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Islamic Empire and Disintegration

Order, Disorder and the Umayyad Caliphate | More Expansion, 689 to 717 CE | The Pro-Peace Caliph, Umar II | Power for the Abbasids and Death for Umayyads, 720-50 CE | The Abbasids, a Golden Age and Disintegration to 1055 CE

a short description Military Expansion of Muslims, to 1000 CE

The Old Succession Problem and More Civil War

In the late 670s the aging caliph Mu'awiyah nominated as his successor the son of his favorite wife, a Christian. That son was Yazid, and the nomination was confirmed by the consultative body Mu'awiyah had created from leaders of the Arab tribes. Helping Yazid's succession was his having been a heroic figure in the assault against Constantinople, and perhaps also some bribery.

Mu'awiyah died in 680, and a few prominent people were among those who did not accept his son's succession. One opponent was Abdullah ibn Zubayr from Medina. He had a following among those who disliked Umayyad rule and resented the shift of power from Medina to Damascus. Also opposed to the son, Yazid, were three men who believed that if power were to pass from father to son they had more right to rule than did Yazid. One of the three was the eldest surviving son of Ali, a man by the name of Hussein. Another was the son of the former caliph Abu Bakr. The third was the grandson of the former caliph Umar. Moreover, there was opposition to Yazid from those who believed that he was insufficiently pious.

In Kufa, supporters of Hussein invited him to make their city his capital, and they offered to fight for him. Hussein left Mecca and led a small band of relatives, his harem and a horde of followers that included some Bedouin tribesmen. Yazid sent a force of Syrian troops toward Kufa. Hussein was warned that a battle against the Syrians was hopeless. His Bedouin supporters abandoned him, leaving him with just seventy fighting men. The Syrians and Hussein met at the city of Karbala twenty-five miles northwest of Kufa. Hussein was determined to die fighting. One by one his warriors, including two of his sons and six brothers, were slaughtered, as was Hussein.

The heads of Hussein's men were sent as trophies to Damascus. Hussein's head was returned to be buried with his body at Karbala. Hussein became a Shia martyr. At Karbala the Shia built their holiest of shrines. And into modern times the day of Hussein's death would be commemorated as a day of grief.

In Medina and Mecca, Zubayr won additional support from those outraged by the deaths in Muhammad's family. Yazid tried reconciliation, but those from Medina who visited Yazid denounced upon their return the godless luxury they had found in Damascus. Yazid sent 12,000 Syrian troops against Medina and conquered the city in August, 683. Many nobles of the Quraysh tribe were annihilated in the process, and the surviving leaders of Medina's rebellion were executed.

The rebellious Zubayr had relocated in Mecca, and there he was recognized as leader. For two months, beginning in September 683, Yazid's army besieged Mecca. Rocks from catapults fell into the sacred Kaaba. To the horror of believers, the Kaaba caught fire, burned to the ground, and the sacred Black Stone split and fell from its socket.

In November the leader of Yazid's army learned that Yazid had died. The leader of the Syrian forces offered Zubayr his allegiance and the caliphate if he would promise to take no vengeance regarding previous warfare and if he would rule from Damascus. Zubayr refused the latter condition. The Syrians then lifted their siege and returned to Syria, where conflict erupted over who was to be Yazid's successor.

In Damascus, Yazid was succeeded by his son, a sickly nineteen-year-old, who died a few weeks later, leaving no successor to the Umayyad dynasty. From Mecca, Zubayr won support that extended across much of Arabia, while the senior member of the Umayyad clan, Marwan, took power for the Umayyads in Damascus. A great battle was fought in 684 at Marj Rahit, a little to the east of Damascus, the Syrian army winning and Marwan allowed to hold on to power in Syria. He extended his rule through Palestine to Egypt, persuading Arab tribesmen in Egypt to change their support from Zubayr to himself. The plague bacillus that had killed 40 percent of Constantinople in the 540s had reappeared as a conquering pandemic in maritime towns along the Mediterranean and inland into Gaul. It was perhaps the disease that ravaged England in the mid-600s, and it came again to Syria where it killed the Marwan on May 7, 685, nine months after he had become caliph.

Marwan was succeeded by his son, Malik. The civil war raged for seven more years, until 692, when the Syrian army killed Zubayr and overran Mecca. Malik was to be caliph for twenty years, ruling by force of arms rather than consensus.

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