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Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan

Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan

Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan (died 680) was the founder of the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs. His clan, which had resisted Mohammed and his message longest and most vehemently, eventually won political control over the Islamic community.

As son of Abu Sufyan, one of the leaders of the Meccan opposition to Mohammed, Muawiya did not adopt Islam until the conquest of Mecca in 630. Muawiya at this time was made secretary to the Prophet, but it was as a warrior in the army sent by the caliph Abu Bakr to conquer Syria that Muawiya first distinguished himself in the Moslem community.

Building a Power Base

As a result of his military exploits, Muawiya was awarded the governorship of Damascus and, under the caliph Omar, became governor over all Syria, in which capacity he served for 20 years. He built the province into a base of support on which he was able to draw during his contest with Ali for the caliphate.

Muawiya appeased the native Christian population of Syria by his tolerance, which included the employment of Christians at his court; and he cultivated the Syrian tribesmen of southern Arabian origin by a marriage alliance, when he took a woman of the Kalb tribe as wife. In addition, Muawiya built Syria into a powerful military and naval base from which he launched raids by land into Byzantine Asia Minor and naval expeditions against Cyprus, Rhodes, and the coast of Lycia.

Struggle for the Caliphate

The second significant phase of Muawiya's career began in 655 with the murder of the caliph Othman by rebels from Egypt and Iraq who resented the favoritism shown by Othman toward his Umayyad kinsmen. When Othman was assassinated, the duty of avenging his death devolved upon Muawiya as the strongest member of the clan. The issue which pitted Muawiya against Ali ibn Abu Talib, the new caliph, was the punishment of the regicides.

Although Ali had not himself participated in the murder, he neglected to take any action against the assassins and, in fact, adopted certain anti-Umayyad measures that the rebels had advocated, such as removing Othman's governmental appointees. This Muawiya regarded as proof of Ali's complicity in the murder; accordingly, he refused to pay homage to Ali as caliph.

Ali marched against Syria and was met by Muawiya at the famous battle of Siffin. Muawiya was able to avoid defeat by adopting the clever ruse of placing pages of the Koran on his soldiers' lances, which signified that his quarrel with Ali should be settled not through fighting but by consulting the book of God. Both sides subsequently chose arbitrators who agreed that since Othman had committed no crime his murder was not justified. Muawiya's stand being thereby vindicated, his Syrian supporters declared him the rightful caliph (658).

To strengthen his military position, Muawiya conquered Egypt in the same year and later launched attacks against Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen, but the conflict between the two claimants to the caliphate ended only by Ali's murder in 661 at the hands of zealots who claimed that neither of the two was entitled to the caliphate.

Once Muawiya had persuaded Ali's son, Hasan, to renounce his claim to the caliphate, Muawiya's own position was secure, and he set about restoring the unity and renewing the expansion of the Moslem state. His strength continued to come from two quarters—the Syrian tribesmen and his Umayyad kinsmen. To consolidate the support of the former, he transferred the center of Moslem government from Iraq to Damascus, and the loyalty of the latter he ensured by appointing them as provincial officials.

Lacking the support of the influential religious circles, Muawiya transformed the Islamic government from a theocracy (which had in practice ended with the murder of Othman) into an Arab tribal aristocracy served by a bureaucracy. He ruled with the advice of a council of Arab elders, along with delegations from various tribes, and strengthened the bureaucracy, a holdover from Byzantine rule, by creating a postal service and a bureau of registry. A tolerant policy toward Christians and the distribution of bribes to dissident tribes contributed to the maintenance of internal stability.

Further Conquests

Having restored peace and unity within Moslem territory, Muawiya was free to assume the religious obligation of military expansion incumbent upon a caliph. The Arab invasions, which had come to a halt during the period of civil strife in the caliphates of Othman and Ali, were renewed by Muawiya on land and sea, to the north, east, and west, with such spectacular success that a new era of Moslem Arab conquest was established.

To the east, Muawiya sent an expedition into the northeastern province of Persia—Khurasan—which, once conquered, was used as a base for raids across the Oxus River into Transoxiana. To the west, Muawiya's governor in Egypt sent an expedition under the famous conqueror Uqba ibn Nafi against North Africa which penetrated Byzantine defenses as far west as Algeria. It is significant, however, that these advances into Algeria and Transoxiana, at the eastern and western extremities of Muawiya's campaign, were not consolidated by Moslem occupation and were not finally conquered for Islam until later in the Umayyad dynasty.

To the north, in addition to annual raids against Byzantine frontier holdings in Asia Minor, which served to keep the tribal armies in fighting trim, Muawiya launched two unsuccessful attacks against Constantinople itself; the first was led by his son Yazid, and the second took the form of a naval campaign fought intermittently over a period of seven years (674-680).

Further Reading

In the absence of a full-length biography of Muawiya in a Western language see Sir William Muir, The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall (1898). A full account of his reign is in Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, from the Earliest Times to the Present (1937; 10th ed. 1970). See also Joel Carmichael, The Shaping of the Arabs (1967). □

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