P.R. and Bodyguards in Medieval Damascus

Personal security is a tricky issue for politicians. The more conspicuously they try to stay safe, the more distant they appear to be from the common people. A little choreography can sometimes smooth it over: when a head of state is snapped reading to a class of five-year-olds, you can be sure that ‘his people’ are just out of shot. Sometimes, though, they’re forced to sacrifice humanity for the sake of security.

Mu‘āwiyah bin Abī Sufyān, the fifth caliph after Muhammad, was very conscious of security. The classical historians, writing long after his time, tell us that he was the first to install a maqsūrah – a private enclosure – in the mosque. They say he was the first to employ bodyguards and doorkeepers, with the result that, for the first time, a queue of petitioners was kept waiting outside the caliph’s residence. He was the first to walk the streets in a procession, safe between his cronies. And he was the first to raise a gendarmery in the city in order to keep the peace.

Actually, different sources also attribute these innovations to caliphs before and after Mu‘āwiyah. But if the details are hazy, they may still carry a central truth: Mu‘āwiyah made a very public effort to guarantee his own protection.

For the medieval scholars, such brazen self-preservation was not on. This wasn’t the behaviour of a caliph, they imply, but of a king. A true caliph would never raise barriers against the people. A kind of populism shapes our sources: it promotes the classical narrative that the four ‘rightly guided’ caliphs, fraternal and unpretentious, were usurped by Mu‘āwiyah and his imperious Umayyad family.

But I think, on reflection, we should go easy on Mu‘āwiyah. He knew the cost of naïveté. ‘Umar, the second caliph, was stabbed to death by a slave. ‘Uthmān, the third, was killed when a protest turned violent and broke into his home. And ‘Alī, the fourth, was outside a mosque when an ideologue struck him with a sword, fatally.

If those caliphs were rightly guided, perhaps we should give Mu‘āwiyah – prudent, long-lived Mu‘āwiyah – the benefit of the doubt.

And maybe a Popemobile.

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.

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