You Gotta Know These Medieval Islamic Dynasties
Most of NAQT’s You Gotta Know articles are targeted at high school and novice collegiate players, but this one has a narrower focus and is aimed at experienced collegiate teams. Islamic history is not a major subject in the NAQT distribution, but it is a fascinating one; these nine dynasties cover much of what is frequently asked.
- Umayyad: The Umayyads ruled as caliphs from Damascus from 661–750. They came to power in the civil war following the death of Uthman when Mu’awiyah Ibn Abu Sufyan defeated the forces of Ali Ibn Abi Talib after the latter’s assassination. Denounced in traditional Islamic historiography for their secular rule, they introduced hereditary transmission of office into Islam and favored Arabs at the expense of other Muslims. Under ’Abd al-Malik, the Umayyad Mosque was constructed in Damascus. In the 10th century, an Umayyad scion re-established the dynasty in Cordoba, Spain.
- Abbasid: The Abbasids reigned as caliphs from Baghdad from 750–1258, and later from Cairo from 1261–1517. They rode to power on widespread disaffection with the Umayyads and the sense that a member of the Prophet’s family was best qualified to lead the community. Their greatest rulers were al-Mansur, Harun ar-Rashid, and al-Mamun the Great. During the 9th century, however, power began to devolve onto increasingly autonomous local dynasties, and the Abbasids fell under the control of outside forces such as the Buyids and Seljuqs. When the Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258, the caliph as-Mustazim was wrapped in a carpet and trampled to death by horses.
- Fatimid: The Fatimids were Isma’ili Shi’ite Imams who founded their state in North Africa in 909 under the caliph al-Mahdi. They conquered Egypt in 969 under al-Muizz and built Cairo, becoming the Abbasids’ rivals. At its height their regime reached into Yemen and Syria, and they had a network of missionaries spreading Isma’ili doctrines into Abbasid territory and beyond. In the eleventh century, the caliph al-Hakim — considered insane — disappeared, giving rise to the Druze religion. A later succession dispute gave rise to the sect of the Assassins. The last caliph, al-Adil, died in 1171.
- Seljuq: The Seljuqs were a family of Ghuzz Turks who invaded the Middle East in the eleventh century and came to control the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. Following their defeat of the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, they settled in Anatolia as well, where they founded the Sultanate of Rum. Following the Central Asian model of “collective sovereignty,” they divided territory among the ruling family, which prevented strong political unity. Their rule saw the beginning of the Sunni revival and the spread of religious schools called madrasas in the Islamic world, giving uniformity to elite beliefs and practices. By 1200 their power was all but extinct.
- Ayyubid: The Ayyubids were Kurds who took control of Egypt under the Zengids. In 1171 Salah ad-Din (Saladin) abolished the Fatimid caliphate, and later took Damascus as well. He retook Jerusalem from the Crusader kingdoms; however, subsequent Crusades undid some of these gains. It was in Ayyubid times that the Sunni revival came to Egypt. The sultan al-Kamil gave Jerusalem to Frederick II in a peace treaty and was visited by St. Francis of Assisi. The Ayyubids followed the practice of collective sovereignty, and were often politically divided. Shajar ad-Durr, a woman, was the last to rule Egypt.
- Mamluk: The Mamluks were slave soldiers of foreign origin who deposed the Ayyubids in 1250. Baybars, who turned back the Mongols at the Battle of Ayn Jalut, is a popular figure in Arabic heroic literature. In 1291 they drove the last Crusaders from Palestine. Their reign is divided into a “Bahri” period from 1250–1382 and a “Circassian” period from 1382–1517. They were defeated by the Ottomans, who conquered Egypt in 1517.
- Ottoman: The Ottomans were Turks of uncertain origin who conquered the Balkans and the Middle East and brought the central Islamic lands into the European state system. Their key military victories were the defeat of the Serbs in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the capture of Constantinople in 1453, and the defeat of the Mamluks in 1517. During the 15th century their lands replaced Palestine as the major target of the Crusades. They reached their height under Suleiman the Magnificient, who beseiged Vienna in 1529. The empire’s remnants became Turkey after World War I.
- Mughal: The Mughals ruled most of India from the early 16th until the mid-18th century, and claimed descent from both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Their empire was founded by Babur and expanded under his grandson Akbar. The Taj Mahal was built under Shah Jahan, who brought the empire to the brink of bankruptcy. Aurangzeb excluded Hindus from public office, and the empire began to break up soon after his death in 1707.
- Safavid: The Safavids were founded by a Sunni Sufi (mystic) order under Shah Ismail, and ruled Iran from 1502 until 1736. They forcibly converted Iran to Shi’ism, and later converted themselves (this sounds strange, and is — it’s one of history’s mysteries). They, the Ottomans, and the Mughals comprise the three “Gunpowder Empires” in what scholars of Islamic history consider the late medieval period. Under Abbas I, a European expert was hired to reform the military following defeats by both their Ottoman and Uzbek rivals. Abbas later captured Baghdad and expelled the Portugese from the Persian Gulf. Esfahan was their capital during their height.
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer Brian Ulrich.