Shia Islam (10): The Shīʿa under Umayyad and Abbasid Rule

Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī

Shia Islam (10): The Shīʿa under Umayyad and Abbasid Rule

During the reign of ʿAlī, the Shīʿa cause advanced greatly as individuals loyal to ʿAlī occupied the high and critical posts of state. However, after the Imam’s death, they would experience great hardship under the reign of the Sufyanid and Marwanid Dynasties[1]. Had it not been for Divine Providence, the Shīʿa would have surely become extinct as a result of the intense persecution and plotting directed against them. We will refer to a number of tragic events that took place during this period:

News of Imam ʿAlī’s assassination in the mosque by the poisoned sword of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Muljam delighted his enemies and grieved his allies.

When ʿĀʾisha was informed of ʿAlī’s death, she became extremely happy and recited the following verses:

‘She threw her stick as a sign of her stay, and stayed in the west,

Just as a traveler who is happy on his return.’

She asked about his murderer. They answered: ‘A man from the Murād tribe.’ After hearing this she composed the following lines: ‘Whoever brought news of someone’s death is among the most virtuous and shall not die.’ (al-Kāmil fī al-Tārīkh, 3/394)

Zainab b. Abū Salama rebuked ʿĀʾisha and said: ‘How can you speak about ʿAlī in this manner?’ ʿĀʾisha apologized and said: ‘Sometimes I forget.’ Muʿāwiya, likewise, became so delighted upon hearing the news of the Imam’s death that he then read these lines:

Tell the rabbits to roam freely,

And, tell the deer to graze without fear.

the Imam passed away two after being mortally wounded. After the funeral procession in Kufa mosque, Imam Ḥasan said in honor of his father: ‘Last night, a man passed away who had no precedent and will not have any equal in the times to come. He was the one who, while fighting in the battlegrounds, had Gabriel on his right and Michael on his left, as helpers!’

ʿAlī died on the same night on which Moses (a.s) had died and Jesus (a.s) had ascended to heaven. His death coincides with the revelation of the Qur’an. It should be noted that he did not leave behind any gold or silver in his estate, all he left of worldly matters was 70 dirhams, with which he had the intention of employing a servant for his family (al-Kāmil fī al-Tārīkh, 3/404).

After ʿAlī’s death, people came to pledge allegiance to his son, Ḥasan. Qays b. Saʿd b. Ubada was amongst the first to do so. Then, people came in large crowds and pledged allegiance to him. History has recorded that those 40,000 people who had taken an oath of loyalty to ʿAlī and had prepared for the war against Muʿāwiya, renewed their oath to his son, Imam Ḥasan.

As a result of a new series of machinations and plots, signs of frailty and weakness began to appear in Imam Ḥasan’s army. However, it must be noted that this was partly due to the fact that his army was not homogeneous. Only some were true Shīʿa loyalists, others were members of the Khawārij, whose brethren had been slain in Nahrawān, others still were after wealth or position, and whether this came from ʿAlī or Muʿāwiya did not make any difference. After an abortive campaign, the Imam found no alternative but to make peace with Muʿāwiya. It should be remembered that the peace terms were so arranged in a way that demonstrates the Imam’s spiritual and mental power, and his control over the situation at that time. However, Muʿāwiya was not the one to respect the terms and conditions of the peace treaty. After making peace with Imam Ḥasan, Muʿāwiya stood atop a pulpit in the central mosque of Kufa and said: ‘By God! I have not battled against you to make you pray, fast, perform the Ḥajj, and pay zakāt since all of you already do these. I have battled to rule over you, which is my divine right. Beware! I had given words and promises to Ḥasan b. ʿAlī that I have no intention of keeping.’

A government runs by such people would not hesitate to kill the Companions of ʿAlī. After Muʿāwiya’s return to Syria, the darkest days for the Shīʿa began; whenever Muʿāwiya’s government located a leader of the Shīʿa, they would either be martyred, or their house would be burned to the ground. The crimes of Muʿāwiya during the twenty years of his government were so many that they compelled Imam Ḥusayn to write a letter rebuking him for his conduct.

Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī’s Letter to Muʿāwiya

‘Are you not the murderer of Ḥujr b. ʿAdī and his pious companions, who opposed injustice and considered innovations to be evil? They did not pay heed to any accusations in the way of Allah. Had you not made promises and oaths to them? Had you not assured them that you will not arrest them? And that you will not trouble them? Despite such oaths and promises, have you not put them to death?

Are you not the killer of the righteous companions of the Prophet of Allah (s.a.w.a), ʿAmr b. Ḥumq? One who had become physically frail and pale in complexion due to incessant worship? Had you not promised them safety? Had such an assurance been given to a bird, it would have come down from the mountain peak. But you did not even care to respect his oath of peace. You trampled upon your oath and did not fear Allah. You had him killed as well.

Are you not the one who certified Ziyād the son of his father to be the offspring of Abū Sufyān although he was born on the bed of a slave from Banū Thaqīf? You attributed him to your father and opposed the explicit order of Allah’s Messenger (s.a.w.a): “A son belongs to his father and the adulterer is to be stoned.” Have you not obeyed your evil desires? After this, you imposed him upon the people of Iraq and Khorasan. You amputated their hands and feet, gouged out their eyes, and crucified them on date palms. You behaved as if you are not from the Islamic Ummah and have nothing to do with it. (al-Imama wa al-Siyāsa, 1/164; Jumhūr al-Rasāʾil, 2/67; Rijāl al-Kashshi, 68–69)

The content of this letter alone is enough to illustrate the grievous hardships the Shīʿa were forced to endure during the 20 years of Muʿāwiya’s reign.

In a letter to his companions, Imam al-Bāqir describes the terrible condition of the Shīʿa during the reign of the Sufyanids and Marwanids. We will mention some of its contents here:

‘We, the Household of the Prophet, have ever been abused, treated unjustly, and deprived of our rights and security. In addition to this, liars and deceivers have appeared amongst the people who have colluded with corrupt judges and officials to spread false traditions amongst the people which have never been uttered by us and, as a result, fostered distrust towards us. Almost all of these injustices were perpetrated after the martyrdom of Imam Ḥasan during the reign of Muʿāwiya. Our Shīʿa were killed no matter where they were. Anyone even suspected of being Shīʿa would lose their hands or legs. Even those who sympathized with us and were devoted to us would be imprisoned and their properties are taken. These offenses continued until the time of Imam Ḥusayn’s martyrdom by ʿUbayd Allāh b. Ziyād.

After Muʿāwiya, came the turn of Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf, who put people to death on the merest suspicion of being Shīʿa. In those days it was better to be called a heretic than a Shīʿa.’ (Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha 11/44–43)

In another one of his letters, Imam al-Bāqir enumerates the crimes of the Umayyad dynasty. However, their crimes are so numerous that a single book dedicated to them would hardly suffice. Some of the key passages in this letter are as follows:

Saʿīd b. Sarḥ was one of ʿAlī’s followers. When Ziyād b. Abīh was appointed by Muʿāwiya as governor of Kufa, he asked to bring Saʿīd to him. Saʿīd, fearing the governor, set off for Medina to be with Ḥasan b. ʿAlī and seek sanctuary.

When Ziyād heard that Saʿīd has fled to Medina, he arrested his brother and his family, confiscated his properties, and destroyed his house. the Imam was informed of Ziyād’s deed and wrote the following letter to the governor of Kufa:

‘This is a letter from Ḥasan b. ʿAlī to Ziyād. You went after a person who has a share in the fortunes of the Muslims. You destroyed his house, confiscated his properties, and imprisoned his family. When you receive this letter, rebuild his house, free his family and grant him safety, for I have interceded for him with you.’

When Ziyād received this letter, in contravention of Islamic laws, brazenly asserted his identity as the son of Abū Sufyān in his response: ‘This is a letter from Ziyād b. Abī Sufyān to Ḥasan, the son of Fāṭima. I received your letter. In that letter you have mentioned your name prior to mine, this is while you are the one in need of me, for I am the ruler and you are a common man. You, as if in power, have ordered me to grant safety to a wrongdoer… If I spare him, it is not because of your intercession; if I decide to kill him, it would be only due to his love and devotion for your wicked father.’

Ziyād b. Abīh gathered the people of Kufa and asked them to curse ʿAlī and revile him. The mosque of Kufa was filled with people and whoever refused to comply with the order would be killed. (Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha, 16/194; Murūj al-Dhahab, 3/126)

Ibn al-Jawzī reports: ‘The Kufans pelted Ziyād b. Abīh with stones while he was delivering a sermon from the pulpit. He cut off the hands of eighty people and burnt their houses and date palms. Then he gathered them in a vast place and urged them to curse ʿAlī. He did this, in order to provide a pretext for his previous evil deeds since he knew he could not persuade people to curse or revile ʿAlī.’ (al-Muntaẓam, 5/263)

Muʿāwiya’s first directive to his administrators

Madāʾinī, in his Aḥdāth, writes: ‘Muʿāwiya in the Year of the Union (ʿĀm al-Jamāʿa) issued a directive to all of his administrators and deputies, stressing: ‘We have no responsibility for the safety of those who speak in praise of Abū Tālib and his family.’

Accordingly, everywhere the preachers would curse ʿAlī and denounce him and his family before starting their sermon. On this point, the officials were extremely strict in Kufa, since this was the city in which the majority of ʿAlī’s supporters and loyalists were based. For this reason, Muʿāwiya appointed Ziyād b. Abīh to Kufa and Basra. Ziyād dwelled among the Shīʿa during Imam ʿAlī’s Caliphate. Therefore, he was very familiar with them and could find their whereabouts and hiding places easily whether to scare them, cut their hands or legs, blind them, or kill them. As a result, he forced away almost all the Shīʿa from Iraq, leaving no notable figure there.

Muʿāwiya’s second directive

Muʿāwiya issued a second directive, in which he stressed: ‘Do not accept the testimony of ʿAlī and his household. Of the people of the yore, look whoever is a supporter of ʿUthmān and exalt them. Befriend those who speak of ʿUthmān’s virtues and merits, and send the name of his family and clan for me.’

This directive had a negative impact. Its impact was due to the fact that those paying homage to and praising ʿUthmān were mostly motivated in forging false traditions to praise ʿUthmān in expectation of material rewards.

Accordingly, people began to develop a sense of distrust and doubt. They thought to themselves: How is it possible that ʿUthmān is considered so virtuous and noble, while we have heard nothing of such virtuosity and nobility before? However, Muʿāwiya cunningly realized that the forging of traditions and narrations must be halted. Then, he issued another directive, stressing that ‘the preachers must relate only the merits and virtues of the first two caliphs and of the Companions of the Prophet. If anyone relates any virtue of Abū Turāb (ʿAlī), bring one of the Companions to negate that relation. Therefore, act in this way because it is more pleasing to me and also negates ʿAlī’s arguments.’

Consequently, extolling fictitious merits and virtues of the Companions began. And in Islamic religious schools, teachers were ordered to teach false accounts of the Companions’ virtues to their students, just as they taught the Qur’an to them.

Muʿāwiya’s third directive

In this directive he wrote to his governors: ‘Anyone known to be a devotee of ʿAlī and a sympathizer of the Prophet’s Household shall have his stipends cut. Moreover, if anyone is alleged to be guilty of harboring loyalties to ʿAlī, punish him and destroy his house.’

Such directives were most destructive in Iraq where, accordingly, the Shīʿa did not dare to utter a single word, fearing even their servants to report.

Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd writes: ‘After Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī’s death and the rise of the Marwānids, especially ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān’s rise to power, the situation became much more severe and difficult as a result of the appointment of Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf as the governor of Kufa and Basra. By expressing their hatred and animosity for ʿAlī and his Companions, supposedly pious individuals attained high positions in the state. They used to extol the merits and virtues of ʿAlī’s enemies. For instance, Aṣmaʿī’s forefather told Ḥajjāj: ‘O commander! My parents have wronged me by choosing the name of ʿAlī. I am poor and desolate; I am in need of you!’ Ḥajjāj laughed and said: ‘You have offered a good excuse, so I will make you the ruler of your region.’

Ibn ʿArafa, known as Nafṭawayh, an expert in the science of ḥadīth, writes: ‘The majority of the forged traditions in praise of the Companions are the result and product of our own era. The untruthful transmitters of the traditions forged traditions for the sake of material rewards, the possibility of attaining high positions in the Umayyad government, and animosity to the Banū Hāshim.’ (Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha, 1/46)

Due to these policies, which laid the foundations of the Umayyad system of government, many important figures lost their lives because of their love for ʿAlī and the Prophet’s Household. To name the most notable of these:

  1. Ḥujr b. ʿAdī, a Companion of the Prophet, was arrested by Ziyād and sent to Muʿāwiya with nine men of similar political leanings. Ziyād also sent a letter signed by many, ordering that Ḥujr b. ʿAdī ought to be killed. The prisoners were taken to a place called Marj ʿUdhrā and brutally massacred; a more detailed account can be found in the books of history. (Murūj al-Dhahab, 3/3–4; Sayr Aʿlām al-Nubalāʾ, 3/462–466)
  2. ʿAmr b. Ḥumq was one of the Companions about whom Imam Ḥusayn says: ‘Night prayer has made his face turn pale.’ He was killed by Muʿāwiya, after having been promised safety (Sayr Aʿlām al-Nubalāʾ, 4/34–35)
  3. Mālik al-ʿĀshtar was the commander of ʿAlī’s army. He was poisoned by a miller on the orders of Muʿāwiya. (Shadharāt al-Dhahab, 1/91)
  4. Rashīd al-Hujrī was among the greatest of Imam ʿAlī’s disciples. He disobeyed Ziyād b. Abīh’s order to curse and revile ʿAlī so Ziyād ordered that his hands, legs, and tongue should be cut off before having him hung from a palm tree. (Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha 2/294-295)
  5. Juwayriyya b. Mushir al-ʿAbdī was another devotee of the Imam. Ziyād had his hands and legs cut off, then hung him from a palm tree.
  6. Qanbar was Imam ʿAlī’s servant. One day Ḥajjāj asked his soldiers to arrest one of the companions of Imam ʿAlī. They said in response that no one had spent more time with ʿAlī than Qanbar. Ḥajjāj summoned Qanbar and asked him: ‘Are you Qanbar?’ he said, ‘Yes.’ Then, he was ordered to curse ʿAlī. Qanbar replied, ‘Show me a better and nobler man than ʿAlī to follow.’ Ziyād realized that Qanbar would never comply and said ‘I will kill you. How do you want to be killed?’ Qanbar answered, ‘ʿAlī has informed me that I would be slaughtered like a sheep.’ Surprisingly, he was slaughtered like a sheep. (Rijāl al-Kashshī, 68-69)
  7. Kumayl b. Ziyād was one the greatest of ʿAlī’s supporters. Ḥajjāj summoned him but he fled the city. Because of this, all the privileges and benefits his tribe used to receive were revoked. When Kumayl heard what had happened, he thought to himself: ‘I am an old man, reaching my twilight. I shall not impose any burden on my kin.’ Then he went to Ḥajjāj. At his sight, Ḥajjāj said, ‘I had intended to arrest you.’ Kumayl bravely retorted, ‘Enough of your threats! I am almost at death’s door, so do whatever you want with me since we will meet again on the Day of Resurrection. (Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha 17/149; al-Shīʿa wa al-Hākimūn, 96)
  8. Saʿīd b. Jubayr was famous for his piety and worship, and he used to join the congregations of Imam Sajjād in prayer. Ḥajjāj had him arrested and said, ‘Are you Shaqī b. Kathīr?’ [the opposite of his actual name] Saʿīd replied, ‘My mother knew better what to name me.’ After an exchange, Ḥajjāj ordered him to be put to death. Saʿīd, while preparing himself for death, recited the following verse: ‘Indeed I have turned my face toward Him Who originated the heavens and the earth, as a hanif, and I am not one of the polytheists.’ (Q6:79) This made Ḥajjāj so infuriated that he ordered that Saʿīd be chained facing away from the qiblah. Saʿīd recited another verse: ‘…so whichever way you turn, there is Allāh’s countenance!’ (Q2:115). This time, Ḥajjāj ordered that Saʿīd be tied to the ground. Saʿīd recited his last verse: ‘From it did We create you, into it shall We return you, and from it shall We bring you forth another time.’ (Q20:55). Immediately after this, they beheaded Saʿīd. (Sayr Aʿlām al-Nubalāʾ 4/321–328; al-Jarḥ wa al-Taʿdīl, 4/9)

These eight people were just a few of those many who were killed unjustly during the reign of Muʿāwiya and his sons’ reigns. A proper account of the crimes of the Umayyad dynasty would require a volume of its own.



[1] Referring to two different branches of the Umayyad Family; the children of Abū Sufyān (the Sufyanids) and the children of Marwān b. al-Ḥakam (the Marwanids).

Shia Islam(9): Major challenges during Imam ʿAlī’s reign

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