The Civil War and the Rise of the Umayyad Dynasty

The first Muslim dynasty created by the Umayyads after the First Muslim Civil War lasted from 661 to 750 AD and made a significant influence on the early Islamic community. Most importantly, the Umayyads’ rule transformed the community into the most powerful empire at the time. The Umayyad dynasty witnessed an incredible expansion of the Islamic empire and built an efficient governmental structure. Despite all the perspectives the Umayyad dynasty offered to the Islamic community, it was supposed to fall because of its weaknesses such as inability of the caliphs to deal with the opposition and problematic taxation among others. The history of the First Muslim Civil War and the rise of the Umayyad dynasty reflect cultural, political and religious changes within the Islamic society at the time.

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The Umayyad family came to power after the ending of the First Fitna, or the First Muslim Civil War. In fact, the Umayyads came to power with the rule of Uthman ibn Affan, the third caliph, for the first time. However, Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan established his family’s rule and founded the Umayyad Dynasty only at end of the First Muslim Civil War. The conflict was caused by Muawiya, who doubted Ali’s leadership. According to John L. Esposito (n.d.), many Muslims believed that Ali, who was the fourth caliph and a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammed, had a holy right to be the Prophet’s successor. Ali’s supporters wanted the family of the Prophet to rule the Islamic community. However, Ali’s rule was interrupted by the First Fitna and revolts. Two opposition movements challenged his authority (Esposito, n.d.). The first movement was led by the Prophet’s widow, Aisha; the second one was led by Muawiya, who was the governor of Syria at the time (Esposito, n.d.). The fourth caliph’s failure to find and punish Uthman’s killers was the main reason for these revolts. Uthman, Muawiya’s uncle, was murdered by unknown Muslims who did not like that the third caliph concentrated power in the hands of the Umayyads (The Sailor Foundation, n.d.). The governor of Syria demanded the hanging of the assassins, but Ali rejected their demand. At the beginning of the civil war, Ali crushed the revolt headed by Aisha. According to Esposito (n.d.), the Battle of the Camel “marked the first time a caliph had led his army against another Muslim army.” However, the fourth caliph did not stop at this point. In 657, Ali led his army against Muawiya. Esposito (n.d.) explains that Muawiya’s people, who faced the defeat, “raised Qurans on the tips of their spears and called for arbitration according to the Quran, crying out, ‘Let God decide.’” As a result, the arbitration gave no certain answer as neither Ali nor Muawiya won. Ali’s supporters were disappointed at the fourth caliph for his failure to defeat the enemy. Muawiya continued to be the governor of Syria and even extended his rule to Egypt (Esposito, n.d.). After Ali’s death in 662, Muawiya “laid successful claim to the caliphate, moving its capital to Damascus and frustrating Alid belief that leadership of the community should be restricted to Ali’s descendants” (Esposito, n.d.). At the beginning, Muawiya had very little chances to become the leader of the Islamic community. However, “his skill and intellect, combined with a lot of luck, enabled him to build the first Muslim dynasty” (The Sailor Foundation, n.d.). Therefore, even though the governor of Syria was not Muhammad’s descendant, he became the fifth caliph. Thus, as Muawiya established the Umayyad dynasty, he ended the “golden age” of Muhammad and the rule of the Rightly Guided Caliphs.

Under the rule of the Umayyad family, the caliphate was transformed into an absolute monarchy. As a result, the dynasty refused from a religious leadership. The first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, changed the way of selecting caliphs. Before that, the caliphate, that consisted of powerful tribal leaders elected the caliph. In fact, the Umayyads were the first rulers of the Islamic Empire who decided to transfer their power among the members of their family mainly from father to son. Muawiya made the caliphate recognize Yazid, his son, as the next caliph (Hooker, n.d.). Richard Hooker (n.d.) explains that “technically, Yazid was still elected; in reality, he was selected by his father to succeed him.” Thus, the Umayyad caliphate became a hereditary monarchy under the rule of the Umayyad dynasty.

However, some researchers find the Umayyads’ practice of passing power from father to son to be controversial. Hooker (n.d.) states that the fact that the caliphate became a monarchy aroused opposition to the Umayyad dynasty among many Muslims. The opposition viewed monarchy as “a fundamental perversion of the religious and social principles of Islam” (Hooker, n.d.). Moreover, it later created a conflict that led to the Second Civil War and the fall of the dynasty. Nevertheless, the Umayyads’ practice of passing power from father to son gave Muslims a sense of stability.

In contrast to previous caliphs, the Umayyad dynasty was not very religious and did not obtrude Islam on the citizens of the Islamic empire. According to Islamic History (n.d.), in the first years of Islam, the mission to spread the Prophet’s religion was an important part of the Islamic rule. The Umayyads allowed Christians and Jews to keep their faith. However, many of them converted to Islam of their own free will.

Despite the lack of religious character in his rule, Muawiya proved to be a brilliant and effective leader who created a solid ground for his dynasty. During his rule, the Islamic empire witnessed twenty years of peace. Moreover, Muawiya solidified Islamic control over both Iran and Iraq (Hooker, n.d.). Most importantly, the fifth caliph was an effective administrator. According to Hooker (n.d.), Muawiya “embodied fully the Arabic virtue of hilm, or ‘leniency,’ and generously forgave even some of his worst enemies.” In addition, the Umayyad dynasty made a number of changes in the Islamic government. For instance, the fact that the government adopted Byzantine administrative and financial systems can be considered as the most significant of them (Hooker, n.d.). According to the Sailor Foundation (n.d.), Muawiya gave Christians, the former Byzantine officials in particular, positions in the Islamic empire’s government and used their experience in ruling the provinces. Thus, Muawiya brought important changes to the Islamic empire and proved his effectiveness as a leader of the nation.

Even though Muawiya was a good administrator, he and other Umayyads did not manage to deal with the opposition properly or solve the conflict with it. When Muawiya died in 680, Ali’s partisans “resumed a complicated but persistent struggle that plagued the Umayyads at home for most of the next seventy years” (Islamic History, n.d.). In addition, the Umayyad caliphate suffered from problems caused by territorial expansion and multiculturalism (Tucker, n.d.). Moreover, the dynasty made many enemies because it served their own interests and the interests of the privileged Arab families (Islamic History, n.d.). Thus, Beth Davies-Stofka (n.d.) explains that the Umayyad caliphate collected lower taxes from the ruling class, whereas poorer population and non-Muslims were obliged to pay higher ones. Even though the rule of the Umayyad dynasty lasted no longer than 90 years and faced many problems, it left a distinct mark on the Islamic culture.

In fact, the Umayyads’ monarchy had a significant influence on the Islamic culture. Hooker (n.d.) states that the Islamic artistic culture is deeply rooted in the Umayyad dynasty. According to Ghazi Bisheh (2010), the Umayyad dynasty constructed such famous buildings as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus among others. Most notably, during their rule, Arabic became an administrative language within the empire.

Therefore, the history of the First Muslim Civil War and the rise of the Umayyad dynasty reflect cultural, political and religious changes that occurred within the Islamic society at the time. Even though the Umayyads first came to power with Uthman, it was Muawiya who established the dynasty after the First Muslim Civil War. Ali’s failure to find and punish Uthman’s killers caused revolts headed by Aisha and Muawiya that led to the First Fitna. After Ali was murdered, Muawiya gained power and became the fifth caliph even though Muawiya had almost no chances to become the leader of the Islamic community compared to Mohamed’s relatives. However, Muawiya skills and intellect helped him to build the first Muslim monarchy. The Umayyads demonstrated themselves as good administrators; however, they failed to solve the problem with opposition. Despite the fact that the rule of the Umayyad dynasty lasted for less than a century, they had a great influence on the Islamic culture.

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