Lost Islamic History: Reclaiming Muslim Civilisation from the Past
LOST ISLAMIC HISTORY – Book Sample
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE MUSLIM STATE
The death of ‘Ali at the hands of the Kharijis and the rise of Mu‘awiya to the caliphate marks the end of the era commonly referred to as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”. The nature of Muslim government and society fundamentally changed during the nineteen years of Mu‘awiya’s rule from 661 to 680.
Coming to power at a time when disunity and chaos reigned from Egypt to Iran, Mu‘awiya’s political skill and competence helped prevent the Muslim world from falling into total anarchy—from which it may never have risen. Yet at the same time, some of his policies and actions were controversial, and formed the basis for some of the biggest divisions in the Muslim world today.
His reign marks the beginning of the Umayyad Caliphate, when succession to the position became hereditary and stayed in the Umayyad family until 750, when it was replaced by another old family of Mecca, the Abbasids.
Despite the attempts at arbitration, a real solution to the dispute between ‘Ali and Mu‘awiya never took shape, and the last years of ‘Ali’s caliphate were marked by de facto division between the realms of Mu‘awiya and ‘Ali. With the death of ‘Ali, however, Mu‘awiya was free to extend his control over the areas formerly loyal to ‘Ali and reunify the Muslim world under his command.
Indeed, he was probably the only man at the time that had enough support to manage such a monumental task. He was incredibly popular in Syria, a province he had looked after as governor for twenty years before the start of his caliphate, and Syrian army formed the backbone of his military.
He was not without enemies, however, particularly in Iraq, where popular opinion was in favor of the caliphate being inherited by ‘Ali’s son, Hasan. Ever the pragmatic statesman, Mu‘awiya had no desire to plunge the Muslim world into further warfare over leadership. So instead of mobilizing the army to violently crush the opposition, he negotiated a deal with ‘Ali’s son in which Hasan would give up any claims to leadership and retire to a life of worship and scholarship in Mecca. Desire among some for rule by the house of ‘Ali remained, although under the surface, and it never materialized into a real threat to the reign of Mu‘awiya.
The Dome of the Rock Mosque was built in the late 690s as part of the al- Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem. Its design is largely Byzantine, and was partly engineered by Christians.
The caliph also relied upon negotiation and deal-making with other potential opponents. In many ways, Mu‘awiya ruled like an Arab tribal leader from pre- Islamic Arabia, using family relations, an unwritten code of honor and gifts to get his way politically.
Having been a youth in Mecca who saw how his father led Quraysh, these old traditions were no doubt ingrained in his political persona. At the same time, however, Mu‘awiya began to change the caliphate into something new: a monarchy.
He was the first caliph to sit on a throne and the first to pray in an enclosed area in the mosque, protecting him from possible assassins. He no longer followed in the modest and simple footsteps of the first four caliphs. Instead, royalty and court culture became a part of the caliphate as it had been part of the Roman and Sassanid Empires.
For the first thirty years after the death of the Prophet, the caliph was simply a first among equals, and numerous anecdotes survive of the asceticism of those first four leaders, such as ‘Umar being mistaken for a commoner or refusing the service of bodyguards. Mu‘awiya was the bridge between the simple caliphate that came before him and the monarchy that succeeded him. He would walk in the markets of Damascus in his patched clothing as enormous and elaborate mosques were built by his architects.
As part of his overall program to de-emphasize political divisions among Muslims, Mu‘awiya chose to focus on expanding the borders of the caliphate. Reminiscent of ‘Umar, who focused on outward expansion after the infighting of the Wars of Apostasy, Mu‘awiya sent armies to continue the war against the Byzantine Empire by land and sea. The important islands of Rhodes and Crete in the Aegean Sea were occupied by the navy first established under ‘Uthman.
Buoyed by these victories, the Muslim armies were, for the first time, able to lay siege of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The legendary city had been a prize since the earliest days of Islam, when the Prophet promised that eventually a Muslim army would conquer that distant and seemingly impenetrable city.
As Muslim armies approached the city for the first time in 674, fulfilling that promise seemed to be within reach. From 674 to 678, the Umayyad armies laid siege to the city’s massive walls, but lacked the manpower or technology to conquer the city.
Among the casualties of the siege was the elderly Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, a notable Companion of the Prophet who lodged Muhammad in his home when he arrived in Medina. He was buried near the walls of Constantinople, and almost 800 years later would become a mythic legend for the Ottoman armies that eventually managed to overcome Constantinople’s walls.
Expansion also continued in North Africa, where the Byzantines still had control west of modern Libya. The fringes of Umayyad-controlled land west of Egypt were governed by ‘Uqba ibn Nafi‘, another Companion originally from Mecca.
In 670, he was ordered to advance into Byzantine Africa in conjunction with the ongoing advances into Byzantine territory in the Aegean. ‘Uqba’s army consisted of 10,000 Arab horsemen who were aided by huge numbers of local Berbers who had recently converted to Islam. Because of the Byzantine preoccupation with other fronts, ‘Uqba was able to advance unchallenged into modern Tunisia, where he established the garrison city of Qayrawan.
The main threat ended up not being the Byzantine forces, but the local Berbers who had to be slowly subdued before any more advances towards the West could be embarked upon. Following a short period from 675 to 680 during which ‘Uqba was replaced as governor of Ifriqya (the province of Africa), ‘Uqba continued his westward raids.
By 680 the Umayyad armies were well-established enough in North Africa to embark on serious conquests across modern Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, collectively known as the Maghreb, to the Atlantic Ocean. ‘Uqba’s role in these conquests would raise him to a legendary status for North Africa’s Muslim population.
After leaving Qayrawan in 680, ‘Uqba’s army marched generally unopposed through the desert plateau south of the coastal mountain ranges that run along the Mediterranean.
Advancing from one Byzantine outpost to the next, ‘Uqba’s army was able to quickly annex hundreds of kilometers of territory along the coast with relative ease, even as disunity and civil wars raged in the heartland of the Islamic empire.
One possible explanation for this seemingly miraculous conquest was linguistic, cultural and religious division between the Berbers of North Africa and the Byzantine rulers. The Byzantines who ruled over North Africa could not be more different from the Berbers under their control.
The Berbers were a desert people, closer to the Arab nomads who arrived in the 600s than the urban Latins and Greeks who had administered the area for centuries. Their language shared no history with the Greek used in administration, and few Berbers went out of their way to learn the language of their governors. The lack of common cultural traits meant a constant social divide between the two, and examples of full assimilation of the Berbers into Roman/Byzantine society are scarce.
Religion, however, seems to be a larger factor that led to Berber support for the Arab Muslim armies. Early Islamic accounts speak of entire tribes of Berbers converting to Islam immediately upon arrival.
There were certainly divides between North Africans and the Byzantines on issues within Christianity: the main issue was the nature of divinity and humanity. Separatist Christian movements such as Arianism and Donatism openly disputed the official orthodoxy promoted by the Byzantines and may well have caused North Africans to lean closer to Islam.
But even if they did not all convert immediately, as early chroniclers claim, the Berbers certainly had practical reasons to rise up against the Byzantines in conjunction with arriving Muslim armies.
Thus it was possible for ‘Uqba’s army to continue gaining momentum as it did through the early 680s until they were able to push into modern Morocco and to the shores of the Atlantic.
His legendary words when he rode his horse into the crashing waves of the ocean hint at the deeply religious nature of these conquests: “O Lord, if the sea did not stop me, I would go through the lands like Alexander the Great, defending your faith and fighting the unbelievers!” Whether or not he actually said those words is not as important as the role that heroic image would play in the minds of generations of military leaders that would rise out of the Islamic Maghreb.
Conflict of Succession
Despite his success in unifying the Muslim world after the troubles of ‘Ali’s caliphate, one decision Mu‘awiya made would make him a controversial character and change the nature of Islamic government for the next 1300 years. He appointed his son Yazid as his successor well before his own death and demanded oaths of allegiance from the notables of Damascus.
Muslim historians throughout the ages have speculated as to his reasoning for doing so, especially considering the subsequent opposition that arose to Yazid. However, keeping in mind the historical context of Mu‘awiya’s time makes it easier to understand why the switch to a hereditary system made sense.
Mu‘awiya’s time as caliph showed the emphasis he placed on political unity and harmony. After the political upheaval of ‘Ali’s caliphate, Mu‘awiya’s main challenge was keeping the Muslim world united under one command. Although he largely succeeded, there was no guarantee that all subsequent caliphs would be able to use external threats or political maneuvering to minimize internal divisions.
Mu‘awiya thus felt that the only way to preserve social unity and harmony was to simply bypass wars of succession and make the caliphate hereditary.
As it happened, however, the choice of Yazid was not without controversy. Unlike his father, he had never known the Prophet, and was thus without the aura that comes with being a Companion. Furthermore, rumors swirled in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina of the sinful life that Yazid led. Alcohol, singing girls and excessive luxuries were to be found in Yazid’s presence, a far cry from the pious and simple lifestyle Muhammad had preached.
Whether or not these allegations of wickedness were accurate, they were enough for some to revolt, such as ‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr, the son of the Zubayr who opposed ‘Ali. Compounding the problem were the desires of some in Iraq to see a descendant of ‘Ali take the title of caliph of the Muslim world.
‘Ali’s oldest son Hasan had already died in Mecca during Mu‘awiya’s reign, so support fell to his younger brother, Husayn. This grandson of Muhammad was attracted to the city of Kufa in
Mesopotamia by promises of support from its people. Against the advice of ‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr, who warned him that the people of Iraq will desert him at their first opportunity, Husayn set out to establish a base in Iraq in 680 from which he could oppose the Syrian Umayyads, as his father had done twenty-five years earlier. True to ‘Abdullah’s prediction, the people of Kufa abandoned their support for Husayn before he even arrived. Yazid had already sent a new governor to the city to root out any opposition and ensure that the population does not rise up in revolt against him, and it appears to be this show of force that persuaded the people to abandon their promises of support.
Husayn had been counting on that support and only travelled with about seventy family members and friends, hardly a force capable of overthrowing Yazid. At the plain of Karbala about 80 kilometers north of Kufa, Husayn was surrounded by Yazid’s forces, which proceeded to kill the would-be rebel and most of his supporters. The Battle of Karbala would later become one of the founding legends of a new, divergent strain of Islam, the Shi‘a.
‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr’s revolt did not fare much better. After the killing of Husayn, popular support throughout the Muslim world was against the Umayyad government. Husayn was, after all, the Prophet’s dearly beloved grandson, and killing someone who had the Prophet’s blood flowing through him was a shock to many of the more pious-minded.
‘Abdullah used this opposition to Yazid to bolster his own revolt against the Umayyads, which he declared in Mecca in 680, after Husayn’s death. With such support, ‘Abdullah’s revolt could not be stamped out as easily as Husayn’s. In fact, Yazid was never able to do away with the revolt in the Hijaz and died in 683 without complete control over the Empire.
After Yazid’s death, it seems that Umayyad control collapsed almost everywhere in the Muslim world. Yazid’s successor, a youth who seems to have had no interest in government, only ruled for a few months before his own death. ‘Abdullah declared himself caliph, and was given oaths of allegiance by people in Iraq, Egypt, and even the fringes of Syria itself.
But through a mix of tribal politics and open fighting, the Umayyads managed to regain control of the caliphate under Marwan, a cousin of Mu‘awiya. Under Marwan and his son ‘Abd al-Malik, the Umayyads regained control of Syria, Egypt and Iraq, and eventually stamped out ‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr’s rebellion in Mecca by 692. The Umayyads had come back from the brink of extinction to regain complete control over the Muslim empire.
This certainly was not the tranquility and harmony Mu‘awiya had hoped for when he appointed his son as caliph, but once the Umayyads were re- established, the period of civil wars between 680 and 692 seemed like nothing more than a small hiccup. In the late 600s and early 700s, the Umayyads continued with a second period of rapid military expansion and economic growth that would rival any period of expansion in Islamic history before or since.
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