Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Tales of the caliphs: Mu‛āwiya I, founder of the Umayyad dynasty

In a previous post, I discussed the highly contested transition from ‛Alī's caliphate to that of Mu‛āwiya ibn abī Sufyān (Mu‛āwiya I). 

Hans Küng in Der Islam (2004) sees Mu‛āwiya's caliphate as the opening phase of the "Arabian imperial paradigm" of Islām.  He gives the following as the hallmarks of the new era:

Instead of the Companions of the Prophet and the earlier Muslim elite, the dynansty of the Umayyads now ruled for nearly 100 years.  But they had accepted Islām only after the conquest of Mecca, out of opportunism.

Instead of the religion and theology of Islām, the interest of the Umayyad caliphs was concentrated on political leadership and the thoroughly organized administration of the new empire.

Instead of Arabia, Syria is now the leading power politically and religiously.  Here is the holy Jerusalem, here the Jewish and Christian prophets worked, and now the caliphs have their home here.

Instead of the desert city Medina, the Syrian culture-city Damascus is the political center of the Islāmic-Arabic empire and at the same time the capital of Islām:  victory of the urban state over Bedouinism.

Instead of the Sasanian [Persian] traditions, with which the Arabs living in Iran saw themselves confronted, the Byzantine traditions, which the Syrian Arabs had adopted for their own, spread out through the whole empire.

The adoption of the Byzantine traditions which preserved Greek and Roman classical learning would be particularly important for the development of science and philosophy in the Islāmic lands.  And eventually the classical learning would return to western Europe from the Muslim world, largely via al-Andalus (Islāmic Spain).

Mu‛āwiya used Byzantine organizational practices to organize his army and the administration of the empire.  Küng writes that no other caliph was to make such intensive use of the notion of jihad as Mu‛āwiya.  And he used it in the sense of holy war against the unbelievers, not in the sense of striving within oneself to obey God's will (the latter being known as the "greater jihad.")  In Africa, he extended Muslim rule into present-day Tunisia.  In the east, he took control of the province of Khorasan, which includes part of today's northeastern Iran and western Afghanistan.

Mu‛āwiya relied on the Arab tribes for the core of his political support and in the army.  He instituted a Council of Notables and regular tribal delegations that helped him secure political support.  Key positions in the central Syrian bureaucracy were staffed by Christians.  Küng quotes the Nestorian Christian monk John of Phenek praising Mu‛āwiya extravagantly as a defender of peace.  Like many Christians in comparable circumstances today, John may have found it easy to ignore the suffering of those outside the empire caused by the caliph's expansionist jihads.

Interestingly enough, Mu‛āwiya's reputation has supposedly faired badly in pious Islāmic histories of his reign.  The Sunnis regarded his caliphate as having broken the legitimate succession from the four Rightly Guided Caliphs.  The Khāriğites regarded him as illegitimate because he was not selected on chiefly religious grounds.  The Shia, who saw the fourth caliph ‛Alī as the Prophet's only legitimate successor among the first four caliphs, viewed Mu‛āwiya's caliphate as illegitimate for having broken the family and tribal succession stemming from ‛Alī.  The death of ‛Alī's son al-Husain near Kerbala in a battle with the caliph's forces in 680 also gave the Shia an emotion-charged martyr's cult which regarded Mu‛āwiya as a villain.

In his article on Mu‛āwiya in the 2003 Encyclopaedia Britannica (one cited by Küng), Donald Little says of his historical legacy:

Mu'awiyah stands out as one of the few caliphs who is depicted both in Muslim historiography and in modern scholarship as a decisive force in Islamic history. Undoubtedly one reason for the prominence that is assigned to him is that he was a controversial figure. Pious scholars of the dominant Sunnite sect of Islam together with writers of the minority, dissenting Sh'ites, have always heaped opprobriumon Mu'awiyah: the Sunnites because of his deviations from the pattern of leadership set by the Prophet Muhammad and the “rightly guided” caliphs; the Sh'ites because he had usurped the caliphate from 'Ali.

Although Mu'awiyah has been and still is condemned for his sins from these two quarters, he has also been the subject of lavish praise in Arabic literature as the ideal ruler. In other words, unlike most of the other caliphs, Mu'awiyah looms large in Islamic history because he has consistently aroused partisanship at different extremes. But, beneath the biased portraits given in traditional Muslim historiography, there is a person whose actual accomplishments were of great magnitude quite apart from partisan value judgments and interpretations. These accomplishments lay primarily in political and military administration, through which Mu'awiyah was able to rebuild a Muslim state that had fallen into anarchy and to renew the Arab–Muslim military offensive against unbelievers.

Mu‛āwiya was succeeded by his son Yazīd I (680-683) and his grandson Mu‛āwiya II (683).  Then the succession passed to a cousin, Marwān I (684-685).  This entire period and beyond saw the second Muslim civil war (680-692); the civil wars are also known by the name fitnah.  The civil war involved opponents of the Umayyad dynasty, including the Shia and the rival Quraysh clan from Mecca, battling the four successors of Mu‛āwiya I.  During this time, a Sunni counter-caliphate was established in Mecca and the Shia promoted Muhammed ibn al-Hanafīya, ‛Alī's third son, as the Prophet's legitimate successor.

It was during this time that the Shia concept of the Mahdī was born, first used with reference to ‛Alī's son Muhammed.  The concept refers to the leader (caliph or imam) who rightly inherits the Prophet's authority.  It evolved, Küng notes, into an "end times/eschatological meaning"; perhaps a comparison to traditional Christian notions of the return of the Messiah is not out of line.  Depending on which leaders were seen as part of the legitimate series of imams, several schools of belief developed from the Mahdī concept, including the "Fiver" Shia, the "Sevener" Shia or Ismaelites, and the "Twelver" Shia.  The latter was the largest of these schools, especially in  Iran, and the Ayatollah Khomeini of the 20th century was a Twelver Shia.

See also Index to Posts on Hans Küng's Der Islam

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