MUBASHIR IQBAL KITABA
Hazrat Umar’s(RA) full name was Umer Ibn Al-Khattab Ibn Nufayal Ibn Abdul Uzza. He was born into the Adi clan of the Makkan Qurayash tribe thirteen years after the year of the Elephant. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was born in the year of the Elephant itself, therefore making Umar(RA) thirteen years younger than him. When his daughter, Hafsa, married the Prophet (SAW), Umar(RA) also became the latter’s father-in-law.
Nufayal Ibn Abdul Uzza, Umar’s grandfather, was a reputable personality of his time, often being referred to for judgment(s) and consultation(s). Umar (RA) was therefore brought up in the family of a wise man, in an environment of knowledge and learning. This might have influenced him (RA) in his quest for knowledge. Certainly, Umar (RA) was amongst the very few people in pre-Islamic Arabia who could read and write. He also had a great passion for poetry – to the extent that there was hardly an occasion when Umar(RA) would not quote poetry about something. Umer (RA)memorized a great number of poems, both by the poets of ancient times and his contemporaries, and would often quote them spontaneously. This indicates that he was sharp man, with a brilliant memory. He was very eloquent, clear in his speech, persuasive, wise and forbearing. For these reasons, the Quraysh nominated him as their ambassador, marking his eminence and supremacy within the tribe.
His father, Khattab, was a very harsh man, which Umar (RA) remembered throughout his life. He also remembered how he used to tend his father’s livestock and gathered firewood for him – tasks he also carried out for his maternal aunts. Once, while he was Caliph, Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb(RA) ascended the pulpit and told the people about his earlier occupation and how, after tending the flocks for his aunt from the Banū Makhzūm, in return he would receive just a handful of dates and raisins – that, he said, was all he had to eat for the whole day! When Abdur-Raḥmān ibn Awf asked Umar(RA) why he denigrated himself in front of the people by telling them this, ‘Umar (RA) told him that it was meant to remind him about his past, to kill the pride and haughtiness popping up in his heart. Such was the strength of personality of caliph Umar(RA), the Great.
During the early days of Islam, Umar (RA) was a stern opponent of the Prophet(SAW). Along with the other Quraysh leaders, he would mercilessly persecute people who accepted Islam. Umm ‘Abdullāh bin Hantamah described how, while she was migrating to Ethiopia, Umar (RA) went to her and asked her why she was leaving Makkah. She replied that it was due to the unbearable treatment he had doled out to her and the other Muslims. Umar (RA) was touched by her words; soon after, he nonetheless decided to kill the Prophet(RA) and his close companions at a meeting with the Quraysh leaders. He therefore headed towards Dār al-Arqam, beside the Mount Ṣafā, where Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his companions were in hiding. On his way, however, he met Nu’aim ibn Abdullāh, who tried to stop him. They both argued and, while trying to stop Umar(RA), Nu’aim informed him that his sister, brother-in-law, and cousins had all accepted Islam. Upon hearing this, Umar(RA) ran to his sister’s house and burst in while she and her husband were reciting parts of sūrah al-ṬāHā(chapter 20). He attacked both of them, hitting his sister in the face and making her bleed. Umar immediately regretted this and, after calming down, asked them to give him what they were reading. Umar’s(RA) sister, however, refused to hand the Qur’an fragment over to him until he purified himself. After Umar(RA) had done this, he read the sūrah and was deeply moved by the message of the Qur’an, subsequently declaring his faith in Islam at the hands of the Prophet(SAW). He was the fortieth person to accept Islam. Traditionally, his conversion is seen as a response to the Prophet’s supplication to Allah, that Islam be supported by either Abū Jahl ibn Hishām or ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb. Upon accepting Islam, Umar(RA) decided to preach the message of truth openly in public. For his courage and boldness, the Prophet (SAW) gave him the title al-Fārūq(the differentiator between truth and falsehood).
Umar’s(RA) Islamic education was earned at the hands of the Prophet (SAW). He was amongst the Prophet’s closest companions and would often enquire and learn about Islam in his presence, later transmitting the knowledge he gained to others. In particular, Umar (RA) would often ask the Prophet about his opinions with regards to certain Qur’anic verses. Moreover, Umar (RA) frequently offered his own personal reasoning (ijtihād). In fact, there are several instances where the Qur’an contains a verse revealed in confirmation of Umar’s(RA) opinions. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārīreports a tradition from Umar(RA), in which he said that:
My opinion coincided with that of my Lord (Allah) in three matters. I said ‘O Messenger of Allah, why don’t you take maqām Ibrāhīm[the station of Ibrahim, located near the Ka’ba in Makkah] as a place for prayer? Then Allah revealed that. And I said ‘O Messenger of Allah, both righteous and immoral people visit you, why don’t you tell the Mothers of the believers to observe ḥijāb? And, Allah revealed the verse of ḥijāb. And I heard that the Messenger of Allah had rebuked some of his wives, so I went to them and said ‘either you stop, or Allah will give His Messenger wives better than you… then Allah revealed the verse of sūrah al-Tahrīm(66:5)
In addition to these examples, when the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was asked to offer the funeral prayer for Abdullāh ibn Ubay, one of the munāfiqūn (hypocrites), Umar (RA) went to him to try and stop him from doing so. The Prophet (SAW), however, simply smiled and chose to proceed with the funeral. Later, the Quranic verse in sūrah al-Taubah(9:84) was revealed, prohibiting the Prophet(SAW) from joining the funeral prayer of any of the hypocrites, or of standing by their graves to pray for them.
These points of agreement reflect the Prophetic statement: “Among the nations before you were some people who were inspired [muhaddathūn]. If anyone among my ummah(people) were to be inspired, it would be Umar (RA). The scholar Ibn Hajar al-Asqalānī considers the word muhaddath to imply any of four meanings: a. one who is inspired, b. one who speaks the truth spontaneously, c. one to whom angels speak without him being a prophet, or d. one with intuition.3 The correspondence between ‘Umar’s opinions and the Qur’an’s indicates that ‘Umar was a possessor of muhaddath. This rare characteristic closely affiliated him with the Prophet(SAW) and – given that none of the other companions received this gift – rendered Umar (RA) an unmatched honour.
Upon consultation with the prominent companions, Abū Bakr (Islam’s first Caliph, appointed Umar (RA) to succeed him. Indeed, Umar’s(RA) leadership of the Muslim community had been envisioned by the Prophet, and is described in several narrations. One, recorded in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, reports that the Prophet (SAW) said: “While I was sleeping, I saw myself drawing water from a well with a bucket. Abū Bakr came and drew a bucket or two. Then, Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb came and the bucket in his hands turned into a very large one. I had never seen anyone so strong. All the people drank their fill and watered their camels that knelt down there.” This ḥadīth foretold the rule of the two prominent companions of the Prophet and implied that Umar(RA), by serving people with a large bucket of water, would strengthen Islam more than any of his predecessors. Indeed, it is undoubtedly true that Umar’s(RA) rule saw Islam expand right across the Middle East. He also ushered in a period of governance based upon virtue, piety and wisdom. He was the first Muslim ruler to bear the title Amīr al-Mu’minīn(Commander of the Believers).
As a leading companion, Umar (RA) is unsurpassed by any other contributor to Islamic civilization. His wisdom and foresight, his guidance and just rule, his integrity and sincerity in spreading Islamic teachings, render him one of the most prominent architects of Islamic civilization. To give some examples of his specific contributions, it was upon his suggestion and in consultation with the Caliph Abū Bakr (RA) that the Qur’an was finally compiled into a complete volume. During his own rule, Umar (RA) established the city of Prophet, Madinah, as the centre of fatwā (legal verdicts and opinions) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). He kept those companions who were known for their knowledge and legal opinions close to him in Madinah. Leading scholars from amongst the companions were also dispatched to other cities, in order to teach the people about Islam. For example, Umar(RA) sent Abdullāh ibn Mas’ud, Hudhayfah ibn al-Yamān, Ammār ibn Yāsir, ‘Imrān ibn Ḥusain and Salmān al-Fārsī to Iraq. Likewise, Mu‘ādh ibn Jabal, ‘Ubādah ibn al-Ṣāmit, Abū al-Dardā’, Bilāl ibn Rabāh and others went to Syria, where they established Homs, Damascus and Palestine as top centers of learning. Umar (RA) would often communicate with them and supervise their legal opinions and, for their part, they would refer issues back to him if they found them difficult to resolve.
Umar (RA) also had direct influence over the establishment of the first prominent schools of fiqhin Makkah, Basra, Kufa, and Syria. For example, he personally chose and trained ‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Abbās, the future leader of the Makkan School, keeping him in his consultative circle and grooming him as a leading mufassir(exegete of the Qur’an). Likewise, Abū Mūsā al-Ash‘arī and Anas bin Mālik, the forerunners of the Basran School, were both close companions of ‘Umar during their stay in Madinah. Umar (RA) would also often send scholars to the army before it was dispatched, in order to teach soldiers about Islam and guide them according to the prophetic method. He was influential in formulating the concept of qiyās(legal analogy), often writing to his governors and judges to recommend implementing this legal principle in cases where there was no precedence in the Qur’an and Sunnah . In addition to these points, Umar (RA) was the first person to formally organize the night prayers (tarāwīh) during the month of Ramadan.
Umar al-Khaṭṭāb (RA)also successfully introduced many administrative innovations. He was, for example, the first person to introduce an Islamic calendar based on the Arabic months, and beginning with the Prophet’s migration from Makkah to Madinah. He also introduced the bayt al-māl(public treasury), from which public welfare funds, stipends for the poor, and government salaries were paid. During the era of his predecessors, there had been no need for a bayt al-māl, as the Islamic state had been very small and wealth could be distributed immediately. As the territorial domains of Islam spread under caliph Umar (RA), however, the need for a more systematic method of payment developed. Notably, under Umar’s(RA) government, stipends were also given to poor non-Muslim citizens.
Umar (RA) also established judicial courts, learning centers, and a government department tasked with controlling markets. He introduced appropriate salaries for judges, teachers, soldiers, public servants and governors. His fear of misappropriation and corruption led him to open a public department for dealing with complaints against government officials. He was the first to introduce land taxation (kharaj) in Islamic territory. As the borders of the Islamic world spread further, he also sought to organize it more efficiently. As such, he divided the new empire into administrative divisions, based around cities. He also established new cities, and provided incentives for cultivating barren land. This facilitated the rebuilding of societies beyond the major cities and enhanced the state’s general economic condition.
Caliph Umar (RA)was also the first Muslim ruler to dig canals, notably between the Tigris River and the city of Basra. These were designed to provide cities with water for both drinking and irrigation. Bridges, roads and highways were likewise constructed under Umar (RA). One of the fundamental rights, Umar (RA) ensured for his subjects was their freedom of expression. In his first address as Caliph, he stressed the right of the people to criticize him and, if necessary, unseat him should he deviate from the right path. Indeed, he was once questioned by a layman about a piece of cloth, he had used to stitch his dress; the layman had noticed that it was longer than the shares of cloth other people had received. Umar’s(RA) son, Abdullāh, then stood up and informed the group that he had added his share to his father’s because, as Umar (RA) was a tall person, he required some extra cloth to make his dress. On another occasion, Umar (RA) expressed his interest in fixing the dower for women at the time of their marriages. In response, a lady stood up and raised her voice against Umar’s(RA) concern, reminding him that Allah had not fixed the dower, even if it be given in bulk. Umar (RA) accepted the lady’s opinion, thanking her for correcting him.
After returning from the Hajj in the year 23/644, Caliph Umar (RA) was stabbed by a Magian named Abū Lū‘lū‘ah during the dawn (fajr) prayers. Abū Lū‘lū‘ah stabbed Umar(RA) in the back, until he fell down bleeding. As he began to lose consciousness, Umar al-Khaṭṭāb(RA) called for ‘Uthmān, ‘Alī(RA), Ṭalhah(RA), Zubayr(RA), ‘Abdur-Raḥmān bin ‘Awf(RA) and Sa’d ibn Abī Waqqās(RA). He granted them the authority to consult Muslims and nominate a ruler from amongst themselves. The outstanding man and caliph of Islam breathed his last on Wednesday, the 26th day of Dhul-Hijjah, that is the day when world lost one of its great leaders and a pioneering architect of civilizational reform.
—The author is a PhD Research Scholar. He can be reached at: [email protected]