Al-Hajjaj: Machiavellian or Villain?

By Adam Ali

History is filled with characters that are deemed villains. Their stories are usually more complex, and depend often on the storyteller. Is this the case when it comes to al-Hajjaj?

Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi was the Umayyad caliphate’s most famous and most able governor. He administered the eastern “super province” of the caliphate which included Iraq, Khurasan, and Sijistan from 694 to 714. He restored order in the unruly domains he governed, pushed the boundaries of the empire further east through new conquests in Transoxiana, and instituted political, fiscal, administrative, and agricultural reforms. Despite his achievements, al-Hajjaj is portrayed in a rather negative manner in the sources. It is important to note that most of the material that has survived on the Umayyad period was composed during the rule of the Abbasids who had overthrown the Umayyads. It should therefore not be surprising that these sources often tend to be biased against the Umayyad caliphs and their supporters. They are depicted as being materialistic, worldly, power-hungry, ungodly, and immoral. The image that the sources draw of al-Hajjaj is that of a man with no scruples; he was tough, ruthless, and did whatever it took to get the job done with no compunctions.


Al-Hajjaj rose to prominence during a time of instability and uncertainty. The Umayyad regime was struggling to survive during the Second Fitna (the Second Islamic Civil War, 680-692). Multiple groups were struggling for power within the caliphate during this conflict. Al-Husayn’s challenge to the accession of the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid, inaugurated the conflict. He was the prophet’s grandson through his daughter Fatima and the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib the fourth Rashidun caliph. Al-Husayn and his band of about 70 followers were intercepted and massacred at Karbala by a vastly superior Umayyad force in 680. Al-Husayn’s episode in the Second Fitna seems insignificant compared to some of the other incidents. But his death sent shockwaves through the empire and widened the rift between the supporters of the Alids and the other Muslims and was one of the central events that would lead to the formation of a distinct Shiite sect (which would break up into several sub-sects) in the future.

More serious threats to Umayyad rule came from the Kharijites who rebelled in Iraq, Mukhtar’s rebellion in Kufa, and the challenge of the Zubayrids, led by Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr, who set up a rival caliphate. The Kharijites remained a threat into the Abbasid period, but we will see that al-Hajjaj brought them to heel during his tenure as governor of Iraq. Mukhtar’s Alid revolt temporarily wrested Kufa from caliphal control. Mukhtar launched his rebellion in the name of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, a son of Ali ibn Abi Talib and one of his concubines. Mukhtar attracted both disaffected Arab tribesmen and non-Arab converts to Islam (referred to in this period as the mawali). Mukhtar was defeated by Mu‘sab ibn al-Zubayr, the Zubayrid governor of Basra.


The Zubayrids presented the greatest challenge to the Umayyads. Abdallah ibn al-Zunayr proclaimed himself caliph in Mecca and set up a rival caliphate that controlled Arabia, Egypt and Iraq at the peak of his power. He was the son of al-Zubayr ibn al-Awwam, a close companion of the prophet and his maternal cousin. The Second Fitna ended with Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr’s defeat and death in 692. Al-Hajjaj played a prominent role in ending the civil war and once again uniting the caliphate under Umayyad rule.

Al-Hajjaj’s Early Career

Little is known about al-Hajjaj’s early life and career. He was born in 661 into the Thaqif tribe in Ta‘if, a town traditionally allied with Mecca even prior to the coming of Islam. His family was poor and of lowly origin. In fact, his ancestors made a living as builders and stone carriers. Prior to holding public offices, al-Hajjaj was a schoolmaster in Ta‘if. Similarly, very little is known about his early career. He took part in two military campaigns on the Umayyad side early in the civil war, but he did not distinguish himself in either. He was present at the Battle of Harra in 682 that saw the defeat of the people of Medina, who had come out in support of Ibn al-Zunayr, by an Umayyad army. He also took part in the failed Umayyad expedition against Medina which culminated in the Battle of Rabhada (also known as the Battle of Marj Rahit) in 684. Al-Hajjaj and his father, Yusuf ibn al-Hakam, escaped the disaster on a single camel and al-Tabari reports that they were among only a few to survive the battle and make it back to Syria alive.

Map of the Middle East in 685-687 – by AhmadLX / Wikimedia Commons

Al-Hajjaj’s fortunes began to change after the accession of Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) to the Umayyad caliphate. He had joined the shurta (the police force and the most elite unit of the Umayyad’s Syrian forces) and attracted his sovereign’s attention because he was able to quickly quell a mutiny among the troops that the caliph had intended to lead in a campaign against the Zubayrids in Iraq. The draconian manner in which he restored discipline among the rebellious troops would become his trademark and raise him to infamy. In the ensuing campaign al-Hajjaj commanded the rearguard of the Umayyads and distinguished himself against the forces of Mus‘ab ibn al-Zubayr (Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr’s brother and governor in Iraq). Mus‘ab’s defeat in 691 resulted in the Umayyads’ reasserting their control over Iraq and the eastern regions of the caliphate, depriving Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr of vital resources and manpower.

Shortly after defeating Mus‘ab, Abd al-Malik charged al-Hajjaj with putting an end to the Zubayrids and sent him against Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr in Mecca with 2,000 Syrian soldiers. The caliph commanded al-Hajjaj to try to secure Ibn al-Zubayr’s surrender with the promise of a pardon if he capitulated and to avoid bloodshed within the precincts of one of Islam’s holiest cities. Al-Hajjaj marched south and immediately took Ta’if, his native town, without a fight and used it as his base of operations. Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr rejected the Umayyad offer and al-Hajjaj was given leave by the caliph to besiege Mecca. Al-Hajjaj, after receiving further reinforcements, proceeded to bombard Mecca with catapults. This bombardment did not let up even during the pilgrimage and not even the Kaaba was spared. The siege lasted for seven months. During this time over 10,000 of Ibn al-Zubayr’s men, including two of his sons, defected to al-Hajjaj. Ibn al-Zubayr and a band of his last loyal followers, including his youngest son, were killed fighting around the Kaaba while trying to fend off the overwhelming numbers of al-Hajjaj’s troops in October 692. Al-Hajjaj gibbetted ibn al-Zubayr’s body near the Kaaba and his mother was only allowed to retrieve it after the caliph gave his leave.


Al-Hajjaj was rewarded for his service by Abd al-Malik with the governorship of Hijaz (western Arabia), Yemen, and the Yamama. He led the hajj (annual pilgrimage) to Mecca in person in 693 and 694 and repaired the Kaaba and restored it to its original dimensions (it had been altered by Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr). He also restored peace and order to the Hijaz. However, the extreme severity of his methods required the caliph to intervene frequently due to complaints against his overzealous governor.

The Speech

In 694, al-Hajjaj was made the governor of Iraq. The governorship of Iraq was the most important administrative position in the caliphate because the rebelliousness of the troops stationed in Iraq had been a thorn in the side of the caliphs since the reign of Uthman (r. 644-656) and especially during the first two Islamic civil wars. Additionally, the Kharijites were also based in Iraq and they were constantly agitating against central rule. Furthermore, the regions east of Iraq that were conquered by the troops stationed in Basra and Kufa also fell under the jurisdiction of the governor of Iraq, whose responsibilities included maintaining the frontier and further eastward expansion. Al-Hajjaj was 33 years old when he assumed this post.

Initially, his governorship excluded the eastern regions of Khurasan and Sijistan, but by 697 these regions were added to his jurisdiction. Therefore, as the governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj administered a huge super-province or vice-royalty that stretched from Mesopotamia to Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent where the boundaries of the caliphate were still expanding. These territories comprised half of the Caliphate and produced more than half its income.


Despite being under Umayyad rule after their victory in the Second Fitna, Iraq was still in disarray. The soldiers were mutinous and discipline was lax. At the time that al-Hajjaj became governor the troops were supposed to be garrisoned in a camp at Ramhurmuz on the far side of the Tigris under the command of Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra. Many of these soldiers had left the camp without leave and had returned to their homes in Kufa and were loitering around in the town. Al-Hajjaj’s first task was to restore order and discipline within the ranks. When his army neared Kufa, al-Hajjaj rode ahead of his troops and entered the city by himself. He entered Kufa’s mosque, mounted the pulpit, and made his famous inaugural speech as governor. Through this speech he made his point very clear that he meant business and would not suffer any disobedience from the soldiery of Iraq.  The following is a translation of that speech by Eric Schroeder from Muhammad’s People: A Tale by Anthology:

“A famous man am I; my deeds increase my praise. If I lay my turban by, well will ye know my face!

Take a look at me! Hal I see straining eyes and starting necks -heads ripe unto the harvest! Well, I am a master at that trade; already methinks I see the glitter of blood between those turbans and those beards.

The Prince of the True Believers hath emptied his quiver out, and hath found in me his cruellest arrow, of sharpest steel, of toughest wood. Ye Iraqis! rebels and traitors! Vile hearts! I am not a man to be kneaded like a fig, ye whipping-slaves and sons of slave mothers! I am Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, a man, I promise you, who do not threaten but what I perform, nor shear but I flay. No more gathering in crowds! No more meetings! No more talk, talk! No more of: What’s new? What’s the news?


What business is that of yours, sons of bitches? Let every man mind his own business. And woe to the man I get my hands on! Walk straight ahead, and turn neither to right nor left. Follow your officers, take the oath, and cringe!

And remember this: I do not care to speak twice. I like oratory for myself as little as I like cowardice in you, or treason, such as yours. Let this sword once come out of its scabbard, and it will not be sheathed, come winter, come summer, till the Prince of the True Believers, with God’s help, has straightened every man of you that walks aside, and felled every man of you that lifts his head.

Enough! The Prince of the True Believers has instructed me to give you your pay, and to despatch you against the enemy, under Muhallab’s command. I give you those orders; and I grant three days’ grace. And may God hear this oath and call me to account for it: every soldier of Muhallab’s army whom I find here at the expiry of that term shall lose his head, and his goods shall be put to pillage.”

The speech had an immediate effect and the soldiers poured back into camp where they received their pay directly from al-Hajjaj. Once again, there was a mutiny because there was a reduction in the soldiers’ salaries, but al-Hajjaj put an end to it with a heavy hand. After order and discipline had been restored in the ranks, the troops were immediately sent out to fight against the Kharijites, the most dangerous and extreme of whom were the Azariqa led by a Katari ibn Fujaa’a. This group was defeated in 696. Another Kharijite army led by Shabib ibn Yazid was operating in Northern Iraq. The army was sent against them as well and was able to defeat them, after several setbacks and with the help of Syrian troops sent as reinforcements, in 697. In that same year, al-Hajjaj also moved against and defeated the rebellious governor of Madain (Ctesiphon, the former Sassanian capital), who had rebelled and thrown in his lot with the Kharijites. It was after defeating the Kharijites in Iraq and neutralizing them as a threat to the caliph that al-Hajjaj was given jurisdiction over the entire eastern section of the caliphate.

The Final Rebellion

The last, and probably most dangerous, rebellion that al-Hajjaj had to subdue was the revolt of Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Ashath. In 698 the Zunbil, who was the semi-independent ruler of Zabulistan (a frontier region between Khurasan and India in modern day southern Afghanistan) dealt a severe defeat upon an army of Arabs sent by the governor of Sistan. He drew them deep into his mountainous domains and then ambushed them and cut off their escape. The Zunbils (this was the title of the rulers of this region) were fiercely independent and resisted the encroachment of the caliphate until their final defeat by the Saffards in 9th century. The Zunbils were most probably pagans who practiced sun worship. The inhabitants of their domains also included Buddhists and some Zoroastrians in addition to a variety of pagan cults.

Al-Hajjaj dispatched Ibn al-Ashath with a large and well-equipped army to invade and conquer Zabulistan. This army is referred to in the sources as the “Peacock Army” because it was outfitted with the best armor, weapons, and equipment. Ibn al-Ashath systematically began his campaign subduing and conquering all the villages, towns and fortresses in the lowlands that surrounded the mountainous heartland of the Zunbil’s domains. After fortifying and garrisoning the conquered regions Ibn al-Ashath retired to Bust for the winter. This move did not please al-Hajjaj who demanded that he continue campaigning during the winter season.

The disagreement between the general and the governor escalated to the point where Ibn al-Ashath raised the banners of revolt and started to march westward. As he advanced on Iraq he gathered to himself large numbers of both Arabs and non-Arabs who were unhappy with al-Hajjaj’s harsh policies and Umayyad rule. Al-Hajjaj was besieged in Basra but was able to defeat Ibn al-Ashath, once again with reinforcements from Syria in 701. The result of this revolt was the demobilization of the armies of Iraq that were based in Kufa and Basra and their removal from the military payroll. The new imperial army was composed primarily of loyal Syrian soldiers. A new garrison town, Wasit, was built by al-Hajjaj halfway between Kufa and Basra and manned with a Syrian army to keep order in Iraq and to keep the Basrans and Kufans in line.

Al-Hajjaj became the sole power in the eastern parts of the caliphate after he defeated Ibn al-Ashath. His influence further increased after the death of Abd al-Malik in 705. The new caliph, al-Walid (r. 705-715), was indebted to al-Hajjaj for his support in his accession to the throne and gave him a free hand. Some of the greatest victories and conquests in the east since the first wave of expansions occurred during al-Walid’s reign all thanks to al-Hajjaj’s efforts. He appointed able generals to carry out his meticulously planned and well-funded campaigns. Qutayba ibn Muslim conquered Transoxania (Central Asia), Mujja‘a ibn Si‘r conquered Uman, and Muhammad ibn Qasim al-Thaqafi conquered Sind and Multan (in modern day Pakistan).

Silver dirham following Sasanian motives, struck in the name of al-Hajjaj – image courtesy Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

After the pacification of his territories and decades of warfare al-Hajjaj’s main objective was to make the domains of his governorship prosperous. He undertook great projects to improve agricultural productivity. One such project was the draining of the marshes in southern Iraq using a system of canals and reclaiming the land for agricultural use. He prohibited the migration of people from the rural regions to the cities and he even rejected the conversion of thousands of Iranian peasants to Islam. He instead sent them back to their lands and commanded them to continue cultivating it and paying their taxes. This does not come as a surprise from such a pragmatic man whose primary objective was to maximize agricultural output and the collection of taxes. Many of the peasants converted to Islam to avoid paying taxes and also to enroll in the military and receive stipends. If al-Hajjaj had allowed this to occur there would have been less land cultivated, a lower tax yield, and higher military expenses. In fact, the conversion of conquered peoples was rarely a priority during the early periods of the caliphate and in many parts of the caliphate the Muslim conquerors remained a minority in some cases for up to two centuries.

Al-Hajjaj also started to strike Arabic coins in conjunction with the monetary reforms of Abd al-Malik. These coins eventually replaced the Byzantine and Sassanian coins that had remained in circulation after the early conquests. He founded mints in Basra and Wasit and appointed Sumayr, a Jew, to oversee them. He also had the tax diwan (registers) translated from Persian and Aramaic to Arabic in order to be able to personally review them. This went hand in hand with Abd al-Malik’s administrative reforms in the capital that saw the Arabization of the administration, which hitherto had been conducted primarily in Greek. Al-Hajjaj even left his mark on the Quran. Some scholars attribute the diacritics and short vowels to him, as well its division into parts (ajza’).

Defining the Villain

So how can al-Hajjaj be evaluated? There are numerous arguments for and against him. The Abbasids are especially hostile to him. When it came to matters of state, he was stern and pitiless and had no compunction when it came to shedding the blood of rebels and traitors and even the decimation of his own troops if they mutinied. He even bombarded the Kaaba and shed blood within the holy precincts in order to bring the Second Fitna to an end. He was also merciless and draconian when it came to driving his soldiers during campaigns and also when collecting taxes.

It is perhaps this ruthlessness that has earned him the negative image in the sources and the hatred of those whom he ruled. In his book The End of the Jihad State, Khalid Yahya Blankenship describes him as “honest, scrupulously loyal to the caliph, and merciless in collecting taxes.” In an anecdote related by al-Tabari a man praised al-Hajjaj in the presence of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (r. 754-775). One of his courtiers complained “I never thought I would live to see the day when Hajjaj is praised in your presence.” To this al-Mansur replied: “And why deny it? This man was relied on by his patrons, and he secured the state for them. Would that I could find someone to rely on, as they did him, and give myself a break from rulership!”

We are then still left with the question of whether al-Hajjaj was a historical villain or a loyal and effective servant of the caliphs and a pragmatist who did whatever he thought was necessary to achieve success. It all depends on how one defines a “villain.”

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Further Reading:

Khalid Yahya Blankinship, The End of the Jihād State: The Reign of Hishām ibn ʻAbd al-Malik and the Collapse of the Umayyads (State University of New York Press, 1994)

Tayeb El-Hibri. “The Redemption of Umayyad Memory by the ʿAbbāsids.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Oct., 2002)