Early Islamic history is a mess. And here I don’t mean that the study of early Islamic history is a mess, although it is, as we’ve already talked about. But even if we just stick to the traditional narrative, we are now approaching a half-century since the death of Muhammad and already we’ve seen three caliphs assassinated and a full-on civil war. In fact, one of the points in favor of the accuracy of the traditional narrative, it seems to me, is that it doesn’t shy away from talking about what a mess the early period was. If people were just making the story up whole-cloth in the 8th century, they’d have had no reason to write it this way and every reason to write it as a much more placid tale of the birth of a new universal faith. But, of course, those Arab historians were writing back into the early period of the faith to try to explain the divisions they saw all around them, not because they had an accurate representation of the past from which to work, so neither can we simply rely on their narrative. However, on the other other hand, those divisions that the later Arab historians saw all around them had to come from somewhere, which does suggest that the early days of Islam were chaotic.
One of the big criticisms of the traditional narrative by revisionist historians is that it’s implausible to believe that the Islamic state emerged fully formed out of Arabia in the 630s. My response to that is, I mean, what do you think the early histories are talking about when they write that three of the first four caliphs were assassinated and there was one civil war within 25 years of Muhammad’s death and a second within 50 years (and, spoiler alert, another within a little over 100 years)? They’re talking about the very difficult, very chaotic, and probably very violent process of forming that Islamic state. It didn’t emerge fully formed out of Arabia in the 630s, and if you read the traditional narrative with a little care, then you can see that it’s telling you so. Many of the details are probably fudged in some way, but the core of the story rings pretty true.
That said, we come now to Islamic history at the end of the First Fitna, the death of the first Umayyad Caliph, Muʿawiyah, in 680, and the accession of his son, Yazid I (d. 683). The First and Second Fitnas can, just like the First and Second World Wars in some ways, be thought of as two rounds of the same war, fought between essentially the same factions and for the same reasons. The First Fitna was ostensibly about Ali’s refusal to punish the assassins of his predecessor, Uthman, but under the surface it was about the lingering fear that Ali’s rise to power meant the coming of a monarchy, an inherited caliphate that would pass from father to son in perpetuity, which very few leading Muslims (I use the word “Muslim” even though it’s still far from clear what the specific confessional identity of this group was at this point) seemed to want. Ali spent most of his short reign beating back one challenge to his reign after another before himself being assassinated, replaced by his primary antagonist, Muʿawiyah, who reigned for 19 years and then … instituted a hereditary monarchy on his deathbed. It’s not hard to see why the same factions went back to war at that point. Looked at as bookends, the First Fitna closed the door on the period of the early Islamic community, governed by men who knew Muhammad personally and more or less united behind his message, but it took another war, the Second Fitna, to finally sort out the kind of polity and the kind of society that was to follow.
As one of Muʿawiyah’s first concerns upon assuming the Caliphate was to deal with Ali’s eldest son (and Muhammad’s grandson), Hasan, which Hasan’s agreement to retire to Medina made quite easy, Yazid’s first thought had to be for Hasan’s younger brother, Husayn. Hasan had died in 670, so he didn’t live to see Muʿawiyah break his pledge not to name his son to succeed him as Caliph. Husayn was still very much alive, though, and when he was approached in Medina by Marwan b. al-Hakim, Muʿawiyah’s second cousin (I think they were second cousins; the whole degree-of-cousinhood thing makes my eyes glaze over), demanding his oath of allegiance to Yazid, Husayn either hesitated or outright refused, whereupon Marwan ordered his immediate arrest. Husayn fled Medina under cover of darkness, first to Mecca (ironically the mirror image of Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina), where he stayed for several months before moving on toward Kufa. Kufa, you may recall, was briefly Ali’s capital, and the people there sent message to Husayn begging him to make it his capital in the coming war against Yazid. Husayn seems to have been moved by the promise of support, and was reluctant to fight a war in Mecca should Yazid send an army after him, and so he sent an emissary to Kufa to prepare the city for him and then set out himself. As his caravan approached Kufa, however, word came that the people had killed his emissary and declared allegiance to Yazid; unable or unwilling to turn back to Mecca, Husayn chose to stand and fight the army Yazid had sent to capture him, and so, in October 680, at Karbala in modern-day Iraq, Husayn’s badly outnumbered forces engaged the armies of the Caliph and were slaughtered, including Husayn himself.
The martyrdom of Husayn (as Shiʿa view it) ended the first part, but only the first part, of the Second Fitna, but more importantly it is probably the defining event in the formation of a Shiʿa sectarian consciousness. Those who had previously been Ali’s partisans (the shiʿat ʿAli), who believed in his claim to the Caliphate and the claim his sons held on that office, now began to feel that they were outside the Caliphal (Sunni, although at this point there was no such thing as “Sunni”) order. They saw Husayn’s death as a grave injustice to pile on top of all the injustices that Ali and his sons had been made to suffer since Muhammad’s death, and instead of fighting to regain position in the Caliphate they began to reject the Caliphate’s authority altogether. I think it’s fair to say that if Karbala doesn’t happen and Husayn dies peacefully of old age, the movement that eventually crystallized into what we know as Shiʿism never really gets started, or at least takes a much different historical course.
As I say, Karbala only ended the first part of the Second Fitna, because there was another son of a leading community figure who also fled Medina rather than declare allegiance to Yazid. This was Abdullah b. al-Zubayr (d. 692), the son of al-Zubayr b. al-Awwam, who had died at the Battle of the Camel in 656, in that case fighting against Ali. In this case, Ibn al-Zubayr encouraged Husayn to make Mecca his base and declare himself Caliph in opposition to Yazid, and when Husayn was killed at Karbala the people of Mecca, incensed at Husayn’s death and rallied by Ibn al-Zubayr’s speech about Husayn, proclaimed Ibn al-Zubayr Caliph on the spot. He was supported by many in the early community who continued to reject the idea of an inherited monarchy at the top, and by many who saw his Caliphate as a way to rewind the unpleasantness of the First Fitna and Muʿawiyah’s handover of power to his son (and maybe even of Ali’s Caliphate, since Ibn al-Zubayr’s father was one of the other leading contenders for the title when Uthman was assassinated) and return to the fondly remembered ideals of the early community under Muhammad and his immediate successors. He had, in short, widespread support outside of the Umayyad strongholds in Syria.
Yazid responded to Ibn al-Zubayr’s claim to the Caliphate by planning an invasion of the Arabian peninsula. The army he sent took Medina and laid siege to Mecca in 683, but Yazid’s sudden death abruptly ended that siege. Things quickly got much worse for the Umayyads, but then just as quickly got much, much better. Yazid was succeeded by his son, Muʿawiyah II (d. 684), who was a relative boy of only 22 years old and who had virtually no supporters in the empire apart from his immediate family and the closest of Yazid’s followers. Muʿawiyah II had essentially never been outside the palace and was a complete unknown to his would-be subjects. He immediately declared a truce in the conflict with Ibn al-Zubayr after it was discovered that the fighting had actually damaged the Masjid al-Haram and the Kaaba, then offered to make Ibn al-Zubayr his heir as he was as yet childless. Ibn al-Zubayr, realizing perhaps that the much younger Muʿawiyah was very likely to outlive him, passed on the offer. Muʿawiyah reigned for only a couple of months and maybe as few as 40 days when, having never really wanted the office in the first place and dismayed at his failure to end the civil war, he abdicated (and died shortly thereafter, make of that what you will).
When Muʿawiyah abdicated the nascent Umayyad Dynasty was clearly at its nadir. Most of the empire at this point had by this point accepted Ibn al-Zubayr as the rightful Caliph. This brings up an interesting point, which is the modern view of Ibn al-Zubayr as an “anti-Caliph,” like the Avignon Popes, despite the fact that for some time in the mid-680s he had the allegiance of the vast majority of the empire outside of Syria. I couldn’t even find a map of Ibn al-Zubayr’s territory to stick in this post, so you’ll have to look at this map of the First Fitna and pretend it’s something else, OK?
Muʿawiyah II abdicated (and then died) so young that he had no son and thus, as the precedent was now set that the office of Caliph was an inherited one, there was no obvious successor. So it’s understandable that even many of those who had followed Yazid and his father, Muʿawiyah I, now argued that the best thing to do for the community would be to just recognize Ibn al-Zubayr’s claim to the office and move on. Some of these folks may even have come to regret backing the side that was in favor of establishing dynastic rule, especially since that system had resulted in kind of dud of a Caliph after only the second inherited transfer of power. Ibn al-Zubayr was a well-respected leader in the community and seemed at this point like he was the only guy who could legitimately claim the office anyway. But Muʿawiyah I’s cousin Marwan (d. 685) had other ideas. You may remember Marwan as the guy who killed his own general, Talhah, at the Battle of the Camel, the guy who engineered the accession of Yazid because he figured he could control his younger kinsman, and the guy whose aggressive move to arrest Husayn started the chain of events that led to Karbala (see above). He had effectively been the power behind the throne since Muʿawiyah I had died, and now he saw no reason why Ibn al-Zubayr should be Caliph ahead of him.
In order to have a prayer of taking on Ibn al-Zubayr, however, Marwan first had to get all of Syria back on side, and to do that he effectively exploited a growing rift among the Arabs who had moved into the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine), some perhaps migrating there before the conquests but many more arriving after the conquests. The tribes had started to organize themselves into two factions, the Yaman (sometimes called the Kalb after the dominant tribe in the faction), who traced their tribal origins back to southern Arabia (Yaman and Yemen are the same word, but historians use Yaman when talking about this faction to avoid confusing things with the geographic region/country), and the Qays, who are referred to as the “northern” faction although there’s no indication that they came from northern Arabia as far as I know (in fact they may have been another faction of Yamanis). When Arab armies began arriving during the conquests and segregating themselves into garrison cities, their units (some of which were traditionally tribal but many of which took on the trappings of new “tribes” as they served together) also took up sides in this rivalry.
There was no hard rule about who was part of which faction, and indeed if you were an Arab who had moved into the Levant your family’s actual roots back in Arabia were almost incidental to which group you wound up joining. Arab migrants to the Levant attached themselves to one of the two groups as part of acclimating into their new environs and forming a community, and pretty soon each side had its own villages (and quarters in the big cities), its own mode of dress, its own customs, even its own “history” although a great deal of that was really invented and inserted back into the historical record in order to explain the contemporary rivalry. This split actually carried, albeit in a diminished form, into the 19th century, though the Ottomans went to some effort to quash it, and was not limited to Muslims; Arab Christians and Druze (if you consider the Druze to be something other than Muslim) communities were also divided by the Qays-Yaman split. You might even be able to find some very faint echoes of it today.
The Qays, who had primarily settled in northern Syria and the north of what is today Iraq, pushed to recognize Ibn al-Zubayr, but the Yamanis were still firmly tied to the Umayyad house and searched for a new leader. Marwan was probably the logical choice, and so he became Caliph Marwan I in 684. The Umayyad Dynasty thus remained intact, but the dynastic line within the clan changed from what are today called the Sufyanids (after Muʿawiyah I’s father Abu Sufyan) to what are now called the Marwanids. Marwan’s first order of business was bringing the Qays to heel before they could really be of use to Ibn al-Zubayr, and so in August 684 the armies of the Qays and the armies of the Yaman met in battle at Marj Rahit, not far from Damascus. This tribal factionalism, which had never taken on violent overtones before, now became quite violent, and although outnumbered the Yaman won the battle and the Qays scattered. Marwan quickly capitalized on his momentum, retaking the whole of Syria and then Egypt from Ibn al-Zubayr. He also looked back to the example of his uncle, Uthman, and appointed relatives to most of the important positions in his administration while also declaring his son, Abd al-Malik b. Marwan, as his heir apparent. The Umayyads were firmly in control again, Ibn al-Zubayr’s territory being reduced to the Arabian peninsula itself.
The Civil War was wrapping up. Around this time another pro-Ali rebellion broke out in Iraq, under the leadership of a man named al-Mukhtar al-Thaqafi and on behalf of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyah, Ali’s son by his second wife (who he married after Fatimah had died), who gave al-Mukhtar his blessing but didn’t participate himself. This is an interesting case of a Shiʿa revolt around someone who was Ali’s son but not Muhammad’s grandson, suggesting that Ali is becoming important to the emerging Shiʿa consciousness in his own right, and not simply for his relation to Muhammad. The immediate impact of al-Mukhtar’s revolt was actually to deny much of Iraq to Ibn al-Zubayr, further putting him on the ropes. Marwan, meanwhile, didn’t have a chance to respond to al-Mukhtar’s revolt because he died in the middle of 685, having already been a relatively old guy when he became Caliph.
Abd al-Malik (d. 705) now became Caliph, and we’ll talk more about him next time, but we do need to wrap up the Second Fitna. Al-Mukhtar actually drove back an army sent into Iraq by Abd al-Malik, but was finally defeated and killed in 687, by Ibn al-Zubayr’s armies, which obviously could have been put to better use fighting Abd al-Malik. Ibn al-Zubayr’s effective control over Iraq was fleeting; starting in 687 he even lost control over most of the Arabian Peninsula to the Kharijites, who you’ll remember as the fanatical folks who assassinated Ali in 661. In fact, while making any pronouncements about political authority in this chaotic period is very difficult, it’s likely that the Kharijites controlled more territory than any of the other factions. Their support was strong only in the hinterlands, though, and they were never able to control a city and actually build the capacity to govern. Their uprising fell apart in 691, but the following year, 692, an army sent into Arabia by Abd al-Malik under the command of a new general, al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf, laid siege to Ibn al-Zubayr at Mecca and refused to let up for seven months. Finally, in October or November of that year, Ibn al-Zubayr was killed in battle. The Second Fitna was now over and the empire, reunited, could enter a new phase under the undisputed control of the Umayyad Dynasty.
Next time: Abd al-Malik’s reign, consolidation, and the “Arabization” of the empire
Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050 and his The Armies of the Caliphs: military and society in the early Islamic State.
Patricia Crone’s God’s Rule – Government and Islam: Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought and her God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam (with Martin Hinds) look at the nature of the office of Caliph itself in this early, turbulent period, and are worth checking out if the political theory behind these conflicts interests you.
Alan Walmsley’s Early Islamic Syria: An Archaeological Assessment
G. R. Hawting’s The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661-750
Something like Ross Burns’ Damascus: A History might be worth checking out if you’re interested in the history of the Umayyad capital, though it covers the full sweep of history from long before to long after the period we’re talking about now.
Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.