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Second Fitna

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Second Fitna

The Second Fitna was the second civil war to erupt within the Islamic community after the Prophet Muhammad's death, fought over who had the right to lead as caliph. It was one of the most significant events in early Islamic history, decisively splitting the Islamic community into two. What was this split, and how did it occur?

Fitna

A civil war within the Islamic community.

Caliph

A leader of the Islamic community.

Caliphate

The political state of Islam led by a caliph.

Second Fitna The Battle of Karbala StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Battle of Karbala in 680 C.E by Hossein Qollar-Aqasi.

Start Date and End Date of the Second Fitna

Historians are divided on how to date the Second Fitna:

Interpretations
Start date680This is the year when Caliph Muawiya died and his son Yazid took over. Husayn - grandson of the Prophet Muhammad - was also killed at the Battle of Karbala in the same year.683This is when the crisis of succession within the Umayyad dynasty began with the death of Caliph Yazid.
End date685The victor of the fitna Abd al-Malik became caliph in 685.692This is when Caliph Abd al-Malik defeated rival al-Zubayr, ending the conflict over leadership.

Historian Fred Donner dates the end of the civil war with Caliph Abd al-Malik's victory over al-Zubayr in 692:

After twelve years of strife, the Second Civil War was finally over, and Umayyad rule had been restored.1

Causes of the Second Fitna

There were three main causes of the Second Fitna, which we will explore in this section.

Unresolved issues from the First Fitna (656-661 C.E.)

The First Fitna broke out as there was no clear leader to take over the caliphate after the assassination of Caliph Uthman.

  • Some, the forerunners of the Shias, believed that leadership should remain within the Prophet's family. They were particularly angry about the potential for the Quraysh Umayyads to become caliphs because this family had originally fought against Muhammad and only converted when Muhammad took their hometown of Mecca.

  • Others, the forerunners of the Sunnis, thought that any faithful Muslim should be able to be elected caliph.

At the end of the First Fitna, Caliph Ali (the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law) was assassinated. Leadership would have passed straight to Ali's son, Hasan. However, Muawiya, who was governor of Syria, negotiated with Hasan that he would abdicate to allow Muawiya to become caliph in exchange for a large payment. Thus, leadership was removed from the descendants of Muhammad. Some Muslims were content to see this transfer of leadership, but others thought that leadership was forcibly removed from the rightful heir.

When Caliph Muawiya died, these tensions erupted once more. The contest about whether leadership should pass through the Umayyad family, or whether it should revert to Caliph Ali's descendants to keep leadership within the Prophet's family, was reborn.

Caliph Muawiya's succession policy to elect his son, Yazid, as his successor

This was an unprecedented move within the Islamic caliphate - previously, caliphs had always been chosen for either their closeness to the Prophet or because of their political and military merit.

This was perceived by a significant number of Muslims as a corruption of the community of faith into a self-serving monarchy that was more interested in political power than religious concerns.

Social and economic tensions within the Empire

One of the biggest issues the empire faced was the division between Arabs and non-Arabs. This created social issues when the Arab aristocracy treated non-Arabs badly. Grievances against Arabs grew into a full-scale political movement in the region of Kufa when a man called Mukhtar argued that the empire needed a Mahdi to solve this problem. Many non-Arabs backed Mukhtar's rebellion because they were so upset with the prevailing social system.

Mahdi

A saviour of the end times.

Period of the Second Fitna

This civil war was messy and complex, with lots of different claimants and factions with different goals. To simplify matters, this section starts with an overview of the main figures, before looking at a timeline of the period.

Second Fitna Map showing territories under different factions StudySmarterFig. 2 - Map showing the different areas controlled by different factions in the civil war.

Key Figures

Below are the key figures of the Second Fitna.

FigureExplanation
Caliph YazidMuawiya's son and successorThe Second Fitna began during Yazid's reign. His army killed the first major challenger to the throne, Husayn ibn Ali, at the Battle of Karbala in 680.
Husayn ibn Ali Son of Caliph Ali (656-661) and grandson of Prophet Muhammad Husayn launched a revolt against Yazid in 680, supported by Muslims in Kufa who opposed the Umayyads. The rebellion was short-lived, and he was killed the same year.
Ibn al-ZubayrGrandson of the first caliph, Abu Bakral-Zubayr refused to acknowledge Yazid as caliph and raised support in Mecca and Medina. Yazid died before the two met on the battlefield, greatly strengthening al-Zubayr's position to the point that he declared himself caliph and ruled most of the Muslim lands. Ibn al-Zubayr also successfully defeated the Mukhtar revolt. However, he was defeated in 692 by Syrian forces under the leadership of Abd al-Malik defeated at Mecca.
Mukhtar al-Thaqafi A strong believer that leadership should pass down Ali's line, and wanted revenge for Husayn's execution He generated a populist movement in the Kufa region, calling for a just rule. He asserted that Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya was the lawful claimant to the throne because of his Alid ancestry and because he was the Mahdi who would defeat evil and launch a just rule on Earth. He was defeated by ibn al-Zubayr in 687.
Caliph Muawiya IIYazid's sonHe died only a few months after his father in 683/4, leaving no surviving children to take his place. This plunged the Umayyads into a crisis of succession, which was only resolved when Marwan decided to run for caliph.
Caliph MarwanCousin of Caliph UthmanHe was initially in favour of ibn al-Zubayr becoming caliph, but was persuaded to bid for the leadership himself by the Kalb tribe, who wanted an Umayyad leader. He was only caliph for a year before dying and being succeeded by his son, Abd al-Malik. However, in running for leadership, he reinstated the Umayyad dynasty as a contender for the caliphate.
Caliph Abd al-MalikSon of MarwanHe had to put down several small rebellions, including one launched by his cousin Amr, before he could turn his attention to his main rival: ibn al-Zubayr. He laid siege to Mecca, where al-Zubayr was based, eventually killing him in 692. With this, Abd al-Malik emerged as the victor of the Second Fitna, and the Umayyad dynasty was restored in Marwan's line.

Second Fitna Umayyad family tree StudySmarterFig. 3 - Umayyad Family tree.

Second Fitna Timeline

Below shows a timeline of the events of the Second Fitna.

YearEvent
680/AprilCaliph Muawiya died, controversially appointing his son Yazid as heir.
680/April-OctoberHusayn ibn Ali, the son of Caliph Ali, launched a revolt against Caliph Yazid. This was the start of the civil war.
680/OctoberBattle of Karbala, where Husayn was killed by Yazid's forces. Many were appalled at the spilling of the blood of the Prophet's family, and it turned more people against Yazid. Shi'ite leader Mukhtar fled to Mecca.
680-683Ibn al-Zubayr emerged as a contender for the caliphate. The Hijaz region became loyal to him rather than to Yazid.
683/AugustBattle of the Harra. Caliph Yazid's forces defeated pro-Zubayr forces in Medina.
683/SeptemberCaliph Yazid marched on Mecca to defeat ibn al-Zubayr. They laid siege to the city.
683/NovemberCaliph Yazid died. The siege ended since it no longer had a leader.
683/November-DecemberIbn al-Zubayr declared himself caliph. Most of the Hijaz sided with him, but most Syrians sided with Yazid's son, Muawiya II, who also declared himself caliph.
684Ibn al-Zubayr brought Egypt and Syria under his domain.
684Caliph Muawiya II died, leaving no heir. He was the last of the Sufyanid Umayyads, and this plunged the Umayyad dynasty into a crisis of succession. The Kalb tribe persuaded the Umayyad Marwan to claim leadership, even though Marwan himself was initially willing to recognise ibn al-Zubayr as Caliph.
684/MayMukhtar returned to Kufa and began building a populist movement, calling for Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya to be Caliph. He argued that al-Hanafiyya was the Mahdi.
684/AugustCaliph Marwan defeated Dahhak (ibn al-Zubayr's governor of Damascus), thereby restoring Umayyad power over Syria. This led to the Kalb-Qays split since the Kalbs were pro-Umayyad and the Qays backed Dahhak and al-Zubayr.
685/SpringCaliph Marwan seized Egypt from al-Zubayr's governor.
685/SummerCaliph Marwan died, handing power to his son Abd al-Malik.
685/SummerCaliph Abd al-Malik immediately faced opposition. He put down an uprising led by a tribe that supported ibn al-Zubayr and negotiated a costly treaty with the Byzantine Empire.
686/JulyPro-Umayyad Arab nobles in Kufa launched an attack against Mukhtar. The rebellion failed, and nearly 10,000 Kufan nobles fled to ibn al-Zubayr.
686/AugustMukhtar won an important battle against Caliph Abd al-Malik, gaining control of northern Iraq as well as his hold on Kufa.
687/AprilIbn al-Zubayr marched on Kufa to defeat Mukhtar along with the Arab nobles. He killed Mukhtar after a siege of the city.
687/JuneFour different leaders headed pilgrimages to Mecca, representing al-Zubayr, Abd al-Malik, Najda (the Kharijite leader), and al-Hanafiyya.
689/SpringCaliph Abd al-Malik finally had no more threats to his power in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Therefore, he marched on Iraq to dislodge ibn al-Zubayr, but in his absence, his cousin Amr seized Damascus and advanced his own claim to the Umayyad dynasty. Caliph Abd al-Malik canceled his campaign and returned to Damascus to defeat Amr.
691/SummerCaliph Abd al-Malik quelled opposition to the Umayyads among the Qaysi tribe.
691/AutumnCaliph Abd al-Malik defeated ibn al-Zubayr's forces in Iraq. He entered Kufa and was recognised there as the caliph.
692/MarchCaliph Abd al-Malik sent forces to Mecca. The siege of Mecca began. It lasted for six months, during which time most of ibn al-Zubayr's forces deserted because of the hopelessness of the situation.
692/SeptemberIbn al-Zubayr was decisively defeated and killed in a battle outside the city. Abd al-Malik was recognised as caliph in all the Islamic lands. Umayyad rule was restored to the Caliphate. The Second Fitna was over.

Winner of the Second Fitna: Caliph Abd al-Malik

Abd al-Malik was the most pious caliph that the Umayyad dynasty had yet seen. He spent time in Medina in his youth, and therefore his religious lifestyle caused many who had previously been critical of the Umayyads to respect and acknowledge him as their leader. Among Abd al-Malik's greatest achievements was the creation of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The city of Medina was an important religious site where many Muslim scholars were located. This is because it had been Muhammad's base from 622 C.E. to his death. Abd al-Malik spent a lot of time when he was younger learning from the Muslim scholars in Medina.

One of the most influential things Abd al-Malik did as caliph was to centralise the Umayyad administration to be done in Arabic rather than the local languages of the different lands of the Caliphate. This enabled Arab Muslims to gain more power. In the long run, this only meant that the issues of non-Arab Muslims grew, which was to become a significant threat to Umayyad rule in later years.

The other significant change of Abd al-Malik's rule was that he created a new Muslim currency. This was part of a wave of Islamisation under his rule.

Second Fitna: Meaning and Significance

There were three significant outcomes of the Second Fitna.

Restoration of Umayyad rule

At the end of the civil war, the Umayyads were triumphant. They would continue to rule until 750 C.E. when the Abbasid dynasty took over.

Arabisation of the Caliphate

Abd al-Malik's victory meant that Arab Muslims were even more privileged than before the civil war compared to non-Arab Muslims. In particular, the fact that administration had changed from a variety of local languages to the sole use of Arabic concentrated power further in the hands of the Arab Muslims.

The Sunni-Shia divide in Islam

The question of who should lead the Islamic community erupted into two fiercely opposing sects during the Second Fitna.

Pro-Alids (who became Shias during the civil war) supported the idea that only those who were related to the Prophet should become leaders.

The rest of the community (who became Sunnis during the civil war) believed in a more democratic form of government, in which leaders should be elected from the entire community of believers.

Although these tensions had been present during the First Fitna, it was during the Second Fitna that the factions divided into separate religious and cultural entities rather than simply being rival political groups.

Second Fitna Painting of the Battle of Karbala StudySmarterFig. 4 - Battle of Karbala by Persian Painter Abbas Al-Musavi.

The defining moment of this conflict occurred at the Battle of Karbala when Yazid forces killed the Prophet's grandson Husayn. Many Muslims, even those who were pro-Umayyad, were traumatised by the fact that the Islamic government had killed a member of the Prophet's family.

What made Husayn's death so different from the assassinations of Uthman and Ali was that those murders had been carried out by small insurrectionist forces against the Islamic government's leaders. Husayn's death represented the Islamic government itself spilling the blood of the Prophet.

This shifted the Pro-Alid faction from being a purely political group focused on the question of leadership into a unique religious community with its own rituals and collective memory - Shia Islam. For example, Shia Muslims commemorate Husayn and the Battle of Karbala every year in a ritual known as the Day of Ashura. Professor of Islamic Studies Heinz Halm argues:

There was no religious aspect to Shi'ism prior to 680. The death of the third imam and his followers marked the 'big bang' that created the rapidly expanding cosmos of Shi'ism and brought it into motion. 2

The significance of Husayn's murder continues in Shia Islam to this day. When Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Sunni Iran in 1980, he presented the war as the:

continuation of the Battle of Karbala [...] a holy crusade against various sources of corruption and impiety.3

In some ways, one could argue that in the long-term, the Second Fitna did not end with Abd al-Malik's victory over al-Zubayr, but continues to the present day.

Second Fitna - Key takeaways

  • The Second Fitna was a period of intense civil war between rival claimants for the leadership of the Islamic community.
  • The start date of the Second Fitna can either be seen as 680 when Muawiya died or 683 when his son Yazid died.
  • The end date of the Second Fitna can either be seen as 685, when Abd al-Malik became Caliph, or 692 when he defeated rival al-Zubayr in battle, and the siege of Mecca came to an end.
  • Abd al-Malik emerged as the victor of the Second Fitna, restoring Umayyad rule to the caliphate.
  • The most significant effect of the Second Fitna was the Sunni-Shia divide in Islam. Shia Muslims believed that the rightful heir, the Prophet's grandson Husayn, had been brutally murdered, and they became a distinctive religious community within Islam. To this day, Shia Muslims commemorate Husayn's death at the Battle of Karbala on the Day of Ashura each year.

References

  1. Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (2012).
  2. Heinz Halm, Shi'a Isla: From Religion to Revolution (1997).
  3. Fatemah Shams, 'Ideology of Warfare and the Islamic Republic's Poetry of War' in the International Journal of Persian Literature (2016).
  4. Fig. 3. - Abbreviated Umayyad Family Tree (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abbreviated_Umayyad_Family_Tree.png) by Al Ameer Son (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Al_Ameer_son) is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Second Fitna

The second fitna was the second civil war in the Islamic community. The dividing issue during the second fitna was who had the right to lead the Islamic community. Some Muslims thought that only descendants of Muhammad should be able to become caliphs. Others thought that any believing Muslim should have the right to be appointed caliph, regardless of their family background. 

The long term reason behind the second fitna was that the question of who had the right to lead the Islamic community had remained unresolved after the first fitna. Some people thought that leadership had been stolen away from its rightful heir when the Umayyads took over instead of Caliph Ali's family. The short term reason why the second fitna broke out was because Muawiya I decided to elect his own son as his successor. This was an unprecedented move in Islamic politics, and made many concerned that the Umayyads were after their own gain rather than the good of the whole Islamic community. 

The second fitna was a complex civil war with many challengers claiming to be the next caliph. There were as many as seven key figures who either declared themselves caliph or conquered territories on behalf of someone they wanted to be caliph. At the end of the second fitna, the Umayyads emerged victorious under the leadership of Abd al-Malik. 

Abd al-Malik proved victorious at the end of the second fitna when he defeated his last remaining rival, Zubayr. Abd al-Malik was a Marwinid (a descendent of the line of Marwan) and an Umayyad. 

The second fitna raged from 680 when Muawiya died to 692, when Abd al-Malik defeated his last rival at the siege of Mecca. However, some historians date the second fitna from 683, when Caliph Yazid died to 685, when Abd al-Malik became caliph of Egypt and Syria. 

Final Second Fitna Quiz

Question

When did the Second Fitna begin? 

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Answer

Some say 680 when Muawiya died. Others say 683 when Yazid died. 

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Question

When did the Second Fitna end? 

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Answer

Some say 685 when Abd al-Malik became caliph. Others say 692 when Abd al-Malik defeated rival al-Zubayr.

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Question

Who was the victor of the Second Fitna? 

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Answer

Abd al-Malik 

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Question

Who was Husayn ibn Ali? 

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Answer

Caliph Ali's youngest son, and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. 

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Question

Who died at the Battle of Karbala? 

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Answer

Husayn ibn Ali

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Question

What did Mukhtar believe?

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Answer

That leadership should pass down Ali's line. 

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Question

Who was Abd al-Malik?

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Answer

The son of Marwan, who had been a cousin of Caliph Uthman. The eventual victor of the Second Fitna.

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Question

Who was Ibn al-Zubayr?

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Answer

The grandson of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr.

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What important battle took place in 680?

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Answer

The Battle of Karbala, where Yazid killed Husayn.

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Question

Why were Shia Muslims so upset about Husayn's death?

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Answer

Because he was the grandson of the Prophet and therefore his killing meant that the Islamic government had brutally spilled the blood of the Prophet's family.

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Question

When was the siege of Mecca?

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Answer

March 692-September 692

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Question

What were the three major consequences of the Second Fitna?

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Answer

1. Umayyad rule was restored. 

2. Arabisation of the caliphate. 

3. The Sunni-Shia divide in Islam

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Question

What was the significance of Marwan in the Second Fitna?

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Answer

He emerged as the new Umayyad contender after the death of Muawiya II. In restoring Umayyad power to Syria and Egypt, he created a strong base for his son Abd Al-Malik to fight from.

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Question

What region was torn apart by economic and social issues before the Second Fitna?

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Answer

The Kufa region.

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Question

What controversial policy did Muawiya I create which sparked unrest?

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Answer

The policy to appoint his son, Yazid, as his successor. 

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Question

What was the central question of both the first and second fitnas? 

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Answer

Who had the right to lead the Islamic community. 

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What did pro-Alid/Shia Muslims believe?

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Answer

That leadership should remain in the Prophet's family (a form of monarchical government)

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What did pro-Umayyad/Sunni Muslims believe?

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Answer

That leaders should be elected from the whole Islamic community (a more democratic form of government)

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