Monday, August 11, 2014

The Umayyads: Muawiya

Umayyad Caliphate in 750
Upon the death of the third Rashidun Caliph, Uthman, tensions between those who supported election for the next leaders and those who wanted blood relatives of Mohammad to succeed and lead the community. The later, called the Shia Muslims, gain the upper hand when their candidate, Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law to the Prophet Mohammad, became finally the new caliph. However, many challenged his authority. Allegations of conspiracy for the murder of previous Caliph and lack of conviction to punish the murders of Uthman, drove many to rebel against Ali. Among those who oppose the caliph would be Muawiya. He would lead the strongest opposition to Ali and eventually lead to the establishment of a new Caliphate – the Umayyad.

The life of Muawiya began in the desert sands of Arabia. He was born into the privileged Quarysh clan of Umayya, the same clan of the third Rashidun Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan. His family were infamous for their opposition and persecution of the Muslims and the Prophet Mohammad. His father, Sakhr ibn Harb ibn Umayyah (or Abu Sufyan) was a leading critic and enemy of the Prophet during the Battle of Uhud and Khandaq. His mother, Hind, was also a daughter of a chief who opposed the Prophet as well. However, after the fall of Mecca to the hands of Prophet Mohammad, Muawiya and his family converted to Islam. They were called as tulaqa or former enemies forgiven by the Prophet Mohammad after the capture of Mecca. In addition, as sign of reconciliation, Mohammad gave them alms.

After the death of Mohammad, Muawiya served three caliphs well. In 634, before his death, Abu Bakar sent Muawiya to Syria to lead a division of Arab warriors and join his brother Yazid in fighting the Byzantines. During the caliphate of Umar, he led the siege of the strategic port city of Caesarea. The siege lasted for four years ending with victory in 640. In 639, the death of Yazid led to Muawiya’s promotion to the position of Governor of Syria, with his headquarters in Damascus. His governorship dominion would eventually, increase. In 643, Jordan was added to his area of control. Then three years later, Palestine was added. During the caliphate of Uthnam, he established garrisons along the coast of the Levant. Then in 647, he proposed a naval expedition from Syria and raid or even capture the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. This proposal, however, was rejected, but he was given a green light in order to capture the island of Cyprus. And so, from this invasion of Cyprus, the first Islamic navy was inaugurated.

Upon the late period of Uthman’s caliphate, Muawiya began to play a major role. While besieged by discontented muslims from Egypt, Uthman sought the help and protection of Muawiya. However, it was too late. Uthman’s palace was stormed and he was murdered. A new caliph rose eventually in form of Ali. Ali did not punish Uthman’s murderers to the fullest extent of the law. Among those who were offended by the injustice was Muawiya. After the Battle of the Camel in 656 where Mohammad’s wife, Aisha, fell to Ali, Muawiya raised an army. He used his wide based support in Syria to support his cause against Ali. Muawiya later confronted the Ali in 657 with the Battle of Siffin.

The battle ended in a stalemate. Both then agreed to an arbitration. But the arbitration was equally fruitless as the mediators proposed both sides to give up their respective positions. The mediation, however, was huge blow for Ali. It caused a Muslim sect called the Kharijites to opposed Ali. Their opposition led to the assassination of Ali in 661.

The death of Ali was the perfect timing for the rise of Muawiya. Ali was succeeded briefly by his son, Hassan. Hassan and his brother Husayn proved to be weak compared to the battle hardened and ambitious Muawiya. Muawiya offered Hassan and Husayn compensation and stipend in exchange for their abdication in favor of Muawiya. And when the deal was completed in 661, Muawiya proclaimed the establishment of the new Umayyad Caliphate. In recognition of support and loyalty of Syrians to his cause, he established his capital to the city of Damascus.

As a Caliph, he presented himself as a lenient but strong leader. He allowed freedom of expression. He also gave authority to governors to collect taxes and control the army garrisoned within their provinces. He also directed the formation of a shura composed of representatives from Arabian tribes.

Muawiya had the intention of establishing a hereditary caliphate. He deemed necessary and better to establish succession by inheritance than election because of intrigues and volatility for civil wars. And so he presented his son, Yazid to become his heir and asked the Shura for their approval. However, some showed opposition on the moved. Ali’s son, Hassan and Husayn criticized the moved. Within the Shura, opposition was also brewing. According to a story, when Muawiya presented Yazid to the Shura, he unsheathed his sword. The Shura got the message and allowed the succession.

In 680, Muawiya died after two decades of rule of his newly established Caliphate. His legacy was peace and tranquility, voice to his subjects, and establishing the first hereditary caliphate. But also, he left a huge cleavage between the Sunnis and the Shias, a conflict which would be further escalated by Muawiya’s successor. 

Bowering, G. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Chaurasia, R. History of Middle East. New Delhi: Atlantic Publisher & Distributor, 2005.

Martin, R. Encyclopedia of Islam and Muslim World. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004.

Wynbrandt, J. A Brief History of Saudi Arabia. New York: Facts On File, 2010. 

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