Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 7: Divisions within Islam and within the Caliphate

Copyright ©2010, 2011 by T. Pavlidis

Internal Strife and Split of the Caliphate

Not so surprisingly, the success was followed by inner strife. Caliph Uthman was murdered by a group of Arab Muslim mutineers who installed Ali at his place. Ali faced, for the first time in Muslim history, a mutiny that he was able to put down [EG, Chapter L, vol. 5, pp. 282-283] but then he had to face Moawiyah who laid claims to the title of caliph. Ali was able to get an advantage in the battle but his troops were reluctant to pursue fellow Muslims and Ali agreed to a truce and retreated to the city of Kufa on the banks of the Euphrates river.

Some Muslims considered that truce shameful because Moawiyah's father, Abu Sophian, had originally opposed Muhammad and he was a late convert to the new religion. There is a Muslim practice called Takfir where a Muslim may be declared an apostate and, possibly, be killed. Normally, declaring someone an apostate is a serious legal issue1 but in the radical religious sect of Charegites (or Kharijites) [ibid, pp. 284-285] individuals could carry Takfir on their own. Three Charegites decided that eliminating the caliph Ali, his opponent Moawiyah, and Moawiyah's friend Amrou would restore peace and each one undertook to assassinate one of these three individuals. Two of them failed in their attempt but the third succeeded in killing Ali in 661 [ibid]. See also [BL95, p. 62-63]. Ali is considered the first Imam by the Shi'ites and the Sunni/Shia split dates from his time.

With Ali dead his son Hasan renounced his claim to the caliphate so Moawiyah became the undisputed caliph. Some sources state that Abu Sophian was the king of pagan Arabia and therefore his son Moawiyah was going to be the next pagan king so there is an irony in his becoming the Caliph. On the other hand, the Arab pagan "establishment" may had the organization and resources to take over the caliphate, even though they were late comers to the new religion.

Moawiyah and his descendants are known as the Umayyad caliphs and had Damascus as their capital. Moawiyah died in May of 680 and was succeeded by his son Yazid. Yazid demanded a oath of allegiance from all the governors of provinces of the caliphate but Ali's son Hosein (Gibbon's spelling) or Husayn (modern spelling) refused and started a revolt against the Ummayyads. The battle of Karbala (In modern day Iraq) took place on October 10, 680 and Husayn was defeated and killed. The day of his death is commemorated by the Shi'ites who worship his memory. The accounts of the battle and the start of Shi'ite tradition can be found in Gibbon [ibid, pp. 286-290] and Lewis [ibid, pp. 66-67]. We may note that the Shi'ite position is that the caliphate belongs to the family of the Prophet while the Sunnis do not accept that rule. The Shiites revere the memory of the Twelve Imams who are Ali, Hassan, Husayn, and their descendents to the ninth generation.

The Umayyad caliphate lasted till 747 when the Abbasid revolt took place. The revolt was led by Abu Muslim (a freed Persian slave) on behalf of the Abbasids, descendents of the Prophet's uncle al-Abbas [BL95, pp. 75-77]. The Abbasids won and, amongst their actions, was to build a new capital on the banks of the Tigris river, near the old Persian capital of Ctesiphon. The new city came to be known as Baghdad from the name of the village in that location. The official name was City of Peace, Medinat al Salem in Arabic or Irenopolis in Greek (Gibbon [EG, Chapter LII, vol. 5 pp. 406-407]). There were many other changes. The Arab monopoly of power was over and with it the tradition that the caliph held power by the consent of the Arab tribal chiefs. Instead, Persian influence became strong and with it the Sassanid model of government was revived. The caliph became an absolute autocrat [BL95, p. 78]. We should point out that Persians were Sunni at the time. (They switched to Shi'ism much later, in 1501.)

The Abbasids reached the peak of their power during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (786-809). He had been born in Iran in 763 and he has become legendary. He is the caliph that appears in the fable of the "Thousand and One Nights" although historians do not think that these stories are based in fact. He fought and was victorious against the Byzantines and in 799 he received an embassy from Charlemagne. When the embassy went back it carried Harun's gifts that included a clock that was the source of amazement amongst the Europeans who were technologically less developed than the Middle-Easterners.

The Barmakids, a Persian-Afghani family were prominent in Harun's court and members of that family served as viziers but later they fell out of favor. Harun persecuted the Shiites and he first jailed their Imam and then he had him poisoned in jail. Harun had two sons and, in effect, split the caliphate between them. Al-Amin became the Caliph and his brother Al-Mamun became the governor of Khurasan that covered a huge area, including northern Persia, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. That did last long. Al-Mamum rebelled and Al-AmIn was killed in 813 by one of Al-Mamun's generals.

Soon after that the caliphate split, if not in name, at least in practice. Spain and North Africa first became an emirate (in 755) and eventually a caliphate (in 929) under rulers from the Umayyad dynasty (Gibbon [ibid, p. 405]). Egypt also broke away in 868 under a Turkish ruler who was originally sent from Baghdad but declared himself independent (presaging the Muhammad Ali story 1000 years later). A new caliphate arose in 908 in North Africa under Ubaydallah who is the founder of the Fatimid dynasty, so called because they claimed to descend from the Prophet's daughter Fatima (and therefore they were Shi'ites). In 969 they conquered Egypt and they build Cairo as their capital [BL95, p. 83].

Gibbon [ibid, p. 406] observes that "In the tenth century the chair of Muhammad was disputed by three caliphs ..., who reigned at Bagdad, Cairoan, and Cordova, excommunicated each other, and agreed only in a principle of discord that a sectary is more odious and criminal than an unbeliever". (I have preserved the spelling of the original.)

The secular power of the Abbasid caliphs did not last beyond the middle of the tenth century. Their lands were taken over by Iranian Muslim emirates. Baghdad fell under the Shia Buyids in 946. The Sunni Abbasid caliphs became figure-heads under the control of Shiite rulers. Thus Arab control of the Middle East was replaced by Muslim Persian control that lasted for another century until the rise of the Turkish power [BL95, pp. 80-81].

Islamic Sects

The major sects of Islam are the Sunnis and the Shias, divided on the issue who is qualified to be the Caliph. As we saw their split dates from the battle of Karbala in 680 (less than 60 years after Hijra). There are also several other Islamic sects.

An early sect (seventh to eighth centuries) were the Kharijites who refused to accept any authority other than moral authority and their position has been revived in modern times by radical Islam. The Kharijites considered Jihad (Holy War) as the sixth pillar of Islam.

Another early sect that has drawn modern attention are the Mutazilah and there is even a web site devoted to their beliefs ( The sect started in Basra and was initially supported by the Abbasids during their battle against the Umayyads, although after winning the caliphate the Abbasids turned out against them. The Mutazilah accept only the authority of the Quran on religious issues, a position similar to that taken 700 years later by the European Protestants who accepted only the authority of the Bible. Their credo as stated in their web site is a quote from the Quran:

"Who listen [closely] to all that is said, and follow the best of it: [for] it is they whom God has graced with His guidance, and it is they who are [truly] endowed with insight!" Quran 39:182

They add: "No one person, no matter how knowledgeable in Islam and no matter how popular among Muslims including past Imams, can be considered as the final authority on Islam The final authority on Islam must rest with the Quran and Quran alone."

Historically their analysis relied on Hellenistic philosophy. They reject pre-determinism and emphasize equality of men and women. Thus it is not surprising that there is modern interest in this sect.

Sufism is an ancient sect that it continued to have many adherents through the centuries. It has been the dominant creed in Turkey but Sufis exist throughout the Muslim world. It emphasizes mysticism and this may have been a reaction to the worldliness of the Umayyad caliphate. Its adherents are called Sufis. That word may be derived from the Arabic word for "wool" (because of the woolen cloths of its adherents) or from the Persian word for "pure". One well known feature of Sufism is the dervishes who form a brotherhood of Muslim ascetics that perform a whirling dance that leads them into ecstasy. The lodges of the dervishes are called tekkes or khanqahs and are often near a shrine. Sufism accepts saints and shrines (usually the tomb of a saint).

Some scholars claim that the roots of Sufism predate Islam and the acceptance of saints and shrines may point to very ancient beliefs paralleling the way Christian shrines and saints reflect the ancient pagan religions. I have heard from several sources stories about the following practice. Until 1924 Anatolia had a Christian minority that co-existence with the Muslim (mostly Sufi) majority. When a person became ill, his or hers family would pray to the shrine of a saint of their religion. But if the illness persisted, the family would pray to a shrine of the other religion. Both Muslims and Christians revered the saints of the other creed.

There are several Sufi web sites. One of them is based in Pakistan,, and provides extensive information about the creed. The following are three quotes from that site:

"The Sufi sees the Divine Presence reflected in all names and forms, and is limited by none. Knowing that no man-made distinction can contain the One Being, the Sufi offers sincere respect to all forms of worship, while ever striving to be free of dogmatic limitation."

"The Sufi is one who has two points of view: his own, and that of the other."

"Sufis are sometimes described as the mystics of Islam, but Sufism fits awkwardly in the categories of religions. Sufism is a spirit of Islam; however there are many Muslims (Deobandi) that are reluctant to consider Sufism part of Islam."

Another web site, based in California, is The following is a quote from it:

"The Threshold Society, rooted within the traditions of Sufism and inspired by the life and work of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi, is a non-profit educational foundation with the purpose of facilitating the experience of Divine Unity, Love, and Truth in the world. Sufism is a living tradition of human transformation through love and higher consciousness. While we seek to apply the essential principles of spiritual development, we inevitably transcend much of the conditioning of our culture and identity. Our fundamental framework is classical Sufism and the Qur'an as it has been understood over the centuries by the great Sufis. The Society is affiliated with the Mevlevi Order, and offers training programs, seminars and retreats around the world. These are intended to provide a structure for practice and study within Sufism."

The Mevlevi Order is a major order of Dervishes.

Shia Sects

There are two major branches of the Shia: The Twelvers and the Ismailis. About 85% of the Shiites belong to the Twelvers ( who revere twelve imams and expect a redeemer, the Mahdi to appear at the end of times alongside with Jesus. The Ismaiilis take their name from the Egyptian city of Ismailiya where the sect was founded ( The emphasize mysticism and we will return to them in Chapter 12 when we discuss a major offshoot of the Ismaiilis, the Assassins.

Some smaller Shiite sects are noteworthy because of the presence of their adherents in the Middle East.

The Alevi are a sect that is classified as Shia but it is quite close to Sufism. It is prevalent in Turkish Anatolia and estimates of its adherents range from 10% to 15% of the 70 million population of Turkey (and the Turkish diaspora in Western Europe). Alevis meet in houses rather than Mosques, emphasize equality of men and women, tolerance for other religions, and respect for work. Wikipedia ( has a long and credible article on the Alevis. It includes links to several web sites. One of them,, is the official site of the Alevi Bektasi Dervish order written mostly in Turkish. The family web site has a detailed article in English. The following is a quote from it.

"Some of the differences that mark Alevis from Sunnis are the use of wine for religious ceremonial functions; non-observance of the five daily prayers and prostrations (they only bow twice in the presence of their spiritual leader), Ramadan, and the Haj (they consider the pilgrimage to Mecca an external pretense, the real pilgrimage being internal in one's heart); and non-attendance of mosques."

The Alevi are not be confused with the Alawi another Twelver Shia sect that has about 3.5 million adherents in Syria ( They do not fast or do the pilgrimage and their system of beliefs includes Christian elements such as the Trinity. Many other Muslims consider the Alawis not to be Muslims but pagan. Alawis became politically powerful in Syria after the military coups of the 1960's.

The Druze (or Druse) is a sect with a strong presence in Lebanon that was founded about 1000 years ago as a branch of the Ismaillis. The sect is secretive about their beliefs and they do not proselytize. They call themselves unitarians (al-Tawhid or al-Muwahhidun in Arabic) and their beliefs include not only Christian elements but also elements from the Greek philosophy (Neoplatonism). There are several web sites about them: from the Wikipedia ( to a site of the Druze community in North America The Druze are not accepted as Muslims by many other Muslims and their web site makes no mention of Islam.

We will discuss modern Islamic sects (such as the Salafis and the Wahhabis) in later chapters.

Continuity between Byzantine and Arab Administrations

Lewis [ibid, pp. 182] notes that "In the course of the millennia Middle East bureaucracies, through many changes of government, religion, culture, and even script and language, show a remarkable persistence and continuity." He goes on to describe how the Persian and Greek administrative practices survived, first under Christian rule and then under Muslim rule. It turns out that the administrative records of Egypt have survived largely intact (mainly because of the dry climate) and provide a striking evidence for this continuity. "the record (during the Arab conquest) ... makes clear that as far as the day-to-day business of government was concerned nothing changed" [ibid, p. 184]. It took over a century for Arabic to replace Greek in government documents.

Because the Arabic peninsula was in far less developed state than the lands conquered, the new rulers had no administrative mechanisms of their own to impose on their new subjects so the developments described by Lewis are not surprising. In an earlier development the Greek conquerors of the Persian empire had no experience with administering large states (the Greek states were quite small) so they had to adopt the Persian administrative system (Chapter 2).


  1. See
  2. A slightly different translation of the same verse of the Quran can be found in "Those who listen to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided, and those are the ones endued with understanding".

First Posted: January 29, 2010. Latest Revision: November 3, 2011.

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