Yazid I

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Yazid bin Muawiyah (Arabic: يزيد بن معاويه) (c. 645 – 683), also called Yazid the Tyrant, was the sixth caliph of Islam, the second of the Umayyad line; he succeeded his father Muawiyah. He died suddenly in 683, after only three years of rule. Yazid remains one of the most divisive and controversial figures in Islamic history. He is annually vilified in Shi'a ceremonies. Nor is he any more popular among Sunnis. Although most recognize the legitimacy of his caliphate, they also revile him for killing Muhammad's grandson, for the laxity of his lifestyle, and for his indifference to the values of Islam. Following his father's establishment of the first dynastic caliphate, Yazid for Sunnis represents a falling away from the ideal governance of the first four rightly guided caliphs. The tragedy at Karbala is one of the saddest and most regrettable events of all Islamic history. Instead of the caliphate being understood as a divine trusteeship, it became the personal possession of the caliph, instead of temporal and spiritual values being balanced the former dominated at the expense of the latter. For those for whom history is understood in terms of movement towards or away from upholding the values that God wants humanity to cherish, Yazid represents a movement away from the ideal.

Accession to the caliphate

Determining succession to the caliphate had in the past resulted in jealousy and in revolt and no agreed, single mechanism existed for selecting the caliph although nomination by a predecessor (Abu Bakr nominated Umar) as well as election by a gathering of distinguished Muslims followed by public acclamation and oaths of allegiance (Abu Bakr's selection) were both precedents. Muawiyah I followed Abu Bakr's example of nominating a successor, although in this case he named his own son. This is generally considered to have broken with the earlier system of public election of the caliph by a committee of respected elders and scholars (the Shura, or "consultation" system) although Yazid's nomination was ratified by Muawiyah's courtiers. Muslims were also required, during Muawiyah's own lifetime, to swear allegiance to Yazid. Muawiyah thus founded the first Islamic dynasty by directly designating his son Yazid to succeed him. Yazid was duly proclaimed caliph upon his father's death four years later. However, he faced immediate opposition from other Muslims who rejected the dynastic principle, or supported the claims of different lineages. His chief opponent was Ali's son, Husayn, the prophet's grandson. Muir (1924) says that aware that Yazid would be opposed, Muawiyah warned him on his deathbed against Husayn, Abdullah bin Zubayr, and others (306).

Battle of Karbala

Husayn bin Ali, the son of the assassinated former caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib had the support of the Alides, or party of Ali (Shi'a), for the leadership of the Muslim community. They held him to be the legitimate caliph, or imam. Husayn, as the descendant of Muhammad, had a very good claim to the caliphate in the eyes of many Muslims whether or not they agreed with all the beliefs of the emerging Shi'a school. He is also said to have had a reputation for piety. Many Muslims of Kufa, in Iraq, which had been the stronghold of his father Ali, assured Husayn that they would support him if he bid for the caliphate. Based on this information, Husayn decided to march against Yazid. He started from Mecca and headed towards Kufa.

Husayn neared Kufa and found that he had thoroughly overestimated his support in the city, which was held fast against him. Yazid's army, led by ‘Umar ibn Sa’d, was closing around him. Some Shi’a sources say that he only had 72 men with him, in addition to women and children. At the Battle of Karbala, October 10, 680, he and his warriors were all killed. Shi'a Muslims, the partisans of Ali, say that Husayn and his men performed miracles of bravery and defiance during this unequal battle. Husayn's head was taken on a stick to Yazid. As the governor, Ibn Ziyad, poked the head, one onlooker cried, “Gently! it is the prophet's grandson. By the Lord! I have seen these very lips kissed by the blessed mouth of Mohamed” (Muir: 311). Husayn's physical resemblance to his grandfather was a matter of public comment. Many recalled how fond Muhammad had been of his grandchildren, of whom he often took care. Only one male member of the Prophet's household survived Karbala, Zayn al-Abidin, Husayn's son. His life was only saved by the courageous intervention of Husayn's sister, Zaynab bint Ali, who embraced him as Ibn Yazid's ordered his execution saying, “If you're going to kill him, you'll have to kill me along with him.” Zaynab and her sister Umm Kulthum were taken before Yazid as captives where they are said to have been “outspoken in confronting their oppressors” (Pinault, 2001: 72–73).

For many Shi'a, Yazid is the consummate villain, who will always be remembered for his impiety and usurpation. The events at Karbala figure prominently in Shi'a thought, and many Shi'a Islamist movements liken their causes to Husayn's struggle against Yazid. Leaders of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi government frequently drew such comparisons. The tenth of Muharram (also known as Aashurah), the Islamic calendar date on which the Battle of Karbala occurred, is commemorated as a day of mourning by Shi'a Muslims around the world. Shi'a rituals on Aashurah usually involve public processions during which Shi'a curse Yazid and recite poems geared at remembering Husayn and his death. Many are also seen to hurt themselves as a form of punishment for the lack of help given to Husayn when he needed it most.

The majority Sunni position on Yazid and the Battle of Karbala is varied. Though Sunnis generally agree that Yazid was not a righteous caliph, they differ on the nature of Husayn's opposition to Yazid's rule and Yazid's culpability in Husayn's death. Some Sunni authorities have claimed that Husayn opposed Yazid's ascension to the caliphate but did not actively revolt against him, and that Husayn's killing was ordered not by Yazid but by the Umayyad governor of Iraq Ubaidallah ibn Ziyad. Others have refrained from taking a position on the matter, claiming that although Husayn's martyrdom was an unfortunate event, the evidence on exactly how it occurred and who bears responsibility is too inconclusive to merit judgment. Still others have joined the Shi'a position, cursing Yazid and denouncing him as an illegitimate ruler. In any event however, Yazid, Husayn, and the Battle of Karbala do not occupy a central position in Sunni thought as they do in the Shi'a tradition, and Sunnis generally do not ascribe religious significance to the events at Karbala. On the other hand, the whole of the Umayyad caliphate is generally regarded in Sunni Islam as less than ideal thus their support for the Abbasid rebellion, one of the few rebellions against a sitting caliph that has attracted majority support. The Abbasid caliphate, at least initially, was regarded as a restoration or revival of Islamic value and principles of governance. Yazid's family relationship with Abu Sufyan, for many years Muhammad's arch-opponent, also does little to endear him to many Muslims. It may also be significant that the Abbasids in part based their claim to the caliphate on their relationship with Muhammad through his uncle, in contrast to the Umayyads' relationship with one of Muhammad's enemies. The Abbasids may have hoped to reconcile Sunni and Sh'a. Thus, unity of the community was for them a major concern, which the Umayyads neglected at best, damaged at worst.

Revolt in Arabia

Many Arabs, who were used to choosing leaders by consultation rather than heredity, refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid. Abdullah bin Zubayr, whose father had been involved in an earlier revolt against Ali (at the Battle of the Camel) claimed the caliphate for himself and launched an insurgency in the Hejaz, the former heartland of the Islamic empire (680). Yazid sent armies against him in 683. Medina was captured, and Mecca was besieged. During the siege, the Kaaba was damaged, reportedly causing significant ill feeling among the inhabitants, and the nation at large. The siege ended when Yazid died suddenly in 683. While the rival caliphate lasted (it ended in 692), the unity of the Muslim community, preservation of which is the caliph's first duty, was compromised.


Historians who judge Yazid as an administrator rather than a religious figure take a kinder view of the man. Yazid energetically tried to continue his father's policies and retained many of the men who served him. He strengthened the administrative structure of the empire and improved the military defenses of Syria, the Umayyad power base. The financial system was reformed. He lightened the taxation of some Christian groups and abolished the tax concessions granted to the Samaritans as a reward for aid they had rendered in the days of the early Arab conquests. He also paid significant attention to agriculture and improved the irrigation system of the Damascus oasis. He was briefly succeeded by his son, Muawiya II. Muslims tend to criticize Yazid and his father for elevating Arabs over other Muslims, contrary to Muhammad's emphasis on the equality of all people before God. In their view, this was a return to the pre-Islamic tribalism that ideally Islam had replaced. One of Yazid's adviser's was John of Damascus, whose grandfather had surrendered Damascus to the Muslims and served Muawiyah as protosymbullus (chief councilor). As this post was virtually hereditary, John himself may have held the same position. When John of Damascus (who may have known Yazid from childhood) left his government post to become a monk, he appears (in what is taken to be his ordination sermon) to have contrasted the austerity of the life he was choosing with the laxity of Yazid's life. Despite an effort by the Byzantine emperor to damage their relationship, the two men remained friends. John also gave us an early Christian response to Islam. Muir summarized Yazid's legacy thus: “He is described as a dissipated Monarch, but though the patron of learning, and himself no mean poet, he is only remembered for his sacrilegious attack on the Holy cities and on Mohamed's family.” “In natural disposition,” says Muir, Yazid “much resembles Charles II' of England” (315).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hawting, G.R. The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661-750, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0415240735 or ISBN 0415240727
  • Muir, Sir William. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall: From Original Sources, revised by T.H. Weir. Edinburgh: John Grant, 1924.
  • Pinault, David Horse of Karbala. New York: Palgrave, 2001. ISBN 0312216378
  • Zakaria, Rafiq. The Struggle within Islam: The Conflict Between Religion and Politics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988. ISBN 0140107940

Preceded by:
Muawiyah I
Succeeded by:
Muawiya II


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