Why History Never Showed Mercy to Villain Yazid I?

World Contributor
Kairi Aun | Dreamstime

The villain belongs in history as its integral part. How else can you teach someone to do good if you cannot first show what it means to be bad? This is how the path is paved onto the pages of history books for such characters as Boris Godunov who ordered the murder of the little Prince Dimitri or Richard III who instigated the murder of his young nephews the Princes in the Tower and generally plotted intrigues and villainy non-stop.

In Muslim history, this list is often represented by Yazid I ibn Muawiya, the son and heir of the first Umayyad caliph Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan. Yazid is accused of the death of Hussein (the son of the Fourth Righteous Caliph Ali and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the plundering of Medina and the fire of the Kaaba. Villains, for the edification of posterity, are always painted black leaving no shades of grey. Historians then begin to painstakingly figure out whether the villain is indeed so guilty of the crime attributed to him and so pathologically bloodthirsty or does the black-and-white narration need some grey shades after all?

Yazid I had to take the throne of the Caliph in 680 during a difficult period in Muslim history. Twenty years ago his father, the governor of Syria Muawiya, unleashed the First Muslim Fitna (Civil War) with the Righteous Caliph Ali which forever changed the Muslim world as founded by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Muawiya could not defeat Ali, who was much stronger than him, and only pure chance helped him gain power after Ali fell at the hands of the assassins (who were going to kill Muawiya, too, in order to put an end to the conflict (a very fine way of doing it did they invent) but by the will of Allah he was only wounded).

Muawiya managed to come to terms with Ali’s son Hasan (who had been elected Caliph after his father) that Muawiya would take the throne now (he was 58 years old while Hasan was 38, Muawiya was older and more experienced than Hasan) whereas Hasan would resume his post of the elected Caliph after Muawiya’s death. Hasan died after 9 years (it was rumoured that he had been poisoned by Muawiya). And 10 years later the elderly Muawiya was gone, too, yet a few years prior to that he had declared his son Yazid his heir. But despite all the efforts of Muawiya his venture with the introduction of a hereditary monarchy ran into serious obstacles.

Caliph Ali’s youngest son Hussein who lived in Medina and Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr, a prominent politician who originally had been one of the supporters of the appointment of Muawiya as Caliph, refused to swear allegiance to Yazid. Muawiya had no right to violate the order established by the First Righteous Caliph Abu Bakr. The throne of the Caliph cannot be inherited! Yazid, 35, realized that he was facing a real threat of removal from power and decided to act. He was too accustomed to the luxurious lifestyle of a ruler, spent time in drinking feasts, kept dogs and loved hunting, dancing and singing. He was not ready to lose it all overnight.

First of all, he sent an armed detachment to intercept Hussein’s caravan, whom he lured from Mecca, where Hussein and Ibn al-Zubair had withdrawn from Medina after refusing to take the oath of allegiance. Yazid’s troops of 4,000 men met Hussein’s caravan in the desert, 100 miles southwest of Baghdad, near the city of Karbala. Hussein tried to negotiate with the governor of Kufa, who was at the head of the army, but his advances proved to be in vain. Then Hussein and the 72 men he had with him decided to fight and were ruthlessly butchered by Yazid’s army.

After this atrocity, Ibn al-Zubayr in Mecca declared himself Caliph. He was supported by Mecca and Medina, Iran and Khorasan. Now Yazid was forced to continue the ruthless oblaught on his enemies. He sent an army of 12,000 to Hejaz under the command of Muslim ibn Uqba. Approaching Medina, Ibn Uqba sent an ultimatum to Medina – total surrender or total destruction. After Medina’s refusal, Muslim ibn Uqba attacked and defeated the defenders of Medina and gave the city to his soldiers to plunder for three days.

Mecca was next in line. Allah, however, punished the one who dared to destroy the Holy City: on the way to Mecca, Muslim ibn Uqba died. Yazid did not heed the lesson of Allah, put a new commander at the head of the army and ordered the annihilation of Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr. The troops surrounded Mecca and began bombarding the city with catapults and fire-carrying arrows. One of these arrows set fire to the Kaaba which took lots of efforts to extinguish. It seemed that the fate of the Meccans was decided yet at one moment the besiegers received news of the death of Yazid and the troops were withdrawn back to Damascus.

Yazid could only occupy the throne for 3 years. All his efforts to preserve the dynasty were in vain. His son Muawiya II stayed Caliph for several months and at the age of 20 died of an unknown illness while the throne was claimed by a distant relative Marwan.