The Four Rightly Guided Caliphs: Umar ibn al-Khattab
Umar ibn al-Khattab was elected Caliph in 632, on the insistence of the previous Caliph Abu Bakr. He was one of the first companions of the Prophet and he strengthened Islam’s influence over the neighbouring Arab and non-Arab nations. The Prophet had created the ummah, Abu Bakr made sure it did not perish while Umar led it to glory and might.
Umar did not adopt Islam from the very beginning. At first, he was one of ummah’s persecutors. Umar was 15 years the Prophet’s junior. He was born in Mecca in 585. He was extremely tall and towered above the crowd as if he were seated on a horse. He was tough, high-handed and bossy, his manners were anything but gentle. His stride was agile, his voice resounding, his temper as short as can be. His complexion was fair and his moustaches, which he dyed red, were bushy. When Umar was nervous he had the habit of twirling them.
At first Umar was a shepherd before becoming a merchant. His authority in Mecca was beyond dispute so that he was often invited as a third party judge to settle arguments. The Prophet kept praying all the time for the Lord to turn to ummah such an influential man as Umar. However Umar was unrelenting. He went as far as deciding to murder the Prophet for the latter’s preaching of disavowal of the gods of their ancestors. On his way, he met a man who brought him the news that his own daughter with her husband got converted to Islam. Back home, Umar found them reading verses from the Quran. He fell on them in a fury but Allah stayed his hand, so instead he asked them to read some of the Quranic verses to him. ‘Where can I find the Prophet?’ asked Umar. ‘At al-Akram’s,’ said his son-in-law. That way Umar ibn al-Khattab was converted to Islam and became its most reliable defender, as well as the Prophet’s bodyguard and companion. Umar protected the faithful from the attacks of idol worshippers, ensured their safety during the migration to Medina.
In Medina, Umar married his daughter to the Prophet and took part in all the military campaigns of the young Muslim state, first alongside the Prophet, then alongside his successor and deputy (in Arabic, ‘caliph’) Abu Bakr. After Abu Bakr’s death Umar as his closest adviser and companion was elected the new ‘deputy of the Messenger of Allah’, the caliph.
Umar set forth to actively expand the boundaries of the Caliphate (the political incarnation of the spiritual ummah), seizing the possessions of Byzantine in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Babylon and conquering parts of Persia (for which the Persians branded him a usurper and started marking the day of his death as a celebration). Umar turned the Caliphate into an enormous empire. He appointed the Prophet’s companions as governors of the conquered provinces and they obeyed him without dispute.
On Umar’s orders the Prophet’s former secretary Zayd ibn Thabit began collecting all the pieces of revelation known at the time, thus began the collection of the Quranic texts into one canon. Umar also codified the Hajj ritual, making the pilgrimage annually at the head of his followers. Umar was a talented interpreter of the Quran, well-versed in the Hadith and fiqh (Muslim law).
The Muslim ummah and Islam owe a lot to Umar. He is considered an ideal ruler: a righteous ascetic fair to Muslims and merciless to foes.
Caliph Umar was assassinated by a Persian idol worshipper avenging the conquest of Persia by the Caliphate. Slave Piruz, nicknamed Abu Lula, stabbed him six times during the morning namaz at the mosque. When Umar learned about his assassin’s identity, he exclaimed ‘Praise be to Allah that my death was not caused by a believer in Islam!’