Muawiyah: A first-class statesman and pioneer of civilisation

Sectarian-fuelled debate should not eclipse the incredible achievements of the first Ummayad Caliph

A new Ramadan series on MBC sheds light on the life of the first Ummayad Caliph Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan
Facebook
A new Ramadan series on MBC sheds light on the life of the first Ummayad Caliph Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan
font

Muawiyah: A first-class statesman and pioneer of civilisation

MBC group’s announcement of its upcoming Ramadan drama series about the life of Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan has sparked a debate over the personality of one of the greatest companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

The controversy surrounding this work stems from sectarian motives and religious ideological stances, most of which emanate from the circumstances of that difficult era of disputes in the history of Islam, known as “the fitnah” or sedition events.

At the time, the Arabian Peninsula was in a state of chaos and turmoil after the killing of the Rashidi Caliph Uthman bin Affan, which caused a public rift. A dispute emerged between those who believed in the necessity of establishing power and allegiance, and those who called for revenge and retribution on Uthman’s killers first and foremost.

Those events and their aftershocks had a great impact on the evolution of Muslim thought and the mapping of Islamic sects. The Kharijite, Shiite, and other sects emerged as a result.

A historic feat

But significant as those events may be, they must not overshadow other historic feats of that era, perhaps most important of which is the establishment of the Umayyad state by Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan. That resounding moment of history reshaped the global scene and changed the balance of power at the time, and the world map has not been the same ever since.

Leaving aside the sectarian and religious controversy, this article aims to shed light on this civilisation and various aspects of Muawiyah’s life, who was not only a first-class statesman, but also one of the most gifted and experienced politicians and rulers in history.

Leaving a deep imprint on Arab and Muslim politics, Muawiyah became a role model and paved the way for all those who came after him. His supporters and opponents both agree that all subsequent Muslim ‘states’ and ‘kingdoms’ followed his exact governance model.

Leaving a deep imprint on Arab and Muslim politics, Muawiyah became a role model and paved the way for all those who came after him. His supporters and opponents both agree that all subsequent Muslim 'states' and 'kingdoms' followed his exact governance model.

This comes as no surprise. Muawiyah was the descendant of the nobles of Quraysh, and the son of the guardians of the Kaaba and the water-bearers to the pilgrims. The brilliant young man grew up among the plains and mountains of Mecca and was familiar with the civilisations of the Arabian Peninsula and its surroundings.

His father, Abu Sufyan, was one of the greatest Arab dignitaries, if not the greatest. He was well-known for his trade with the Levant — a region he loved deeply, fascinated by the depth of its history and the authenticity of the ancient Arab presence there.

Getty images
General View and Minaret of the Bride, Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria, Photchrom Print, circa 1900.

When he entered Damascus after the Muslim conquest, Abu Sufyan fondly contemplated the walls, fortresses, and roads of the city, hoping that his children would one day build their glory in the city and rule the world from there.

His wish came true.

Muawiyah was sent out to the Levant as its ruler during the era of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab. When the Muslims living there pledged allegiance to him in 41 AH/661 AD, which came to be known as the 'agreement' year, the Levant became the capital of the Arabs and the metropolis of the Muslim world.

The mighty Umayyad Caliphate

From there, Muawiyah established the largest empire known to humans in his time, the Umayyad Caliphate, which was three times the size of the Roman Empire. Its population reached 60 million, or nearly 30% of the world's population at the time. The Umayyad state became the fifth largest empire in history.

When Muawiyah was entrusted to rule over the Levant, he was not a newcomer or stranger to its people. He became the undisputed first man, symbol, and notable of the region. The people of the Levant loved him and stood by his side. They embraced and obeyed every last one of his words with zeal, respect, and admiration.

Even Christian churches pledged allegiance to him and became his subjects with all respect. He was the arbitrator in their disputes and the regulator of their activities, which earned him the title of "the enlightened tolerant leader."

When the Maronite Church disagreed with the Syriac Orthodox Church over the nature of Christ, they came to Muawiyah asking for his arbitration. He backed the Maronites' opinion and granted them some churches that had been affiliated with the Orthodox Church in Homs, Hama, and Maarat al-Numan.

Muawiyah played a central role in preserving the existence of Arab Christian communities, as he protected the Maronites during their fierce dispute with the Jacobites.

In his book, "Spotlight on the History of Maronism," historian Zaki al-Naqqash says: "The credit is given to Muawiyah for bringing justice to our Maronite citizens in their persecution by their Jacobite brothers, for he responded to their request to take refuge in Mount Lebanon in the year 659 AD."

The credit is given to Muawiyah for bringing justice to our Maronite citizens in their persecution by their Jacobite brothers, for he responded to their request to take refuge in Mount Lebanon in the year 659 AD.

Historian, Zaki al-Naqqash

Symbol of wisdom

Muawiyah became a symbol of wisdom, patience, and equanimity in Arabic literature. To this day, Arab speakers use the expression "Muawiyah's strand of hair" in the art of diplomacy and the management of delicate relations, in reference to Muawiyah's alleged saying: "I do not use my sword when my whip suffices, and I do not use my whip when my tongue suffices. If there is only a strand of hair binding me to the people, I do not let it break. […] If they stretch, I loosen. If they loosen, I stretch."

Describing Muawiyah, Egyptian historian Ahmed Rifaei says: "Muawiyah was exposed to politics firstly during his upbringing, then he honed it with his gifted character and mastered it by dint of the various roles he assumed. Hence, politics came naturally to him. It was like second nature. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was not only a clever and successful politician, but also an inspiration for ingenious politics."

Muawiyah was exposed to politics firstly during his upbringing, then he honed it with his gifted character and mastered it by dint of the various roles he assumed. Hence, politics came naturally to him. It was like second nature.

Egyptian historian Ahmed Rifaei

History tells us Muawiyah was also a pioneer of civilisation and urban development. He was among the first to lay the foundations of Arab civilisation and develop its civic identity during his reign.

He established the Arab court and various laws and bureaus, developed armies and naval forces, and built dams and irrigation systems, among other achievements. That is why historian Ibn Khaldun, founder of sociology, says: "Muawiyah's state and achievements were right behind the Rashidun Caliphate in terms of virtue, justice, and companionship to Prophet Muhammad".

Founder of the majlis

Muawiyah was the first to establish the concept of the 'court' in the tradition of Muslim governance. He laid down the foundations of the "majlis" of the Caliphate and engineered its organisation and conditions.

The book "History of Islamic Civilisation" says: "The majlises of the Rashidun Caliphate were convened in the mosque or in the houses of the Caliphs. They would sit on mats or leather and be wrapped in an Abaya or the like.

"When the Umayyads came, they built palaces, set up beds and chairs, spread pillows and hung curtains, and the first to do that among the Umayyads was Muawiyah.The Umayyads introduced splendid manifestations of style. They inscribed poetry on the majlis walls. Their upholstery was made of brocade or silk. Their beds were made of ebony, sandalwood, ivory, gold, or others."

"Therefore, the majlis of the Caliphate became of great importance during the early Muslim civilisation. It was held in a hall or a large foyer, where the walls were decorated with pictures painted in gold and silver depicting objects and creatures existing on the land or in the sea, such as trees, animals, or mountains."
 

Getty images
The Gate of the Great Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Painting by Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904), 1890.

"The floors were covered with one or several rugs made of brocade or the like, and at the ends of the hall were chandeliers of gold or silver. The doors and windows of the majlis were covered with curtains made of silk or other exquisite fabric, embroidered with the emblem of the 'state', or with poems, maxims, Quranic verses, excerpts of hadith, or drawings of cities, rivers, or mountains."

"In the middle of the hall stood a couch or a bed made of ivory, ebony, or sandalwood and decorated with gold, on which the Caliph would sit. The Caliph might also have some antiques or the like within reach for decoration."

The first postal system

Muawiyah established the first intelligence apparatus in Muslim history. The so-called post bureau ("diwan al-barid") collected the latest news and information from all parts of the Caliphate and delivered it to the ruler.

Abu Hilal al-Askari says in his book, "The Founders" ("Al Awa'il"): "The first to establish the concept of the post in Islam was Muawiyah." According to al-Askari, the post process involved "pathways that branched from the centre of the Caliphate to the outskirts of the kingdom until it connected to the pathways of other kingdoms. Each pathway was divided into stations or stops in which there were horses or camels. There were about 950 post stations, and the Umayyad state budgeted 3 million dirhams for post operations."

The postal system then switched its focus from political conditions to economic and legal conditions in the different dependencies of the state. Couriers wrote reports "every day on the prices of wheat, grains, bread, and all other foods; on all the decrees of judges in their areas; on the governor's preoccupations, on the returns of the treasury, and on everything that happens."

The first Arab naval forces

Muawiyah was also credited with the establishment of the Arab naval forces. He founded the naval fleet and the department of industrialisation, whose impact was decisive in the Battle of the Masts.

The resounding victory of the Arabs, or the 'sons of the desert', over the forces of the Byzantine Empire, which had a long history and experience in naval wars, was astounding. A few years later, the Arabs became the undisputed masters of the Mediterranean Sea.

The resounding victory of the Arabs, or the 'sons of the desert', over the forces of the Byzantine Empire, which had a long history and experience in naval wars, was astounding. A few years later, the Arabs became the undisputed masters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Other noteworthy achievements

Muawiyah also established the first agency in the Muslim world to manage correspondences, prevent forgery, and archive national documents: the documentation bureau (or diwan al-khatam). The bureau kept copies of correspondences, sealed the letters, and closed them with wax so that they could not be opened or viewed.

The mountains of Taif in Saudi Arabia bear witness to one of Muawiyah's urban achievements and his care for the development of irrigation, agriculture, and water conservation. The Saysad Dam (or "Muawiyah's Dam") was built in 58 AH/677 AD.

Its cornerstone reads: "Built by Abdullah bin Sakhr, under the auspices of the Commander of the Faithful, Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan."

In the fields of science and education, Muawiyah commissioned the first institutional project to codify Arab culture and preserve its memory, when he summoned informant and storyteller Ubaid bin Shriyah al-Jarhami and held daily talks with him on the news, history, tribes, and kingdoms of Arabs.

In the fields of science and education, Muawiyah commissioned the first institutional project to codify Arab culture and preserve its memory, when he summoned informant and storyteller Ubaid bin Shriyah al-Jarhami and held daily talks with him on the news, history, tribes, and kingdoms of Arabs. 

He ordered his servants to write down these accounts and dialogues in his majlis. Hence came to life the oldest known book on the history of Arabs, "The Book of the Kings and the News of the Past Generations" by al-Jarhami.

One of the greatest statesmen of all time

Muawiyah's life was full of benevolence, urbanisation, and civilisation, in a clear reflection of his great impact on the history of Arabs and Muslims.It is, therefore, unfair for a sectarian-inspired debate to eclipse the great contributions of such a gifted personality and overshadow those venerable pages of the history of Arab civilisation and urbanisation.

In conclusion, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan is one of the greatest statesmen and kings of all time. He was the one who established the Arab-Muslim system of government and strengthened its foundations, and thus produced a huge empire that ruled over half of the world.

He was a leading example and role model for all the Muslim sultans and rulers who came after him and followed his approach, including the Hashemite Abbasids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and even the Shiite Fatimids. In government and political matters, Muawiyah's path was the one to follow.

font change
Related Articles