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Umar bin al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him)


'Umar, also generally called Umar ibn Al-Khattāb, (born 579 CE – 644 CE), was one of the most powerful and influential Muslim caliph in history. He was a companion of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He succeeded Abu Bakr (632–634) as the second rightly guided caliph. He was an expert Islamic jurist and was best known for his pious and just nature, which earned him the title Al-Faruq (the one who distinguishes between right and wrong). Historians of Islam sometimes refer to him as Umar I, since a later Umayyad caliph, Umar II, also bore that name.

Under Umar, the Islamic Caliphate expanded at an unprecedented rate, ruling the whole Sasanian Empire and more than two thirds of the Byzantine Empire. His attacks against the Sassanid Persian Empire resulted in the conquest of Persia in less than two years. It was Umar, according to Jewish tradition, who set aside the Christian ban on Jews and allowed them into Jerusalem and to worship.

Early life

Umar was born in Makkah to the Banu Adi clan, which was responsible for arbitration among the tribes. His father was Khattab ibn Nusayl and his mother was Hantama bint Hisham, from the tribe of Banu Makhzum. He is said to have belonged to a middle-class family. In his youth, he used to tend to his father’s camels in the plains near Makkah. His father was famous for his intelligence among his tribe and as a High-class merchant.

Despite literacy being uncommon in pre-Islamic Arabia, Umar learned to read and write in his youth. Though not a poet himself, he developed a love for poetry and literature. He was tall, physically powerful and was soon to become a renowned wrestler. Umar was also a gifted orator, and due to his intelligence and overwhelming personality, he succeeded his father as an arbitrator of conflicts among the tribes.

In addition, Umar followed the traditional profession of Quraish. He became a merchant and made several journeys to Rome and Persia, where he is said to have met the various scholars and analyzed the Roman and Persian societies closely. However, as a merchant he is believed to have never been successful.

During Prophet Muhammad's era (peace be upon him)

In 610, Prophet Muhammad started preaching the message of Islam. Umar, alongside others in Makkah Al-Mukarramah, opposed Islam and threatened to kill Prophet Muhammad. He resolved to defend the traditional, polytheistic religion of Arabia. Umar believed Islam was heretical rhetoric against the Quraish and his ancestors, and he resolved to kill Prophet Muhammad. He was stopped on his way to Prophet Muhammad's house, however, with news of his sister's conversion to Islam. Umar was initially angered by the news, but after listening to some verses of the Qur'an, he was instantly changed. Rather than killing Prophet Muhammad, he determined to accept Islam.

Following his conversion, Umar went to inform the chief of Quraish, Amr ibn Hisham about his acceptance of Islam. According to one account, Umar thereafter openly prayed at the Kaaba as the Quraish chiefs, Amr ibn Hishām and Abu Sufyan reportedly watched in anger. This further helped the Muslims to gain confidence in practicing Islam openly. At this stage, Umar even challenged anyone who dared to stop the Muslims from praying, although no one dared to interfere with him when he was openly praying.

Umar's conversion to Islam granted power to the Muslims and to the Islamic faith in Makkah Al-Mukarramah. It was after this event that Muslims offered prayers openly in the Mosque of Ka'bah for the first time. Abdullah bin Masoud said,

"Umar's embracing Islam was our victory; his migration to Al-Madinah was our success, and his reign a blessing from Allah. We did not offer prayers in Al-Haram Mosque until Umar had accepted Islam. When he accepted Islam, the Quraysh were compelled to let us pray in the Mosque".

In 622 CE, due to the growing popularity of Islam in the city of Yathrib (later renamed Medīnat an-Nabī, or simply Al-Madinah), Muhammad ordered his followers to migrate to Al-Madinah. Muslims usually migrated at night fearing resistance from Quraish at their migration, but Umar is reported to have left openly during the day saying; Anyone who wants to make his wife a widow and his children orphans, should come and meet me there behind that cliff." Umar migrated to Al-Madinah accompanied by his cousin and brother-in-law Sa'eed ibn Zaid.

Death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)

Muhammad (peace be upon him) died in the year 632. Umar, the devoted disciple, could not accept the reality that the "Messenger of Allah" was dead. It is said that Umar promised to strike the head of any man who would say that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) died. At this point Abu Bakr came out to the Muslim community and gave his famous speech, which included:

"Whoever worshipped Muhammad (peace be upon him), let them know that Muhammad (peace be upon him) has died, and whoever worshipped Allah, let them know that Allah is alive and never dies."

Abu Bakr then recited these verses from the Qur'an whose translation goes thus:

"Muhammad (peace be upon him) is but a messenger; messengers (the like of whom) have passed away before him. If, then, he dies or is killed, will you turn back on your heel?

Hearing this from Abu Bakr, the most senior disciple of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Umar fell down on his knees in a great sense of sorrow and acceptance of the reality. It was obvious that this denial of Prophet Muhammad's death was occasioned by his deep love and respect for him.

Appointment as a Caliph

Abu Bakr appointed Umar as his successor prior to the caliph's death in 634 CE.

Due to his strict and autocratic nature, Umar was not a very popular figure among the notables of Madinah and members of Majlis al-Shura, accordingly succession of Umar was initially discouraged by high-ranking companions of Abu Bakr. Nevertheless, Abu Bakr decided to make Umar his successor. Umar, still was well known for his extraordinary will power, intelligence, political astuteness, impartiality, justice and care for poor and underprivileged people. Abu Bakr is reported to have said to the high-ranking advisers:

His (Umar's) strictness was there because of my softness when the weight of Caliphate will be over his shoulders he will remain no longer strict. If Allah to whom I have appointed my successor will ask me, I will tell him that I have appointed the best man among your men.

Abu Bakr was fully aware of Umar's power and ability to succeed him. Succession of Umar was thus not as troublesome as any of the others. His was perhaps one of the smoothest transitions to power from one authority to another in the Muslim lands. Before his death, Abu Bakr called Uthman to write his will in which he declared Umar his successor. In his will, he instructed Umar to continue the conquests in Iraq and Syrian fronts. Abu Bakr's decision would prove to be crucial in the strengthening of the nascent Islamic empire.

In the bestselling book, in the shadow of the sword, The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World, Tom Holland writes, "Umar's historicity is beyond dispute".

An Armenian bishop writing a decade or so after Al-Qadisiyya describes Umar as "Mighty potentate coordinating the advance of the sons of Ismael from the depths of the desert".

Tom Holland writes, "What added incomparably to his prestige was that his earth-shaking qualities as a generalissimo were combined with the most distinctive cast of virtues. Rather than ape the manner of a Caesar, as the Ghassanid kings had done, he drew on the example of a quite different kind of Christian[1]. Umar's threadbare robes, his diet of bread, salt and water, and his rejection of worldly riches would have reminded anyone from the desert reaches beyond Palestine of a very particular kind of person. Monks out in the Judaean desert had long been casting themselves as warriors of God. The achievement of Umar was to take such language to a literal and previously unimaginable extreme."

Reign as Caliph

After the death of Abu Bakr, Umar assumed the office of Caliphate on the same day. He then addressed the Muslims in his Inaugural address:

"O ye faithful! Abu Bakr is no more amongst us. He has the satisfaction that he has successfully piloted the ship of the Muslim state to safety after negotiating the stormy sea. He successfully waged the apostasy wars, and thanks to him, Islam is now supreme in Arabia. After Abu Bakr, the mantle of the Caliphate has fallen on my shoulders. I swear it before Allah that I never coveted this office. I wished that it had devolved on some other person more worthy than me. Now that in national interest, the responsibility for leading the Muslims has come to vest in me, I assure you that I will not run away from my post, and will make an earnest effort to discharge the onerous duties of the office to the best of my capacity in accordance with the injunctions of Islam. Allah has examined me from you and you from me, in the performance of my duties; I will seek guidance from the Holy Book, and will follow the examples set by the Holy Prophet and Abu Bakr. In this task, I seek your assistance. If I follow the right path, follow me. If I deviate from the right path, correct me so that we are not led astray.

The government of Umar was more or less a unitary government, where the sovereign political authority was the Caliph. The empire of Umar was divided into provinces and some autonomous territories like in some regions Azerbaijan and Armenia that had accepted the suzerainty of the Caliphate. The provincial governors or Wali administered the provinces, the selection of which was made personally by Umar, who was very fastidious. Provinces were further divided into districts; there were about 100 districts in the empire. Each district or main city was under the charge of a junior governor or Amil, usually appointed by Umar himself, but occasionally they were also appointed by the provincial governor. Other officers at the provincial level were:

1.     Katib, the Chief Secretary.

2.     Katib-ud-Diwan, the Military Secretary.

3.     Sahib-ul-Kharaj, the Revenue Collector.

4.     Sahib-ul-Ahdath, the Police Chief.

5.     Sahib-Bait-ul-Mal, the Treasury Officer.

6.     Qadi, the Chief Judge.

In some districts, there were separate military officers, though the Governor (Wali) was in most cases the Commander-in-chief of the army quartered in the province. Every appointment was made in writing. At the time of appointment, an instrument of instructions was issued with a view to regulating the conduct of Governors. On assuming office, the Governor was required to assemble the people in the main mosque, and read the instrument of instructions before them.

Umar's general instructions to his officers were:

"Remember, I have not appointed you as commanders and tyrants over the people. I have sent you as leaders instead, so that the people may follow your example. Give the Muslims their rights and do not beat them lest they become abused. Do not praise them unduly, lest they fall into the error of conceit. Do not keep your doors shut in their faces, lest the more powerful of them eat up the weaker ones. And do not behave as if you were superior to them, for that is tyranny over them."


When Basra was established during 'Umar's period, he started building some canals for conveying drinking water and for irrigation. Al-Tabari reports that 'Utba ibn Ghazwan built the first canal from the Tigris River to the site of Basra when the city was in the planning stage. After the city was built, 'Umar appointed Abu Musa al-Ash'ari as the first governor. Abu Musa al-Ash'ari governed during the period 17-29/638-650. He began building two important canals linking Basra with the Tigris River. These were al-Ubulla River and the Ma'qil River. The two canals were the basis for the agricultural development for the whole Basra region and used for drinking water. 'Umar also devised the policy of cultivating barren lands by assigning such lands to those who undertook to cultivate them. This policy continued during the Umayyad period and it resulted in the cultivation of large areas of barren lands through the construction of irrigation canals by the state and by individuals.

So many events that cannot be detailed in this piece happened in his reign. There was a huge military expansion during his time as the Caliph; the story of his visit to Jerusalem is one remarkable event. The reforms, welfare, free trade zones etc., are what happened. His era was actually the golden era, in which the Islamic heritage thrived, spread wide and consolidated.


His Death

Abu Lu'lu' al-Majusi (called Pirouz Nahayandi), a Persian slave, was the one who stabbed Umar. On 3 November 644, Pirouz attacked Umar while he was leading the morning prayers, stabbing him six times in the belly and last on the navel, which proved fatal. Umar was left profusely bleeding while Abu Lulu tried to flee, but people from all sides rushed to capture him; in his efforts to escape, he is reported to have wounded twelve other people, six or nine of whom later died. At last, he was captured but committed suicide using the same dagger.

Umar died of the wounds three days later on Sunday, 7 November 644 (26th Dhū al-Ḥijja 23 ). Umar is reported to have left the following testament:

Be kind and generous to the Muhajirun and the Ansar. Those out of them, who are good, be good to them; those who are bad overlook their lapses. Be good to the people of the conquered lands. They are the outer line of our defense; they are the target of the anger and distress of our enemies. They contribute to our revenues. They should be taxed only on their surplus wealth. Be gracious to the Bedouins as they are the backbone of the Arab nation. I instruct you to be good to the Dhimmis for they are your responsibility. Do not tax them beyond their capacity. Ensure that they pay the jizya without undue inconvenience. Fear Allah, and in all that, you do keep His pleasure in view. In the matter of people fear Allah, and in the matter of Allah do not be afraid of the people. With regard to the people, I enjoin upon you to administer justice with an even hand. See that all the legitimate requirements of the people are met. Be concerned for their welfare. Ensure the safety of their person and property. See that the frontiers of our domains are not violated. Take strong steps to guard the frontiers. In the matter of administration do not prefer the rich to the poor. Be hard against those who violate the law. Show them no mercy. Do not rest content until you have brought the miscreants to book. Treat all the people as equal. Be a pillar of strength for those who are weak and oppressed. Those who are strong but do wrong, make them pay for their wrongdoings. In the distribution of booty and other matters be above nepotism. Let no consideration of relationship or selfish interest weigh with you. The Satan is at large; it may tempt you. Rise above all temptations and perform your duties in accordance with the injunctions of Islam. Get guidance from the Holy Qur'an and Sunnah. Freely consult the wise men around you. Apply your own mind in difficult cases, and seek light from Allah. Be simple in your living and your habits. Let there be no show or ostentation about you. Lead life as a model Muslim. As you are the leader of the Muslims, justify your leadership by being the best among them all. May Allah bless you.

As per Umar's will, he was buried next to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and Caliph Abu Bakr by the permission of Aisha.

Some Western views

In his book Mahomet and His Successors, Washington Irving estimates the achievements of Umar in the following terms:

The whole history of Omar shows him to have been a man of great powers of mind, inflexible integrity, and rigid justice. He was, more than anyone else, the founder of the Islamic Empire; confirming and carrying out the inspirations of the prophet; aiding Abu Baker with his counsels during his brief caliphate; and establishing wise regulations for the strict administration of the law throughout the rapidly extending bounds of the Moslem conquests. The rigid hand, which he kept upon his most popular generals in the midst of their armies, and in the most distant scenes of their triumphs, gave signal evidence of his extraordinary capacity to rule. In the simplicity of his habits, and his contempt for all pomp and luxury, he emulated the example of the Prophet and Abu Baker. He endeavored incessantly to impress the merit and policy of the same in his letters to his generals. 'Beware,' he would say, 'of Persian luxury, both in food and raiment. Keep to the simple habits of your country, and Allah will continue you victorious; depart from them, and He will reverse your fortunes.' It was his strong conviction of the truth of this policy, which made him so severe in punishing all ostentatious style and luxurious indulgence in his officers. Some of his ordinances do credit to his heart as well as his head. He forbade that any female captive who had borne a child should be sold as a slave. In his weekly distributions of the surplus money of his treasury, he proportioned them to the wants, not the merits of the applicants. 'Allah,' said he, 'has bestowed the good things of this world to relieve our necessities, not to reward our virtues: those will be rewarded in another world.

In his book The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall, Sir William Muir says as follows about Umar:

Omar's life requires but few lines to sketch. Simplicity and duty were his guiding principles; impartiality and devotion the leading features of his administration. Responsibility so weighed upon him that he was heard to exclaim, 'O that my mother had not borne me; would that I had been this stalk of grass instead!' In early life of a fiery and impatient temper, he was known, even in the later days of the Prophet, as the stern advocate of vengeance. Ever ready to unsheathe the sword, it was he that at Bedr advised the prisoners to be all put to death. However, age, as well as office, had now mellowed this asperity. His sense of justice was strong. And excepting the treatment of Khalid, whom he pursued with an ungenerous resentment, no act of tyranny or injustice is recorded against him; and even in this matter, his enmity took its rise in Khalid's unscrupulous treatment of a fallen foe. The choice of his captains and governors was free from favouritism, and (Moghira and Ammar excepted) singularly fortunate. The various tribes and bodies in the empire, representing interests the most diverse, reposed in his integrity implicit confidence, and his strong arm maintained the discipline of law and empire. ... Whip in hand, he would perambulate the streets and markets of Al-Madinah, ready to punish slanders on the spot; and so the proverb,-'Omar's whip more terrible than another's sword.' But with all this he was tender-hearted, and numberless acts of kindness are recorded of him, such as relieving the wants of the widow and the fatherless.[104]

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireGibbon refers to Umar in the following terms:

Yet the abstinence and humility of Omar were not inferior to the virtues of Abubakar: his food consisted of barley-bread or dates; his drink was water; he preached in a gown that was torn or tattered in twelve places; and a Persian satrap, who paid his homage as to the conqueror, found him asleep among the beggars on the steps of the mosch of Al-Madinah. Economy is the source of liberality, and the increase of the revenue enabled Omar to establish a just and perpetual reward for the past and present services of the faithful. Careless of his own emolument, he assigned to Abbas, the uncle of the prophet, the first and most ample allowance of twenty-five thousand drams or pieces of silver. Five thousand were allotted to each of the aged warriors, the relics of the field of Beder, and the last and the meanest of the companions of Mahomet was distinguished by the annual reward of three thousand pieces. ... Under his reign, and that of his predecessor, the conquerors of the East were the trusty servants of Allah and the people: the mass of public treasure was consecrated to the expenses of peace and war; a prudent mixture of justice and bounty, maintained the discipline of the Saracens, and they united, by a rare felicity, the dispatch and execution of despotism, with the equal and frugal maxims of a republican government.

In his book history of the Arabs, Professor Philip Khuri Hitti has assessed the achievements of Umar in the following terms:

Simple and frugal in manner, his energetic and talented successor, 'Umar (634–44), who was of towering height, strong physique and bald-headed, continued at least for some time after becoming caliph to support himself by trade and lived throughout his life in a style as unostentatious as that of a Bedouin sheikh. In fact 'Umar, whose name according to Muslim tradition is the greatest in early Islam after that of Muhammad (peace be upon him), has been idolized by Muslim writers for his piety, justice and patriarchal simplicity and treated as the personification of all the virtues a caliph ought to possess. His irreproachable character became an exemplar for all conscientious successors to follow. He owned, we are told, one shirt and one mantle only, both conspicuous for their patchwork, slept on a bed of palm leaves and had no concern other than the maintenance of the purity of the faith, the upholding of justice and the ascendancy and security of Islam and the Arabians. Arabic literature is replete with anecdotes extolling 'Umar's stern character. He is said to have scourged his own son to death for drunkenness and immorality. Having in a fit of anger inflicted a number of stripes on a Bedouin who came seeking his succor against an oppressor, the caliph soon repented and asked the Bedouin to inflict the same number on him. But the latter refused. So 'Umar retired to his home with the following soliloquy: 'O son of al-Khattab! Humble thou wert and Allah hath elevated thee; astray, and Allah hath guided thee; weak, and Allah hath strengthened thee. Then He caused thee to rule over the necks of thy people, and when one of them came seeking thy aid, thou didst strike him! What wilt thou have to say to thy Lord when thou presentest thyself before Him?' The one who fixed the Hijrah as the commencement of the Moslem era, presided over the conquest of large portions of the then known world, instituted the state register and organized the government of the new empire met a tragic and sudden death at the very zenith of his life when he was struck down (November 3, 644) by the poisoned dagger of a Christian Persian slave in the midst of his own congregation.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (ninth edition, "Popular Reprint", 1888) remarks of Umar:

To 'Omar's ten years' Caliphate belong for the most part the great conquests. He himself did not take the field, but remained in Al-Madinah; he never, however, suffered the reins to slip from his grasp, so powerful was the influence of his personality and the Moslem community of feeling. His political insight is shown by the fact that he endeavored to limit the indefinite extension of Moslem conquest, and to maintain and strengthen the national Arabian character of the commonwealth of Islam; also, by his making it his foremost task to promote law and order in its internal affairs. The saying with which he began his reign will never grow antiquated: 'By Allah, he that is weakest among you shall be in my sight the strongest, until I have vindicated for him his rights; but him that is strongest will I treat as the weakest, until he complies with the laws.' It would be impossible to give a better general definition of the function of the State[2].


([1] ) Comparing Umar to a Christian is an understatement and fatal error. He is far better than Christians are all together. However, it happened here because the writer is a Christian or so.

([2] ) This piece was originally adapted from en.wikipedia.org.


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