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The Change of Capital from Medina to Kufa

In rajab of 36 a.h. (JANUARY 657) ALI decided to transfer the headquarters of his government from Medina in Hijaz to Kufa in Iraq. When law and order had been restored in Basra, he appointed Abdullah ibn Abbas as its new governor, and then left for Kufa which became, thenceforth, the new capital of Islam.

On Rajab 12 of 36 A.H., Ali arrived at the gates of Kufa. The nobles of the city came out to greet him and to congratulate him on his victory. Entering the city, Ali first went into the Great Mosque, offered the prayer of thanksgiving to God for victory, and then delivered a speech in which he thanked the people of Kufa for their support, and commended them for their gallant performance in the battle of Basra.

The nobles of Kufa requested Ali to stay at the governor's palace but he did not agree. Instead, he chose an unpretentious house for his residence.

Historians have tried to find out the reasons why Ali changed the capital from Medina to Kufa. Professors Sayed Abdul Qadir and Muhammad Shuja-ud-Din, write in their book, The History of Islam, (published in Lahore, Pakistan):

Seven months after taking charge of the government, Ali made Kufa his new capital. Following were some of the reasons that prompted this change:

1. The battle of Basra or the battle of the Camel was fought and was won with the aid of the people of Kufa. Ali made Kufa his capital, partly in recognition of this service by them.

2. Ali was anxious to save Medina from the havoc of civil strife like the one which had ended in the murder of Uthman. He did not want Medina to become the locale of political disturbances at any time, and he wanted to save the City of the Prophet from destruction or desecration in the possible wars of the future.

3. Kufa had a more central position in the empire. Administrative facility of the vast and sprawling territories dictated this change.

4. It was easier for Ali to watch the movements of Muawiya from Kufa than from Medina.” (The History of Islam)

Kh. Muhammad Latif Ansari of Pakistan, a contemporary historian, has pointed out in his History of Islam, that just as Abu Jahl and Abu Sufyan were responsible for the migration of Muhammad from Makkah to Medina, so was the latter's son, Muawiya, responsible for Ali's migration from Medina to Kufa.

He says that civil wars had begun but theaters of war were too distant from Medina. Ali, therefore, changed the capital for strategic reasons, and this supports his claim that it was the rebellion of Muawiya, the governor of Syria, which was responsible for his (Ali's) migration from Hijaz to Iraq.

Actually, there were both pragmatic and idealistic reasons why Ali changed the capital. Some of them were as follows:

(1). When Ali ascended the throne of khilafat, the important urban centers of the empire were Damascus in Syria, Makkah and Medina in Hijaz, and Basra and Kufa in Iraq.

Damascus was held by Muawiya, and was, therefore, the center of opposition to Ali. Of the other four cities, Makkah, at first, was in the hands of the rebel leaders - Ayesha, Talha and Zubayr. In Makkah, they raised a volunteer army of 3000 warriors. They left Makkah with their army for Basra, and occupied that city. Many of those Makkans who did not go to Basra with the rebel army, gave it their material support. Thus Ali could count Makkah out.

Medina had a record hardly any better. As noted before, when Uthman was killed, Medina was at the mercy of the rebels. The Muhajireen and the Ansar realized that there was no one in all Dar-ul-Islam who could save the city from being plundered, the people from being massacred, and the government from breaking down, except Ali. They, therefore, appealed to him to take charge of the government.

Ali told the Muhajireen and the Ansar that he would accept their offer if they gave him a pledge to obey his orders both in peace and in war. They gave him their pledge to obey him, and he accepted their offer.

But only a few days had passed when rebellion reared its head in Makkah against the caliphal authority. Ali went into the Mosque, and called upon the Muhajireen and the Ansar to rise in defense of the central government. Their only response was silence. Ali reminded them of the pledge they had given to him to obey him and they still did not respond. All his appeals and reminders seemed to fall on deaf ears.

It was only after many weeks of appeals and a great effort that Ali could enlist the support of seven hundred volunteers in Medina. This was all that Medina would do for him. He left Medina with these volunteers – never to return.

Basra, the fourth city, had acknowledged Ali's authority, and he had appointed Uthman ibn Hunaif Ansari its new governor. But before Ali arrived in Iraq, the “triumvirate” of Ayesha, Talha and Zubayr had already captured Basra. Uthman ibn Hunaif barely managed to escape from Basra with his life.

Now the “choice” of Ali was narrowed down to one city – Kufa. Ali sent Imam Hasan and Ammar ibn Yasir to Kufa to bring reinforcements for him. Kufa sent 12,000 warriors to Basra, and it were these warriors who fought in the battle of the Camel, and defeated the “triumvirate” of Ayesha, Talha and Zubayr.

Makkah, Medina and Basra had left Ali in no illusions about what they would do in an emergency. But the citizens of Kufa had sent reinforcements to him at a most critical moment in his career. He could clearly see that if there was war with Muawiya, he had only the army of Kufa to depend upon. It was, therefore, the logic of events that influenced Ali's decision to make Kufa the capital of the empire.

The people of Medina, it appears, had only a tepid interest in the events taking place around them. When Ali declared that he would transfer the governmental headquarters to Kufa, no one among them protested against this decision. They did not react to such a momentous change as if they couldn't care less if their city was or was not the capital of Islam!

(2). Medina was the cradle of Islamic culture and civilization. The truly Islamic mode of life could be seen at its best only in Medina. The foreign wars and conquests had brought people of many different cultures in the dominion of Islam. If Medina were also to remain the political and administrative capital of the empire, as it was the spiritual capital, then the alien people, with their alien cultures and un-Islamic background, would have come to live in it.

They would have brought their own mores, customs, manners, traditions and religious practices with them. By doing so, they would have either dominated the pure Islamic culture or they would have diluted it. At any rate, pristine Islam would have been exposed at all times to alien influences.

Joel Carmichael

Islam collided with the immense intellectual entity of Christianity, heavy with the thought of Greece and Rome. Christian thinking included not merely the whole of Hellenistic thought, but also the ideas current in Persia and elsewhere throughout the ancient East. Thus an immense variety of traditions and ideas, a central complex of ideas and institutions, all more or less predigested by Christianity, was transplanted en masse to the new universe of Islam. (The Shaping of the Arabs, New York, p.194, 1967)

But Ali shifted the political center of Islam away from Medina, and thus saved the Islamic way of life in its very cradle. He saved Makkah and Medina from the cultural hegemony of the Christians, the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans and the Magians. He maintained the character of these two cities as it was in the time of Muhammad, the Apostle of God, himself.

(3). In most cases, the capital of a nation also becomes the capital of vice, sin, crimes and other evils. Babylon, ancient Rome and Byzantium, the capitals of great empires, were also the fleshpots of their times. Men and women of the conquered nations visit the great imperial cities, and they bring their vices with them. Uncontrolled growth, over-crowding, and the facileness of sprawling metropolitan centers breed evils of all kinds. Many modern capitals are not unworthy runners-up to Babylon and ancient Rome.

Medina was the fountainhead of the teachings of Qur’an, and it also had the mausoleum of Muhammad, the Messenger of God, in it. Muhammad was the Interpreter of the Last Message of God to mankind, and his duty was to invite mankind to live pure, noble and chaste lives. Islam was the builder of character, par excellence, and there was no better example of chaste and sanctified life than the life of its Bringer.

If Medina had become like other imperial capitals of the past, then Islam's invitation to the rest of mankind would have become a mockery. Ali saved the sanctity of Medina, and the ethos of Islam's missionary program by separating the spiritual (or religious) and the political centers of the empire.

Ali was truly prophetic in his vision. He saved Medina from degenerating into a prototype of Damascus or Baghdad or Cordova. The panoply of civilization rapidly developed in Syria, sustained and fed by the rapidly expanding empire.

The wealth of the conquered nations poured into Damascus (and later, into Baghdad and other cities). With wealth, came its concomitant – luxury – and the ambition of the ruling classes to cultivate and patronize the “fine arts.” Greek and Persian singing and dancing girls came into the metropolitan centers of the empire of the Arabs in a steady stream.

Those readers who wish to see a vignette of the heyday of the Umayyad and Abbasi empires, can do so in many books, among them the twenty volumes of Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs) by Abul-Faraj Isfahani, or in another book called The Ring of the Dove by Imam ibn Hazm of Spain, both faithful mirrors of their times.

A. J. Arberry

The empire continued to increase in wealth, as trade went farther and farther afield; the wealth was concentrated in the hands of the grasping few, who relished an affluence which would have amazed their Bedouin forebears.

Gorgeous palaces and lavishly - appointed mansions adorned the capital Baghdad and the provincial centers, Bokhara, Samarkand, Balkh, Shiraz, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Cairo, Tripoli, Tunis, Fez, Palermo, Cordova. The dolce vita of the gilded aristocracy is brilliantly portrayed, as it was lived in Andalusia on the eve of the Norman conquest of England, in The Ring of the Dove, a highly sophisticated manual of courtly love composed by an eminent theologian, Ibn Hazm.

Slave boys and singing girls, amenities unknown to the ancient Arabs, provided Muslim gentlemen with novel pleasures and the poets with a new vocabulary. Wine was forbidden to the Faithful by the unambiguous prohibition of holy writ; but the rulers of Islam indulged to the full, and their minstrels vied with one another to celebrate the praises of the daughter of the grape. (Aspects of Islamic Civilization, p. 15, 1967)

It must not be assumed, however, that only the distant cities such as Cordova and Baghdad were contaminated by the vices of luxury and opulence. Makkah and Medina themselves were not immune to their allurements.

Ella Marmura

The love theme poetry found expression in two different genres. One was gay, light-hearted and urbane, and this grew in the cities of Mecca and Medina. Both were cities of affluence but shorn of political power.

Many of the young Muslim aristocrats excluded from public office, frittered away their wealth in the pursuit of pleasure. Schools of singing had sprung up and a number of love lyrics were set to music. The leader of this school of poetry was 'Umar ibn Abi Rabiah (d. 720), a Meccan aristocrat. The second genre of ghazal flourished most among the Bedouin, portraying an intensity of feeling and depicting all the anguish and despair of tragic love. (“Arabic Literature: a Living Heritage,” published in the book, Introduction to Islamic Civilization, edited by R. M. Savory, New York, 1976)

Philip K. Hitti

Mecca's surrender meant its acceptance of Islam. One after the other the Quraish moved on to the new capital (Medina) to share in the promotion of the new faith and to embark on new careers. The highest positions in the government and the army were open to them. Many Quraishis took part in the campaigns that in the orthodox period, particularly under Umar ibn al-Khattab, resulted in the conquests of the Fertile Crescent, Persia and Egypt. Later some served as governors of provinces in the newly acquired domain. Life in Mecca then developed along two opposite lines, one of revelry and the other of piety.

In the wake of the conquests, booty, tribute, and taxes found their way in abundance into the city; they became its new source of income. This more than compensated for the loss of caravan trade. Pilgrimage, of course, continued; in fact it increased. Once a center of commerce, Mecca now became a center of pleasure. Its nouveaux riches brought along harem, dancers, and singers, male and female, as well as new concepts of what constitute the good life. They lived in baronial style in villas and surroundings the like of which Mecca had never seen before. (pp. 21-22).

At the same time, life in Medina, as in Mecca, was developing along a different line, the line of worldliness. After all, the golden stream from the provinces in the form of personal and land tax poured into Medina first. The volume flooding the state treasury was overwhelming. In its bid for the patronage of the new elite of pleasure-seekers, Medina had, over her rival to the south, the advantage of higher altitude, richer water supply, and more extensive gardens. Retired government officials, civil and military, brought along their slaves and concubines, their singers, dancers and musicians, male and female - and created an atmosphere never seen before in the Holy City. (p. 55) (Capital Cities of Arab Islam, 1973)

Such was Medina even after its status had been “scaled down,” and it had become a provincial town. But if it had remained the political and the commercial capital of the empire of the Muslims, it would, without a doubt, also have become their “entertainment” capital, attracting all the Bohemian characters of the times, in quest of the pleasures of the senses.

(4). Al-Qur’an al-Majid, the Book of God, was revealed in immaculate Arabic. Makkah and Medina were the cradles of Qur’anic Arabic. People speaking alien languages and living in the capital of their conquerors, corrupt their language (the language of the conquerors).

If Medina had remained the imperial capital, the Qur’anic Arabic would, inevitably, have been subjected to many alien influences. The Qur’anic sciences and its exegesis, and its lexicon, did not exist in any organized form in the first century of Hijra. But it was essential for the understanding of Qur’an by the contemporary generation and by the generations to come that the speech of Makkah and Medina should remain as it was in the time of the Prophet so that the words of Arabic would not acquire meanings different from those which were current in his time.

All living languages change, and words change their meanings. Like any other living organism, words also are born and they also die. And like any other living organism, they are also susceptible to alien and extraneous influences.

Its best example is the “pidginizing” of modern English. Arabic too would have been “pidginized” but it was saved from this fate by Ali who changed the direction of the traffic of the aliens away from Medina. He is, thus, the first and the greatest benefactor of the Arabic language and of the Qur’anic sciences.

(5). The Umayyad rulers of Damascus lived in imitation of the Byzantine and Persian emperors. They had surrounded themselves with all the instruments of luxury and salacity which their power could procure for them. The pristine simplicity and the egalitarianism of Islam had disappeared from Syria if they had ever existed there in the first place.

Ali, however, wished to present to the world the real picture of Islam. He wished to present to the world the same picture of Islam that Muhammad Mustafa had first presented to the Arabs in Makkah and Medina. But it was a picture that the neighbors of Syria and most of the Syrians themselves had never seen. In fact, in the years to come, their rulers were going to show to them the picture, not of Islam, but of anti-Islam.

John Alden Williams

All of the Persian kings, from Ardashir son of Papak to Yazdagird, separated themselves from their courtiers by a curtain.

I once asked (the great court musician) Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Mawsili, Did the Umawi caliphs show themselves to their familiars and singers?' He replied, ‘Muawiya and Marwan I, Abd al-Malik, Walid I, Sulayman, Hisham and Marwan II, were separated from their familiars by a curtain, so that none of the courtiers saw what the caliph was doing, if he was transported by the music, or shook his shoulders, or danced, or threw off his clothing, so none but his special slaves saw him.

As for the rest of the Umawi caliphs, they were not ashamed to dance or throw off their garments and expose their nakedness in the presence of their familiars and singers. But for that, none of them was like Yazid ibn Abd al-Malik and Walid ibn Yazid for shamelessness and obscene speech in the presence of their familiars, and taking off their clothes, not caring what they did.' (p. 81). (Life at the Caliph's Court:' from the Book of the Crown (Kitab al-Taj), Cairo, 1914, p.5. Anonymous: between 847-861 A.D.” – Themes of Islamic Civilization, Berkeley, 1971)

When Ali made Kufa his capital, friend and foe saw with their own eyes the Islam of Muhammad, the Messenger of God. They saw that the real sovereign of the Muslims worked with his own hands in the fields and gardens, and fed himself and his family from the wages that he earned himself.

They saw that he lived on coarse barley bread but everyone else in his dominion was well-fed. They saw that though his own shirt was covered with patches, his subjects were all well dressed. They also saw that he had no marble palace but lived in a mud hut, and that there were no sentinels or pickets at the door of his home, and that he was accessible to everyone at every hour of the day or night.

(6). In the interests of the security of Makkah and Medina, Ali wished to make them politically unimportant so that they would not attract unwelcome attentions. The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth which Muhammad Mustafa had founded, had ceased, after his death, to be “heavenly,” and had become an ersatz Greek or Persian government.

Under the changed conditions, the dignity and the sacred character of the twin cities of Makkah and Medina were always in peril. Foreseeing the times ahead, Ali put both cities out of the orbit of political events. His younger son, Husain, also had the same anxiety to protect the sanctity of the city of his grandfather. He too saw the storm clouds massing at the horizon, and he too left Medina and Makkah, just in time, to draw the attention of the government, away from them.

After the butchery of Kerbala in 680, it were the holy cities of Islam – Medina and Makkah – which attracted the attention of Yazid, the son of Muawiya. He sent his general, Muslim bin Aqaba, to Medina with a Syrian army which massacred 10,000 citizens in cold blood.

The dead included many companions of the Prophet. Medina was abandoned to the pleasure of the army of occupation. The Great Mosque of the Prophet was converted into a stable for the Syrian cavalry. Those few who were not slaughtered, had to take the oath of allegiance to Yazid. Muslim bin Aqaba told them that Yazid was the master of their lives, and could sell them into slavery, if he wished to do so.

Alfred Guillaume

Between the period covered by the Sira and the editing of the book itself loom the two tragedies of Karbala, when Husayn and his followers were slain in 61 A.H., and the sack of Medina in 63 A.H. when some ten thousand of the Ansar including no less than eighty of the Prophet's Companions were put to death. (The Life of Muhammad, page xxvii, 1967)

Muslim bin Aqaba left Medina smoldering in ruins and then marched on Makkah. But he died before reaching his destination, and the command of his forces passed to another officer of Yazid, one Ibn Nameer.

In Makkah, Abdullah bin Zubayr had proclaimed himself a khalifa. Ibn Nameer bombarded the city from the surrounding hills and burned the Kaaba. But he had not captured the city yet when Yazid died in Damascus. Thereupon, ibn Nameer raised the siege, and withdrew to Syria.

But all that Makkah and Abdullah bin Zubayr got, was a reprieve. When Abdul Malik bin Marwan became khalifa, Makkah once again became a theater of war. His general, Hajjaj bin Yusuf, laid siege to Makkah, bombarded it, and demolished part of the Kaaba. Abdullah bin Zubayr held out for seven months. He was killed in the precincts of the Kaaba, and the city surrendered to the conquerors.

Philip K. Hitti

In 683 a Syrian army was sent by Yazid against the caliphal claimant Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr. The rebel sought sanctuary on the inviolable soil of the sanctuary but was nevertheless attacked and the Kaaba caught fire. The Black Stone was split in three pieces. The house of Allah, in the words of the great historian, al-Tabari, “looked like the torn bosom of a mourning woman.” (Capital Cities of Islam, 1973)

Ali sought, by changing the capital, to save Medina and Makkah from the fate which befell them notwithstanding his efforts to the contrary. But then who else in the entire Muslim world shared his and his children's solicitude for the reverence and safety of these two cities?

When Husain ibn Ali sensed that danger was approaching them, he immediately left, with all members of his family, for Iraq, where he knew, he had a rendezvous with death. But Abdullah bin Zubayr had no hesitation in inviting desecration and destruction upon them, and massacre upon their inhabitants.

The Muslim world has yet to acknowledge its debt of gratitude to Ali for his vision, foresight and humanity. He protected the cradles of Islam in his lifetime, and took steps for their protection after his death. There was no other way in which he could have saved Hijaz from experiencing the dislocations, turbulence and trauma caused by politics and war, except by transferring the capital from Medina to Kufa.

When Ali changed the capital of the empire, Muawiya thought that he had, at last, caught Ali doing something that was open to question, and wrote to him that he (Ali) had “abandoned” the city of the Prophet - an act so “reprehensible” that it could not be condoned.

Only four years later, Muawiya himself became the absolute ruler of the empire of the Muslims, and there was no one who could question him on any of his actions. If he had so much love for the city of the Prophet as he affected to show in his letter to Ali, he could have made it his capital. But he did not nor did any of his successors, nor did any of the caliphs of the Abbasi dynasty.

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