Jordan Table of Contents

By the time of his death in A.D. 632, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers had brought most of the tribes and towns of the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of the new monotheistic religion of Islam (literally, submission), which was conceived of as uniting the individual believer, the state, and the society under the omnipotent will of God. Islamic rulers therefore exercised both temporal and religious authority. Adherents of Islam, called Muslims (those who submit to the will of God), collectively formed the House of Islam, or Dar al Islam.

Arab armies carried Islam north and east from Arabia in the wake of their rapid conquest, and also westward across North Africa. In 633, the year after Muhammad's death, they entered the Jordan region, and in 636, under Khalid ibn al Walid, they crushed the Byzantine army at the Battle of Uhud at the Yarmuk River. Jerusalem was occupied in 638, and by 640 all Syria was in Arab Muslim hands. Conversion to Islam was nearly complete among Arabs on the East Bank, although the small Jewish community in Palestine and groups of Greek and Arab Christians were allowed to preserve their religious identities. Arabic soon supplanted Greek and Aramaic as the primary language of the region's inhabitants in both town and countryside.

Muhammad was succeeded as spiritual and temporal leader of all Muslims by his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, who bore the title caliph (successor or deputy) for two years. Under Umar (A.D. 634-44), the caliphate began efforts to organize a government in areas newly conquered by the Muslims. The Quran, Islam's sacred scripture, was compiled during the caliphate of Uthman (644-56), whose reign was brought to an end by an assassin. Uthman was succeeded by Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali, the last of the four socalled orthodox caliphs, who was also assassinated in 661.

A dispute over the caliphal succession led to a permanent schism that split Islam into two major branches--the Sunni and the Shia. The Shias supported the hereditary claim of Ali and his direct descendants, whereas the Sunnis favored the principle of consensual election of the fittest from the ranks of the ashraf (or shurfa--nobles; sing., sharif). Muslims in the Jordan region are predominantly Sunni.

After Ali's murder, Muawiyah--the governor of Syria and leader of a branch of Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh of Mecca--proclaimed himself caliph and founded a dynasty--the Umayyad--that made its capital in Damascus. The Umayyad caliphs governed their vast territories in a personal and authoritarian manner. The caliph, assisted by a few ministers, held absolute and final authority but delegated extensive executive powers to provincial governors. Religious judges (qadis) administered Islamic law (sharia) to which all other considerations, including tribal loyalties, were theoretically subordinated.

The Umayyad Dynasty was overthrown in 750 by a rival Sunni faction, the Abbasids, who moved the capital of the caliphate to Baghdad. The Jordan region became even more of a backwater, remote from the center of power. Its economy declined as trade shifted from traditional caravan routes to seaborne commerce, although the pilgrim caravans to Mecca became an important source of income. Depopulation of the towns and the decay of sedentary agricultural communities, already discernible in the late Byzantine period, accelerated in districts where pastoral Arab beduins, constantly moving into the area from the south, pursued their nomadic way of life. Late in the tenth century A.D. the Jordan region was wrested from the Abbasids by the Shia Fatimid caliphs in Egypt. The Fatimids were in turn displaced after 1071 by the Seljuk Turks, who had gained control of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad.

The Seljuk threat to the Byzantine Empire and a desire to seize the holy places in Palestine from the Muslims spurred the Christian West to organize the First Crusade, which culminated in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. The crusaders subsequently established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, a feudal state that extended its hold to the East Bank. The crusaders used the term Outre Jourdain (Beyond Jordan) to describe the area across the river from Palestine--an area that was defended by a line of formidable castles like that at Al Karak.

In 1174 Salah ad Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub--better known in the West as Saladin--deposed the last Fatimid caliph, whom he had served as grand vizier, and seized power as sultan of Egypt. A Sunni scholar and experienced soldier of Kurdish origin, Saladin soon directed his energies against the crusader states in Palestine and Syria. At the decisive Battle of Hattin on the west shore of Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee), Saladin annihilated the crusaders' army in 1187 and soon afterward retook Jerusalem.

Saladin's successors in the Ayyubid Sultanate quarreled among themselves, and Saladin's conquests broke up into squabbling petty principalities. The Ayyubid Dynasty was overthrown in 1260 by the Mamluks (a caste of slave-soldiers, mostly of Kurdish and Circassian origin), whose warrior-sultans repelled the Mongol incursions and by the late fourteenth century held sway from the Nile to the Euphrates. Their power, weakened by factionalism within their ranks, contracted during the next century in the face of a dynamic new power in the Middle East--the Ottoman Turks.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress