Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Marj Rahit (684)

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The early caliphate was not an especially stable place. In the two centuries after Muhammad’s death in 632, the empire went through four civil wars (the four fitnas, as they’re known). It’s fair to say that the second of these, which lasted from 680 to 692, was basically a do over of the first, with the same factions (the Umayyads, loyalists of Ali and his family, and those who were neither of those things) having another go at sorting out Islam’s political future.

Today is the anniversary of an early but critical battle in that war, 684’s Battle of Marj Rahit, which was fought a short distance outside the Umayyad capital, Damascus. The combatants represented two tribal factions that had formed among the Arabs during their conquests, the “northern” Qays and the “southern” Yaman. Ostensibly these referred to tribes that hailed from northern Arabia and those who hailed from southern Arabia. Yaman in Arabic means “right,” but it has an archaic meaning of “south,” probably hearkening back to a time when east, not north, was the “main” cardinal direction and so south would have been on the right. Yemen probably gets its name from the same root, though there’s some debate about that.

Now, if you read accounts of pre-Islamic Arabia you’ll find the Qays and Yaman factions mentioned frequently. Often the Yamani faction is referred to instead as the Kalb, the name of the dominant tribe in the Yamani faction, or as the Qahtani, which has to do with genealogy. Arab chroniclers determined that all Arabs could trace their descent to one of two men: a guy named Adnan, who was a descendant of Ismail (Ishmael from the Bible) and was the ancestor of Arabs living in northern, western, and central Arabia; and another guy named Qahtan, who was identified with a minor Biblical figure named Joktan, who was in turn a great-great-great (I think) grandson of Noah. Qays, if you’re wondering, was either the name or the epithet of one of Adnan’s sons. Southern Arabs would use these genealogies at times to argue that they were the real Arabs and the northerners were merely Arabized pretenders.

Assuming I haven’t lost you completely yet, then you’ve probably at the very least started to wonder if this story is bogus, and you’d almost certainly be right to do so. Those accounts of pre-Islamic Arabia were all written well after the advent of Islam, and those “Arab chroniclers” I mentioned up there were operating anywhere from the 9th through the 15th centuries, give or take. They weren’t relating history so much as they were repeating orally transmitted myths as historical accounts. More to the point, they were reading the social groupings of their own times back into the deepest, darkest corners of Arab/Arabian history. As far as we can reliably say, Qays and Yaman were in fact post-Islamic inventions, created as Arab fighters sorted themselves into social groups in their newly conquered lands. It didn’t much matter if you or your tribe actually came from north or south Arabia originally. What mattered was how you identified once you were in, say, Palestine or Syria. Indeed, as you can see from this map of pre-Islamic Arabia, the Kalb—the leading tribe in the “southern” Yamani faction—inhabited northern Arabia prior to Muhammad’s time:

Note the Kalb, very much up there in the northern part of Arabia

Once the factions formed—probably as a means of giving some social cohesion to Arabs living a long way from home and surrounded by a lot of non-Arab conquered peoples—they then projected their new solidarity back into pre-Islamic Arabian society. The Kalb, for example, traced their origins to an earlier tribe, the Qudaʿah, whose ancestry has been variously reckoned as either northern or southern. That’s presumably how they became a “southern” Yamani tribe despite having come from northern Arabia. Embedding the factions in Arabian history gave them real social currency. Each faction developed its own customs, dress, etc…along with a healthy distaste toward the other faction.

That rivalry turned violent after the death of Caliph Muʿawiyah I in 680. He was succeeded by his son, Yazid I (d. 683), and this raised eyebrows all over the empire. A hereditary monarchy was something most Arabs had resisted (part of the opposition to Ali becoming caliph was related to the fact that he was Muhammad’s son in-law and therefore he and his sons—Muhammad’s grandsons—could in theory form a line of kings descended from the Prophet). This could be why this second civil war looks so much like the first—it was fought over the same basic cause, it’s just that the Umayyads had switched from the anti-monarchy side to the pro-monarchy side now that they were the monarchs.

The war started quickly. A few months after Muʿawiyah’s death, Yazid’s army met and destroyed a small band of fighters led by Ali’s son Husayn at Karbala. This knocked the Alids out of the war for a few years and also became arguably the defining event in the development of Shiʿism. The non-aligned group, meanwhile, coalesced around a respected Medinan figure named Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr (d. 692). His father, al-Zubayr (d. 656), was a companion of Muhammad who had participated in the first civil war. Ibn al-Zubayr fled Medina to Mecca and invited Husayn to make his capital there, but after Husayn’s death the Meccan people declared Ibn al-Zubayr the rightful caliph instead. He subsequently won support from just about every corner of the empire outside of Syria, which was the Umayyads’ base. Yazid sent an army to besiege Mecca, but he died mid-siege and was succeeded by his son, Muʿawiyah II. The new caliph stopped the siege and then, after only a few months at most on the throne, abdicated in favor of his grandfather’s cousin, Marwan I (d. 685). Shortly after abdicating, Muʿawiyah II died, probably of plague, when he was only around 20 years old.

Marwan always strikes me as the first major figure in the traditional narrative of Islamic history who approximates a villain, though a lot of that has to do with how he’s portrayed by chroniclers. He seems to have been a real political operator—fabulously wealthy from spoils won during his time in the army in North Africa and always near, but not quite at, the center of power, steering events from behind the scenes. He served as the secretary and probably also treasurer for Caliph Uthman (d. 656), who also happened to be his cousin, and some Arab historians came to portray Marwan’s increasing influence over Uthman as the cause of all the discord that attended the last few years of his reign. They probably did this to absolve Uthman of the blame for his own failures, but even so you should be getting a good sense for the kind of guy Marwan was. Once Muʿawiyah I—another of Marwan’s cousins—became caliph, he appointed Marwan as governor of Medina. When Yazid succeeded his father and the Hejaz rebelled, Marwan wound up in Damascus, where he became a close adviser to Yazid, and from that position probably manipulated Muʿawiyah II out of power.

Marwan had a big problem, which was that the Qays faction in Syria had, amid all this turmoil, decided to throw its support behind Ibn al-Zubayr. When the Umayyads turned to Marwan as their caliph instead of recognizing Ibn al-Zubayr themselves, the Syrian Qays, under the leadership of the governor of Damascus, al-Dahhak ibn Qays al-Fihri, decided to do something about it. An Umayyad army and a Qaysi army started skirmishing with one another in Syria in mid-July, but they didn’t meet in a pitched battle until August 18 at Marj Rahit. Details of the battle are sketchy at best, but obviously Marwan’s very outnumbered (we think) forces won (possibly by bribing Qays-aligned tribes to switch sides), or else subsequent events would have looked a lot different. Most of the Qaysi leaders, including al-Dahhak, are said to have been killed in the fighting.

It is exceedingly difficult to find visuals that have anything to do with this battle, but this one, from, at least shows you where Marj Rahit is, even if it’s not marking the same battle

Marj Rahit didn’t do anything about Ibn al-Zubayr, who was still in Mecca, but it did reunite Syria behind the Umayyads. With that problem solved they were able to regain control of Egypt, putting Ibn al-Zubayr on the defensive in Arabia. Marwan, already 60 years old when he became caliph in a place and time where that was a pretty long life, died not long after Marj Rahit. But he was succeeded by his son, Abd al-Malik (d. 705), who turned out to be one of the most capable rulers in Islamic history. He saw the civil war to its end and make great strides in turning the caliphate from a loose collection of conquered territories into a single cohesive empire.

As for the Qays and the Yaman, Marj Rahit only intensified a rivalry that makes the Hatfield-McCoy feud look positively sedate. Despite Abd al-Malik’s best efforts at balancing between the tribes he was never able to completely end the conflict. The Qays sought revenge for their defeat at Marj Rahit, and the Yaman sought revenge for the Qaysi revenge, and so on for the rest of the Umayyad period. The Abbasid Revolution, which overthrew the Umayyads in 750, can be thought of as a part of the third caliphal civil war, which was very much a Qays-Yaman war. The Abbasids were on the Yamani side, though once in power they too struggled to maintain balance among the tribes and resolve their enmity. Even well into the Ottoman period these tribal hostilities could still occasionally bubble to the surface, especially across Syria and Palestine. It was only the growth of the Ottoman bureaucratic state and the centralization of authority under the empire that really seems to have finally put the vendetta to bed.