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Mu'awiyah I (602 – May 6, 680) was founder of the Umayyad dynasty of Islamic caliphs. He fought against the fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib (Muhammad's son-in-law), seized Egypt, and assumed the caliphate after 'Ali's assassination in 661. He reigned from 661 to 680. His full name was Mu`āwīyah ibn Abu Sufyan.

Because he opposed Ali, whom the Shi'a Muslims believe was Muhammad's true successor, he has been hated and reviled by generations of Shi'a. As the first caliph not considered “rightly guided” by Sunnis, and founder of a dynasty that most Sunnis believe represents a movement away from the original ideal in Islam, he is not an especially popular figure among Sunni Muslims either. Pragmatically, he was a competent administrator, however, and his strong leadership at a time of dissension did preserve the unity of the emerging empire. Non-Muslims were treated fairly. Later, though, Muslims felt that Islam as a faith had been neglected and sidelined in favor of secular rule, and a revival was needed. Over time, the original vigor of most religious movements declines, requiring a revival.

Early Life

Muawiyah (معاوية) was born (c. 602) into a powerful clan (Banu Abd Shams), of the tribe of the Quraysh. The Quraysh controlled the city of Mecca, in what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia and the Banu Abd Shams were among the most influential of its citizens. Mu'awiyah's father was Abu Sufiyan ibn Harb, chief of the clan and one of Muhammad's principal foes for many years.

Many of the Abd Shams opposed and persecuted the prophet Muhammad when he was preaching in Mecca, and joined in the armed battles that followed the migration of Muhammad and his followers to Medina. Mu'awiyah is said to have accepted Islam in defiance of his relatives, but hid his conversion and stayed in Mecca rather than immigrate to Medina. (The Shi'a dispute this.) In 630, Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca, and most of the Meccans, including the Abd Shams, formally submitted to Muhammad and to Islam.

Muhammad was merciful to his former opponents, letting them join his armies and hold important posts in the expanding Islamic empire. Mu'awiyah became one of Muhammad's scribes. After Muhammad's death in 632, he served in the Islamic army sent against the Byzantine forces in present-day Syria. He served with his brother Yazid, who was appointed governor of the newly conquered province.

Governor of Syria

Upon the death of Yazid in 640, Mu'awiyah was appointed governor of Syria by the caliph 'Umar and gradually gained mastery over the other areas of Syria, instilling remarkable personal loyalty among his troops and the people of the region. By 647 Mu'awiyah had built a Syrian army strong enough to repel a Byzantine attack and, in subsequent years, to take the offensive against the Byzantines in campaigns that resulted in the capture of Cyprus (649) and Rhodes (654) and a devastating defeat of the Byzantine navy off the coast of Lycia (655). At the same time, Mu'awiyah periodically dispatched land expeditions into Anatolia. All these campaigns, however, came to a halt with the accession of Ali ibn Abi Talib to the caliphate, when a new and decisive phase of Mu'awiyah's career began.

Conflict with Ali

As a kinsman of the slain caliph Uthman, Mu'awiyah bore the duty of revenge. Because Ali did not apprehend and punish Uthman's murderers, Mu'awiyah regarded him as an accomplice to the murder and refused to acknowledge his caliphate. The same motive had led Aisha, Muhammad's widow, to lead an earlier revolt against Ali. Mu'awiyah had not participated in the earlier rebellion. The victorious Ali had pardoned Aisha, had her escorted to Medina, and allocated her a pension. Ali then turned towards Syria, which was in open revolt under her governor. He marched to the Euphrates and engaged Mu'awiyah's troops at the famous Battle of Siffin (657).

There, Mu'awiyah's guile turned near defeat into a truce. Resorting to a strategy that played upon the religious sensibilities of Ali's forces, he ordered his troops to hoist copies of the Qur'an on their lances, as a request for religious arbitration. He thus persuaded the enemy to enter into negotiations that ultimately cast doubt on the legitimacy of Ali's caliphate and alienated a sizable number of his supporters. When these former supporters—the Kharijites—rose in rebellion against Ali, Mu'awiyah took advantage of Ali's difficulties in Iraq to send a force to seize control of Egypt.

Thus, when Ali was assassinated in 661, Mu'awiyah held both Syria and Egypt and, as commander of the largest force in the Muslim Empire, had the strongest claim to the caliphate. 'Ali's son Hasan bin Ali, after initial defiance of Mu'awiyah, ceased hostilities and retired to Medina, where he lived a quiet private life. Immediately after Ali's assassination, Mu'awiyah staged an elaborate coronation ceremony (as described by Christian observers) in Jerusalem, inviting all the main leaders, which was itself an innovation as none of the previous caliphs had anything similar. Mu'awiyah started to use the title “deputy of God,” instead of “deputy of the Prophet of God,” which was subsequently used by all caliphs. When it was pointed out to him that Umar had rejected both this title and that of “king” (malik), he replied, “what's approved today was reproved once. Things now abominated will someday be embraced” (Kanan: 177–78).

In assuming the caliphate, Mu'awiyah did not stress family claims, although he may have thought this significant as he appears to have intended to establish a dynasty, which he in fact did. Tradition has it that suitability and piety were the main reasons why the first four caliphs had been selected but it is not insignificant that all had close family ties with Muhammad, Abu Bakr and Umar were both fathers-in-law, Uthman was a son-in-law (disputed by Shi'a), Ali his cousin and son-in-law. Mu'awiyah was related to the third caliph, Uthman. However, he justified his own claim in more personal terms; he already possessed power and was an experienced, indeed skilled, administrator. Ali pointed out that while he was Muhammad's near-kin, Mu'awiyah's father had been his enemy (although he did finally convert). Tamadonfar (1989) comments:

Mu'awiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, rebutted the legitimist argument and suggested that the legitimacy of the caliph depends upon his personal power and strength, his administrative ability to effectively manage the community and his political and military capabilities to expand the empire and defend it against enemies (114).

Tibi (1998) suggests that this reflects the pre-Islamic leadership pattern in Arabia, where “the king, and his tribal family, are the only source of power” (130). For most Sunnis, this is a falling away from the ideal but one that was later recognized as a pragmatic necessity to safeguard the very survival of Islam.

Sunni Muslims claim that Hasan pledged allegiance to Mu'awiyah, relinquishing his claim. Most Shi'a Muslims say that he never pledged allegiance, merely ceased to advance his claim to the caliphate. This was done out of consideration for the supporters of Ali's family, who had been much reduced during the tumults of Ali's caliphate.


After his accession to the position of caliph, Mu'awiyah governed the geographically and politically disparate caliphate, which spread from Egypt in the west to Iran in the east, by strengthening the power of his allies in the newly conquered Arab territories. Prominent positions within the emerging governmental structures were held by Christians, some of whom belonged to families that had served in Byzantine governments. The employment of Christians was part of a broader policy of religious tolerance that was necessitated by the presence of large Christian populations in the conquered provinces, especially in Syria itself. This policy also boosted his popularity and solidified Syria as his power base. It was not until towards the middle of the ninth century that Muslims formed a majority of the population, so it is incorrect to speak of Christians and Jews at this time as minorities, although they were subject to Muslim rule.

The fact that cities were sometimes handed over to Muslims without much or any resistance by their Christian leaders may suggest that for some, Muslim rule was preferable to Byzantine rule, which was probably true for non-Orthodox Christians such as Nestorians and Arians. John of Damascus's grandfather handed Damascus over and continued to serve Mu’awiyah in the high office of protosymbullus (chief councilor). Mu'awiyah instituted several Byzantine-style bureaucracies, called diwans, to aid him in the governance and the centralization of the caliphate and the empire. Early Arabic sources credit two diwans in particular to Mu'awiyah: the diwan al-khatam, or chancellery, and the bareed, or postal service, both of which greatly improved communications within the empire. He also appointed the first qadis (judges), although during the Umayyad caliphate their function did not have its later religious significance. He used war against the Byzantines to dissipate the inter-tribal rivalries that threatened the unity of the emerging empire.

Mu'awiyah died May 6, 680. He was succeeded by his son Yazid I, whom he had nominated four years earlier, again arguably breaking with tradition although supporters cite Abu Bakr's nominated of Umar as a precedent. Subjects were required to pledge allegiance to Yazid, representing public confirmation. Yazid did not hold power long. Mu'awiyah had held the expanding empire together by force of his personality, through personal allegiances, in the style of a traditional Arab sheikh. Yazid did not have his father's charisma and was soon deposed by a kinsman. Mu'awiyah had warned his son that he would encounter opposition.


Mu'awiyah greatly beautified Damascus and developed a court to rival that of the Byzantines. He expanded the frontiers of the empire, reaching the very gates of Constantinople at one point, though failing to hold any territory in Asia Minor. Throughout the Umayyad dynasty which he founded, its borders would be commensurate with those of the Islamic community (with the exception of the short-lived rival caliphate in Mecca, 680–692). No later caliphate would share the same borders as the whole ummah. Sunni Muslims credit him with saving the fledgling Muslim nation from post civil war anarchy, although many are critical of his controversial decision to designate his son as his successor, thereby converting the caliphate from an elective office to a monarchy. He nonetheless attempted to preserve the form of the election however, by causing his nobles and the chiefs of the empire to elect and swear allegiance to his son in his own lifetime, a tradition that endured for several succeeding dynasties. Later Sunnis decided that preservation of unity was more important than how the leader was chosen, and concentrated more in their writing on the caliphate on the qualities that were needed rather than on how he should be selected. Like Uthman, he tended to favor Arabs in general (and his own family in particular) over others. However, his administrative skills are widely acknowledged. It is said that friends and critics alike recognized his quality of hilm (civilized restraint). He shared this with his predecessors but not their humility and simple lifestyle. In contrast to their simple dress and table, he dressed and ate like a king. He began the transformation of Damascus, his capital, into a center of culture and learning.

The Sunni view of Mu'awiyah

Mu'awiya is not recognized as one of the four rightly guided caliphs. Most of the early Sunni historians saw his rule, and that of the Umayyad dynasty that followed him, as a descent into mere worldly rule (mulk), kingship rather than religious leadership. These historians were writing after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty to the Abbasids, and hence their writings reflect the Abbasid justifications for the Umayyad overthrow. Few later Sunni historians wholeheartedly defend Mu'awiyah.

However, they do not dispute his right to rule. Sunni clerics and scholars have generally preached submission to authority, even when authority is less than perfect. Sunnis tend to view communal dissension with horror and accept flawed rule as preferable to civil war (fitnah).

The Shi'a view of Mu'awiyah

The Shi'a have lost no opportunity to vilify Mu'awiyah. His name is said to mean "Howling bitch in heat" [1]. His supposed conversion to Islam before the conquest of Mecca is dismissed as a fable, or mere hypocrisy. He is said to have opposed Ali, the rightful caliph, out of sheer greed for power and wealth. His reign was an unparalleled disaster, marked by persecution of Ali and his followers.


  • Makiya, Kanan. The Rock: A Tale of Seventh Century Jerusalem. New York: Pantheon/Random House, 2001. ISBN 0375400877
  • Tamadonfar, Mehran. The Islamic Polity and Political Leadership: Fundamentalism, Sectarianism and Pragmatism. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1989. ISBN 0813374367
  • Tibi, Bassam. The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998. ISBN 0520236904


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