Alternate History

Third Fitna (Saracen Jihad)

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The Third Fitna was a period of instability and war in the Umayyad Caliphate, which included the many Umayyad civil wars and the larger Abassid Revolt, which would later lead to the collapse of the Umayyads as rulers of the Muslim Caliphate. Roughly occurring between 744–750/752, the Third Fitna was marked with a series of turbulent successions and crises as Umayyad rulers fought against each other, and against rebel factions and rival families, including the Abassids. Beginning with the death of Caliph Hisham in 747, the period would not end until the overthrowing of the Umayyads by the Abbasids.


Despite successes in several campaigns around the empire, by the 740's the extensive empire began to weaken the Umayyad administration. With the Berber Revolt diminishing, Caliph Hisham also was faced with a revolt led by Zayd bin Ali, grandson of Husayn bin Ali.

Zayd gathered support in the city of Kujah, receiving allegiance from many of its residents. This plot was discovered by Iraq's governor, Yusuf ibn Umar, who commanded that the people of the city be locked in the mosque so that Zayd could be found. A small group of troops led by Zayd fought with Yusuf's forces outside the mosque, before Zayd was killed by an arrow.

Conflict also grew between the Umayyads and the Abbasids, an important rival family in the empire. The Abbasids were Arab descendants of Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, one of the younger uncles of Muhammad and of the same Banu Hashim clan. Thus, the Abbasids claimed to be the true successors of Muhammad, and sought to replace the Umayyads, descendants of Banu Umayya, by virtue of their closer relationship to Muhammad.

The Abbasids targeted the moral character and administrative ability of the Umayyads, which appealed to Arabs, primarily around Marw and Yemen. The Abbasids also appealed to the large non-Arab Muslim population, known as mawali, who were treated as lesser peoples by the Umayyads. The Abbasids had first began to gain strength when during the reign of Umar II, when Muhammad ibn 'Ali, a great-grandson of Abbas, advocated for the return of power to the family of Muhammad, the Hashimites, in Persia.


On 6 February 743 Caliph Hisham died of diphtheria. He was succeeded by his nephew Al-Walid II, the son of Yazid II. From his accession it became clear that Al-Walid was not a very pious man, but one interested in more earthly pleasures. As Caliph, al-Walid refurbished several large palaces with extensive decorations, most notably Qusayr Amra and Khirbat al-Mafjar. He also executed several opponents and persecuted the Qadariyya, which both helped to attract the enmity of many.

Nasr ibn Sayyar would be confirmed as governor of Khurasan by al-Walid, only to be dismissed after al-Walid accepted bribes from Yusuf ibn Umar. al-Walid's uncle, Yusuf ibn Muhammad, was appointed governor of Medina. When Yahya ibn Zayd, the son of Zayd ibn Ali, was found in Khurasan, Nasr urged him to present himself to the Caliph, to maintain Islamic unity. Yahya refused and was later slain. During his reign al-Walid would also imprison Sulayman ibn Hisham, the son of the former Caliph, Hisham.

Personally al-Walid was a noted drinker, who also was fond of singing. Al-Walid was also fond of versifying and he arranged horse races. This immoral behavior however eventually attracted concern. The upright Yazid ibn al-Walid spoke against the new ruler's moral laxity, while a group began plotting his assassination. Al-Walid would be cautioned by Khalid ibn Abdallah al-Qasri, who was approached with an invitation to the plot himself. The warning merely angered al-Walid who imprisoned Khalid and gave him to Yusuf ibn Umar for fifty million dirhams, who eventually tortured and killed him.

Eventually even al-Walid's own relatives were angered by his actions. Marwan ibn Muhammad wrote from Armenia urging a more prudent course of action, one more promising for the stability of the state and the preservation of the Umayyad house. Despite the attempts for preserved stability, after several months as Caliph armed men rose up against him. The Caliph was besieged in a castle outside Damascus, and on 16 April 744, at Al-Aghdaf, he was defeated and killed by the forces of Sulayman ibn Hisham.

Yazid III, son of al-Walid I was appointed Caliph in Damascus, which was confirmed following the death of Walid II, by his army. Upon his accession, Yazid proclaimed that he had rebelled on behalf of the Book of Allah and the Sunna of His Prophet, which ensured that the strong not prey on the weak. He promised "to engage in no building works, squander no money on wives or children, transfer no money from one province to another" without reason, "keep no troops on the field too long", and not to overtax the ahl al-dhimma; instead, he would eschew discrimination and would make his payments on time. He promised abdication if he failed to meet these goals, and held in principle to al-amr shura - to an elected Caliphate.

Yazid reduced military annuities by 10%, earning him the nickname of "the Diminisher (Naqis)", as recorded by Tabari, unlike his predecessor who promised a raise. Yazid personally went into the marketplace, earning him trust among some citizens. In other regions of the empire however fighting ensued over his accession. In the city of Hims,the people refused to recognize Yazid, as did several other cities. Marwan ibn Muhammad ibn Marwan, the governor of Armenia who had initially supported Walid, entered Iraq aiming to avenge him, but would later rally around Yazid.

As Caliph, Yazid would appoint Mansur ibn Jumhur to replace Yusuf ibn 'Umar as governor of Iraq. Yusuf ibn 'Umar would later be imprisoned and killed by the son of Khalid ibn 'Abdallah al-Qasri. On 3 or 4 October 744 Yazid fell ill of a brain tumour, after ruling for only six months, and died on October 3 or 4, 744. His brother Ibrahim, who he had named as his successor, became Caliph after him.

Ibrahim's rule was contested by Marwan ibn Muhammad, the grandson of Marwan I, who led an army into Damascus and was proclaimed Caliph in December 744. The capital was immediately moved to Harran in the north by Marwan, and a revolt broke out in Syria over the relocation. Homs would be taken by Marwan after a bitter ten month siege, and in 746 Marwan razed the walls of Homs and Damascus in retaliation.

Ubaydallah and Abdallah were named by Marwan as his heirs, and several governors were appointed in an effort to assert his authority by force. Despite this new rule anti Umayyad dissidence continued to be very prevalent in Iraq and Iran. The Abbasids had gained much support. As such, Marwan would be forced to spend most of his reign as Caliph devoted to trying to keep the Umayyad empire together.

Significant opposition to Marwan was also met from the Kharijites in Iraq and Iran, who put forth first Dahhak ibn Qays and then Abu Dulaf as rival Caliphs. A Kharijite rebellion was led by Al-Dahhak ibn Qays al-Shaybani that managed to defeat Syrian forces and take Kufa. Sulayman ibn Hisham too turned against Marwan, but suffered a severe defeat, while the main rebel army of the Kharijites advanced on Mosul and were also defeated. Al-Dahhak was succeeded by al-Khaybari, who was initially successful in pushing back Marwan's army. al-Khaybari even took the Caliph's camp and sat on his carpet, however, he and those with him fell in fighting in the camp. Shayban succeeded him as leader of the rebellion, and was pursued by Marwan to Mosul, where he was besieged for six months. Upon the arrival of reinforcements the Caliph's forces defeated the rebels at Mosul. After the decisive defeat at the city the rebellion crumbled, with Shayban fleeing to Bahrayn where he was killed, and Sulayman sailing to India.

By 747 Marwan had secured Iraq following the collapse of the Kharijite rebellion, but was then faced with internal discord in the east of his empire. In Khurasan conflict arose against the Umayyad governor Nasr ibn Sayyar, who was opposed by al-Harith and al-Kirmani. Religious fervor over the ascendancy of the Abbasids rose in the area, and during Ramadan of 747 they considered revolt. Nasr sent his retainer Yazid against them, who was bested and taken captive. He was instead impressed by the Abbasids and when released told Nasr he wanted to join them, if not for his obligations to Nasr which prevented him. Outright fighting eventually broke out in the region in support of the Abbasids, and on 9 November 748 Nasr died at the age at Rayy at the age of eighty five.

Abbasid Revolt

The turmoil of the Third Fitna culminated in the Abbasid Revolt of 747 to 750, in which the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids, end their rule as caliphs. The leader of the revolt by the end of the war was Abdallah, known by the name of Abu al-'Abbas as-Saffah. Abu al-`Abbās and his clan chose to begin their rebellion in Khurasān, an important, but remote military region comprising eastern Iran, southern parts of the modern Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan and northern Afghanistan. In October 749 (132 AH), Abu al-'Abbās as-Saffāh's rebel army entered Kufa, a major Muslim center in Southern Iraq, and as-Saffah was declared Caliph.

With the Abbasids firmly in control of the caliphate, the period of civil wars and unrest would eventually diminish, putting an end to the Third Fitna, and solidifying Abbasid rule.   

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