Islamic History Podcast 2-14: Muawiyyah and Abu Dharr

Islamic History Podcast 2-14: Muawiyyah and Abu Dharr

In the last episode, we briefly mentioned the Umayyah clan. The Umayyahs were one of the most prominent clans of the Quraysh, and the clan from which Uthman Ibn Affan hailed.

We also discussed the tendency Uthman Ibn Affan had to name members of his family to high positions.

An example is the removal of Amr Ibn Al-As, the conqueror of Egypt, in favor of Uthman’s cousin, Ibn Abi Sarh.

But sometimes, the people Uthman chose for high position were very good choices, even though they may have been from his family.

This is clearly seen in his cousin, Muawiyyah Ibn Abi Sufyan.

Early Life of Muawiyyah Ibn Abu Sufyan

As the name implies, Muawiyyah was the son of Abu Sufyan. Abu Sufyan spent a good part of his life fighting against Prophet Muhammad and the Muslims.

But when Prophet Muhammad conquered Mecca, Muawiyyah, his father Abu Sufyan, and most of the members of the Umayyah clan accepted Islam.

Muawiyyah would go on to become a scribe for Prophet Muhammad, and even recorded some verses of the Quran.

Another member of the Umayyah clan who contributed to the early growth of the Caliphate was Yazid Ibn Abi Sufyan, Muawiyyah’s older brother.

Many years earlier, during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, Yazid was one of the first Muslim generals sent into Syria.

Later on, during the early years of Umar’s Caliphate, Yazid was appointed governor of Damascus.

Meanwhile another companion named Muadh, was governor of all of Syria.

However, Muadh died during the plague of Emmaus and Umar promoted Yazid to governor of all of Syria.

Unfortunately, Yazid also succumbed to the plague, and died not long after. Umar then appointed Yazid’s younger brother Muawiyyah as governor of Syria.

Muawiyyah and the Levant

Muawiyyah was still governor when Uthman became Caliph. But the region covering the modern nations of Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon was governed by another companion.

After Umar’s assassination, the governor of this region resigned. Rather than appoint a new governor, Uthman simply consolidated this area under Muawiyyah’s jurisdiction.

This made Muawiyyah one of the most powerful men in the Islamic Caliphate.

And while some may see this as Uthman favoring one of his cousins again, the reality is that Muawiyyah was an excellent administrator and leader.

Muawiyyah was also very forward thinking. He often thought several steps ahead of most of his Arab counterparts.

An example of this came in 648 when the Romans attempted another failed naval invasion of Syria.

The First Muslim Navy

Even though Muawiyyah successfully thwarted the Roman invasion, he knew the Muslims would always be vulnerable from the sea. Especially since the Romans had a navy, and the Muslims did not.

The Romans were using Cyprus to launch their attacks.  Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean Sea between modern day Turkey and Syria.

During Umar’s Caliphate, Muawiyyah had asked for permission to invade Cyprus to take this staging ground away from the Romans.

But Umar, like many Arabs of his time, had a strange distrust of the sea and forbade any naval expeditions.

But now that Uthman was Caliph, Muawiyyah brought the issue up again. But Uthman was aware of Umar’s previous decision and also initially forbade the building of a navy.

Muawiyyah understood the importance of a navy and how vital it was to the long term success of the Caliphate.

While he would not dare to ask Umar for the same thing twice, he was willing to take that chance with his cousin Uthman. So Muawiyyah persisted in his requests and eventually obtained Uthman’ permission.

And with the Caliph’s blessing, by 649, Muawiyyah had overseen the construction of the first Muslim navy.

Not long after that, Muawiyyah led the first Muslim naval expedition, heading straight for the island of Cyprus.

The Roman garrison on Cyprus was not expecting a Muslim naval attack. They were taken completely by surprise when Muawiyyah’s ships landed on their shores.

The Muslims quickly overran the Roman garrison and then laid siege to the Cypriot capital. It wasn’t long before the Cypriots capitulated and surrendered to Muawiyyah.

Muawiyyah’s terms were rather generous. He simply demanded the Cypriots remain neutral in the conflict between the Romans and Muslims and that they pay a large tribute.

The Cypriots agreed to Muawiyyah’s demands, and the Muslims returned to Syria. The Muslims were never interested in conquering and governing Cyprus. They simply wanted to remove it as a staging ground for the Romans.

But most importantly, Muawiyyah’s navy had opened the sea to the Muslims. The benefits that this would lead to are almost too numerous to count.

Access to the sea would allow the Muslims to expand their conquests to faraway lands.

And centuries later, Muslim scientists would advance the fields of navigation and astronomy to new heights. These advances would allow Muslim merchants to venture further and further away from the Middle East.

These Muslim merchants would use trade to bring Islam to places as far away as Malaysia and Indonesia.

All of this because one man bucked tradition and refused to be afraid of the sea.

A Failed Roman Invasion

Over the next few years, the Muslims would continue to improve at naval warfare. Three years after Muawiyyah first began building the navy, the Muslim navy would get its first real test.

In 651, the Romans sent 500 ships to invade Alexandria again.

The Muslim governor of Egypt, Ibn Abi Sarh, was another of Uthman’s cousins. He had been appointed over the companion Amr Ibn Al-As who was responsible for conquering Egypt in the first place.

When the Romans invaded Alexandria four year earlier, Ibn Abi Sarh was taken by surprise, and briefly lost the city. Since this rocky start, he had settled into his role, and had grown into a more competent leader.

When the Romans invaded Alexandria a second time, he was ready for them.

Ibn Abi Sarh led his own fleet of ships to meet the Romans, and defeated them in naval battle. This would be the first naval victory for the Muslims.

In addition to defeating Cyprus and building the first Muslim navy, Muawiyyah was also successful in the Caucasus. He sent armies into Armenia, defeating the Romans there, and adding this region to the Muslim Empire.

This is why today we have Muslims in areas such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Chechnya.

Despite being demonized by some people today, it is obvious that Muawiyyah was a very capable, astute, and competent leader. By the time he was 50 years old, he had won the trust and favor of Prophet Muhammad, Umar, and Uthman.

But the one man Muawiyyah couldn’t handle, was Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari.

The Saga of Abu Dharr

Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari was one of the first people to accept Islam. Some say he was among the first five; if not he was certainly from among the first ten.

Unlike most of the early companions, he was neither from Mecca nor from the tribe of Quraish.

Instead he was from the tribe of Ghifar, hence the word “Al-Ghifari” in his name. The Ghifar tribe had a peculiar specialty.

Most Arabian tribes made their living from either trade and business, like the Quraish in Mecca, or through agriculture, like the Aws and Khazraj of Medina.

But the Ghifar tribe specialized in highway robbery. They would raid any caravan unfortunate enough to pass through their territory.

The only way to avoid being raided was to pay them off. So for the Ghifar tribe, it was a win-win situation.

Growing up in such an environment, it is no wonder that Abu Dharr turned out to be a little strange himself. He was a bit of a loner and would have been considered a hermit in today’s world.

He would have preferred a rural existence. But the Prophet and Islam flourished in the cities, and that’s where Abu Dharr spent most of his adult life.

His odd personality was no secret. He once asked the Prophet for a position of leadership and was refused. The Prophet went on to advise him that if anyone ever offered him any sort of authority, Abu Dharr should turn it down.

This is used as evidence that despite his piety and righteousness, Abu Dharr was not cut out to be a leader.

The Conversion of Abu Dharr

Abu Dharr’s conversion story is one of legend.

He was a young man when Prophet Muhammad began preaching his message in Mecca. When news reached the Ghifar tribe of a fellow Arab claiming to be a Prophet in Mecca, Abu Dharr wanted more information.

His sent his brother to Mecca to gather more information about this Arab prophet. However, the news his brother returned with was hardly enough to satisfy his curiosity. So Abu Dharr traveled to Mecca to find out more on his own.

When Abu Dharr arrived in Mecca, he did not know where to begin. He did not know Muhammad’s name, and did not know how he looked. So he remained in the vicinity of the Kaaba for several days, subsisting off of nothing but ZamZam water.

Even in those days, the Kaaba was considered a holy sanctuary where travelers could rest in safety.

Eventually, Abu Dharr met Muhammad’s young cousin Ali, who was just a boy at the time. After a brief talk, Ali agreed to introduce Abu Dharr to Prophet Muhammad.

Abu Dharr met the Prophet, and within a few moments, he had taken shahada, and accepted Islam.

Prophet Muhammad advised Abu Dharr to keep his conversion a secret. Even though the persecution of Muslims had not yet reached its peak, it was unwise for an outsider to claim Islam without protection.

But as we shall see, Abu Dharr was not the type to hold his tongue. Ignoring the Prophet’s advice, he marched to the Kaaba, and boldly proclaimed that he was Muslim and had accepted Muhammad’s message.

Immediately, a group of men pounced on Abu Dharr and began to beat and kick him. They did not stop until the Prophet’s uncle Abbas intervened and rescued him.

Abbas scolded the people and reminded them that Abu Dharr was from the Ghifar tribe. If they were to kill him, their trade caravans would never be safe.

Abu Dharr in Syria

Abu Dharr returned to his home, and began preaching Islam to his tribesman. He would not see the Prophet again for another 15 years.

When they did reunite, almost 4 years after the Prophet migrated to Medina, the entire Ghifar tribe had accepted Islam.

Years later, Abu Dharr would join the battles to conquer Syria and Jerusalem during the Caliphate of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab. And ultimately, Syria is where Abu Dharr would choose to settle down.

But as he grew older, he would become frustrated with the obscene accumulation of wealth in Syria under Muawiyyah’s rule.

As we mentioned earlier, Abu Dharr was not one to hold his tongue. He openly criticized those Muslims who had gathered so much wealth. He believed the Muslims should only keep as much wealth as needed to survive, and donate the rest in charity.

The people complained to Muawiyyah, but there was nothing the governor could do. After all, this was Abu Dharr; one of the first five or ten people to accept Islam. This status commanded a certain level of respect.

Muawiyyah turned around and complained to Uthman who requested that Abu Dhar leave Syria and relocate to Medina.

Last Years of Abu Dharr

But Medina had changed in the 15 years since Abu Dharr left to fight in Syria. It was now the bustling capital of a magnificent empire. It was no longer the simple village the Prophet had called home.

The lifestyles of the people of Medina irked Abu Dharr, and he criticized and rebuked them just as he had done in Syria. It wasn’t long before their complaints made it to Uthman’s court.

Uthman had a meeting with Abu Dharr and suggested the old companion would be better off outside the city.

Abu Dharr agreed with the Caliph and moved with his wife and daughter to a remote region called Rabdha. Rabdha was little more than a resting spot for travelers.

Abu Dharr spent the rest of his life in Rabdha where, except for the occasional traveler, he was isolated from the rest of society.

When he died almost two years later, his family was too poor to shroud him. And his elderly wife and daughter did not have the strength to bury him themselves.

And so, on the day Abu Dharr died, they sat with his body in the middle of the road until some travelers happened by. One of these travelers was the companion Ibn Mas’ud.

Ibn Mas’ud knew Abu Dharr very well and broke down in tears when he saw his friends body. Then he repeated a statement he heard from Prophet Muhammad that Abu Dhar would live alone, die alone, and be resurrected alone.

Ibn Mas’ud and his traveling companions performed the funeral prayer for Abu Dharr, then gave him a proper burial. His wife and daughter returned to live in Medina where Uthman ordered a government stipend for them.

Uthman could not have known how these events would later be twisted by his detractors. It wasn’t long before there were rumors that he had exiled Abu Dharr for criticizing the government.

Even today there are many who continue to repeat this false claim.

This was just one more of a growing list of complaints against Uthman.

In the next episode, we will take a closer look at these complaints and see what turned so many people against Uthman.

Show Notes

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4 Responses to Islamic History Podcast 2-14: Muawiyyah and Abu Dharr

    • Wa Alaikum Salaam.

      The Ummah is already disunited.

      I don’t believe in ignoring the truth.

      This is just a podcast. It’s not going to disunite anyone, Inshallah.

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