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Islam, Expansion and Division to 1260

The end of Islam's civil war after 660 allowed further expansion by Muslim armies possible. During the caliphate of Mu'awiyah (from 661) the Muslims began to expand with raids from Egypt westward across the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. Constantinople sent its military there to defend what it thought was its territory, and in 664 the Muslims defeated them. Constantinople's army withdrew.

Responding to Berber hostility in against Muslim forces, Islam's armies began making assaults against them. And in 671 Mu'awiyah resettled fifty thousand families east of Persia: in Khurasan. From Khurasan, Arab men were obliged to join annual expeditions eastward across Oxus River from which they returned only during winter months. These expeditions brought booty to the Arabs and extended Muslim rule into Transoxiana, where principalities became Arab protectorates.

In 672 the Muslims took control of the island of Rhodes, which they used as a base of operations in their continuing war against Constantinople. In 674 they took the island of Crete. From the eastern Mediterranean the Arabs sent frequent raiding parties deep into what today is Turkey. And beginning in 674, Mu'awiyah laid siege to Constantinople. Constantinople held out. Its fortifications were too strong, and the Christian defenders used "Greek fire" (a mixture of naphtha, quicklime, sulphur and pitch) against their ships. In 677 Mu'awiyah abandoned the siege and again made peace with Constantinople – a thirty years' truce.

By 699 the Arabs had extended their rule in North Africa as far west as Tangier. Their intended policy was to leave a garrison in the conquered areas and to leave local landowners, chiefs and headmen as authorities in their villages, subservient of course to the conquerors. And for the sake of order, governors were sent to oversee the collection of taxes and to supervise the distribution of pay to the occupying Arab warriors.

In the year 700, Islam was poised for more expansion. Mu'awiyah's successors wanted to maintain the identity of the conquerors by keeping them segregated from the conquered, including the conquered who had converted to Islam. But by the year 700 non-Arab Muslims outnumbered Arab Muslims, and despite resistance from Arab leaders, non-Arab Muslims were becoming a greater force within Islam.

In 711, from around Tangier in North Africa, an army of about 7,000 Berbers converts and 300 Arabs crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and began a conquest of Spain, made easy by disunity there. Spanish towns opened their gates to the conquerors, and Jews welcomed them as liberators. By 717, the combined Muslim force had destroyed and the Visigoth kingdom and had crossed the Pyrenees to the border of what today is France. (The Muslims would be defeated at Poitiers in France by Charles Martel in 732.)

Change under the Ummayad caliphs

All of the expansion left the Arabs with greater wealth. Grants of money and land had been accruing to members of the Umayyad clan. The wealthy owned more slaves. Money was spent on helping the poor and 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.

What had been Arab military garrisons were becoming cities. Arab Muslims were mingling more with non-Arab Muslims. Arabs in conquered territories were abandoning their old role as occupation soldiers and working at civilian occupations. Arab Muslims were mingling with non-Arabs Muslims. Those having converted to Islam were adopting the Arab language, and they were demanding respect. The Arabs were being swallowed by their empire not unlike Rome had been swallowed by its empire.

The caliph from 685 to 705 was Marwan. His son Walid (who ruled to 715) extended Islam's empire eastward. In response to the plundering of Arab ships by pirates near the mouth of the Indus River, the Muslims launched an expedition with six thousand horses and an equal number of camels, through southern Persia and into the southern Indus Valley. Muslim armies stationed in Khurasan went northeast, overrunning the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand and further northeast to what is now China's border.

Walid's son, Sulayman, caliph from 715-717, saw absurdity in Islam having conquered from Spain to China while nearby Constantinople had not yet been conquered. In 716 he sent his army and navy to begin another siege at Constantinople. But his forces were unable to penetrate Constantinople's fortifications. Angry while on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he invited his courtiers to use their swords on four hundred persons recently captured during the fighting at Constantinople, and the courtiers beheaded them as Sulayman looked on.

The caliph from 717–20 was Umar II, another of Walid's sons. Britannica describes him as pious and as attempting "to preserve the integrity of the Muslim Umayyad caliphate by emphasizing religion and a return to the original principles of the Islamic faith." He favored integration of Arab and non-Arab Muslims and established laws toward equality between the two. He sought reconciliation with those who had supported the caliph Ali, the Shi'a. He tried to address economic grievances. He disbanded his harem and began practicing frugality. He made his wife give her jewelry to the public treasury.

Umar gave up on extending Islam's empire, but his successor, his younger brother Yazid II, was different. He enjoyed luxury and pursued pleasure. He reversed Umar's reforms and returned to a policy of economic inequality and segregation between Arabs and non-Arabs Muslims. Mesopotamians, Berbers, Egyptians, and Shi'a who did not want a return to the old ways were embittered. Under Yazid, anti-Umayyad sentiment groups began to spread.

The new caliph from 743, Walid II, aroused opposition with his reputed drinking, singing and immorality. He angered many in his extended family. In April 744 he was defeated and killed by the forces under a relative, Sulayman ibn Hisham. In 744, Walid was succeeded by his son, Yazid III. In October, Yazid III died from what has been described as a brain tumor. The governor of Armenia and grandson of the big-daddy Umayyad caliph from 685 to 705, Marwan I, arrived in Damascus with an army of his own and assumed power. In December 744 he became Marwan II.

Marwan II tried to enforce his authority, which intensified frustrations. Outside of Syria, Arabs and non-Arabs were still attending different mosques. In some towns, an Arab might be ostracized by his fellow Arabs if he were seen walking with a non-Arab Muslim. And some Muslims believed that the Umayyads had strayed too far from Muhammad's teachings. A rebel army of Arab and non-Arab Muslims, benefitting from a strength provided by integration, marched from Khurasan (in eastern Persia) toward Damascus, picking up support along the way. They declared as caliph a descendant of the paternal uncle of Muhammad: Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. Abbas promised a new era of concord, happiness and rule that was just and in strict accordance with God's law.

Succession was again decided by violence. The rebel army was victorious. Marwan fled south through Palestine and into Egypt, where (in August 750) he was overtaken and beheaded. Damascus and other Syrian cities and towns fell to the rebel army without much of a struggle. The graves of the Umayyad caliphs were opened and their corpses burned, except for the pious Umar II, still seen by many as a good caliph.

The Abbasid caliphate

The Abbas family dynasty was to be known as the Abbasids. Their capital was Baghdad. They gave prominence in state affairs to Islamic theologians and to experts in Islamic law. They built a skilled bureaucracy and professional army, manned largely by those who had helped the Abbasids to power. Much of the military was Persian. And at the Abbasid court was Persian refinement and urbanity. There were also Persian titles, Persian wives, mistresses, wines and Persian garments, while Arabic remained as the language of Islam. In the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, asceticism remained an ideal, but luxury and the pursuit of pleasure were facts.

Into the 800s, Islam was having its "golden age." There were caravans overland to India and China. Muslim traders dominated the Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian Ocean was becoming a great trade route. Muslim traders and mariners were spreading their language and religion to Southeast Asia. In the 800s in Guangzhou China were Arab, Persians and Jewish Merchants who had voyaged there on Muslim ships. Muslim merchants made it as far north as Korea. At Baghdad's docks and wharves were hundreds of ships: warships, trading vessels including Chinese junks and pleasure boats. It was the time fictionalized in the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights drawn from reports of actual voyages made by Muslim merchants.

But the Abbasids failed to fundamentally change the course of Islamic civilization. No protection of rights of individuals was written into law. The Abbasids were at least as autocratic as the Umayyads. They suppressed their former allies, the Shi'a and Khorasani. They surrounded themselves with pomp and shielded themselves from the public by a wall of officials and eunuchs. The Abbasids increased the centralization of power. The level of Democracy that had existed within tribes under the Umayyads diminished.

The Abbasid caliphate reached its greatest extent in 850. Islam was about to have more than one caliph, and hostile to one another. One was in Spain. The caliph in Baghdad considered itself as the only legitimate one but did not regain control over the caliphate in Spain. And in the year 909 a Shi'a caliphate arose in Egypt, a dynasty that claimed descent from the Prophet's daughter, Fatimah. With Berber help its power spread across North Africa. In 1171 the Fathimah dynasty was replaced by the Ayyubid dynasty founded by the great Saladin.

Meanwhile, in the early 900s the caliphate in Baghdad lost influence and its royal functions to military men. The Buyids, who were Shi'ites, seized power over Baghdad in the 940s. They ruled central Iraq for more than a century before being overthrown by the Seljuq Turks. Another Shi'ite dynasty came to power in northern Iraq, leading to a tremendous expansion of Shi'a influence. The Abbasid caliphs became mere figureheads and the family scattered by the Mongols in 1260.

Islam would continue to expand, in Asia's subcontinent, in Indonesia and southward in Africa. But like Christianity its political power was fragmented geographically.

CONTINUE READING: Christendom and Life before the year 1000s

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