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The Umayyad Empire: Rise, Growth and Fall Report



The Umayyad Empire existed between 661 AD and 750 AD. It was the first Islamic dynasty. The Umayyads first rose to power through the third Caliph after Prophet Muhammad’s death (Johnson 34). The third Caliph was known as Uthmann ibn Affan. Uthmann’s assassination led to the outbreak of the first Muslims’ civil war known as the Fitna (Agha 45). Muawiya, who was the governor of Syria, emerged victorious in the Fitna. He proceeded to establish the Umayyad Empire. It was one of the most powerful and stable Islamic empires. A number of Muslims considered the Umayyads’ regime controversial because they lacked a direct relation with Prophet Muhammad. This paper discusses the rise, growth and fall of the Umayyad Empire.

Founder of the Umayyad Empire

The Umayyad Empire was founded by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan. He was born in Mecca. His parents were known as Abu Sufyan ibn Harb and Hind bint Utbah (Hawting 45). They were members of the Banu Abd-Shams sub-clan (Hawting 56). The Banu Abd-Shams was the most influential clan in Mecca. Both Muawiya and Prophet Muhammad were descendants of Abdu Manaf bin Qusay (Hawting 60-61). Abdu Manaf bin Qusay had four sons called Hashim, Muttalib, Nawfal and Abdu Shams (Johnson 73). Muhammad was the grandchild of Hashim. On the other hand, Muawiya was Abdu Shams’ grandson.

Muawiya and his clan’s men were opposed to the spread of Islam in Mecca. The Abdu Shams opposed Islam because “they were threatened by the radical changes brought about by Islam” (Johnson 54). In 630 AD, Muhammad managed to conquer Mecca with the assistance of his followers. As a result, a good number of Mecca residents including the Abdu Shams clan, were converted to Islam. The new converts surrendered officially to Muhammad. Therefore, the conquest of Mecca led to the conversion of Muawiya to Islam.

After the conquest of Mecca, Muhammad appointed a good number of his officials from the Quraysh tribe. “During Muhammad’s regime, Muawiya served as a scribe” (Johnson, 66). Later on, Muawiya joined his eldest brother, who was known as Yazid to conquer Syria. In 640 AD, Muawiya succeeded Yazid as the governor of Syria. As a governor, he earned great respect from his soldiers due to the successful conquests against neighbouring empires. Muawiya became more powerful when his uncle, who was known as Uthman became the Caliph. Ali succeeded Uthman as the fourth Caliph. However, Muawiya was opposed to Ali’s rise to the Caliphate position. This led to a conflict between Ali and Muawiya. “The conflict culminated to the first Muslim civil war known as the Fitna” (Berkey 78). Eventually, Ali was assassinated, and Muawiya succeeded him as the new Caliph.

The Growth of the Umayyad Empire

When Muawiya became the Caliph, he created a strong centralized government (Berkey 77-78). Additionally, he embarked on a massive expansion of the Islamic empire. Within a period of one hundred years, the Umayyads had expanded their empire into Asia, Africa and Europe (Hawting 56). The Umayyads also extended the empire’s eastern boundary into Persia (Hawting 47-48). The border was further pushed into Central Asia. During the eastward expansion, the Umayyad armies mainly used the hit-and-run raids. Consequently, they were able to attack the region’s major trading centres, such as Bukhara and Samarkand (Kennedy 88-89). Occasionally, the Umayyad armies also organized campaigns for conquest. By 700 AD, the Umayyads had already taken control of several parts of Central Asia.

The Umayyads also expanded their empire to the West. For instance, by 710 AD, the Umayyads had managed to gain control of the entire North Africa region. “Their control in North Africa extended from River Nile to the Atlantic Ocean” (Kennedy 90). Additionally, “they expanded northwards across the Mediterranean Sea into the Iberian Peninsula” (Kennedy 91). The Umayyads utilized military force as well as treaties in order to gain control of a large part of the Iberian Peninsula (Kennedy 95-96). Having gained control of the Iberian Peninsula, the Umayyad Empire was able to launch more raids into several parts of Europe (Johnson 101-103).

Despite the vastness of the Umayyad Empire, it remained stable and powerful for a considerable period. The Umayyad Empire expanded because of several reasons. First, the Umayyad government adopted the Byzantine system of government. The Byzantines had a bureaucratic system of governance. The bureaucratic system of governance enabled the Umayyad Caliph to control the empire effectively from its capital in Damascus (Hawting 98-99). Additionally, the Caliph appointed Muslim governors who were known as Emirs. The Emirs assisted the Caliph to manage the provinces within the Umayyad Empire. In addition, the Emirs collaborated with the local clan leaders (Berkey 104). This ensured that every region within each province was governed efficiently and effectively. The Umayyads’ collaboration with local leadership enabled them to win support in distant areas from its capital in Damascus.

Second, the Umayyad Empire expanded because of a common language and currency. Initially, the major obstacle to the expansion of the empire was the language barrier — a good number of the conquered people communicated using varied languages (Hawting 76-77). As a result, the Umayyad Caliph declared the Arabic language as an official and national language. Therefore, everyone in the empire was required to use the Arabic language. This enabled the people within the empire to converse easily with one another. Hence, the Arabic language perpetuated unity within the Umayyad Empire. Abd al-Malik, who became the Caliph in 685 AD, unified the empire further by introducing a common currency. In particular, the empire adopted the use of common coins. The coins were “engraved with Arabic quotations from the Quran” (Hawting 92).

The coins facilitated the spread and acceptance of Islam in the newly conquered lands (Hawting 93-94). It also led to the widespread use of the Arabic language. In addition, the adoption of a common currency promoted commerce within the empire. Hence, the government was able to earn more revenue through taxation. Part of the revenue collected through taxation was used to undertake conquest activities.

Third, the Umayyad Empire expanded and rose due to pilgrimage activities. Pilgrimage is also known as Hajj. It is one of the pillars of Islam. Muslims from various regions across the empire made a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once a year. The pilgrimage to Mecca enabled the pilgrims from across the empire to share their languages and cultures (Berkey 105-106). Additionally, the pilgrims spread the Arabic culture back in their homelands. As a result, the pilgrimage to Mecca facilitated the expansion as well as unity within the empire.

Location of the Umayyad Empire

At the time of Prophet Mohammed’s death, the Islamic empire had already emerged victorious in several battles. They had also conquered a number of regions. Before the establishment of the Umayyad Empire in 661 AD, the capital city of the Islamic empire was situated in Medina. The city of Medina was known as Yathrib before the introduction of Islam. Medina acted as the base from which Muhammad and the Muslim army attacked their neighbours (Kennedy 112). When Muawiya became the Caliph, he moved the capital of the empire from its original location in Medina to Damascus in Syria (Agha 44-46).

Therefore, from 661 AD to 750 AD, the Umayyad Caliphs operated from Damascus. After the establishment of the capital at Damascus, Muawiya continued to conquer other parts of the Byzantine Empire. He managed to attain great success in his conquests. One of Muawiya’s major goals was to conquer Constantinople. Constantinople was the capital city of the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately, he failed to seize the Byzantine capital. Nonetheless, the empire covered a vast region at the time of its collapse. This was made possible by Muawiya’s successors who managed to conquer most parts of North Africa, Europe, and Asia.

The Umayyad Rulers

From 661 AD to 750 AD, fourteen Caliphs ruled the Umayyad Empire. The first ruler of the Umayyad Empire was Muawiya. He reigned between 661AD and 680 AD. He was recognized as an able administrator who managed to instil order in the empire. His son, who was known as Yazid, succeeded him. He served as the Caliph from 680 AD to 683 AD. A number of Muslims were opposed to the rise of Yazid to the Caliphate position. “The Muslims who opposed Yazid felt that he should have become the Caliph through election rather than inheriting the Caliphate position” (Hawting 113). However, Yazid suppressed the mounting opposition, which was mainly led by Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr.

Thereafter, “Yazid died pre-maturely, and his son called Muawiya II succeeded him” (Johnson 78). Muawiya II was a weak ruler who was unable to suppress the opposition against the Umayyads. Therefore, he relinquished his throne after one year. Consequently, a new Umayyad called Marwan became the Caliph. Marwan only ruled for a period of one year. His son Abd al-Malik succeeded him.

Abd al-Malik was the most important Caliph in the history of the Umayyad Empire. Abd al-Malik ruled between 685 AD and 705 AD. During his reign, he introduced numerous reforms that were significant. For instance, he developed a unique state character of the Umayyad Empire. He continually emphasized the significance of the role of the Islamic religion in the advancement and success of the Umayyad Empire. Therefore, he constructed a number of mosques using the revenues collected through taxation. Abd al-Malik also built the Dome of the Rock. Its location is of great significance to the Muslims. “Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the location of the Dome of the Rock” (Johnson 115). The building was also “a demonstration of Islamic domination over Jerusalem because it was built upon the Temple Mount in Jerusalem” (Johnson 116-117).

He also introduced an official language to the empire. As a result, all government documents and records were written in Arabic. Government officials abandoned the use of Greek and Persian languages. Additionally, Abd al-Malik introduced new coins that had Islamic designs and inscriptions on them. “Following his victory in the second Fitna, Abd al-Malik consolidated his power in Iran and Iraq” (Hawting 103). He also continued to conquer new territories in order to expand the Umayyad Empire. At the time of his death in 705 AD, “the Umayyad Empire was stronger, and Islam played a central role in its administration” (Johnson 116).

Al-Walid, who was the son of Abd al-Malik, took over the Caliphate position in 705 and served until 715. Al-Walid also managed to attain great success during his reign. Other Caliphs included Suleiman ibn Abd al-Malik (715-717 AD), Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (717-720 AD), Yazid II ibn Abd al-Malik (720-724 AD), and Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (724-743 AD) (Johnson 123). In addition to the aforementioned, were other Caliphs such as Walid II ibn Abd al-Malik (743-744 AD), Yazid III ibn Abd al-Malik (744 AD), Ibrahim ibn Abd al-Malik (744 AD), and Marwan II (744-750 AD) (Johnson 124-125).

The Important Contributions, Activities, and Events of the Umayyad Empire

During the Umayyad Empire, Islamic art was in its formative stages (Kennedy 115). “The major artistic influence came from the late antique classical naturalistic tradition” (Kennedy 116). Islamic architecture and art were developed during the Umayyad Empire. A number of their sacred constructions were situated in areas that had symbolic significance. The buildings also had unique designs that have continued to influence Islamic architecture up-to-date.

Some of the major activities and events that occurred during the Umayyad Dynasty were the second and the third Fitnas (Kennedy 78-79). For instance, the second Fitna led to a major division among Muslims. Consequently, the Shia Muslims who supported Ali’s family continued to rebel against the Umayyad regime. These tensions culminated into the third Fitna. The third Fitna had a devastating effect on the Umayyad Empire. In particular, the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyad Empire during the third Fitna (Agha 56-57).

Factors that Facilitated the Collapse of the Umayyad Empire

The Umayyad Empire prospered in several ways under the leadership of different Caliphs. Nonetheless, the empire experienced a number of internal and external challenges. Eventually, the challenges led to its decline (Berkey 45-46). First, some of the Caliphs who ascended to power adopted ineffective leadership styles. As a result, they failed to manage the vast empire effectively. For instance, Umar II was succeeded by a series of incapable Caliphs (Johnson 67). This led to a rebellion from the Shia Muslims and non-Muslims who resented the Umayyads’ regime. Additionally, some of the distant territories within the empire, such as Spain began to disintegrate from the central government. This was due to a lack of effective leadership. The rulers of the empire should have decentralized power to ensure that every region was effectively managed. Moreover, decentralization of power could have inhibited any form of disintegration from the main government.

Second, “the empire’s military prestige had been damaged by the failure of the second attempt to size Constantinople” (Johnson 67). A good number of the Muslim soldiers were killed while others drowned in a series of storms. The Umayyads could have avoided the devastating defeat by choosing the appropriate time to attack Byzantine. As a result, they could have avoided the massive loss of their soldiers due to unfavourable weather conditions.

Third, the Umayyad Empire was greatly weakened by the third Fitna. The third Fitna resulted from the resentment of the non-Muslims know as Mawali. The Mawali felt that the government had neglected them. Additionally, the Mawali were treated as second-class citizens in the Umayyad Empire. Therefore, they were denied several privileges. Consequently, the Mawali and the Shiites formed an army that led to the Battle of the Zab. The Abbasids emerged victorious in the battle. This led to the eventual collapse of the Umayyad dynasty (Agha 66-69). However, the collapse could have been avoided by promoting equality and fairness within the empire. This could have promoted unity among the Muslims and the Mawali.

Personal Opinion about the Empire

The establishment of the Umayyad Empire plays a significant role in history. Its civilization had a far-reaching effect. The empire set an example of an ideal Islamic state. However, despite its success, it perpetuated a major division among the Muslims. Consequently, it failed to promote unity, which is critical to the attainment of political stability. Additionally, the empire was undemocratic because it segregated non-Umayyads from power. This led to its eventual collapse because of the rebellions from various factions within the empire.


The Umayyad Empire grew because of various factors, such as a common language, currency, and pilgrimage. However, the empire collapsed because of its vastness and ineffective leadership. The empire plays a significant role in history. It established the first Islamic government that had a major influence in North Africa, the Middle East, and some parts of Europe. The empire also developed Islamic architecture, which has continued to influence Islamic constructions up-to-date. Additionally, it facilitated the spread of Islam and Arabic culture.

Works Cited

Agha, Saleh Said. The Revolution which Toppled the Umayyads. Boston: Brill Leiden, 2003. Print.

Berkey, Jonathan. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800. London: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Hawting, Gerald. The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661-750. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Johnson, Tom. The Umayyads. London: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Kennedy, Hugh. The Armies of the Caliphs. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.


Archeological Remains of the Umayyad Empire

Umayyads’ Great Mosque in Damascus.
Figure 1: Umayyads’ Great Mosque in Damascus.
A Believer at the Umayyad Mosque.
Figure 2: A Believer at the Umayyad Mosque.
Dome of the Rock.
Figure 3: Dome of the Rock.
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