Arab Caliphates Research Paper

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The leaders of the Sunni Muslims, or caliphs, were responsible for defending and expanding Islam, but their power extended to political, military, and financial policy as well. Each distinct series of caliphs—called the Pious caliphate, the Umayyad caliphate, or the Abbasid caliphate— was known for its policies and differing contributions to the Islamic world.

The word caliphate is derived from the Arabic word khalif (meaning “successor” to the Prophet Muhammad). Because Muhammad (570–632 CE) had not nominated anyone to succeed him as political and military leader of the growing Muslim community that he had established in Arabia, the question of who would succeed him divided his followers. One group of followers wanted to elect a man named Abu Bakr through majority allegiance. He was the father of ‘A’isha, one of Muhammad’s wives. Members of this group were called “Sunnis” because they followed the sunnah (the way of Muhammad). Muhammad himself used consultation and listened to majority views in temporal affairs. Another group of followers, who later became known as “Shi’as” (partisans), wanted a man named Al? to succeed Muhammad because Al? was a blood relative and the son-in-law of Muhammad. This rift was the first among Muslims and divided them into two major groups: Sunnis and Shi’as. The Sunni leaders were called “caliphs,” and the Shi’i leaders were called “imams” (religious guides).

Caliphate rule varied in the early Islamic world, which stretched from Spain to Syria. Although caliphs differed in style, they all were expected to keep Muslims united, repel threats to Islam, and continue the expansion of Islam in their respective areas. Despite their expected championship of Islam, caliphates were characterized more by political, military, and financial administration than by religious fanaticism because most Islamic lands protected their religious minorities such as Jews and Christians.

Different caliphates became known for different achievements. Some became known for expanding the realms of Islam, others for achieving great artistic heights, revolutionizing natural sciences, and creating the first institutions of higher education.

Muslim scholars, scientists, and statesmen conceived new ideas and institutions. They also, however, improved upon their conquered subjects’ artistic and scientific achievements, which were the result of thousands of years of experience in different regions that now came under Islamic rule. Synthesis and syncretism (the combination of different forms of belief or practice) also changed Muslim rulers’ outlook in political, socio-economic, and military matters.

The Pious (or Orthodox) caliphate (632–656) was the collective rule of the first four caliphs: Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Usman, and Al?. These “Pious” caliphs were the first companions and relatives of Muhammad. With the exception of Abu Bakr, they were assassinated, plunging Muslims into violent sectarianism and civil wars.

Abu Bakr established caliphal standards and expectations in a memorable speech that he delivered to Muslims immediately after receiving their trust and allegiance. He said, “O People! You have chosen me as your Chief, although I am not the best among you. I need all your advice and all your help. If I do well, support me; if I make a mistake, then set me right. To tell the ruler truly what you think of him is faithfulness; to conceal the truth is treachery. As long as I obey God and His Prophet, obey me; wherein I disobey, obey me not.”

During the Pious caliphate Islam spread out of the Arabian Peninsula to Iraq, Syria, and Persia (Iran) in the east and to Palestine, Egypt, and northern Africa in the west. The fall of Sicily and Spain in western Europe and the fall of the Byzantine Empire in eastern Europe were coming soon. The Pious caliphate consolidated Islamic doctrines, compiled the Qur’an into one standard book (eliminating possible textual variations), created financial institutions that supported their welfare states, and set standards for future political and military rule.

The Umayyad caliphate, which was founded by the Banu Umayya family of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, ruled Syria (661–750) and Spain (756–1031). The Umayyads brought vast agricultural lands under their military control and created a fierce feudal aristocracy who trampled the rights of former landowners even though some of them had converted to Islam. To increase agricultural yield, the Umayyads extended irrigational networks, experimented with new and imported seeds, and regularized peasantry and tenancy. Expansion of the agricultural base further increased trade and business, leading to the rise of great cities such as Damascus. Muslim commercial links connected the Middle East with the Far East.

The same phenomenal rise in agricultural and commercial economy created towns in Islamic Spain such as Granada, Cordova, and Toledo, which became centers of advanced culture, higher education, and unprecedented religious tolerance among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The Spanish caliphate ended in 1492 as the Catholic Reconquista (reconquest) ousted the last Spanish Muslims and Jews from Spain. The Syrian Umayyads lost their rule to a newly rising Muslim family, the Abbasids, their original rivals in Mecca.

The Abbasid caliphate (749/750–1258) ruled from its celebrated capital of Baghdad, Iraq. Its rule spread Islam into Persia (Iran), Central Asia, Afghanistan, and northwestern India. The Abbasids were known chiefly for intellectual, artistic, and scientific achievements. They were great patrons of scholarly research, most of which was the first of its kind in world history. Caliph al-Mamun (ruled 813–833) was one of the most distinguished Abbasid caliphs. From different parts of the region al-Mamun brought together scientists when he built Bait al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad. There Muhammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi (780–850) produced the new sciences of algebra and algorithm. In the scientific and liberal culture of Baghdad, new areas were covered in astronomy, geography, philosophy, mathematics, natural sciences, anatomy, and medicine.

Under the Abbasids Muslim scholars and scientists translated into Arabic ancient Greek masterpieces of philosophy, arts, and sciences. These Arabic translations were further translated into the vernaculars of Europe, where this body of knowledge led to the rise of the Renaissance and rationalist thinking. Some Arab scholars dedicated their works to the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun, who had provided them with the best of libraries in world history.


  1. Arnold, T. W. (1965). The caliphate. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  2. Esposito, J. L. (1999). The Oxford history of India. New York: Oxford University Press.

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