The History of Islam (Part-3)

The story of the Umayyads and the massacre at Karbala – including the killing of Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet, on whom be peace – is presented in the third part of this continuing series on the history of Islam.



Mu`awiyyah, son of Abu Sufyan, accepted Islam at the time of Makkah conquest and once in the folds of Islam served it faithfully under the first three caliphs. He took part in all important battles and established a strong hold on Syria and later on Egypt. He was the architect of the Battle of Masts in Alexandria annihilating the Byzantine navy. It was Mu`awiyyah who raised the demand of avenging Uthman’s murder which Ali could neither accept nor refuse. He ultimately succeeded in establishing a parallel caliphate in Syria and Egypt after the Battle of Siffin. He too was attacked by the Kharijite which he survived with minor injuries. With Hassan’s acceptance of abdication he once again brought the Muslim Ummah under one common banner. As a governor he had already ruled for twenty years. He ruled for another twenty years as Caliph. He made Damascus his capital. Fully aware of the Kharijite potential for disturbance he tried to win the Kufans by promises and persuasion. When these did not prove effective he appointed a governor – Ziyad – who made following proclamation:

“Everyone should keep himself (and also the members of his family) away from evils of all kinds failing which I shall punish not only the guilty one but also the innocents, I shall arrest those who are present in place of the absconders. One who is found loitering during the night shall be killed. The person who sets someone’s house on fire shall be burnt to death. Snatchers of coffins (coffin thieves) shall be buried alive in that very grave. Any foolish ignorant remark shall attract the penalty of losing the tongue.”

Ziyad’s warning was not a mere public oration. He acted accordingly bringing all kinds of mischief to an end within a very short period. The Kharijite nuisance was brought to an absolute end.

Mu`awiyya’s tenure saw several victories on various fronts. The Byzantine forces suffered repeatedly under his onslaught. However, in spite of a seven year long siege Constantinople could not be captured. He entrusted conquest of North Africa to `Uqba bin Nafe`. His endeavors bore fruit and almost the entire land was captured by the Muslim forces – Egypt and Marrakesh. He established a cantonment at Qairawan. So undaunting was `Uqba that when he reached the sea coast he drove his horse into the sea. Seeing the vast stretch of ocean he exclaimed: “Oh Allah! Sea obstructs my march. I shall continue fighting for your cause as far as I see the land”.

In 666 AD a naval expedition was mounted on Sicily which returned gathering immense booty. Among these spoils of war was an idol of gold and silver studded with precious stones. When he received the idol he gifted it to his mother Hind. Alberuni, however, reports that he sent it to India where it fetched huge price.

In 672 AD, the Island of Rhodes was conquered; in 674 AD Crete was (partially) occupied by the Muslims. A Muslim force marched up to Kabul and then to India through the Khayber pass. Khurasan was captured in 674 and Bukhara in 675.

When Mu`awiyya drew close to death, in consultation with Mughira bin Shu`ba he made his son Yazid his heir and began obtaining oath of allegiance in his son’s favour. It was strongly opposed. However, through coercion or gifts he managed to silence many except four veterans – Hussayn (Prophet’s surviving grandson), Abdullah bin Zubayr, Abdullah bin Umar and Abd-ur-Rahman bin Abi Bakr. They considered hereditary succession against Islam’s democratic spirit.

Mu`awiya died in 680 AD. He was a remarkable man with an abundant sense of diplomacy, hilm (prudent mildness) which never failed him. He used to say: “I apply not sword where my lash suffices nor my lash, where my tongue is enough”. Cool and calculating; shrewd and astute he was a successful judge of men and matters.

Yazid’s succession brought Islam a grim tragedy unsurpassed in history in which the Prophet’s grandson, Hussayn, with seventy-two members of his family, were ruthlessly massacred in a desert. It also led to a permanent division as Hitti observes:

“The blood of Husaiyn even more than of his father proved to be the seed of Shite sect. Karbala gave the Shia`s a battle-cry which ultimately led to the downfall of the Umayyads”.

Gibbon observes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The tragedy of Karbala was so overwhelming that through all ages and every clime it has continued to awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader”.

`Allamah Yusuf Ali assesses the significance of his martyrdom: “The Imam chose the path of danger with duty and honour, giving up his life freely and bravely. His story purifies our emotions”.

The significance of the tragedy has been expressed by an eminent scholar and political leader of the Indian subcontinent in a couplet whose last distich says, “Islam is resurrected after every Karbala.”

Let us try to recapitulate the sequence of events: As soon as Yazid was installed as Caliph provincial governors were asked to secure oaths of allegiance from people. Hussayn declared his objection to such succession. The Kufans too were opposed to his ascension to the throne. They appealed Hussayn to assume the office. They sent him just not one two but one hundred fifty such appeals. Receiving such letters he became optimistic that people would rally round him as this was the moment to assert his credentials as the rightful heir. This, he believed, would put Islam on the right track from which it had all of sudden deviated. At the same time he still remembered how had the Kufans betrayed his father’s cause. He did not consider their pleas genuine and worth trusting. In order to obtain a correct appraisal of situation he sent his cousin Muslim to Kufa. When he arrived in Kufa eighteen thousand persons offered their allegiance to him. In view of such exhilarating response he wrote back to Hussayn that the conditions were favourable and he should proceed.

As soon as Yazid learnt about Muslim’s mission in Kufa he replaced the governor and sent Abdullah bin Ziyad. Hussayn had left Madinah for Kufa and meanwhile Ibn Ziyad could coerce the Kufans to change their loyalties. Those who had invited Muslim handed him over to Ibn Ziyad who promptly executed him.

On his way to Kufa Hussayn learnt about the tragic turn of events. While some suggested him to have a hasty retreat Muslim’s kinsmen vowed to avenge his martyrdom. While the caravan advanced forward Hur came with a thousand soldiers. Hur dissuaded him from his intention to reconsider the decision. They continued marching. By the time they reached Karbala `Amr bin Sa`d had arrived with a strong force demanding oath of allegiance. When he tried to return to Madinah Ibn Ziyad made it categorically clear that there was no option – either oath or face the consequence. Hussayn tried his best to argue and explain his stand. He proposed to be taken to Yazid where the two would resolve the matter. But Ibn Ziyad would not listen to reason and remained adamant.

Hussayn’s was an unusual predicament. It was impossible for the Prophet’s grandson to give an assent to an un-Islamic action and grant it a seal of finality. He would not succumb to such pressure tactics. Declining to comply; he chose to fight. Ibn Ziyad launched the offensive. The supplylines for provisions were cut off. This was imposed rigorously. There was abundance of water to quench the thirst. River was in front of them but they were denied a single drop. The battle had an obvious end. A band of seventy-two fought valiantly each one dying after another against a strong force of thousands. The only survivor was a sick child – Zayn-al-Aabidin. (October, 1, 680 AD).

Women were kept in captivity. First, they were taken to Kufa and then to Syria. When this caravan of bereaved mourners reached Damascus even the enemies could not control their tears. Yazid too burst into tears and strongly scolded Ibn Ziyad for his atrocity. After providing all kinds of comforts and care to the family of the martyrs they were sent to Madinah escorted by armed force.

Madinah, where several companions heard the plight of the slain warriors burst in revolt. Yazid considered it necessary to subdue Abdullah and others who had moved to Makkah. A ten thousand strong force was sent to Madinah. Thus came the Battle of Lava with another blot on Islam. The city was pillaged.

Yet Yazid’s onslaught had one more target – Makkah. Commander Muslim bin Uqba died on the way to Makkah who was replaced by Hussayn bin Numayr. The Syrian army occupied strategic position on heights to pound the inhabitants with their war machines. A sixty four day siege came to an end with the news of Yazid’s death 683 AD. A three year rule that invited universal condemnation and witnessed the heinous crime – atrocities on the Prophet’s progeny as well as sacrilege at Harmamay, had ended. What the father had gained in North Africa or Rhodes and Cretes islands was lost by the son.

Yazid’s son Mu`awiya II had the intuition to learn the lesson that his father had failed to grasp. He voluntarily abdicated and died soon in 684 within a few months of his accession. Asked why did he not nominate a successor, he replied quite stoically: “I have not tasted the sweets of the caliphate. Therefore I will not take upon myself its bitterness”.

Abdullah bin Zubayr had proclaimed himself as caliph in Makkah as a reaction to massacre at Karbala. He had a substantial support as several other lands had declared allegiance to him. Hijaz was already in his control. Only Palestine had its reservations as greater part of Syria was also in Abdullah’s favour. At one moment Marwan also contemplated to declare his oath. However, history had something else in the fate of the two contenders. Abdullah bin Zubayr drove Marwan out of Hijaz. While in exile he met Ubaidullah bin Ziyad, the former governor of Iraq. He persuaded Marwan to stick to his claim – the Umayyad claim. A conference of the Umayyads was held at Jabiya where a list of would be caliph was agreed upon. Thus having consolidated his position Marwan led a force to Marj Rahat. Ibn Zubayr’s force was commanded by Dahhak. The battle tilted in favour of Marwan on 20th Muharram 65 AH. Abdullah bin Zubayr’s luck suffered a shattering blow. The Umayyad claim to glory was ratified by a strange stroke of luck. Had Abdullah bin Zubayr not forced Marwan to leave Hijaz he would have retained his crown.

Yet history had one more shock awaiting Abdullah bin Zubayr. After Marwan’s death his son Abd-ul-Malik came to throne in spite of earlier consensus arrived at Jabiya. However, before Abd-ul-Malik could deal with Abdullah bin Zubayr he had to settle account with an upstart pretender – Mukhtar – whose rise to power is an interesting episode – a comic interlude.

Mukhtar, was a man at once violent and subtle, heroic and unprincipled, a tiger in his wrath and a fox in his craftiness; by turns Kharijite, orthodox, Zuberite and Shite. He belonged to every party who would think, will, and ordain tomorrow the opposite of yesterday’s. Although he played every part with equal skill, that of the chief of the Shites was the most congenial to him. By a bold stroke he captured Kufa from Ibn Zubayr and marched to challenge Abd-ul-Malik’s forces sent to crush him. Mukhtar had so far managed to gain time by seductive promises. He contrived to have two hundred and fifty of those who had a part in Hussayn’s tragic end, arrested and beheaded them. Hussayn’s death served him as a pretext. For the credulous he had an old chair which he claimed to be Ali’s throne (in fact, bought at two silver coins from a carpenter). He urged his followers to defend it and place it at a place they wanted: “If the victory is yours because God hath aided you; but be not faint hearted if you meet reverse, in such case God will send angels to succor you, ye shall see them in clouds of white doves”.

Abdullah’s brother Mus`ab bin Zubayr who was also Hussayn’s son in law (Governor of Basra) yielded to the Kufan request to pounce upon the imposter. Once he did and made Mukhtar see his inevitable doom he invoked his followers to fight valiantly. Few answered his call. Those who answered were ruthlessly massacred by Mus`ab’s men. Mukhtar met the end he deserved.

Mus`ab’s adventure boomeranged on his brother Abdullah because he made Abd-ul-Malik’s task easy. With Mukhtar eliminated he devoted his total attention to Abdullah. He himself fell victim to Iraqi betrayers who joined the enemy camp. He died while Abd-ul-Malik’s camp rejoiced.

At this juncture Abd-ul-Malik pressed into service Hajjaj bin Yusuf, till now a non-descript person. Throughout the six (or eight) month fresh siege of Makkah, Hajjaj displayed great courage, indefatigable activity, indomitable perseverance with no scruples for religious transgressions. He respected neither the immemorial sanctity of the Ka`ba nor a manifestation of divine wrath. One day when the Syrians were hurling stones on Ka`ba a sudden tempest arose and twelve soldiers were struck by lightning. The scared Syrians refused to continue pounding Ka`ba. Keeping his cool he himself placed stone on the war machine saying that being an Arab he is accustomed to such seasonal fury and there was no divine fury. One by one Abdullah’s supporters began deserting him. His own son parted. It was Abdullah’s mother hundred year old – who filled his heart with the desire to die valiantly like a true soldier. With Abdullah’s death Abd-ul-Malik’s claim to power became unchallenged (73 AH).”

Hajjaj was rewarded for his superior skill as a general with the governorship of Iraq first and later on of whole of Hijaz. His ruthless administration subdued every one. The Kharijites gradually became weaker and disappeared. Because of domestic trouble Abd-ul-Malik had to enter into a humiliating treaty with the Romans. However, when he had some respite and could unite the Muslim forces he managed to defeat the Romans once again at Qaisariya. Several other territories were recaptured. Malika Kahina became a real threat to Muslims in North Africa. However, Hussayn bin Nu`man could succeed in crushing the Berbers. Abd-ul-Malik died in 86 AH (705 AD) after a rule of twenty years.

Abd-ul-Malik has to be remembered for being the first Muslim ruler to issue a coin. Till then the Roman coin was the currency everywhere. In spite of tantrums shown by the Byzantine emperor he successfully got it recognized. He made Arabic the state language. He got a mosque constructed at Jerusalem known as the Dome of the Rock. He is remembered as “Father of the Kings” as his four sons succeeded one another.

[To be continued]

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