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(also Ommiads, Omayyads), a dynasty of Arab caliphs (661–750) from the Meccan Umayyad family of the Qu-raysh tribe. The first Umayyad caliph was Mu’awiyah I, son of Abu Sufyan, head of the Meccan Qurayshites. As viceroy of Syria, Mu’awiyah opposed the caliph Ali and proclaimed himself caliph in 660 in Jerusalem. However, he became head of the caliphate only in 661, after Ali was slain.
Continuing their predecessors’ policies, the Umayyads conquered North Africa, the greater part of the Iberian Peninsula, Middle Asia, and other territories. In the course of a prolonged but unsuccessful war against Byzantium, they besieged Constantinople several times, most notably in 668 and 669 and from 673 to 678.
In place of the practice of electing caliphs instituted after Muhammad, the Umayyads established the policy whereby the caliph chose his own successor from within the Umayyad family. The Umayyad rulers transferred their capital from Kufa to Damascus; hence Syria became the chief province, and the Umayyad Caliphate is sometimes called the Damascus Caliphate.
The Umayyads’ social base was the feudalized Arab aristocracy, while sharecroppers and the peasants who farmed communal lands constituted the major productive force. Slaves were mainly used for domestic and military services. Craft production and trade remained primarily in the hands of the tribute-paying indigenous population, which also engaged in moneylending and provided civil servants.
After the death of Yazid I, who ruled from 680 to 683 and was the last Umayyad caliph directly descended from Abu Sufyan, the caliphate virtually broke up. It was restored late in the seventh century by the Marwanids, a branch of the Umayyads begun by Marwan I, who ruled from 683 to 685.
Under the Umayyads, Greek and other local languages were replaced by Arabic in state institutions. Sassanid and Byzantine coins were replaced by the gold dinar and silver dirham of Arab coinage. Trade and handicraft production grew significantly. At the same time, the Ummayads’ social base was narrowed as a result of the heavy exactions and new taxes imposed on the subject populations. Under the Umayyads, the fixed tribute instituted during the Arab conquests was replaced by taxes based on ability to pay, while the land policy, calculated to increase state revenues, went against the interests of both the local and the Arab populations. The caliphate further narrowed its base by rejecting the early Islamic practice of freeing non-Arab subjects who converted to Islam from the jizya tax.
These policies led to widely supported anti-Umayyad uprisings instigated by the Shiites and Kharijites. As a result of an uprising led by Abu Muslim in 747–750, the Umayyads were overthrown and the Abbasids came to power. Abd-al-Rahman I, one of the few surviving Umayyads, fled to Spain, where in 756 he founded the Emirate of Córdoba, beginning the dynasty of the Córdoban Umayyads.
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L. I. NADIRADZE