Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD
Summary: The civil wars marked a watershed in Islamic history. The curtain fell on the age of the Khulfa e Rashidoon (Rightly Guided Caliphs). Shi’a-Sunni sectarianism, which runs like a giant fault line across Islamic history, surfaced. The border between Persia and Syria was hardened at the Euphrates River. The convulsions gave birth to the Kharijites and their brand of extremism. For these reasons, Muslim historians refer to the civil wars as “fitnatul kabir” (the great schism).
With the assassination of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), the curtain fell on the age of faith in Islamic history. The Prophet founded a civilization wherein faith was supreme. Abu Bakr (r), Omar (r), Uthman (r) and Ali (r) strove to build upon the foundation laid by the Prophet. Never has there been a time in history as there was for the first forty years after the Hijra. For a brief moment, faith in the transcendence of God ruled supreme over the blade of the soldier and the wealth of the merchant. Madina was the capital of the largest empire the world had known but the rulers walked on earth like mendicants, with the fear of God in their hearts and the vision of the hereafter in their souls.
Even as the faith of Islam spread across the vast continents of Asia and Africa, it was challenged by the power of wealth. The vast treasures of Persia, accumulated over centuries of imperial rule, presented a temptation that some Arabs could not resist. The struggle between faith and wealth surfaced during the period of Uthman (r) and consumed his Caliphate. Ali (r) waged a valiant battle to extinguish the flames of greed and power, but the fire consumed him too. And out of the ashes arose the dynastic rule of the Umayyads.
Emir Muawiya was the first soldier-king in Islamic history. With him, the Islamic body politic came under the sway of dynastic rule. The pattern established by him persisted until the 18th century when the merchants of Europe supplanted the Muslim soldier-kings of Asia and Africa. An outstanding soldier, a shrewd politician and an able administrator, Muawiya fought Ali (r) to a standstill and declared himself the Caliph in 658. As soon as Ali (r) was assassinated (661) Muawiya made preparations to invade Mecca, Madina and Iraq. Hassan ibn Ali had been elected the Caliph in Kufa and he marched forth with a force of 12,000 Iraqis to meet Muawiya. But the Iraqis proved unreliable allies and deserted before the battle started. At the Treaty of Madayen (661), Hassan abdicated the Caliphate in favor of Muawiya in return for general amnesty and an annual stipend of 200,000 dirhams. He retired to Madina to live there as a great teacher and imam. The abdication brought to an end the first phase of the civil wars that began with the assassination of Uthman (r). It also consolidated the power of Muawiya over all Muslim territories.
With the Treaty of Madayen, power passed from Bani Hashim of the Quraish to Banu Omayya, another branch of the Quraish. In pre-Islamic days, the Bani Hashim were the custodians of the Ka’ba whereas the Banu Omayya were rich merchants and were responsible for the defense of Mecca. In modern language, the Bani Hashim were the priests, whereas the Banu Omayya were the merchants and soldiers. Prominent members of Banu Omayya (such as Abu Sufyan) were bitterly opposed to the mission of the Prophet in the early days of Islam but had embraced the new faith after the conquest of Mecca (628). The Prophet had sought to weld together the two tribes under the transcendence of Islam. The newfound unity survived through the Caliphate of Abu Bakr (r) and Omar (r). But with the Caliphate of Uthman (r), himself an Omayya, the old rivalry surfaced again. As we have pointed out, certain members of Banu Omayya took advantage of the pious and retiring nature of Uthman (r) and grew enormously wealthy. This development opened Uthman (r) to charges of favoritism and ultimately led to his assassination. In the ensuing chaos, Ali (r) had been nominated the Caliph, but Muawiya who was an Omayyad, demanded qisas (retribution) for Uthman’s blood before he would accept the Caliphate of Ali (r). Ali (r) was politically too weak to do this and Muawiya deftly exploited this weakness to incite the Syrians against Ali (r) and wage war against him (the Battle of Siffin).
History repeats itself. Divisions among humankind based on tribes, nations and race resurface time and again. The Banu Omayya, who were merchants and soldiers in pre-Islamic years, benefited enormously from the conquered gold of Persia. Bani Hashim, on the other hand, tried to keep the Islamic community focused on the rugged simplicity of Islam. The third Caliph Uthman (r) was an Omayyad and a pious, shy, retiring aged man. The power of wealth asserted itself during his time and those who were in a position to exploit this wealth, namely the merchant-soldier class of Banu Omayya, did so. When Ali (r), a Hashimite, tried to redirect the flow of history towards the pristine purity of Islam, faith collided with greed; the civil wars ensued pitting Banu Omayya against Bani Hashim. The first phase of the civil wars ended with the triumph of the merchant-warrior and the abdication of the rule of faith. An era ended and a new era began.
The civil wars also gave birth to the Kharijites. As we have pointed out, these were disgruntled men who walked out of Ali’s (r) camp when he accepted arbitration with Muawiya. Their position, though it was couched in democratic terms, was extremist. They sought to justify their misguided position that Ali (r) had compromised his faith. They also maintained that the Caliphate should be open to any capable Muslim, not just the Quraish. Their methods were bloody and they let loose a merciless reign of terror, indiscriminately killing men, women and children. Both Ali (r) and Muawiya waged war against them. Although defeated time and again, the Kharijites resurfaced in Islamic history as a recalcitrant group for five hundred years. In the 14th century, they gave up their violent ways and settled down in North Africa. Some historians, among them the great Ibn Batuta who traveled through North Africa in 1330-1334, relate them to the Ibadis who are known for their devout poetry in praise of the Prophet.
The civil wars had arrested the explosive advance of the Muslim armies. With the civil wars at bay, the advance resumed. Muhlab bin Abi Safra captured the frontier areas of modern Pakistan. Saeed bin Uthman captured Samarqand and Bukhara in Central Asia. Uqba bin Nafi raced across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. It was this famous general, who upon reaching the ocean urged his horse forward until it could advance no further and then turning towards the sky declared: “O God! Had this ocean not interrupted me, I would have reached the farthest corners of the earth to extol Thy Name”. This exclamation captures in a nutshell the motivation for early Muslim conquests. Faith was the propulsive force that provided this momentum. Islam had taught the Muslims that humankind was born into freedom and that a human ought to bow down before God and no one else. The struggle of the early Muslims was to establish a world order wherein only the name of God was extolled and men and women were freed from bondage to false gods or tyrants who acted as if they were gods.
The most memorable accomplishment of Emir Muawiya was the building of a strong navy to break the stranglehold of the Byzantine Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. A navy was built and Jandab bin Abi Umayyah was appointed Emir ul Bahr, source of the English word Admiral. Rhodes and other islands in the eastern Mediterranean were captured and in 671, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was besieged. The siege lasted several months. Byzantine defenses were strong and the Greeks were well versed in the use of naphtha (“Greek fire”), a precursor to modern day napalm. As the siege prolonged, there was an outbreak of cholera aboard the ships and the Muslims had to break off the engagement. It was during this siege that a companion of the Prophet, Abu Ayyub Ansari died and was buried beneath the ramparts of the Fort of Constantinople. Located within modern day Istanbul, the tomb of Abu Ayyub is one of the chief attractions of that beautiful city.
Emir Muawiya was a soldier and he paid special attention to the armed forces. He encouraged innovations in military technology. It was during the reign of Muawiya that Muslim engineers invented the “Minjenique” (machine) to propel large stones onto enemy ramparts. He modernized the army, introducing specialized units for desert combat and snowy terrains. New forts were built. Muawiya was the first ruler to mint coins with Arabic inscriptions, displacing Byzantine and Persian coins, thereby reasserting the fiscal independence of the Muslim state. The city of Kairouan was founded in the Maghrib. Administrative record keeping was systematized. Old canals were re-excavated and new ones dug. The police force was strengthened and the postal system, which was created by Omar ibn al Khattab (r) for military use, was now opened to the public.
Muawiya bin Abu Sufyan was a Companion of the Prophet and on several occasions the Prophet used his services as a scribe of the Qur’an. In this capacity he is respected by all Muslims. It is his role as a historical figure where differences arise. While his accomplishments were noteworthy, he is also known as the Emir who condoned the cursing of Ali bin Abu Talib (r) in public, a practice abandoned fifty years later by the Caliph Omar bin Abdel Aziz (719). Most regrettably, Muawiya imposed his tyrant son Yazid on Islamic history.