Sectarianism under the Umayyads and Abbasids, orthodoxy and heresy

Essay, 2009

5 Pages, Grade: 85


Heresy and orthodoxy are problematic terms to refer to in Islam since this religion does not sustain authorities, councils, synods, or organs which a vast Muslim majority recognizes and which are entitled to direct orthodoxy—a necessary guideline to be able to determine what is heresy. Instead it is the ‘Consensus’ among Muslims and scholars which constitutes the “supreme authority in all questions of religious practice.”[1] However, the term heresy is not unknown in Muslim circles. The Arabic language knows many different words describing ‘heresy,’ but none of them can be used as a synonym for the term as employed by the Christian Churches; to express this term explicitly, they had to introduce a word from European or Christian origin: “hartagqa,” “hurtuqi” “hartiqi.”[2] Sectarianism started very early after the advent of Islam, under the reign of the Umayyads. Bernard Lewis’ article “Some Observations on the Significance of Heresy in the History of Islam” shows, that Islamic history and early Islamic documents illustrate a discussion about the connection between heresy and sectarianism. Generally speaking, heresy was applied to sectarians in a rather loosely manner: “the sectarian, though some of his doctrines may in time be excluded by the cumulative force of the Consensus from the main stream of Islam, is still a Muslim.”[3] The following essay will explore sectarianism under the Umayyads and ‘Abbasids, continually referring to the terms of orthodoxy and heresy. It will analyse political and religious opposition offered by the various non- Sunni factions.

The short but incisive reign of the Umayyad dynasty began with the establishment of Mu’awiya’s caliphate, who was a rival of ‘Ali as well as ‘Uthman’s cousin. The Umayyad period, mainly depicted in an unfavourable light by Islamic tradition, however, was decisive for the creation of a “distinctively Sunni Islam.”[4] This development is closely connected to an evolving sectarianism: continuous rebellions and revolts, which challenged the Umayyad reign, progressively served to carve out an Islamic Sunni identity, whose emergence Berkey locates around the end of the 7th century and which must be described as a very gradual and fluid process beginning under the Umayyads. This evolution is connected to the accentuated ‘Arabness’ of the Umayyad’s caliphate. In the 90 years of their caliphate, they conquered vast territories, inhabited by non-Arabs, who had to suffer from an extended social discrimination by their occupiers. Keeping a clear distinction between the Arab ‘elite’ and the non-Arab conquered people constituted an essential characteristic in this early period. Arab Muslims and the whole ruling class were built on the taxes paid by non-Muslims of non-Arab countries. Allowing their unlimited conversion would have destroyed the vital line of the ruling elite. However, the status of non-Arabs, even after permitted conversion, remained lower than the position of Arabs. Furthermore the Umayyads imperialized the Muslim polity, which caused hostility by many evolving sectarian movements. Indeed, political and religious opposition to their manner of governing set the stage for sectarian movements.

Heresiographers described Kharijism and Shi’ism as the first two major oppositional movements to the ruling caliphate. Kharijis (Ar. Khawarij,“those who go out”) disapproved of the Umayyads mainly because of ideological reasons.[5] They left ‘Ali’s army while fighting Mu’awiya following to the murder of ‘ Uthman. Their oppositional impulses were rooted in their accent on religious principles which they aimed at applying differently from the Umayyads. Furthermore, along with the Shi’a movement, Kharijis arose in the background of disputes over political leadership in the Islamic community. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the essential feature of Shi’ism was represented by their belief that the Islamic community’s leadership should have passed on directly to ‘Ali and his descendants and that the imam must originate from the ahl al-bayt; only its members would have satisfied the Shi’i claim for the leadership of the divinely chosen leaders, selected among the descendents from the Prophet. They opposed the ruling Sunni practice according to which the caliph was determined by the consensus of the community. One decisive event for Shi’i history occurred as well in the Umayyads era—the martyrdom of ‘ Ali’s son al-Husayn in 680—which contributed greatly to the evolution of a distinct Shi’a identity.


[1] Bernard Lewis, “Some Observations on the Significance of Heresy in the History of Islam,” Studia Islamica, (1953): 57.

[2] Lewis, 51.

[3] Lewis, 58.

[4] Berkey, Jonathan, The Formation of Islam, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 85.

[5] Berkey, 86.

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Sectarianism under the Umayyads and Abbasids, orthodoxy and heresy
Ben Gurion University
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‘Consensus’ among Muslims and scholars, supreme authority in all questions of religious practice, evolving sectarianism, continuous rebellions and revolts, to carve out an Islamic Sunni identity, ‘Arabness’, Kharijism and Shi’ism, Abbasid revolution, Khurasan, Isma’ilis, Buyids, a Shi’a Persian dynasty, the Zaidis, and the Fatimids
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Sophie Duhnkrack (Author), 2009, Sectarianism under the Umayyads and Abbasids, orthodoxy and heresy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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