The Ottoman ‘Hajjaj ibn Yusuf’ that you may not have heard of before


It appears then that Murad IV and al-Hajjaj were the two strongmen that emerged on the scene to salvage weakened dynasties that were on the brink of collapse. 

There is an Arab and Muslim governor who will be remembered as one of the most divisive figures in history. He was a dictator. As viceroy, he ruled Iraq and put down rebellions. He killed thousands of dissidents, including prominent lawyers. Surprisingly, there is a figure in Islamic history who had the same legacy but with a narrower focus. Murad IV is the Ottoman Sultan. He was tyrant and ruthless. In a striking parallel to al-Hajjaj, he launched a campaign to retake Iraq from the Persians and slain Amizade Hüseyin Efendi, the Ottoman Empire’s Sheikh al-Islam, the empire’s highest-ranking cleric.

The parallels between the two figures’ stories are astounding. Al-Hajjaj, like Sultan Murad IV, was a ruthless dictator. Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, the Umayyad caliph, dispatched al-Hajjaj to put down a rebellion in Iraq, and Murad IV marched towards Baghdad to expel the Persians. Al-Hajjaj was well-known for his hostility toward jurists as well as his harsh, even rude, treatment of the Prophet’s companions. Sa’id ibn Jubayr, a prominent Muslim jurist and Tabei (follower of the prophet’s companions), was executed by him. Sultan Murad IV executed Amizade Hüseyin Efendi, the Ottoman Empire’s Sheikh al-Islam. The only distinction between the two is that Murad IV was both a sultan, whereas al-Hajjaj was just a viceroy, albeit powerful. 

Al-Hajjaj, born in 661 AH, began his career as the head of the select troops under Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. Al-Hajjah had shown cunning and quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming governor of Hejaz in 692, a position he held for two years. His reign in Hejaz set the tone for the rest of his reign. During his brief reign, he put down the rebellion of Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, who claimed to be the legitimate caliph of Muslims. Ibn al-Zubayr was killed, beheaded, and crucified, putting an end to unrest in the holiest site of Islam.

On the other side, Sultan Murad IV’s legacy was no less mixed. After his predecessor, Mustafa I, was dethroned, he began his reign at the age of 11. His mother, Kosem Sultan, was the empire’s de facto ruler. He is said to have murdered all but one of his male brothers. And the number of people killed in the process of cementing his rule has surpassed 20,000.

Following his thunderous triumph and resounding success in Hejaz, the Umayyad caliph dispatched al-Hajjaj to quell the commotion in Kufa and Basra. He was appointed viceroy of Iraq and the caliphate’s eastern regions. His tenure as Viceroy of Iraq was notable. He put down rebellions, killed dissidents, and unified the entire territory under the sole authority of the Umayyad rulers—the three achievements that had defined his entire legacy. However, al-Hajjaj was said to have killed tens of thousands of people in the process. Many Muslim chroniclers describe him as ruthless, butcher, and bloodthirsty.

Sultan Murad IV, like al-Hajjaj, took over the empire while it was in disarray. The Janissaries, the Ottoman army’s elite corpses and most powerful wing, had their role expanded, intervening in state matters beyond their primary missions. They used to depose sultans, appoint new ones, and even execute those who did not agree with their demands and ambitions. As a result, the empire was in shambles, disintegrating, and in desperate need of a strong hand to hold it together.

The Ottoman sultan launched a campaign to retake Baghdad from the Safavids in order to solidify his rule and keep the empire together. Ottomans and Persians took turns capturing the city. It was ruled by the Safavids during the reigns of Ismail I and Tahmasp I. Süleyman I, on the other hand, peacefully recaptured the city in 1534. The city was returned to Persian control nine decades later. After losing Baghdad, Sultan Murad decided to retake it, laying siege to the city. In the end, the Ottomans were able to recapture the city and end Safavid control of it. While the Ottomans were laying siege to Baghdad, al-Hajjaj had besieged Makkah as part of his campaign to end the rule of Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr. It appears then that Murad IV and al-Hajjaj were the two strongmen that emerged on the scene to salvage weakened dynasties that were on the brink of collapse. 

One of the most memorable incidents in al-history Hajjaj’s is his execution of Sa’id ibn Jubayr after he joined forces with Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Ash’ath, an Arab nobleman and military commander, in his revolt against Umayyad rule.

Sa’id ibn Jubayr was a prominent Muslim jurist and exegete. He studied branches of Islamic knowledge at the feet of senior companions of the Prophet. He was a witness to many heart-rending incidents and battles in the Islamic history. He opposed the Umayyad rule, particularly al-Hajjaj’s heavy-handed approach towards dissidents and his disregard for Islam’s holiest places. After losing the Battle of Dayr al-Jamajim to al-Hajjaj, Sa’id ibn Jubayr went into hiding for 12 years. Afterwards, he decided to end his self-imposed hiding, coming forth for a last face-off with al-Hajjaj, in which he was killed. 

Following in al-Hajjaj’s footsteps—though unintentionally—Sultan Murad had executed the empire’s most prestigious and highest-ranking scholar: Amizade Hüseyin Efendi. 

The execution of Sheikh al-Islam, the appellation given to the highest religious authority in the empire, was the first in the empire’s history. Politics and feud were the two chief reasons behind the execution. It was rumored that Hüseyin Efendi abused his power, took bribes and conspired against the sultan. It was also reported that the execution was because the chief Ottoman scholar opposed the sultan’s execution of his brothers—a common tradition in the Ottoman dynasty. The sultan was angered by Sheikh al-Islam’s opposition and counsel, and decided to execute him. Ironically, Sa’id ibn Jubayr was the last one to be executed by al-Hajjaj since he died shortly afterwards while Hüseyin Efendi was the first top Muslim scholar to be executed in the empire’s history. 

Thus, al-Hajjaj and Sultan Murad’s careers shared far more similarities than differences. Both rulers took power amid turmoil in their respective empires. Both had launched military campaigns to subdue and recapture Iraq, and both had dared to spill the blood of prominent scholars and jurists—drawing striking parallels between the two figures and introducing the Hajjaj of the Ottomans to those interested in Islamic history.

Mostapha Hassan Abdelwahab is the former editorial manager of the English edition of the Baghdad Post. He is focusing on Iraq, Iran and political Islam movements, with articles posted on the Herald Report, Vocal Europe, the Greater Middle East and other platforms.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Milli Chronicle’s point-of-view.

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