A few months after his farewell pilgrimage – thereby laying the foundation for the Hajj – the Prophet Muhammed at the age of 62 fell ill and died in Medina in June 632 AD. According to Sunni writ, his followers chose Abu Bakr Siddique as Amir al-Mu’minin (“Commander of the Faithful”), Muhammed’s successor and first of the Rashidun caliphs. Shi’a Muslims hold, instead, that Ali, son-in-law and cousin to the Prophet, was Muhammed’s own selection as his spiritual and temporal successor, thus setting off a schism that continues today.
Under Abu Bakr and three able successors, ruling from Medina, the warriors of Islam – fired by the Prophet’s vision – swept across the deserts and plains in all directions, overrunning Persia, Syria, Egypt and much of Anatolia and the North African coast. In the period 650 to 655, they added the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus, Crete, Rhodes and a large portion of Sicily, and were knocking at the door of the Byzantine Empire. In 655, the Byzantine emperor Constans II personally led a fleet against the Arabic onslaught, only to lose some 500 ships and barely escape himself. At its peak, the Rashidun caliphate was the largest empire to date.
Under this first Arabic caliphate, the conquered were treated benevolently, more or less, according to the teachings of Muhammed. Monotheists (Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and the like) among the defeated were given the choice to convert, and accorded all the rights and protections (and duties, of course), should they do so, of Islamic citizens. Non-Muslims were allowed to continue to practice their faiths, and given legal rights according to their scripture save where these conflicted with the Qur'an. It was a relatively tolerant doctrine, and it would serve the Arabic caliphates well over the following centuries.
The administration of the Dar al-Islamiyyah (“House of Islam”) was also the Will of Allah, as laid down by Muhammed. Under Caliph Umar, the second to take on the duties of amir of all Arabia, the expanding empire was divided into twelve provinces, each with its own Wali to handle the daily grind of ruling; each province also had appointed six other officials, ranging from the Sahib-ul-Kharaj (Revenue Collector) to the Qadi (Chief Judge). Umar set up strict codes of conduct, with horrendous punishments for violation, and each official was to make the Hajj to Mecca each year, there to answer any complaints brought against them by anyone. To lessen corruption and abuse of power, the caliph made it a point of law to pay officials high salaries. Umar got himself assassinated by Persian fanatics, but his policies for administering the sprawling empire would remain in place for centuries.
Following the assassination of the third caliph Uthman in 656 AD, Ali – that one the Shi’a supported – was chosen as the next. But Mu’awiya, a kinsman of Uthman and governor of Syria, backed by the Sunnis, cried for revenge against the assassins based in the city of Basra, a vengeance Ali denied, as Muslim was not to make war on Muslim. In the first Islamic civil war – a three-sided affair between Ali, Mu’awiya and the Kharijites – the caliph slowly lost most of his territory to Mu’awiya. Then Ali was himself assassinated in 661 by the Kharijites in an elaborate plot to kill off all the Islamic leaders. Unfortunately for the Kharijites, they failed to knock off Mu’awiya. After an agreement with Ali’s surviving son, Mu’awiya gained the caliphate, founded the Umayyad dynasty, and proceeded to squash the Kharijites.
The Umayyads didn’t last long, less than a hundred years. But they managed to overrun everything in sight save the Byzantines. From their capital in Damascus, able Umayyad caliphs such as ibn Marwan (685-705) and Sulayman (715-717) spread the banner of Islam over the Caucasus, the Maghreb, Sind on the Indian subcontinent, Al-Andalus (Iberia), Samarkand, Transoxiana, Khwarezm, etc. In the process, they built the fifth largest empire ever to exist in the history of civilization.
And they left an indelible mark on civilization itself, being both warriors and builders. Abd ibn Marwan, for instance, made Arabic the official language of the empire, standardized Islamic currency, organized a postal system, repaired the Kaaba in Mecca, and – just to top things off – built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The architecture continued under his successors; his son built the Al-Aqsa Mosque opposite the Dome of the Rock, the Great Mosque of Damascus, and constructed a whole bunch of roads, dug wells, and cut passes through the mountains – primarily to help his armies but of benefit to the average people as well. Under all the Umayyads, religious tolerance was the order of the day; Christians and Jews held important posts, and the Umayyads fought the Byzantines without concern for the still largely Christian province of Syria to their rear.
But there was no end to trouble in paradise. Two civil wars and the Berber Revolt of 740-743 weakened the Umayyads; likely the near constant state of war on all its borders the caliphate engaged in didn’t help. The treasury was drained, both by war and by all the welfare programs instituted by the caliphs to follow Muhammed’s pronouncements about generosity towards the poor. Eventually, the Hashimiyya, an offshoot of the Shi’a movement, led by the Abbasid tribe moved against the caliph in 747. In January 750, at the Battle of the Zab, the two families and their assembled allies met. The Umayyads were decisively defeated; Damascus fell to the Abbasids in April and the last Umayyad caliph was killed in Egypt in August. The surviving (not many) Umayyads fled across North Africa to Iberia, where they established the Caliphate of Cordoba (which lasted until 1031).
Now it was the Abbasids’ turn to rule the sprawling Arabian lands, and they did so well. So much so that the al-Khilafah al-‘Abbasiyah encompasses the Golden Age of Islam, a period when the Muslim caliphate became the intellectual and artistic center of the world for science, technology, medicine, philosophy, literature and everything else that matters. But first the Abbasids under their black flag had to stabilize the empire, through reform and through political expediency.
Under the first five caliphs of the line, the army was restructured, and now included both non-Arabs and non-Muslims. Education was encouraged for all, and the first paper mills in the West, built by Chinese prisoners taken at the Battle of Talas, went up. The currency was standardized and given stability by royal backing, and trade was encouraged through favorable laws and tariffs. Islamic law was again made the standard for the legal system by the Abbasids, who tended to be more religious than the Umayyads. But perhaps, most significant was their willingness to cede local authority to noble families – Al-Andalus and the Maghreb to the Umayyad, Morocco to the Idrisid, Ifriqiya to the Aghlabid, and Egypt to the Fatimid – to maintain the ummah (loosely, the “Muslim community”) as espoused by the Qur'an.
By the time Harun al-Rashid came to power in 786 as the fifth Abbasid caliph, despite the occasional revolt by disgruntled tribesmen, the empire was peaceful, progressive, and monumentally, spectacularly wealthy. Baghdad had a million healthy and happy citizens at the time that Charlemagne’s “great” capital at Aachen held barely ten thousand. Harun’s son, Caliph Abdullah al-Mamun made institutional the House of Wisdom his father had founded in Baghdad, assembling the greatest scholars from three continents to share ideas and cultures with others, both students and teachers. The House was the unrivaled center for the humanities and sciences, with the greatest collection of texts – in Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, Latin, several European tongues as well as Arabic – in civilization. It would remain so until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan in 1258.
Inevitably, after three-and-a-half centuries, it proved impossible to hold an empire larger than Rome’s together against the tides of history – or, rather, against the Christians. In the far west, the Reconquista was in full swing; the Umayyads were in slow retreat from Iberia. More significant, the Vatican – or at least, Pope Urban II – decided the time had come for unified Christendom to “reclaim” the Holy Land from unified Islam. Hence, a series of Crusades, starting with the ill-fated People’s Crusade in 1096 and the far more successful First Crusade (taking Jerusalem, which was what all the hubbub was about) brought wholesale slaughter back to the Levant, where it would continue for generations. The struggle between the Christians and the Muslims defined the remainder of the Abbasids’ time.
It was left to Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (or simply, Saladin) to drive the infidels out. Although a commander for Nur ad-Din, governor of Seljuk Syria, Saladin was appointed vizier of Egypt by the Fatimid sultan there. When Nur ad-Din died in 1174, Saladin proclaimed the establishment of the Ayyubid dynasty as sultans of Egypt, and soon added Syria. Weathering assassination attempts, minor uprisings and the like, ruling from Cairo (although he was seldom there) Saladin united Islam again under a new Arabian caliphate, and turned his attention to the Crusaders. A truly great military commander, in time he would recapture Jerusalem, smash most of the Crusader states in the Levant, and arrange the Treaty of Ramla with Richard the Lionheart in June 1192, whereby Islam would retain Jerusalem unchallenged and Christian pilgrims to the city would be granted access.
Seven Ayyubid sultans would follow Saladin. They faced insurmountable challenges. Saladin had established a system of “collective sovereignty” for the empire, whereby Ayyubid family members ruled areas as “petty sultans” while one was declared supreme, the 'as-Sultan al-Mu’azzam.' It was a political structure made for contention. Within two generations, the Ayyubid sultanate was in disarray. As provinces rebelled, and the infidels – enflamed by zealous popes – launched yet more crusades to “save Christendom,” the Mamluks managed to topple Ayyubid dominance of Egypt. And then the Mongols descended. After several years of border warfare, the Great Khan ordered his brother Hulagu to extend the Mongol Empire to the banks of the Nile. In 1258 Hulagu Khan took Baghdad and slaughtered its inhabitants, including the caliph and most of his family.
Although successor dynasties would survive, and there would be other Islamic empires, the “Arabian Caliphate” was no more. It was an inglorious end to over 600 years of glory, an era the Faithful should never forget.