Iraq Under the Umayyad Empire

Iraq Under the Umayyad Empire

Of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, three died through assassination; only Abu Bakr, the fi rst khalifa, died a natural death. Besides the violent blows directed against the leadership of the umma after the Prophet’s death, there were other, equally fi erce struggles for power that drove a wedge between Muslims and embittered relations between them.

For instance, problems quickly developed as a result of the distinctions made between Arab and non-Arab Muslims. Particularly in Iraq, how did cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity give way to the adherence to one religion, Islam, and one language, Arabic? The process of Islamization was so gradual that most historians date the beginning of mass-scale conversions only to the 10th or 11th centuries.

Because Muslim administrators initially categorized their subjects into Arab Muslims and mawali and discouraged large-scale conversions to Islam for fear of losing their exclusive status, the process of adaptation to the new faith was deliberately slow. The mawali deemed this unfair and complained, with some justifi cation, that they risked their lives every day for the Islamic cause and yet were still seen as second-class Muslims. Those mawali were to be found, for the most part, in Iraq and the eastern parts of the Islamic empire, particularly in Khurasan, where resentment at their treatment by the Arab elite soon developed into a political platform.

Schismatic movements and political discord were not all that happened in the fi rst couple of centuries of Islam. Much larger and far more signifi cant developments took place that testifi ed to the growing linkages between groups and classes from Medina to Herat. Solid advances were made in theology, law, the economy, culture, and politics that transformed the lives of many Muslims as they went from a partly nomadic society to a multilingual, multiethnic, and progressively inclusive empire.

Under the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, the Arabs in Iraq and many of the newly conquered regions of the Islamic empire saw a slow but steady diffusion of Persian administrative traditions that transformed the caliphate; fi nancial organization, such as an early form of banking; agricultural expertise, such as canal building and irrigation at which the people of Mesopotamia excelled; and cultural practices, in part inherited from Sassanian and Hellenistic sources, in part native born, experimental, and often brash.

Although the Arab military elite had marched into Iraq (and Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Africa as well) determined to hold on to their language and customs, eventually even the most unyielding let down their guard and began to assimilate into the more developed urbanity of the land between the two rivers and its rich and polyglot culture.

Very early on, then, and despite the political and military turmoil all around them, the Muslims of Iraq, whether new or late converts, settled down to make sense of their new surroundings and to participate in the building of their new society. And because the Qur’an, the revered and holy book for all Muslims, had made such an immediate impact on their lives, it was natural that the fi rst literate communities would try to draw lessons from it and generalize those lessons into standards by which to judge the new state and society that had emerged in Islam’s wake.

In Basra and Kufa in Iraq, as well as in other towns across the empire, men, young and old, began to discuss and debate the structure of the Arabic language, poetry, law, Islamic mysticism, theology, and history. Whereas the population of the new settlements fused tribal and pre-Islamic oral tradition with the new emphasis on Qur’anic interpretation and recitation, state leaders in Medina and later on, in Damascus, created a courtly literature that integrated Arab motifs with Sassanian or Byzantine authority symbols. Such, for instance, was the practice of addressing the caliph as khalifat allah (the deputy of God), which was unheard of in the early Islamic period (Lapidus 1988, 85).

In mid-eighth century Basra, a whole school of thought evolved based on grammar, lexicography, and the hermeneutics of the Arabic language. While recording the oral poetry of the nomadic and halfsettled tribes of Arabia, the scholars of Basra and Kufa also began to collect the oral histories of the men who had known the Prophet and the elders of mid-seventh century Arabia. Eventually that lore, scrupulously checked and rechecked through hundreds of interviews, formed the basis for the compilation of the Prophet’s sayings in the Hadith (alahadith al-nabawiyya), which is the second source, after the Qur’an, to be used by Muslims as a guide to live the exemplary life, modeled after that of the Prophet’s.

Meanwhile, in the eighth century, Persian-infl uenced ideas of absolute monarchy, social hierarchy, and rigid class structure began to permeate the way that Arab caliphs saw themselves, and principles of a rough egalitarianism began to give way to notions of imperial autocracy. In this period, too, Persian literature, Sanskrit religious texts, and translations from Greek of works by authors such as Aristotle, Plato, Galen, and Hippocrates began to transform the Arabs’ ideas of the world.

Various philological schools, located mainly in Baghdad but also in other cultural centers such as Basra, gained scholarly acceptance so that by the mid-ninth century, “the output of the translators was prodigious, and the editors achieved excellence in the preparation of accurate and reliable editions” (Lapidus 1988, 94). Geographers and astronomers sought to retrace the footsteps of the ancients and discover the principles of the universe.

Eventually, schools of law were established, in which the sharia, or law derived from the Qur’an and Hadith, gained ground and in due course began to infl uence both state and society. These schools of law, fl uid as they were in their composition and their teachings, began to formulate the beginnings of a Sunni position on everything from family law to the nature of authority.

Meanwhile, at the very same moment that the religion of Islam was being interpreted and codifi ed by groups of pious Muslims in the new settlements, the state was starting to use it as an instrument of legitimization and imperial authority. In fact, even during the period of the Umayyad state (which came to an end in 750), religion, theology, philosophy, and law became the battleground for different interpretations, with the caliphs attempting to gain primacy over religious scholars by means of imperial fi at.

Conversely, as Lapidus notes, the “Umayyads also sponsored formal debates among Muslims and Christians which led to the absorption of Hellenistic concepts into Muslim theology” (Lapidus 1988, 82). While the struggle over who was to be the custodian of Islam came to a peak much later, during the Abbasid period, it is important here to underline the tensions between the centralizing Umayyad state in Damascus and the scholars of law and theology that largely lived in Kufa and Basra in Iraq.


Iraq’s history throughout the seventh and up to the mid-eighth centuries was one of rapid conquest, a more or less orderly transition from tribal encampment to urban heterogeneity, and the adaptation of Muslims to the diversity of the Iraqi experience. If there is a central thread of Iraqi history in this period, however, it is the spillover of intellectual thought into political activity and the creation in Iraq of zones of contention and disputation in which local groups such as the pro-Ali Shia parties centered in Kufa (and later, Karbala); the new solidarity among Sunni Qur’an readers and reciters in both Kufa and Basra; the claimants to the caliphate converged in Basra; and the Khawarij, who were everywhere, created the fi rst Islamic communities separate from the state. The latter, in its Umayyad incarnation, mounted several military campaigns to do battle against those heterodox elements but could not completely wipe out the most radical among them. Iraq was to remain a political tinderbox throughout the Umayyad period and for many decades to come after that.