Islamic History, Part 14: Muʿawiyah’s Caliphate (661-680) and the Onset of Dynastic Rule

Islamic History Series

We can actually close off our first mini-period in Islamic history at this point. Isn’t that exciting? See, the first four Caliphs–Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali–are collectively known in later Islamic historiography as the Rashidun Caliphs, from the Arabic word rashid, which means “rightly-guided” or “righteous.” This is an incredibly loaded designation and it doesn’t appear in the literature until a century or more after Ali’s death in 661, after an entire dynasty (the Umayyads) had arisen, held the caliphate, declined, and been overthrown. It was under the dynasty that overthrew the Umayyads, the Abbasids, that these first four caliphs were classified as rashid, and that classification was pure dynastic propaganda. The implication in calling these guys “righteous” was that the Umayyad Caliphs who succeeded them, beginning with Muʿawiyah, were, you know, not. So, hey, good thing we overthrew them, am I right? Wink, wink?

Still, propaganda or not, the designation stuck and has continued to stick ever since, with the understanding in the Islamic narrative that the collective reign of these Caliphs, combined of course with the period when Muhammad himself was alive, represents (for Sunnis, anyway) the epoch of the Islamic state par excellence. This is the era to which Islamic (again, it must be stressed, Sunni) traditionalists and reformers alike have continually hearkened as a model for what the Islamic community of [insert century here] ought to be. Traditionalists see Muhammad and the first four caliphs as the model Islamic leaders and the governance of this early community as the ideal setup for an Islamic polity, but this is obviously an interpretation, filtered through centuries of historiography and mythology, rather than an accurate recounting of the period. It seems that while Uthman, for example, was actually in power, there were plenty of folks who saw him as anything but “righteous”–like, say, the folks who assassinated him. Ali was barely allowed to govern at all given the number of revolutions his accession brought about. But at a remove of a few hundred years, with a narrative to serve, these guys become model leaders and the empire they governed becomes the ideal political entity.

Historians of Islam and the Middle East have tended to retain the Rashidun designation as a helpful way to group these first four Caliphs, who were not dynastic rulers but were each made Caliph either by election in council or by the designation of their predecessor. There are some common threads to talk about in this period, mostly in terms of military expansion (which we’ve already covered) and the development of the empire; for example new cities like Kufa and Basra in Iraq and Fustat in Egypt (located where “Old Cairo” is today) were built, developed and populated, and the Pharaoh’s Canal was redug, linking the Nile to the Red Sea and helping to supply Egyptian grain to the perpetually-at-risk-of-famine cities of Mecca and Medina. It is also important to note that this is not the only way to categorize these caliphs. Shiʿa would, to say the least, dispute the idea that the three men who successively usurped Ali’s right to succeed Muhammad were in any way “righteous,” and in fact some branches of Shiʿism hold that believers must curse the names of the first three Caliphs. Marshall Hodgson, the University of Chicago professor who arguably invented the modern Islamic History canon, put Muʿawiyah and his son and successor, Yazid, in a period with the four Rashidun caliphs and didn’t start the Umayyad Dynasty until the reign of Marwan b. al-Hakam, Muʿawiyah’s cousin who won the Caliphate after yet another Civil War (spoiler alert). But most historians nowadays would say that the Rashidun period ended with the death of Ali, and the Umayyad Dynasty began with Muʿawiyah, and that’s what we’re going with here.

On the ground in 661, very few people outside of Ali’s closest followers would have registered some kind of drastic shift in the direction of the Arab/Islamic Empire. Muʿawiyah was born in Mecca in 601 and, like so many of Muhammad’s later followers, was initially a strong opponent of Muhammad’s teachings. He pledged his loyalty to Muhammad along with the rest of the Quraysh in 630, when Muhammad accepted Mecca’s surrender. He served as one of Muhammad’s scribes and was later part of the first Arab armies sent into Syria; he was at Yarmouk in 636 when the Arab army defeated the Romans, and was present when the Romans surrendered Jerusalem. He was made governor of Syria by Umar and seems to have had some real talent for military planning; under his governorship his Syrian soldiers became some of the best fighters in the Empire, and he convinced Uthman to let him build the first serious Arab navy in order to counter the Romans in the Mediterranean; that navy defeated the Byzantine fleet in the Battle of the Masts in 655, and opened up the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus to frequent raids and ultimately occupations by the Arabs. When Ali became Caliph, Muʿawiyah demanded the arrest and trial of Uthman’s assassins and simply refused to obey Ali’s order to step down as governor. We’ve already covered the rest of this part of the story.

Muʿawiyah’s first act as Caliph was to cut a deal with Ali’s eldest son, and Muhammad’s grandson (via his mother Fatimah), Hasan (d. 670), who had actually been named Caliph by Ali’s followers. Since Muʿawiyah became caliph and ruled for almost two full decades, it’s easy to consider him the “winner” of his war with Ali, but we should understand that his army was being soundly thrashed by Ali’s at Siffin until, so we’re told, he sent his soldiers into the field carrying Qurʾan manuscripts in order to stop Ali’s men in their tracks. It behooved him to try to sideline Ali’s heir ASAP, and so he did. Hasan seems to have been exhausted from the fighting he’d been doing in support of his father, and had no wish to see more people die, and so he agreed to stand his forces down, renounce any claim on the Caliphate, and retire to Medina so long as Muʿawiyah pledged to treat all his subjects justly (which, actually, he more or less did) and pledged that he would not attempt to establish a dynasty upon his death (oops). Hasan spent almost ten years in Medina until (in 670) he was poisoned by one of his wives, perhaps at Muʿawiyah’s behest (Sunni and Shiʿi sources understandably differ on this point). Hasan’s sacrifice of the Caliphate in the name of peace and unity is celebrated by Sunnis and Shiʿa to this day.

Muʿawiyah’s other immediate change upon assuming the Caliphate was establishing the city of Damascus as the new caliphal capital. Recall that Ali had briefly made Kufa his capital, so Medina had already lost this status, but Muʿawiyah’s decision was about his personal base of support in Syria, especially the Syrian soldiers who fought so fiercely on his behalf. However, moving the capital also made strategic sense. The empire had grown far beyond Arabia, and having the caliph located so much closer to the very active frontier between the caliphate and what was left of Rome was probably a good thing. The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which has fortunately escaped destruction in the Syrian Civil War so far (the equally venerable Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo was not so lucky), testifies to Damascus’s importance as the Umayyad capital city, and became an architectural model for congregational mosques throughout the Islamic World.

Militarily, Muʿawiyah expanded the empire considerably, regaining what had been lost during the First Fitna (particularly in eastern Iran, the region known as Khurasan) and conquering much of North Africa, which had previously been a sort of vassal region under Uthman and had been lost under Ali. A new garrison city, Qayrawan (modern Kairouan), was established in modern Tunisia, and it replaced Carthage as the administrative capital of North Africa. He was relentless in his attacks on the Romans, maybe culminating in 676 with a siege, albeit a failed one, of Constantinople itself (historians aren’t sure this siege really happened even though it’s attested in one major Roman source, Theophanes). Whatever really happened, the two empires did experience a role reversal around this time, involving a group of Syrian Christians called the Mardaites, who began to conduct regular raids against the caliphate and were very successful for a time. They were so successful, in fact, that Muʿawiyah was forced to sign a treaty with the Roman Emperor Constantine IV in which the Arabs had to pay annual tribute to Constantinople. For a brief period of time, in the ongoing struggle between the Byzantines and the Arabs, the Byzantines were actually the dominant party, and they were able to use this occasion (and the extra tribute money) to deal with other threats to the empire, chiefly the Bulgars.

Umayyad Empire
The Caliphate at its height in the Umayyad Period. Under Muʿawiyah they had not yet entered Spain and were not yet this deeply advanced into North Africa or Central Asia, so you should mentally adjust for that.

Administratively, Muʿawiyah began the process of establishing a central bureaucracy by creating a Chancery and a Post Office. The empire to this point had been largely maintained by adhering to local bureaucracy and local practice, which created a hodgepodge of different administrative practices all over the place, some rooted in Roman tradition and others in Persian tradition. Muʿawiyah’s actions were the first step in detaching the empire from this piecemeal adherence to past practice and in creating its own administrative systems; this process would be advanced much further by Marwan’s son, Abd al-Malik, at the end of the seventh century. The Sunni histories mostly remember him as a thoughtful ruler who was open to his subjects and administered the empire on a basis of personal merit rather than nepotism or tribal favoritism; Shiʿi sources obviously tell a much different story, of the man who usurped Ali’s Caliphate and then deceived Hasan with false promises that he would not seek to establish a dynasty.

The Shiʿi sources are right about that last point, at least. As Muʿawiyah grew older he made it quite clear that he intended that his son, Yazid, would succeed him. This plan was also heavily pushed by the aforementioned Marwan, who had been appointed governor in Medina when Muʿawiyah decided to rule from Damascus; Marwan would be the senior figure in the Umayyah clan after Muʿawiyah’s death and undoubtedly figured that he could manipulate the younger Yazid and be the power behind the throne. This was too much for many prominent figures in the empire, who had opposed Ali precisely because they feared his reign would be the start of a theoretical dynastic order, and were now being asked to accept the establishment of an actual dynastic order by Muʿawiyah.  To them, the imposition of a dynastic royal family would fundamentally change the empire from something based on Muhammad’s ideals into something lesser, something indistinguishable from every other empire and kingdom in the world. Muʿawiyah died in 680 and Yazid was crowned Caliph. The Second Fitna began almost immediately, and was fought along the same basic lines as the First had been.

Next time: Meet the Second Fitna, same as the First

Further Reading:

As usual, Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050, his The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live in, and his The Armies of the Caliphs: military and society in the early Islamic State.

Walter Kaegi’s Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests is an excellent work if you want to see the conquests from the other side, while Nadia Maria El-Cheikh’s Byzantium viewed by the Arabs tells much of the same story from the Islamic perspective.

Fred Donner’s Early Islamic Conquests is a great source for this period of early military expansion.

Alan Walmsley’s Early Islamic Syria: An Archaeological Assessment offers a complementary perspective on Syria in this period.

G. R. Hawting’s The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661-750 stands virtually alone as a monograph of the Umayyad Dynasty. Unfortunately the Umayyads produced no histories, or at least none that have survived, so the task of doing effective study of the dynasty presents considerable challenges in terms of having to wade through histories that were written under the Abbasids, who overthrew the Umayyads and had good propaganidistic reasons for portraying them in the most negative possible light.

R. Stephen Humphreys has written a short biography of Muʿawiyah called Muʿawiya ibn abi Sufyan: From Arabia to Empire. Humphreys is an excellent historian, though I haven’t read this particular book.

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