The Umayyad-Hashemite Civil War and the Birth of the Sunni-Shiite Islamic Schism

Words: 1360
Topic: History


According to the history of the Arab dynasties, Abd Manaf ibn Qusai was the ancestor of the Umayyad family, as well as, Prophet Muhammad. According to the history of the Arabs, “Muhammad descended from Abd Manaf through his son Hashim, while the Umayyad family descended from Abd Manaf via Abd-Shams’ son Umayya” (Esposito 6).

Therefore, the Umayyad family and the Hashemite family belong to one tribe, which is the Quraish tribe of Abd Manaf. However, the two families belong to different clans. Following the death of Prophet Muhammad, a continuous rivalry emerged between the Hashemite clan and the Umayyad clan (Esposito 8). The Hashemite and Umayyad were both attracted to the Caliphate position because the Caliph would succeed Prophet Muhammad.

The succession disputes between the two clans later culminated into the major split of Muslims, which resulted in the birth of Sunni and Shia Muslims. This research paper examines the Umayyad –Hashemite civil war and the birth of the Sunni-Shiite schism from 656-680.

Background to the Umayyad-Hashemite Civil War

The severity of the tribal conflict between the Umayyad and the Hashemite intensified after the battle of Badr. During the battle of Badr, the Hashemite killed some of the leaders who occupied senior ranks in the Umayyad clan (Berkey 72-73). As a result, Abu Sufyan ibn Harb developed an opposition against Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic religion.

Abu Sufyan was determined to eliminate the followers of Muhammad and the Islamic religion. Consequently, Abu Sufyan organized the battle of Uhud in which Prophet Muhammad and his followers were defeated. Despite the defeat that Prophet Muhammad had suffered, he managed to seize the city of Mecca after a period of five years.

The conquest of Mecca by Muhammad was a major blow to the Umayyad and intensified the hatred, which they had against the Hashemite. However, Abu Sufyan and his wife later converted to Islam. These rivalries between the Umayyad and the Hashemite clans set a stage for the eventual battle of Karbala.

After the death of Prophet Mohammed in 632, Abu Bakr who was his closest friend succeeded him. In 634 Umar became the second Caliph following the death of Abu Bakr. Umar was a pagan who converted to Islam through the teachings and influence of Prophet Muhammad. Umar organized several conquests during his reign. As a result, the Islamic empire grew to become vast.

However, in 644, he died, and Uthman of the Umayyad clan succeeded him as the Caliph. He reigned from 644-656. During Uthman’s reign, he appointed his close clan’s men to occupy the senior positions in the empire (Berkey 75-77). Most of the Hashemite were opposed to Uthman’s appointees. For instance, the Hashemite opposed the appointment of Marwan bin al-Hakam as Uthman’s top advisor.

Therefore, the tension that initially existed between the Umayyad clan and the Hashemite was stirred up. The Hashemite were against the appointment of Marwan because Prophet Muhammad had exiled Marwan together with his father from Medina.

Consequently, the reign of Uthman increased tribal hostility between the Umayyad and the Hashemite clan. Consequently, Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr who was the son of Abu Bakr organized for the assassination of Uthman in 656.

The Umayyad –Hashemite Civil War

The assassination of Uthman led to the rise of Ali into the Caliphate position. Ali was Muhammad’s cousin; hence he was a Hashemite. Due to inadequate political experience, Ali faced several oppositions, which forced him to move his capital to a place known as Kufa from its original location in Mecca. It was during Ali’s reign from 656 that a serious civil war also known as the First Fitna erupted between the Umayyad clan and the Hashemite clan (Esposito 9-10).

The civil war lasted from 656-661. Muawiyah and Marwan who were both relatives of Uthman perpetuated the war. The two wanted the culprits who had assassinated Uthman arrested. Therefore, they manipulated several people and waged war against Ali. In 656, Muawiyah’s troops and Ali’s troops engaged in the battle of the Camel. In this battle, Ali emerged victoriously.

The battle of the Camel also motivated Ali to wage another war known as the battle of Siffin against Muawiyah. However, the battle of Siffin came to a halt before either of the parties had achieved success. Both Muawiyah and Ali appointed arbitrators to pacify both sides. Amr bin al-As who was Muawiyah’s arbitrator managed to convince Ali’s arbitrator that “both Ali and Muawiyah should step down to allow for the election of a new Caliph” (Berkey 79-80).

Majority of Ali’s followers were shocked by the decision, and some revolted against Ali. “The group that revolted against Ali came to be known as the Kharijites meaning those who leave” (Berkey 80). The opposing groups further weakened Ali’s position as a Caliph.

During Ali’s reign, large parts of the Islamic empire were lost to their enemies. In 661 one of the Kharijite’s assassinated Ali in a mosque at Kufa. Following the death of Ali, the Muslim community split into the Shiites and the Sunnis (Payne 91). The death of Ali also led to the rise of Muawiyah into the caliphate position. In 680, one of Ali’s sons known as Hussein together with his seventy-two followers were assassinated at a place known as Karbala.

The Birth of the Sunni-Shiite Islamic Schism 656-680

The assassination of Ali together with his followers led to the major split in the Islamic religion. The assassination of Ali in 661 led to two distinct Muslim sects namely the Sunnis and the Shiites. The split of the Muslim community traces its origin to the period after the death of Prophet Muhammad. After the death of Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr his closest friend succeeded him.

However, a group of the Muslim community was against the rise of Abu Bakr into the position of a Caliph. Those who opposed Abu Bakr considered his appointment as illegitimate because they believed that the true heir of Prophet Muhammad was Ali ibn Abi Talib. Ali was a cousin to Prophet Muhammad, as well as, his son in law. Both the supporters of Abu Bakr and Ali strongly believed that their candidate was the true heir of Prophet Muhammad.

The Muslim who supported the rise of Abu Bakr into the Caliphate position was known as the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah or the Sunni Muslims (Lapidus 363-385). On the other hand, the Shiites were the supporters of Ali who believed that Ali was the real inheritor of Prophet Muhammad’s position.

The term Sunni has a similar meaning to the term Sunnis, which means “oral traditions and interpretations of the Koran” (Lapidus 363-385). According to the Sunni Muslim, a Caliph should assume the Caliphate position after an election by the Islamic religious leaders. Therefore, they oppose the assumption of the Caliphate position based on the relationship that exists between the successor and Prophet Muhammad.

Shia means an aide of Ali. According to the Shia Ali was the first Imam after the death of Prophet Muhammad. They believe that the true heirs of Muhammad are descendants of Ali. Therefore, after the death of Ali, his sons Hassan and Hussein were the second and the third Imams respectively.

They also believe that there were twelve Imams. Despite the differences that exist between the Sunnis and the Shiites, there is a limited conflict between them. However, between the two sects of Muslims are extremist factions, which believe in radicalism as opposed to other Muslims. Despite the differences, the Muslims main book of reference is the Quran.


The Umayyad-Hashemite civil war is attributed to the succession disputes, which took center stage after the death of Prophet Muhammad. The first Caliph to succeed Prophet Muhammad was Abu Bakr who was not accepted by the entire Muslim fraternity because some Muslims regarded Ali as the rightful successor of the throne.

Therefore, when Ali rose to the Caliph position, he faced a lot of opposition from several people especially Muawiyah who was from the Umayyad dynasty. The opposition of Ali finally led to the outbreak of the First Fitna (civil war) in the Islamic dynasty. The civil war culminated into the assassination of Ali, which led to the slit of Muslims.

Works Cited

Berkey, Jonathan Porter. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Esposito, John L. The Oxford History of Islam. London: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Lapidus, Ira M. “The Separation of State and Religion in the Development of Early Islamic Society.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 6.4 (1975): 363-385. Print.

Payne, Robert. The History of Islam. New York: Dorset Press, 1990. Print.