Mu˓awiya ibn Abi Sufyan was the first Umayyad caliph (661–680 c.e.). Mu˓awiya's father, Sakhr ibn Harb ibn Umayyah—popularly known as Abu Sufyan—led the Quraysh army against the Prophet in the battles of Uhud and Khandaq. He later embraced Islam. His mother, Hind, the daughter of a prominent Quraysh chief, ˓Utbah ibn Rabi˓a, was also hostile to Muhammad before her conversion to Islam.
Some sources suggest that Mu˓awiya accepted Islam before the conquest of Mecca in 630 but concealed it until later; the general view is that he accepted Islam after the conquest. This explains why he is included among the tulaqa˒ (those who were pardoned by the Prophet after the conquest).
Mu˓awiya and his father, Abu Sufyan, were also included among what Qur˒an refers to as the mu˒allafat al-qulub (those to whom the Prophet gave alms as a way of reconciling their hearts to Islam).The fact that Mu˓awiya was literate ensured his appointment by the Prophet as his scribe.
In 634 the first caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr, sent Mu˓awiya to Syria, where he was appointed as a commander of one division of the army led by his brother, Yazid, against the Byzantines. On Yazid's death in 639, the second caliph, ˓Umar, appointed him as commander of the army, collector of taxes, and governor of Damascus.
The third caliph, ˓Uthman, confirmed Mu˓awiya's appointment as governor of Syria, which became an important front for the defense of the caliphate against the Byzantines. Mu˓awiya established garrisons all along the coast and for the first time Muslims engaged in naval warfare.
When ˓Uthman was besieged in Medina by dissidents who demanded the instatement of ˓Ali as caliph, he requested assistance from Mu˓awiya. As soon as he assumed the caliphate after the assassination of ˓Uthman, ˓Ali sought to dismiss Mu˓awiya, who refused to pay allegiance to him until ˓Uthman's murderers had been punished.
The deadlock between ˓Ali and Mu˓awiya led to the Battle of Siffin in 657 c.e. The battle was brought to an end when Mu˓awiya, whose army was on the verge of defeat, proposed that the conflict be resolved through negotiation. The two parties agreed to arbitration (tahkim).
The decision of the arbiters that both ˓Ali and Mu˓awiya be relieved of their posts did not resolve the conflict. Ali's supporters, in particular, rejected the outcome of the arbitration.
In the meanwhile, Mu˓awiya had succeeded in gaining the support of the Syrians. In 658 he dispatched ˓Amr ibn al-˓As to conquer Egypt on his behalf. While Mu˓awiya's position was strengthened by the conquest of Egypt, ˓Ali's position in Iraq (where his capital was based) was considerably weakened.
After ˓Ali was assassinated by a Kharijite dissident in 661, he was briefly succeeded by his son Hasan. Soon Mu˓awiya convinced him to accept compensation for abdicating in his favor; thereby inaugurating Umayyad rule in 661. The seat of the caliphate was transferred to Damascus.
Mu˓awiya's rule, according to most historians, was characterized by peace and justice. Governors were granted full civil and military authority. However, toward the end of his life, he nominated his son Yazid to succeed him. This move met with a great deal of opposition, especially from ˓Abdallah ibn Zubayr and ˓Ali's son, Husayn ibn Ali.
Mu˓awiya was accused of turning the caliphate into a kingship. The legitimacy of Yazid's succession was debated and contested by many, including Husayn ibn ˓Ali. Husayn's march with his followers to challenge Yazid met a tragic end at Karbala, an event that is commemorated to this day by the Shi˓a as well as many Sunni Muslims.
Mu˓awiya has been held responsible for the emergence of the first schisms in Islam. His refusal to acknowledge ˓Ali's caliphate and his appointment of Yazid as heir not only resulted in the introduction of hereditary succession in Muslim polity, but also in the emergence of the Khawarij and consolidation of the Shi˓a.
While Mu˓awiya has been vilified by Shi˓a throughout Muslim history, Sunni Muslims respect his political sagacity, justice, impartiality, forbearance, and resolution of character. It is said that he granted his subjects free access to him as well as freedom of expression. He was reputed for his oratory and his ability to turn adversaries into allies.
Hawting, G. R. The First Dynasty of Islam: The UmayyadCaliphate AD 661–750. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Tabari, al-. Between Civil Wars: The Caliphate of Mu˓awiyah. Translated and annotated by Michael G. Morony. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.