Umar is probably one of the most common Muslim names. Many choose this name because it commemorates an important figure in Islamic history. The focus of this post, the second in a series on central figures in Islam, is Umar ibn al-Khattab. Umar went from being one of the strongest opponents of Islam to one of its staunchest believers.
There is not much information about Umar’s early life. He was born to an average family and as a youth tended to his father’s camels. As a young man, Umar learned martial arts, horseback riding, and wrestling. He was also described as being tall and physically strong, and it’s for this reason that many people feared him.
Despite the fact that literacy was uncommon at the time in Arabia, Umar was one of the few who learned to read and write. Moreover, he was described as being a gifted public speaker. His family would arbitrate conflicts between different tribes and because of his oratory skills, Umar succeeded his father as an arbitrator.
When Islam first emerged, Umar strongly opposed it. In fact, he threatened (and in one instance attempted) to kill the Prophet Muhammad. The story of his conversion is well known to all Muslims. On his way to killing the Prophet, his friend, who had secretly become a Muslim, diverted Umar from his goal by telling him that his own sister and brother-in-law had become Muslim. Umar went to his sister’s house and found them reading a part of the Qur’an. When his sister tried to protect her husband from Umar, he hit her causing her to bleed. He then felt guilty and asked to see what they were reading. When he read the excerpt from the Qur’an, Umar was mesmerized by its beauty and went that day to the Prophet and declared the shahadah.
Umar’s entrance into Islam was considered to be a great asset to the nascent Muslim community. Up until that point, Muslims were practicing in secret. After his conversion, Umar asked the Prophet why the Muslims could not practice their faith openly and led them to pray at the Kaba. He went so far as to threaten anyone who interfered with the Muslims who wanted to pray at the holy sanctuary. For this action, the Prophet Muhammad gave him the title Al-Farooq (the one who knows truth from falsehood).
In the Islamic tradition, Umar earned the reputation of being deeply dedicated to the Prophet Muhammad and eventually becoming a great political and military leader when he was the caliph. Umar participated in all the major battles between the Muslims and the Meccans. Like Abu Bakr, he was one of the Prophet’s close advisors. Also, like Abu Bakr’s daughter Ayesha, Umar’s daughter Hafsa married the Prophet, joining him to the Prophet on a familial level. Umar’s love for the Prophet Muhammad was so great that it is recorded that upon the Prophet’s death he threatened to kill anyone who said he had died. It was only when he heard Abu Bakr’s speech that he accepted the reality of his passing.
After the Prophet’s death, Umar was influential during Abu Bakr’s tenure as caliph, often advising him. When Abu Bakr died, he appointed Umar to succeed him. Umar became the second of the Rightly Guided Caliphs serving from 634-644, when he was assassinated.
As a caliph, Umar was both feared and loved. It was recorded that he was very concerned with the well-being of the poor and underprivileged and himself led an austere lifestyle. Moreover, he was known for his intelligence, political leadership, impartiality, and justice. Under his leadership, the Islamic Empire spread rapidly. By the time of his death, the Empire extended from Libya in the west to Persia in the east. Also his contributions include the establishment of the Islamic calender and the founding of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence.
In 644, while he was praying the dawn prayer, fajr in Arabic, he was stabbed repeatedly in the back. Before dying four days later, Umar appointed a council to decide his successor. He was buried next to the Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr in Medina.
For Sunnis, Umar is revered for his strong conviction, his dedication to the faith, his political astuteness, his fairness, and his humility as a leader.
Have you heard of Umar? What is your impression of him? Why do you think he is relevant today? Please share your comments below.