In the city of Madinah, the Muslims established the first Islamic State. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was naturally the leader of this state, and that too in various capacities. He was the political leader of the nation. He also led the people in prayer. Additionally, he was the commander of the army as well. This style of leadership continued among future leaders, with caliphs (khalifas) taking over the role. We refer to the first four caliphs, i.e., Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali (RA), as the rightly guided caliphs. However, in Islamic tradition, there is one more caliph who people often refer to with that title – Umar ibn Abdul Aziz.
Early Style of Caliphate & Changes (Before Umar ibn Abdul Aziz)
With the rightly guided caliphs, there was a specific method of election of the caliphate that they observed. Abu Bakr was elected after consultation among some of the senior companions. Umar became the second caliph after Abu Bakr chose him to be his successor. Uthman was the third caliph after consultation between six companions specified by Umar. Ali was the fourth caliph also after talks between the companions. Hence, the early caliphate had quite a methodical look to it, and the standard was high. This would later be revived in Umar ibn Abdul Aziz’s era.
The rightly guided caliphs were some of the closest companions of the Prophet (PBUH). They led according to the law of Allah and the instructions of the Prophet (PBUH). However, cracks began to appear in the caliphate from Uthman’s era and continued during Ali’s leadership. After that, things only became worse in terms of leadership. Rather than selecting leaders on their merits and ensuring they upheld Allah’s law, the caliphate became something else. People call this era the Umayyad caliphate.
During the Umayyad caliphate, the state became like a dynasty. The Umayyad rulers would pass the baton from one family member to another. We only have to look back to the time of Umar – when he refused to let his son be considered for the position of caliph – to know the immense dangers of this style. However, this is what happened, and the tribe of Banu Umayya and their descendants ruled as a dynasty. Still, there were some righteous rulers among them. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz would become the eighth Umayyad caliph from the year 717 CE/99 AH.
Who Was Umar ibn Abdul Aziz?
Umar II, as some people refer to him, was the son of Abdul Aziz ibn Marwan. Marwan was the fourth Umayyad caliph, playing an important role for the dynasty during a time of uncertainty. After the last two caliphs had died quickly, the Umayyads were in a weak position with much of the state refusing to accept their leadership. However, Marwan restored that in various parts of the region. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was also the son of Umm Asim bint Asim, whose grandfather happened to be Umar ibn al-Khattab. Hence, Umar II was a distant relative.
Umar ibn Abdul Aziz spent many of his early years in Egypt. That was so because Abdul Aziz ibn Marwan was the Governor of Egypt for some time. However, he would go on to study in Madinah, where he would spend time with some of the pious people of his time, learning about the roots of Islam, Hadith, and their transmitters, etc.
One of his initial forays into a leadership role came when he was appointed at the Governor of Madinah. According to some reports, this was an attempt by the Umayyads to open the gates toward reconciliation between the people of Madinah and the leadership. Under the previous governors, relations had become sour since they ruled with an iron fist and were harsh on their people.
Historians’ analysis of this period shows that Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was a fair and just governor for Madinah. Indeed, some of the leading scholars in the area had strong criticisms for the dynasty, but the Governor would allow it. Hence, he ruled in a fairly lenient way, but he also preferred Islamic legal opinions and tried to rule according to Sharia.
Appointment of Umar ibn Abdul Aziz as Caliph
Sulayman ibn Abdul Malik was the seventh caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. His father, Abdul Malik, was the brother of Umar II’s father, Abdul Aziz. Hence, he was his cousin. Suleyman was initially going to appoint his son as the next caliph, but his initial choice passed away before him, while the others were too young or unavailable. Hence, he decided to appoint his cousin, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, as the eighth caliph of the Umayyad dynasty.
According to various reports, this decision took everyone by surprise. Suleyman’s father, Abdul Aziz, intended for his family and descendants to be rulers. However, Suleyman gave up that initiative and allowed his cousin to take over in the leadership role. We must note here that Umar II’s father, Abdul Aziz, never became caliph, as he died before Abdul Malik. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz took over the caliphate in September of 717 CE, also known as Muharram in the year of 99 AH.
Changes to Administration
As we mentioned earlier, the Umayyads had made many drastic changes to the style of administration during their time. Hence, they had left behind many of the Sunnah practices that the leaders followed. Additionally, rather than focus on the people’s betterment, they made the caliphate into a dynasty. As a result, the family primarily benefited from being in positions of power.
Umar ibn Abdul Aziz had studied with leading scholars in Madinah. He had a strong grasp over Islamic concepts and understood that we could only achieve success in this world by obeying Allah. Hence, he decided that he should focus on making the Islamic state as it used to be once again. The focus was on Allah’s laws and injunctions. Nothing else could take precedence over the laws of Allah.
The most major change in the administration was that Umar ibn Abdul Aziz focused on adhering to all of Allah’s laws. Among the things that he immediately focused on was simplicity. The recent Umayyad caliphs had engaged in much extravagance. Hence, they owned many large estates and palaces. Umar II would have none of this. Instead, he wanted to live simply like the four rightly guided caliphs.
Furthermore, Umar also focused on destroying corruption in the state. Naturally, the leaders had grown very rich and comfortable in preceding years. Hence, a lot of strange practices had crept into the system. There was little accountability for officials, and they became very rich and powerful. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz focused on ensuring that accountability would now take place regularly. He wanted to rule by Allah’s laws alone.
Adherence to Islamic Rules
Umar ibn Abdul Aziz resumed an early practice that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had instated as the leader. He began to send messengers to various rulers in the surrounding areas, such as China, inviting them to accept Islam. The focus on bringing new people within the fold of Islam had a great effect. Many people accepted Islam from the regions of Persia and Egypt. During the preceding caliphates, this wasn’t a priority.
Some of the corrupt officials were against this move. They stated that because of it, their tax revenues had dramatically reduced. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was unperturbed. He replied that he accepted the role of caliph primarily to invite people to Islam and spread the word of Allah. Hence, tax collection was not his priority. Of course, the tax would be good for the state as it would ensure people’s welfare. However, it wasn’t the foremost priority.
Umar II focused on education for all segments of the population. Under his leadership, teachers received healthy compensation for their services. He also ensured that the general populace restored Islamic ethics in their day-to-day lives. He did this by promoting piety and morals. Furthermore, he abolished the consumption of alcohol. He also didn’t allow the people to engage in displays of public indecency.
Umar ibn Abdul Aziz also focused on the development of various areas of the Islamic state. He ensured that the community transformed itself. His administration focused on the development of public areas and facilities, especially in areas that lacked them. Hence, the infrastructure of the Islamic state saw much improvement. Roads and bridges made things easier for travelers. In the meantime, focus on educational institutions helped uplift the average person.
External Conquests vs. Internal Consolidation
Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was one of the first Muslim rulers to halt the expansion of the Islamic State. He decided to focus on the internal affairs of the state first. The Umayyads had stationed forces on the borders of their Islamic State. Hence, they were prepared for war and were ready to invade the surrounding area, such as France and India. Umar II decided that it was time to withdraw their troops.
Umar II focused on the newer areas of the state such as Spain as well. Hence, he directed the authorities to take a census of their nationalities, races, etc. The authorities kept records of the mineral resources in the area, as well as the agricultural produce. Furthermore, the administration emphasized the importance of building and repairing bridges. Additionally, they also built a massive mosque in Spain.
Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was one of the first rulers to focus on the importance of Hadith. He had studied in Madinah himself under some of the leading scholars. Hence, he had closely seen the importance of knowing about the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Therefore, he ordered the collection of Hadith. Some of the earliest compilations of Hadith were done during the era of Umar II.
The previous Umayyad rulers had a strange tax policy. This was not based on any kind of Islamic rules. Instead, this policy gave Arab Muslims a privilege over non-Arab Muslims. Hence, when non-Arabs converted to Islam, they would have to continue paying the Jizya, a tax for non-Muslims. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz altered these laws. Muslims did not have to pay Jizya anymore, but their land would be liable for tax payments.
Umar ibn Abdul Aziz’s Death
All of the changes Umar II introduced severely impacted the Umayyads and their plans. They had specific plans for their future, and these plans mostly revolved around their own benefit. He was one of the family, but he was a cousin of his predecessor, rather than being a direct descendant. The Umayyads were infuriated at the way they lost their power and influence, alongside the monetary benefits they gained.
The Umayyads eventually bribed a slave to poison Umar ibn Abdul Aziz. Umar II had been in charge for just three years, but the changes he made were massive. The dynasty was absolutely unwilling to stomach these new conditions. They decided that they must put a stop to it by any means. Hence, they went down the route of harming him, but they avoided doing it directly. This is why they opted to poison him via a slave.
Umar ibn Abdul Aziz eventually realized that he had been poisoned. His health quickly deteriorated. He also understood that the slave had committed the act. Hence, he decided to summon him and ask him why he did it. He ended up pardoning the slave. Additionally, he collected the little payment that Islamic law gave him under such a scenario. However, he simply deposited it in the public treasury.
While Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was returning from Damascus, the effects of the poison began to take hold. He was just around 37 years old when he passed away in the year 720 CE/101 AH. One of the traditional Umayyad caliphs succeeded him and would go on to rule in the regular method the dynasty observed. Umar II was an anomaly among the other rulers of his era and from his dynasty.
The Legacy of Umar ibn Abdul Aziz
Unlike his predecessors, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz focused on following in the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He completely went against the grain and wanted to rule according to Allah’s law. Hence, he was a just and righteous ruler. He was a pious worshiper of Allah and opposed the style of caliphate observed by the other Umayyad caliphs. This attitude would go on to cost him his life – a small price to pay for obeying Allah and His Prophet (PBUH).
Muslims generally recognize Umar ibn Abdul Aziz for his efforts. Therefore, many people refer to him as the fifth rightly guided caliph. He ruled like the other four rightly guided caliphs and shunned the methods adopted by the Umayyads. Even neutral historians have acknowledged his methods, stating that he was a man of honor, dignity, and respect. His only allegiance was to follow in the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Umar ibn Abdul Aziz also treated non-Muslims well. Besides abolishing the extra tax on non-Arab converts to Islam, he was also just toward the non-Muslims. Hence, he allowed Christians and Jews to retain their places of worship. In Damascus, the Umayyads had altered a Christian church into a mosque. Umar II undid this change and ordered his people to transform it back into the church it originally was.
Some Muslim scholars have stated that in each century, there is a reformer. Therefore, some of them say that Caliph Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was one of the reformers of his time. The Umayyads had transformed the caliphate into something it was never supposed to be. Umar’s short but fruitful reign saw him light the candle of truth and justice. He showed that Muslims must continue to fight in the face of great odds.