Muhammad and the caliphate: from AD 632-656

There is no clear successor to Muhammad among his followers. The likely candidates include Abu Bakr (the father of Muhammad's wife A'isha) and Ali (a cousin of Muhammad and the husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatima). Abu Bakr is elected, and takes the title 'khalifat rasul-Allah'.

The Arabic phrase means 'successor of the Messenger of God'. It will introduce a new word, caliph, to the other languages of the world.

Abu Bakr, the first caliph, lives no more than two years after the death of Muhammad. Even so, within this brief time Muslim armies have begun their astonishing expansion, subduing the whole of Arabia and striking as far north as Palestine.

Abu Bakr is succeeded in 634 by Omar (another father-in-law of Muhammad), who in 638 captures Jerusalem. Six years later Omar is stabbed and killed in the mosque at Medina - for personal reasons, it seems, by a Persian craftsman living in Kufa.

Othman, chosen as the third caliph, is a son-in-law of Muhammad. By the end of his reign, in 656, Arabs have conquered as far afield as north Africa, Turkey and Afghanistan.

Othman, like his predecessor, is assassinated - but this time by rebellious Muslims. They choose Ali, another son-in-law of Muhammad, as the fourth caliph. For the first time within the Muslim community the selected caliph is the choice of just one faction. Ali's caliphate eventually provokes the only major sectarian split in the history of Islam, between Sunni and Shi'a (see The Shi'as).

Ali: AD 656-661

Raised to the position of caliph by rebels, Ali spends most of his reign in conflict with other Muslims. He wins the first battle, near Basra in 656, against an army fighting in support of Muhammad's widow, A'isha. She is herself in the fray, riding a camel, with the result that the event is remembered as the 'battle of the camel'.

But it is Ali's last success. The governor of Syria, Mu'awiya, wages a prolonged campaign against him to avenge the murder of the caliph Othman, his kinsman. Other opponents succeed in assassinating Ali, in 661, outside the mosque in Kufa - a Muslim garrison town to which he has moved the capital from Medina.


The Umayyad caliphate: AD 661-750

Mu'awiya, the leader of the struggle against Ali and his supporters, establishes himself after Ali's death in 661 as the undisputed caliph. His power base has been Syria. Damascus now becomes the capital of the first Muslim dynasty and the centre of the new Arab empire.

Mu'awiya is a member of one of the most prominent families of Mecca, the Umayya. Against considerable opposition he establishes a new principle - that the role of caliph shall be hereditary rather than elected. For the next century and more it is passed on within his family. The Umayyad dynasty will rule from Damascus until 750 and then will establish another kingdom at Cordoba, in Spain.

Arabs and Muslims: 8th century AD

During the explosive first century of Arab expansion, the relationship subtly changes between two concepts - Arab and Muslim. At first they are inseparable. The Muslim armies are made up entirely of Arab tribesmen, and it is taken for granted that only Arabs can be Muslims. Between campaigns the Arab armies stay together in winter camps or garrison towns. They are an occupying force, having little link with the inhabitants of the conquered territories.

But by the early 8th century, when the Muslim expansion has reached something approaching its peak, there are not enough Arabs to provide the troops.

Out of necessity, people of other groups begin to be received into Islam, fighting alongside the Arabs. Berbers do so in the west, and Persians in the east. Inevitably there are resentments. Non-Arabs often feel they are treated as second-class Muslims, particularly when it comes to sharing out loot after a campaign. And the conversion of outsiders to Islam brings a financial burden. Non-Muslims are charged a poll tax, which is not paid by believers. The spread of the faith is a drain on the treasury.

These various tensions, and the inevitable difficulty of controlling the vast new empire, result in a rebellion in 747 against the Umayyad caliph.


The Abbasid caliphate: from AD 750

Persia is the region in which resistance comes to a head against the caliphate of the Umayyads in damascus. The uprising is partly a simple struggle between Arab factions, each of impeccable pedigree in relation to the pioneers of Islam. A revolt in Persia in 747 is headed by descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. Their new caliphate, established in 750, will be known as Abbasid.

The involvement of Persia is also significant. The Umayyad caliphate in Damascus derives from the early days of Islam when all Muslims are Arabs. But many Muslims in the east are now Persian, and Persian sophistication is beginning to divert Muslim culture from its simple Arab origins.

Abbasid forces reach and capture Damascus in 750. Abul Abbas is proclaimed the first caliph of a new line. Male members of the Umayyad family are hunted down and killed (though one survives to establish a new Umayyad dynasty in spain).

The centre of gravity of the Muslim world now moves east, from Syria to Mesopotamia. In 762 a new capital city, Baghdad, is founded on the Tigris. It is about twenty miles upstream from Ctesiphon, one of the leading cities of the preceding Persian dynasty, the Sassanians.

Baghdad: 8th century AD

In their new city of Baghdad the Abbasid caliphs adopt the administrative system of the long-established Persian empire. Persian Muslims are as much involved in the life of this thriving place as Arab Muslims. Here Islam outgrows its Arab roots and becomes an international religion. Here the Arabic and early Persian languages coalesce to become, from the 10th century, what is now known as Persian - combining words from both sources and using the Arabic script. Here Mesopotamia briefly recovers its ancient status at the centre of one of the world's largest empires.

At no time is this more evident than in the reign of the best-known of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid.

The luxury and delight of Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, in the late 8th century, has been impressed on the western mind by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature - the thousand and one nights. Some of the stories are of a later date, but there are details in them which certainly relate to this period when for the first time a Muslim court has the leisure and prosperity to indulge in traditional oriental splendour.

The caliphate is now at its widest extent, with reasonable calm on most borders. The international fame of Harun himself can be judged by the emphasis of Charlemagne's biographers on the mutual esteem of these two contemporary potentates, who send each other rich gifts.

An increasingly nominal caliphate: from the 9th century AD

From the 9th century the rule of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad is often, in many parts of the Muslim world, more nominal than real. In Palestine and Syria there are uprisings from supporters of the previous Umayyad dynasty, whose base was Damascus. In the rich province of Egypt, governors are increasingly unruly (as many as twenty-four are appointed and then dismissed during the 23-year caliphate of Harun al-Rashid).

In the further extremes of the empire independence from the Abbasids is even more marked. Spain is ruled by Umayyads. North africa has Berber dynasties from 790. And eastern Persia, by about 870, is in the hands of Persians hostile to Baghdad.

The weakness of the caliphs tempts them into a measure which makes the problem worse. They acquire slaves from the nomadic Turks of central Asia and use them in their armies. The slaves, who become known as Mamelukes (from the Arabic mamluk, 'owned'), are excellent fighters. They distinguish themselves in the service of the caliphate and are often given positions of military responsibility. Well placed to advance their own interests, they frequently take the opportunity.

One of the first Mamelukes to seize power is Ahmad ibn Tulun. In the early 870s he takes control of Egypt. By 877 he has conquered the Mediterranean coast through Palestine and up into Syria.

This half of the Fertile Crescent has been ruled from Egypt at many periods of history. Separated from Mesopotamia by a broad swathe of desert, it is easier to control from Cairo than from Baghdad.

Palestine and Syria remain under Egyptian dominance for most of the next two centuries. The Tulunid dynasty, founded by Ahmad ibn Tulun in the 870s, rules the region until 905. The Ikhshidids, another Turkish dynasty, control it from 935 to 969, when they in their turn are replaced by the Fatimids - masters of an even broader swathe of Mediterranean coastline.

Persian independence from Baghdad: 9th century AD

From about 866 the whole of eastern Persia, to Kabul in the north and Sind in the south, is gradually overrun by a Persian from a family of metal-workers; he is known as al-Saffar ('the coppersmith'), giving his short-lived dynasty the name of Saffarids. In 876 he is strong enough to march on Baghdad, though he is prevented from reaching it by the army of the caliph.

In 900 the Saffarids are defeated by another Persian dynasty, the Samanids. The new rulers are aristocrats, descended from a nobleman by the name of Saman Khudat. They preside over the first conscious revival of Persian culture since the Arab conquest.

The Samanids make their capital at Bukhara, bringing this city its first period of splendour. Their court becomes famous for its celebration of Persian (as opposed to Arab) history and traditions. The patronage of Saminid sultans launches the classic period of Persian literature, soon to find its highest national expression in the Shah-nama of Firdausi.

But the Samanids make the same mistake as the caliphs in Baghdad. They entrust provincial power to Turkish governors. In 999 the ruling family is driven from Bukhara by Turks, and in 1005 the last in the Samanid line is assassinated. Ironically the Shah-nama is not complete until 1010. Firdausi presents it not to a Samanid Persian but to Mahmud the Turk, ruler of Ghazni.

The slow end of the Abbasids: 10th - 16th century

There are times in the 10th century when the caliphs have little power outside the confines of Baghdad itself, but from the 11th century their prestige is to some degree restored. This is thanks to the Seljuk turks, who recover a large empire and rule it from Baghdad - accepting the subordinate title of sultan and deferring to the caliphs as the superior religious authority.

For a few brief spells the caliphs even recover some secular power, asserting themselves over their Seljuk sultans. But the final disaster is suffered in 1258, when Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, arrives in Mesopotamia.

The caliph in Baghdad, al-Musta'sim, risks the impossible. In January 1258 he sends an army against the approaching Mongols. The Muslim army is routed by Hulagu, who orders the caliph to appear before him and to destroy the walls of the city. When the caliph declines, Hulagu besieges and sacks Baghdad.

It is said that 800,000 of the inhabitants are killed, including the caliph - who is executed by being kicked to death.

No Abbasid caliph ever again resides in Baghdad, the city associated for five centuries with the dynasty. But Abbasid caliphs continue to be selected, mainly in Egypt, until the last of them is taken to Istanbul by the Ottoman sultan Selim I after his conquest of Egypt in 1517.

In later centuries the Ottoman turks sometimes call themselves caliph (implying the leadership of all Muslims), much as the Umayyad rulers of Spain and the Fatimids in Egypt have borrowed the title. But in the true meaning of the word, as 'successor' to Muhammad, the link is broken with the end of the Abbasid dynasty in the 16th century.
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