UMAR IBN AL-KHATTAB RA
(Life: (approx) 586AD – 644AD)
(Caliphate: 634AD – 644AD)
Preface: This is only a summary of the life of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab RA and does not cover all the points of his life story. It is not intended to be a biography, but rather a glimpse of the main incidents of his life so that we can get an idea of his character. For ease of reading, we have not inserted “May Allah be pleased with him (RA)” each time his name or the name of each Companion is mentioned, but please take it that the salutations apply to all of them, may Allah be pleased with them all.
Umar used to say: “What will you say to your Lord later?” – summing up his religion and his method of life.
Ibn Umar asked me about some matters concerning Umar. He said, “Since Allah’s Apostle died, I have never seen anybody more serious, hardworking and generous than Umar bin Al−Khattab (till the end of his life).”
Sahih Al-Bukhari – Book 57 Hadith 36
PRE CONVERSION TO ISLAM
Little is documented about his life prior to his submission to Islam. We know that Umar was born into a respected Quraish family, thirteen years after the Messenger SAW was born. He learnt to read and write whilst still a child, which was rare in Mecca at that time. A merchant by trade, he was widely travelled as a result. He was a large man, it was said that he never walked among a group of men except that he was the tallest amongst them. He was a skilled horseman and was notorious for his fearsome temper. By some accounts, he was left handed, while others report him to be ambidextrous. His swiftness of temper, coupled with his extraordinary strength, made a terrifying and intimidating combination. However, he was also renowned for his strong sense of justice, and time proved that he judged himself harsher than he did anyone else.
Prior to becoming Muslim, he was a sworn enemy of Islam. The idea of Muhammad SAW preaching the Oneness of God in Mecca enraged Umar greatly, as he saw this as a great outrage and insult to the pagan practices of his forefathers. Umar was openly hostile, and even physically violent, to those who embraced Islam. Even when his slave-girl accepted Islam, he beat her on a daily basis until he was exhausted and said “I stopped because I am tired, not out of pity for you”.
EVENTS LEADING UPTO AND INCLUDING CONVERSION
Umar’s acceptance of Islam is perhaps one of the most extraordinary.
As Muhammad’s SAW influence grew, Umar became increasingly resentful. In the sixth year of the revelation, Umar was appointed by a group of Quraish men to kill the Prophet SAW. He set out towards the Prophet SAW, sword in hand, ready to kill him. Enroute he met a friend and when Umar explained what he intended to do, imagine Umar’s horror when his friend said “Why don’t you take care of your own family first and set them right?” It turned out that Umar’s own sister, Fatimah, and her husband, had secretly embraced Islam!
He was so mortified and furious at this news, and went straight to Fatimah’s house where he heard the voice of his brother in law, Saeed bin Zaid, reciting from the Qur’an. Umar swiftly started assaulting Saeed, whereupon Fatimah threw herself between Umar and her husband in order to defend the latter. Umar struck her violently, until she was bleeding. Injured as she was, Fatimah defiantly told Umar “O Umar, you can do what you like, but you cannot turn our hearts away from Islam”.
These words had a profound effect on Umar. What was this faith that made weak women so strong of heart? He felt pity for his sister, and his instinctive sense of fairness prevailed. So he asked Fatimah to show him what she was reading, so that he could know for himself what it was the Muhammad SAW had brought.
She refused to give it to him by saying “No, for none but the purified persons [i.e. clean from idolatry] are to touch it. Go and take a bath and get yourself purified”. He did so, returned and Fatimah gave him the Qu’ran.
“Ta-Ha. We have not sent down the Qur´an to thee to be (an occasion) for thy distress, But only as an admonition to those who fear ((Allah)) …” (Qur’an 20:1-3)
He was astounded. It was as if the Qur’an was addressing him directly! He continued reading, and verse after verse, the light of the Qur’an penetrated his heart with its undeniable truth.
“A revelation from Him Who created the earth and the heavens on high.(Allah) Most Gracious is firmly established on the throne (of authority).To Him belongs what is in the heavens and on earth, and all between them, and all beneath the soil…”
He read verses 1-8 and 14-16 of Surat Taha, and when he was done, his sense of justice could no longer deny the truth of the Message.
Unbeknownst to him, the Prophet SAW had also made a dua for this occasion – reported by Ibn Umar RA, the Messenger of Allah SAW said “O Allah, help Islam with one of the two men that is more beloved to You: Abu Jahl or ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab. And the more beloved of the two to him was Umar.”
Umar kissed the document (it is reported that the verses were written on a piece of leaf) and said “It is not proper that the One Who has sent down these Holy Verses should have a partner to be worshipped with Him. Guide me to the place where Muhammad SAW is present now”.
He then went straight to the house of the Prophet SAW. Once he was admitted in the house, the Prophet SAW asked him for the reason of his visit. Umar replied: “O Messenger of Allah, I have come to you in order to believe in Allah and His Messenger and that which he has brought from his Lord.” Upon hearing this, the Prophet SAW and the Companions shouted with elation “Allahu Akbar” so loudly that it could be heard at the Kabah!
CONTRIBUTIONS TO ISLAM DURING PROPHET’S (PBUH) LIFETIME
Public proclamation of Islam
Umar was the first person to publicly proclaim Islam – he literally went door to door to houses of the inhabitants of Mecca such as Abu Jahl to announce his conversion to Islam. Their reaction was of course of astonishment, hostility and dismay. For example Abu Jahl cursed him and slammed the door in his face! However, Umar’s courage was contagious, and his actions strengthened and boosted the morale of the small community of Muslims, who had until then, been forced to worship in the secrecy of their homes.
Worshipping before the Kabah
Umar was renowned for his outspoken behaviour, and on more than one occasion, questioned the Prophet’s SAW decisions. An illustration of this is when the elation of Umar’s acceptance of Islam had subsided, he asked the Prophet SAW “Aren’t we on the right path here and in the hereafter?” The Prophet SAW replied affirmatively, upon which Umar asked “Why then, do we have to conduct our activities secretly? I swear by Allah Who has sent you with the Truth, that we will leave our concealment and proclaim our noble cause publicly.”
Hence, prompted by Umar, the Quraishi witnessed to their alarm the first group of Muslims approaching and worshipping before the Kaabah in broad daylight, a practice which is still followed more than 1,400 years later. This was the incident that gave him the title “Al Farooq” (he who distinguishes truth from falsehood).
With Umar as the physical guardian, the hostile Quraishi were hesitant to attack the Muslims, as Umar was a fearsome enemy and was swift to retaliate.
Migration to Medina
Umar migrated to Medina ahead of the Prophet SAW. Whilst many Muslims were migrating to Medina discreetly, Umar went to the Kabah and announced his migration publicly, threatening “Anyone who wants to make his wife a widow and his children orphans, should come and meet me there behind that cliff.” Umar’s strength and ferocity was such that he was capable of killing a man in a single blow, and he was armed with his sword and his arrows. Not surprisingly, none of the Quraishi dared to stand in his way.
It was not uncommon that whenever a difficult or complicated situation arose, the Prophet SAW would seek the counsel of Umar and Abu Bakr RA. In many instances, Umar and Abu Bakr took divergent views, Umar’s opinion being inclined to being harder than Abu Bakr’s. On more than one occasion, however, Umar’s view was confirmed as the correct one, as affirmed by Allah Himself through the revelations that subsequently guided the Prophet SAW through an issue. This included his view on the innocence of Aisha RA when her reputation and fidelity to Muhammad SAW was cast under severe doubt by the hypocrites.
On the authority of Abdur Rahman bin Ghanam, it was said that the Prophet SAW said to Abu Bakr and Umar that “if you two are agreed upon a counsel, I would not oppose you.”
Umar participated in many of the key Muslim battles and was often the right hand man of the Prophet SAW on the battlefield. He fought keenly in the Battle of Badr, Uhud and the Trench, the Conquest of Mecca, Hunayn and the Siege of Ta’if.
Father-in-law of Muhammad SAW
Umar’s daughter, Hafsa, was widowed at a very young age when her husband was martyred during the Battle of Uhud. Her bereavement upset Umar greatly, but he was also aware that she had inherited his fiery temper. Hence he felt it best for her to be married to a much more mature man of a more sober temperament. He approached Abu Bakr, who evaded the subject, and Uthman RA, who politely declined not least because he was still grieving over the unexpected death of his own wife, Ruqayya, the daughter of the Prophet SAW. Insulted, saddened and enraged, Umar complained to the Prophet SAW, whereupon the Prophet SAW assured him with the following words: “Rest assured, Hafsa will marry a man better than Uthman, and Uthman will marry a lady better than Hafsa.”
It transpired that Muhammad SAW had indicated to Abu Bakr and Uthman that he had intended to take Hafsa as his bride, hence their non-committal replies when approached by Umar. Uthman was then married to the Prophet’s younger daughter, Umm Kulsum.
With this marriage, Umar’s status was brought at par with Abu Bakr’s, and both of them enjoyed the honour of being the Prophet’s SAW father-in-law.
Respect of Allah
Umar had such a deep respect for Allah that he was always very humble and filled with humility. It was his fear of the question of “what will you say to your Lord” that motivated all his actions. Hence he spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his persecution of the Muslims prior to accepting Islam himself.
Umar was only concerned about being saved from the fire of Hell and once said that all his good deeds not be recorded for him provided that he be saved from hell as neither having any extra good nor bearing any evil. Even when he was given glad tidings that he would be admitted into Paradise, he remained in awe and full of respect of Allah. He had always been a hard and severe person, but it was on himself that he was the hardest.
He always saw how the Messenger SAW spent his nights in prayer, some days in fasting and in fighting for Allah even though he knew that Allah had forgiven all his sins. He once asked the Prophet (PBUH) why he was doing all this. The Prophet SAW answered “Then, should I not be a thankful servant of Allah?”
THE CALIPHATE RULE
We shall not go into the political detail surrounding Umar’s appointment as the second of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. However, as Abu Bakr lay on his deathbed, it was general consensus that Umar was the fittest person to be appointed as the next Caliph. There were however, some reservations on account of Umar’s colourful temper, in that he would not be able to display the moderation necessary to lead the Ummah. Abu Bakr observed that Umar’s display of severity was meant to counteract his leniency, and felt confident that Umar would be more restrained in his opinions if the responsibility of government fell on his shoulders.
One of His Earliest Speeches
The following are excerpts from his inaugural speech:
“The mantle of Caliphate has fallen on my shoulders. I swear it before God that I never coveted this office. I wished that it would have devolved on some other person more worthy than 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 SAW 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.
Now brothers I offer a few prayers and you say Ameen to them.
O Allah, I am hard, make me soft to promote the Truth, to comply with your injunctions and to aspire for a better life in world hereafter…O Allah, soften my heart for the faithful so that I attend to their needs with a sense of dedication…O Allah give me the power of self-criticism and self-assessment …”
Such was the shining display of humility by Umar before his people. To him, leadership was a huge responsibility to be shunned rather than sought. The speech also displayed his deep inner reflection of his personal shortcomings, which he openly admitted to the people he was leading.
When he assumed office, Umar realised that he was more feared than loved. Children who had before approached Abu Bakr and addressed his as “Father”, ran away from Umar in fear. In the first Friday sermon after he was appointed the Caliph, he appealed to the congregation, explaining that during the lives of the Prophet SAW and Abu Bakr, he assumed upon himself the role of counterbalancing their softness. He went on to say:
“O people, you have some rights on me which you can always claim. One of your rights is that if anyone of you comes to me with a claim, he should leave satisfied. Another of your rights is that you can demand that I take nothing unjustly from the revenues of the State. You can also demand that I fortify your frontiers and do not put you in danger. It is also your right that if you go to battle I should look after your families as a father would do while you are away.
O people, remain conscious of Allah, forgive me my faults and help me in my task. Assist me in enforcing what is good and forbidding what is evil. Advise me regarding the obligations that have been imposed upon me by Allah.”
And he spent the rest of his life trying to fulfil his pledge to his people.
Creation of Government
Umar created a unitary government to rule the entire empire. For each province, a governor was appointed by Umar. The appointee was usually someone who did not crave the position. He organised a group with responsibilities for revenue, military, security, treasury, his office and the chief judge.
He used to give the following general order to his governors in discharging their leadership duties:
“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.”
The Great Famine
638AD was one of the most difficult times during Umar’s rule. The famine spread far and wide throughout Arabia. He organised for rations to come in from Syria, Palestine and Iraq. Once the rations arrived in Medina, he sent his people to re-route the food caravans to go deeper into Arabia to bring food to the people. For people who were displaced and had come to Medina for help, Umar hosted a dinner every night for everyone. Some accounts said that there were over 100,000 people at the dinners.
The Great Plague
639AD was another difficult time. Just as the famine was ending a great plague was spreading in Syria and Palestine. When the plague was over, Umar went to Syria to re-organise the administration as so many of the governors had died from plague.
It is impossible to categorise Umar’s rule in a few short pages, but the following are other examples of Umar’s outstanding leadership have been recorded:
• Once a woman brought a claim against Umar. When Umar appeared on trial before the judge, the judge stood up as a sign of respect. Umar reprimanded him saying “This is the first act of injustice you did to this woman”.
• Umar insisted that his governors live simple and austere lives, keep no guard at their door and be accessible to the people at all times. He himself set the example for them.
• Many times foreigners found him resting under a tree or praying in the mosque among the people. It was difficult for them to distinguish which man was the Caliph. He used to go about at night in the streets of Medina to see if people needed help or assistance.
• Once, he was delayed in attending Friday prayers once because he had washed his shirt and had to wait for it to dry because he had no other shirt. Can you imagine any other leader of a nation who was so frugal on himself and so afraid to misuse public funds, that he only has one garment in his possession?
• When receiving a gift of sweets from his governor in Azerbaijan, he inquired if all the people there ate the sweet. The answer was that it was reserved for the elite of the society. Umar then made the following order to the governor “Do not satisfy yourself from any kind of food until all the Muslims eat their fill from it before you”.
• He once stood guard in the night with a companion to watch over some travellers. A baby was crying but the mother was unable to make it stop. Umar asked what was wrong. She said that the baby refuses to wean. He asked why she would want to wean her baby who was still young. She replied without knowing who he was that “Umar only prescribes a share of the Treasury for the weaned ones”. Umar was devastated at hearing this statement. At dawn prayer, his voice was almost incomprehensible from his weeping. Umar felt himself having wronged those babies who may have died from being weaned too early. He then ordered that a share of the Treasury be prescribed for every Muslim child from birth.
• Umar kept his family’s activities under tight scrutiny in case they are seen to be abusing their status because of their relationship to Umar. Even when what they did was legal, he was still angered, and if they benefited financially, even if indirectly, he forbade from retaining such financial gains.
• Umar had a precept: “If any of you saw any of your brothers committing a slip, you should (screen him and) help him. You should ask Allah to repent on him and you should not assist Satan against him”. This would prevent back-biting and gossiping – two of the most common sins.
Hence, the short examples above hopefully give some colour on the outstanding leadership qualities Umar displayed throughout his rule. He constantly merciful, caring, principled, thoughtful and God fearing. Here was a man who was so worried of displaying the smallest injustice, the smallest suspicion, the smallest oppression all because he was preparing himself to answer the question “What will you say to your Lord later?”.
Umar was violently stabbed six times at the time of the morning prayer by a Persian slave named Firoz. Unconscious and bleeding profusely, was then carried home. When he regained consciousness, he asked who his murderer was. When told, he said “Praise be to God that I have not been murdered by a Muslim.”
Knowing that his death was imminent, he asked his son Abdullah RA to beg Aisha’s permission for his burial by the side of Muhammad SAW and Abu Bakr. Aisha RA wept as she came to know that Umar was on his deathbed. She said “I had reserved this place for my own burial, but I give Umar precedence over myself. Let him be buried there.”
When Umar was told of this, he said, “God bless Aisha. She has fulfilled my greatest wish. Now I can die in peace.”
Even in the final leg of his life, he was still concerned about the Ummah. Here was a man who had beaten a slave girl for her acceptance of Islam only to become a Caliph and one of the greatest Muslims that ever lived. He is a shining example of how Allah is the owner of the hearts, for the same man who set out with sword in hand to kill the Prophet SAW, now lays buried beside him in Medina.
Bukhari carries a tradition according to which the Prophet SAW said that there was to be no prophet after him, but if there were to be no bar to such prophethood, Umar would have been the prophet. That was the highest accolade that the Prophet SAW could have paid to Umar.
When reading about the Companions, it is recommended to say “O Allah, bear witness I love them for You. Make me live according to the noble example. Make me imitate them and if I cannot reach please make me resurrected with them.”
May Allah be pleased with Umar ibn Khattab and all the Companions, Ameen.
Most of the information for this work has been obtained from:
“The Successors of the Messenger (Allah’s Blessing and Peace be upon Him)” authored by Khalid Muhammad Khalid (and translated into English by Muhammad Mahdi Al-Sharif)
“The Sealed Nectar” by Shaikh Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri/Abdul Malik Mujahid
“Men and Women Around the Messenger” by Sa’d Yusuf Abu ‘Aziz
“Four Rightly Guided Caliphs” – Al Khawarizmi compilation