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.
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.