Discuss the period of Islamic history known as the caliphate. What was the crisis of leadership and authority during this period, what challenges and setbacks did the early caliphs face, and what were their achievements?
The caliphate is a political and religious state of the Muslim society after the demise of Prophet Muhammad (632CE). A caliph who held spiritual authority ruled the Muslim community. The caliphate is known to be the purest state of the Islamic religion and it spread rapidly during its first two centuries to North Africa, Spain and Southwest Asia. Power struggles and wars eventually brought the Caliphate’s end in 1258.
After the demise of Prophet Muhammad, there was a need for a new political and religious leader. The Muslim elders chose Prophet Muhammad’s father in law, Abu Bakr to be the caliph. Several factors played into choosing the new caliph including that he had to be from the Quraysh tribe just like Muhammad. Uthman later succeeded Abu Bakr and then Ali took over after Uthman. These four caliphs made many accomplishments during their reign. They managed to establish the judicial and administrative organization of the Islamic society. They carried forward Prophet Muhammad’s policy of expanding the Muslim religion into new regions. Due to these four caliphs, the Islamic faith spread to Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, North Africa, Persia and Armenian. This was all done during the 630s and 640s.
The assassination of the third caliph, Uthman brought about the beginning of the division and war amongst the Muslim community. After the death of Uthman, Ali took over as caliph. He faced opposition from Muawiyah who wanted to avenge Uthman’s assassination. Ali went into arbitration with Muawiyah: this decision caused a group of Ali’s followers to rebel against him who became known as the Kharijites.
Muawiyah, who was part of Uthman’s Umayyad clan, took over the Caliphate from Ali in 661. Muawiyah established a stable Umayyad Caliphate that lasted till 750. Both Muawiyah and Ali were killed by the Kharijites. After Muawiyah’s demise, there were tribal and political clashes in the Umayyad Clan for twenty five years. In 685, Abd al-Malik rose to be a caliph. He was successful in reestablishing authority over Umayyad’s capital, Damascus. Abd al-Malik also constructed the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The next caliph, al-Walid reigned from 705-715. Under his authority, Muslim forces permanently took over North Africa, converted the natives to Islam, and made progress in settlement, in the Indus River Valley.Instability and wars broke out amongst the Umayyads. Umayyads were beaten in the Battle of Great Zab by the Abbasid family in 1950 bringing an end to Umayyad caliphate.
The first Abbasid caliphate ordered the execution of the entire Umayyad Clan. The period 786-833 is noted as the height of Abbasid rule. The notable achievements of the Abbasid caliphates include cultivation of intellectual heritage of Iran, allowing its members to marry non Arabs and to move the capital to Baghdad. In 861, the Shiites and Fatimids began to rebel against the Abbasid reign. In 945, the Buyids took over Baghdad thus ending the Abbasid Dynasty.
The Abbasid caliphs were retained as figureheads and spiritual leaders of Sunni Islam. The Fatimids started a new caliphate in 920 but had Abbassid caliphs as spiritual leaders. By 1171, the Abbassid authority was regaining its power. In 1258, the Abbasid caliph was murdered in Mongol sack of Baghdad ending the Abbasid heritage in the city. This brought an end to the Caliphate.
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