The most appropriate description for Saidina Umar Al Khattab RA is: phenomenal.
From Sahih Al Bukhari:
According to Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, the Arabic word ‘abqary means phenomenal, extraordinary. As we learn more about this man, and compare to any other rulers in this world, we will see how phenomenal he is.
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The thing about studying the lives of the companions of Prophet Muhammad SAW is that we could see the human in them, and learn how they overcome their problems. We could relate with their lives, and apply the solutions when we look into ourselves and try to improve ourselves according to what they did.
The usual order of learning about the companions is to start with Prophet Muhammad’s SAW greatest companion, Saidina Abu Bakar, and then Umar Al Khattab, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, RA, and the rest of them. However I chose to read about Umar first because he had something that I have, and even his daughter, Hafsah, had, that is a fiery temperament.
If you go through the series of lectures titled “Seerah of Prophet Muhammad SAW” by Sheikh Yasir Qadhi (available on youtube), you’d notice the phrases “Umar stood up” so many times, mainly when someone insulted or tried to assault the prophet. It means Umar was angry and tried to defend Prophet Muhammad SAW in his own way – although he’s usually asked to sit back down by his gentler companions, namely Prophet Muhammad SAW himself, and Abu Bakar RA.
I really needed to learn from him, how did he manage his anger, and even more importantly, how did he use the anger that he had. I was concerned that all this anger will bring me to destruction, but since Umar Al Khattab was promised paradise by Allah, there must be something right that he did, that I could learn from.
I believe that some people are just born with a lower threshold for anger than others, with a good reason. However, I also believe that Allah has given us the way to manage it through the stories of His prophets and the pious people of the past. There must be some kind of energy that a hot-headed person has, that could be channeled in a better way other than lashing out that anger.
After reading the book, I learnt more than that.
You see, Umar Al Khattab is one of the greatest leaders that Islam, and even the world, has seen since the death of Prophet Muhammad SAW. It was during his time that Muslim territories expanded to places so far away, within the shortest span of time. No other civilisations have ever achieved that kind of feat.
Western historians do not understand how this phenomenon occurred. Well, if they only believed one mantra that is “Islam was spread by the sword”, obviously they would not be able to comprehend Umar’s success. For Muslims, success is more than that, way more than that. The strength of Umar’s determination involved, among others, a strong belief of the unseen: God, life after death, the day of judgment, angels, devils, heaven and hell.
All these ‘unseen’ business made him the leader he was: honest, principled, transparent, knowledgeable, loved his people, abiding the law, ascetic, humble, intelligent, and energetic. Who wouldn’t want a leader like this?
I intended to list down all the amazing attributes that I gathered from this biography, however I got stuck at this question: how do I begin? I was also worried that I might not do justice to his character, so it is better if I only touch the surface and let you dig deeper from this book.
Umar Al Khattab took his life, and with that, his position as a leader, as a responsibility from Allah that he will be questioned about on the day of judgment. As Muslims, those with good deeds will be granted paradise, and any unforgiven wrongdoings will enter someone into the fires of hell. His only concern is to obtain Allah’s pleasure, hence everything he did for his people was for that objective.
He was always anxious about his people not getting their basic needs. He would go around the city and its peripheries at night to check on the people. This was when he would discover the needy amongst them. There was a year of famine during his time, and he would not eat more than an average person eats.
One of the stories that strikes me the most is how he helped the wives of the armies read letters from their husbands, and write back to them. During those days not many people could read and write, and Umar is one of those who could. Another story that touched my heart is how he helped an elderly woman cook and clean in the morning, and he’d visit her again in the evening to make sure all is alright before she goes to bed.
If you ask me how did he find time to do all this, my first answer would be, he woke up very early in the morning. That is what us Muslims call “blessings of the early morning”, of which one could do a whole lot of things throughout the day just because one wakes up early.
As the leader of an expanding state, he made sure that roads are built well, his people are educated in both Islamic and worldly sense, businesses are run according to Islamic laws (ie honest, non-oppressive dealings), the poor gets their part of zakat money (a financial institution in Islam that makes sure the poorest and needy are taken care of), and the judicial system is run by the most knowledgable and honest of judges. There was also a widespread freedom of responsible speech among the people of the state, that they could give him their opinion in a manner befitting to people who only meant the best for everyone.
It was during his time that the Quran was compiled into a single book, from the pieces that was written in different forms, so that it could be taught to the generations to come, when all of the earlier Muslims have moved on to the next life.
With regards to wars, Umar Al Khattab stuck to the principles of war in Islam. He mainly defended his people from disturbances at the peripheries of the state, and only fought the armies of the other states. They did not attack the women, children, elderly, ill people, or those who’re performing rituals in their churches; basically no civilians were harmed. They did not destroy places of worship. The Muslims at that time did not plunder the lands, instead they let the people keep their lands and farms, asking only a small amount of tax to be paid. The people of the conquered lands loved their new leaders because the taxes were much lower, they got to practice their own religion freely (although many ended up converting to Islam because of the kindness of the leaders), they get to keep their lands and at the same time the Muslim armies protected their properties at the borders.
The asceticism of Umar Al Khattab is well-known up to this day. If he were to live in this day, he’d be one who drives his own old Toyota from 20 years ago, earn his own living by farming, lives in a small single storey house with two or three bedrooms, eats the average meal which he cooks himself, wears a suit that he’s been wearing every other day for the past 10 to 20 years. If he had to travel, he’d probably travel with a companion, driving the car half the time and his companion the other half of the journey. You would not even know that he is the president of the state.
Don’t you wish we all have leaders like him?
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This book is a translation from Arabic, but you wouldn’t really notice it. It is very well translated, and the language used is pretty simple.
It does contain elaboration of technical aspects of governing a nation and developing new cities, that one could learn from even up to this day.
My only issue with this book is with some of the stories; at times I get confused with all the “he” and “him” in the narrations, that I needed to go back and forth a few times to make sure I don’t get it wrong. It doesn’t happen all the time so it does not disturb the flow of the whole book.
There is so much to write about this phenomenal tower of a man named ‘Umar Al Khattab. His passion, determination, boundless energy and humility came from his belief in Allah and all that came with that belief. The product of his hard work is still felt in the world today, even after the damages done by corrupt, power-hungry kings hundreds of years after he passed away. Truly we could all learn from his extraordinary life.