Early Islamic History Demystified | Part 5: Ali and Muawiyah

A New Khalifah

Suddenly, Madinah was in chaos. There was no leader anymore. The people needed a new khalifah and Ali (ra) was clearly the best candidate. He was one of the six people whom Umar (ra) had nominated, he had served as a judge in the city, he was well known and beloved to the people. According to some sources, the rebels forced the people of Madinah to choose a new caliph, telling them that if a new leader wasn’t chosen, heads were going to roll. According to other sources, the people themselves saw the need to choose a new caliph and chose Ali (ra) on their own. Whatever the case, Ali (ra) showed hesitation when asked to become the caliph but finally accepted, albeit reluctantly. He knew what a precarious position this was, and how the new khalifah would have to make some very tough decisions.

The entire city was in chaos and turmoil and Ali (ra) was in a tenuous position. As the new khalifah, he had a city filled with sahabah, normal people, pilgrims, and rebels, all mixed together. It was his responsibility to see that the murderers of ‘Uthman (ra) saw justice but how would he go about doing that? Within the group of pilgrims, some certainly had the intention of murdering ‘Uthman (ra) all along. Others probably had ill-intentions but did not think it would go to the extent of murdering the son-in-law of the Prophet ﷺ, ‘Uthman. Yet others possibly were completely ignorant of any wrong motive and genuinely thought they were coming to voice what they felt were legitimate grievances against ‘Uthman (ra). So what should Ali (ra) do? Should he execute every member of the pilgrim group? Every rebel? Only the man who landed the killing blow?

It was a murky situation and Ali (ra) knew that he needed to consolidate his authority and establish order before going after the murderers of ‘Uthman. Executing the murderers of ‘Uthman was important. However, more important was ensuring the stability of the Islamic ummah. Before pursuing revenge, the peace and security had to be returned to Muslim lands.  So Ali (ra) sent out messages to all the governors telling them that he had been chosen as the new khalifah and to give him their allegiance.

Conflict

Enter Muawiyah (ra). He was ‘Uthman (ra)’s next of kin and received, along with the letter from Ali (ra), a letter from ‘Uthman (ra)’s widow. She told him what had happened in Madinah and along with the message, sent him the bloodstained shirt ‘Uthman (ra) was wearing when the rebels killed him. She finished the letter with, “You are his cousin and next of kin. See to it that his murder does not go unpunished.”

Muawiyah (ra) discovered that his cousin, the khalifah of the Muslims, had been murdered in the city of Madinah, surrounded by sahabah. He simultaneously found out that ‘Uthman (ra)’s  successor, instead of executing the murderers, was instead sending out letters to governors consolidating his own power. You can only imagine his rage. Muawiyah (ra) sent the messenger back, saying that he would give Ali (ra) allegiance only after the murderers of ‘Uthman (ra) were executed. Ali (ra) refused. The definition of an allegiance to a leader is that you listen and you obey, you do not put conditions.

It is this difference that led to the war between these two groups of Muslims. The difference was strictly political, there was nothing remotely religious about it.  Even early Shi’a works acknowledge this. In Nahj al-Balagha:

In the war… When we met people of Al-Sham, it seemed that our God is one, our prophet is the same, our calling is the same, and no one is more of a believer than the other about believing in Allah, or the prophet. The misunderstandings were about Uthman’s blood, and we have nothing to do with it.

This political schism was healed in the year 41AH when Hasan (ra) looked around at the unfortunate state of the Muslim ummah and made the decision to unite them around one leader. He withdrew himself from the khilafah and gave allegiance to Muawiyah (ra), despite considering himself (rightly) to be more suited for the position. In doing so, he fulfilled a prophecy made so many years ago when he was a toddler. He was running in the masjid during a khutbah when he tripped and fell down. He began crying loudly and the Prophet ﷺ stopped the khutbah, climbed down from the minbar, and picked him up, consoling him. He then climbed back up the minbar and said,

“This son of mine is a leader and Allah may use him to reconcile two great factions of Muslims.”

And indeed, in 41 AH, two great factions of Muslims reconciled and became one whole community again.

Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Ali (ra) made the wiser decision by not accepting an allegiance based on stipulations. It would have set a dangerous precedent which gave power to strong governors and weakened the office of the khalifah. However, we can also see where Muawiyah (ra) was coming from and why he felt completely justified in going to war with Ali (ra), a man he believed was not taking adequate measures to ensure that justice was served in the murder of a khalifah.

Muawiyah

Muawiyya (ra), whatever differences he had with Ali (ra), proved himself a very able ruler. He is referred to as “Uncle of the Believers” because his sister Ramlah bint Abi Sufyan was one of the Mothers of the Believers. The Prophet ﷺ made du’a for him and said, “O Allah guide him and guide people by him.” Muawiyah (ra) ruled Sham for 20 years and the entire Muslim ummah for 20 years. 40 years of leadership during which he proved himself to be one of the most able leaders in our entire history. He was asked once how he was able to maintain such a ruler and he replied, “I never used my sword when my whip would suffice and never used my whip when my tongue would suffice.”

He began his political career completely accidentally. He came as part of the Muslim army to Sham. However, a plague hit the region and in quick succession killed the governor Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah and his successor, Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan. Muawiyah (ra), Yazid’s brother, with zero experience, found himself governor of a region that had just been conquered. Sham bordered the Roman Empire and was under constant threat from that area. Muawiyyah (ra) oversaw the formation and training of the Syrian army to become the most powerful military force of the Islamic state. He convinced ‘Uthman (ra) to allow the creation of the first Muslim navy and led the navy to conquer Cyprus. As the hadith in Bukhari state: “Paradise is granted to the first batch of my followers who will undertake a naval expedition.” He sent out the first Muslim expedition to strike against Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine empire. In another hadith, the Prophet ﷺ said the first army to wage Jihaad against Constantinople is forgiven. Internally, he oversaw the establishment of a postal service and imported the existent Byzantine bureaucracy in order to effectively administer his land.

In al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, commenting on the Year of Unity, Ibn Kathir writes:

“All the Muslims unanimously agreed to swear allegiance to Mu’awiyah in 41 AH, and he remained in charge throughout this period until the year in which he died. Throughout this period Jihaad was ongoing in the lands of the enemies, and the Word of Allaah remained supreme, and booty was coming to him from the ends of the earth; the Muslims were at ease, enjoying justice, tolerance, and goodwill. He was forbearing, dignified, a leader, prominent among people, noble, just, and a man of chivalry. He was a man of good conduct, forgiving, tolerant and overlooking the mistakes of others – may Allaah have mercy upon him.”

The famous muhaddith and ascetic, Abdullah ibn Mubarak was once asked who was better, ‘Umar ibn Abdul Aziz or Muawiyah (ra)? He responded that the dust from the hooves of the horse of Muawiyah (ra) was better than ‘Umar ibn Abdul Aziz and everything he did. 

His justice and leadership was recognized not only by his Muslim subjects, but by non-Muslims living under his rule as well.  The 7th century Nestorian Christian writer John bar Penkaye recorded:

‘the peace throughout the world was such that we have never heard, either from our fathers or from our grandparents, or seen that there had ever been any like it'”

With that said, he was obviously not of the level of the 10 Promised Paradise but he is still a respected sahabi. He was a katib al-wahi, a scribe of the Qur’an. He had political differences with Ali (ra) but always acknowledged that Ali (ra) was superior to him. His dispute with Ali (ra) was over how to handle the matter of the murder of ‘Uthman. Ali (ra) himself said, after the Battle of Siffin:

O people, do not hate or talk ill of the leadership of Mu’awiyah, for if you were to lose him it would be such a tragedy as if you would see your limbs falling from your bodies.

Insha’Allah in the next article we will rewind the clock and conclude with the infamous Battle of Jamal which happened alongside some of the events discussed this week.

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