Umayyad Caliphate (661 – 750)

The powerful Islamic empire that dominated the Middle East.

The Rashidun Caliphate
The Grand Library at Baghdad

Who were the Umayyads?

The Umayyad Caliphate was a Muslim empire that first appeared on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century – the same time that the Byzantines were thriving in Turkey, the Ghanaians were rising in West Africa, and the Tang Dynasty took shape in China.

The Umayyads were controversial, and often questioned by later Muslims, who thought the Umayyad rulers were more interested in gaining territory and power, rather than performing important religious duties, like spreading the Muslim faith.

Whether this was true or not is subject to debate, but one thing is certain: the Umayyad Caliphate was a successful civilization. At the height of its power, the empire stretched from India all the way to Spain, making it one of the largest civilizations in the entire medieval period.

The origins of the Umayyads

After the death of Muhammad, in 632 CE, his followers needed to decide who would lead the Muslim faith moving forward. After long deliberation, a new line of leaders was chosen – the Rashidun Caliphate – who would protect and propagate the religion.

The Rashidun caliphs were deeply pious, and each of them had known Muhammad personally. But in 656 CE, they were met by a challenger: Mu’awiya, a late convert to Islam, who had briefly worked as one of Muhammad’s scribes.

War broke out: a conflict known as the First Fitna. After five years of fighting, Mu’awiya emerged victorious, and started a new line of caliphs known as the Umayyad Caliphate. These caliphs were still the leaders of the faith, but Mu’awiya wanted to deal with secular matters too, like building a well-organized state.

Caliph Mu’awiya

After seizing power, Caliph Mu’awiya proved himself to be a shrewd diplomat and ruthless leader. He started by solidifying his own position with a number of important steps.


He established a stable capital city in Damascus, with a strong system of government. This included the Shurta police force – a group of elite, handpicked officers, who were given the task of enforcing law and order in the city.

He also dealt with potential rivals violently and decisively. In 670 CE, Hasan ibn Ali – the grandson of Muhammad – was found dead in his home. Contemporary sources said Hasan was poisoned, and while no official links were found to Mu’awiya, most modern historians think the Umayyad caliph was involved.

Territorial expansion

From the stable center of Damascus, Mu’awiya’s successors began to build an Umayyad empire. They expanded east into Iran and India, and west across North Africa. They united these territories under the banner of Islam, with mass conversions taking place in many cities and towns.

In the 670s, they launched a series of attacks against Constantinople. They were unsuccessful – the walls of the city were too strong – but it demonstrated the Caliphate’s ambition.

Their biggest victory came in 710 CE, when they sent an army from North Africa to Spain, and managed to fight off the Visigoth people who had lived there since the fall of Rome. This was the first time that Islam had managed to penetrate Christian Europe – it was a major moment in history

Religious criticism

Despite the work they did to spread the Muslim faith in Asia, North Africa and Europe, the motivations of the Umayyad Caliphate have been criticized by many Muslim writers looking back on the period later.

These writers said that the Umayyad leaders were more interested in being ‘mulks’ (secular kings) than ‘caliphs’ (religious leaders). They were also criticized for having too many Christians at court, like the philosopher and monk, Saint John of Damascus.

But modern historians have rejected these criticisms. The Umayyad leaders certainly cared about secular affairs, but not because they did not care about the Muslim faith. Instead, they believed that a stable, well-run administration was the best way to help the religion thrive.


As well as working to spread the Muslim faith, the Umayyad Caliphate was also a major force in the spread of Arab culture. They wanted to create a unified empire, with citizens who shared the same language, culture and beliefs.

At the beginning of the 8th century, Arabic became the official language of the empire, replacing local languages like Persian and Greek. At a similar time, a new coinage was introduced, replacing Byzantine-style coins with Umayyad versions, complete with religious inscriptions in Arabic.

With a shared language, and shared coinage, trade and travel flourished in the empire, as goods and people were easier to move from place to place. The Umayyads also built roads and canals to connect the pieces of their empire.

Art and architecture

The Umayyad Caliphate was an important period for Islamic art and architecture, especially during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik, the fifth Umayyad caliph. He wanted art to visually convey religion, and strengthen the faith of anyone who set their eyes on it.

Islamic textiles featured intricate designs, including geometric patterns and calligraphy. Mosaics were also popular; they were used to decorate mosques, palaces and other public buildings throughout the empire.

Architecture was another way to visually express the faith. Al-Malik ordered the construction of beautiful mosques, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The Dome of the Rock featured an iconic golden dome, which still stands in Jerusalem today.

The decline of the Umayyads

In the 8th century, the Umayyads began to run into trouble, starting with the Berber Revolt in North Africa. This event saw an army of native rebels break free from the empire, and form their own independent Islamic state.

Not long after that, the Umayyads were defeated by a Christian army at the Battle of Tours, putting an end to their plans to expand deeper into Europe. This dashed the confidence of the Umayyad army, with some soldiers beginning to question their military leaders. After several decades of powerful rule, cracks were starting to show.

In 750, another group of rebels decided to take advantage. They claimed to be the descendants of Muhammad’s uncle, and the true protectors of the Muslim faith. They overthrew the Umayyads at the Battle of the Great Zab River, and established a new dynasty: the Abbasid Caliphate.

The legacy of the Umayyads

The Umayyad Caliphate was in power for less than a hundred years, but it left a lasting legacy in the territories it ruled, especially the Middle East and North Africa.

Many of its former territories still retain an Umayyad-inspired society, with Arabic as the primary spoken language, and Islam as the primary religion. Islamic art and architecture can also be seen throughout these regions, including many surviving mosques.

The Umayyads also laid the foundations for an Islamic golden age under the Abbasid Caliphate which replaced them. Their well-run empire laid a strong foundation for the Abbasids to build on, and allowed science and culture to flourish. In the 8th century, the Grand Library at Baghdad attracted scholars and artists from all around the world.


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