Six Times the Islamic Empire Was Nearly Torn Apart

Six Times the Islamic Empire Was Nearly Torn Apart

Patrick Lynch - March 27, 2017

Although early sources are not completely reliable, most historians acknowledge that Islam originated at the beginning of the 7th century in Medina and Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad is the most famous figure in Islam, and in historical terms he is recognized as a political, religious, and social reformer and is credited with the foundation of the Islamic civilization. He united Arabia into one single Muslim polity and ensured his teachings and the Quran formed the basis of the civilization’s religious belief.

Approximately three years after receiving his first revelation from God, Muhammad preached these revelations to anyone who would listen but met initial hostility. However, he overcame this resistance and took the city of Mecca in 629. Muhammad died in 632, but by then a large proportion of the Arabian Peninsula had converted to Islam. Upon the death of Muhammad, Abu Bakr became the first of four Caliphs to govern the Islamic state. These men are often known as the Rashidun (rightly guided) Caliphate and were in charge for the first Islamic conquests.

The assassination of Uthman ibn Affan in 656 was the spark for the first Islamic civil war. His killers supported the next caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Muawiyah I and his relative Marwan I demanded the arrest of Uthman’s assassins and the ongoing dispute led to the beginning of a series of conflicts called ‘Fitna’ which almost tore the Islamic community apart. This article focus on the first three Fitnas, as it led to the rise and fall of the Umayyad Caliphate.

Six Times the Islamic Empire Was Nearly Torn Apart
Uthman ibn Affan. Miranda Design Studio

1 – Battle of the Camel (656)

Also known as the Battle of Bassorah or the Battle of Jamal, this fight is significant because it is the first major conflict where Muslim fought against Muslim and it set the scene for centuries of brutal civil war. Muhammad’s wife, A’isha, was on a pilgrimage to Mecca when she heard about the murder of Uthman. She was enraged that his death remained unavenged and that Ali became the new leader. A’isha decided to fight with those who opposed Ali and they quickly gained the support of the important city of Basra.

However, not everyone in the city was hostile towards Ali, and some even joined his camp. Ali wanted peace rather than conflict but knew he couldn’t acquiesce to the demands of A’isha who demanded that the killers of Uthman were brought to justice. This was mainly because Ali’s army consisted of a large group of the conspirators! He ordered the killers of Uthman not to join him in peace talks lest things get heated. The conspirators, led by a man named Al-Ashtar, were alarmed and knew that peace talks would probably spell their death. They decided to launch an attack and start a battle.

Meanwhile, Ali was pleased with how the peace talks proceeded. However, the next morning, the assassins launched a surprise attack which fooled both sides into thinking the other was responsible. The battle gets its name because A’isha refused to dismount her camel and sat there holding the Qur’an and demanding that Uthman’s killers be brought to justice. Some her men halted their fight to rescue her, and much of the fighting supposedly took place around the camel.

Eventually, Ali told one of his generals to kill the animal and capture A’isha. She was not wounded in the fighting and Ali reconciled with her and ensured she was escorted safely back to Medina. The Battle of the Camel was a brutal affair with 50,000 participants. The number of casualties varies though some historians suggest Ali lost anywhere up to 5,000 men while A’isha lost 13,000. Despite the reconciliation, the die had been cast.

Six Times the Islamic Empire Was Nearly Torn Apart

2 – The Death of Ali & Creation of the Umayyad Caliphate (661)

Despite the bloodshed at the Battle of the Camel, nothing was resolved. Ali refused to bring Uthman’s killers to justice, and Muawiyah would not pledge allegiance to the Caliph. After both men sent armies to meet one another at Siffin in 657, they both decided not to engage in battle; at least not initially. After over 100 days of negotiations, they fought for three days at the Battle of Siffin with terrible losses on both sides. Eventually, a stalemate occurred and the fighting stopped. However, each time Ali attempted to negotiate, Uthman’s killers embarked on night attacks.

Amr ibn al-‘As was a well-respected general and acted as arbitrator to decide if Ali or Muawiyah should be the Caliph. In the end, Amr decided that neither man was worthy and invited the Muslims to elect another person for the role. Ali refused to accept the verdict, and since he originally agreed to abide by the decision, he was in a very weak position for reneging on this promise.

The Qurra were originally supporters of Ali but turned against him after he ignored the verdict of the arbitrator. They knew that if there was peace, they could be arrested for the murder of Uthman and they were aware that Ali could no longer look after their interests. This group became known as Kharijites (those who leave), broke away from Ali’s army and began slaughtering people indiscriminately.

Ali took arms against the Kharijites and finally came face to face with his new enemy at the Battle of Nahrawan in 659. It was a one-sided battle as Ali had up to 80,000 men against just 2,800 Kharijites. It was a complete massacre as Ali lost just eight men while only nine Kharijites managed to escape death.

It was ultimately a pyrrhic victory for Ali as it did nothing but strengthen the resolve of his enemies. On the 19th day of Ramadan in 661, he was praying in the Great Mosque of Kufa when an assassin slashed him with a poisoned sword. Ali died from his wounds, and soon, Muawiyah had the strongest army and was crowned Caliph several months later. He founded the Umayyad Caliphate which ruled for the next 89 years.

Six Times the Islamic Empire Was Nearly Torn Apart
Battle of Karbala. Wikimedia

3 – Start of the Second Fitna & the Battle of Karbala (680)

Muawiyah ruled without too many issues for 19 years but the period after his death was marked by military and political disorder. There is some debate over the beginning of the Second Fitna. Some historians believe it started with the death of Muawiyah in 680 while others suggest it began in earnest with the death of his son and successor, Yazid I in 683.

In many ways, you could say the First and Second Fitnas were merely different rounds of the same war as they were fought between the same factions for more or less the same reasons. Although the first civil war was apparently about Ali’s unwillingness to punish Uthman’s assassins, there was another important reason. There was a fear that his rise to power would result in an inherited caliphate which the vast majority of Muslims did not want. When Muawiyah died, his son became the next caliph which of course meant that the loathed institutional monarchy was a reality.

As was the case with Ali who had to fight off threats to his leadership, Yazid I faced the same problems. Husayn, who was Ali’s youngest son, and was also the grandson of Muhammad, had supporters who wanted their man as leader. Husayn refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid and fled to Mecca and then towards Kufa to avoid arrest. He believed that the people of Kufa would back him in his fight against Yazid, but when he came close to the city, he found out that the people were standing by the current caliph.

Husayn was in a terrible spot and decided to stay and fight against the army that Yazid had sent after him. He had no more than 150 men while the enemy had at least 4,000 soldiers with some estimates claiming there were up to 30,000. In what was known as the Battle of Karbala in 680, Husayn fought bravely, but he died along with the vast majority of his troops.

As well as marking the end of one of Yazid’s main threats to his leadership, some historians believe Karbala marked the breaking up of the Sunni and S’hia sects of Islam. However, both sects continue to commemorate the battle on the Day of Ashura. It is also a fact that there was no such thing as the Sunni order at that stage in history! However, Karbala was important because it marked the beginning of another rift. Those who had once been Ali’s partisans started to feel like ‘outsiders’ from the Caliphate and began to reject its authority.

Experts in early Islamic history believe that if Karbala did not happen and Husayn died peacefully in old age, the movement now known as Shi’ism would have taken a very different course or perhaps never even started at all. Historically, the Battle of Karbala is slated as the end of the first period of the Second Fitna.

Six Times the Islamic Empire Was Nearly Torn Apart
Umayyad Gold Dinar bearing the image of Caliph Abd Al-Malik. Wikimedia

4 – Death of Yazid (683) and the End of the Second Fitna (692?)

There is a question mark beside the date of the Second Fitna’s conclusion because there is some disagreement over what event marked the end. Some believe the death of Yazid in 683 ended the conflict while others suggest the beginning of the reign of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan in 685 is the real end of the Second Fitna. However, for this section, I will use the defeat of Ibn al-Zubayr’s revolt in 692 as the date.

Al-Zubayr was the next person to try and take down Yazid. After Karbala, the people of Mecca declared al-Zubayr as the real caliph, and he gained further support from those who did not want the leadership determined on a hereditary basis. Meanwhile, Yazid attempted to invade the Arabian Peninsula, and his army laid siege to Mecca in 683, but when he died suddenly, his army was forced to lift the siege.

His son, Muawiyah II, succeeded him but the 22-year-old had no real support outside his immediate family, and the childless ruler offered to make al-Zubayr his heir, but his enemy refused because he knew the youthful caliph could outlive him. However, he was mistaken because Muawiyah II abdicated after a few months in power and died soon after; sources are unclear as to cause. Now there was real chaos on the horizon; as the young caliph died with no heirs and succession was supposed to be hereditary, there was no one to take the mantle.

The obvious solution was to give the leadership to al-Zubayr but Marwan, the cousin of Muawiyah I, also wanted to become caliph. With the support of the Yaman tribe who wanted to retain the Umayyad Caliphate, Marwan defeated the Qays tribe who backed al-Zubayr at the Battle of Marj Rahit in 684. Marwan took Egypt and Syria, appointed relatives to important positions and named his son, Abd al-Malik, as heir.

Marwan died in 685 from old age, and his son took over as Caliph. Malik is regarded as one of the greatest caliphs, and he reigned until 705. Although al-Zubayr only had control of Mecca by 685, he continued to rebel against Malik but was finally defeated and killed in 692 after a siege of Mecca. The Umayyad now had control of the Islamic Empire once again, but its power lasted less than 70 years as the Third Fitna ended the dynasty.

Six Times the Islamic Empire Was Nearly Torn Apart
Marwan bin Muhammad (Marwan II).

5 – The Overthrow of al-Walid II (744) & Weakening of the Umayyad Caliphate

The Third Fitna was the civil war that ultimately led to the demise of the Umayyad dynasty. It began with the death of caliph al-Walid II in 744. He was the son of former leader Yazid II and became the new caliph upon the death of his uncle Hisham in 743. Although the Umayyad was successful in a variety of military campaigns, the increasing size of the empire started to cause problems for the administration. As well as dealing with a series of revolts, various caliphs had to contend with a rival family called the Abbasids.

The Abbasids were descendants of a man who was related to Muhammad, so they believed they were the real successors of the prophet. They targeted the moral character of the Umayyad and gained support from mawali, a group of non-Arab Muslims who were unfairly treated by the rulers. Al-Walid’s propensity for alcohol and horse racing only angered his rivals more. Eventually, Yazid III, son of al-Walid I, rose up against the immoral ruler and killed him after a skirmish near Palmyra.

Yazid III quickly established himself as a pious ruler, but a brain tumor killed him just six months into his reign. He had named his brother Ibrahim as ruler but the new leader’s tenure was cut short when the grandson of Marwan I, Marwan ibn Muhammad, contested the leadership and became caliph in December 744. He made the mistake of moving the empire’s capital to Harran which led to a revolt in Syria. Marwan took Homs and later razed it along with Damascus in 746.

Although he attempted to solidify power by naming his sons as successors and appointing several governors, the threat of the Abbasids would not go away. Marwan was forced to deal with a Kharijite rebellion, but he eventually ground them down to defeat. After a decisive victory at Mosul, Marwan was able to breathe a little easier after the rebellion collapsed in 747. If he thought that he had finally consolidated his rule, he was mistaken as another rebellion began that ended his reign and his family’s dynasty.

Six Times the Islamic Empire Was Nearly Torn Apart

6 – The Abbasid Revolt & fall of the Umayyad Caliphate (747-750)

While Marwan secured Iraq by suppressing the Kharijite rebellion, he had to quickly turn his attention to more unrest, this time in the east of the empire. Conflict arose against Nasr ibn Sayyar, the governor of Khurasan, and eventually, fighting broke out in the province as support for the Abbasids grew. One of the main players in the revolt was the Hashimiyya movement led by Abu Muslim.

Eventually, the Hashimiyya forces under the leadership of Qahtaba ibn Shabib al-Ta’i started to defeat the Umayyad in battle, and they won an important victory at Gurgan in 748 and captured the city of Rayy. Qahtaba had another crucial win at a battle near Isfahan the following year, and his son al-Hasan forced the city of Nihawand to surrender after a siege. Although the rebels suffered a blow when Qahtaba was killed in a surprise attack, his son led the army into Kufa.

Ibrahim the Imam probably began the Abbasid revolt but was captured and eventually executed by Marwan II. His brother, Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah, took over and was proclaimed caliph when al-Hasan captured Kufa. However, he still had to deal with Marwan and met his enemy at the Battle of Greater Zab in 750. As it transpired, it was one of the most important battles in history because it resulted in the establishment of an Abbasid dynasty that would last until the 13th century.

On paper at least, Marwan had a huge numerical advantage with an estimated force of at least 120,000 against the Abbasid army of approximately 35,000 which was led by Abdallah ibn Ali. However, Marwan’s army had no great love of their leader and morale was low after suffering several defeats earlier in the revolt. In contrast, the Abbasid army was united, and its morale had grown throughout the rebellion.

The Abbasids created a wall of spears, and their enemy made the astonishing mistake of charging right at them in the belief they could break the wall. In reality, the Umayyad charge was a catastrophe as a large percentage of the men involved were slaughtered. The rest of the army fell into disarray, and many of them drowned in the river. Marwan managed to escape to the small town of Abusir in the Egyptian Nile Delta. It was here that he met his death in a short battle and Abu al-Abbas became the new caliph.

The Abbasid Caliphate ruled until the Sack of Baghdad in 1258. Three years later, it moved to Cairo and continued to claim authority over religious matters until the Ottomans captured Egypt in 1517.