Mu‘awiya’s calculated reserve no doubt contributed to his ambiguous place in the Muslim imagination, but that is only the beginning. The real problem is that he did not fit neatly into the moral categories which later Muslims devised to evaluate a person’s religious standing – indeed, he subverted them – and so they could never quite decide what to make of him. It must be admitted that for two broad religio-political groupings, the Kharijites and Shi’ites, there was no ambivalence at all. For them, he was a figure of unmitigated evil, a man who knowingly and cynically worked to destroy the new covenant established by Muhammad and to return the world to the ignorant brutishness of the Jahiliyya, the time before Islam. The ‘Abbasid caliphs, who overthrew the Umayyad dynasty that he had put in power and who did everything they could to blacken its memory, publicly condemned him and his seed.
The first ‘Abbasid, Abu al-‘Abbas al-Saffah (749–754), set the tone in his accession speech in Kufa:
Woe, woe to the Banu Harb b. Umayyah and the Banu Marwan!1 In their space and time they preferred the ephemeral to the eternal, the transient abode to the everlasting one. Crime them obsessed; God’s creatures they oppressed; women forbidden to them they possessed, all honour grieving and by sin deceiving. They tyrannised God’s servants by their deport with evil custom where they sought disport, themselves with vice’s burdens decked and their idolatry unchecked, at management of every fault most lively, cheerful; withal to race on error’s course not fearful; God’s purpose in respiting sin not comprehending and trusting they had tricked Him by pretending! God’s severity came on them like a night raid when they were sleeping and at dawn they were only legends. They were torn all to tatters and thus may an oppressive people perish! [Tabari, vol. XXVII, pp. 155–6]
Invective of this sort was repeated more than once in the reigns of al-Saffah’s immediate successors. Systematic public campaigns to vilify Mu‘awiya and the entire Umayyad clan, to label them not only as hypocrites and corrupt, bloody tyrants but even as apostates, were planned by the caliphs al-Ma’mun (813–833) and al-Mu’tadid (892–902), long after Mu‘awiya and the Umayyads could possibly have threatened ‘Abbasid power. Neither caliph went ahead with the project, since the political fallout was unpredictable. The unpublished decrees of al-Ma’mun and al-Mu’tadid were no doubt aimed less at the Umayyads than at re-energizing support for their own troubled dynasty. However, the two caliphs clearly believed that the Umayyads would be credible and effective symbols of the corrupt and godless alternative to ‘Abbasid rule, whatever its faults. The charges spelled out in these documents neatly summarize the most persistent and important criticisms of Mu‘awiya as a person and a ruler. Al-Mu’tadid’s decree (a revised version of al-Ma’mun’s) is revealing: God cursed the Umayyads through His Prophet orally and by way of revealed scripture thus: ‘… the tree accursed in the Qur’an. We shall frighten them but it only greatly increases their rebelliousness’. [Qur’an 17:60] (Nobody denies that the Umayyads are meant here.)
When the Prophet saw Abu Sufyan riding on an ass, with Mu‘awiya and his son Yazid driving it he said: ‘May God curse the leader, the rider and the driver!’.
The Messenger of God called for Mu‘awiya to take dictation (to copy down newly revealed verses of revelation as the Prophet recited them) but he refused to do so because he was eating. The Prophet then said, ‘May God never fill his belly!’.
As a result, Mu‘awiya was always hungry and said, ‘By God, I do not stop eating because I have had enough but only because I can eat no more!’
The Messenger of God also said, ‘From this mountain pass, a man from my community is coming up who will be resurrected separately from my people’. Mu‘awiya was the one coming up.
There is also the report that the Messenger of God said, ‘When you see Mu‘awiya on my pulpit, kill him!’.
Then there is the famous hadith, traced back to the Prophet: ‘Mu‘awiya is in a casket of fire in the lowest layer of Hell, calling out, “O Clement One, O Generous One!” He is given the answer, “Now you believe but before this you sinned and wrought corruption”’. [Qu’ran 10:91]
There is also his going to war against the most outstanding, earliest and most famous of Muslims, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. With his false claim, Mu‘awiya contested ‘Ali’s rightful claim. He fought ‘Ali’s helpers with his own erring scoundrels. He attempted what he and his father never ceased attempting, namely ‘to extinguish the light of God’ (Qu’ran 9:32) and deny God’s religion … Mu‘awiya tried to seduce foolish men and confuse the ignorant with his trickery and injustice … Mu‘awiya preferred this fleeting world and denied the enduring other world. He left the ties of Islam and declared it permissible to shed forbidden blood, until in his rebellion … the blood of an uncountable number of the best Muslims was shed. God made it obligatory to curse him for killing, while they could offer no resistance, the best of the men around Muhammad and the men of the second generation (of Muslims) and excellent and religious people, such as ‘Amr b. al-Hamiq and Hujr b. ‘Adi and their like. Furthermore, there is Mu‘awiya’s disdainful attitude toward the religion of God, manifested by his calling God’s servants to (acknowledge) his son Yazid (as heir apparent), that arrogant drunken sot, that owner of cocks, cheetahs and monkeys. With furious threats and frightful intimidation, he forced the best of Muslims to give the oath of allegiance to Yazid, although he was aware of Yazid’s stupidity and was acquainted with his ugliness and viciousness … his drunkenness, immorality and unbelief. [Tabari, XXXVIII, pp. 53–58]
For Sunnis who were not part of the ‘Abbasid establishment (and these ultimately constituted the majority of Muslims), and talents as an empire-builder (but then al-Mansur was famously hard-nosed and unsentimental). Ultimately, for the Sunnis, Mu‘awiya was not only a Companion of the Prophet but also a scribe of the Qur’an, one of the small group whom Muhammad trusted to receive the dictation of the revelations iph al-Mansur (754–75) respected Mu‘awiya’s political acumen judgments had to be rather more subtle. He had been named governor of Syria (in around 639) by the second caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab,
and was confirmed in that office by the third caliph, ‘Uthman. Mu‘awiya had demonstrated his formidable military, political, and administrative talents for twenty years by the time he became caliph and he restored peace and stability to a Muslim community tormented by five years of civil war.
On the other side of the ledger, the Sunni historical memory recalls that Mu‘awiya’s clan bitterly opposed Muhammad and harassed his followers during his Meccan years and led the war to oust him from Medina. The leader of the opposition in the years between Badr (624) and the occupation of Mecca (630) was Mu‘awiya’s father, Abu Sufyan. Although Mu‘awiya eventually joined the Prophet’s cause, most believed that he did so only after the latter entered Mecca in 630 – a conversion of convenience if ever there was one. Relations between the Banu Umayya and the Banu Hashim (trans. C. E.
Umar’s appointment of Mu‘awiya as governor of Syria might suggest that the redoubtable caliph found him
reliable. However, the office came to him only after three earlier appointees had died in rapid succession during a plague epidemic, leaving him the most senior military commander in Palestine. In short, his appointment represented an ad hoc solution to an immediate crisis of leadership. Mu‘awiya remained in office under ‘Uthman partly because this caliph, his second cousin, tried to reinforce his authority over the provinces by appointing members of his own clan as governors. Finally, the Sunni consensus believed, if Mu‘awiya restored peace to the Muslims he had been a major protagonist in the civil war that first sundered the community. Indeed, Mu‘awiya had deliberately provoked the second phase of this struggle by his refusal
to recognize ‘Ali as the lawful successor to the Prophet unless ‘Ali surrendered ‘Uthman’s killers to him for vengeance.
All these threads are nicely woven together in two short but characteristic anecdotes in the Genealogies of the Nobles, a massive historical and biographical compendium composed by Ahmad b. Yahya al-Baladhuri (died 892) at roughly the same time as the decree of the caliph al-Mu‘tadid. One anecdote, recalling the words of a pious critic, emphasizes Mu‘awiya’s worldliness and his indifference to religion; the other, attributed to Mu‘awiya himself, explains in a few terse phrases why he won the day over ‘Ali. As we shall see, judgments concerning Mu‘awiya’s conduct and character are often more complex but these two reports, with their directness and simplicity, are a good place to begin.
Mu‘awiya said to Ibn al-Kawwa’ al-Yashkuri3: ‘I demand that you tell me under oath what you think of me’. Ibn al-Kawwa’ responded, ‘Since you have compelled me to swear by God’s name, I will tell you that I think that to me you seem to abound in the goods of this world but to be poor in the next life, that you have gifts close at hand but keep the final destination [presumably the next life] far distant, that you are one who
regards the dark as light and the light as dark’.
[Baladhuri, Ansab, LDV, 6–7]
Sunni ambivalence about Mu‘awiya went further than his sometimes dubious political role. It was also a matter of culture. By the ninth century, Islamic society valued piety and religious knowledge above all else (though there was plenty of room for poetry, courtly literature and scientific and philosophic discourse); in this context, Mu‘awiya was problematic. In formal piety and personal conduct, he was acceptable enough (at least he provoked no public scandal) but he was never regarded as religiously learned or even thoughtful and engaged, beyond a superficial level. He believed in God and was publicly correct in his observances but no more. Many regarded him as indifferent to Islam and some noted suspiciously pro-Christian sympathies.