Umar Ibn al-Khattab: A World Leader
Throughout all of Islamic history, there are two figures who are hailed as the first and second most important persons in Islam. One is, of course, Muhammad (peace be upon him), the last messenger and recipient of the Quran; the other is virtually unknown to the western world despite his vast and lasting influence on the middle east and the millions of people who have lived there and who live there today. This man has been written about, analyzed, reviled, praised, overlooked, and misunderstood even by his own people.
Umar Ibn al-Khattab (may God be pleased with him), the second of the Rightly Guided Caliphs of Islam, made an inconceivably large contribution not only to the geographic spread of Islam, but to the establishment of religious justice and intellectual freedom as well. His reach extended as far as Persia, Egypt, and Anatolia, and he defeated towering empires such as the Sassanids and the Byzantines. Such a rapid expansion of the Islamic world would merit acclaim in itself, but Umar (RA) did not stop there; his purpose was not to conquer lands in the name of Islam, he sincerely wanted to establish peace and justice in accordance with God’s way. Thus, he began what would be known as the Islamic judicial system, improved the economic system, developed a calendar, and united the Muslims (Hort 64-66).
He is also accredited with having compiled the Quran, but this is not probable. Considering the vastness and permanence of these accomplishments, it is no wonder that he is ranked above such figures as Julius Caesar and Charlemagne (Hart 265).
Umar (RA) began his life as a member of the Quraish tribe of Makkah. Little is known about his childhood, but as a young man he served as ambassador to various tribes and is said to have great belief in tribal solidarity. His reputation included two very strong characteristics: oratory and physical. No one could match his concise, rhythmic, eloquent speech. Umar (RA) was also a wrestler, competing in matches as a hobby and winning almost all of them.
Before his conversion, Umar (RA) is reported as having 4 or 5 wives, some of whom he divorced later because they chose not to convert to Islam. In all, he had 9 sons and 4 daughters, one being Hafsah (Hitti 25-26). She was widowed and left destitute, and despite Umar’s (RA) pleas to his friends to marry his daughter, no one was willing, so the prophet asked for her hand in marriage (Faruqi 123).
When Islam came to the Arabian Peninsula, there were few converts at first. Many people resisted the message, and Umar (RA) was a most bitter opponent. He was charged with the duty of assassinating Muhammad (PBUH), but converted instead. Umar (RA) then became one of the staunchest allies of Islam, and Muhammad (PBUH) came to call him “Farooq,” which means distinguisher between truth and falsehood (Hitti 24).
When the prophet died in 632, a potential power struggle was avoided when Umar (RA) supported the candidacy of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him), a close friend and companion of both Muhammad and Umar (Hitti 22, Muir 75). However, Abu Bakr (RA) lived only two years more, and as he lay dying he appointed Umar (RA) as the next caliph (Muir 82). A council of companions confirmed the appointment, and Umar (RA) began his remarkable reign.
The first of Umar’s (RA) great successes is rapid geographical expansion. Entry into Syria and Iraq began under Abu Bakr (RA), but it is Umar (RA) who solidified a Muslim presence in these two countries. Khalid Ibn al-Walid, the general in charge, reached the Euphrates and was welcomed by the Christian Arabs who lived there. He made a treaty with the people whereby no Jews or Christians would be persecuted, freedom of religion would be ensured, and protection of all people guaranteed. Khalid also entered Syria and took Damascus in 635. The Syrians gladly received the Muslims as well because they had ethnic and lingual ties – both were Arabs, and spoke Semitic languages (Hitti 29, Hort 62). Also, the Syrians were fed up with Byzantine oppression and outrageous taxes. Heraclius, however, regrouped and the battle that was to be fought next would cause Syria to slip through the fingers of the Byzantine Empire.
The battle of Yarmuk (636), in which the Muslim army was less than half the size of the Byzantine’s, brought the whole of Syria under Muslim leadership. It is said that Heraclius deeply regretted the loss because the country was so desirable (Hitti 30-31). In any case, Umar (RA) made a treaty with the people that included freedom of worship, protection, and lesser taxes to which the people readily agreed (Hort 62). Syria served as a springboard into Armenia (Hort 63), which came under Muslim influence around 643, and advances into Anatolia began in 641 (Hart 264).
In 638 Umar’s (RA) forces liberated Jerusalem, and in 641 Caesarea fell. As he entered the holy city, the native people were aghast to see that the leader – the effective “emperor” of the Muslims – was riding a camel and wearing tattered clothes (Hort 62, Hart 264). This marks the establishment of a Muslim Jerusalem that would last until the crusades about 500 years later. Even today, while Jerusalem is controlled by the Israelis, there is much Muslim influence throughout the city. The Palestinians lament their incredible loss.
The Persian operation, by far the most successful and decisive, was led by Sa’d bin abi Waqqas. In 637, Umar’s (RA) forces met those of Emperor Yazdagird in Qadisiyah, otherwise known as “the gateway of Persia.” (Hitti 36) The Sassanid commanding general, Rustam, led an army 6 times the number of Muslims, and despite this enormous advantage, all of Iraq west of the Tigris river was claimed by the Arabs. This miraculous feat was nothing, however, compared to the capture of Ctesiphon, the Emperor’s capital itself. It was dubbed a rival to Constantinople – a grand likeliness indeed. In May 63, Ctesiphon fell.
Although they had lost a great deal, the Persians did not feel the full effects, because the swollen river created a natural defense against further invasion and protected them. However, even this seemingly natural assumption was shaken by the Arabs; they crossed and reached the city of Nihavand. In what was to be known as “the victory of victories,” in 642 the fate of the Sassanid Empire was sealed: the Arabs were to bring down the age-old Persian dynasty. Emperor Yazdagird fled to Khurasan and, oddly enough, was killed by a local Persian in 651 (Hort 61).
The Egyptian campaign was led by Amr Ibn al-As, and it was carried out under conditions similar to the other campaigns. The Monophysitic Egyptians felt alienated from the Byzantines, who spoke a different language, believed in a different form of Christianity, and thought they were superior. The Byzantine governor, Cyrus, made all attempts to convert the Copts, and applied the usual exorbitant taxes. The Muslims thus entered the country to the relief of the Egyptians, and a victory in Babylon allowed them entrance into Alexandria in 642 (Hitti 33-34). Cyrus was actually in favor of surrendering; however, Heraclius refused to allow him to sign a peace treaty with Amr. Only after the emperor’s death was peace finally established in Egypt (Hort 63). The new Muslim inhabitants kept basically the same Byzantine administration for a while, and did not oust the Coptic officials from their posts. A lighter tax on Christians and Jews was imposed, and no forcible conversion took place (Hort 64).
The reason these expansions are so amazing is not just because of their far reach, but also because of their permanence. Even today Syria, Iraq, and Egypt are thoroughly Arabized Muslim countries. The majority of the population is Muslim, and virtually all inhabitants, Muslim or non-Muslim, speak Arabic as their primary language. Persia, although it reverted back to Sassanid culture and language, is still a Muslim country as well (Hart 264). Islam and the Arabic language have lived for more than 1,400 years in the Middle East, with no sign of weakening or instability, and for this Umar Ibn al-Khattab should be given credit.
In addition to the above accomplishments, Umar (RA) also kept the Muslim community united. All of his generals listened to and supported him, and corruption among the ranks was nonexistent. Umar (RA) had an overall knowledge of everything that was going on, and he integrated this knowledge wisely and for the benefit of all people. For example, he kept the native administrations of the countries that the Muslims entered and just appointed governors; this limited tension and discord. In general, there was overwhelming support of his leadership, and this kept the community unified (Hort 64). This unity strengthened his administration, and avoided the internal bickering and crippling non-action that exists among today’s Muslim community.
Concerning economic matters, the land of the occupied countries was left in the hands of the owners, and a light property tax (kharaj) was imposed along with the “people of the book” tax (jizya). The revenue from these taxes and rent etc. went to the bayt al-mal, or government treasury. Thus, a solid fiscal system was established. Diwans, or registers were set up, the first being a diwan of pensions for the family of Muhammad (PBUH) and the men who fought in battles, much resembling welfare (Hort 64-65). Umar (RA) was very strict concerning money matters, and did not appreciate useless spending (Hitti 40). This helped him build a strong economy.
Another somewhat ignored achievement made by Umar (RA) was the creation of the Muslim calendar. Before that time, people gauged events with natural occurrences. For example, one would say that their first child was born during the drought and their second a few years after that. Needless to say, this became a problem, and Umar (RA) devised a solution: he began the first Muslim year from the first day of hijrah, or migration of Muhammad. Everything after that was referred to as after hijrah, or A.H. This eliminated estimation in time periods, and greatly improved the accuracy and efficiency of government proceedings and similar matters (Hort 66, Faruqi 194).
The final major accomplishment that Umar (RA) should be credited with is the formation of the Islamic judicial system. He appointed the first provincial judges to Basra and Kufa. Although Umar (RA) did not convey extensive detail and the system eventually changed, he did impart some influence, and it was his insight that helped the birth of this institution (Hitti 40). Muhammad Iqbal calls him “the first critical and independent mind in Islam who, at the last moments of the Prophet, had the moral courage to utter these remarkable words: ‘The Book of God is sufficient for us.’” (Iqbal 129). This illustrates Umar’s fundamental basis for Islamic jurisprudence – the Quran.
Many people claim that one of Umar’s greatest accomplishments was the compilation of the Quran (Hitti 23). While this is indeed a great achievement, it was probably not undertaken by Umar. There are proofs that other persons actually compiled the Quran. Hafiz Sajistani’s Kitab al-Musahif is the leading book of traditions that deal with the compilation and inscription of the Quran, and is the standard book of reference in this area. In it are various contradicting ahadith, or traditions. One says that the scribe Zaid bin Thabit compiled the Quran under Abu Bakr (RA). Another says that it was actually Abu Bakr (RA) who compiled it, and Thabit only had a proofreading. Yet another says that it was started by Umar (RA), but completed by Othman (may God be pleased with him). Still another claims that the actual sequence was set by Othman himself. And finally, it is also claimed that Hajaj Ibn Yousaf corrected 11 mistakes that Othman overlooked (Abdul Wadud 85-89). These are supposedly reliable traditions with scientifically accurate isnads, or chains of narrators, yet they provide no solid information regarding the compiler of the Quran. Thus, another approach needs to be taken.
The Quran is a book which all Muslims believe is directly from God, verbatim, and there is evidence that it has not been changed in over 1,400 years. It lays great importance on writing; the very first words revealed to Muhammad were: “Proclaim! And Thy Sustainer is the bestower of greatness; He who taught (the use of) the pen; taught man that which he knew not.” (surah 96:verses 3-5) Also, “We bring into evidence the pen and that which they write.” (68:1) Furthermore, (2:282) exhorts all Muslims to manifest verbal contracts in writing, “whether it be small or big.” It is unlikely that small business transactions would be important enough to write down immediately, but not the Quran itself. Islamic Law which developed later, de-emphasized this characteristic of the Quran, regressing back to pagan tribal ideas and overriding the intention, if not the direct wording of the Quran (Hort 544).
There are still more proofs that the Quran was compiled before Umar (RA) or even Abu Bakr’s reign as caliph. In (25:5) it is said that the disbelievers accused Muhammad (PBUH) of forging “tales of the ancients, which he has caused to be written: and they are dictated before him morning and evening.” Also, there were copies of the Quran during Muhammad’s time, and the believers used to recite from them (29:45, 29:51; 18:27). Reducing revelations to writing was not a new concept (2:101, 2:213; 57:25), and like all messengers, Muhammad (PBUH) became literate after receiving the Quran (29:48). The Quran also says that the prophet and his companions used to recite Quran during their prayers (73:1-4, 73:20). This implies that there was a definite sequence to the revelations, as one cannot recite otherwise. God claims the responsibility of assembling, promulgating, explaining, and guarding the revelation from corruption Himself (75:17-19; 15:9; 41:41-42). He also calls the Quran a book (kitab) in numerous places, including (2:1). The highly precise Arabic language would never use the word kitab to refer to floating pieces of paper or leaves (Abdul Wadud 91-92). Along with the above verses, perhaps the most conclusive evidence that the Quran was written down in the form of a book before the prophet’s death is (52:1-4), which describes unfolded parchment as the material used to inscribe the Quran, and (80:15-16), which exalts the scribes of the Quran as honorable, just, and pious.
Describing the environment during which the Quran was revealed, Maurice Bucaille quotes a famous French translator of the Quran, Professor Hamidullah:
“The sources all agree in stating that whenever a fragment of the Quran was revealed, the Prophet called one of his literate companions and dictated it to him, indicating at the same time the exact position of the new fragment in the fabric of what had already been revealed. . . Descriptions note that Muhammad asked the scribe to reread to him what had been dictated so that he could correct any deficiencies.” (129-130)
The confusing number of aforementioned compilers is also explained. Zaid bin Thabit made a copy of the Quran by Abu Bakr’s request. After Abu Bakr (RA) died, Umar (RA) wanted to make sure that there were no mistakes in the transcription, so he asked Thabit to verify the copy he had made against the testimony of people who had memorized it (hafizun), and the copies written on various materials that belonged to private individuals. It is said that the subsequent single volume made was given to Umar’s daughter Hafsa on his death. Othman (RA) commissioned a set of experts to again verify the document possessed by Hafsa; this is popularly called Othman’s Recension. Many hafizun were consulted, and their concurrence was vital. The reason that so many rigorous verifications took place was because during that time, the rapid expansion of Islam occurred among people whose native language was not Arabic, and it was necessary to retain the purity of the Quran (Bucaille 131).
On one particular Friday in 644, Umar was stabbed by a Persian freedman while he entered Medina Mosque (Hitti 41). Thus, ended the life of one of the greatest men in Islam. As he lay dying, he requested that he be buried under Aisha’s hut, next to the Prophet and Abu Bakr (Hitti 42). He also named a counsel of 6 people and told them to choose the next caliph from among themselves: Abdul Rahman, Sad, Zubair, Talha, Ali, and Othman. It was suspected that a Persian general named Harmuzan instigated the murder. The freedman, Abu Lulu, ended up stabbing himself to death as well.
Many add this tragedy to the list of evidence that a Persian conspiracy was taking root in order to utterly disfigure Islam (Muir 195). It is said that the Persians and Byzantines could not forgive the Arabs, who had up to that point, been backwards, nomadic gypsies, for toppling their empires (Abdul Wadud 22). When the defeated Harmuzan was brought before Umar (RA), the latter asked him why the Persians were not able to fight back as they had done in earlier times. Harmuzan replied that this time they had to fight both the Arabs and their God, and that it was not possible to fight both. This reflects back to the verse (8:19) “Truly Allah is with the believers.”
Thus, the theory goes that the Persians, who were no doubt wise and intelligent, realized that the Arabs would remain invincible as long as they followed the Quran, and the only way to defeat them was to dissociate them from it, and thus from Islam. They did this by voluntarily embracing Islam; for example, Siah, a Persian officer in charge of the defense by Yazdagird, instead of putting up a defense, converted with all of his troops. They settled in Basra. The same thing happened with Jund Shah in Kufa. Nevertheless, this is a very probable theory in the evolution of Islam, and aptly explains all the Persian and Zoroastrian influences that are apparent today (Abdul Wadud 23).
Thus, although Umar Ibn al-Khattab (RA) may have been forgotten by some modern scholars, his influence remains to be seen everywhere in the Middle East. Most Arab and/or Muslim countries owe their existence to the expansions made during his caliphate. Umar (RA) established the beginnings of the Islamic judicial system, and devised a systematic measurement of time through the lunar calendar, which most Muslims still use today. He succeeded in maintaining the unity of the Muslim community, and he built a sound economic system which encouraged prosperity. Although he did not compile the Quran itself, Umar (RA) did contribute to the effort to purify and distribute copies to the growing number of Muslims. He is a magnanimous figure not only in Islam, but in all of human history as well.
Abdul Wadud, Sayed. Conspiracies Against the Quran. Lahore, Pakistan: Khalid Publishers, 1976.
Ali, Abdallah Yusuf. The Holy Quran: Text, Translation and Commentary. Brentwood: Amana Corporation, 1989.
Bucaille, Maurice. The Bible, the Quran and Science. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1979.
Faruqi, Ismail, and Lois Faruqi. The Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986.
Hart, Michael. The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. Secaucus: Carol Publishing Group Edition, 1996.
Hitti, Philip. Makers of Arab History. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1968.
Hort, P.M., et al, ed. Cambridge History of Islam, Volumes I and II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Iqbal, Muhammad. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Lahore, Pakistan: Iqbal Academy and Institute of Islamic Culture, 1989.
Muir, William. The Caliphate. London, England: The Religious Tract Society, 1982.
Dr. Nadia M. Khan graduated from high school in 1996. She wrote this essay as an assignment in her high school history class regarding a world leader. She worked as volunteer at Toledo Islamic Academy, Toledo Hospital, and Medical College of Ohio before starting medical school in August 1998. She got her MD degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in 2002. Currently she is in medical practice with the Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group in Naperville, Illinois.