This is only a summary of the life of Muʿāwiya ibn Abī Sufyān (ra) and subsequently doesn’t cover every narration mentioned about him. This isn’t a written biography but rather a brief look into his life and times so that we can get an idea of his character. For ease of reading, we have not inserted “May Allah be pleased with him (ra)” each time his name or the name of each Companion is mentioned, but please take it that the salutations apply to all of the companions of the prophet (saw), may Allah be pleased with them all. The companions are beloved to Muslims around the world (including myself) and therefore writing negatively about them is morally and categorically unethical.
Who is Muʿāwiya I?
Muʿāwiya I was the son of one of the leaders of the Quraysh tribe Abu Sufyan who became a companion of Prophet Muhammad (saw). He served as the secretary of Prophet Muhammad (saw) and was also his brother in law since the Prophet (saw) married his sister, Umm Habeebah (ra). Muʿāwiya converted to Islam at the conquest of Makkah during his late teens or early twenties. In many narrations The Prophet (saw) narrated many positive narrations about him such as:
The Prophet (saw) said:
O Allah ! Teach Muawya the Book and Math, and protect him from the Punishment ” [Ibne Asakir 16/684,686,Dahabee in Seyar al Ailam al Nubala 8/38, Musnad Shameen 190]
The leading Muslim scholar Albani said “The Chain is good, according to me the chain is strong. The narrators are trustworthy and are those of Sahih Muslim except Ibn Abi Omaire who is Companion (of Prophet peace be upon him)
Some other narrations say “”Allah, make him (Muʿāwiya) guided, a guider, and guide people through him”. (Silsilah As Saheeha Vol 7 page no: 690 hadith no: 3227)
Narrated Ibn Abi Mulaika: Somebody said to Ibn ‘Abbas, “Can you speak to the leader of the believers (Muʿāwiya) as he does not pray except one Rak’a as Witr?” Ibn ‘Abbas replied, “He is a faqih (i.e. a learned man who can give religious verdicts) [Bukhari Book #57, Hadith #109]
Abu Darda ra said:
مَا رَأَيْتُ أَحَدًا بَعْدَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، أَشْبَهَ صَلاةً بِرَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، مِنْ أَمِيرِكُمْ هَذَا ، يَعْنِي مُعَاوِيَةَ
I have not seen anyone who prayed like Prophet peace be upon him after Prophet peace be upon him other than Muʿāwiya [الفوائد المنتقاة العوالي الحسان للسمرقندي hadith no: 67]
Ibn Abbas (ra) said:
I have not seen more applicable for Ruling (after khilafat of 4 Caliph) better than Muawiyah. [Tareekh Damishq 62/161 with authentic chain as Shaykh Zubair Ali Zai said in Majallah Al Hadeeth no: 29 page 62, Musannif Abdul Razzaq vol 11 page 453 no: 20985]
Ahmad Ibn Hanbal was asked: “Can I call Muʿāwiya and Ibn Umar the uncle of the believers?” He replied: Yes, Muʿāwiya was the brother of Umm Habeebah bint Abi Sufyaan, the wife of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him and may Allaah have mercy on her), and Ibn ‘Umar was the brother of Hafsah the wife of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him and may Allaah have mercy on her). I said: Can I say Muʿāwiya the maternal uncle of the believers? He said: Yes.[Al-Sunnah by al-Khallaal (2/433), Dar al-Raayah edition.]
Muʿāwiya, in the eyes of Muslims, is better than any other King that followed him because of this famous narration from The Prophet (saw) which says: The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “The best of mankind are my generation among whom I was sent.” [Al-Sunnah by al-Khallaal (2/434).]
During the life time of The Prophet (saw), Muʿāwiya I was the son of the main enemy of The Prophet (saw) and so he had to be extra careful and didn’t enjoy the luxuries that other Muhajirun had since their fathers passed away prior. Some narrations mention that he converted the day he saw Khubayb (ra) die and others mention that he secretly converted at the Hudaybiyyah Treaty. Either way he had to keep his Islam quiet because that would mean certain death if he proclaimed his faith.
This would be certain death because his older brother (Hanzala), his uncle (Walid Ibn Utbah), and his grandfather on his mothers side, Utbah Ibn Rabie were all killed at the battle of badr. As a result, his mother, Hind – who held incredible influence – would have severely harmed him had he came out and proclaimed his faith. As a result his kept his faith hidden.
Life in Medina
He travelled to Medina to live with The Prophet (saw) – unlike many of his Meccan peers who stayed where they were – showing he wanted to do as much possible for the religion as he could. From there certain narrations followed like so:
The Prophet (saw) told Abu Bakr and Umar : Make him (Muʿāwiya) present in your matters and take him as a witness in your matters for verily, he is prevailing and trustful.
(Musnad al-Shamiyyeen, Vol. 2, Page 161, Hadith 1110)
(Al-Bahr al-Zakkhaar, Vol. 8, Page 433, Hadith 3507)
It appears he was consulted in important matters with regards to government administration. Furthermore, it is here that he became the scribe of The Prophet (saw), he wrote his letters as well as the revelation. A scribe/secretary has the great ability to see, firsthand, how the leader runs his state. Further proof that he was a scribe is mentioned by one of the leading scholars Ahmad Ibn Hanbal where he writes:
“Go bring Mu’awiyah to Me”, because he wrote down Allah’s Revelation (Wahi) for the Prophet (SallAllahu Alayhi wa Sallam). (Musnad Ahmad, Hadith 2651)
It also appears that his time as one of the secretaries of The Prophet (saw) allowed him and The Prophet (saw) to develop a closer relationship as The Prophet (saw) said:
Verily, Allah (Almighty) and His Prophet (SallAllahu Alayhi wa Sallam) love Muʿāwiya (Radi Allahu Anhu). [Majma’ az-Zawaid, Vol. 9, Page 441, Hadith 15923]
Some history books mention that one of the many reasons he was chosen as the secretary because of deep knowledge of the Byzantine administration. As the brother-in-law of The Prophet (saw) he would be able to see him more than others would because his sister (Ramla) is the wife of the Prophet (saw) and he would be able to visit The Prophet (saw) at the house of his older sister. He enjoyed a great time in Medina until The Prophet (saw) passed away shortly after. From here he would work within the administration of the first Caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr (ra).
Political Career Under Caliph Abu Bakr
Muʿāwiya I served as a military Captain under the following Caliph Abu Bakr (ra). Caliph Abu Bakr named him as one of the Captains in the Rashidun Army. Muʿāwiya’s older brother, Yazeed, was a prominent general and governor for Abu Bakr. Yazeed was the first general sent to fight in Syria against the Byzantine empire. Muʿāwiya and Yazeed shared a close brotherly relationship and Muʿāwiya would go on to name his most prominent son after his older brother. Under Abu Bakr’s reign, Muʿāwiya served as a soldier in many battles (like the Battle of Yarmouk against the Romans) and was part of the army that conquered Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon.
Career Under Caliph Umar
The next caliph Umar Ibn Khattab (ra) noticed the young Muʿāwiya ‘s political acumen and named him as governor of Syria following the death of the previous governor of Syria who was his older brother Yazeed. Under Caliph Umar, Muʿāwiya successfully ruled as governor of Syria for the remainder of the reign of Umar. Umar (ra), greatly admired the ability of Muʿāwiya I and praised him on many different occasions. He remained as the governor of Syria – which was the most prized province – for the remainder of Umar’s reign.
Political Career Under Caliph Uthman
Uthman and Muʿāwiya shared a very close relationship since they were cousins. They both came from the same tribe and had similar upbringings and so they understood each other really well. In fact, Ramla bint Muʿāwiya (the daughter of Muʿāwiya) married Amr ibn Uthman, the eldest son of Uthman. Inter-marriages between tribe members was extremely common in that time, it was the norm and the family marriages between Uthman and Muʿāwiya only made them closer. Just like his predecessor Umar, Uthman also noticed the political flair, acumen and skill of Muʿāwiya and so he added Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon under his governorship. Now Muʿāwiya was governing four countries. Muʿāwiya and Uthman remained incredibly close until Uthman was oppressed and assassinated in June 17, 656 AD.
Political Career Under Caliph Ali
For the next 6 (some historians say 5) years there was mass chaos in which the (fitnahs) broke out. After the assassination of Caliph Uthman all sorts of disorder began to break out and it was unclear what was going on. In this chaotic time many civil wars ensued, every party trying to do the right thing and bring justice to the Muslim world. In this period, Muʿāwiya I led a civil war (trying to avenge the killers of his cousin) and remained the governor of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. He didn’t pledge to the following Caliph (the great Ali) mentioning that he wanted the issue of Uthman to be resolved first before pledging to another ruler. After the battle, time passed and even Ali (ra) appeared to praise Muʿāwiya’s administrative ability saying
“”O People! Do not loathe Mu’awiya’s leadership. If you were to lose him, you would see heads parting with their necks like colocynths.” [Al-Bidaya wa an-Nihaya, Vol. 8, Page 134]
Ali (ra) appears to be using a poetical simile in his description of Muʿāwiya’s great ability to govern over large amounts of people. Praise by Ali (ra) is especially important because they battled against each other in the civil war where tens of thousands of people died. Therefore they weren’t on the best of terms but the fact that Ali (ra) is complimenting his ability shows how much of a successful leader he was.
Political Career as King of The Entire Muslim Empire
Hasan Ibn Ali (ra) son of the great companions Ali and Fatima, grandson of The Prophet (saw) became the rightful Caliph after Ali (ra). He rendered allegiance to Muʿāwiya (who was the leader of the opposing faction) in order to being unity to the Muslim (ummah) nation. This was a great decision that was foretold by The Prophet (saw) himself and greatly praised throughout the Muslim world. From this moment on, Muʿāwiya (ra) would become the Caliph of the entire Muslim world and go on to show his great ability in leadership and administration.
Muʿāwiya’s great gift was his forbearing nature, careful diplomacy and his ability to see far into the future and prevent bad situations occurring before their time. Muʿāwiya was incredibly forward thinking as he was able to transform the Rashidun Caliphate into a dynasty, transforming the military industry and improving social issues by funding any talented individual from the Muslim world despite the tribe that individual has come from.
Muʿāwiya I created the first every Muslim Navy. By his creation of a fleet, Muʿāwiya was the driving force of the Muslim effort against Byzantium. His navy challenged the Byzantine navy and raided the Byzantine islands and coasts at will. The shocking defeat of the imperial fleet by the young Muslim navy at the Battle of the Masts in 655 was a critical turning point. It opened up the Mediterranean, considered a “Roman lake”, and began a centuries-long series of naval conflicts over its control.
This also allowed the expansion of the state into north Africa and Spain. Trade between the Muslim eastern and southern shores and the Christian northern shores almost ceased during this period, isolating western Europe from developments in the Muslim world: “In antiquity, and again in the high Middle Ages, the voyage from Italy to Alexandria was a commonplace; in early Islamic times the two countries were so remote that even the most basic information was unknown”. Muʿāwiya also initiated the first large-scale raids into Anatolia from 641 on.
Muʿāwiya greatly beautified Damascus, and developed a court to rival that of Constantinople. He expanded the frontiers of the empire, reaching the very gates of Constantinople at one point, though the Byzantines drove him back and he was unable to hold any territory in Anatolia. The fact that Muʿāwiya I was the first ever Arab leader to launch an attack on Constantinople was an achievement in the sense that it showed that the newly found Umayyad empire had now become a world force.
Muʿāwiya even built himself a library in Damascus (bayt al-hikmah) that was enlarged by his successors “throughout the Umayyad period.… This first major library outside of a mosque was known to include works on astrology, medicine, chemistry, military science, and various practical arts and applied sciences in addition to religion.” Never before him did any Muslim ruler establish a large library where books and manuscripts based on all subjects where collected.
“It was he who appointed postmen and establishment a system and organization and called it the postal department. Mu’awiyah was the first to invent the system of putting a seal on orders and keeping a copy of every order preserved in the Caliph’s office. Until his time, the cover of the Ka’bah was put on top of the previous covers. He had all the old covers removed and gave instructions that whenever a new cover was put on, the old cover should be removed. He was the first in Islam to introduce the system of keeping watchmen and door keepers. He was also the first to establish a registry department: a place where registers are maintained. He was the first to have built ships.” [Biography of Mu’awiya Ibn Abu Sufyan, Abdul Aziz]
Muʿāwiya was perhaps the most diplomatic Muslim leader ever. He was politically adept in dealing with the eastern Roman Empire and was therefore made into a secretary by the prophet (saw). Muʿāwiya I would write, read letters and Quranic verses down for the prophet (saw). His political flair was noticed by all the Rashidun Caliphs and they all praised his rare administrative abilities. Muʿāwiya I was one of the few people who remained a governor for 20 consecutive years in the time of Umar, Uthman and Ali before becoming the Caliph of the whole Muslim world for a further 20 years.
Once he became the Caliph, Muʿāwiya I reconciled many of the people who had been fighting each other by his generosity and fairness. Even his opponents who disliked him would often melt under his generosity and diplomacy. He also managed through fine diplomacy to balance out the tribal rivalries. An example of this was his amazing treatment of members from rival political factions. For example, every year, he would host Al Hasan and Al Husayn (ra) to his own home and from there he would give them generously from his wealth. Sometimes he would give them up to 400,000 gold coins as a gift. This generosity and respectful hosting would have surely won them over.
“He possessed the ability to win over people to his side. He knew how to retain them. He knew how to make them work for him. This was a unique skill in his leadership. He could bridle people without letting them sense the control. He was extremely efficient. People would not hesitate to approach him with a complaint even while he was delivering a sermon on the pulpit.” – [ Biography of Mu’awiya Ibn Abu Sufyan, Abdul Aziz]
Another example of his careful diplomacy was in how he dealt with Abdullah Ibn Zubayr (ra). Abdullah Ibn Zubayr got involved in an incident between some of his land workers and some of the land workers of Muʿāwiya. He then sent a harsh letter to Muʿāwiya which had threatening words in there. Some of the members of cabinet read the letter and wanted Abdullah Ibn Zubayr (ra) to be fatally punished for his words and yet Muʿāwiya simply smiled, wrote a warm letter back giving his land over to Abdullah Ibn Zubayr (ra) as a gift and then this act completely won over Abdullah Ibn Zubayr (ra) who said he would be content with Muʿāwiya ruling forever.
Another one of Muʿāwiya’s acts which solidified his rule was placing capable talented people in key positions of government. Just like Umar Ibn Khattab (ra), Muʿāwiya I had the great ability of choosing the right people for the right job. He understood that the most talented political figures of his time were Amr Ibn Al Aas, Mughira Ibn Shuba and Ziyad Ibn Abih. Muʿāwiya, together with these three figures were known as the ‘Duhat Al Arab’ (The Principle Shrewds of The Arabs) and so Muʿāwiya instilled them into key positions having them function at the same time. He placed Mughira Ibn Shuba in charge of the troubled city of Kufa, he placed Amr Ibn Al As in charge of the province of Egypt and he placed Ziyad Ibn Abih as governor of the city of Basra. With all three of them working within his administration, Muʿāwiya I had a glorious reign.
Such a glorious reign that prominent companions from around the Muslim world praised him. The wife of The Prophet (saw), Aisha, prayed to Allah that her life is shortened so Muʿāwiya’s is increased saying this because she feared the turmoil that would follow once he dies. Qatada (ra) remarked:
” If you woke up seeing deeds similar to those of Muawiya, most of you would have said this is the Mahdi.”[Al-Sunnah lil Khallal, Vol. 1, Page 438]. The famous scholar Abdullah Ibn Abbas remarked: “I have not seen a man who is more fit to be a king than Mu’awiya”. The famous scholar and companion of The Prophet (saw), Abdullah Ibn Umar (ra) said: “I have not seen a better leader after the Prophet than Muawiya. It was said: Not even your father. He said: My father is better than Mu’awiya , but Mu’awiya is a better leader than him”. This was also followed up by one of the most senior figures in Islam, Sa’ad Ibn Abi Waqqas (ra) who also remarked: “I Have not seen anyone who ruled according to the truth better than Muawiya after Uthman”. [Tareekh Damishq Ibn Asaakir 59/161]
Economical Reforms By Muʿāwiya I
Muʿāwiya I was clearly blessed with an entrepreneurial mind as well. He arranged the financial administration of his entire empire which is very difficult to do. He noticed that the Muslim world had many natural resources and quickly went on to make good use of these resources. He put much focus on agriculture and directed a lot of energy to the Hijaz region which was the center of agriculture in his eyes. He made sure that uncultivated land would be brought into cultivation rather than simply being ignored as it had been in the past. Muʿāwiya sank and built dams in the cities of Ta’if, Makkah and Madinah. During the 20 year rule of Muʿāwiya, there was financial prosperity and peace. Syria also made great progress under Muʿāwiya’s reign. The roads of Syria ended up being full of merchants, it’s stores became well-stocked and the crops of Syria truly flourished. Syria was thriving, beautiful and prosperous. Syria became the shining light of Umayyad rule.
Muʿāwiya I was the first Muslim to attack Constantinople by sea fulfilling the prophecy of Prophet Muhammad (saw) which was that the first army that attacks Constantinople will be forgiven. Furthermore, the first army to ride the ocean (as a navy) would be forgiven and Muʿāwiya I directly organised both of those expeditions. He personally led the first Navy expedition himself.
Under his reign, he conquered, Afghanistan, Bukhara (where the famous scholar Bukhari would later come from) Samarqand, Tirmidhi, Parts of Sudan, Tunis, Tripoli, Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan amongst other areas.
It is truly hard to imagine that the young man (in his early 20’s) who was a background figure amongst the companions and a quiet secretary for The Prophet Muhammad (saw) would go on to become a larger than life figure and king of the entire Muslim world. How did he achieve all of this? Clearly he was blessed with a genius mind and worked relentlessly day and night for decades and until he achieved the unthinkable.
The Greek historian Theophanus does not call Muawiyah a king or an emperor, but rather a ‘primus inter pares’, or in Greek, a protosymboulos, “a first among equals”, in the midst of his ‘symboulioi’. Theophanus also referred to Umar ibn al-Khattab as “Primus inter pares”. “The Nestorian Christian John bar Penkaye writing in the 690s, has nothing but praise for the first Umayyad caliph, Muʿāwiya, of whose reign he says ‘the peace throughout the world was such that we have never heard, either from our fathers or from our grandparents, or seen that there had ever been any like it'”.
History will remember him as a great king and political genius who was able to achieve what others could only dream of and rightfully so. I hope this post has shed light on this political genius and I hope that the world will celebrate this individual because of his contributions to the development of the world we know today. On a personal note, he is someone that I regularly remember and admire.
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