Abu al-Fida (d. 1331) on the Caliphate of al-Hasan b. Ali (d. 669)

Al-Malik al-Mu’ayyad Abū al-Fidā’ Ismā‘īl b. ‘Alī al-Ḥamawī (d. 1331) was a Kurdish historian, geographer and local prince in fourteenth-century Syria. His universal history of the Islamic world, entitled al-Mukhtaṣar fī Akhbār al-Bashar, is one of the most interesting chronicles from the fourteenth century Islamic world. The work is concerned with historical events, key personalities, topography, intellectual developments, art, and architecture and—while not as elaborate as the histories of al-Tabari or Ibn Kathir—is truly universal in scope. Abū al-Fidā’s history is also characterized by an attempt to maintain partiality and historical accuracy, rather than an attempt to make strong judgments and identify clear heroes and villains in history. The section in question is particularly interesting because it represents a late medieval Syrian (Sunni) narrative of the caliphate of al-Hasan b. ‘Ali, often identified as the fifth of the “rightly-guided caliphs.”


After the death of ‘Alī [b. Abī Ṭālib], the people pledged their allegiance to his son al-Ḥasan. Although ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Abbās [d. 687] had parted ways with ‘Alī before the latter’s death and had taken some money from Basra before settling in Mecca—a matter about which he and ‘Alī famously exchanged letters—he wrote to al-Ḥasan following his investiture of the caliphate in order to encourage him to remain steadfast in waging war against his enemy [Mu‘āwiya b. Abī Sufyān]. The first to pledge allegiance to al-Ḥasan was Qays b. Sa‘d b. ‘Ubāda al-Anṣārī (d. 679), who told al-Ḥasan: “Give me your hand so that I may pledge allegiance to you on the condition that you conform to the Qur’an, the Sunna of His Prophet, and wage war against the transgressors.” Al-Ḥasan replied: “[Pledge allegiance] only on the basis of my conforming to the Qur’an and the Sunna of His Prophet, for verily these two are firmly established.” The people then pledged allegiance to him. Al-Ḥasan also imposed a further condition on his followers: “That you remain obedient and make peace with whom I make peace and wage war against those I war against.” Many people were unsettled by this and proclaimed “verily, this man is untrustworthy. It is clear that he does not intend to fight!”

The following occurred in 41 A.H. [661/662 A.D.]. It is said that before ‘Alī died, there were over 40,000 men who had pledged allegiance to him from among his troops. On the eve of his death, preparations had been made to mobilize the army to go on the offensive against Mu‘āwiya, a course of action that everyone had agreed to undertake. When al-Ḥasan was entrusted with the caliphate, he received word that the Syrians, led by Mu‘āwiya, were on the offensive and marching against him. Therefore, al-Ḥasan sought to engage them, marching with the army—the same one that had pledged allegiance to his father—until he reached al-Madā’in. He had appointed Qays b. Sa‘d, leading 12,000 troops, at the vanguard of the army; other sources, however, assert that he had placed ‘Ubayd Allāh b. ‘Abbās at the vanguard. In any case, at this point major strife erupted among his troops; it is said that al-Ḥasan himself was even physically attacked. Feeling insecure, al-Ḥasan sought refuge in the White Palace of al-Madā’in, which only increased his army’s hatred for him. Dismayed by this, al-Ḥasan wrote to Mu‘āwiya seeking a peaceful accommodation, as long as the latter conformed to certain conditions. Al-Ḥasan said that if Mu‘āwiya was to do so then he would recognize him as his sovereign. Mu‘āwiya assented to the conditions, which included 1) al-Ḥasan being granted the treasury of Kufa and the income from the Persian city of Borujerd; and 2) that Mu‘āwiya cease his public cursing of ‘Alī. Mu‘āwiya absolutely refused to accept the second condition so al-Ḥasan modified it to say that Mu‘āwiya would not curse ‘Alī in al-Ḥasan’s presence, to which he agreed. However, Mu‘āwiya did not fulfill his pledge on any of these matters, although there are reports that state that al-Ḥasan received 400,000 dirhams from Kufa (although nothing from Borujerd).

Following the agreement, Mu‘āwiya entered Kufa and received the pledge of allegiance from its populace. Al-Ḥasan wrote a letter to Qays b. Sa‘d, ordering him to pledge allegiance to Mu‘āwiya. Shortly afterwards, there were several letters exchanged between ‘Ubayd Allāh b. ‘Abbās, Qays and Mu‘āwiya. Eventually, both Qays and ‘Ubayd Allāh pledged allegiance to Mu‘āwiya on the condition that the latter not to seek vengeance or monetary compensation for the previous conflict; Mu‘āwiya agreed to this. Al-Ḥasan and his family then settled in Medina. The transfer of the caliphate from al-Ḥasan to Mu‘āwiya occurred in Rabī‘ al-Awwal or Rabī‘ al-Ākhar or Jumāda al-Awwal of 41 A.H. [July or August or September 661 A.D.]. Depending on the date that one accepts, his caliphate lasted between five to seven months. It has been narrated from the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) that “the caliphate after me shall last for 30 years before transforming into harsh kingship.” The last of these 30 years occurred when al-Ḥasan abdicated the caliphate.

Al-Ḥasan resided in Medina until his death in Rabī‘ al-Awwal 49 A.H. [April 669 A.D.]. He was born in Medina in 3 A.H. [624 A.D.] and he was only a year older than al-Ḥusayn. Al-Ḥasan was known to have married numerous times and to have been divorced several times as well; he had 15 sons and 8 daughters. He closely resembled his grandfather, the Prophet of God (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him and his family) from his head to his midriff, while al-Ḥusayn closely resembled the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him and his family) from the midriff downwards. Al-Ḥasan died as a result of being poisoned by his wife Ja‘da b. al-Ash‘ath. It has been related that she poisoned him on the orders of Mu‘āwiya or his son Yazīd, who promised to marry her if she killed al-Ḥasan. However, after she administered the poison and asked Yazīd to marry her, he refused. Al-Ḥasan indicated that he wanted to be buried next to his grandfather, the Prophet of God (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him and his family), but Mu‘āwiya’s governor of Medina—Marwān b. al-Ḥakam—refused to allow this to happen. As a result, major conflict nearly broke out between the Banū Hāshim and the Umayyads, but it was prevented when ‘Ā’isha stated: “The house is mine and I do not grant permission that [al-Ḥasan] be buried within it.” As a result, he was buried in the cemetery of al-Baqī‘. When Mu‘āwiya received word that al-Ḥasan had died, he prostrated in joy, an act which the poets would later condemn:

“The son of Hind awoke today, disrespectfully displaying his joy at the death of al-Ḥasan

O son of Hind, do not be so gleeful. For verily, death shall come to every man”

From among the many authenticated virtues of al-Ḥasan is the Prophet’s statement: “al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn are Lords of the Youths of Paradise, but verily their father possesses an even greater rank than them.” There is also the saying of the Prophet about him: “Indeed this son of mine is a sayyid who will make peace between two great factions of the Muslims.” It is also related that once the Prophet came upon al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn while they were playing, so they climbed onto his back and he held them high, saying: “How blessed be the one who carries them, and how blessed indeed are they who are being carried.”

[Abū al-Fidā’, al-Mukhtaṣar fī Akhbār al-Bashar (Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif, 1998), Vol. 1, pp. 226–227]


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