During the ten years of his rule from 634 to 644 A.D., Umar changed the course of history. Emerging from the deserts of Arabia, the Arabs fortified with the faith of Islam overpowered the Byzantine power in the west and the mighty Persian empire in the east. During the short space of ten years the Muslims conquered countries comprising an area of 2,251,030 square miles. Under Umar the lslamic dominions assumed the dimensions of a continent. These extended from Mecca 1,036 miles to the north, 1.087 miles to the east, and 483 miles to the south. These countries included Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Khuzistan, Fars, Isfahan, Azarbeijan; Armenia, Makran and Khurasan. The dominions extended from the Oxus to the Nile.
There have been many conquerors in the course of history and the record of the conquests of Umar compares very favourably with the record of other conquerors. In one point the conquests of Umar surpass the conquests of all other conquerors. Whereas the conquests of other conquerors did not endure for long, the conquests of Umar in the name of Islam have endured for the last 1,400 years.
In the history of the world, Umar accordingly occupies a prominent position. He is one of the greatest men of all times. The passage of time has in no way dimmed the glory of his greatness. The life-story of Umar which we have tried to narrate in these pages projects in unmistakable terms all the qualities that male greatness. Umar lives in history as a great conqueror, a great ruler and the founder of the Muslim state. Umar lives in legend as an embodiment of all that a great ruler or a great man should be.
The qualities and characteristics of the personality of Umar include: towering personality; robust constitution; great power of mind; inflexible integrity; strong sense of justice; simplicity of habits; contempt of pomp and luxury; strong faith in his mission; strong conviction fos the truth; highly developed sense of duty; absolute impartiality; devotion to Islam; extreme sense of dedication; very strong sense of justice; sympathy for the aggrieved; courage against the oppressor; energy; piety; humility; discipline; frugality; morality; political insight; accessibility; vigilance; patience; perseverance; accountability before law; equality for all; and indeed all the virtues that a ruler or a leader of men should possess.
Umar was a man of great knowledge and learning. He was a good orator. Every Friday he would address the faithful in the Prophet’s mosque at Madina. Some of the addresses that he delivered on such occasions have come down to us and are masterpieces of religious teaching. While sending his forces on various expeditions he addressed them in very inspiring terms. He was a good writer and some of his letters which have come down to us show the skill of his penmanship. The instructions that he issued to his officers to regulate statebusiness are very much modern in content. Many anecdotes about him have come down to us, and these project his greatness, wisdom, and foresightedness. He was a good judge of poetry. He could freely quote appropriate verses to suit the occasion. He was a good judge of men. He could discern the truth from falsehood. He always called a spade a spade, and would never mince matters. Whatever he regarded as the truth he spoke it even though it might appear to be bitter. He enjoyed the reputation of being hard and harsh, but that was primarily because he always valued the truth, and had no hesitation in expressing it even though it might be displeasing. Howsoever stern or angry he might be, if the verses of the Holy Qur’an were read before him he would at once soften, and even burst into sobs.
Physically as well as intellectually he was a man of towering personality. But he never tried to give the impression that he was in any way superior to the people around him. He was a good critic, but his criticism was not meant for others; alone it was meant for himself as well He listened to his critics with great respect and if such criticism was infounded he tried to explain things to them. He subjected himself to rigorous self-criticism. Whenever there was any lapse on his part, he would shut himself in a room of his house and then loudly reprimand himself. If he beat any body with his whip inadvertently and such punishment was found to be unjustified he would ask the person concerned to beat him with the whip in the same way as he had beaten him. During the famine he refused to take ghee or meat simply because the people of average means could not afford such food. He was the ruler of vast dominions but he denied himself all privileges of rulership. The allowance that he drew was just enough for a person of average means. When the people around him insisted that his allowance should be raised, he refused to accept any increase. And when he died he willed that after the sale of his property the entire amount of the allowance that he had drawn should be refunded to the treasury.
He set very high standards of integrity, and was the first to practise what he preached. His son ‘Abdullah was a very talented man but he refused to give him any office. One of his sons Abu Shama was found guilty of drinking and Umar had him flogged to death. Once a Governor gave some gift to one of his wives. Umar returned the gift and rebuked the Governor. Once a wife of Umar sent some perfume as a gift to the wife of the emperor of Byzantine. The wife of the emperor of Byzantine sent some gift in return. Umar sold the gift and credited the proceeds to the state treasury.
He ate the coarsest of food, and wore clothes of the coarsest of cloth. Once he was late for the Friday prayer and the explanation that he offered was that he had his clothes washed, and they took some time to dry which delayed his departure for the mosque Umar the ruler of the largest empire of the time had only one shirt in his wardrobe and that too was patched. When the envoy of the Byzantine emperor came to Madina, he expected that the Caliph would be living in a heavily guarded palace. The envoy found no palace and no guard. He found the Caliph sitting in the mosque in the company of ordinary people. Umar was the living embodiment of the doctrine of equality before law. Once he appeared in a suit in a law court and when the Judge wanted to show him some respect for the office he held, he desired that no preference should be shown to him in any way and that the law must have its course. When a messenger riding a dromedary came from Iraq carrying the news of the victory of the Muslims at the battle of Qadisiyya, Umar met the messenger a few miles outside Madina and ran all the way by the side of the dromedary of the messenger hearing the news and without disclosing his identity to the man who had brought the news. When Umar went to Palestine to receive the surrender of the city of Jerusalem the world witnessed the strange spectacle of Umar’s slave riding the camel, and Umar the mighty Caliph, walking on foot holding the reins of the camel.
Umar would perambulate the streets of Madina at night carrying his whip in his hand. The whip would freely descend on any one found guilty of any lapse or excess regardless of his status. Once a chief was found passing through the streets of Madina at the head of a procession of his followers. Umar whipped him for this display of arrogance. A prince of Syria who had accepted Islam and was staying at Madina and Mecca as a state guest slapped a man who accidentally trod on his feet in the course of the Hajj. Umar laid down that the man who had been slapped could in turn slap the prince.
Umar kept a watch over the people as a shepherd would keep a watch over his animals. A blind woman in Madina had no one to attend to her needs. Umar visited her frequently and attended to her needs. In a cottage a woman was found cooking stone in a kettle merely to give the children the impression that food was being cooked for them whereas there was nothing in the house to be cooked. Umar carried a bag of flour and other eatables on his own back and handed them over to the lady. A Bedouin and his wife came to Madina and were in a predicament as the lady suffered from the pains of childbirth. Umar’s wife acted as a midwife and Umar sat all the time outside the tent awaiting the birth of a child.
He took particular care to appoint men of approved integrity to high offices under the state. He watched over them like a hawk, and as soon as any lapse on their part came to the notice of Umar immediate action was taken. People were free to complain against their officers. Impartial enquiries were held and when any officer was found guilty he was removed and punished. All the Governors were required to assemble at Mecca on the occasion of the Hajj, and here any person could complain against any officer. Umar exhorted all concerned to realise that the officers were not meant to rule; they were there to serve the people, and build up a welfare state. Umar’s concept of administration was:
“By God he that is weakest among you shall be in my eyes the strongest until I have vindicated for him his right. He that is strongest I will treat as the weakest until he complies with law.”
No political thinker or ruler since Umar has been able to come forward with a better concept of the purpose of the state than the concept enunciated by Umar. About the ruler and the ruled relationship, Umar said:
“People generally hate their ruler and I seek protection of Allah lest my people should entertain similar feelings about me.”
Some of his standing instructions to his executive were: “Avoid vain suspicions; keep away from malice; do not encourage people to cherish vain hopes; be careful in respect of Allah’s property in your charge; be accessible to the people; guard yourself against evil men; seek the company of the righteous; attend to your job with due diligence; do not procrastinate in the despatch of state business; watch your subordinates; take immediate action against those who are corrupt or inefficient; and award merit.” All these instructions given 1,400 years ago would be as true today as these were then.
Umar stood for quick and impartial justice. Umar appointed capable and upright persons as Judges. He instructed his Judges in the following terms:
“Justice is an important obligation. Treat the people equally in your presence, in your company, and in your decisions, so that the weak despair not of justice and the high placed have no hope of your favour . When you are in doubt on a question and find nothing about it in the Quran or in the Sunna of the Prophet think over the question; ponder over the precedents and analogous cases and then decide by analogy.”
Umar took special pains to project Islam in the proper perspective as a living faith. There was a school of thought who held that religion was mystical and supra-rational and as such the injunctions of religion including Islam were not to be tested on the basis of intellect or reason. Umar founded what later came to be called Israr Ilmuddin. He held that Islam was a rational religion and all its injunctions and practices could be tested and justified on the basis of reason and intellect. He was the first Muslim to undertake Ijtihad, and lay down new laws in keeping with the spirit of Islam. In the Holy Quran no punishment was laid down for drinking. Umar laid down a penalty of 80 lashes in this behalf. The position about Mutah was not clear. ‘ Umar forbade Mutah. The position about three divorces was not clear. Umar held that even when three divorces were announced at one sitting the divorce was irrevocable. In the month of Ramadan Umar enjoined upon the Muslims to offer Tarawik in congregation.
Umar took pains to ensure that the faish of Islam should remain pure and should have no characteristic of idolatry about it. The tree under which the Holy Prophet took the oath of allegiance on the occasion of the Hudaybiah pact came to he regarded by the people as something sacred. Umar had the tree uprooted to avoid idolatrous veneration thereof. On the way from Madina to Mecca there was a mosque where the Holy Prophet had once said his prayers. It became the practice that the pilgrims offered extra prayers at the mosque. Umar forbade the practice. The Black Stone at the Kaaba came to be held as sacred. Umar held that it was just a stone. At one stage the Holy Prophet had ordered Rummal in Hajj, under which the first rounds in the case of the Kaaba were to be performed running. Umar was of the view that Rummal had been provided under circumstances which no longer existed. He did not abrogate the practice but nevertheless held that if some body could not run that did not matter.
Umar is known for his humanitarian reforms. He provided privileges for slaves. He emancipated girl slaves who bore their masters children. Full protection was afforded to the Dhimmis. In the matter of citizenship they were treated at par with other citizens.
In the social field Umar took particular steps to build a social order according to the teachings of Islam. Prohibition was enforced with great strictness. It was the practice with Arab poets to mention the names of their beloveds in their poetry. Umar prohibited the practice. The poets also indulged in satires and lampoons. Umar issued strict instructions that no poet should write satires and lampoons. Umar also ordered that in their verses the poets should not extol non-Islamic virtues. Umar laid down that no person, howsoever rich should build a double storeyed house, and no house should comprise more than three rooms.
The political and social order that Umar set up by applying the principles of Islam was more democratic than the democracies of today and more socialist than the socialist countries of today. That order has remained the ideal for all Muslim countries to revive.
Because of his achievements, Umar occupies an outstanding place in the history of the world. We do not come across any other ruler in world history who led so simple a life and yet inspired awe and terror among his people and his foes alike. The awe and fear that Umar commanded was because of his high moral character People feared him because he feared God. Umar was an embodiment of the virtues of Islam. About him the Holy Prophet said:
“If God had wished that there should have been another prophet after me, he would have been Umar.”
About Umar we can appropriately say what Girami said of Iqbal, namely:
“In the eyes of those who know the secret of things, He fulfilled a prophet’s role, but he cannot be called a prophet.”