Personality profile: Umar Ibn Al Katthab

Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to be introducing a new series of posts in my blog that will talk about leading figures in Islam and history in general. Ideally I would have liked to start with our beloved prophet (PBUH), however given the man that he was and his achievements, I want to take time to research and make it relevant  and special for readers. I therefore start the series with one of his close aides, the second caliph according to the Sunni tradition- Umar Ibn Al khattab. 

Much has been said about the man, and stories relating to his piousness are a part of every Muslim gathering and event.  Encyclopedia Britannica describes Umar as follows : 

“ʿUmar I, in full ʿumar Ibn Al-khaṭtāb    (born c. ad 586, Mecca, Arabia [now in Saudi Arabia]—died Nov. 3, 644, Medina, Arabia), the second Muslim caliph (from 634), under whom Arab armies conquered Mesopotamia and Syria and began the conquest of Iran and Egypt.

A member of the clan of ʿAdi of the Meccan tribe of Quraysh (Koreish), ʿUmar at first opposed Muḥammad but, by about 615, became a Muslim. By 622, he had become one of Muḥammad’s chief advisers, closely associated with Abū Bakr. His position in the state was marked by Muḥammad’s marriage to his daughter Hafsa in 625. On Muḥammad’s death in 632 ʿUmar was largely responsible for reconciling the Medinan Muslims to the acceptance of a Meccan, Abū Bakr, as head of state (caliph). Abū Bakr (reigned 632–634) relied greatly on ʿUmar and nominated him to succeed him. As caliph, ʿUmar was the first to call himself “commander of the faithful” (amīr al-muʾminīn). His reign saw the transformation of the Islāmic state from an Arabian principality to a world power. Throughout this remarkable expansion ʿUmar closely controlled general policy and laid down the principles for administering the conquered lands. The structure of the later Islāmic empire, including legal practice, is largely due to him. Assassinated by a Persian slave for personal reasons, he died at Medina 10 years after coming to the throne. A strong ruler, stern toward offenders, and himself ascetic to the point of harshness, he was universally respected for his justice and authority.”

As described correctly, a large part of Sunni Islam as we see it today has roots in policies that were implemented by Umar during his reign. For this reason, my view is that he is easily attributed to be one of (if not the only) true architects of modern Islam after the prophet (PBUH). Many practices that you see today including the Tarawih prayers during the holy month of Ramadhan and the compilation of the Quran into the book we know of are as a result of orders given out by Umar during his reign.  Among the various stories that are prevalent on his humbleness and fairness as the ruler of Muslims (amīr al-muʾminīn), there are two that distinctly fascinate me.

The first one relates to the power he bestowed on the administrative officials of his state during his reign as the second caliph of Islam. Here was an all-powerful ruler, leader of over a billion people, who placed so much trust in his administrative officials, that he himself had to ask permission and seek approval from these officials if their services were to be availed. The story begins on one of the days of Ramadhan when Umar approached the official in charge of the people’s treasury seeking a loan. Despite being the ruler, Umar lived a most humble life and on the advice of his wife decided to take a loan from the treasury to buy his daughters some new clothes on the occasion of Eid. Umar asked the official if he could borrow some money with the intention of repaying once his salary was received at the end of the month (The fact that a ruler at the time received a salary from the treasury and the fact that he had to seek permission to take a loan itself is fascinating for me). But the story goes on to show how capable the people whom Umar placed his trust on were. The official replied that he would gladly give Umar the loan from the People’s treasury provided Umar signs a written affidavit that he would not die till the end of the month!! The official then goes on to say that the treasury was made up of the people’s contribution and to take this money without the guarantee of repaying would be a grave sin. Umar immediately realized his mistake and recalled his decision to take the loan.

The second story, similar in context and equally riveting goes something like this: It was late evening when Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet approaches Umar’s house to talk to him on an urgent issue. Umar had just wrapped up a meeting with his administrative officials. On seeing Ali and learning of his purpose of visit, he immediately enquires if the matter he would like to talk about is regarding the state or something personal. Ali replies it was the latter. On hearing this, Umar extinguishes that lamp that was already lit, and lights another lamp. Puzzled by this rather odd reaction, Ali asks for a reason to which Umar replies “ My dear Ali, the oil that burns in the first lamp has been bought with money from the treasury i.e the People’s treasury. To use this lamp while we speak of personal matters would be highly unfair and unethical. For this reason, we can have the conversation at my expense i.e using the second lamp which burns of oil bought from my salary.”

How many of our present day leaders follow such an honest and fair path? How many of our present day leaders can be so accountable? Is this not what the Arab spring set to bring about ? Both these stories coupled with his achievements in history to take Islam far from the lands from where it was born and more importantly to rule these lands in a such a just and right manner makes him in my view one of the greats in Islam’s 1400 year old history. Though there is much controversy among Shia Muslims on his genuineness, they would agree that if not for this ‘commander of the faithful’ and the solid foundations that he laid, Islam today would have not survived the long list of events that took place in the very lands in which he ruled.

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