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Islamic Personalities ( 4 Jun 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Piety of Caliph Umar

By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam

 05 June 2017

Amongst the nations before your time, there have been inspired people (who were not Prophets), and if there is one amongst my Ummah, he is Umar.

-Prophet Muhammad

The second caliph in Islamic history, Umar Farouq remains a shining comet of piety .He led a very austere life. On several occasions’ foreign envoys and messengers deputed to Umar by their rulers and generals found him resting under a palm tree or praying in the mosque with common people. It was impossible to distinguish the Caliph from the general crowd. Such was the simplicity and earthiness of Umar

Prof. Philip K. Hitti in the “History of the Arabs writes; “Umar, who was of towering height, strong physique, continued, at least for some time after becoming Caliph, to support himself by trade and lived throughout his life in a style as unostentatious as that of a Bedouin Sheikh. In fact Umar whose name according to Muslim tradition is the greatest in early Islam has been idolized by Muslim writers for his piety, justice and patriarchal simplicity and treated as the personification of all the virtues a Caliph ought to possess. His irreproachable character became an exemplar for all conscientious successors to follow.”

Here are a few episodes from Umar’s life which give us glimpses of the nobility of this great exemplar of justice.

Umar Cooks and Feeds A Starving Family

 During one of his nocturnal rounds with his aide, Caliph Umar heard a plaintive wail waft out of a small and humble dwelling. The alarmed Umar immediately headed towards it .he gently tapped the door. Pushing aside the curtain, he peeped in and found   a haggard woman cooking meals. She was surrounded by her brood of wailing children who appeared to be fighting with pangs of hunger. The woman looked   to be in great distress. She was desperately trying to calm down her unrelenting children. A pan was boiling on the fire. When Umar enquired about the whole distress, the women said the children had been starving for the whole day. “And what are you cooking”, asked Umar. The woman said that there was only water and stones in the kettle. That was to give a consolation to the children that food was being cooked for them: “The children think it is food, and in that hope, they will cry themselves to sleep”.

  Umar was torn with guilt. He believed   that in his rule, the people    were being governed well.  He was appalled and astonished at the plight of his citizens and he rolled his eyes in dismay. A heightened sense of justice and concern for people’s weal twinged Umar’s conscience and he went straight to the state treasury. He called for a sack of rice, loaded it on his back, and weighed down with this heavy load, trudged through the streets.

On his way, he chanced to meet a Muslim man who, recognizing him, said: ‘Caliph, let me carry your burden’. The Caliph replied: ‘No, for who will carry the burden of my sins when I meet my Lord?’ Umar arrived at the woman’s house and, knocking at the door, went in. The children had not yet gone to sleep. They were still crying.

Umar made bread with his own hands and cooked some food. He offered them to the children. The children were so hungry that they scraped the plate clean till the last crumbs before they went to sleep.

Umar asked the woman why she had not brought her distress to the notice of the Caliph. The woman said that in spite of her poverty she had some sense of self-respect and believed she should not go and beg the Caliph for any favour. She thought it was the duty of the Caliph to find out the condition of his people

Umar was visibly moved. “You are right. I offer my apologies. For the future it will be my responsibility to see that every individual of my kingdom is able to lead a decent life.” after making sure that all was well in the house, Umar left.

When the woman realized that the man who had come to her relief was the Caliph himself, she was overwhelmed and smacked her forehead, amazed at the humility of such a powerful ruler. “No Caliph can be so humble and noble” she exclaimed in gratitude as she inconsolably   invoked Lord’s blessings for him.

A Responsible Ruler

On one occasion, Umar was walking through the capital when he heard loud and uproarious noises of revelry. There were rude songs being slung in a house. An angry Umar    jumped into the house through the chimney. A man and a woman, who, Umar knew, were not married, were drinking and amusing themselves. Umar was furious and wild with rage. He yelled at them: “Do you not fear God that you can commit such great sins?”

The man showed no sign of shame as he remorselessly rattled off a volley of accusations at Umar. “Calm yourself please, O ‘Umar! We confess we have committed a sin, but, what about you; you have committed three. God prohibited spying into people’s sins, but you spied. God commanded that people must enter houses through their doors but you jumped in through the chimney. God commanded that people must greet the dwellers of the house when they enter, but you didn’t greet us. The rules that apply to us are meant for you as well. Do you intend to tell us that a Caliph can do no wrong? ” There was a note of scorn in the man’s voice.

The answer jolted and enraged Umar who could not apprehend this mood of defiance. Umar went pink in his face. But his sense of restraint prevailed. His senses didn’t desert him in his anger.  . He regained his cool. Umar masked his anger and preferred silence because, as a wise and mature ruler, he knew   that silence has its own grace   just as speech could be at times graceless   ugly. Umar immediately left the house without uttering a word. The couple had transgressed the limits of decency and they surely deserved a heavy punishment for their obscene acts. But Umar was conscious of his own folly. Justice had to be fair and beyond reproach. Umar decided to close the matter and not pursue it any further.

Several months after that incident, Umar happened to cross that man. Umar remembered the whole incident, but he greeted the man normally and quipped   :

“Believe me! I have not told anyone of what I witnessed months ago”.

The man too responded politely: “Believe me! I have never committed that sin again”.

As a caliph, Umar could have surely avenged his insult. But he bore it patiently. But the man who offended him was overwhelmed by the caliph’s response to the incident.  He recoiled and immediately reformed himself. This incident demonstrated =the fairness of Umar’s actins with his citizens.

Justice on Display

 Once Umar purchased a horse from a Bedouin. However, after travelling some distance, the Umar noticed an infirmity in the horse. He rode back to the seller requesting him to take it back since it was defective. The man grinned, and was annoyed. He refused to take it back, saying that that horse was absolutely alright at the time of the transaction. “How come this issue has cropped up now, after I have already sold the animal and the transaction is complete”. Umar was taken aback with the seller’s stand. He had not anticipated this response. He decided to refer the matter to an arbitrator. He suggested to the man that he identify a judge to whom they could refer their dispute. The man chose Shurayh bin Al-Haarith Al-Kindi and Umar accepted his choice.

After the judge had heard the Bedouin’s testimony, he turned to Umar asking: “Was the horse normal   when you bought it?” `Umar replied: “Yes, it was.” Shurayh then pronounced: “Then keep what you bought or return it as you took.”  ‘Umar looked at Shurayh in admiration and exclaimed with a   glow in his eyes: “Thus justice should be— statement, distinguishing words and fair justice… I give you the position of Chief Justice of Kufah in Iraq.”

This is Islamic justice; an ordinary Bedouin taking the Caliph to a court, deciding which judge to refer the dispute to and the Caliph accepting the judge’s decision voluntarily.  It was possible on account of the extraordinary character and great integrity of Umar. This leader was not an ordinary man, but one about whom the Prophet said: “O Allah! Make Islam victorious by one of the two Umar’s (becoming Muslim).”

Umar did not threaten the Bedouin or misuse his authority or position to influence the judge or even insist on his choice of a judge. Umar accepted the judge’s decision in all humility. There was no trace of bitterness or animus in him.

The Power of Piety

Umar was once presiding over a packed courthouse when he noticed two men dragging a boy inside. Seeing the commotion, he enquired what the matter was. The men said the boy had killed their father. Umar asked the boy whether the charge against him was true. The boy admitted that he had killed their father, but he said it was accidental and not deliberate. “My camel used to tread on their property. One day their father hit a rock at the camel which struck its eye. Seeing the pain and suffering of the camel I got infuriated and threw a stone at their father which hit his head and killed him.”

 Umar then asked the two men if they were willing to forgive the boy. They said they wanted retribution, meaning thereby that the boy had to be executed for expiation of the crime. Umar then asked the boy if he had any last request or desire before the punishment was carried out. The boy said his father had passed away and he had a young brother. His father had left some money for him and he would require three days to retrieve the hidden money and hand it over to his brother. Umar then asked if he could produce a guarantor as an assurance that he will come back. The boy looked at the packed courthouse, hoping to evoke some sympathy, but received no response. To his utter surprise, the people looked the other way when he cast a hopeful glance at them. Then suddenly a hand in the last row went up. It was Abu Dhar al-Ghifari al-Kinani, the illustrious companion (Sahaba) of the Prophet who was the fourth or fifth individual to embrace Islam. He came forward to stand guarantee for the poor helpless boy. it meant that in case they boy did not turn up in three days, Abu Dhar would have to get his head chopped off. The boy was allowed to leave and report back within three days.

The first day passed off, but there was no sight of the boy. The second day too passed with the boy still not back. On the third day, the two men went to Abu Dhar and asked him to accompany them to the courthouse. Abu Dhar insisted that there was still time till the day to end. The prayer call for sunset prayers was still minutes away. Meanwhile tension had build up in Madinah and the town was abuzz with news that Abu Dhar would have to suffer the punishment for the boy.

 With just a few minutes to go for the prayer call, the boy appeared. He was gasping but relieved that he could make it by the deadline. Umar asked the boy what prompted him to come back when in fact he had not send any spy or an escort to follow him. He said that he didn’t want people to say that a Muslim had made a vow and failed to fulfil it. He then turned to Abu Dhar and asked him, what had made him stand guarantee for the boy, particularly when the risk involved was so high and the boy was a total stranger. Abu Dhar replied that he didn’t want anybody to say that a Muslim wanted a guarantee and no Muslim was forthcoming to offer it. The two men whose father had been killed by the boy turned emotional. “When there are such honest and pious people in this world, we don’t want   people to say that a Muslim asked for forgiveness and was not forgiven. We would like to forgive the boy.” The boy was forgiven and allowed to go free. Such was the level of piety during the caliphate of Umar.


Moin Qazi is author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker and Women in Islam: Exploring New Paradigms.


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