home | history

The Brotherhood of Islam and Succession, to 750 CE

Augustus Caesar didn't create for Rome an institution that would produce political stability. He saw democracy as a source of instability. Political stability would also be problematic following the death of Muhammad the Prophet in 632 AD. In Arabia politics was tribal. Muhammad left behind his vision of Islam as a brotherhood, but Muslim society was changing, Muslims were more than a single tribe, and choosing Muhammad's successor would be problematic.

Members of Muhammad's tribe in Mecca, the Quraysh, argued that Arabs would recognize the authority of Muhammad's successor only if were a Quraysh. Muhammad's only surviving daughter, Fatimah, believed that her husband, Ali, a Quraysh, should be chosen. A quarrel followed and Ali was rejected. Muhammad’s former companions selected one of their own, a Quraysh, Muhammad's father-in-law and companion, the fifty-nine year-old Abu Bakr. They attacked the favorite of a group from Yathrib, Sa'd ibn-Ubada, who was then said to have been killed by Allah. Bakr was declared the successor and was described as the "Commander of the Faithful," the khalifa – anglicized to caliph.

As caliph, Abu Bakr, claimed no religious authority. He lived in a modest household with his wife, receiving no stipend. He conducted government business in the courtyard of what had been Muhammad's mosque, in Yathrib, which meanwhile, had become known as Al Madinah, "the city of the Prophet," to be shortened to Medina.

Arabia had beeneconomically depressed from years of war and, during Bakr'stwo years as caliph, eager Islamic troops hungry for booty moved into Mesopotamia and conquered Palestine and Jerusalem without much difficulty.Resistance by Constantinople's imperial troops was weak. They were poorly led, and they broke and ran.

Bakr was succeeded by a member of the same clan as he: the Umayyad clan, within the Qurayash tribe. The new caliph was Umar, the father of another of Muhammad's wives: Hafsa. It was under Umar that Islam conquered Persia and liberated Egypt from the hated rule of Constantinople's emperors.

In 644, after ten years as caliph,Umar was assassinated by a captive Christian.Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, now about forty-four,stood to succeed Umar, but he refused to promise to follow the policies of Bakr and Umar. The clique that did the choosing selected someone they thought would: Uthman, another member of the Umayyad clan. He was a former merchant and an early convert to Islam who had married two of Muhammad's daughters. Unlike Bakr and Umar, Uthman lived in luxury, but similar to Umar he appointed his relatives as governors to the provinces and to other administrative positions.

In June 656, an army of five hundred religiously inspired Arab warriors from the garrison town of Kufa in Mesopotamia arrived in Medina. They claimed that Uthman had usurped power, that Ali was the Prophet's only legitimate successor and that they were acting on the authority of God.Rather than politics by an establish democratic process, it was the old politics ofviolence that had troubled Rome. Uthman was without a force to protect him. The rebels assassinated him and cut off the fingers of his wife. Frightened relatives of Uthman fled the Medina.The group proclaimed Ali as caliph, and Ali boldly accepted the offer, making himself appear to some as a party to Uthman’s assassination。

Members of the Umayyad clan gathered at Damascus, led by Uthman's cousin, Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria, who made no claim to be caliph but asserted his right to avenge Uthman's murder. Mu'awiyah was in charge of Syria's army, and he had the support of Syrian Christians. Mu'awiyah's influential financial counselor was a Christian, and his favorite wife was both a Christian and an Arab. Mu'awiyah was ruling over an integrated Syria, where Christians and Muslims sometimes worshiped together.

Civil war erupted.Ali was tobe considered caliph from June 656. He led a army against forces allied with Muhammad's widow Alisha, and in November he won this battle. Ten thousand are said to have died, and many blamed Ali for the bloodshed. Many feared Ali's alliance with Bedouin tribesmen. There was a call for arbitration between the warring sides, accompanied by the question why God had allowed Muhammad's followers to make war on each other.Ali looked foolish to some for having accepted arbitration while claiming wisdom and authority in all matters Islamic. Egypt decided in favor of Mu'awiyah. In 660 the city of Jerusalem proclaimed Mu'awiyah caliph. An old-fashioned sect called the Khawarij were opposed to arbitration, and they turned against Ali. They thought that judgment belonged to God alone, a judgment made apparent by victory in battle. They had been defeated militarily, but ignored what was convenient to ignore. They turned to terrorism – not seeing its futility.A Khariji assassinated Ali. The civil war would now end. But the other enemy of the Khariji, Mu'awiyah, was recognized as Caliph. (The Khariji would be around for centuries thereafter, offending Muslims with their bloody extremism, opposed to all caliphs as usurpers, and getting nowhere politically.)

Beginning in 661, Mu'awiyah ruled from Damascus as caliph, with the concern for agreement of an old sheik (chieftain). He met with members of the nobility regularly at his palace. He received delegations from the provinces in order to accept complaints and smooth over differences between tribes. He displayed mild composure and self-control. He used persuasion and compromise, managing the empire through capable governors and maintaining personal relations with local leaders. He gave Arabs participation in rule by creating a council of sheiks as a consultative body with local executive powers, and he created another consultative body representing tribes. He wanted to replace kinship ties with identity to the broader Islamic community.

Mu'awiyahsurrounded himself with splendor and ceremony in an effort to increase the prestige of his office, taking as his model Constantinople's emperors. He reorganized his army, abandoning tribal units and modeled his army on Constantinople's armies. At his army's core were Christians, Muslims, Syrian Arabs and Yemenites. And he began building a new navy.

His son ruled from 680 to 683 and his grandson to 684. Rule remained within the Umayyad clan with three more caliphs, to the year 723.Unity had allowed Islam more expansion, in the East through what today is Afghanistan and much of Pakistan, and in northern Africa to the Atlantic ocean and what today is Portugal and Spain. Expansions left the Arabs with greater wealth. Grants of money and land had been accruing to members of the Umayyad clan, to Muhammad's family and to various other Arab leaders. The wealthy owned more slaves, but money also was spent on subsidies to the blind and the chronically sick, in keeping with the Koran's call for helping the poor. Money was spent on new mosques, roads and hospitals for Islam's growing cities. A pony express connected the center of rule in Damascus with Islam’s distant points.

Arabs were becoming more cosmopolitan. What had been Arab military garrisons were becoming cities, and Arab Muslims were mingling more with non-Arab Muslims. Arabs in conquered territories were taking on civilian occupations.The Arabs were being swallowed by their empire much as Rome had been swallowed by its empire.But the issue of equal treatment for all Muslims remained – another integration problem. Another civil war was on the way, and it would end rule by the Umayyads. Islam was about to change in ways its Arab leaders, despite their successes, had not foreseen.

CONTINUE READING: The Same Disintegration of Empire for Islam's Theocracy

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.