In Islamic history, after the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), there are four leaders who ruled according to Allah’s law. Hence, we know these four leaders as the four rightly guided caliphs. They were Abu Bakr ibn Abi Quhafa (RA), Hazrat Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA), Uthman ibn Affan (RA), and Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA). From the rightly guided caliphs, the story of Caliph Umar is one of the most captivating and compelling stories in Islamic history. It interests everyone, from the casual onlooker to the person deep into Islamic studies and history.
The transition of leadership during the early days of the Muslims in Arabia was quite interesting. It started with the Prophet (PBUH) serving as the leader in an unofficial capacity in Makkah while the Muslims faced persecution and injustice. At the time, there was no place for them to be truly free of the tyranny of the Quraish. However, after the likes of Hamza ibn Abdul Muttalib and Umar accepted Islam, things became better for the Muslims. But they would be unable to set up a proper state for themselves until the migration to Madinah a few years later.
When the Muslims moved to Madinah, the Prophet (PBUH) naturally became the leader of the state. However, he wasn’t just a political leader. He was the commander of the army and the leader of the prayer as well, showing that a Muslim leader of a state must have the ability to lead in multiple roles. After the Prophet (PBUH) passed away, Abu Bakr (RA) became the first caliph after mutual consultation between the senior companions. One of the notable things during his caliphate was when Umar suggest that the Muslims compile the Quran after a number of Huffaz died in a battle.
How Hazrat Umar (RA) Became Khalifa – Caliph
Abu Bakr was the first caliph, and he did a superb job dealing with the challenges during his era. For example, when he took over, many of the Muslim tribes who had recently accepted Islam ended up apostatizing. They refused to pay allegiance to the first caliph, saying that their agreement was only with the Prophet (PBUH). Additionally, they wanted concessions, such as not paying Zakat, which was unacceptable. As a result, Abu Bakr went to war against them and dealt with them firmly and decisively, crushing the revolt and ensuring the unity of the rest of the Muslims.
However, there was little time for the Muslims to rest after this. Almost immediately, they had to deal with the false prophets, primarily Musailma and his men. Musailma claimed to be the successor to the Prophet (PBUH). Hence, the Muslims had to put a stop to his evil moves to ensure that their reputation remained intact and the enemy of Allah was destroyed. This took a considerable amount of effort since Musailma had a large army. It took an attack from Khalid ibn Waleed and a strong Muslim army to defeat them.
Abu Bakr laid the foundation for a strong Muslim state in the future. Eventually, he became sick with a fever and failed to recover from it. It was on his death bed that he thought about the future of the Islamic state. He didn’t want there to be any differences as there had been for his selection as caliph. Hence, he decided to take the responsibility himself, announcing Hazrat Umar ibn al-Khattab as his successor. Hazrat Umar would be the new leader of the Muslim state, the army, and the leader of the prayer – an immense responsibility that he would have to work hard to fulfill.
Challenges at the Start
When Abu Bakr had announced that Umar would be the next caliph, some of the leading companions were somewhat concerned. The son of al-Khattab had a reputation for being a harsh man, and they felt he wouldn’t be suited to be the leader of the Muslim community. However, Abu Bakr was firm regarding his choice. He said that he considered Umar to be the best person among them all. As time would go on, and people would see Umar’s approach to leadership, they would realize how wrong they had been to doubt him even a little…
Oh, people, know that I have been appointed to govern your affairs, so recognize that my roughness is now weakened, but I will continue to be rough and harsh on the people of oppression and transgression and will put their cheeks into the dirt. Know also that I will put my own cheek into the dirt to defend the people of piety.Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab
After being appointed as the second khalifa, Hazrat Umar ibn al Khattab immediately spoke to his people regarding the concerns some of them may have had. He said that he would tone down his harshness toward them, but he vowed to fight for the weak and against tyranny and oppression. His words made it clear that he considered his people to be his responsibility. As the leader, he would now do his utmost to fight for them. Additionally, he would not tolerate anyone trampling over their rights whatsoever. Later, people would know Umar for this attitude.
Instead of the moniker Khalifa tur RasoolAllah, Umar ibn al-Khattab changed the title of the caliph to Ameer-ul-Mu’mineen. This meant Command of the Believers, and he would go on to become very well known for this title.
Hazrat Umar Continues Engaging With the Enemy
During the second stage of Abu Bakr’s caliphate, the Muslims went on the front foot against the Persians, who had been playing a disruptive role on the border. He also sent armies toward the Romans/Byzantines; they had earlier killed one of the Muslim diplomatic messengers.
Fighting the Persians
By this point, the Muslims faced the might of the full Persian army. However, the Muslims ensured that they had enough numbers to counter them, dealing blow after blow as they went deeper into Persian territories. The two sides had various fierce battles, with the Muslims also occasionally sustaining large losses of life amongst the ranks.
After the Muslims suffered the loss of significant warriors, including a commander, the Muslims decided that they should regroup and strike again. They would do so at the Battle of Buwayb, comprehensively defeating the enemy. Hence, the troops of Umar were now in the ascendancy.
The last of the major Persian kings took a stand to try and capture some of the territories they had lost. He formed a huge army to fight the Muslims. Saad ibn Abi Waqas (RA) led the Muslims as they met the disbelievers at Qadisiya. There, the Muslims went through the usual procedure, inviting non-Muslims to accept Islam.
Of course, they weren’t going to accept the offer, and thus, the battle began. One of the major commanders were soon killed, and the Muslims soon defeated the army, winning the battle. Then, the Muslims advanced to what would be the ultimate conquest: the capital of the Persians in al-Madain.
The people at al-Madain barricaded themselves, and the Muslims laid siege to this huge area. In the meantime, the king accepted his fate and fled; he would be defeated later on. After the siege continued for several days, the Muslims captured the capital, and Umar and the Muslims were victorious, with the Persians comprehensively defeated.
Umar would later complete the comprehensive capture of the Persian lands. The Muslims then settled in the region and spread the word of Islam to one and all.
Encountering the Romans
The Persians decided to make one final effort, joining up forces with some of the other hostile armies in the region to attack the Muslims. However, they weren’t cohesive with their efforts, and the well-prepared Muslims defeated this assortment of enemy troops. They then moved on to the bigger conquests.
Toward the end of Abu Bakr’s caliphate, the Muslim armies in the west had already been making rapid progress. They advanced toward the Byzantines, who had taken drastic action by killing a Muslim diplomat, an act of war. The Muslims at first failed to make inroads, but under Umar’s leadership, they made more headway.
Khalid ibn Waleed (RA) formed his army in a cohesive way, dividing up the battalions to fight on several fronts. He dispatched them in three directions as the Muslims fought the Romans. Khalid eventually laid siege to Damascus and entered the city with the Muslims being victorious. They signed a peace treaty with the people.
The Muslims fought the Romans once again in the Battle of Yarmouk. This was a major battle, and due to some strategic brilliance from the Muslim forces, they gained another impressive victory. In the meantime, Umar took the bold step of replacing Khalid. He appointed Abu Ubaydah ibn Jarrah (RA) as the new commander of the Muslim army. The Muslim army spread to various parts of the region during this time.
When the Muslims were to Jerusalem, the Patriarch requested the Muslim king to come and take the keys. Umar arrived, sharing time with his servant, both occasionally riding the animal they traveled on. Seeing his simple demeanor, the pious man said this was Jesus’ prophecy. The two sides signed a peace treaty, and the citizens had completely religious liberty.
Hazrat Umar Khalifa and the Welfare State
The Prophet (PBUH) had laid the foundation for this state, and Abu Bakr further built upon it. However, Umar was the leader for a long period, and after the Muslims became the superior regional power, he was able to devote his time to local affairs. Considering the massive size of the empire by then, Umar decided to divide it into various provinces and localities. Then, he appointed a governor for each, who would have the authority to take decisive decisions.
Alongside the governor, Umar arranged for each province to have various people in leadership roles to take care of responsibilities. Among these were the revenue collectors, judges, etc. If needed, the provinces were also divided into various districts. During Hajj, the leaders and officers would have to go to Makkah and answer the caliph. Umar also reduced the chances of corruption by ensuring all the leaders got good salaries.
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.Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab
As was the case with all caliphs, Caliph Umar was the main figure making all the major decisions. However, he would often consult with the senior companions regarding important matters. He also realized how important it was to have law and order, so he set up the police department.
One of the most critical parts of Umar’s Muslim welfare state was the Bait-ul-Maal. The Muslims’ vast success in terms of dealing with the enemies in the area ensured that they had plenty of funds in a short period. Hence, Umar was able to structure the Bait-ul-Maal and ensure that it focused on the welfare of his people. This was an important step in making the Islamic state a fair and just one where everyone could thrive.
The Muslims got funds from various sources for the Bait-ul-Maal. These included Zakat, which all Muslims from various areas of the Islamic State contributed to. Additionally, all the captured areas with non-Muslims that the Muslims had made treaties with paid jizya in return for protection from the Muslim army. Besides this, there were other forms of tax, such as land tax and special land tax. Goods left behind by the fleeing enemies also went into it.
Umar and the Muslims utilized all of this to care for the most vulnerable sections of society, showing people from all over the world how to run a fair and just state that care for all segments of society. At the top of the list of deserving people were always the poor and disabled. Umar even formulated a Register of Pensions aimed at giving a portion of the public funds to various Muslim tribes.
The Muslims also spent a lot of the money that they saved up on things that would improve the future of the community. These included mosques, schools, canals, expansion of the Haram, etc. All of these things improved the functionality and standard of living in the Muslim state. Rather than a few getting rich, it was the overall community of Muslims who benefited.
The Story of Hazrat Umar Meeting the Poor Woman
During his reign as caliph, Umar would go around the streets of Madinah at night, seeing what people were doing and if there was something that he needed to work on. One night, while he was on one of these journeys with a friend, he arrived at a location where a woman was sitting near a fire with a group of children crying nearby.
Umar approached the woman and asked the woman why the kids were crying. She replied that was the case because they were hungry. She then said that she had put some water and stones in a pan. Hence, she kept stirring it to try and make them feel as though there was some food on the way.
By doing this, the woman hoped that the children would eventually stop crying and fall asleep. Umar was shocked and asked her why she was doing this. In reply, she blamed the caliph, not knowing she was speaking to him. She stated that she was a widow, and she had nothing to feed her children with.
The woman then went on to say that Umar didn’t deserve to be the caliph and would be answerable to Allah for what he did. Realizing his predicament, an emotional Umar went back to the treasury and took out a sack of grain and some oil. Rather than letting his companion carry it, he picked it up himself and stumbled back to the woman’s location.
Once he reached there, Umar himself prepared the food for the poor woman and her children. Then, he asked the woman to meet the caliph the next day. When she did, she saw him and asked for forgiveness. However, he said he was guilty instead and asked for her forgiveness.
Khalifa Umar’s Martyrdom
Unlike the Prophet (PBUH) and Abu Bakr, Umar didn’t die a death caused by age, illness, or natural circumstances. Rather, it was something that was completely away from the norm. A Persian slave arrived in Madinah and took up work there with some of the locals. He had some grievances with Umar and had even threatened him at times.
People were concerned regarding this man’s attitude. They even recommended that Umar ask the authorities to arrest the man for his behavior. However, Umar refused and hinted that people should not be arrested on mere suspicions. Feeling that a person might cause trouble isn’t enough to take action against them.
As was the case with all the caliphs, Umar didn’t have a personal entourage or guards for protection. He would roam out in the open in front of everyone and was easily accessible. This is in stark contrast to what we see around us nowadays in the world, with leaders taking great measures to distance themselves from the average person.
On one occasion, Umar was leading the prayer, and the Persian slave was part of the congregation. However, he had been plotting and scheming secretly. Unknown to anyone, this evil man had a poisoned dagger on him. He took it out and savagely attacked Umar from behind in a cowardly manner. Then, he tried to escape and ended up attacking others, too.
Eventually realizing that he had nowhere to go, he killed himself. Umar didn’t survive the attack, and the Muslims buried him alongside the Prophet (PBUH) and Abu Bakr. They grieved immensely after the loss of one of the strongest characters in the early days of Islam, and one of the finest administrators the world have ever seen.
Why Hazrat Umar’s Reign Was So Important
Umar (RA) took over the caliphate at a very sensitive time for the Muslims. The community mourned over the loss of Abu Bakr, who had spent much of his tenure in dealing with the apostates and other enemies in Arabia. He did his utmost, but he hadn’t been able to devote too much time to the administrative side of the state because of the other responsibilities.
Umar’s tenure began in the same way. The Muslims were still fighting on multiple fronts, with both the Persians and Romans causing problems. However, efficient work by the Muslim armies ensured that they defeated the enemy relatively quickly. After that, Umar was able to work on the other parts of the state, and he sure did that.
The caliphate of Umar is referred to as the golden phase of early Islamic history. During the approximately ten years that he ruled, the Muslims built a comprehensive state. It was unparalleled in terms of size, reaching far-off lands that the Arabs weren’t even familiar with. Most of all, there was peace, stability, and prosperity.
The various reforms that Umar undertook helped develop a robust infrastructure. Not only that, but it was also sustainable. Umar kept a close eye on things happening around him, taking care that he held them accountable for it if anyone was doing something wrong. He was focused on the well being of the entire community.
The welfare projects ensured that the general populace prospered and was satisfied with proceedings. Moreover, Islam spread to new lands. Muslims interacted with faraway people and established new centers of Islamic learning, further helping to spread the word of Islam. These would go on to play a significant role in later years as Islam spread further.
Hazrat Umar’s Legacy as Khalifa
From an Islamic point of view, all four of the rightly guided caliphs play excellent roles in their own capacities. They each served Islam and the state is an excellent way, ensuring that the Muslims flourished and prospered. However, Umar’s caliphate stands out for many reasons. Many non-Muslim commentators with a neutral viewpoint have even admitted that Umar was one of the finest administrators in history. Some even call him a ‘political genius.’
None of the things that Umar did were very radical. He just focused on the basic concept of ensuring that all his people were happy. He covered all his bases by taking some extra measures, however.
Umar ensured that all the officers and governors were accountable for their actions. Hence, he set up a department to investigate complaints against officers who acted in a way contrary to what Islam teaches. This department would have to investigate complaints and take action if needed. Umar also utilized intelligence services to ensure accountability. This made the officers and governors wary, further deterring them from any unethical actions.
Umar didn’t permit the governors and officers to engage in business dealings. Instead, he ensured that they received reasonable compensation for their services. If he found out that one of them had wealth beyond what was reasonable, he would investigate. On one occasion, an agent revealed that he had been engaged in trade. Umar replied that this was not permissible, and he took away the profits that the man had made.
Simple Way of Life
As did the Prophet (PBUH) and the other caliphs, Umar also lived in a very simple way. He lived in a mud hut without doors and didn’t permit himself any luxuries. Furthermore, he would wear simple clothes and walk the streets during the evenings. He didn’t have any expansive system of guards and security; instead, he was freely accessible to the people. All of this, combined with the Bait-ul-Maal, ensured that the needy in the community were taken care of.
What They Said About Him
Yet the abstinence and humility of Omar were not inferior to the virtues of Abubeker; his food consisted of barley bread or dates; his drink was water; he preached in a gown that was torn or tattered in twelve places, and a Persian satrap who paid his homage to the conqueror found him asleep among the beggars on the steps of the mosque of Medina.Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Omar’s life requires but few lines to sketch. Simplicity and duty were his guiding principles; impartiality and devotion the leading features of his administration. Responsibility so weighed upon him that he was heard to exclaim, ‘O that my mother had not borne me; would that I had been this stalk of grass instead!’ In the early life of a fiery and impatient temper, he was known, even in the later days of Muhammad, as the stern advocate of vengeance. Ever ready to unsheathe the sword, it was he that at Badr advised the prisoners to be all put to death. But age, as well as office, had now mellowed this asperity. His sense of justice was strong.William Muir in The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall
Omar was, more than anyone else, the founder of the Islam empire; confirming and carrying out the inspirations of the prophet; aiding Abu Bakr with his counsels during his brief caliphate, and establishing wise regulations for the strict administration of the law throughout the rapidly-extending bounds of the Muslim conquests. The rigid hand which he kept upon his most popular generals in the midst of their armies, and in the most distant scenes of their triumphs, gave signal evidence of his extraordinary capacity to rule.Washington Irving in Mahomet and His Successors