On the Origin of Caliphates – By Hamza M. Zafer

Hamza M. Zafer on Steven Judd’s Religious Scholars and the Umayyads

Steven Judd, Religious Scholars and the Umayyads: Piety-Minded Supporters of the Marwānid Caliphate, Routledge, 2014, 208pp., $145
Steven Judd, Religious Scholars and the Umayyads: Piety-Minded Supporters of the Marwānid Caliphate, Routledge, 2014, 208pp., $145
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In the late spring of 680 CE, Yazid bin Mu‘awiya from the Umayyad clan of Mecca summoned all the provincial governors of the newly formed Islamic empire to swear an oath of allegiance to him as Caliph (Deputy) of God and Commander of the Faithful. Yazid was the first caliph to be born after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (632 C.E); he was also the first to have inherited the position through hereditary succession rather than through communal consensus. With his summons, intended to manufacture a mandate, Yazid established the hundred-year-long Umayyad Caliphate, the first dynasty to rule the nascent yet vast Islamic empire.

As the summons went out, special instructions were dispatched from the Umayyad capital at Damascus to the governor of the old capital at Medina. The new Caliph demanded that the governor acquire oaths of allegiance from the local Hashemites, the clan of the deceased Prophet Muhammad, whose charismatic leader was Muhammad’s grandson Husayn. Husayn and the Hashemites refused to take the oath that would legitimate Yazid’s rule of the emergent empire. They believed this dynastic transfer of caliphal power from father to son violated the anti-nepotistic rules of succession established in 661 CE by an agreement between Yazid’s father, the fifth caliph Mu‘awiya, and Muhammad’s other grandson, Hasan. According to this agreement, the caliph would not appoint his successor, but would rather refer the matter to communal consensus. Mu‘awiya and his son had broken this rule, and thus Husayn and the Hashemites were unwilling to recognize Yazid as legitimate, thereby posing an existential threat to Umayyad rule.

A few months after Yazid sent out his summons to the Hashemites, Umayyad armies killed Husayn and twenty-one other members of Muhammad’s family on the plains of Karbala in Iraq. The casualties included Muhammad’s great-grandsons, one of them an infant, while his two last surviving granddaughters, each in their 50s, were captured as prisoners of war. This massacre of the Hashemites—the Prophet’s family—caused upheaval among the emerging empire’s religious elites. Nevertheless, the Umayyad action at Karbala secured the family’s hold on the caliphate for a century. Although the Hashemites no longer posed a direct threat to Umayyad rule, their near annihilation, known in the Muslim tradition as the “the Second Strife,” catalyzed political and ideological divides in the early Muslim community that endure today as sectarian distinctions.

The Umayyad-Hashemite rivalry, like the patriarchal narratives of Genesis, emerged from a sibling rivalry between Muhammad’s great-grandfather Hashem and his twin brother Abu Umayya, the eponymous ancestors of the fighting Meccan clans. According to lore, the twins were born conjoined head to foot. Their father separated them with his battle sword, condemning the two twins, and their progenies, to perpetual enmity.

During Muhammad’s childhood, the Hashemites were the custodians of Mecca’s sacred precinct, which housed the idols of 360 tribal deities and drew pilgrims from all over Arabia to the city’s bustling seasonal markets. The caravans supplying these markets were operated by the Hashemites’ wealthier and more successful cousins, the Umayyads. The Umayyads occupied positions of authority in the Meccan city-state and staunchly guarded the tribal codes, hierarchies, and commercial practices that supported the city’s mercantile economy, enriching and empowering their clan in the process.

When Muhammad, a minor Hashemite merchant, began publicly decrying the inequity that underpinned the city’s social structure in 613 CE, the Umayyads took it as an affront to their clan’s authority and as a threat to their rigidly policed tribal order. They reacted to Muhammad’s subversive teachings by levying a crippling commercial and marital boycott on the Hashemite clan. As a result of this persecution, most of Mecca’s Hashemites left their native city and resettled in the oasis city of Medina, where Muhammad and most of his household remain buried today.

Three years after the Prophet and his community migrated to Medina in 622 CE, the rancorous Umayyads, furious with Muhammad’s community for disrupting their trade caravans a year earlier, drew the Prophet’s people out to battle at the foot of Mount Uhud, north of the city. The Umayyad war chief Abu Sufyan, Yazid’s grandfather, sought to exterminate Muhammad’s community at Uhud. He nearly succeeded. So great was the number of losses among Muhammad’s people that the Qur’an memorializes the slain: “Think not of the ones slain in God’s way as dead. They live on, and are provided for, in the presence of their Cherisher” (Q 3:169).

Muhammad survived the devastating Umayyad assault at Uhud and, in its aftermath, was told by the angel Gabriel to instruct the besieged Medinan exiles to continue fighting for their survival and religion: “The ones who are attacked and oppressed, they have every right [to fight]… [as do] those who are unjustly expelled from their own homes… Had God not [allowed] for a people to repel another[‘s oppression], every refuge—church, synagogue, and mosque—would be in ruin!” (Q 22:40). The Prophet’s community survived and, as the Umayyads had feared, continued to grow. In a few years, Muhammad’s supporters far outnumbered their Meccan persecutors. In 629 CE, the exiles—and their allies—returned to Mecca to resettle in their native city after a bloodless conquest known as the “Opening of Mecca.” In the throes of victory, Muhammad addressed his people, forbidding all retaliation against the former persecutors and declaring amnesty for the Umayyad leadership, going so far as to mention Abu Sufyan by name. That evening, Abu Sufyan and the Umayyad elite converted to Muhammad’s religion, Islam.

Muhammad died in the city of Medina in 632 CE, and within three decades the Hashemites and the Umayyads were again at each other’s throats. The civil war between the two clans began with the insubordination of Mu‘awiya, the son of Abu Sufyan. After his family’s conversion to Islam, Mu‘awiya had risen through the ranks of the early Muslim empire and had become the governor of Syria, from where he intended to safeguard Umayyad power. Ali, the fourth caliph, Muhammad’s cousin, and the Hashemite leader, could not abide Mu‘awiya’s attempts to secure his autonomy, and he led the caliphal army against the Umayyads’ much larger and stronger forces. The two armies met on the plain of Siffin near the banks of the Euphrates in 657 CE, where they fought a battle whose high number of casualties brought the two sides to arbitration and then a ceasefire.

Following Ali’s death four years later, Mu‘awiya, still governor of Syria and a talented leader in his own right, became the fifth caliph of the Muslim empire. Mu‘awiya reigned as caliph for twenty years, much longer then the reigns of his four predecessors. During this period, he appointed his Umayyad relatives to important positions and bequeathed the caliphal scepter to his own son Yazid. Yazid further consolidated Umayyad rule by annihilating all Hashemite opposition at Karbala. Thus, three generations of Hashemites—Muhammad, Ali, and Husayn—fought three generations of Umayyads—Abu Sufyan, Mu‘awiya, and Yazid. Each Umayyad sought to annihilate the Hashemites and their supporters, and Yazid nearly succeeded in 680 CE at Karbala. Seventy years later, the Hashemites overthrew the Umayyad dynasty with the piously-motivated Abbasid Revolution. The subjugation of the Umayyads ushered in Islam’s supposed Golden Age and the period when Classical Sunni and Shiite thought took shape.

Or so the story goes.

The Umayyad period (661 CE – 750 CE) is the crucible of early Islam. It bridges Islam’s Apostolic Age (c. 570 CE – 661 CE) and its supposed Golden Age under the Hashemite caliphs (750 CE – 1258 CE). Umayyad rule witnessed the transformation of the Muslim polity from a small regional power at the Byzantine and Persian peripheries to an empire stretching six million square miles from Iberia to India. The reach and power of the Umayyads can still be seen today in one of Muslim civilization’s most enduring symbols, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem built by the fifth Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik as a statement of the Caliphate’s power and its Muslim piety.

Though the Umayyad vision of Islam was formative, there are virtually no extant chronicles contemporaneous to the reigns of the fourteen Umayyad caliphs. Everything historians know about the Umayyads has been gleaned from chronicles that post-date the Hashemite-led Abbasid Revolution, which overthrew the dynasty. The Hashemite revolutionaries succeeded in part because of their campaign of anti-Umayyad propaganda. Moreover, the revolution had the support of the exponentially increasing number of non-Arab converts who considered Umayyad court culture and Arab-centric state policies incompatible with Prophetic custom and precedent. They also had the strong backing of the partisans of Husayn, who considered the Umayyads to be pharaonic tyrants, and who also purportedly wanted to avenge the Karbala massacre. Nearly everything we know about the Umayyads comes from chronicles written after their inglorious fall and during the period of Hashemite rule.

Historians of early Islam thus face a problem of sources. The paucity of documentary materials from the Umayyad period itself is further complicated by the fact that the canonical histories from the post-Umayyad era are both infused with Hashemite triumphalism and conspicuously anti-Umayyad sentiment. Steven Judd’s recent book, Religious Scholars and the Umayyads: Piety-Minded Supporters of the Marwanid Caliphate, is an attempt to confront this old question of sources by posing another question: Is there evidence that suggests the Umayyad caliphs enjoyed the support of an emergent class of “piety-minded” Muslim intellectuals in the Empire? Having the support of the piety-minded would mean that, despite their history of persecuting the Prophet’s people, the Umayyad clan influenced the early development of the Prophet’s religion. Historians have long held that the Umayyad elites, despite being Muslims, were either detached from or despised by the emergent Islamic religious establishment and thus peripheral to the early development of classical Muslim religious thought. Judd’s book challenges this assumption.

In his book, Judd critiques the overreliance of historians of the Umayyad period on the tenth- century grand oeuvre of Abbasid history, the History of the Prophets and Kings by Tabari. Tabari writes his chronicle a century after the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads, and his depiction of the fallen dynasty follows a larger narrative about the ascendency of God’s community and its Hashemite rulers. Judd catalogues several overlooked sources that offer another picture of the Umayyads. Building from these sources, Judd shows that despite their many misadventures the Umayyad caliphs enjoyed the support of several piety-minded intellectuals and religious personalities. This included individuals who went on to strongly influence the development of Muslim thought in the Hashemite period. To strengthen this important point, Judd focuses on the Marwanids, a specific line of caliphs within the Umayyad dynasty whose rule saw the widespread resurgence of anti-Umayyad sentiment.

The most powerful Umayyad caliph during the Marwanid period, Abd al-Malik, the builder of the Dome of the Rock, faced yet another Hashemite rebellion. This time, the Hashemite dissenters were led by Ibn Zubayr the nephew of Muhammad’s politically influential widow, Aisha (d. 678 CE). Given his proximity to the Prophet’s family, Ibn Zubayr enjoyed popular support among the religious establishment in Mecca and Medina as a counter-caliph. His refusal to swear allegiance to the Umayyads once again threatened their legitimacy and in 692 CE, barely a decade after the Karbala massacre, Umayyad armies lay a six month siege to Ibn Zubayr’s capital in Mecca. The armies destroyed the sacred precinct in the city and eventually killed Ibn Zubayr. The counter-caliph’s staunch supporters included a prominent Medinan religious leaders whose son, Zuhri, went on to be a father of classical Muslim legal thought and a prolific transmitter of the Prophet’s canonical sayings. Despite his religious pro-Hashemite leanings, Zuhri, Judd shows in his book, agreed to serve as counsel and tutor to the Umayyad caliphal family and enjoyed frequent audiences at the Umayyad court. The close relationship between this prominent religious leader from Medina and the Umayyad rulers nuances the established image of the Umayyad rulers as impious autocrats who had no ties to the religious establishment. Zuhri’s presence at court, along with several other “piety-minded” religious figures featured by Judd, shows a much more complex relationship between piety and politics during the formative Umayyad period.

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Judd’s conclusion, that the Umayyads did indeed have “piety-minded” support for their rule, changes our understanding of Islam’s early development after the Prophet’s death. Judd presents evidence arguing that Muslim “piety” and formative religious thought did not only develop in opposition to the ruling Umayyads, as most have assumed, but also in dialogue with imperial institutions. His findings complicate our understanding of Islam’s origins and upend the standard Western and Muslim narratives about the power play between politics and piety in the embryonic Muslim caliphate after the Prophet Muhammad’s death.

From the earliest period of Islamic political history, Muslim piety has been both an instrument of subverting temporal power and a means of exercising it. Judd’s book more sheds light on how ideological fractures emerged early in the new religio-political community, the Muslim umma, over the question of power. These ideological fractures bore radically divergent visions of the caliph and the caliphate—fractures that continue to inform global Muslim politics today. In many modern Muslim political communities and movements, the Caliph represents legitimate and just power that serves as a foil against corrupt or oppressive modern governments. As such, the Caliphate still holds tremendous symbolic power in the Muslim political imaginary, almost a century after its abolition in 1924 by the National Assembly of the newly formed Turkish republic. The last Ottoman Turkish heir of the Caliphate died in 2009 having lived most of his life unceremoniously in a small rent-controlled apartment above a New York City bakery. Today, the self-proclaimed Iraqi caliph of ISIL commands a sizeable territory from his capitol in Syria near the ancient site of the Battle of Siffin. Meanwhile the caliph of the growing Ahmadiyya sect of Muslims, considered heretics by ISIL, leads his diasporic community in the Indian Subcontinent, West Africa and Canada from his caliphal seat in London. With new Caliphates emerging, the complex origins of this once powerful religio-political institution remain a point of heated debate among the pious as well as the political.