Today in Middle East history: the Battle of Marj Rahit (684)

The early caliphate was not an especially stable place. In the two centuries after Muhammad’s death in 632, the empire went through four Fitnas, or civil wars. It’s fair to say that the second of these, which lasted from 680 to 692, was really almost a do over of the first, with the same factions (the Umayyads, loyalists of Ali and his family, and those who were neither of those things) having another go at sorting out Islam’s political future.

Today is the anniversary of an early but critical battle in that war, 684’s Battle of Marj Rahit, which was fought near Damascus between the two dominant factions that had formed among the Arab tribes, the “northern” Qays and the “southern” Yaman (or Kalb). These were relatively recent factions, created as Arab fighters sorted themselves into social groups in their newly conquered lands. However, they then projected their factional solidarity back into pre-Islamic Arabian society, so the groupings had real social currency. The two groups developed their own tribal customs, dress, etc., and a rivalry developed between them.

That rivalry turned violent after the death of Caliph Muʿawiyah I in 680. He was succeeded by his son, Yazid I (d. 683), and this raised eyebrows all over the empire. A hereditary monarchy was something most Arabs had resisted (part of the extensive opposition to Ali becoming caliph was related to the fact that he was Muhammad’s son in-law and therefore he and his sons — Muhammad’s grandsons — could form a line of kings descended from the Prophet). This is why the Second Fitna looks so much like the First; it was fought over the same basic cause, it’s just that in the Second Fitna the Umayyads were fighting for hereditary monarchy where they’d fought against it in the First. The war started quickly, and in that same year (680) Yazid’s army met and destroyed a small army led by Ali’s son Husayn at Karbala, knocking that side out of the war and also providing the Shiʿa with their defining historical event.

That third group, the non-aligned, coalesced around a respected Medinan figure named Abdullah b. al-Zubayr (d. 692, in case you’re wondering how the war is going to turn out). He was the son of a famous companion of Muhammad’s named, well, al-Zubayr (d. 656), who had fought against and been killed by Ali’s forces in the First Fitna. Ibn al-Zubayr fled Medina to Mecca and invited Husayn to make his capital there, but when Husayn was killed the people in Mecca declared Ibn al-Zubayr the rightful caliph. He subsequently won support from just about every corner of the empire outside of Syria, which was the Umayyads’ base. Yazid died while his army was besieging Mecca, and was succeeded by his son, Muʿawiyah II, who stopped the siege and then, after only a few months at most on the throne, abdicated in favor of his grandfather’s cousin, Marwan I (d. 685).

Marwan had a big problem, which was that the Qays faction in Syria had somewhere in all this turmoil decided that it would rather throw its support behind Ibn al-Zubayr than continue supporting the Umayyads. When the Umayyads turned to Marwan as their caliph instead of capitulating to Ibn al-Zubayr themselves, the Syrian Qays, under the leadership of the governor of Damascus, al-Dahhak ibn Qays al-Fihri, decided to do something about it. The two armies started skirmishing with one another in mid-July, but they didn’t meet in a pitched battle until August 18 at Marj Rahit. Details of the battle are sketchy at best, but obviously Marwan’s outnumbered (we think) forces won (possibly by bribing Qays-aligned tribes to switch sides), or else subsequent events would have looked a lot different.

Marj Rahit didn’t do anything about Ibn al-Zubayr, who was still in Mecca, but it did create the conditions under which the Umayyads would eventually prevail in the civil war. The victory allowed the Umayyads to consolidate Syria and then regain control of Egypt, putting Ibn al-Zubayr on the defensive in Arabia (Iraq was still heavily in the Ali-family camp and was a challenge to both the Zubayrids and the Umayyads. Marwan died not long after, but he was succeeded by his very capable son, Abd al-Malik (d. 705), who would see the civil war to its end and make great strides in turning the caliphate from a loose collection of localities into a single coherent unit.

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