Let us do Muawiya justice. He had won his power first through appointment as governor of Syria by the virtuous Omar; then by leading the reaction against the murder of Othman; then by intrigues so subtle that force had seldom to be used. “I apply not my sword,” he said, “where my lash suffices, nor my lash where my tongue is enough. And even if there be one hair binding me to my fellow men I do not let it break; when they pull I loosen, and if they loosen I pull.”10 His path to power was less incarnadined than most of those that have opened new dynasties.
Like other usurpers, he felt the need to hedge his throne with splendor and ceremony. He took as his model the Byzantine emperors, who had taken as their model the Persian King of Kings; the persistence of that monarchical pattern from Cyrus to our time suggests its serviceability in the government and exploitation of an unlettered population. Muawiya felt his methods justified by the prosperity that came under his rule, the quieting of tribal strife, and the consolidation of Arab power from the Oxus to the Nile. Thinking the hereditary principle the sole alternative to chaotic struggles for an elective caliphate, he declared his son Yezid heir apparent, and exacted an oath of fealty to him from all the realm.
Nevertheless, when Muawiya died (680), a war of succession repeated the early history of his reign. The Moslems of Kufa sent word to Husein, son of Ali, that if he would come to them and make their city his capital, they would fight for his elevation to the caliphate. Husein set out from Mecca with his family and seventy devoted followers. Twenty-five miles north of Kufa the caravan was intercepted by a force of Yezid’s troops under Obeidallah. Husein offered to submit, but his band chose to fight. Husein’s nephew Qasim, ten years old, was struck by one of the first arrows, and died in his uncle’s arms; one by one Husein’s brothers, sons, cousins, and nephews fell; every man in the group was killed, while the women and children looked on in horror and terror. When Husein’s severed head was brought to Obeidallah he carelessly turned it over with his staff. “Gently,” one of his officers protested; “he was the grandson of the Prophet. By Allah! I have seen those lips kissed by the blessed mouth of Mohammed!” (680).11At Kerbela, where Husein fell, the Shia Moslems built a shrine to his memory; yearly they reenact there the tragedy in a passion play, worshiping the memory of Ali, Hasan, and Husein.
Abdallah, son of Zobeir, continued the revolt. Yezid’s Syrian troops defeated him, and besieged him in Mecca; rocks from their catapults fell upon the sacred enclosure and split the Black Stone into three pieces; the Kaaba caught fire, and was burned to the ground (683). Suddenly the siege was lifted; Yezid had died, and the army was needed in Damascus. In two years of royal chaos three caliphs held the throne; finally Abd-al-Malik, son of a cousin of Muawiya, ended the disorder with ruthless courage, and then governed with relative mildness, wisdom, and justice. His general Hajjaj ibn Yusuf subdued the Kufans, and renewed the siege of Mecca. Abdallah, now seventy-two, fought bravely, urged on by his centenarian mother; he was defeated and killed; his head was sent as a certified check to Damascus; his body, after hanging for some time on a gibbet, was presented to his mother (692). During the ensuing peace Abd-al-Malik wrote poetry, patronized letters, attended to eight wives, and reared fifteen sons, of whom four succeeded to his throne; his cognomen meant Father of Kings.
His reign of twenty years paved the way for the accomplishments of his son Walid I (705–15). The march of Arab conquest was now resumed: Balkh was taken in 705, Bokhara in 709, Spain in 711, Samarkand in 712. In the eastern provinces Hajjaj governed with a creative energy that equaled his barbarities: marshes were drained, arid tracts were irrigated, and the canal system was restored and improved; not content with which the general, once a schoolmaster, revolutionized Arabic orthography by introducing diacritical marks. Walid himself was a model king, far more interested in administration than in war. He encouraged industry and trade with new markets and better roads; built schools and hospitals—including the first lazar houses known—and homes for the aged, the crippled, and the blind; enlarged and beautified the mosques of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, and raised at Damascus a still greater one, which still exists. Amid these labors he composed verses, wrote music, played the lute, listened patiently to other poets and musicians, and caroused every second day.12
His brother and successor Suleiman (715–17) wasted lives and wealth in a vain attempt upon Constantinople, solaced himself with good food and bad women, and received the praise of posterity only for bequeathing his power to his cousin. Omar II (717–20) was resolved to atone in one reign for all the impiety and liberality of his Umayyad predecessors. The practice and propagation of the faith were the consuming interests of his life. He dressed so simply, wore so many patches, that no stranger took him for a king. He bade his wife surrender to the public treasury the costly jewels that her father had given her, and she obeyed. He informed his harem that the duties of government would absorb him to their neglect, and gave them leave to depart. He ignored the poets, orators, and scholars who had depended on the court, but drew to his counsel and companionship the most devout among the learned in his realm. He made peace with other countries, withdrew the army that had besieged Constantinople, and called in the garrisons that had guarded Moslem cities hostile to Umayyad rule. Whereas his predecessors had discouraged conversions to Islam on the ground that less poll taxes would come to the state, Omar speeded the acceptance of Islam by Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews; and when his fiscal agents complained that his policy was ruining the treasury, he replied: “Glad would I be, by Allah, to see everybody become Moslem, so that you and I would have to till the soil with our own hands to earn a living.”13 Clever councilors thought to stay the tide of conversions by requiring circumcision; Omar, another Paul, bade them dispense with it. Upon those who still refused conversion he laid severe restrictions, excluded them from governmental employment, and forbade them to build new shrines. After a reign of less than three years he sickened and died.
Another side of Moslem character and custom appears in Yezid II (717–24), last of the royal sons of Abd-al-Malik. Yezid loved a slave girl Habiba as Omar II had loved Islam. While still a youth he had bought her for 4000 pieces of gold; his brother Suleiman, then caliph, had compelled him to return her to the seller; but Yezid had never forgotten her beauty and her tenderness. When he came to power his wife asked him, “Is there, my love, anything in the world left you to desire?” “Yes,” he said, “Habiba.” The dutiful wife sent for Habiba, presented her to Yezid, and retired into the obscurity of the harem. One day, feasting with Habiba, Yezid playfully threw a grape pit into her mouth; it choked her, and she died in his arms. A week later Yezid died of grief.
Hisham (724–43) governed the realm for nineteen years in justice and peace, improved administration, reduced expenses, and left the treasury full at his death. But the virtues of a saint may be the ruin of a ruler. Hisham’s armies were repeatedly defeated, rebellion simmered in the provinces, disaffection spread in a capital that longed for a spendthrift king. His successors disgraced a hitherto competent dynasty by luxurious living and negligent rule. Walid II (743–4) was a skeptic libertine and candid epicurean. He read with delight the news of his uncle Hisham’s death; imprisoned Hisham’s son, seized the property of the late Caliph’s relatives, and emptied the treasury with careless government and extravagant largesse. His enemies reported that he swam in a pool of wine and slaked his thirst as he swam; that he used the Koran as a target for his archery; that he sent his mistresses to preside in his place at the public prayer.14 Yezid, son of Walid I, slew the wastrel, ruled for six months, and died (744). His brother Ibrahim took the throne but could not defend it; an able general deposed him, and reigned for six tragic years as Merwan II, the last caliph of the Umayyad line.
From a worldly point of view the Umayyad caliphs had done well for Islam. They had extended its political boundaries farther than these would ever reach again; and, barring some illucid intervals, they had given the new empire an orderly and liberal government. But the lottery of hereditary monarchy placed on the throne, in the eighth century, incompetents who exhausted the treasury, surrendered administration to eunuchs, and lost control over that Arab individualism which has nearly always prevented a united Moslem power. The old tribal enmities persisted as political factions; Hashimites and Umayyads hated one another as if they were more closely related than they really were. Arabia, Egypt, and Persia resented the authority of Damascus; and the proud Persians, from contending that they were as good as the Arabs, passed to claiming superiority, and could no longer brook Syrian rule. The descendants of Mohammed were scandalized to see at the head of Islam an Umayyad clan that had included the most unyielding and last converted of the Prophet’s enemies; they were shocked by the easy morals, perhaps by the religious tolerance, of the Umayyad caliphs; they prayed for the day when Allah would send some savior to redeem them from this humiliating rule.
All that these hostile forces needed was some initiative personality to give them unity and voice. Abu al-Abbas, great-great-grandson of an uncle of Mohammed, provided the leadership from a hiding place in Palestine, organized the revolt in the provinces, and won the ardent support of the Shia Persian nationalists. In 749 he proclaimed himself caliph at Kufa. Merwan II met the rebel forces under Abu al-Abbas’ uncle Abdallah on the river Zab; he was defeated; and a year later Damascus yielded to siege. Merwan was caught and killed, and his head was sent to Abu al-Abbas. The new Caliph was not satisfied. “Had they quaffed my blood,” he said, “it would not have quenched their thirst; neither is my wrath slaked by this man’s blood.” He named himself al-Saffah, the Bloodthirsty, and directed that all princes of the Umayyad line should be hunted out and slain, to forestall any resurrection of the fallen dynasty. Abdallah, made governor of Syria, managed the matter with humor and dispatch. He announced an amnesty to the Umayyads, and to confirm it he invited eighty of their leaders to dinner. While they ate, his hidden soldiers, at his signal, put them all to the sword. Carpets were spread over the fallen men, and the feast was resumed by the Abbasid diners over the bodies of their foes, and to the music of dying groans. The corpses of several Umayyad caliphs were exhumed, the almost fleshless skeletons were scourged, hanged, and burned, and the ashes were scattered to the winds.15