Islamic Perspectives

‘Umar the Great — a living icon of Islam

By Shaista Bano

‘Umar’s father was Khattab. ‘Umar could read and write and was a person of simple habits. Before his death, Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, nominated ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) as his successor in the Caliphate.

A person of strong moral character and a keen sense of justice, ‘Umar possessed many qualities of head and heart. He was austere, bold, brave and frugal, well-versed in the Prophetic traditions (Hadith) and having a thorough knowledge of Islam.

When the Patriarch of the besieged Jerusalem sent a proposal for peace with the condition that he would not surrender the city to any but the Caliph in person, ‘Umar accepted the condition and, after deputing ‘Ali to officiate in his place at Madinah, left for Jerusalem with a single attendant without any pomp and show1.

This delegation had one camel for the two, the Caliph and attendant to ride on. They rode alternatively throughout the journey while allowing time for the camel to rest. Quite interestingly when they approached the gate of the city, by chance, it was the turn of the attendant to ride on the camel and the Caliph was walking on foot holding the string of the camel in his hand2. The shabby, dust-covered dresses of the two were also similar. This made the Jerusalemites to mistake the attendant as the Caliph! Is there any other such an instance of respect to human rights and humility in all human history?

The main and important features of good governance are excellent administration, justice for all, stabilisation of peace and tranquillity, revenues in abundance and welfare and prosperity of the people. The basic component of the Islamic system of administration is “Shura,” i.e., consultation. In keeping with this, there was a Consultative Council and the Caliph always sought advice from the members of this Council.

‘Umar divided the territories of the Caliphate into provinces and districts. In every province, Governor (Waali), Secretaries, Secretary of Military Dept., Police Office, Treasurer, Inspector of morals and markets (Muhtasib) and Judge (Qadi) were appointed. Likewise, officials for every district were appointed. Every Governor and district officer (‘Aamil) had to submit detailed accounts of his wealth on his appointment. Any extraordinary increase in it was watched and action was taken against him. Excessive wealth accumulated by Abu Hurayrah and ‘Amr ibn al-’Aas were confiscated. This has been mentioned and quoted in Arab Administration citing Al-Baladhuri as source (pp. 82-83, 219 and 291).

‘Umar established the department of Finance (Diwan) for the proper management of revenues, census was ordered, land survey conducted and Baitul-Mall (treasury) established. During the regime of ‘Umar, judiciary became an independent institution of the State. Everyone, irrespective of his/her faith, family or financial status, was entitled to get justice in accordance with the injunctions of Holy Qur’an: “O you who believe! Stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, Or against your parents, Or against your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor....” (4:135).

The Caliph ordered that judges must follow the Holy Book in deciding cases, and in the absence of a clear instruction therein, the traditions of the Prophet (pbuh), i.e., the Sunnah and Hadith, should be consulted and if any precedence on any particular issue is not found even there, then the guidance should be sought from the consensus of opinion (Ijma’) among scholars and senior members of society, and if even this is not available, the judge should decide according to his own judgment. ‘Umar appointed as judges men of distinction, strong in faith and irreproachable in character and well-versed in matters of law3. Judges would get handsome salaries, so that they would be neither tended to accept any bribe nor would be afraid of delivering judgment against influential persons. It was also taken care that the number of judges should be proportionate with the strength of the population, so that the trial of cases should not suffer delay. During the whole period of ‘Umar’s khilafat, there was not a single complaint that a judge accepted bribe or acted partially. Litigations were not expensive and not of common occurrence.

Mosques were used as courts. A Muslim was not permitted to stand as witness if he had already been punished for false testimony.

History stands witness that the Caliph administered the punishment against his own son, Abu Shahma, for drinking wine, which caused the latter’s death after a month. There were other instances of such punishment also.

The Caliph was so strict in the affairs of administration that he did not hesitate to remove even high ranking officials if the complaint against them was found correct. He was very careful and conscious about the rights of non-Muslim subjects (dhimmis) of the Muslim State.

The lives and properties of dhimmis were protected like those of Muslims. If a Muslim murdered a dhimmi, he had to pay for the crime with his life. The Holy Qur’an says: “Believers! Be upright bearers of witness for Allah, and do not let the enmity of any people move you to deviate from justice. Act justly; that is nearer to God-fearing. And fear Allah. Surely Allah is well aware of what you do.” (5:8).

When Abdullah, son of the then governor of Egypt ‘Amr ibn Al-’Aas, beat a dhimmi (a Copt) without a proper cause, ‘Umar  had him punished publicly by the hands of same Copt. ‘Amr ibn Al-’Aas helplessly witnessed the event. Addressing Abdullah and his father, ‘Umar said, “Since when have you enslaved men who were born free from the wombs of their mothers”4 which became a famous proverb.

The most prominent feature of ‘Umar’s regime was that family, friends and foes were treated equally by the State administration. Stern but just, ‘Umar himself went to court on several occasions as a party to suit. Once he had a dispute with Ubayy ibn Ka’b who lodged a case against him in the court of Zaid ibn Thabit. ‘Umar appeared as a defendant. Zaid showed him respect. “This is your first injustice,” ‘Umar told him and sat down along with Ubayy. Ubayy had no proof and ‘Umar denied the plaint. According to the custom, the plaintiff desired that ‘Umar (RAA) should take an oath. Zaid requested Ubayy to waive his right of oath, on which the Caliph got annoyed and told Zaid, “If ‘Umar and the other man are not equals in your eyes, you are not fit for the post of judge.”5

Jabla ibn Al-Adham Al-Ghassani, a ruler from Syria, who had embraced Islam, was performing the Tawaf of Ka’ba when a corner of his sheet somehow came under the feet of an ordinary Muslim who too was performing Tawaf. Jabla became furious and slapped the man in his face. The other man also gave one in turn. Jabla, the prince, went to the Caliph and complained about the behaviour of this man. The Caliph heard his story and told him, you got what you deserved. This made Jabla stunned. He asked, “Do you mean to say that an ordinary man like him can think of taking revenge from me, without any consideration of my position?” The Caliph replied, “In the eyes of Islam, there is no distinction between the rich and the poor.” The Syrian chief replied, “If Islam is this, then I cannot be a follower of Islam”. That same night the prince renounced Islam and returned to Syria and to his old faith6.

The door of criticism was open for public. Even a common man could criticise ‘Umar and would ask him questions and the Caliph had to answer. The Caliph, always available to his subjects, considered himself a trustee, not an autocratic ruler. Stern but just, ‘Umar had been gifted with many qualities of a sound head and heart so essential to win the hearts and co-operation of the subjects7.

His courteous and generous manners, liberal dealing and sympathetic attitude towards the public paid rich dividends in due course. The exceptional talent for governance was an intrinsic and inborn quality of those Arabs and it proved helpful in the establishment of a stable administration in the conquered territories. Many projects for development were undertaken. Induction of dhimmis in the army and giving equal civil rights to dhimmis and Muslims alike were important measures adopted by the Caliph.

The religion-neutral attitude of his regime was fully reflected in the various treaties concluded with conquered people. Full protection to their lives and properties, to their places of worship and full freedom in the matter of religion was accorded to all in keeping with the Qur’anic injuction, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256); “To you is your religion and to me is mine” (109:6).

Impressed by the kind treatment of the Caliph and the rule of justice and equality offered by him, dhimmis rendered valuable services to Muslims with regards to Intelligence and Secret Services. When Muslims had to evacuate Homs and Damascus before the battle of Yarmuk, their Christian subjects prayed to Allah to bring Muslims back to them. Jews also welcomed Muslims. ‘Umar was so much cautious and concerned about the well-being of his non-Muslim subjects that even on the deathbed he wrote for the guidance of his successor, that dhimmis should be given due protection, safety and security on both the external and internal fronts in case of any disturbance, according to the agreements concluded with them as agreements should be observed sincerely8.

‘Umar was not a conqueror of territories like Changiz Khan, Alexander and Nadir Shah. All the Islamic conquests were achieved not for any material gains but to protect the believers and to set people free from tyranny. Soldiers had clear instructions not to kill the unarmed, elderly and children; they were prohibited to cut green trees nor to destroy agriculture. The Caliph himself did not take part in any of the battles during his tenure as caliph. One day a slave, Abu Lulu Firuz (a Magian) got annoyed with ‘Umar and the very next day he attacked him with a dagger during morning prayer, The Caliph fell down. The wound was fatal and he could not recover. During this critical condition, he rejected the suggestion of appointing his virtuous son, Abdullah, as his successor. Instead, he nominated a panel of six men to choose his successor.

Establishments of prisons and introduction of exile as a punishment, establishment of military centres and cantonments, starting of stipends for the poor among Jews and Christians, taking rounds at night to inquire into the conditions of the people, introduction of the Hijri calendar, insertion of “Prayer is better than sleep” in the Adhan for morning prayer and organisation of Tarawih in congregation are some of his innovations.

Many burning issues and disputes of the world today can be resolved in the light of governance of ‘Umar. Love for human beings and humanity, respect for equality, justice, peace and services and sacrifice for just causes are some of his characteristics which stand the test. The driving force behind all this was the Fear of God and Love to God.

The author is a retired professor of Aligarh Muslim University

1. Ameer Ali, Short History of The Saracens, Kitab Bhavan New Delhi, 8th ed. 2010, p. 39.
2. Fidai, R.A., Hazrat ‘Umar Farooq. Islami Kitab Ghar, Delhi, 2010, p. 29.
3. Husaini, S.A.Q., Arab Administration, Idarah-i Adbiyat, Delhi, 2009, Delhi, p. 45.
4. Shibli Nu’mani, Al-Farooq,  Idara Impex, Delhi, 2014, vol. 2, pp. 406-7.
5. Ibid, pp. 281, 379.
6. Ibid, pp. 376-7.
7. Syed Ameer Ali, op. cit., pp. 29-30.
8. Shibli Nu’mani, op. cit., p. 354.