Iranian History/The Umayyads

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When the Arabs won their success at the Batte of Nehavend against the Imperial Sassanid troops and conquered Iran, they were ruled by the Caliph Umar, known as Umar the Great. He was the second of the Rashidun Caliphs who ruled over the Great Islamic Empire.

The Rashidun Caliphate

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The rule of the Rashidun Caliphate over Iran lasted from 642 to 661. Their name translated as "the rightly gided Caliphs". Umar who was the Caliph at the time when the Persian troops succumbed at Nehavend was himself a Rashidun.

Under the Rashiduns, the Sassanid Empire was distributed amongst the various provinces of the Caliphate. The territories of the defunct Sassanian Empire comprised 4 out of the 12 provinces of the Arab Caliphate.

Province of the Caliphate Region
Basra Coastal Iraq
Fars Persia (Pars province of Southern Iran)
Khorasan Northern Iran, Afghanistan and Turkestan
Kufa Central Iraq

Umar the son of Khattab was the second Caliph of the Islamic Empire and ruled from 634 to 644. He was born a pagan but he later converted to Islam under the influence of Prophet Muhammad. During his reign, the size of the Islamic Empire increased manifold. The reign of Umar is especially known for the successful campaigns against the Sassanid Empire which resulted in the capitulation of Iran between 636 and 651. His reign is also remembered for the Battle of Yarmuk who resulted in the defeat of the Byzantine Empire and the annexation of the Middle East. Umar's rule came to an end in 644 when he was killed by a Persian slave from Ctesiphon called Abu Luluah (whose actual Persian name happens to be Piruz). Abu Luluah is believed by some to have committed suicide and by others to have been killed by the soldiers of the Caliphate. Abu Luluah is considered to be a martyr by the Shiites of Kashan in Iran who worship him.


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Uthman or Uthman ibn Affan succeeded Umar. He ruled from 644 to 656. Like Umar, he too was a pagan who converted to Islam.

In 651, the first Islamic coins were struck during the caliphate of Uthman, these were the Persian dirhams that had an image of the Persian emperor Yazdgerd III with the addition of the Arabic sentence Bismillah (بسم الله) (begin from name of Allah). However the first original minting of the Islamic dirham was done in 695 during Umayyad period.

During the reign of Uthman, the province of Fars broke into revolt. A large army was sent under Abdullar ibn Aamir the Governor of Basra to quell the rebellion. Abdullah ibn Aamir surrounded the cities of Persepolis, Jor and Al j Bard and forced the Persians to pay tribute.

In 649, shortly after the rebellion in Fars, the province of Sistan in Eastern Iran broke into rebellion. Abdullah ibn Aamir sent a large force under Rabeah ibn Ziyad to quell the rebellion. The first battle was fought at Zaliq in which the rebels were defeated. The victorious Arab troops conquered Qarquqya. Zaranj fell after a siege and jizya was imposed. Rabeah was appointed Governor of Sistan for a period of two years.

Soon after Rabeah was replaced, Sistan broke into rebellion once again. Abdur Rahman ibn Sumra was appointed to quell the rebellion. Sistan sued for peace promising an annual tribute of 20 million dirham. The Persians also presented 100,000 slaves.

From Zaranj, a small contingent penetrated Afghanistan through Helmand and Ghazni right upto Kabul. Abdur Rehman ibn Sumra was appointed Governor of Zaranj till the death of Caliph Uthman.

During this time, there was a major revolt in the Northern Iranian province of Tabaristan. Uthman sent Saeed ibn Al Aas with an army of 80,000 to quell the rebellion. Qom was easily taken. But the Arabs faced stiff resistance at Tabilsa, a coastal town. However, in the end, the Arabs overpowered the Persians and took the city. All the men were slaughtered and the women and children were made slaves. The harsh treatment by the Arabs of the citizens of Tamlisa struck terror into the hearts of the people of other towns and they lost the will to resist. The army then proceeded to Gilan and easily conquered the province.

Dagestan and Azerbaijan broke into revolt under General Aspandyar and his brother Bahram. Uthman sent Walid ibn Uqba to fight the insurrection. Walid lunched a two pronged attack on Azerbaijan, one from Armenia and the other from Kufa. The revolting provinces surrendered after a brief resistance and agreed to pay an annual tribute of 800,000 dirhams. Ashat ibn Qais was made governor of Azerbaijan.

In 651, the province of Khorasan broke into rebellion. It was here that the last Sassanian ruler Yazdegerd III made his last stand. Uthman sent Abdullah ibn Aamir, the Governor of Basra to retake Khorasan. Bayak and Tabisan were easily conquered. Next, Nishapur fell after a protracted siege. The Arab troops then marched east and occupied Herat in Afghanistan. The Arabs were also able to successfully conquer the region suroounding Merv. The campaign came to an end in 654 with the conquest of Balkh.

During Uthman's reign, Hashemite-Umayyad rivalries came to the fore. It culminated in the assassination of Uthman by a Hashemite loyalist in 656.

The Reign of Ali and the First Fitna

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On the assassination of Uthman in 656, Ali ibn Abi Talib a cousin of Prophet Muhammad was requested to lead the nation. Initialy unwilling, he later accepted their invitation and became the fourth and last Rashidun Caliph. His period was characterized by the First Fitna, a period of constant warfare between Ali and the Hashemites on one hand and the Umayyads and Aisha, the widow of Prophet Muhammad on the other. Three civil wars were fought and large sections of the Empire were lost. Finally, Ali was wounded on the nineteenth of Ramadan,661, while he was worshipping in the mosque at Kufa. The death of Ali caused a split in the Muslim world dividing Muslims all over into Shiites and Sunnis. Despite the fact that during Ali's lifetime and after, Iranian Muslims had a sort of sympathy towards Ali.

The Sufyanids

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Muawiyah I

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In 661, Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, a companion of Prophet Muhammad assumed the Caliphate on the death of Ali. He established the Umayyads as the rulers of the Caliphate thereby displacing the rival Hashemite family to which Ali belonged.

Muawiyah instituted several Byzantine-style bureaucracies, called diwans, to aid him in the governance and the centralization of the Caliphate and the empire. Early Arabic sources credit two diwans in particular to Muawiyah: the Diwan al-Khatam "Chancellery" and the Barid "Postal Service", both of which greatly improved communications within the empire.

Muawiyah also besieged Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire but the siege was unsuccessful. Muawiyah I died on May 6, 680 and was succeeded by his son Yazid I.

Yazid I

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On the death of Muawiyah in 680, his son Yazid ascended the throne. He is infamous in history for his role in the assassination of Hussain, son of Ali.

Battle of Karbala

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With the support of the Muslims of Kufa in Iraq, Hussain headed towards Karbala, from Mecca. A contingent of 40,000 men were sent by the Caliphate under Umar ibn Saad to fight Hussain. On October 10, 680, when the Caliphate forces entered Karbala war broke out. Hussain and his 72 followers were surrounded on all sides and slaughtered. The 72 men fought bravely but heavily outnumbered, they were cut to pieces, Hussain himself being one of the slain. The Battle of Karbala is commemorated in the Muharram festival of the Shiites.

Yazid died in 683 succeeded by his son Muawiyah II.

Muawiyah II

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Muawiyah II ruled for a few months. During the few months he ruled he was disinterested in the affairs of the state.

In the beginning of 684, there was rebellion in Southern Arabia. But Muawiyah did not qell the rebellion out of fear of damaging the Holy Kaaba. He abdicated and died a few months later.

The Marwanids

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Marwan I

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In 684 on the abdication of Muawiyah II, Marwan I became the Caliph. He was the grandson of Umayya and a cousin of Muawiyah I.

During his short reign, there was a civil war amongst the Umayyads. Also, Abdullah ibn Zubayr broke away from the Caliphate and established his control over the Hejaz, Iraq, Egypt and parts of Egypt. Marwan waged a successful war against Abdullah recapturing Egypt and Syria.

Marwan I died in 685 and was succeeded by his son Abd Al Malik.

Abd Al Malik

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Campaign against Abdullah ibn Zubayr

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Few years after assuming the Caliphate, Abd Al Malik sent a huge army under Al Hajjaj bin Yussef to fight Abdullah ibn Zubayr. Hajjaj captured his native Taif and used it as a base. In 692, he besieged Mecca. 10,000 rebels surrendered to the Caliphate troops. Abdullah fought until his death near the Kaaba in October 692. The victorious commander Hajjaj was assigned the province of Basra. Under Hajjaj, Arab armies put down the revolt of 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn al-Ash'ath in Iraq from 699 to 701 CE, and also took most of Turkestan

Campaign in North Africa

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In 686 Abd Al Malik sent a large force under Zuhayr ibn Qais to Maghreb. Zuhayr ibn Qais won the Battle of Mamma over Byzantines and Berbers led by Kusaila.

In 695 Hasan ibn al-Nu'man captured Carthage and advanced into the Atlas Mountains. A Byzantine fleet arrived, retook Carthage but in 698 Hasan ibn al-Nu'man returned and defeated Tiberios III at the Battle of Carthage. The Byzantines withdrew from all of Africa except Ceuta.

Hasan was defeated by the Zenata tribe of Berbers under al-Kahina. However, in 702, with strong reinforcements, much of North and North-western Africa was conquered by the Arabs.

Abd Al Malik is also known for having constructed many buildings of architectural significance. He passed away in 705 succeeded by his son Al Walid.

Al Walid I

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Abd Al Malik was succeeded by his son Al Walid who ruled from 705 to 715. He was known for his piety. He is also credited with establishing a powerful navy. During his reign, the Arabs successfully invaded and conquered Sindh. He was succeeded by his brother Suleiman.


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During Suleiman's reign, the Governor of Khorasan Yazid conquered the northern parts of Iran and expanded the Empire into remote, mountaineous parts of Tabaristran.Sulayman also sent a large army under Maslama ibn Abdul-Malik to attack the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. The siege lasted throughout the winter. It was however unsuccessful. Suleiman was himself moving towards the battlefront when he died in 717.

Umar II

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Uma was the nephew of Abd Al Malik and cousin of Al Walid and Suleiman. He was an extremely pious individual and he was disdainful of luxuries. He led a simple life and exhorted his fellow Arabs to live the same way. He also put an end to the Umayyad custom of cursing Ali at the end of Friday prayers. Umar II also imposed Sharis law all over the Empire

Yazid II

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Yazid's reign saw numerous uprisings in Spain and North Africa. During his reign, Yazid also destroyed numerous churches and Christian icons.


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Hisham was the last powerful Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. He ruled from 724 to 743.

Hisham was a great patron of arts and encouraged learning. He built a number of schools and oversaw the translation of numerous classics into Arabic. During Hisham's reign, there was a rebellion in Sindh which he tackled successfully. Abd ar Rahman ibn Abdallah, the Umayyad Governor of Al Andalus launched an invasion of France and besieged Bordeaux but was stopped by Charles Martel who defeated the invaders at the Battle of Tours. Maslamah, Hisham's brother fought the Byzantine army and conquered Caesarea Mazaca in 727. He also opposed Turks in the Caucasus. In 730, he fought for a month against the Khaqan there and defeated him. Mu'awiyah ibn Hisham was another Arab commander in the almost annual raids against the Byzantine Empire.

In 731-732, Hisham launched a massive campaign against the Byzantine Empire. The Arabs took Cappadocia and defeated the Avars. However, the Arabs also suffered a few defeats during this time. Hisham also faced a revolt by the armies of Zayd bin Ali, grandson of Husayn bin Ali, which was however easily put down. However, despite this defeat, the Abbasids gradually grew in power and established their bases in Khorasan and Iraq.

Hisham died of diphtheria on February 6, 743 and was succeeded by his nephew Al Walid II.

Fall of the Caliphate

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Walid ibn Yazid succeeded his uncle Hisham as Al Walid II and ruled from 743 to 744. During his reign, Yahya ibn Zayd was found in Khorasan and killed in battle. Al Walid put Sulayman ibn Hisham in prison. A rebellion broke out. Sulayman ibn Hasaham was released from jail and led the uprising. The rebels moved into Damascus and were resisted by the soldiers of the Caliphate. Al Walid II was killed in the battle which ensued and succeeded by his cousin Yazid III. Yazid III, a cousin of Al Walid II succeeded Al Walid II and ruled for a few months. He had earlier denounced Al Walid's imprisonment of Sulayman ibn Hisham. He was succeeded by his brother Ibrahim. Ibrahmin ruled for a short while before he abdicated, and went into hiding out of fear of his political opponents. He was succeeded by Marwan II who was the last Umayyad ruler to rule from Damascus.

During Marwan II's reign, there was a Kharijite rebellion led by Al Dahhak. The rebel forces even captured Kufa. Sulayman ibn Hisham turned against Marwan, but suffered a severe defeat. Al Dahhak was killed and succeeded by his son Shayban. The Caliphate forces drove Shayban to Bahrain where he was killed.

In Khorasan, the governor Nasr ibn Sayyar faced tough opposition from Al Harith and Al Kirmani. They were also supported by the Abbasids. In 748, Nasr died when the rebellion was going on. By this time, the Abbasids had successfully conquered Hijaz. In 750, the Abbasids invaded Damascus from their base in Khorasan. Marwan faced them but suffered a crushing defeat from Abu Al Abbas Al Saffah at the Battle of Zab River. Marwan fled Damascus and was captured and killed on August 6, 750 thus ending the Umayyad dynasty.

Condition of Iran under the Umayyads

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During the reign of the Ummayad dynasty, the Arab conquerors imposed Arabic as the primary language of the subject peoples throughout their empire. Hajjāj ibn Yusuf, who was not happy with the prevalence of the Persian language in the divan, ordered the official language of the conquered lands to be replaced by Arabic, sometimes by force. In Biruni's From The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries for example it is written:

"When Qutaibah bin Muslim under the command of Al-Hajjaj bin Yousef was sent to Khwarazmia with a military expedition and conquered it for the second time, he swiftly killed whomwever wrote the Khwarazmian native language that knew of the Khwarazmian heritage, history, and culture. He then killed all their Zoroastrian priests and burned and wasted their books, until gradually the illiterate only remained, who knew nothing of writing, and hence their history was mostly forgotten."

There are a number of historians who see the rule of the Umayyads as setting up the "dhimmah" to increase taxes from the dhimmis to benefit the Arab Muslim community financially and by discouraging conversion. Governors lodged complaints with the caliph when he enacted laws that made conversion easier, depriving the provinces of revenues.


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See Bibiography Section