History of the Saracens/Moawiyah II

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Hejirah 64, 65. a.d. 683, 684.

As soon as Yezid was dead, his son Moawiyah was proclaimed caliph at Damascus. He was near one and twenty years of age, but of a weak constitution; very religious,[1] but of the sect of the Alcadarii.[2] Moawiyah’s favourite master was Omar Al Meksous; and he consulted him whether he ought, or not, to accept the caliphate. His master told him, that if he thought himself able to administer justice duly to the Mussulmans, and to acquit himself of all the duties of that dignity, he ought to accept it; but otherwise he ought not to charge himself with it.

This caliph had scarcely reigned six weeks, when he found himself too weak to sustain the weight of the government, and resolved to lay it down. To this end he called a council of the greatest men of the court, and told them that when he first entertained the thought of abdicating himself, he designed to follow the example of Abubeker, and nominate a successor, as that first caliph had done; but that he had not found, as Abubeker had done, men like Omar upon whom to fix his choice. Then he told them that he had also a design of imitating Omar, and naming six persons, upon one of which the choice should fall by lot, but that he had not found so many among them capable of it, and therefore could not determine upon that course.

“I am therefore resolved,” added he, “to leave the choice entirely to you.” Upon this the principal statesmen told him that they had nothing to do but to choose that person amongst them that he should please, and that all the rest would obey him. Moawiyah answered them in these terms: “As I have not hitherto enjoyed the advantages of the caliphate, it is not reasonable that I should charge myself with its most odious duty, therefore I hope that you will not take it amiss if I discharge my conscience towards you, and leave you to judge for yourselves who is most capable among you to fill my place.”

Accordingly, as soon as Moawiyah had made his abdication in so good form, they proceeded to the election of a caliph, and their choice fell upon Merwan, the son of Hakem, who was the fourth of the caliphs of Syria; Abdallah, the son of Zobeir, having been declared caliph in Arabia, Irak, Khorassan, Egypt, and a great part of Syria.

Moawiyah had no sooner renounced the caliphate but he shut himself up in a chamber, from whence he never stirred till he died, not long after his abdication, of the plague according to some, according to others by poison. The family of Ommiyah was, it is said, so greatly irritated at his proceeding, that they vented their resentment upon the person of Omar Al Meksous, whom they buried alive, because they supposed that it was by his advice that Moawiyah deposed himself. This caliph was nick-named Abuleilah, that is to say, “The father of the night,” because of his natural weakness and want of health, which hindered him from often appearing abroad in the day time. The inscription of his seal was “The world is a cheat.”

We must now look backwards a little towards the eastern parts of the empire.[3] As soon as Obeidollah heard of Yezid’s death, he acquainted the Bassorians with it in a set speech, wherein he represented to them “ the near relationship between him and them, and reminded them that the place of his nativity was amongst them; that, as appeared by the books, he had since his government over them destroyed a hundred and forty thousand of their enemies; that there was no person left of any consideration whom they need to fear, who was not already in their prisons; that they were every way the most considerable nation in the empire, both with regard to their courage, number, and extent of country; that they were very well able to subsist independently of any help, but that the rest of the provinces were not able to subsist without them; that there was a faction in Syria, and till that was appeased, he thought it advisable for them to choose a person duly qualified to be the protector of their state; that after that was done, if the Mussulmans agreed upon a successor whom they approved of, it would be well, if otherwise, they might continue as they were till they did.” The Bassorians approved of his proposal, and told him that they knew no person so well qualified for such a trust as himself. He refused it several times, with little sincerity, as may be supposed by his speech; but overcome, as he pretended, by their importunity, accepted it at last. So they gave him their hands to be subject to him till all things were settled, and the Mussulmans were agreed upon an Imam or caliph. This being done, he sent a messenger to the Cufians, to persuade them to follow the example of the Bassorians. The Cufians received the message with indignation, and were so far from complying with it, that they flung dust upon their governor. Though the Cufians did not follow the example of the Bassorians, yet the Bassorians followed theirs. For, having learnt the repulse Obeidollah had met with at Cufah, they revoked their promise of allegiance to him; and the faction ran so high, that finding Bassorah too warm for him, he was fain to make the best of his way into Syria.

There was at that time in the treasury of Bassorah sixteen millions of money, part of which he divided among his relations, the remainder he carried along with him. He attempted to persuade the Najari, who are a tribe of the Arabian Ansars, to fight for him; but they refused, as did also all his own relations, for he had rendered himself so obnoxious by his cruelty, that he was dreaded and abhorred by all, beloved by none. His brother Abdallah told the Bassorians, that since they had promised their subjection, he and his brother Obeidollah would not fly away from them, but stay and be killed, and leave it as a reproach upon them till the day of judgment. Obeidollah lay concealed in women’s clothes in Mesoud’s house, who advised him to scatter money liberally among the people, and induce them to renew their oath. Abdallah, his brother, tried his utmost with two hundred thousand pieces, and Mesoud also stirred for him as much as he was able, till at last he was killed in the tumult, though he owed his death chiefly to an old grudge. Obeidollah was at last constrained to fly, and as soon as he was gone the people plundered his effects, and pursued him. He had a hundred men with him that were left him by Mesoud. In the night time he grew weary of riding upon his camel, and exchanged it for an ass. One of his friends observing him riding in that manner, with his feet dangling down to the ground, began to reflect upon the uncertainty of human affairs, and said to himself, “This man was yesterday governor of Irak, and is now forced to make his escape upon an ass.” Then riding up to him, he asked him if he was asleep (for he had been silent a long time). He said no, he was talking to himself. The other told him he knew what it was that he was saying; it was, “I wish I had not killed Hosein.” Obeidollah told him he was mistaken, for he chose rather to kill Hosein than to be killed by him Then, having first mentioned a few matters about his property, and how he wished to dispose of it, he said that what he was sorry for, and what lie was speaking to himself about, was this, that he wished he had fought the Bassorians at the beginning of their revolt, and struck their heads off for their perjury. But perhaps if he had attempted it, he might have lost his own, for the Karegites, who were his mortal enemies, were got to a great head, and resolved either to kill him, or to drive him from Bassorah.

We will leave Obeidollah, therefore, riding upon an ass, and talking to himself, and return to Hosein, who, much about this time, was come back from the siege of Mecca to Damascus. He gave an account of the posture of affairs on that side of the country, and of his having proffered his allegiance to Abdallah, who had refused to accept it, or at least to come into Syria. He told Merwan, and the rest of the family of Ommiyah, that, in the present disorder of their affairs, they would do well to look about them quickly; that they ought to settle the government before faction, which is both deaf and blind, should overwhelm them. Merwan was for submitting to Abdallah; but Obeidollah, who also had now arrived, told him that it was a shame for a person of his distinction, who was the head of the noble family of the Koreish, to think of anything so mean. The people of Damascus had constituted Dehac, the son of Kais, their protector till the Mussulmans should be agreed upon an Imam. Dehac favoured Abdallah, and Hassan, the son of Malec, was in that part of Palestine that lay near Jordan, and was of the party of the house of Ommiyah. The Bassorians were in tumult and confusion, and could not agree about a governor. During the interregnum, they set up first one, and then another, till at last they wrote to Abdallah, to take the government upon him.


Hejirah 64. a.d. 683.

There being two caliphs at the same time, will, of necessity, occasion the repetition of a few circumstances. This however will give no offence to the ingenuous reader. Though Abdallah had been proclaimed before, in the days of Yezid, yet this is the place that our Arabian authors assign him in their histories, because he seemed now to be fully settled and established, all the territories of the Mussulmans, with the single exception of Syria, being under his command. But when we talk of the entire subjection of the Mohammedan countries, we must on all occasions be understood as not speaking of the heretics and schismatics, the Karegites and Motazeli, for they, as we have observed already, would never be subject to any; but on the least prospect of a favourable opportunity, used their utmost efforts to break from off their necks the yoke of all government whatsoever.

As soon as Yezid was dead, the people of Mecca stood up for Abdallah, the son of Zobeir: Merwan the son of Hakem (who was of the house of Ommiyah) was then at Medina, and was preparing himself to go to Abdallah, and acknowledge him; for all took it for granted that his interest was so powerful, that it would be to no purpose to oppose him; when on a sudden there was a report spread, that Abdallah had sent word to his deputy in Medina, not to leave a man alive of the house of Ommiyah. This proved his ruin; whereas if he had gone along with Hosein, as he wished him, or had he caressed Merwan and the house of Ommiyah, he had been fixed immoveably in the government. But there is no reversing what God hath decreed, When they proclaimed him at Mecca, Obeidollah was at Bassorah, from whence, as we have seen, he afterwards fled into Syria. The Bassorians, Irakians, Hejazians, Yemanians, and Egyptians, all came into Abdallah, who, moreover, had a strong private party even in Syria itself, and in Kinnisrin and Hems. In short, they were very near coming in universally; but he wanted some qualifications necessary for the critical juncture. He was brave and courageous enough, and also exemplarily religious, but he wanted both tact and generosity.

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Abulfeda. Abulfaragius. D’Herbelot.
  2. These are a branch of the Motazeli, and differ in their opinions from the orthodox Mussulmans in that they deny God’s decree, and assert free-will; affirming that the contrary opinion makes God the author of evil.
  3. MS. Laud. No. 161. A.