Muawiyah bin Sufyan was seen as the most qualified caliph to take power after Ali, which began the Umayyad Era.
Muawiyah was a great and capable man who governed of Syria and led the strongest military force in the Muslim world. He was admired for his impeccable self-restraint – he had said, “I apply not my sword where my lash suffices, nor my lash where my tongue is enough. And even if there be one hair binding me to my fellowmen, I do not let it break: when they pull I loosen, and if they loosen I pull.” He provided the centralization needed for an empire that had grown so large by that time, including a chancellery and postal service to improve communication to all corners of the land.
The Umayyad Era produced some of the most extraordinary buildings in the Muslim world, from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus to palaces in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. It was also a time of great advancements in literature with legendary Arab poets and writers. Their ninety years of leadership continued the great reputation of Islam as a great world empire.
The seat of the caliphate was shifted to Damascus, from where Muawiyah would lead the Islamic Empire. Under his command, the empire expanded further into the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia and North Africa and as far as Khorasan and the Oxus River. While Muhammad (SAW) and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (RAA) put spreading the message of Islam as their top priority, Muawiyah began to concern himself more with the secular concerns and problems within his administration. Though religious values continued to strengthen for centuries, it was no longer at the forefront.
When he died, he placed his son Yazid as his successor, thereby shifting the caliphate for the first time from being elected to inherited.
When Abdel Malik ascended to the caliphate in 685, he introduced many reforms that improved a variety of areas in the lives of Muslims. He invested in the prosperity that blessed Mesopotamia by cleaning and re-opening canals that irrigated the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, produced a new standard currency to replace the Byzantine and Sassanian coins, the only currencies in circulation, created postal routes to efficiently communicate with the farthest areas of the empire, established a model organization of the government that would be replicated by many caliphates to come, and, most importantly, made Arabic the official language of his administration, replacing Greek and Pahlavi. During his rule, the Islamic Empire extended from the borders of China to the Atlantic Ocean! With the empire reaching such a vast distance, Islam came into contact with and was embraced by many different ethnic groups, influencing their cultures.
The Umayyads produced one of the greatest leaders in Islamic history – Umar ibn AdulAziz. Umar shared the same values of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs in that he was not concerned with worldly possessions and was a man of exceeding generosity. Raised in Medina, he gave everything he had to his people, so that at one point in his life all he owned was the linen on his back and was living in a small shack in his town. He took his responsibilities so heavily that would say “By God, how I wish that there was between me and this office the distance of the East from the West!” and always insisted that his people replace him if they were not happy with him as their caliph, an offer which they refused. Umar told his people, “Rulers usually appoint people to watch over their subjects. I appoint you a watcher over me and my behaviour. If you find me at fault in word or action, guide me and stop me from doing it.” He was only attentive of religious and political values, and tried to align all his government policies with the sunnah.
Umar ibn AbdulAziz’s every action was dictated by his duty to provide for his people. He abolished the poll tax for converts, redistributed any seized land back to the people, barely accepted gifts for fear of being bribed, depositing the only gifts he accepted back into the treasury, and even insisted that his wife place all her jewelry in the public treasury as well. In fact, he lived so modestly that, at one point, a woman was looking for the caliph to speak to him about a problem, and upon seeing Umar in his ragged clothes and patching holes in the wall, she thought he was a servant!
His wife said of him:
“Indeed he never used to pray or fast more than the rest of [the learned men], but I never saw a servant of God who feared Him more than ‘Umar. He devoted his body and his soul to the people. All day he would sit tending to their affairs, and when night came he would sit up while business remained. One evening when he had finished everything, he called for his lamp – from which he used to buy the oil from his own money – and prayed two prostrations. Then he sat back on his folded legs, with his chin in his hands, and the tears ran down from his cheeks, and this didn’t stop until dawn, when he rose for a day of fasting.
I said to him, ‘Commander of the Believers, was there some matter that troubled you this night?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I saw how I was occupied while governing the affairs of the community, all its black sheep and its white sheep, and I remembered the stranger, beggared and straying, and the poor and the needy, and the prisoners in captivity, and all like them in the far places of the earth, and I realised that God most high would ask me about all of them, and Muhammad would testify about them, and I feared that I should find no excuse when I was with God, and no defence with Muhammad.’”
His policies angered the Umayyad nobility, and they ultimately bribed a servant to poison Umar’s food. Upon learning this on his deathbed, he pardoned his killer and donated the punitive payments he was entitled to back to the public treasury. A great loss to the Muslim world, Umar ibn AbdulAziz died in 720.
Succeeding him was his cousin, Yazin II, and the last Umayyad leader would be Hisham ibn AbdelMalik.
The Umayyads marked a change in Islamic administration from the Rightly-Guided Caliphates, who were companions of the Prophet (SAW) himself, to powerful men dealing with the everyday secular concerns that troubled the histories of many nations. Though based in Damascus, territorial expansion exploded throughout Central Asia, Northern Africa, and France and Spain. Though the Islamic Empire had seen its fair share of glory under the Umayyads, its most impressive days were still yet to come.
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