The 4 major Caliphates of the Middle Ages

While the crusades are a prominent topic in history and most people know about the Christian leaders the other side, the Muslims, are often overlooked.

Here in that article, I want to give some insight into the main Muslim Caliphates from Muhammad to the time of the crusades.

The 4 major caliphates during the middle ages were the caliphates of the Rashidun, Umayyads, Fatimids, and Abbasids.

Let`s find out more!

The Rashiduns

The Rashidun Caliphs were the first 4 successors of the Islamic prophet Muhammad after his death in 632 CE. These four caliphs were either chose by a council or were suggested by their predecessor.

These four caliphs are also known as the rightly guided ones.

The first one was Abu Bakr who was not only a companion of Muhammad but also his father-in-law. He ruled from 632-634 CE.

His main accomplishment was the consolidation of Islamic control over the area that had been conquered by Muhammad. But he also expanded the area.

He was succeeded by another one of Muhammads` fathers-in-law, Umar ibn al-Khattab. He ruled from 634 to 644 CE. During his rule, the Islamic empire expanded extremely fast until it ruled 2/3 of the Byzantine Empire and all of the Sassanid Persian empire.

By the way, marrying several women was not limited to the Muslim caliphs. Centuries before them both Alexander the Great and his father Philipp II of Macedon had realized that multiple marriages were an excellent way to strengthen ones` rule over a conquered area.

Do you want to find out more about the women Alexander the Great married and why the clever move of marrying was not appreciated by all of his Macedonian officers? You can find the answer here in my article.

The third of the rightly guided caliphs was Uthman ibn Affan, the primogeniture of the later Umayyad dynasty.

Just like his predecessors he also had family ties to Muhammad, he was his son-in-law. Being a member of the Umayyad clan he belonged to the Quraysh tribe, a tribe that historically controlled the city of Mecca and its surrounding land.

He expanded the Islamic Empire into Iran and some areas of modern-day Afghanistan. He was murdered in 656 CE at the age of  83 after he had ruled between 644 and 656 CE.

The last of the four rightly guided caliphs was Ali ibn Abi Talib who ruled from 656 to 661 CE. His rule is especially interesting since both the Levant (included modern-day Israel, Joran, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and parts of  Turkey) and Egypt were not ruled by Ali ibn Abi Talib.

These areas were independently ruled by a man called Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, who was a member of the already mentioned Umayyad clan and would become the founder and first calif of the Umayyad caliphate.

After the assassination of Ali ibn Abi Talib in 661 CE his son Hasan succeeded him for six months before he renounced his caliphate in favor of Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan.

The Umayyads

The Ummayyad caliphate „officially“ started in 661 CE. Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan (I will call him Muawiyah I from now on)  had gained the title of caliph and made his residential city of Damascus the new capital of the Islamic Empire.

The Ummayyad dynasty would rule from 661 to 750 CE. During that time they would conquer parts of present-day Pakistan, north-western Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula.

These conquests made the Umayyad caliphate one of the largest empires in history covering up to 4,300,000 square miles. Just for comparison: According to the United States Census Bureau the USA covers an area of  3,796,742 square miles. Source.

The Umayyad caliphate was a multi-religious empire. Since large territories, for example, the Levant had formerly been controlled by the Christian Byzantine Empire the majority of the population in these territories were Christians.

These Christians, and also jews, in the Umayyad empire, were allowed to practice their religion as long as they paid the Jizya. The Jizya was an annual tax that every non-Muslim had to pay.

In 750 CE the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbassid. Only one Ummayyad prince named Abd al-Rhaman I was able to escape to present-day Spain.

Spain, just like the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, had been conquered by the Umayyads since 711 CE. And it was here in the city of Cordoba where Abd al-Rhaman I established an Emirate. It wasn`t until 929 CE that Abd al-Rhaman III declared himself caliph of the caliphate of Cordoba.

The Ummayyad dynasty survived in Cordoba where it would compete with the Fatimid caliphs of northern Africa for power.

It wasn`t until 1031 CE that the Ummayyad dynasty would lose its power due to civil wars.

The Iberian Peninsula, also called al-Andalus, would be divided among rival city-states. Source.

The Abbasids

The Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyads after the battle of the Zab by offering all the surviving Ummayyads pardon.

Of Course, the members of the Ummayyad clan who had gathered to receive pardon were immediately slaughtered. Only the already mentioned Umayyad prince escaped to Spain where the Umayyad dynasty would survive in the Emirate of Cordoba.

Just like the Umayyads the Abbasids also led their heritage back to a companion of the prophet Muhammed. In the case of the Abbasids that ancestor was Abd Allah ibn Abbas who was not only a companion of Muhammed but also his uncle.

After their victory in the Battle of the Zab, the Abbasids conquered the Umayyad capital Damascus in August of 750 CE and made Kufa in present-day Iraq their new capital.

Kufa remained the capital of the Abbasid caliphate until 762 when Baghdad became the new capital.

Baghdad would soon become a center of science, philosophy, innovation, and ancient roman & greek knowledge. If you want to find out more about why ancient roman & greek knowledge predominantly survived in the eastern Mediterranean and how it made its` way back to Europe you might want to check out my article here.

But the Abbasid Empire was smaller than the Ummayyad Empire. On the one hand, the Abbasids did not control the Iberian Peninsula. And also other parts of the bygone Umayyad Empire could not be controlled by the Abbasids.

In the 920s the rivaling dynasty of the Fatimids would gain control over northern Africa and would also conquer Egypt in 969 CE.

Hereinafter the Abbasids would fragment into several governorships. Although all these governorships recognized a certain authority in the caliph in Baghdad they were mostly independent.

By the year 1000 AD, the caliph in Baghdad himself had come under the dominance of  Buyid Emirs who controlled the western part of modern-day Iran and all of Iraq.

The Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad ended in 1258 when a Mongolian army destroyed Baghdad and executed the last caliph Al-Musta`sim.

The Abbasid caliphate was re-established in 1261 in Egypt by the mamluks. The Mamluk army had been established by the Abbasids in the 9th century. It consisted of non-Arabic slave-soldiers.

Their first caliph was Al-Mustansir who choose Cairo as the capital.

The Abbasid caliphate of Cairo existed until 1517 when it was conquered by the ottomans.

The Fatimids

Like the Umayyads and the Abbasids, the Fatimids also claimed to have family ties to the prophet Muhammad. In the case of the Fatimids, the chosen ancestor was Fatima Bint Muhammad, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad.

With that legitimization in mind, the Fatimid dynasty was founded in 909 by Abdullah al-Mahdi Billa in the eastern part of North Africa from where it would spread.

During its peak, the Fatimid Empire included not only Northern Africa, Egypt and the  Levant, Sicily, and even modern-day Yemen. But the Fatimids were not only a military powerhouse, their trade routes stretched throughout the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean!

The Fatimids diplomatic ties and their trade routes stretched as far as China.

But that kind of widespread Empire came with a price. It became more and more difficult to rule it. The first serious riots broke out as early as during the 1020s but it wasn`t until the 1060s that the balance between the different ethnic groups in the Fatimid Empire (and army) started to collapse.

The decay of Fatimid authority continued until the late 1160s when Egypt was captured by a man called Shirkuh. Shirkuh died only 2 months later and passed the rule on to his nephew. That nephew was called Saladin.

Saladin would not only establish the Ayyubid Sultanate of Egypt and Syria in 1174 but would also be known as one of the most important (and most successful) Muslim generals during the crusades.

To you, he is probably best known as the opponent of the English king Richard the Lionheart.

But that is an article for another time.

Please also check out my article here for more information on the Middle Ages and the 3 periods the Middle Ages are usually divided into.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer