Edinburgh Research Explorer

Early Islamic Empire: Reframing the Umayyads

Project: Research

Effective start/end date1/01/1230/09/12


The first Muslim Empire, founded in the 630s and 640s CE, was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty from 661–750. The Umayyad Empire was the largest pre-modern empire besides that of the Mongols and the only empire in history conquered by armies drawn from nomads to establish a new world religion and civilization. This was also the first and last time in history that an Arabian ruling elite and its Arab tribal armies ruled a world empire. All of the lands conquered by the Umayyads subsequently became majority Muslim. Umayyad lands are also (with the exception of Iran and points east), roughly coterminous with the core Arabophone lands of modern times.

This project engages with the Umayyad Empire as an empire. It seeks to answer two key research questions in particular: (1) How does the formation of the Umayyad Empire relate to the question of the ‘decline and fall’ (or ‘transformation’) of the two empires of Rome and Iran? (2) What was the nature of the ‘state’ and of ‘imperial’ power in the Umayyad period? The findings will be published in a monograph, The Umayyad Empire.

Key findings

It is argued that the formation of the Umayyad Empire in the 7th century can be seen as part of a wider process of ‘decline and fall’ or ‘transformation’ of the late Roman world. The incorporation of the Meccan elite into Islam in 630 CE allowed the Umayyads to reassert their status within less than a generation. They quickly exploited existing and new connections with the Roman Levant, turning the legacy of ‘barbarian’ client states on the Roman Empire’s desert frontier to their advantage. Thus, the Umayyad Empire was a unique variation on the wider late antique pattern of the formation of post-Roman ‘successor states’.
However, as in most pre-modern empires, the monarch’s power was quite limited. The case is made that the organisational powers of Umayyad-era imperial institutions were in fact comparatively weak. Throughout this period the Arab-Muslims were a tiny minority, who now benefited from the existing administrative, agrarian and commercial structures of the post-Roman and post-Sasanian world. Many of the most important social, economic and cultural developments—including the evolution of Islamic religion itself—took place largely beyond the purview of the Umayyad elite.
It is also clear that many networks of economic power and intellectual and ideological authority crossed political boundaries in the Umayyad period. Patterns of trade in the Mediterranean, Central Asia and the Indian Ocean persisted; Greek and Syriac-speaking intellectuals continued to work in the ‘Islamic’ Near East; Buddhists and Zoroastrians did the same in post-conquest Iran and Afghanistan. Both the extent and the importance of these ‘transnational’ connections in the Umayyad period remain controversial. It is argued that the extent of the continuity in trade patterns and intellectual activity from pre-Islamic times has generally been underestimated.


Research outputs