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The Umayyad Dynasty

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Umayyad Dynasty

Civil war between the Islamic factions culminated in the accession of the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, in 661. The Umayyad family ruled from the ancient city of Damascus. They established Arabic as the official language of the culture, and they began minting coins. The economy flourished under their rule, with most of the profits coming from international trade. Under the Umayyads, the Arabian Empire expanded and Islam spread through a sizeable territory. With this large empire came new methods of administration, resembling the Roman and Byzantine bureaucracies. In addition, the building of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem issued a direct challenge to both Judaism and Christianity.

The Arabian culture was largely a nomadic warrior culture. Like all nomadic warriors in history, the Arabs survived largely by plunder. When Islam created a unified Arabic realm, it eliminated the possibility of plunder within that realm; Muslims were forbidden to attack and rob other Muslims. The habit of roaming and subduing other tribes, combined with the powerful drive to convert non- Muslims to the new faith, caused the Arabs to expand their sphere of influence.

The Muslims conquered Egypt, Persia, and Syria between 632 and 649. Having conquered Egypt, they proceeded westward along the northern coast of Africa, then crossed the Mediterranean into Spain. They penetrated Europe as far as Poitiers in France; a great battle at this site halted their advance in that direction for good. They would remain in Spain, however, holding sway over the entire Iberian peninsula (except for the extreme northern coastal area) for the next seven hundred years (see Figure 9.1).

Islamic Empire Spread of Islam to AD 750 Map

There were various reasons for the Arabian success in conquering territory and converting peoples. Throughout the region, there was widespread discontent with current regimes, and people were often glad to exchange unpopular rulers for new ones who might prove more capable and perhaps even more benevolent. Islam preached the equality of all believers and the importance of rule by popular consent; these concepts must have appealed to many people at the bottom of a rigid class structure. Additionally, the Arabs had greater fighting skills than most of the peoples they conquered.

The downfall of the Umayyads was rooted in minority objections to their right to rule; their opponents claimed that they did not rule with the consent of the entire community, which was a serious objection because Islam is based on consensus.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Rise of Islam and African Civilization to AD 1000 Practice Test

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