Umayyad dynasty

John Florens | Jul 13, 2023

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The Umayyads, or Umayyads, (Arabic: الأمويون (al-ʾUmawiyyūn), or بنو أمية (Banū ʾUmayyah)) were an Arab dynasty that ruled the Muslim world from 661 to 750 and then al-ʾAndalus from 756 to 1031. They take their name from their ancestor ʾUmayyah ibn ʿAbd Šams, great-uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. They are among the most powerful clans of the Qurayš tribe, which dominates Mecca.

After initially opposing Muhammad, with the notable exception of ʿUtṯmān ibn ʿAffān, they eventually embraced Islam and remained close to power. ʿUṯman became the third rightly guided caliph in 644, while various members of the clan were appointed to positions of greater or lesser importance. Following the assassination of ʿUṯmān and the ensuing Great Discord, Muʿāwiyah ibn ʾAbī Sufyān, of the Sufyanid branch of the Umayyads and governor of Syria, opposes ʿAlī ibn ʾAbī Ṭalib, fourth rightly guided caliph. The latter was assassinated after a four-year reign, and Muʿāwiyah seized power and founded the Umayyad Caliphate in 661, with Damascus as its capital. The center of the Muslim world shifted to Syria.

In 683, the Caliphate passed into the hands of the Marwanid branch of the Umayyads. The Marwanids extended the borders of the Caliphate from the Indus to beyond the Pyrenees, into Septimania (Gaul), going to war on several occasions, notably with the Byzantine Empire and the Khazar Empire, and wiping out the Visigoth Kingdom. Nevertheless, the extent of the Caliphate weakened it, and a rather motley movement, led by the Abbasids, eventually toppled and replaced the Umayyad Caliphate in 750. Most members of the dynasty are killed, but one of the survivors, ʿAbd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muʿāwiyah, manages to flee to al-ʾAndalus and founds a new state in Cordoba, five years later.

The Umayyads of Cordoba prospered for almost two centuries and, in 929, Emir ʿAbd ar-Raḥmān III proclaimed himself Caliph, rejecting the spiritual authority of the Abbasid Caliphate. This golden age was rather brief, and a civil war eventually toppled the dynasty in 1031 and fragmented al-ʾAndalus into a multitude of taifas.

The Umayyads, in general, suffer from a bad reputation in Muslim historiography. Their opponents blame them primarily for transforming the caliphate from a religious institution into a dynastic and hereditary one, but also for spilling the blood of Muhammad's family.


The Umayyads were descended from the Arab tribe of Qurayš. This tribe drew its prestige and power from the fact that it was responsible for protecting and maintaining the sanctuary of the Kaaba in Mecca. Indeed, pre-Islamic Arabia was dotted with sanctuaries, some of which contained betyls, such as the Kaaba, and the latter was considered by the Arabs, who were largely polytheistic at the time, to be their most sacred sanctuary. Around the second half of the 5th century, ʿAbd Manāf ibn Quṣayy of the Qurayš is entrusted with the maintenance and protection of the Kaaba and its pilgrims. This responsibility is inherited by his sons ʿAbd Šams, Hāšim (the origin of the Banū Hāšim clan) and others. ʾUmayyah, originator of the Banū ʾUmayyah clan, or Umayyads, is the son of ʿAbd Šams. He succeeded his father as wartime commander of Mecca. This position is probably more of an occasional function overseeing military affairs in wartime rather than a battlefield command. Be that as it may, this proves instructive later on for the Banū ʾUmayyah, who acquire important political and military organizational skills.

Historian Giorgio Levi Della Vida suggests that traditional Muslim sources about ʾUmayyah, like all the ancient progenitors of Arab tribes, should be taken with caution, but that "too much skepticism about tradition would be as misguided as absolute faith in its statements". Given that the Banū ʾUmayyah appearing in early Muslim history in the sixth century are at most third-generation descendants of ʾUmayyah, "there is nothing improbable about the latter being a historical figure".

The beginnings of Islam

Around 600, the trade routes developed by Qurayš spread throughout Arabia and caravans were organized to Syria in the north and Yemen in the south. The Banū ʾUmayyah and the Banū Maḫzūm, another powerful Qurayš clan, control the majority of these routes and develop economic and military alliances with the nomadic Arab tribes who control the Arabian desert, further increasing their political power. When Muhammad, who was a member of the Banū Hāšim, a rival clan to the less powerful Banū ʾUmayyah, began to preach Islam in Mecca, he encountered fierce opposition from the majority of Qurayš. A notable exception among the Banū ʾUmayyah is ʿUṯmān ibn ʿAffān, a wealthy merchant, who joins the Prophet of Islam as early as 611, making him one of the very first people to convert to Islam. Muhammad eventually found support in the city of Yathrib, which later became Medina, and emigrated there in 622, marking the beginning of the Hegira calendar.

Following Qurayš's defeat at the Battle of Badr by the Muslims in 624 and the heavy losses suffered by the Banū Maḫzūm, the latter were supplanted at the head of Qurayš by the descendants of ʿAbd Šams, notably the Banū ʾUmayyah. The head of the Banū ʾUmayyah clan, ʾAbū Sufyān ibn Ḥarb, then took the lead of the Meccan army at the battles of ʾUḥud and the Trench. He and his sons eventually converted to Islam after the Muslim conquest of Mecca. To secure the loyalty of the Banū ʾUmayyah, the Prophet of Islam offered them gifts and positions of importance in the nascent state. Thus, ʿAttāb ibn ʾAsīd, a descendant of ʾUmayyah, became the first governor of Mecca. With Medina becoming the political center of the state, ʾAbū Sufyān and many Banū ʾUmayyah moved there to maintain their growing political influence.

Well-Guided Caliphate

Researchers are examining the early days of Islam. A period of socio-political and religious structuring, it is known to us through Abbasid historiography, which offers a nostalgic vision of a unified Umma. "This primordial Arab-Muslim past can be read as an a posteriori narrative designed to legitimize a Muslim power faced with its own divisions and the splendors of past empires". This history is a construction of the 9th and 10th centuries. Accounts of conquests (futuh) have thus been studied, and these works sometimes betray political aims specific to the 9th century. According to Muslim tradition, the period preceding the Umayyad caliphate was made up of a succession of caliphs known as the "Rightly Guided". This story can be read as a narrative edifice, and for el-Hibry as a parable. It is therefore necessary from a historical point of view to deconstruct it. We thus observe the construction of a vulgate, a founding text. Research has shown that a historical background does exist. Umar and Uthman are cited in graffiti, but bear neither the title of khalîfa (caliph), nor that of amîr al-mu'minîn (Commander of the believers) that tradition attributes to him, nor any eulogistic formula...

According to the traditional account, after the death of the Prophet of Islam in 632 a succession crisis arose and many nomadic tribes defected from Medina. ʾAbū Bakr aṣ-Ṣiddīq, one of Muhammad's earliest companions, is finally elected caliph, having the confidence of both the early Muslims and the new converts. He grants the Banū ʾUmayyah an important role in the Muslim conquest of Syria: he first appoints Ḫālid ibn Saʿīd as commander of the expedition, before replacing him with four commanders, including Yazīd, son of ʾAbū Sufyān, who has properties in Syria and maintains a commercial network.

ʾAbū Bakr's successor, ʿUmar ibn al-Ḫaṭṭāb (634-644), although diminishing the influence of the Qurayš elite in favor of the early sahaba politically and militarily, did not affect the growing foothold of ʾAbū Sufyān's sons in Syria, which had already been largely conquered by 638. After the death of the governor of Syria ʾAbū ʿUbaydah ibn al-Ǧarrāḥ in 639, Yazīd was appointed in his place (districts of Damascus, Palestine and the Jordan). He died shortly afterwards and ʿUmar then appointed his brother Muʿāwiyah ibn ʾAbī Sufyān governor of Syria. ʿUmar's preferential treatment of ʾAbū Sufyān's sons may have stemmed from his respect for this family, their burgeoning alliance with the powerful Banū Kalb to counterbalance the influence of the Himyarite tribes, already entered the Homs district during the conquest, or simply for lack of a suitable candidate, the Emmaus plague having already taken many men, including ʾAbū ʿUbaydah and Yazīd.

On the death of the second rightly guided caliph ʿUmar in 644, ʿUṯmān ibn ʿAffān succeeds him. He was elected over ʿAlī ibn ʾAbī Ṭalib, who was Muhammad's cousin, as he proposed to concentrate state power among the Qurayš, whereas ʿAlī preferred to spread it among all Muslim factions. Initially, ʿUṯmān kept the various governors appointed by his predecessor in their posts, but gradually began to replace them with Banū ʾUmayyah or members of the wider Banū ʿAbd Šams clan. Thus, Muʿāwiyah remained governor of Syria, al-Walīd ibn ʿUqbah and Saʿīd ibn al-ʿĀṣ (both of Banū ʾUmayyah) were successively appointed to Kufa, which housed one of Iraq's two main garrisons and was an important administrative center, and his cousin Marwān ibn al-Ḥakam became his chief advisor. Although an important member of the Banū ʾUmayyah clan, ʿUṯmān is not generally considered part of the Umayyad dynasty, as he is elected by consensus from among the inner circle of Muslim rulers; indeed, he never attempts to appoint a member of his clan to succeed him. Nevertheless, as a result of his policies, the Banū ʾUmayyah regained the power they had lost after the conquest of Mecca.

ʿUṯmān was assassinated following protests in 656, triggering the Great Discord or First Fitnah. ʿAlī is elected to succeed him, but part of the Qurayš elite opposes this succession, given the circumstances of ʿUṯmān's death, without holding ʿAlī responsible for his assassination for all that. This opposition eventually crystallized and polarized the latent conflict between the Banū Hāšim and the Banū ʾUmayyah and degenerated into civil war. After the defeat of ʿAlī's opponents at the Battle of the Camel, which saw the death of their main leaders Ṭalḥah ibn ʿUbayd Allāh and az-Zubayr ibn al-ʿAwwām, both potential candidates for the caliphate, Muʿāwiyah took over the leadership of the opposition. Initially, he refrains from claiming the caliphate, preferring instead to undermine ʿAlī's authority and consolidate his position in Syria, all in the name of avenging ʿUṯmān's death. ʿAlī and Muʿāwiyah, with the bulk of their followers from Iraq and Syria respectively, eventually met at the battle of Ṣiffīn in 657. The outcome of the battle is undecided and both parties decide to resort to arbitration. This arbitration ends up weakening ʿAlī's authority over his supporters. Those against arbitration, arguing that ʿAlī was chosen by God to be caliph and should not disobey him, split from his camp and became the kharidjites. While ʿAlī is mired in his struggle against them, Muʿāwiyah is acclaimed by his supporters in Syria, whose hard core, the Syrian Arab tribes, recognize him as caliph in 659 or 660. ʿAlī is assassinated by a kharidjite in 661. Muʿāwiyah then seized the opportunity to march on Kufa (which ʿAlī had previously erected as his capital), forced al-Ḥasan, son of ʿAlī, to cede caliphal authority to him, and gained recognition from the Arab tribal nobility in the region. Henceforth, Muʿāwiyah was widely accepted as caliph, marking the beginning of the Umayyad Caliphate, with Damascus as its capital, although opposition from the Kharidjites and some ʿAlī loyalists persisted to a lesser degree.

Umayyad Caliphate

The reunification of the Muslim world under Muʿāwiyah marks the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty. Historian Gerald R. Hawting points out that "the Umayyads, the principal representatives of those who had opposed the Prophet until the last possible moment, had, within thirty years of his death, re-established their position to such an extent that they were now at the head of the community he had founded".

The Sofyanid period is not as well documented as the Marwanid period, and poses specific methodological problems. For example, historiography has often relegated Ibn al-Zubair to the rank of rebel, whereas several historical clues (the existence of minted coins, for example) seem to suggest that he was, for several years, considered the legitimate caliph.

The reign of Muʿāwiyah I, who initiated the Sofyanid dynasty (descendants of ʾAbū Sufyān), was marked by political stability and rapid territorial expansion. On his death in 680, his son Yazīd I succeeded him. This hereditary succession is not accepted by many Muslims, including ʿAbd Allāh ibn az-Zubayr and al-Ḥusayn, ʿAlī's second son. The Second Fitnah breaks out. Ibn az-Zubayr and al-Ḥusayn head from Medina to Mecca. Then al-Ḥusayn continues towards Kufa to rally the population to his cause, but he is intercepted in Kerbala by a large Umayyad army, which kills him, his family and his companions. Ibn az-Zubayr proclaimed himself caliph, raised the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina and extended the opposition as far as Basra in Iraq. Yazīd I stopped the revolt in Medina in 683 and died the same year. His son and successor, Muʿāwiyah II, reigned for only forty days, and after his abdication in 684, Ibn az-Zubayr and Marwān ibn al-Ḥakam, descendant of another Umayyad branch and former adviser to ʿUṯmān ibn ʿAffān, vied for power. Marwān is proclaimed caliph in Damascus, initiating the Marwanid dynasty.

Ibn az-Zubayr's caliphate is recognized by most of the Muslim world. Marwan I, who had initially intended to pledge allegiance to Ibn az-Zubayr (but was dissuaded from doing so by Ubayd Allah ben Ziyad and Husayn ibn Numayr al-Sakuni (en)), succeeded in retaking Syria and Egypt, but died after nine months. His son Abd al-Malik succeeded him in 685, and the first part of his reign was marked by a revolt organized by Mukhtar ath-Thaqafi in Kufa on behalf of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiya, one of Ali's sons. On August 6, 686, Ibrahim ibn al-Achtar (en) repelled an Umayyad assault on Iraq. However, Mukhtar ath-Thaqafi was defeated a few months later by Ibn az-Zubayr's half-brother. Ibrahim al-Achtar then switched to the Zubayride camp and retained control of northern Iraq, while Ibn az-Zubayr's half-brother retained the Sawad. In 691, they were both defeated by Abd al-Malik at the battle of Maskine (en). In 692, Abd al-Malik put an end to Ibn az-Zubayr's caliphate after sending his general Al-Hajjaj ibn Youssouf ath-Thaqafi to lay siege to Mecca for the second time (en). With Abd al-Malik momentarily no longer a rival for the title of caliph, the Second Fitna was considered over. At the same time, Abd al-Malik and his advisors introduced a major monetary reform, the foundation of the gold dinar, which attempted to unify the entire Caliphate under a single reference currency.

Al-Walīd I became caliph on the death of his father ʿAbd al-Malik in 705. He continued the territorial expansions initiated by his predecessors, which were also carried out by his successors Sulaymān, ʿUmar II and Yazīd II. ʿUmar II held a special place within the dynasty, due to his wisdom and piety, sometimes being the only one to be recognized as caliph by later tradition.

The last son of ʿAbd al-Malik to become caliph was Hišām, who succeeded Yazīd II in 724. His fairly long reign marks the military and territorial apogee of the Umayyad Caliphate. His successors were unable to stem the Abbasid tide, particularly in Khorassan and Iraq, which were hotbeds of resistance to the Umayyads. The Abbasids, from the Banū Hāšim clan, eventually took Kufa in 749, made it their capital and proclaimed their leader caliph ʾAbū al-ʿAbbās as-Saffāḥ. The Umayyad caliph Marwān II, grandson of Marwān I, at the head of the Umayyad army, then heads east to stop the Abbasids. The two armies met at the Battle of the Great Zab in early 750 and the Umayyads were defeated. The same year, Damascus was taken and Marwān II fled to Egypt, where he was killed, marking the end of the Umayyad Caliphate. The Abbasids destroy most Umayyad tombs, sparing only that of ʿUmar II, and almost all family members are hunted down and killed, but prince ʿAbd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muʿāwiyah, Hišām's grandson, manages to escape, reaching al-ʾAndalus via the Maghreb and establishing an emirate there in Cordoba in 756.

Umayyads of Cordoba

The Umayyads of Cordoba prospered for almost two centuries, and Amir ʿAbd ar-Raḥmān III proclaimed himself Caliph in 929, rejecting the spiritual authority of the Abbasid Caliphate. This golden age was rather brief, and a civil war eventually toppled the dynasty in 1031 and fragmented al-ʾAndalus into a multitude of taifas.

At the beginning of the 7th century, the main groups of the Banū ʾUmayyah are the ʾAʿyāṣ and the ʿAnābisah. The former include the descendants of ʾAbū al-ʿĀṣ, al-ʿĀṣ, al-ʿĪṣ, ʾAbū al-ʿĪṣ and al-ʿUwayṣ, all sons of ʾUmayyah ibn ʿAbd Šams and whose names share the same root, from which they derive the group's name. The second group includes descendants of Ḥarb, ʾAbū Ḥarb, Sufyān, ʾAbū Sufyān, ʿAnbasah and ʿAmr, all sons of ʾUmayyah, as well as ʾAbū ʿAmr Ḏakwān, possible adopted son of ʾUmayyah. ʿAnābisah is the plural form of ʿAnbasah, a common noun in this second group.

Two of ʾAbū al-ʿĀṣ's sons, ʿAffān and al-Ḥakam, were the fathers of two caliphs, ʿUṯmān and Marwān I respectively. The latter gave rise to the Marwanid branch, which ruled the Umayyad Caliphate between 684 and 750, then the Emirate of Cordoba between 756 and 929 and finally the Caliphate of Cordoba between 929 and 1031 (with a few short intervals at the end of the Cordoba Caliphate, when the Hammudites disputed power with the Umayyads). Apart from those who survived to al-ʾAndalus, most Marwanids were exterminated in the purge undertaken by the Abbasids in 750. However, some among them took refuge and settled in Egypt and Iran, and one of their descendants, the author ʾAbū al-Faraǧ al-ʾAṣfahāniyy (897-967), is known for his Book of Songs. ʿUṯmān was the third rightly guided caliph (644-656) and left many descendants, some of whom served in various positions within the Umayyad Caliphate. The lineage of ʾAbū al-ʿĪṣ, via his son ʾAsīd, yields several governors and military officers under the Well-Guided Caliphs and then the Umayyad Caliphs. As for al-ʿĀṣ, his son Saʿīd became governor of Kufa under ʿUṯmān.

Among the ʿAnābisah group, the best-known members are the family of Ṣaḫr, son of Ḥarb and better known as ʾAbū Sufyān. From his line, the Sufyanids, came his son Muʿāwiyah I, founder of the Umayyad Caliphate in 661. Muʿāwiyah I begat Yazīd I, second Umayyad caliph, who fathered Muʿāwiyah II, last caliph of the Sufyanid branch in 684. Muʿāwiyah II's brothers, Ḫālid and ʿAbd Allāh, however, continued to play an important role, the former often being considered the founder of alchemy in the Muslim world. ʿAbd Allāh's son Ziyād, better known as ʾAbū Muḥammad as-Sufyāniyy, led a rebellion against the Abbasids in 750 before being killed. ʾAbū Sufyān's other sons were Yazīd, who preceded his brother Muʿāwiyah as governor of Syria, ʿAmr, ʿAnbasah, Muḥammad and ʿUtbah. Only the last two left descendants. Another important family among the ʿAnābisah is that of ʾAbū ʿAmr, via his son ʾAbū Muʿayṭ. ʾUqbah, son of ʾAbū Muʿayṭ, is captured and executed during the Battle of Badr on Muhammad's orders for his hostility and great virulence towards Muhammad. Al-Walīd, son of ʿUqbah, becomes governor of Kufa under ʿUṯmān for a brief period. The Banū ʾAbī Muʿayṭ settled mainly in Iraq and Jezirah.


  1. Umayyad dynasty
  2. Omeyyades
  3. ^ Nardo, Don (12 September 2011). The Islamic Empire. ISBN 9781420508024.
  4. "As those Umayyads who were living at the beginning of the Muslim epoch were only in the third generation from their eponym (e.g. Abu Sufyan b. Harb b. Umayya), there is nothing improbable in the latter's being a historical personage"
  5. Powierzchnia w latach 720–732
  6. a b c Watt, 1986, p. 434.
  7. a b Hawting, 2000a, pp. 21-22.
  8. a b c Della Vida, 2000, p. 837.
  9. a b c d e f g h i j k l Della Vida, 2000, p. 838.

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