect of Islam by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, India. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad claimed to be the Mujaddid of the fourteenth century of Islam and the Promised Messiah and the Promised Mahdi whose advent had been foretold in the Hadith of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. The Ahmadis generally follow the Hanafi school of law.
We will read about the beliefs of Ahmadi Muslims and the history of this movement in some detail in Section 5.
The Shia stream of Islam traces its origin in political developments dating back to the period of Uthman, the third successor of the Holy Prophet. At the death of Omar, the second Khalifah, a council of six persons was entrusted with the task of electing the new Khalifah. The backers and supporters of Ali commonly referred to as the partisans of Ali, showed visible disappointment at the outcome and called the election a “conspiracy” to withhold the Khilafat from the Prophet’s own family. This was the first seed of dissension which appeared in Islam and eventually divided the otherwise united community.
During the reign of the Umayyad Khalifahs, the supporters of the House of Ali led many unsuccessful religious revolts. They never recognized the authority of the Umayyad Khalifahs and followed their own Imams who were the direct descendents of Ali. The Shias eventually split into many sects, four of which are noteworthy.
Zayd was the son of Ali Zayn al Abidin, the grandson of Hussain and the great grandson of Ali bin Abu Talib. Zayd was killed in an armed conflict against the Umayyad Khalifah, Hisham. Since his death, his supporters and followers broke away from the mainstream of Shias and became a distinct sect by themselves. Of all the Shias, Zaydis are the closest to Sunnis in their beliefs. Today the Zaydi Shias are mostly found in Yemen.
These comprise the largest group of the Shias today and exhibit most of the classical Shia doctrines. The Twelver Shias are known by this name because they follow the twelve Imams, all belonging to the House of Ali. Their twelfth Imam, Muhammad al Mahdi, is believed by them to be still alive and in hiding. The Shias believe in the messianic return of this Imam in the latter days of Islam.
According to the Shias’ belief, Ali inherited all the spiritual abilities of the Holy Prophet and was thus the only rightful successor of his. The Shias, therefore, reject the Khilafats of Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman and that of the Umayyad dynasty that followed.
The Shias do not accept many Ahadith of the Holy Prophet which were transmitted by A’isha, the wife of the Holy Prophet, whom they consider an enemy of Islam. The Shia also differ from the Sunni Muslims in many other areas such as the regulations governing the ablutions, Adhan, Prayer, pilgrimage and the declaring of one’s faith. The Shias also retain the pre-Islamic custom of legal temporary marriage for the sake of pleasure, called mutah.
One important difference between the Sunnis and the Shias concerns the functions and status of the Khalifah. Shias believe that the physical descent of the Khalifah directly from Prophet Muhammad gave him divine endowment of wisdom, saintliness and grace. The Shias also consider the Khalifahs infallible and impeccable and regard them with a deeper veneration than do the Sunnis. The Sunnis looked at the Khalifah as a popular choice of the believers and did not associate any supernatural powers with him. The Sunnis believed that the Khalifah must be from the Prophet’s tribe, the Quraysh. The Shias chose their Khalifahs (or Imams) from a still narrower circle of the Prophet’s immediate family.
Today, the Twelver Shias are predominant in Iran. Outside Iran, there are large Shia communities in Iraq, Pakistan, India and Lebanon.
The division of the Shias into the Twelver and the Sevener sects occurred after their sixth Imam, Jafar al Sadiq. At the death of Jafar al Sadiq in 765 AD, the Twelvers made his younger brother, Moosa alKazim, their seventh Imam. A dissenting group, later called the Seveners, followed the line of Jafar al Sadiq’s direct descendents. Since Jafar al Sadiq’s own son, Ismail, had predeceased him, the Seveners recognized the new Imam in the son of Ismail named Muhammad al Mahdi. For this reason the Sevener Shias are also referred to as the Ismailis.
The Ismailis developed highly esoteric doctrines around their Imam which could not be easily understood by the common man. The Ismailis continued to recognize their own Imams for the next 144 years, right through the period of the Abbasid Caliphate. Then in 909 AD, an Ismailis Imam by the name of Ubaydullah overthrew the Aghlabid dynasty centered in Tunis, took on the name of Ubaydullah al Mahdi and established himself as the first Khalifah of the Fatimid dynasty in North Africa. In this way the institution of Khilafat was also established among the Ismailis.
Then at the death of the Fatimid Khalifah al Mustansir in 1095 AD, the Ismailis divided into two sects. The ones who followed the younger son of al Mustansir by the name of al Musta’li who became the next Khalifah, are called Musta’lis. The others who followed the elder son by the name of al Nizar, who was imprisoned, are called Nizaris.
The Nizaris took their leader al Nizar into a mountain fortress and for a number of years led a life of secrecy and terror. They were notorious for carrying out well planned assassinations of their enemies and opponents. In 1817 AD, one Nizari Ismaili Imam was given the title of Agha Khan by Qajar Shah of Iran. This Imam later moved to India where his da’is or missionaries had considerable success in converting the local Hindu population to their doctrines. Since then the title of Agha Khan has been retained by the Nizari Ismailis for their Imams.
The Musta’lis continued to follow the direct line of al-Musta’li. But the visible line of Musta’li Imams ended in 1130 AD when al-Musta’lis son, al Amr, died leaving only an infant son by the name of al Tayyeb. The Fatimid Caliphate continued through the new Khalifah al Haftz who was the grandson of al-Mustansir. But since Al Hafiz and the other Khalifahs that followed him were not in direct line of descent from al Musta’li, the Musta’li Shias did not recognize them as their Imams.
According to the Musta’s belief, the infant son of al Amir is in hiding and is considered by them as the invisible Imam. The Musta’fs of Yemen managed to convert large numbers of Hindus in Gujrat, a province in western India. These converts are known in India and Pakistan as Bohras.