Sunday, December 10, 2017

Founders: Who was Muawiya I?

Umayyad Caliphate during Muawiya
In the 7th century, a new religion emerged in the inhospitable deserts of Arabia – Islam. Alongside with Islam, a new empire also emerged. Born from internal struggle, the Umayyad Caliphate became stronger and more organized than before. Credit to this reemergence mostly went to its founder – Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan.

Early Career

Born in 602 in Mecca, Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan was a member of the Umayya Clan of the Quarysh Tribe. His family opposed and even supported the persecution of the Prophet Mohammed who fled to Medina as a result. Muawiyah fought against the Prophet’s army but in 627, he decided to convert. Thanks to the reconciliatory attitude of the Prophet, his previous opposition overlooked and he served the Prophet as a scribe.

He continued to serve the successors or deputies of the Prophet, called Caliphs. During Caliph Umar’s reign, he went to the front lines of the new religion’s holy war or Jihad against the neighboring empires of Byzantine and Sassanid. In particular, he led Muslim tribal army alongside his brother Yazid to invade Syria and claim more converts for Islam. He found tremendous military success and as a reward he received the appointment of governor of Syria.

In Syria, he established his power base for his further attacks on the Byzantine Empire and in case, political rivals within the Islamic community. He used the local populace to strengthen his position by recruiting them for the army and for administration. He showed tolerance to other religions even allowing those in the government to continue their work provided they pay an extra tax called Jizya. He gathered further acclaim with his military accomplishment by establishing a navy and attacking Byzantine islands of Cyprus and Rhodes.

The Investiture of Ali
His position in Syria soon proved to be vital in 656 when his relative the Caliph Uthman ibn Affan was assassinated. The responsibility of obtaining justice then fell to Muawiya. The new Caliph Ali ibn Abi-Talib seemed uninterested in dispensing justice to the late Caliph’s murders. One main reason proved to be the killers belonged to a clan that supported Ali strongly, and thus the new Caliph wanted to avoid offending his supporters.

Outraged by the injustice, he refused to recognize Ali as Caliph. This decision led to a momentary cease in the advance of the border of Islamic Caliphate. It also started the irreconcilable divide between Shia’atu Ali (Supporters of Ali) or Shias who believed that Mohammed chosen Ali to succeed him and the ahl as-sunnah (people of tradition) or Sunnis who believed that the succession be based on election.

Muawiya returned to Syria and prepared for war. He then received news of Ali’s army marching from his new capital of Kufa in modern day Iraq towards the parts of the Euphrates bordering Syria. Muawiya secured his rear by making peace with the Byzantines through tribute payment and marched against Ali. The 2 sides met in the long indecisive Battle of Siffin from July 26 to 28, 657. The battle, as stories indicated, ended when Muawiya’s soldiers showed to Ali’s army Qurans, Islam’s holy book, impaled in their spears chanting let Allah’s words would decide the victor. Ali agreed to an arbitration, known as the Arbitration of Adhruh, between February 658 and January 659, presided over by a religious council.

For Muawiya, Ali’s decision came as a surprise and proved to be fatal as it infuriated the Caliph’s hardline supporters who became known as the Kharijites. The Kharijites believed only Allah and Allah alone had the decision of who should be the Caliph and the arbitration for them meant weakness of his divine right surrendering to decisions of mere men. They abandoned Ali and they became another belligerent in the civil war.

The arbitration went nowhere as the Council decided neither as Caliph. But it did decide that Uthman’s murder was a capital sin as the late Caliph committed no criminal offense and did not deserve the gruesome fate. In turn, Muawiya saw the judgment criticizing Ali’s failure to bring the killers to justice. Muawiya retreated back to Syria where in 658, his supporters declared him their Caliph. He accepted and in turn advanced to Egypt to take over its bountiful grain supply to support his war efforts. Soon, however, his position became permanent when in 661, a disgruntled Kharijite assassinated Ali. Muawiya effectively ruled as the sole Caliph of the Islamic world that by then covered 2 continents.

Securing the Umayyad Caliphate

With Ali’s death, Muawiya effectively ruled as the Caliph of the Islamic world and so begun the Umayyad Caliphate. Nonetheless, as a Caliph who gained his position through force, he needed to secure it constantly from challenges and threats.

An immediate cause of concern to Muawiya was the sons and by then heirs of Ali, Hussein and Hassan. He quickly eliminated this threat by promising stipend to the siblings in exchange for their silence on their claims to the Caliphate. Luckily for Muawiya, the brothers believed that once he passed away, one of them would be elected Caliph. This belief proved later to be in vain.

Next, he secured a new capital for the Caliphate, where would be living at ease and surrounded by his allies. He moved the capital from Kufa to Damascus, his longtime stronghold. This act meant also as a sign of gratitude for the Syrians who supported his bid for the Caliphate.

He formed alliances with strong tribes through marriage. He forged strong ties with the Kalb tribe of Syria by marrying Maysun, daughter of the tribal chief. The tribe along with his other relatives produced many of Muawiya’s officials and administrators.

He also needed to pacify other hostile or jealous Arabic tribes that might instigate a rebellion. In response, he included them in the government by establishing institution such as the Shura, a council of notables to whom a Caliph sought advice or assistance in the completion of a certain task. Another was the Wufud, a form of petition by tribes to the Caliph to make their interest known. Finally, he also used tribal armies to fight in his Jihad or Holy War against Byzantines and other foreigners so they busied themselves fighting an external enemy rather than internal.

Alas, his aggressive policy served not only to secure his empire internally but expanded his domain under his name. Muslim armies remained a constant nuisance to the Byzantines. Islam took root in Northern Africa reaching as far as Tlemcen in modern-day Algeria. The regions of Tripolitania and Ifriqiyah fell to Muslim hands and soon became stepping stones to their advance to Spain. In Central Asia, their lands stretched as far as the Amu Darya River. His expansion to lands of non-Muslim fulfilled his duty as a Caliph to wage a Jihad against infidels or non-believers.

Another key in securing his reign proved to be an effective administrative organization. The rapid expansion of territory led to challenges of ruling far flung places and people with diverse culture.

Muawiya turned to Roman and Byzantines for inspiration. He established Diwans or bureaus tasked to assist him. The Diwan al-khatam or the Chancellery served as the nerve center of the whole Umayyad Empire. The Diwan al-khatam communicated with different regions through the Diwan called Barid that handled postal service for an effective communication. Muawiya also divided the Empire into provinces and appointed his most loyal and effective servants and relatives to the post of governors.

Lastly, he also hired in the administration non-Muslims, especially those who had experience in government. His tolerance to other religions and hiring non-Muslims to government meant to pacify different ethnic groups living within his domain.

Surely enough, his tolerance became greatly admired, as his own wife Maysun was a Christian and continued to be a Christian throughout his life. This toleration also led to defection and support from several towns within the Byzantine Empire who suffered from persecution. Although allowed to worship their religion, they, however, needed to pay Jizya. In effect, the policy led to peace and more tax revenue for the caliphate.

Finally, he enacted one of his most controversial policy – making the position of Caliph hereditary. He did so, according to one story by making the shura approve the act under threat of death. This became controversial as it deviated from the traditional election made by Arabic tribes. Muawiya, however, believed that the process made succession chaotic as proven by constant assassination that occurred under three caliphs of the four Rashidun. Also, he might thought that the growing vast empire needed a stable transition if it was to survive after his death. Others thought too that Muawiya was protecting the interest of his family and his tribe.

Muawiya, in the end, succeeded in making the position of Caliph hereditary and his son Yazid became his heir. This, however, offended and outraged the sons of Ali whose chance in becoming a Caliph suddenly disappeared.

Death and Outcome

Muawiya’s reign as Caliph lasted until he passed away in May 680, peacefully in his capital of Damascus. His act of making Caliph a hereditary position resulted to another civil war between Hussein, Ali’s son, and his own son Yazid. Nevertheless, the Umayyad Caliphate endured and the Islamic empire’s borders continued to expand, reaching as far as the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe – all began with a late convert to Islam and calculative and efficient administrator Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan. 

Robinson, Francis (ed.). The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

General Reference:
"Muawiyah b. Abi Sufyan." In A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam. Edited by Gordon Newby. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2004.

"Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan." Encyclopedia of World Biography. In Accessed on December 2, 2017. URL:  

Little, Donald. "Mu'awiyah I." In Encyclopedia of Britannica. Accessed on December 2, 2017. URL:

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