Umar was born in the ‘Quraysh’ tribe, which opposed Islam. When Prophet Muhammad started preaching the message of Islam, Umar was against him. In his early days, Umar was in the forefront of all the movements against Muslims. He resolved to protect the traditional religion of Arabia. Umar was in favor of executing Muhammad.
Due to the continuous persecution by non-Islamic forces, Muhammad advised his followers to migrate to Abyssinia. This angered Umar, as he felt that the move would destroy the ‘Quraysh’ tribe. He made plans to assassinate Muhammad. On his way to execute the plan, Umar met his friend Nua’im bin Abdullah, who had secretly converted to Islam. On learning this, Umar was outraged. His friend confronted him by saying that things were no different in Umar’s family. He informed Umar that his sister and her husband had also converted to Islam.
Umar questioned his sister and entered into an argument with her. She was adamant in her faith and continued reciting verses from the ‘Quran.’ Umar wanted to know what it was. When he read the verses, he experienced a complete transformation. Umar declared that he had become a follower of Muhammad. Thus, in 616 CE, Umar accepted Islam. He also accepted Muhammad as his leader.
Umar’s conversion to Islam was a great relief for many Muslims, who had, till then, been afraid of praying in public. Umar was brave, and after his conversion, he openly held prayers at the worship places owned by the ‘Quraysh’ tribe. He used brute force to implement his faith, and the ‘Quraysh’ leaders were powerless against this. This strengthened confidence in the minds of Muslims.
In 622 CE, Muhammad asked his followers to migrate to Medina. Umar joined the group. Most people migrated during the night, fearing resistance from the ‘Quraysh’ tribe. Umar left during the day, challenging anyone who dared to stop him. On reaching Medina, Muhammad paired each immigrant with one of the residents of the city, in order to strengthen the bond among his disciples. Umar was paired with Muhammad ibn Maslamah. This made them brothers in faith.
In 624 CE, Umar participated in the Battle of Badr. It was the first battle between Muslims and the ‘Quraysh’ of Mecca. In 625 CE, he was part of the Battle of Uhud. He participated in a campaign against the Jewish tribe Banu Nadir. In 625 CE, Umar’s daughter, Hafsah, was married to Muhammad. This strengthened their relation.
Prophet Muhammad died on June 8, 632 CE. Umar was shocked on hearing this news. Initially, he refused to believe that Muhammad was dead. He threatened to kill anyone who said that Muhammad was dead. Later, Abu Bakr, who was the first caliph of Islam, recited verses from the ‘Quran’ and declared that Muhammad was dead.
After the death of Muhammad, Umar played a major role in establishing the ‘Rashidun Caliphate.’ There were disputes regarding the leadership of the caliphate. Though Umar wanted Abu Bakr as the leader, he faced opposition from the natives of Medina. There was an opposing faction under the leadership of Ali, who was the son-in-law of Muhammad. Umar and Abu Bakr formulated political strategies to secure the allegiance from Ali and his group. Some scholars believe that Umar had used force to establish the supremacy of Abu Bakr.
During the reign of Abu Bakr, Umar was his major advisor. Initially, he was opposed to the policies of Abu Bakr, when the rebelling tribes in Arabia were suppressed by force. He hoped to gain their support through peaceful means. However, later, he accepted this policy of using force.
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In 634 CE, Abu Bakr died. Before his death, he appointed Umar as his successor. As Umar was not a popular figure, many companions of Abu Bakr protested against his appointment. Abu Bakr was unperturbed by the protests. He was fully aware of the capabilities of Umar and believed that he had the intelligence and will power needed to run the caliphate.
After being appointed as the caliph of ‘Rashidun Caliphate,’ Umar’s first priority was the welfare of the poor and underprivileged classes. He gave amnesty to thousands of prisoners from the rebelling tribes. Umar tried to improve his relations with the ‘Banu Hashim’ tribe, to which Ali belonged. He restored several of their disputed properties.
Umar is renowned for his excellent administrative skills. He laid down a proper system for ruling his territory. The sovereign authority over the empire was with the caliph. For administrative purposes, it was divided into several autonomous territories. These territories were ruled by provincial governors. Umar laid down specific duties for each officer of the provinces. He instructed his officers to work for the people and not to rule over them. He reminded them that they were not supposed to be tyrants.
Umar paid high salaries to his officers, to motivate them to work diligently. He also established a special department that was supposed to look into complaints against the officers. If found guilty, severe action was taken against the public officials. Umar was the pioneer in several administrative matters. He introduced the system of keeping records of the officials and soldiers. He was also the first to appoint police forces to maintain law and order.
There was scarcity of water in the Arabian region. Umar built canals connecting River Nile to the Red Sea. The city of Basra was established during the reign of Umar. He built canals connecting Basra to the Tigris. He encouraged agricultural developments in his territory by providing more facilities for irrigation.
Umar introduced several measures to hold his vast empire intact. He ordered the expulsion of the Christian and Jewish communities who were settled in places such as Najran and Khaybar. They were expelled to Syria and Iraq. Umar ordered that these Christians and Jews were to be treated well and allotted land in their new settlement. He also allowed the Jews to relocate to Jerusalem.
During his reign, Umar followed the policy of consolidating his territory and mostly refrained from further wars. The territories of Egypt, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and the entire Sasanian Empire, were annexed by the ‘Rashidun Caliphate.’ Umar was the founder of the Islamic jurisprudence called ‘Fiqh.’
In 638 CE, Arabia suffered a drought followed by a famine. As the caliph, Umar took all measures to ensure the supply of food grains. He imported supplies from Iraq and Syria and personally supervised their distribution. Every night, Umar hosted dinner for the people of Medina. Thousands of lives were saved by this action.
Family, Personal Life & Legacy
Umar was a man who led a simple life. He led the life of an ascetic and had little desire for wealth and prosperity. He lived in a mud hut and walked among the poor. He was well-built and was good in athletics and wrestling. He is believed to have been tall, sturdy, and white-skinned. He was married to nine women. Most of his wives were followers of Muhammad. Umar had 10 sons and four daughters.
On October 31, 644 CE, Umar was attacked by a Persian slave named Abu Lulu. Umar was leading the morning prayers at a mosque in Medina when Abu Lulu stabbed Umar and tried to flee. When he was caught by people, he committed suicide by slashing himself. Three days after the attack, Umar died of the injuries. He was buried next to Muhammad and Abu Bakr. While on his deathbed, Umar appointed a committee of six persons as his successor. They were given the task of appointing the caliph from among themselves.
Umar is held in high esteem by the followers of the ‘Sunni’ tradition. Followers of the ‘Shia’ tradition view him as a person who had usurped Ali’s right to become the caliph.