During his last illness Abu Bakr had conferred with his people, particularly the more eminent among them. After this meeting they chose ‘Umar as his successor. ‘Umar was born into a respected Quraish family thirteen years after the birth of Muhammad (peace be on him). Umar’s family was known for its extensive knowledge of genealogy. When he grew up, ‘Umar was proficient in this branch of knowledge as well as in swordsmanship, wrestling and the art of speaking. He also learned to read and write while still a child, a very rare thing in Mecca at that time. ‘Umar earned his living as a merchant. His trade took him to many foreign lands and he met all kinds of people. This experience gave him an insight into the affairs and problems of men. ‘Umar’s personality was dynamic, self-assertive, frank and straight forward. He always spoke whatever was in his mind even if it displeased others.
‘Umar was twenty-seven when the Prophet (peace be on him) proclaimed his mission. The ideas Muhammad was preaching enraged him as much as they did the other notables of Mecca. He was just as bitter against anyone accepting Islam as others among the Quraish. When his slave-girl accepted Islam he beat her until he himself was exhausted and told her, “I have stopped because I am tired, not out of pity for you.” The story of his embracing Islam is an interesting one. One day, full of anger against the Prophet, he drew his sword and set out to kill him. A friend met him on the way. When ‘Umar told him what he planned to do, his friend informed him that ‘Umar’s own sister, Fatima, and her husband had also accepted Islam. ‘Umar went straight to his sister’s house where he found her reading from pages of the Qur’an. He fell upon her and beat her mercilessly. Bruised and bleeding, she told her brother, “Umar, you can do what you like, but you cannot turn our hearts away from Islam.” These words produced a strange effect upon ‘Umar. What was this faith that made even weak women so strong of heart? He asked his sister to show him what she had been reading; he was at once moved to the core by the words of the Qur’an and immediately grasped their truth. He went straight to the house where the Prophet was staying and vowed allegiance to him.
Umar made no secret of his acceptance of Islam. He gathered the Muslims and offered prayers at the Ka’aba. This boldness and devotion of an influential citizen of Mecca raised the morale of the small community of Muslims. Nonetheless ‘Umar was also subjected to privations, and when permission for emigration to Medina came, he also left Mecca. The soundness of ‘Umar’s judgment, his devotion to the Prophet (peace be on him), his outspokenness and uprightness won for him a trust and confidence from the Prophet which was second only to that given to Abu Bakr. The Prophet gave him the title ‘Farooq’ which means the ‘Separator of Truth from False hood.’ During the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar was his closest assistant and adviser. When Abu Bakr died, all the people of Medina swore allegiance to ‘Umar, and on 23 Jamadi-al-Akhir, 13 A.H., he was proclaimed Caliph.
After taking charge of his office, ‘Umar spoke to the Muslims of Medina:
“…O people, you have some rights on me which you can always claim. One of your rights is that if anyone of you comes to me with a claim, he should leave satisfied. Another of your rights is that you can demand that I take nothing unjustly from the revenues of the State. You can also demand that… I fortify your frontiers and do not put you into danger. It is also your right that if you go to battle I should look after your families as a father would while you are away. “O people, remain conscious of God, forgive me my faults and help me in my task. Assist me in enforcing what is good and forbidding what is evil. Advise me regarding the obligations that have been imposed upon me by God…”
The most notable feature of ‘Umar’s caliphate was the vast expansion of Islam. Apart from Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Iran also came under the protection of the Islamic government. But the greatness of ‘Umar himself lies in the quality of his rule. He gave a practical meaning to the Qur’anic injunction:
“O you who believe, stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it concerns rich or poor, for God can best protect both.” [4:135]
Once a woman brought a claim against the Caliph ‘Umar. When ‘Umar appeared on trial before the judge, the judge stood up as a sign of respect toward him. ‘Umar reprimanded him, saying, “This is the first act of injustice you did to this woman!”
He insisted that his appointed governors live simple lives, keep no guard at their doors and be accessible to the people at all times, and he himself set the example for them. Many times foreign envoys and messengers sent to him by his generals found him resting under a palm tree or praying in the mosque among the people, and it was difficult for them to distinguish which man was the Caliph. He spent many a watchful night going about the streets of Medina to see whether anyone needed help or assistance. The general social and moral tone of the Muslim society at that time is well-illustrated by the words of an Egyptian who was sent to spy on the Muslims during their Egyptian campaign. He reported:
“I have seen a people, every one of whom loves death more than he loves life. They cultivate humility rather than pride. None is given to material ambitions. Their mode of living is simple… Their commander is their equal. They make no distinction between superior and inferior, between master and slave. When the time of prayer approaches, none remains behind…”
‘Umar gave his government an administrative structure. Departments of treasury, army and public revenues were established. Regular salaries were set up for soldiers. A popuation census was held. Elaborate land surveys were conducted to assess equitable taxes. New cities were founded. The areas which came under his rule were divided into provinces and governors were appointed. New roads were laid, canals were lug and wayside hotels were built. Provision was made for he support of the poor and the needy from public funds. He defined, by precept and by example, the rights and privileges of non-Muslims, an example of which is the following contract with the Christians of Jerusalem:
“This is the protection which the servant of God, ‘Umar, the Ruler of the Believers has granted to the people of Eiliya [Jerusalem]. The protection is for their lives and properties, their churches and crosses, their sick and healthy and for all their coreligionists. Their churches shall not be used for habitation, nor shall they be demolished, nor shall any injury be done to them or to their compounds, or to their crosses, nor shall their properties be injured in any way. There shall be no compulsion for these people in the matter of religion, nor shall any of them suffer any injury on account of religion… Whatever is written herein is under the covenant of God and the responsibility of His Messenger, of the Caliphs and of the believers, and shall hold good as long as they pay Jizya [the tax for their defense] imposed on them.”
Those non-Muslims who took part in defense together with the Muslims were exempted from paying Jizya, and when the Muslims had to retreat from a city whose non-Muslim citizens had paid this tax for their defense, the tax was returned to the non-Muslims. The old, the poor and the disabled of Muslims and non-Muslims alike were provided for from the public treasury and from the Zakat funds.
In 23 A.H., when Umar returned to Medina from Hajj;, he raised his hands and prayed,
“O God! I am advanced in years, my bones are weary, my powers are declining, and the people for whom I am responsible have spread far and wide. Summon me back to Thyself, my lord!” Some time later, when ‘Umar went to the mosque to lead a prayer, a Magian named Abu Lulu Feroze, who had a grudge against ‘Umar on a personal matter, attacked him with a dagger and stabbed him several times. Umar reeled and fell to the ground. When he learned that the assassin was a Magian, he sid, “Thank God he is not a Muslim.”
‘Umar died in the first week of Muharram, 24 A.H., and was buried by the side of the Holy Prophet (peace be on him).