Islam and the Man of God

EVERY PEOPLE HAVE their heroes, those who embody the qualities they most value. The heroes of Islam are not those who look the best, run the fastest, make the most money, or have the most power. Neither are they the ones who have read the most books, delivered the most erudite lectures, solved the most intricate legal dilemmas, or overcome all others in argument. Nor are they those who abandon the world, lose themselves entirely in otherworldly pursuits, seclude themselves from others, or flee from the temptations of this world, devoting themselves solely to God.

Rather, the greatest heroes of Islam are those who win this world for God, who live in it without being of it, who master it only to surrender to God. They engage in the pursuit of knowledge, power, wealth, and planning and building—all for the sake of God, and by employing means agreeable to God. They enjoy nothing as they do the company of God and yearn for nothing more than the ultimate meeting with Him. Yet in between their devotions and bliss, they come back to refashion this world.

Many worthy souls throughout human history have seen the true face of this world and found it too unbecoming of human endeavor, void of meaning and value, and left it, fleeing to God. There have been monks, hermits, and mystics who discarded this-worldly attachments for God, never wishing to come back. But the role model of Islam, Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, ﷺ ascended to the Seventh Heaven to meet God. Yet he came back to refashion the world.

One Muslim mystic has expressed the moral of this story beautifully in saying that had he gone to meet God, he would never have come back. Yet the Messenger of Allah ﷺ did. The reason for this is that for mystics and monks the ultimate object of desire, even when rightly directed, is their own pleasure that comes from the ultimate knowledge of God. The greatest danger for the mystic-monk who rejects as distraction this world, or ignores reason and knowledge (of this world as well as of God’s commands), is to become unconscious of when he ceases to worship God and begins to worship himself. And if the mystic-monk cares too little for this world to help others, then the philanthrope, the lover of humanity, grows frustrated with the mystic-monk and condemns his self-absorption, exclaiming, as the great Muslim poet, Iqbal, did:

Too many are the servants of God wandering in this world

I will be the servant of those who serve God’s servants.

Yet all too often, the philanthrope, in his profession of love for others, becomes the servant also of the opinions of others. He proclaims his love of God day and night, and often does much good. Heedless of the knowledge of God and His commands, however, and of his own self, he loses his compass of love, and he too fails to notice when that compass begins to point to himself. God’s Words and commands to him, as well as the divine mysteries, begin to appear to him as unfit in contrast with the opinions of men.

Not so for the Muslim who follows in the footsteps of God’s Messenger ﷺ. The ultimate object is the pleasure of God—and God’s Word is the primary means of knowing and reaching that end. God’s Messenger ﷺ worked by the hours of light and darkness—exhausting himself in his endeavor—to save others by day and to beseech His Lord by night, until His Lord informed him that his mission was accomplished, and his time had come. Once assured of the completion of his divine delegations, he cared not to stay apart from His beloved Lord even for a moment. Given the choice to live on to see the fruit of his labor or alight to the company of his Creator, he chose to return to the Presence of Truth (qadama sidq), saying, with exquisite poignancy: “Now, none else but the Highest Companion!” Bal Al-Rafîq Al-Aʿla!

A Caliphal Example

The Prophet ﷺ is thus the human paradigm in whose heaven-sent footsteps all Islam’s champions have duly followed, the best of these heroes being those who have followed him closest. Such was the sun of which one of our caliphal leaders was an illustrious ray: His name was ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz, may Allah be ever pleased with him.

Three years only he ruled over the lands of Islam. Yet, despite this extreme brevity, it is impossible to overstate the significance of his rule for Muslims and his impact on the history of Islam. He is still remembered by Muslims for having been Islam’s first and most complete reviver, righting the much that had gone wrong with Umayyad practice after the Rightly Guided, or Râshidûn, Caliphs. Sufyân Al-Thawrî (d. 167 h /778 ce), a scholar revered among the Tâbiʿî (“Successor” generation to the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ) thus justly called him the “Fifth Rightly Guided Caliph,” an accolade that spread among the people, withstood the testing of scholars, and survived the ages.

There are many lists of revivers of Islam inspired by the ḥadîth (utterance of the Prophet ﷺ) that “Allah will raise in this Ummah every hundred years one [or those] who will revive its religion.” No lists are identical, but all are unanimous in acknowledging ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz to be the first mujaddid (reviver) of Islam. Ibn Ḥajar Al-ʿAsqalanî (d. 852 ah /1449 ce), the great ḥadîth authority, notes that for one to be considered a reviver of Islam, not all attributes of virtue and excellence in all aspects of life need be present in a person, and, indeed, such an accumulation of virtues can rarely be claimed for anyone. The one exception to this rule was ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz, in whose person all these virtues and all aspects revivification of the Ummah and its religion came together.

Thus he was honored as the Second ʿUmar (a reference to the illustrious Companion-Caliph ʿUmar ibn Al-Kha ṭ ṭâb), not merely in name but also in deed. Where the ʿUmayyad princes had veered from the prophetic path in their life and rule, ʿUmar ibn ʿAbdl-ʿAzîz became the yardstick against which the distances their vices had carried them from the straight way could be measured. He reached a level of piety (taqwa), asceticism (zuhd), fear of disobeying Allah (waraʿ), self-vigil and self-criticism (murâqaba) and concern for the welfare of others that even scholars, hermits, and renunciants, let alone kings, are unable to reach; wherefore his accomplishments in so short a period seem nothing short of miraculous.

And in this is our first and foremost lesson from ʿUmar’s life. He shows us that, in fact, the early Caliphal model of piety and practical reform is, although rarely achieved, eminently attainable by Muslims other than the Prophet’s Companions. This is, indeed, a profoundly stirring realization.

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Early Life

His name was ʿUmar ibn ʿAbdul ʿAzîz ibn Marwân ibn Al-Ḥakam, may Allah be pleased with him. His mother was Umm ʿÂsim Layla bint ʿÂsim ibn ʿUmar ibn Al-Kha ṭ ṭâb. He was born in the year 61ah / 680 ce and died in 101 ah / 719 ce, after having between 14 and 16 children. He grew up in Madinah, where he lived until the death of his father, after which he was summoned to Damascus by the Caliph ʿAbd Al-Mâlik, whose daughter Fatima he then married. His father-in-law died soon after, and he served as governor of Madinah under the caliphate of his cousin Al-Walîd I.

ʿUmar, according to some reports, continued to live in Madinah through the remainder of Al-Walîd’s reign and that of Walîd’s brother Sulaymân. There are reports, however, that suggest he also visited Damascus, the center of the Umayyad dynasty, as well as Egypt, where his father, ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz had ruled almost independently as a viceroy. Imam Al-Shaʿbî, the great Successor (Tâbiʿî), is reported in the history of Al-Ṭabarî to have said that ʿUmar’s father was noblest in character of all the kings that he had known. When approaching death, he wished he had been nothing, a handful of dust, or a camel-herder. Thus it appears that his father had the seed of piety and self-reflection that was to fully blossom in ʿUmar.

There are two different sets of reports about the life of ʿUmar II prior to his assumption of the caliphate. The first consists of those that portray him as a typical Umayyad prince who was upright and religious but not starkly different from other Umayyad princes at the time. He enjoyed life to the fullest, showed loyalty to his family, and adopted some of their way of ruling while also being a student of the Madinah school of fiqh (Islamic Law). The remarkable change that made him stand with the first four Rightly Guided Caliphs occurred at the occasion of his appointment as Caliph by his predecessor.

The other set of reports shows him as endowed with unique character, outstanding piety, and knowledge from the beginning of his rule. The truth seems to lie somewhere in between. It is clear, as we shall see, inshâ’Allâh, that his association with the circle of scholars of Madinah—the school of which Imam Mâlik later became the champion—was ʿUmar II’s alma mater, and his acts during his caliphate illustrate his deep learning, even greater piety, respect for scholars, reverence for knowledge, and paramount concern to preserve it. These are virtues that one does not acquire overnight.

On the other hand, the period of his rule clarifies that he was not a pious idealist given over to prayer and exhortations to piety, but a wise and practical political leader who had mastered the practical matters of the Umayyad Caliphate and knew how to lead strong-headed men given to baser concerns than his own, and how to handle enormously difficult challenges, including those associated with managing, leading, and transforming the greatest empire of the time back to being the Rightly Guided Caliphate.

‘Umar’s Life as the Governor of Madinah

Let us take stock of ʿUmar II’s life prior to his caliphate. As the governor of Madinah, ʿUmar drew nearer to the pious scholars of Madinah, showed lenience and signs of piety, and was held in high repute throughout the lands of Islam. But he generally ruled in line with the Umayyad style, and executed some orders of the Caliph that he was to regret for the rest of his life.

The second-hijrî-century Arab historian, Al-Wâqidî reports that when Walîd II appointed him as the governor of Madinah, ʿUmar II’s luggage arrived on the backs of thirty camels. His luxury, charm, delicate taste, extravagance, and love for perfumes, clothes, and horses outdid even the other Umayyad princes. His scent would last along a path long after he passed through it. The merchant who supplied his clothes said that ʿUmar’s robes prior to his caliphate cost him 400 dirhams a piece, and still he would consider them too coarse. After he assumed the caliphate, the same clothier reports his garments cost no more than 14 dirhams, and always he found them too extravagantly fine.

In Madinah, ʿUmar used to give generous rewards to poets for panegyric (extravagantly praising) verses about himself, once awarding a poet 15 she-camels for his poems. The most extreme report that supports that ʿUmar II was not as pious and scrupulous prior to his becoming Caliph as after has it that as the governor of Madinah, when ʿUmar II was ordered by the Caliph Walid II to enlarge the Masjid of the Messenger of Allah, Ḥubayb, the son of ʿAbdullah ibn Al-Zubayr approached him and exhorted him not to touch the “Private Apartments” formerly of the wives of the Prophet ﷺ mentioned in the Quran (in Sûrat Al-Ḥujurât, 49:4). ʿUmar II is reported to have continued with the orders and was ordered by Walîd to punish Ḥubayb with 40 lashes and a douche of cold water in winter, which led to Ḥubayb’s death. When ʿUmar II became the Caliph and reached the level of piety that he did, he would greatly regret this action, and weep and say: “Who will support me against Ḥubayb?” (That is, who will help me on the Day of Judgment against the unjust orders I carried out against Ḥubayb). (This report is found in the writings of the first-century-hijrî historian Al-Yaʿqûbî. Al-Wâqidî also has a version of it).

Even during his pre-caliphate life, however, ʿUmar had the spark of righteousness, nurtured by his association with the great scholars of Madinah. The previous governor of Madinah, Hishâm Al-Makhzûmî had used all manner of oppression against the great scholars of Madinah, in particular the fearless sage Saʿîd ibn Al-Musayyib. When ʿUmar was appointed at Madinah, he met with these scholars whose numbers included two grandsons of ʿUmar ibn Al-Kha ṭ ṭâb, one of Abû Bakr, and ʿUrwa ibn Al-Zubayr, who was the first historian of the Sîrah (life account) of the Prophet ﷺ, may Allah be pleased with them all, and promised to always act with their advice.

He appointed the well-known pious scholar Abû Bakr ibn Ḥazm as qâḍî, judge, during his reign. ʿUmar II was finally released from his position as the governor of Madinah because of complaints by the infamous governor of Iraq, Al-Ḥajjâj ibn Yûsuf, to the caliph that ʿUmar’s leniency toward those whom Ḥâjjaj’s butchery was causing to flee from Iraq was motivating them to take refuge in Madinah. ʿUmar despised Al-Ḥajjâj for his oppression, harshness, and injustice and remarked that if all nations of the world were to bring their most evil men, we could outdo them all by presenting Al-Ḥajjâj.

ʿUmar reports that once, most likely after he had been removed from the governorship of Madinah due to Al-Ḥajjâj’s complaints of his softness toward “rebels,” the Caliph Walîd summoned ʿUmar to his quarters with his executioner standing by and asked him of his opinion of those who curse and bad-mouth the caliphs. ʿUmar stayed silent, upon which Walîd grew angry, clearly expecting to hear a stern response declaring the death penalty for such people. ʿUmar, upon the Caliph’s insistence, replied: “Such people should be punished in accordance with their crime.” ʿUmar reports that at this point he expected Walîd to order his execution due to sympathy and softness towards the rebellious foes of the caliphate, but Walîd angrily left, saying: “He has gotten lost along with the rest of them.”

The next Caliph, Sulaymân, held ʿUmar in high esteem. On one of their journeys between Makkah and Madinah, their caravan passed through severe rain and thunder, which scared Caliph Sulaymân. ʿUmar said to him: “If this is God’s mercy, what then shall His punishment be like!”

The scholar, Saʿîd ibn Al-Musayyib, whose piety, knowledge, asceticism and will to speak truth to power was legendary, resided in Madinah, as we’ve already mentioned. When ʿUmar became the governor of Madinah, he sent a messenger to him to ask a question, but the messenger misunderstood his orders and conveyed to Ibn Al-Musayyib that he had been summoned by the governor. When he came, ʿUmar apologized for the mistake.

ʿUmar had a beautiful voice. Once Saʿîd ibn Al-Musayyib was engaged in his worship in the Masjid of the Prophet ﷺ when ʿUmar began reciting Quran in his prayers at night and prolonged his recitation. Saʿîd, perhaps not recognizing him, said to his servant to tell this man to stop disturbing him, upon which the servant felt hesitant and said: “The Masjid does not belong to us.” Upon over-hearing this dialogue, however, ʿUmar took his shoes and quietly moved to one corner of the Masjid.

‘Umar’s Prayer Resembles the Prophet’s (sallallahu alayhe wa sallam)

Anas ibn Mâlik, Allah be pleased with him, the young Companion and dear servant of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, visited Madinah during ʿUmar’s governorate and observed him lead people in the ṣalâh and prayed behind him. He remarked that he had not seen anyone’s performance of prayer closer to that of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ than ʿUmar’s. It is said that when leading ṣalâh, ʿUmar used to prolong prostration (sujûd) and bowing (rukûʿ) and make standing (qiyâm) and sitting (quʿûd) short.

All of this shows that even before assuming the caliphate, ʿUmar had the excellence of character and seeds of purity and righteousness that reflected that of the earliest Muslims. But that potential and those seeds needed a moment of truth to effloresce. That hour for ʿUmar came when the liability of the Caliphate was laid upon him. The burden of responsibility in itself is often a powerful motivator for the best qualities of an individual to show.

Responsibility empowers people and can bring out the noblest traits in a person that might otherwise remain dormant. Power corrupts, says the oft-repeated adage; and power without accountability truly does often corrupt. Less appreciated is that powerlessness corrupts just as much.

ʿUmar’s transformation at the moment of receiving the highest office not only brought out in full the righteous qualities which had previously shown themselves only in glimpses and glimmers, but catalyzed, more luminously, their synthesis with his steady years of attachment to knowledge, the knowledgeable, and learning Islam’s religious sciences. This was to become the greatest boon to ʿUmar and the Ummah he was to lead.

‘Umar’s Accession to the Caliphate

Sulaymân, the Caliph prior to ʿUmar ibn ʿAbdul-Aziz, was ʿUmar’s cousin and had always admired him. According to the reports in Al-Ṭabarî’s history and elsewhere, when Sulaymân was on his death-bed, having no grown son as an heir, his advisor and a noted scholar, Rajâ’ ibn Haywah (the calligrapher who likely detailed the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem), persuaded him to make the right choice and appoint ʿUmar as the next Caliph. ʿUmar reluctantly accepted the position after trying unsuccessfully to dissuade Sulaymân.

Hence, ʿUmar’s first remarkable act after the bequeathal to him of the caliphate was to give it up. This was a sign that ʿUmar was going to reject the Umayyad tradition of the dynastic designation of caliphate. Instead, he affirmed the ideal that the Caliphate is the right of the Muslim Ummah, and it is the Ummah that must freely choose the Caliph by shûra, communal consultation. One version of his inaugural sermon reported by a fourth-(10th ce)-hijrî-century biographer reports it thus:

“O People! I have been burdened with this task without my opinion, or desire, and without consultation with the Muslims [that is, without the input of the Ummah’s shura]. I hereby set you free of the [yoke of] allegiance to me that is around your necks. You are free to choose for yourself” (Al-Ajurrî, Akhbâr Abî Ḥaf ṣ, ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz).

In another report of the same event, he announced in his first sermon that his acceptance of the office was contingent upon the shûra of Muslims from other cities confirming his “election,” that is, ‘ikhtiyar’ (“election [in the sense of selection] of the ruler”) (Suyû ṭî, Târikh Al-Khulafa’, Al-Dhahabî, Siyar Aʿlâm Al-Nubala’).

The next remarkable act that gave observers the sense of the revolution that was underway in the person of ʿUmar himself and through him the Islamic caliphate, was his rejection of the use of the regal carriage, which represented the Umayyad caliphs’ tradition after ascension. Instead, he rode out on his mule. He similarly rejected royal residence and chose to live in a simple house.

The Umayyad tradition was for the caliphs to live in extravagance and luxury and, upon their death, their used robes and luxury goods would be inherited by their sons, while the untouched robes and goods would pass on to the next caliph. When ʿUmar was told which of the items were now his and which would pass on to the heirs of the deceased Caliph, ʿUmar once again shocked the family by rejecting this tradition, saying that these goods belonged neither to him nor to the heirs of the deceased Caliph but to the treasury of the Muslims. Similarly, all the rides and other wealth of the Caliph and the Umayyad family were turned over to the Bayt Al-Mal, or Treasury.

Raja’ ibn Haywa reports that after ʿUmar assumed the Caliphate, he was not sure if ʿUmar was up to the task. But the first task of ʿUmar was to call him to write letters to the governors. He sent them their new instructions with such skill and decisiveness that this convinced Raja’ of his acumen as a ruler. People gathered in eagerness to meet the new caliph, but he avoided contact with anyone for three days. Thereafter, he came out and delivered the following sermon:

O People! If you stand, so will we. And if you sit, so will we. All people will stand one way before the Lord of the Worlds. Allah has decreed certain obligations and established ways. Whosoever adopts them is on the right, and whosoever ignores them will be erased. People have wondered who shall keep us company. Those who shall keep us company will do so if they do five things: Convey to us the needs of those whose needs have not reached us. Guide us to that justice to which we have not yet been guided. Be our aid in what is right and just. Keep our trust and the trust of the people. Not backbite or malign anyone before us. Whoever does not do these things will find it hard to find company with us (Ibn ʿAbd Al-Ḥakam, 39).

He gave another sermon granting permission to those who had been wronged to enter upon him without any obstruction. He addressed those who were non-residents of Madinah:

O People! Return to your lands, for I may forget you when you are here with me, but I remember you in your own lands. Know that I have employed some men over you as governors who are not the best of you, but they are better than others. Know that if anyone has been wronged by his ruler, he needs no permission to enter upon me. Others, I shall not see. Know that I have prohibited this wealth upon me and my family, for if I were to keep it for myself from you, I would truly be miserly. By God! I have no interest in this life except in reviving the Sunnah [the way of the Prophet ﷺ] and walking on the path of truth.

ʿUmar’s sense of responsibility toward people was exemplary. When given the office of the Caliphate, he seemed as if stricken with a deadly calamity. When asked of this, he replied: “And why should I not look aggrieved, for it is my responsibility to fulfill the rights of every member of the Ummah without his asking me or having to write to me for it.” He would say: “I am not the best of you, but my burden is the heaviest of all” (Siyar Aʿlâm Al-Nubalâ’).

Prosperity and Inner Contentment Among Muslims in His Reign

These, of course, are inspiring words, but let us trace their actual impact on people’s lives and on the state of the Ummah. ʿUmar’s works of public welfare and convenience for people read like a utopian vision, were it not for their documented practical reality. For instance, he instructed his governors to finance Ḥajj-Pilgrimage for everyone who was unable to do so by his own means. Not only this, but to accommodate those new thousands of pilgrims and other wayfarers, he had guesthouses built across the lands of Islam where travelers could stay for a day and a night, and longer for those in need.

Note ʿUmar’s objective: Helping Muslims fulfill their bound duties to God. This is certainly the motivation in his well-known systemization of Zakât. It is reported that in ʿUmar’s time it became hard to find recipients of Zakât. This is not merely a function of communal prosperity. Rather, it reflects the richness of heart that Muslims feel when they are ruled by just and righteous rulers.

Al-Bay ḥaqî, a scholar of prophetic traditions, reports in his work, Al-Dalâ’il, (The Proofs) that ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz ruled Muslims for just thirty months. During this time, rich men used to come to the state Treasury, Bayt Al-Mâl, with great amounts of money, saying: “Spend this on the poor.” But they would return to their homes with their charity in hand, for it was said to them: “There are no poor that we know of” (ʿUmdat Al-Qârî, 16:135).

Ya ḥyâ ibn Saʿîd said:

ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz sent me to Africa to collect Zakât from the rich and return it to the poor of that land. After we collected the due Zakât, however, we could not find a single poor one [to give it to]. Nor could we find any who would take this wealth from us. ʿUmar [ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz] had made all the people self-sufficient….So we bought slaves (in Africa) with the Zakât we had collected and freed them (Sîrat ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz, Ibn ʿAbd Al-Ḥakam, 59).

The Zakât system of caring for the poor in Muslim lands was astonishingly effective under ʿUmar’s reign. One reporter recounted a letter written by ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz to ʿAbd Al-Ḥamîd ʿAbd Al-Rahman, the Zakât collector for Iraq. He instructed him to give the poor their due from the funds. ʿAbd Al-Ḥamîd wrote back to ʿUmar stating that he had given full Zakât funding to all the deserving poor, but a great deal of Zakât-funds remained.

ʿUmar directed him to seek out those who had outstanding loans and give them enough Zakât-funds to pay off their loans. ʿAbd Al-Ḥamîd did so, then wrote back saying, the Treasury was still over-flowing with Zakât-funds.

Again, ʿUmar wrote him: “Seek out all the unmarried men without money and pay the bride-dowries (mahr) for whomever of them desires to marry, that they might do so.” ʿAbd Al-Ḥamîd did as asked and wrote back: “I have helped every unmarried man that sought to marry and paid for his marriage. Still a great amount of Zakât-funds remains in the Treasury.” ʿUmar instructed him to identify those paying kharaj (a special land-tax) and to give them goodly (no-fee) loans (qard ḥasan) to better their farms, not to be repaid for up to two years (Al-Amwâl, 256).

The Four Underpinnings of ‘Umar’s Character

Power may corrupt, but it does not corrupt all. Each of us wields power or authority in our lives, and to the extent that we are given authority, we are at the risk of abusing it, and we must therefore be vigilant over ourselves. Not only must we be scrupulous and self-critical, but we must also allow and encourage others to critique us. In particular, those over whom we wield our authority, including our children, younger siblings, pupils, and employees, must be allowed to criticize us.

Yet none needs careful vigil and criticism more than one who wields power in government over others. The Muslim Caliph, therefore, is not only the people’s ruler, but is also in constant need of their criticism and advice.

Sufyân Al-Thawrî relates that ʿUmar said to his freedman Muzâ ḥim: “The rulers (who came before me) had spies to watch over their subjects. But I make you a spy over me: If you hear a word from me that arouses your doubt, or if you see me doing something that you do not like, then admonish me and point out my mistake to me.”

This expresses the four outstanding virtues of ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz’s character.

1. HUMILITY

Ibn Al-Qayyim relates that ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz once heard that his son had bought a ring for a thousand dirhams. So he wrote him a letter saying: “It has reached me that you bought a ring for a thousand dirhams. When this letter reaches you, sell the ring and fill a thousand stomachs (i.e. in charity). Then buy a ring for two dirhams. Let the inside of it be of iron and engrave on it the following words: “May Allah have mercy on the person who knows his limits!” (Madârij As-Salikîn, 2:331).

This prayer-maxim was exemplified in ʿUmar’s own humility. Once ʿUmar was sitting with a group of people for business of state at night when the lantern ran out. The people said: “Shall we [refuel] it for you, O Commander of the faithful.” He said: “It does me no harm [to do it myself].” Then he said: “When I got up [to take care of the lantern], I was ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz. And I have come back and am still ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz.”

2. CAUTION AGAINST THE FORBIDDEN (WARA‘)

ʿUmar’s attitude of humility in part arises from his deep fear of falling into the forbidden, or ḥarâm. Thus it was ʿUmar’s practice to be abstemious about himself and his family. Yet he was generous to his governors and officials. Why did he pay his governors generously, namely 300 dinars a year, but take nothing from the fay’-taxes for himself? The answer is that his fear of falling into ḥarâm (waraʿ) was overwhelming. So true was this that when he would receive fragrant ambers or musk in taxes, he would be afraid of even smelling their fragrance, lest he should be held accountable for taking unfair advantage of his position.

For instance, he was afraid to use the public oven to heat up his water for ablution. Once on a cold night when his servant heated up his water for his bath, he refused to bathe in it. His servant insisted that he must use warm water on such a cold night and that he could pay the Treasury for using the public’s heat, a solution to which he finally agreed.

This quality of wariness extended to his speech. ʿUmar’s scribe, Nuʿaym ibn ʿAbdullah, narrates that he, God be pleased with him, said: “The fear of ostentation and vying with others prevents me from saying much of what could be said” (ʿAbdullah ibn Mubârak, Al-Zuhd wa Al-Raqâ’iq).

What inspires such quality in a ruler? In the case of ʿUmar, we see it has much to do with keeping counsel with those truly worthy of bestowing it. It is reported that ʿUmar once wrote to Al-Ḥasan Al-Ba ṣrî, the renowned scholar-ascetic, soliciting advice and exhortation. So Al-Ḥasan wrote back: “This world distracts and preoccupies the heart and body, but zuhd (asceticism) gives rest to the heart and body. Verily, Allah will ask us about the ḥalâl things we enjoyed. Then what of the ḥarâm!” (Al-Bay ḥaqî, Al-Zuhd Al-Kabîr).

3. FEAR OF GOD (TAQWA)

His wife, Fatima, the daughter of the Caliph ʿAbd Al-Mâlik, was asked about his worship after his death. She said: “By Allah, his ṣalâh (ritual prayer) and ṣawm (fasting) were not greater than others in number. But, by Allah, I have not seen anyone more fearful of Allah than him. He would remember Allah in his bed and twitch like a sparrow from fear until we would think that he would die by morning.”

Once he read at night the sûrah containing: “Wa’l layli idha yaghsha” (By the night when it overspreads), and when he reached the verse: “So I warn you of a fire that is ablaze” his words caught, as if stuck in his throat, and he was unable to complete the verse. So he returned to the beginning, and once again when he reached that verse he was unable to utter it. Finally, unable to complete the sûrah, he had to recite a different sûrah.

4. ASCETICISM (ZUHD)

Once ʿUmar delayed coming out for the Friday Prayer and was chided for it. He said he was delayed because he had to wait for his shirt to dry after he had washed it. On his deathbed, he was visited by Maslamah, the son of ʿAbd Al-Mâlik, the brother of ʿUmar’s wife and the great military commander, and was found wearing a dirty shirt. Maslamah asked his sister why she did not wash his shirt. She said: “By Allah, he has no shirt but this, and if we were to wash this shirt he would have no other to wear.”

The same Maslamah was known for being the most extravagant of the Umayyads in spending on fine food and the luxuries of life. So ʿUmar decided to invite him over early one day for a meal and cooked a simple soup of lentils and also some fine food with meats. But it was not served for long and the day passed until it was time for supper and Maslamah could not bear it anymore. Then the simple food was served. Being hungry, Maslamah ate ravenously. Then ʿUmar asked for the finer food to be served and asked Maslamah to eat more, but he excused himself saying he had already over-eaten. ʿUmar then remarked: “Why all that extravagance in eating at the cost of burning in the Fire when this simple food suffices?”

‘Umar’s Sermons and Letters

ʿUmar was one of the most eloquent speakers at a time when masters of Arabic were many. His sermons and letters reflected the intensity of his foresight through which he could see the true nature of this transitory life and express his inner beauty with immense literary power. His words show a tragic sensibility, acquired from having seen the nothingness of the luxuries of this life and the shallowness of the machinations of power that keep less intelligent men occupied all their lives.

A sense of both his eloquence and insight can be glimpsed in the words preserved from a few of his sermons. Ibn ʿAbd Al-Ḥakam reports some these.

He once said in a sermon, God be pleased with him:

O people! Be mindful of God, for the mindfulness of God is the end of all things, while nothing is its end [i.e., it is an end in itself]. The rulers who came before me used to buy loyalty to cover up their wrongdoings. O people! As for me, I am not a possessor of treasures that I can spend at will. Rather, I am bound to spend it as I have been commanded. There is no obedience of the created in disobedience to the Creator. I say these words and seek God’s forgiveness for you and myself.

In another sermon, he said:

I have not gathered you to discuss some matter I have invented, but only because I have looked at the matter of your Hereafter and to what you are inevitably heading and found that those who believe in it are foolish [for they fail to prepare for it]. And those who disbelieve in it are facing imminent ruin.

Then he stepped down [from the minbar].

In a letter to his military commanders, he wrote:

Solidarity of religion and succor of Islam is belief in God, performance of Ṣalâh at its proper time and the giving of Zakât….For, indeed, the one who allows his ṣalâh to wither away is more likely to allow the laws of Islam other than the sûrah to wither away. Moreover, observe Islam to the last of it with constancy and order the people of knowledge and understanding of your army to propagate what God has taught them of knowledge and to mention it in their mosques. (Murâd, 9, fn15)

In a letter to a governor, ʿUmar wrote: “Annihilate every innovation [from your practices] and revive every [prophetic] norm (sunnah) from the norms of Islam, and every Law (Sharîʿah) from the Laws of Islam. And let not the blame of those who may blame you take hold of you when it comes to your striving in the way of God (Murâd, 9, fn. 16).”

It is reported that in his last sermon ʿUmar praised Allah and said:

You were not created in vain. Nor will you be left without purpose. Verily, you have an appointed time when Allah, the Most High, will come down to judge you. Wretched and ruined will be he who is denied the mercy of Allah and a Garden whose width is that of the heavens and the earth. Do you not know that no one will be safe tomorrow save one who is wary of today and fears it, and sells the ephemeral for what is lasting, and the little for the plenty, and fear in exchange for security [in eternal life]? Do you not know that you are from the loins of the dead, to be taken by those who remain after you, until all matters return to the Best of Inheritors? Every day [in funerals] you accompany those returning to Allah, the Mighty and Sublime, having spent their time [on Earth], until you hide them in a crevice in the ground, in the belly of an unfurnished hole, having parted from their loved ones, stroking the dirt and facing their accounts. Now, they are dependent on their deeds, free of what they left behind, in need of [the deeds] they put before them. So fear Allah before the time He appointed is up and death descends upon you. This is what I have to say.

He then lifted the edge of his garment over his face and wept profusely and made everyone around him weep (Abû Bakr Al-Daynûrî, Al-Mujâlasah wa Jawâhir Al-ʿIlm).

Umar wrote to his governor of Khurasan:

O son of Umm Jarrah! Do not give a believer or a dhimmî (non-Muslim under Islam’s governance) even one lash save justly. And beware of revenge, for you will ultimately stand before One who knows what the eyes steal and what the hearts conceal. Moreover, you shall be made to read a book [on the Day of Judgment] that will neglect of your deeds nothing, great or small.

He was equally concerned with the welfare and protection of non-Muslims in the realm of Islam. He wrote to his governors: “Do not harm or destroy churches, synagogues, or fire-temples” (Ṭabarî).

The Impact of ‘Umar II on Muslim Society

The best testimony to the profound transformation ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAziz brought can be seen in the following observation that a contemporary made:

[The Caliph] Walîd was a man given to erecting buildings and factories. So when people gathered in his time, they would talk to each other about the new buildings and factories. Then Sulaymân became the Caliph, and he was given to food and marriage. So when people got together in his time, they would talk about getting married and women. Then came ʿUmar. When people gathered in his time, they would ask each other about how much they prayed at night, how much Quran they read, when they completed its recitation, or when they expected to complete it, and how much they fasted that month.” (Ṭabarî)

Perhaps ʿUmar’s character and rule is best illustrated in the protocol he prohibited and instituted, and the example of leadership he set, when it came to his own person as caliph, the most powerful man in the world. He forbade people to stand for him when he entered and other such protocol that were becoming the regal practices of the caliphs in receiving greetings. Rather, he insisted on initiating salutations of salâm, peace, as the Prophet ﷺ had taught.

And when ʿUmar desired to correct the excesses of his predecessors when it came to the public properties that had been appropriated as personal wealth, he began by returning the jewelry of his wife to the Treasury.

How far a cry is this from what Muslims and non-Muslims experience in their leaders today, East and West.

(part 2 to follow, inshâ’Allâh)

Originally posted 2016-03-18 13:00:59.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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