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Mu’awiya ibn abi Sufyan pdf

Mu’awiya ibn abi Sufyan: From Arabia to Empire

  • Book Title:
 Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan
  • Book Author:
R. Stephen Humphreys
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  • Preface and Acknowledgments ix
  • Mu‘awiya in the eyes of later Muslims 3
  • How do we know what we claim to know: the sources for Mu‘awiya’s life 10
  • Mu‘awiya’s career: a chronological sketch 19
  • THE FIRST THREE DECADES (600–632) 23
  • The Meccan milieu 23
  • The politics of genealogy: why Mu‘awiya’s ancestry is important 28
  • The lineage of Mu‘awiya 30
  • The Banu Umayya 31
  • The descendants of ‘Abd Manaf: the clans of ‘Abd Shams and Hashim 33
  • (632–656) 43
  • Mu‘awiya and the conquest of Syria 43
  • Mu‘awiya becomes Governor 45
  • The war against Byzantium 50
  • The war at sea: creating the Muslim navy  53 The war in Anatolia and Armenia 58 Mu‘awiya and the Arab tribes in Syria 60
  • The revolt against ‘Uthman 65
  • The aftermath: who can claim the right to rule? 71
  • The confrontation between ‘Ali and Mu‘awiya 77
  • The war against Byzantium renewed 104
  • Bibliography 137


Of all the early caliphs, Mu‘awiya ibn Abi Sufyan is surely the most elusive and ambiguous. He is elusive because we know so very little about even the public facts of his career, includ- ing the almost twenty years in which he was the unchallenged head of the Muslim community and its immense empire. Of his inner beliefs and purposes we know even less.

He is ambiguous because Muslims have never been sure what to make of him. In his lifetime, he was a symbol of the conflicts and anxieties that afflicted the community of believers and has so remained until the present day. However, Mu‘awiya is a decisive figure in the history of Islam.Without him, the political and religious evolution of early Islam seems opaque and unintelligible. Moreover, whatever we think of him as a ruler and a man (a point on which opinions differ sharply, to put it mildly), he was a political genius at a moment when nothing less could have saved the Islamic Empire from dissolution.

Mu‘awiya’s life and career fall into three phases of nearly equal length: the roughly thirty years, from infancy to early adulthood passed within the traditional family and religious structures of the Arab Quraysh tribe, twenty-five years spent as a member of the newly dominant Islamic military and politi- cal élite, and twenty-five years struggling for and then holding supreme authority as head of the Islamic Empire.

 Of the first phase we can say very little; he was simply there. In the second phase, especially his twenty years as governor in Syria under the caliphs ‘Umar (634–644) and ‘Uthman (644–656), the sources transmit a number of assertions and anecdotes about him, some of which are doubtless true, at least in substance.

For the third phase, we have a mountain of information (none of which has come down to us in anything resembling its original form) on the civil war with ‘Ali but only a few highlighted moments from his twenty-year caliphate. In terms of concrete events and policies, we are told much more about Mu‘awiya’s governors in Iraq than we are about him.

We know, for example, that he sent at least one major military expedition every year into Byzantine Anatolia or along the Aegean coast. This represented a huge commitment of resources and was surely the thing about which he cared most, for if he succeeded in capturing Constantinople and ending Byzantine rule, he would be the successor of both Caesar and Muhammad – both universal emperor and guardian of the final revelation. Yet the Arabic sources tell us almost nothing about these expeditions apart from the names of their commanders.

We do not know where they went or what were either their immediate or long-term objectives. For that, we must turn to the Greek (and occasionally Syriac) sources, whose people bore the brunt of these incursions. However, even these accounts are terse, confusing and often contradictory. Like the Arabic texts, they were composed at least a century after Mu‘awiya’s lifetime and their sources of information are obscure at best.

Nor do we learn much about how Mu‘awiya managed affairs in his home base, Syria. The Syrian Arab troops brought him to power and kept him there but how did he deal with them? Muslim writers tell us even less of how he dealt with the over- whelming majority of his subjects, who were not Muslims but Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.

Whatever we know must be gleaned from scattered references in Greek and Syriac texts. Among Syriac writers Mu‘awiya had a reputation for stability, justice and tolerance but they give few, if any, facts to support this judgment. Finally, Mu‘awiya himself did everything in his power – or so we are told by Muslim writers – to mask his own thoughts, motives and emotions.

 He was famed for his political acumen, embodied in the quality of hilm, a word best understood as “forbearance in the face of provocation.” He consulted widely and listened closely but did not show his hand.

He could be eloquent but relied on wit and irony rather than the moving rhetoric ascribed to his rival ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. Neither his friends nor his enemies ever quite knew what he was thinking until it was too late to do anything about it.


Mu‘awiya’s calculated reserve no doubt contributed to his ambiguous place in the Muslim imagination, but that is only the beginning.The real problem is that he did not fit neatly into the moral categories which later Muslims devised to evaluate a person’s religious standing – indeed, he subverted them– and so they could never quite decide what to make of him. It must be admitted that for two broad religio-political group- ings, the Kharijites and Shi’ites, there was no ambivalence at all.

For them, he was a figure of unmitigated evil, a man who knowingly and cynically worked to destroy the new covenant established by Muhammad and to return the world to the ignorant brutishness of the Jahiliyya, the time before Islam.

 The ‘Abbasid caliphs, who overthrew the Umayyad dynasty that he had put in power and who did everything they could to blacken its memory, publicly condemned him and his seed.

The first ‘Abbasid, Abu al-‘Abbas al-Saffah (749–754), set the tone in his accession speech in Kufa: Woe, woe to the Banu Harb b. Umayyah and the Banu Marwan!1 In their space and time they preferred the ephemeral to the eternal, the transient abode to the everlasting one. Crime them obsessed; God’s creatures they oppressed; women forbidden to them they possessed, all honour grieving and by sin deceiving.

They tyrannised God’s servants by their deport with evil custom where they sought disport, themselves with vice’s burdens decked and their idolatry unchecked, at management of every fault most lively, cheerful; withal to race on error’s course not fearful; God’s purpose in respiting sin not comprehending and trusting they had tricked Him by pretending! God’s severity came on them like a night raid when they were sleeping and at dawn they were only legends.

They were torn all to tatters and thus may an oppressive people perish! Invective of this sort was repeated more than once in the reigns of al-Saffah’s immediate successors.

Systematic public campaigns to vilify Mu‘awiya and the entire Umayyad clan, to label them not only as hypocrites and corrupt, bloody tyrants but even as apostates, were planned by the caliphs al-Ma’mun (813–833) and al-Mu’tadid (892–902), long after Mu‘awiya and the Umayyads could possibly have threatened ‘Abbasid power. Neither caliph went ahead with the project, since the political fallout was unpredictable.

 The unpublished decrees of al-Ma’mun and al-Mu’tadid were no doubt aimed less at the Umayyads than at re-energizing support for their own troubled dynasty. However, the two caliphs clearly believed that the Umayyads would be credible and effective symbols of the corrupt and godless alternative to ‘Abbasid rule, whatever its faults.

The charges spelled out in these documents neatly summarize the most persistent and important criticisms of Mu‘awiya as a person and a ruler. Al-Mu’tadid’s decree (a revised version of al-Ma’mun’s) is revealing:

God cursed the Umayyads through His Prophet orally and by way of revealed scripture thus:‘… the tree accursed in the Qur’an.We shall frighten them but it only greatly increases their rebelliousness’.

[Qur’an 17:60] (Nobody denies that the Umayyads are meant here.) When the Prophet saw Abu Sufyan riding on an ass, with Mu‘awiya and his sonYazid driving it he said:‘May God curse the leader, the rider and the driver!’.

The Messenger of God called for Mu‘awiya to take dictation (to copy down newly revealed verses of revelation as the Prophet recited them) but he refused to do so because he was eating. The Prophet then said,‘May God never fill his belly!’.

As a result, Mu‘awiya was always hungry and said, ‘By God, I do not stop eating because I have had enough but only because I can eat no more!’

The Messenger of God also said, ‘From this mountain pass, a man from my community is coming up who will be resurrected separately from my people’. Mu‘awiya was the one coming up.

There is also the report that the Messenger of God said, ‘When you see Mu‘awiya on my pulpit, kill him!’.

Then there is the famous hadith, traced back to the Prophet: ‘Mu‘awiya is in a casket of fire in the lowest layer of Hell, calling out, “O Clement One, O Generous One!” He is given the answer, “Now you believe but before this you sinned and wrought corruption”’. [Qu’ran 10:91]

There is also his going to war against the most outstanding, earliest and most famous of Muslims, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib.With his false claim, Mu‘awiya contested ‘Ali’s rightful claim. He fought ‘Ali’s helpers with his own erring scoundrels. He attempted what he and his father never ceased attempting, namely ‘to extinguish the light of God’ (Qu’ran 9:32) and deny God’s religion … Mu‘awiya tried to seduce foolish men and confuse the ignorant with his trickery and injustice …

Mu‘awiya preferred this fleeting world and denied the enduring other world. He left the ties of Islam and declared it permissible to shed forbidden blood, until in his rebellion … the blood of an uncountable number of the best Muslims was shed.

God made it obligatory to curse him for killing, while they could offer no resistance, the best of the men around

Muhammad and the men of the second generation (of Muslims) and excellent and religious people, such as ‘Amr b. al-Hamiq and Hujr b.‘Adi and their like.

Furthermore, there is Mu‘awiya’s disdainful attitude toward the religion of God, manifested by his calling God’s servants to (acknowledge) his sonYazid (as heir apparent), that arrogant drunken sot, that owner of cocks, cheetahs and monkeys.With furious threats and frightful intimidation, he forced the best of Muslims to give the oath of allegiance toYazid, although he was aware ofYazid’s stupidity and was acquainted with his ugliness and viciousness … his drunkenness, immorality and unbelief. [Tabari, XXXVIII, pp. 53–58]

For Sunnis who were not part of the ‘Abbasid establishment (and these ultimately constituted the majority of Muslims), judgments had to be rather more subtle.2 Even the‘Abbasid cal- iph al-Mansur (754–75) respected Mu‘awiya’s political acumen and talents as an empire-builder (but then al-Mansur was famously hard-nosed and unsentimental).

 Ultimately, for the Sunnis, Mu‘awiya was not only a Companion of the Prophet but also a scribe of the Qur’an, one of the small group whom Muhammad trusted to receive the dictation of the revelations he had received.2  Apart from this, he was a distant relative of Muhammad and, like all four of his predecessors on the caliphal throne, related to him by marriage (in his case, through his sister Umm Habiba, whom the Prophet married after he occupied Mecca in 630).

He had been named governor of Syria (in around 639) by the second caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, and was confirmed in that office by the third caliph,‘Uthman. Mu‘awiya had demonstrated his formidable military, politi- cal, and administrative talents for twenty years by the time he became caliph and he restored peace and stability to a Muslim community tormented by five years of civil war.

On the other side of the ledger, the Sunni historical memory recalls that Mu‘awiya’s clan bitterly opposed Muhammad and harassed his followers during his Meccan years and led the war to oust him from Medina. The leader of the opposition in the years between Badr (624) and the occupation of Mecca (630) was Mu‘awiya’s father, Abu Sufyan. Although Mu‘awiya eventually joined the Prophet’s cause, most believed that he did so

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