Mu’awiya became Caliph over all Islam and all the leading Meccan families had now emigrated to Syria. It is now the Quarraish of Mecca, the one time opponents of Muhammad who govern Islam from Damascus. The conquered Syrians had only received a faint impression of Islam, far stronger was their attachment to their Greco-Latin civilisation. They had willingly gone over to Islam because their conversion had enabled them to enjoy the same rights and privileges as their conquerors. They kept their own customs and mentality, and by virtue of their knowledge and education were able to hold administrative positions and govern on behalf of the Arab conqueror.
The intellectual culture of the Syrians was far in advance of that of the Arabs. In the Damascus of that day the greater part of the Greek and Latin authors were known; many people read them in the original languages, while numerous Syriac translations placed them within the reach of the masses. Syrian architects, by combining Greek with Persian art, had created what became known as Byzantine art. It was they who constructed the first domes; that of Hagia Santa Sophia (532) is the work of the Syrian professor of geometry Anthemius of Thralles who collaborated with Isidore of Miletus. What then occurred at this time was a Greco-Latin civilisation as assimilated by the Syrians but transmitted by the Arabs.
Those Arabs who had emigrated to Syria came completely under this foreign influence. They were at once captivated by the science of luxury, of comfort and of elegance seen at its best in this refined society. The comfortable houses, the baths, the choice food, the dress, the perfumes, the pleasures of sense filled them with delight of which they had no previous conception. They made no resistance to the temptation to imitate the Syrians and live as they did. The example was set in their caliph Mu‘awiyah.
From the time when he was provincial governor of Egypt, under the Caliphate of ‘Umar, he had adopted the manners of the country. The Muslim court came to resemble the Byzantine court as it copied its elegance, luxury and pleasures. This Arab-Syrian society formed a remarkable contrast to that of Medina; in the latter it was a society such as Muhammad had imagined following the strict injunctions of the Prophet; in Syria it was a Byzantine society behind a Muslim façade. The violent strife that had formerly divided Islam through the rivalry of Mecca and Medina was now followed by the exasperated hostility of Medina against Damascus.
The Medina party set their hopes on Hassan, the eldest son of Ali, who had been proclaimed Caliph at Kufa. He had spent the best part of his youth in making and un-making marriages; about a hundred are enumerated. His party compelled him to take the field of battle and constant pressure upon him caused him to come to some arrangement with Mu’awiyah. Finally he agreed to give up his claim to the Caliphate in consideration of a magnificent pension.
Mu’awiyah, relieved of the anxiety of civil war continued his life of luxury and entertainments. His expensive lifestyle needed to be supported and so he set out to get it out of the conquered peoples. He even undertook new conquests and in 674 he when he reached the shores of Morocco he rode into the sea, and when his horse could go no further, cried; “God of Muhammad, if I were not held back by these waves, I would go on and carry the glory of thy name to the confines of the universe”(Ibn Abd al-Hakem died 870 “History of the Conquest of Egypt, North Africa and Spain).
Before Mu’awiya died in 680 to avoid the election which had previously been customary to hold, he appointed his son Yazid as successor.
Yazid (AH 60/679)
Yazid, the son and successor of Mu’awiya, retained a life style of that which he had been brought up to in the desert. He despised the pomp of ceremonies, the etiquette of courts and loved the pleasures of food, wine and hunting, he believed the basics of his religion but any strict observance of the Quranic commandments was not expected of him. He was looked upon by the Old Muslims of Medina as a horrible pagan. While the Syrians saw in him someone whom they proposed to tame. In his early days as Caliph the Hijaz and Iraq revolted. The peasants of Iraq wanted their liberty, they loathed the Arabs and longed to escape from the necessity of paying the heavy tribute demanded by the conqueror. The people of Hijaz claimed to conserve the right of proclaiming the sovereign, in the hope of nominating one of themselves, and of keeping the Caliphate at Medina. Yazid had forced on them governors of inconceivable brutality, such as Zaid, his adopted brother who, accompanied by spies and executioners stamped out every show of insubordination.
After the death of Hasan the opponents of Yazid pinned their hopes on the second son of Ali, Hussain. He took up the struggle but was drawn into an ambush and killed in 680 at Karbala.
Still defiant in Medina, Abdullah ibn Zubair proclaimed himself as Caliph. In an act of madness in 683, Yazid sent a considerable force to deal with the rebels and attacked Medina. Catapults rained stones on the city, the Ka’aba was set on fire, and the Black Stone was broken into three parts; the city was handed over for pillage for three days; the mosque, containing Muhammad’s tomb was turned into a stable for the horses of the cavalry, and women and children were ill-treated, massacred or taken into slavery. The former mobility of Mecca, who had emigrated to Syria, avenged themselves upon the new religious aristocracy of Medina.
With Mecca in imminent danger of capture, word came that Yazid had died. The Umayyad commander, fearing rebellion in Syria, lifted the siege and returned to Damascus.
Further Caliph’s of the Umayyad Dynasty
A fresh period of anarchy broke out through the various provinces of Islam, each one claiming the right to choose thr Caliph. After the withdrawal of Yazid’s army from Mecca, Abdullah Ibn Zubair was proclaimed caliph in the Hijaz, Syria chose the son of Yazid, Mu’awiya II (AH 64/683), who only reigned for three months, while Iraq, Mesopotamia and Egypt also had their fair share of nominations.
Marwan, formerly the secretary for foreign affairs under Uthman became Caliph in Syria (AH64/683) but was poisoned, he was then followed by his son Abd al-Malik (684). Once again dissension broke out in the eastern provinces of the Empire with the Hijaz remaining in a chronic state of revolt against Damascus. In particular Abdullah Ibn Zubair was directing the movement. Abd al-Malik laid siege to the city of Mecca for eight months in 692 but finally Abd al-Malik surrendered. His head was sent as a trophy to Damascus and his body nailed to a gibbet upside down (Sylvestre de Sacy, op.cit). Damascus remained the capital of the Empire, while Mecca and Medina had to resign themselves to being no more than religious centres.
The rebellion in Iraq was crushed by his general al-Hajaj, the same general who had conquered Mecca, he was appointed governor of Persia in 694. From the pulpit in the mosque at Kufa he exclaimed, “0 people of al-Kufah! Certain am I that I see heads ripe for cutting, and verily I am the man to do it. Methinks I see blood between the turbans and the beards,” One hundred twenty thousand people are said to have been killed by al Hajjaj before order was restored.
The faith of the Caliphs had become blunted as a too rigid piety came to be looked down on. Yazid drank wine in spite of the express prohibition of the Quran and Abd al-Malik struck coins bearing his own image girded around with a sword. Sects who borrowed their ideas from foreign religions, sprang up on all sides interpreting the Muslim dogmas in a hundred different ways.
The sixth caliph Al Walid 1 (AH 86/705), son of Abd al-Malik was raised to the Caliphate without opposition and began the conquest of north Africa and Spain, the latter entire peninsula was brought into subjection by 718. Al-Walid’s conquests also included part of India so that Islam now reigned from Spain to the Himalayas.
The Muslim conquest continued from. Spain to France. After several successful battles in France during the years 720-731 the Muslims made their great effort to conquer the whole of the country. They penetrated as far north as Tours where they were met by Charles Martel and his Frankish army. After facing each other for a week, the Muslims attacked the Franks who stood shoulder to shoulder. The light cavalry of the Arabs was not able to penetrate the solid walls of soldiers that barred its way. The Muslim cavalry was thrown back with heavy losses. On the third and last day of the battle Abd al Rahman, the Muslim general, was killed. That night the emirs debated what they should do. They recognized the strength of the Franks. Their lines of supply were extremely extended and help was far away. They decided to retreat. In the middle of the night they struck camp and departed. When the Franks awoke in the morning the Muslim army was nowhere to be seen.
Thus ended one of the decisive battles of history. The advance of the Muslims into Western Europe was permanently checked. They were now confined to southern France and to Spain. The leader of the Franks was Charles Martel (the Hammer) his name will always be associated with this great victory.
The Muslims did not immediately leave France. It was not until 759 that they abandoned Narbonne, their military base in Southern France. They remained in Spain until 1492, in which year they were finally expelled from the soil of Western Europe. The Muslim threat to the eastern part of Europe continued to nearly 1700.
The Umayyad Muslim Empire was greater in extent than the empire of Alexander had been and almost as extensive as the Roman Empire but, by reason of its size, it was fragile, for it ruled over people who were too dissimilar to coalesce in a stable empire and the rapidity of the conquest had left no time for them to adapt themselves to the Islamic discipline. To administer this vast empire would have required men of rare energy and superior intelligence but this was very much wanting.
The final period of the Umayyad Dynasty
The governor of Khorasan Abu Muslim, a Persian, raised the people in revolt and hoisted the black flag of the Abbassides on his palace and proclaimed first Muhammad ibn al-‘Abbas to be caliph and then on his death his son Ibrahim.
The Arabs who were in Khorasan were unable to stop the rebellion because they were divided among themselves. Abu Muslim’s armies went westward and were met by the last Umavvad Caliph, Marwan II, in the battle of the Great Zab in 750. Marwan was defeated and that was the end of the house of Umayyad.
The Abbasids took severe reprisals upon the vanquished, and as the prophet’s descendants avenged themselves at last upon those whom they had always considered usurpers. The relations and favourites of the former Caliph were massacred without mercy. At Damascus there were numerous executions, in one day alone ninety Umayyad leaders were beheaded. The bloodthirsty reprisals won for their author, Abu al-‘Abbas, the surname Al Saffah, the bloodthirsty.
Thus came to an end the Umayyad dynasty. Islam owed much to them for it was they who built up its power; Islam may possibly have gained but civilisation certainly lost.
Abridged from ‘Islam and the Psychology of the Muslim’ by Andre Servier