‘UMAR IBN ʿABD AL-ʿAZÎZ, Allah be pleased with him, is praised and loved more than he is known and understood. His meticulous personal piety and asceticism contrast sharply with the imperial decadence and worldliness that afflicted many of his predecessors and successors. Yet his legendary fear of God and austerity have overshadowed the substance of his reforms. In Part 1, we took stock of his life, personal virtues, and sermons. Now, we turn to his reforms.
It is noteworthy that ʿUmar the Second’s (Umar II) profound transformative impact went well beyond the realm of politics and governance and comprehended the domain of Islamic beliefs and practice. Furthermore, it is no exaggeration to say that his reverence for knowledge and scholarly activity created the intellectual and psychological space in which the ʿulamâ’, the independent scholars of Islam, could operate as authorities and develop the tradition and thus he shaped Islamic tradition and society forever after.
Let us turn first to the salient policies that set ʿUmar apart from his predecessors and earned him in the eyes of posterity the honor of being the “Fifth Rightly Guided Caliph” of Islam. And it bears underscoring that what ʿUmar has done in the way of reform of the Muslim Ummah in just thirty months of rule should be viewed by us, not as inspiring hagiography, but as instructive for the promise and peril of our own times.
The Salient Features of an Islamic Government
Is there such a thing as an Islamic government, and if so, what sets it apart from others? This is a question that has exercised many advocates as well as critics of Islam today. (Note that the question of Islamic government is different from that of ‘Islamic nation-state’, the ‘nation-state’ being a modern concept whose validity in Islam can be debated. As far as Islamic government is concerned, all Muslims, not only Ahl Al-Sunnah but Shîʿah, and most other minority sects as well, have consensus on its obligation.)
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While the exact institutional form of an Islamic government is not laid out in the sources and must depend on the time and place, the model of the first four Rightly Guided Caliphs is certainly the first step toward discerning its essential features. Yet things are better understood through their opposites, and many subtleties cannot be known except through contrast. While the rule of the first four blessed caliphs was continuous with what the Prophet of Allah ﷺ had established, the brief tenure of ʿUmar II has the added advantage of constituting a sharp break from what preceding Muslim rulers had fallen into. Thus, it provides a unique opportunity to understand what the earliest Muslims, the Companions and their Successors, and the earliest scholars of Islam believed to be necessary constituents of an Islamic government. These components can be outlined in eight basic categories, which also serve as a sketch for our discussion:
1. Restoration of the true vision of the caliphate
2. Restoration of the Treasury as the Muslims’ right rather than the personal property of the caliph
3. Revival of shûra (participatory consultation) as a means of election and governance
4. Granting equal social and economic status to non-Arab Muslims and new converts
5. Cessation of tyranny and oppression by government officials, with justice and benevolence rather than realpolitik as the way of governance
6. Just and Benevolent Treatment of Dissidence and ‘Heretics’
7. Cessation of military expansion and focus on peaceful invitation to Islam
8. Protection of Islamic knowledge through laying the foundation of the Islamic sciences of fiqh, ḥadîth, and Sîrah
In what follows, we discuss these reforms in some detail. It should be noted that due to the brevity of his tenure and the greatness of resistance against his reforms, ʿUmar II was not successful in implementing all aspects of the change he attempted, and he was gradual and selective even in the reforms that he did attempt. Once ʿUmar’s son ʿAbd Al-Mâlik felt impatient about ʿUmar’s gradual reforms and said: “O father, why are you slow in putting matters into practice? By Allah, I care not if mine or your life is spent in the way of Allah!”
ʿUmar replied: “My son, Allah dispraised wine in two verses and prohibited it only in the third. I fear that if I make people bear what is right all at once, they will reject it all at once.”
At another occasion, ʿUmar defended his gradual approach to reform on the grounds of the enormity of the task at hand, saying: “My son! Your ancestors have cheated the people out of their right, until the matter got to me when their (the people’s) evil had advanced and their good had receded.
ʿUmar II’s Vision of the Caliphate
Islamic government is often misunderstood, and often by Muslims themselves, to mean a government that applies “Islamic law” (a mistranslation of “Sharîʿah”) or certain Islamic laws. But Sharîʿah is not “a law”—but the perfect way known in its fullness only to Allah.
Moreover, it has not been, nor can it be, applied top-down by the ruler. Historically, several different sets of legal codes have emerged in Sunni Islam, known as madhhabs (ways, or schools, of fiqh), each of which represents an approximation of the divine Sharîʿah.
The very idea that government applies a single code of law on all its citizens is a modern Western idea, and as we shall soon note, early Muslims, including ʿUmar II, disliked imposing a unified code of law on all Muslims except in limited matters where necessary. What then, if not a unified law, distinguishes an Islamic state? The answer is captured in these three ayahs of the Quran:
Thus we have made you a community of the golden mean (ummatan wasaṭan), that you be witnesses unto people and the Messenger witness unto you…. (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:143)
You are the best community (khayra ummatin) ever brought forth to humankind. You command what is right, forbid what is evil, and believe in God. (Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:110)
O you who believe! Obey God, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to God and His Messenger…. (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:59)
Hence, three characteristics distinguish an Islamic government:
1. It rules over and in the name of the Ummah, the Quran’s “Best Community,” and over its lands.
2. Its purpose of existence is to facilitate the Truth of God and righteousness based on it.
3. Its method of rule is to obey one or more members of the Ummah, so long as they obey God and His Messenger ﷺ.
Yet, there is another imperative—that of freedom of conscience—that emerges from the Quran. To recognize and live the Truth of God is the primary objective of the Muslim community. But freedom to do so is also indispensable.
If we cared only about the Truth, we would go about coercing everyone to convert. After all, logic would suggest a little coercion in this life is better than eternal damnation. But precisely this logic is clearly rejected by Allah, as well as by the practice of early Muslims. And as Muslims, we follow not only the end-goals but also the means given by Allah. Thus freedom of conscience, principled struggle with evil inside and outside of us, the inevitability of diversity and disagreement, and struggle for peaceful coexistence with others are also clear imperatives in the Quran:
Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: Whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:256).
In this spirit, Allah says to the Prophet ﷺ regarding the People of the Book who came to him for arbitration in Madinah: If they do come to thee, either judge between them, or decline to interfere (Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:42). In the same Surah, the Jews are told to judge by their own Book, as are the Christians in this verse: Let the people of the Gospel judge by what Allah hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are those who rebel (Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:47).
This means that even though Allah has sent clear truth to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, Muslims are not to coerce this truth onto others, because Allah has also forbidden coercion and encouraged other communities of faith to live by their own codes, giving the Prophet ﷺ the choice to judge between them if they come to him for arbitration, or he could deny to do so.
Balancing these two ultimate values, truth and freedom, is the responsibility of the Muslim Community as a whole. But if this is the responsibility of the Community, or Ummah, what is the task of Islamic government?
From a practical perspective, beyond commitment to the Revealed truth, whether a government is Islamic depends on how the following two sets of procedural questions are answered. The first has to do with the nature of the authority of the caliph or the Islamic ruler: What are the powers or authorities of the ruler? Where does his authority come from? What is his relationship to the Ummah?
Prior to ʿUmar II, under the crushing influence of a rapid expansion and the encounter with pre-Islamic Near Eastern models of imperial governance, the Umayyad rulers had abandoned or greatly conflated Islamic guidance on the matter. The second set of questions has to do with how to deal with “others”—including non-Muslims within the Muslim community, those beyond Muslim lands, as well as Muslims who are political dissidents or religious heretics?
Under the Umayyads, the politico-religious opposition had developed along three main lines. One was the Khawârij, who wanted the strict application of the Quran, rejected ʿAlî and Muʿâwiyah both, and demanded radical equality of all Muslims denying any privilege to the Quraysh and pushing their agenda with great violence.
Another was the Shîʿah, who favored a charismatic leader from the lineage of ʿAlî, who they believed somehow continued the divine inspiration and infallibility that had been given to the Prophet ﷺ.
Finally, there was the silent and moderate majority, the Sunnis, who embraced all of the Companions and believed that strict application of the standards sanctioned by the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions best guarantees the salvation of the Muslim Community. ʿUmar II is singlehandedly responsible for embracing and enhancing the all-encompassing ideal of Sunnism. When asked about the battles of Siffin and The Camel among the Companions, he said: “If God has spared my hand from the spilling of that blood, why should I wish to immerse my tongue in it?” (Imam al-Nawawî) This response of ʿUmar has since come to guide the attitude of Ahl Al-Sunnah.
In this respect, the following is the most famous statement by ʿUmar II , often quoted by the Imams of the pious early Muslims as exemplifying Islamic rule:
The Prophet ﷺ and the holders of authority (wulât al-amr) after him established traditions (sunan). To adhere to them means to conform to the Book of God, perfecting one’s obedience to Him, and strengthening His religion….Whoever seeks guidance from them will be guided. And whoever seeks success through them will be successful. And whoever contravenes them and follows a path other than that of the believers (yattabiʿghayra sabîl al-mu’minîn [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:115]), God will turn him over to what he has turned.
In this statement, we can find two related commitments, the first to the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ as well as the traditions of the early Caliphs. But there is also an indication of the overall rectitude of the way of the living Community of Believers, the Ummah. This second dimension is more clearly formulated somewhat later by the ʿulamâ’ as the doctrine of the infallibility (ʿisma) of the ijmâʿ (consensus) of the believers—and it is no surprise that in proving its authority, Imam Al-Shâfiʿî employed the same verse that ʿUmar II had.
Another sermon of ʿUmar II reflects even more clearly on the nature of the caliph’s authority: “I am not a judge but an executor, not an innovator but a follower. None should be followed in disobedience to God. I am not the best of you, but a man from among you, who bears a burden heavier than any of you.” (Ibn ʿAbd Al-Ḥakam, Sîrat ʿUmar, 40.)
In this statement, the principle that was first established by the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs is reemphasized, namely, that the caliph is from among the Muslims, not infallible, subject to criticism, and not special except in bearing a greater responsibility. The caliph is not “divinely chosen”—except in the theological sense that all things that happen, good or bad, are by God’s permission.
In the spirit of emphasizing the divine truth, the Quran and the Sunnah, and countering the cult of the caliphs’ praise and glorification that was beginning to emerge, ʿUmar II wrote to the commanders of military garrisons that they should order their Quran-reciters (qurra’) to invoke blessings on the Prophet ﷺ and on the generality of Muslims, and not single out caliphs and governors. Importantly, the majority of his policy statements in any matter are supported by verses from the Quran. In one powerful statement of his commitment to the Quran, he says: “Would that I had acted toward you according to the Book of God and that you had acted according to it! And would that for every practice (sunnah) that I enacted from it one of my limbs would fall until my soul departed” (Ibn ʿAbd Al-Ḥakam; Murad, 55).
The two sources of ʿUmar were primarily the Quran and the general Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ and the Râshidûn Caliphs that had been preserved by the scholarly circles of Madinah in particular. At this point, the ḥadîth corpus had not yet been compiled in a systematic way. Indeed, the credit for inaugurating the blessed movement of scholars to collect ḥadîth and Sîrah goes more to ʿUmar, as we will see below.
Because he had imbibed the spirit of the Quran and the model of the Sunnah, his wisdom and reasoning guided him in matters not explicitly elaborated in the sources. He was a ruler and a scholar, and had nothing like the literalist and narrow-minded understanding that many bookish scholars or ignorant fanatics possess with respect to the Quran. He understood that the Quran is God’s guidance, not a Book of recipes for all occasions, and so he emphasized the role of justice and benevolence as prime virtues of anyone in authority—virtues that require the use of reason, wisdom, and piety.
As another expression of ʿUmar II’s concern with the Quranic mission of “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” he instructed his governors to not only provide justice, peace, and the protection of the population from oppression, but also to take care of the purity of morals in the spirit of the laws of Islam. The governor of Egypt, for instance, was ordered to forbid the use of wine, to demolish and annihilate the shops where it was being sold. Women were forbidden to frequent public baths, and men frequenting baths were compelled to wear a mi’zâr, a sort of bathing costume (Barthold, 92). Thus ʿUmar reinforced a practice of the Râshidûn caliphs that later evolved into the institution of al- ḥisbah, public morality.
ʿUmar, unlike other rulers, had no double standards for his boon companions and relatives. He encouraged all without discrimination, including members of his own royal family that had become deeply spoiled by luxury, to observe fear of God and acquire fruitful knowledge. According to a report recorded by the scholar Abû Nuʿaym:
The Marwanids [a cohort among the ruling Ummayyads] gathered and said: “If only we entered upon the Commander of the Believers [ʿUmar II] and awakened affection in him for us and reminded him of our kinship (he might restore our privileges).” So they gathered to joke and jest around him (laughing, as often happens at such occasions, at the expense of others). As a loquacious man talked on as if to entertain the Caliph, ʿUmar looked at him and said:
Is it for this that you have gathered, for the meanest of speech that causes ill will? When you gather, dwell instead on the Book of God, beyond that, the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ, and beyond that, concern yourself with the meanings of ḥadîth (which could mean the ḥadîth of the Prophet ﷺ or to reflect on the meaning of whatever they are talking about concerning these sacred sources.) (Murad, 58)
Restoration of the Treasury
The question of how a ruler treats the wealth of the state at his disposal is a crucial one. It is often mentioned among the spiritual virtues and asceticism of ʿUmar that he avoided all luxury and lived with extreme caution. But for ʿUmar II, it was a matter of principle. A king is one who literally owns his people and all of their wealth and resources. He can grant at will wealth to whomever he wishes and take away from whomever he wishes. A caliph, however, is the farthest thing from a king because he is an employee or a representative of the Ummah, not its master or owner. It was in this spirit that ʿUmar II restored the practice of the Râshidûn caliphs of asceticism and equality of all and discontinued the royal allowances and luxurious provisions that the Umayyads had granted to themselves and their family.
The disgruntled Umayyad family tried their best to dissuade ʿUmar from this reform. Once they sent a venerable aunt of ʿUmar to him in this regard, as the scholar Baladhûrî reports on the authority of Al-Mada’ini. ʿUmar anticipated her before she spoke and addressed her thus:
I have guessed why you have come. So let me explain. Indeed, God sent Muhammad ﷺ as a bearer of good tidings and warning, who communicated his Lord’s Message and preferred God for himself, leaving people on a clear, straight path. Then came after him those who followed his guidance and the path remained one and united. Then came to power those who split that path into different paths, until the rule ended up in my hands at a time when the signs of the clear path had been almost obliterated. When I set myself upon reestablishing those signs, those who had deviated left and right were exposed—and that weighed heavily on them to turn back from the path they had adopted. They ask me to follow them. But in following them is the Fire. So what do you say?
The aunt replied: “I think they ought to follow you.” ʿUmar then asked her if she needed anything, in reply to which she said: “Never shall I ask after what I have heard” (Murad, 15).
ʿUmar’s commitment to the Sharîʿah can be seen in full light through his comparison with his successor, the Caliph Hishâm (ruled 724-43), who was also considered a pious man who led a simple life and did not burden the state treasury. But he cared for state finances and avoided what must have seemed the extremely difficult standards of the Sharîʿah. While ʿUmar emptied the Treasury in pursuit of justice and fairness to his Muslim and non-Muslim subjects, Hisham wished to restore it, and even criticized ʿUmar II for having dissipated all the wealth that his predecessors had collected.
A non-Muslim historian, Barthold, remarks that “Events compel us to recognize ʿUmar’s policy as the more correct one. By his rule ʿUmar raised the prestige of the caliph to unprecedented heights, and we seldom meet in literature such anonymous praise for a ruler as we find in the praises of ʿUmar sung by all Oriental authors, Muslim and Christian” (Barthold, 84).
Revival of Shûra in Governance and the Appointment of the Caliph
As noted in part one, reports suggest that ʿUmar II actually relinquished the office of the caliphate after his appointment by his predecessor until the Muslims urged him to accept and pledged allegiance to him, pleasantly surprised by his revival of shûra that had long been dead. But the significance of ʿUmar II’s position on shûra has been lost on many, including many Muslim scholars, who have understood ʿUmar’s act in merely pietistic rather than its proper historical, political, and constitutional context.
Indeed, ʿUmar II’s opinion on shûra may have dangerously neared the viewpoint of the staunchest enemy of the Umayyads, the Khârijîs. The Khârijîs, after being defeated in their rebellion by the caliph’s military, were invited by him for a debate. Apparently, after being satisfied in other respects, they asked him: “Tell us about Yazîd. Why do you acknowledge him to be your successor as Caliph?”
When ʿUmar excused himself by saying that this was the will of his predecessor, which he must fulfill, the Khârijîs responded: “Suppose you were administering some property that belonged to someone else, and you then entrusted it to someone who was unreliable. Do you think that you would have conveyed the trust to its owner?”
Apparently silenced, ʿUmar II said: “Give me time,” thrice. “When they left him,” the report goes on, “the Banû Marwân, or Marwanids, again, a cohort among the ruling Umayyads, feared that he would deprive them of what they had [that is, the caliphate] as well as their wealth, and that he would renounce Yazîd [as his successor], so they had him poisoned. He lived not even three days after the two men had departed” (Al-Ṭabarî, 4:62).
If true, this report is another confirmation of the prevalence of the view that ultimately only the community had the right to elect its ruler and that although championed by the Khârijîs, it was not exclusive to them.
Equality of Arab and Non-Arab, Old and New Muslims
One of the most salient features of ʿUmar II’s fiscal program was to place on equal footing the Arab and non-Arab Muslims. This was a justice to converts that had not been given them for over half a century since the beginning of the Umayyad period, and it was from an administrative and fiscal standpoint an enormous undertaking and from a socio-political perspective, a revolutionary step.
While the Umayyads had often refused to recognize the rights of new converts to Islam in order not to lose taxes that non-Muslims were supposed to pay, ʿUmar II embraced the new Muslims despite the financial setback and, thereby, encouraged the protected non-Muslims as well as the neighboring rulers to Islam. The result was a significant increase in conversions to Islam and a corresponding loss in the Treasury.
When the provincial governors protested against the loss of these taxes due to their impact on the public Treasury, ʿUmar II, God be pleased with him, wrote to them in response these unforgettable words: “Muhammad ﷺ was sent as a prophet, not a tax-collector or circumciser” (Al-Ṭabarî).
To one governor upset about the shrinking of the Treasury due to people converting to Islam, ʿUmar wrote in anger that he should give away everything remaining in the Treasury (if just policy so required), and when nothing was left in it to use it to store garbage. To another complaint of the same kind, ʿUmar wrote: “By Allah! I wish that all the people had professed Islam, until we—me and you included—became farmers, eating what we earned with our own hands” (Murad, 12).
Justice (‘Adl) and Benevolence (Ihsân) Rather Than Tyranny and Realpolitik
In another valuable exchange, one of ʿUmar’s governors sought permission to punish and flog the outgoing governors who had abused their power. ʿUmar II responded:
By my life, the practice [of leniency] that we have adopted is better for our present and future than what the likes of [Ḥajjâj] Ibn Yûsuf, [Yazîd] Ibn Muslim and Ṣâli ḥ ibn ʿAbd Al-Ra ḥmân used to attain by torturing their opponents in mosques or cramped prisons where they were given a revolting diet and drink and coarse clothing. Refrain from such practices and look after those who are in prisons in bad conditions. Give them relief. Loosen their chains. And keep them in good condition. My opinion concerning the [previous] governors is to hold them accountable only about what they have been charged with in a just legal claim. Otherwise, we leave them alone until God judges between us as He wishes. (Murad, 45)
None should be punished, in other words, for merely holding office in an unjust regime. There is no “reign of terror” after a properly “Islamic reform” of government. Legal standards of justice are given by God.
One governor of ʿUmar retained a previous official for his effectiveness in dealing with troubles despite his record of “oppressing people and neglecting their rights.” ʿUmar warned his governor against it, reminding him of God and of the effect of associating with helpers in good and companions in evil, and instructed him to dismiss this official, to desist from associating with him, and to turn him out of the city.
ʿUmar’s concern of dissociating from the practice of earlier Umayyad governors is most intense in the case of the famous governor of Iraq, Al-Ḥajjâj ibn Yûsuf whose oppression, heartless discipline, disproportionate punishments, along with great cunning and dreadful effectiveness, had brought a measure of peace and stability to the trouble lands of Iraq and the surrounding region. His friends and foes, just like those of present dictators and sovereigns, both abhorred him but also relied on his effectiveness. According to a report by Ibn Al-Jawzî, ʿUmar wrote in this regard to ʿAdy, one of his governors:
I have written many letters to you for the sake of God’s reward and blessing and in order to distance you from the affairs of Ḥajjâj, awakening in you aversion to his (oppressive) methods, for he was an affliction (balâ’) which befitted the sins of a people by virtue of their misdeeds. God, glory to Him, achieved through him whatever He willed and then cut off his term and granted the people safety and wellbeing. Even if this blessing (of relief from tyranny) were to last a single day or week, it is a worthwhile blessing from God. I further prohibit you from doing in the matter of prayers ( ṣalâh) what he did, for he delayed it unlawfully. I also prohibit you from his practice in alms (zakâh), for he collected and disbursed alms in unlawful ways. Beware of acting like him, for God has purged His servants and the cities from his evil. (Murad, 47)
To his governor over Kufa, ʿAbd Al-Ḥamîd, ʿUmar II wrote:
The people of Kufa have, indeed, seen great tribulation, severity, and oppression by their evil governors while the true basis of religion (dîn) is justice (ʿadl) and benevolence (i ḥsân).…Do not hasten in executing or dismembering without having consulted with me first in the matter. (Murad, 49)
The same governor of Kufa wrote to ʿUmar to penalize those peasants who would move out from one land to another to avoid taxation by turning their lands into state property, upon which ʿUmar wrote in another letter:
A man does not move out from his land unless he is made to bear a burden beyond his capacity. Therefore, you and your officers should take care not to act according to the practice of [Ḥajjâj] Ibn Yûsuf and his ilk, for they were mischief-makers while God has decreed: He does not cause the work of those who make mischief prosper [Sûrat Yûnus, 10:81]. You should instead befriend and draw close to the people of the lands (peasants), for their land and country is dearer to them than emigration whenever they are treated justly and gently, if God so wills. (Murad, 49)
He wrote elsewhere: “The rulers before us were destroyed because of their obstruction of right until it was bought from them, and their spreading of wrong unless it was safeguarded against them.”
As noted earlier, not all of ʿUmar’s reforms were successful during his tenure, and many were overturned right after his death. Part of the reason for his difficulty in reform was that the experienced men he had to rely on were made of a more worldly clay and their habits thoroughly baked in the corrupt oven of imperial habits. ʿUmar regretted such errors in appointments, although politics did not always allow them to be immediately corrected: Ibn Qutayba relates that ʿAdî ibn Artat received a letter from ʿUmar saying: “I have been misled by your constant conversations with the readers of the Quran and by your black turban [a sign of a simple, Bedouin way of life]. Having tried you, we have found in you the opposite of what we had expected” (Barthold, 84).
‘Umar’s Treatment of Dissidents and ‘Heretics’
The treatment of dissident Muslims posed a problem right from the beginning of the caliphate. In the reign of the third Companion-Caliph ʿUthmân, Allah be pleased with him, the rebels from Egypt demanded his resignation, surrounded his house, and ultimately assassinated him. Yet, until the moment of his death, the Caliph ʿUthmân treated these rebels with patient resolve, and tried to respond to their complaints rather than ordering their elimination or execution.
This principle of toleration of disagreement was established even more clearly by the fourth Caliph ʿAlî, Allah be pleased with him, who refused to arrest people who were found guilty of verbally abusing the caliph and expressing the intent to kill him. When his officials arrested these people, he told them to let the guilty walk, and if they abused the caliph, they could retaliate by abusing them but not arresting them. Similarly, when he overcame the rebels, he treated them with great magnanimity and his conduct came to form a model in Islamic jurisprudence of how to treat Muslim rebels in war.
For the most part, Muʿâwiyah, Allah be pleased with him, too treated his opponents with great forbearance even though his model of rule no longer remained the same as that of the early caliphs. After him, we read in history horrifying reports of the rulers’ horrendous treatment of political dissidents, including chopping off heads and limbs and all kinds of humiliation and torture. With ʿUmar II’s blessed rule, this door of injustice too was closed, albeit temporarily.
ʿUmar II was an Umayyad prince, yet he was willing to criticize and condemn his family heroes who had mistreated their enemies. It was his formative and foundational Sunni inclusivism that guided his tongue as well as his policies, not his Umayyad lineage nor Umayyad politics. Thus he refused to curse ʿAlî and his family from the pulpit, as had been the custom since the time of Muʿâwiyah (Hishâm, the next caliph, followed in ʿUmar II’s footsteps in this regard).
ʿUmar distinguished between the later Umayyads (Marwanids) whom he criticized liberally and the early Umayyads (Sufyanids), of whom he criticized by name only Yazîd ibn Muʿâwiyah, under whose rule Al-Ḥusayn, the grandson of the Prophet ﷺ, had been martyred. He said: “If I were among the murderers of Al-Ḥusayn, even if God had forgiven me, I would not have entered Paradise (out of embarrassment before the Prophet ﷺ)!”
From Warfare to Peaceful Exhortation
The Umayyad caliphs suffered an increasing loss of legitimacy domestically due to a number of their policies and mishaps. There were nearly a dozen significant rebellions that broke out during the total ninety-some-year rule of the Umayyads. The main grievances against the Umayyads included their abandonment of shûra (communal consultation in policy formation), maltreatment of the family of ʿAlî, the tragic martyrdom at the hands of an Umayyad governor of the grandson of the Prophet ﷺ, discrimination against non-Arab Muslims and discouragement to convert to Islam for fear of losing tax income, and maltreatment of some of the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ.
Naturally, as any government would, they sought to compensate for bad domestic conditions by trying to score victory on the foreign policy front, and to them this meant unceasing jihâd at the borders. This military expansionism was beginning to become a means toward enhancing legitimacy rather than defense of Islam or opening ways that had been illegitimately barred to it.
Prior to the Caliphate of ʿUmar II, under Walîd and Sulaymân, the Muslim armies had besieged the great historic city of Constantinople, which was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the only rival empire that posed a threat to Muslim rule. Maslamah, the brother of Sulaymân, the Caliph that preceded ʿUmar II, was a skilful military commander who had laid siege to Constantinople for a whole year without success, as the Emperor Leo III had used his considerable military and diplomatic skill to save his empire.
Upon assuming the caliphate, one of the first acts of ʿUmar II was to roll back the costly and fruitless war with Byzantium. ʿUmar II sent a detachment to the Muslim military near Constantinople, not to escalate the attacks, but to bring food and supplies to the suffering Muslim army and to help it withdraw. Some authors claim that the Muslim army was near victory at the time that ʿUmar’s messenger arrived with the orders to withdraw. But this seems unlikely and the evidence is to the contrary. In fact, Byzantine historical sources indicate that Muslim forces had begun withdrawing already in the lifetime of Sulaymân, the previous caliph. ʿUmar simply quickened and facilitated the process.
ʿUmar II cared deeply about Muslims, and the wanton loss of lives at the walls of Constantinople upset him greatly. Unlike the thinking of some Muslims today, the early Righteous caliphs, like ʿUmar II, did not wish to wage endless war, but to call people to God. And when the two goals contradicted, they preferred inviting people to Allah by peaceful means. The Umayyad rulers who conducted continual war at the borders were, on the other hand, sometimes motivated by conquest and politics rather than genuine concern about calling to Islam.
According to one report in Al-Ṭabarî, ʿUmar II did not favor military expansion and believed that Muslims should be content with what they had received from God without undertaking any new conquests. Perhaps in order to emphasize his message that Islam was about guiding to God and not collecting taxes, he did not adorn himself with a sword while delivering sermons in mosques in the conquered territories, in contrast with the caliphal custom of the time.
A holistic assessment of evidence shows, however, that ʿUmar II, God be pleased with him, was not disinclined toward military action, so long as risks to the lives of Muslims were low or when war was necessary. Successful campaigns were carried out in his reign. On the eastern front, in Khurasan, a victorious expedition against the Turks took place, while in France the city of Narbonne was captured and fortified (Barthold, 82).
Instead of warfare, ʿUmar II adopted a better and more fruitful strategy. He wrote letters to emperors inviting them to Islam and engaging in religious polemics. His letter to the Byzantine Emperor Leo III seemed to have had a significant impact. Even though Leo III did not accept Islam, it is not coincidental that he was the Christian emperor who initiated the famous iconoclastic movement.
Iconoclasts (lit. destroyers of images or idols) believed that Christians ought to avoid revering created images and rather worship God. Thus, ʿUmar II’s words seem to have had greater impact than the swords of thousands of soldiers. Byzantine records show that ʿUmar’s “short and restrained letter” elicited a “sharp and polemical letter” by the emperor. But later research has established that the Emperor’s letter was a later forgery by some zealous priests. (For an analysis of this exchange, see A. Jeffery, “Ghevond’s Text of Correspondence between ʿUmar II and Leo III,” The Harvard Theological Review, 1944). This suggests that Leo himself was impressed with ʿUmar’s letter and might have become inclined toward Islam in a way that led to his iconoclasm (Barthold, 82).
‘Umar and Fiqh
Besides learning of the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet ﷺ as preserved by the scholars of Madinah and elsewhere, ʿUmar had the advantage of practical knowledge and wisdom. There were other Umayyad caliphs who had been quite learned. It has been said that had ʿAbd Al-Mâlik ibn Marwân not been a caliph, he would have been known as a faqîh.
With ʿUmar II, however, “reasons of the state” or the demands of politics did not cause him to abandon his learning and piety, but rather, it only enhanced it. Combined with his extraordinary sense of taqwa, pious fear of Allah, and responsibility to the people, his knowledge and understanding became so deep and wide that that one scholar, ʿUmar ibn Maymûn, says of him: “Scholars in the presence of ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz were like pupils.”
His concern with reviving the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ and the traditions of the early Râshidûn Caliphs was so intense that he would frequently say that he has no purpose in life but to revive some Sunnah, or eradicate some evil innovation.
The famous mu ḥaddith Ibn Shihâb Al-Zuhrî (d. 124/742) is said to have worked for both ʿAbd Al-Mâlik and ʿUmar II and was one of many private advisers and companions of the Umayyads who were well known transmitters of ḥadîth. Another scholar of ḥadîth, Raja ibn Haywah, has already been mentioned in part one in connection with persuading Sulaymân on his death-bed to appoint ʿUmar II as the caliph.
In terms of his method, ʿUmar II was true to his association with the traditional schools of Madinah (and possibly Damascus). He preferred to discipline, not deny, the use of reason in reaching judgments. His religious views were of formative significance in the doctrines of Ahl Al-Sunnah. He encouraged his governors and qâdîs to exhaust all the possibilities of ʿilm, that is, “knowledge” based on the Quran and the Sunnah, before resorting to ra’y, or rationalized opinion. He said:
No one has the right to personal ra’y on matters settled in the Quran. The ra’y of the caliphs concerns those matters on which there is no revelation in the Quran and no past Sunnah from the Prophet ﷺ. No one has the right to ra’y on matters settled by the Sunnah of the Prophet [either] ﷺ. (Murad, 107)
In another statement that reflects that ʿUmar’s opinions were close to those held by the ahl al-athar (scholars of ḥadîth narrations) school of Madinah and Syria, he said: “Follow the opinion which accords with those before you, for they were better and more knowledgeable than you” (Murad, 107).
A more practical and distinctive aspect of his legal attitude is that he preferred “consensus” of religious scholars to individual decisions of a governor. Moreover, he preferred that this process take place at the local level. Ibn ʿAbd Al-Barr reports a dialog between ʿUmar II and Qâsim ibn Mu ḥammad, the grandson of Abû Bakr, God be pleased with them, on the subject of ḥadîth. In this dialog, ʿUmar produced many things (traditions?) contradicting Qâsim’s views until it weighed heavily on Qâsim, upon which ʿUmar said:
Do not be upset, for I do not wish that the Companions of the Prophet always agreed [on legal matters], for if they did so, the people (who follow them) would have always been in straits, for their opinion must be followed. Since they did disagree, if one adopts the opinion of any one of them, that is fine, and in this there is flexibility.
Ibn al-Jawzi reports a similar statement (Murad, 109)
This recognition of differences reflected in ʿUmar’s opinions with respect to differences in local fiqhs. When he spoke of the consensus of scholars, he did not mean the absolute consensus of all Muslims (ijmâʿ), as elaborated later by Imam Al-Shâfiʿî, as already noted. Rather, he emphasized the ijmâʿ of the scholars of a locality, while highlighting the tolerance of disagreement between scholars that has always characterized the best scholars of Islam.
This is the same attitude that we see reflected in Imam Mâlik’s refusal to allow the Abbasid caliph to promulgate Mâlik’s own Muwa ṭ ṭa as a single law throughout the empire. Mâlik instead pointed to the regional differences due to the settling of different Companions in different regions and disliked that his opinions be imposed and all differences eliminated. It was precisely this imperative of tolerance—if not celebration—of disagreement about legal differences that gave Islamic tradition and historical practice its distinctive character and allowed Muslims to tolerate differences.
‘Umar on the Revival of the Sîrah
Umar II’s incisive recourse to the ḥadîth legacy of the Prophet ﷺ and the precedence of the Companions and the Successors led directly to the formation of Sîrah (the Biography of Prophet ﷺ ) studies as an urgent pursuit of knowledge. The importance of the Sîrah of the Prophet ﷺ and that of the Râshidûn Caliphs is an extremely important branch of Islamic knowledge. Without it, understanding many references of the Quran and the ḥadîth would not be possible.
The Umayyad rulers prior to ʿUmar II had a particular dislike for the dissemination of the knowledge of the Sîrah to the generality of Muslims because the Sîrah put things in context, made people understand the entire trajectory of the life of the Prophet ﷺ, and showed clearly how important to the prophetic mission the Anṣâr of Madinah, the family of the Prophet, including ʿAlî, and many other Companions, who were now considered enemies by the Umayyads, had been. Of course, the scholars among the progeny of the Muhajirûn and Anṣâr were already aware of the Sîrah and had been collecting and teaching it in their own small circles. But the Umayyads did not want a general public knowledge of the Sîrah of the Prophet ﷺ or of the Râshidûn Caliphs. Their references to the Sîrah were, therefore, selective and self-serving.
The Umayyad dislike for the generality of Muslims to become educated in the Sîrah of the Prophet ﷺ is made clear in the following anecdotes. Once the Caliph ʿAbd Al-Mâlik (ʿUmar II’s uncle and father-in-law) became angered when he heard his courtiers remembering ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-Kha ṭ ṭâb and said: “Be cautious about remembering ʿUmar, for [his Sîrah] is demeaning to rulers and corrupting to subjects” (Abû Ḥayyân Al-Taw ḥîdî, Al-Ba ṣâ’ir; Ibn ʿAsâkir, Târikh Dimashq).
In another anecdote, ʿAbd Al-Mâlik distances the Umayyads from the Sîrah of ʿUmar and Abû Bakr by asking his subjects to quit demanding that they (the Umayyads) follow the ways of Abû Bakr and ʿUmar when they (the people the Umayyads ruled over) themselves do not follow the ways of the people (ruled by) Abû Bakr and ʿUmar (Ibn Qutaybah, ʿUyûn Al-Akhbâr).
Even more than toward the Sîrah of ʿUmar ibn Al-Kha ṭ ṭâb, the Umayyads showed a strong aversion toward the Sîrah of the Prophet ﷺ. In a story transmitted by Al-Wâqidî, we are told that Sulaymân, the son of ʿAbd Al-Mâlik, went to perform the Ḥajj in the year 82/702. When he was in Madinah, he was in the company of Abbân, the son of ʿUthman ibn ʻAffan, Allah be pleased with them, who showed him all the places the Prophet ﷺ prayed and some of the battle scenes.
Sulaymân was impressed by these stories, which were apparently new to him, such that he ordered Abbân to write the siyar (pl. of Sîrah) of the Prophet ﷺ and his maghâzî (battles and expeditions). Abbân told Sulaymân he already had and gave him a copy. Sulayman was astonished to read that the Anṣâr were so involved with the Prophet ﷺ and thought that there might either be something wrong with Abbân’s document or that his family had taken the right of the Anṣâr (by denying them any part in government).
Sulaymân decided to ask his father ʿAbd Al-Mâlik about this matter before he did anything. ʿAbd Al-Mâlik became angry and told his son: “Why do you need to bring a book [in which] we do not have any positive mention? You will make the people of Syria know things we do not want them to know” (Al-Zubayr ibn Bakkar, Al-Akhbâr Al-Mayfaqiyyât).
It should be noted that the Umayyads were not totally impious or anti-religious, and many were learned in the Quran and the ḥadîth. But what they disliked was that the people should get a full understanding of the Quran and the Sunnah, and especially their revolutionary egalitarian and anti-authoritarian message, and that the tribalism on which the Umayyads were building their alliances and authority had been precisely the enemy of the Prophet ﷺ. Similarly, in their administration, the Umayyads were not very much concerned with accounts of the behavior of the Prophet ﷺ and that of his Companions.
All this was to change with ʻUmar II, who preferred the Hereafter over this life. He was determined to disseminate the fullest understanding of Islam among common Muslims by gathering and preserving the sayings as well as the biography of the Prophet ﷺ and setting them down so that they would not be lost. For this purpose, he commissioned great scholars such as Ibn Shihâb Al-Zuhrî (d. 124/742) to write down the ḥadîth as well as the Sîrah. Note that ʿAbd Al-Mâlik simply wanted Al-Zuhrî to learn more ḥadîth in order to function better as a jurist, while ʿUmar II wanted Al-Zuhrî to actually write down the ḥadîth and the Sîrah, in order for it to be taught to others. Thus, it was ʿUmar II who set in motion the most powerful publicity tool for the critics of the Umayyads, the Sîrah.
The point made here has many implications, the most obvious of which is that worldly governments concerned with maintaining power are rightly afraid of people learning the full message of Islam. They do not necessarily fear religion and preachers so long as they can tilt understanding in their favor and rely on the general ignorance and apathy of the common Muslims. It also shows that the true and properly contextualized knowledge of Islam, if widespread among the generality of Muslims, has always been the greatest threat to tyranny and injustice.
It shows, as well, that proper and contextualized knowledge of Islam, with proper priorities and qualifications, rather than piecemeal and selective knowledge of self-serving rulings and aspects, is what is necessary if we wish to revive Islam and make it matter. Finally, this only deepens our gratitude to ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd Al-ʿAzîz, whose concern with the preservation of all knowledge for all Muslims not only revived Islam then, but has made it possible for all those who wish to revive Islam at any time to look at the message of the Quran and the life of the Prophet ﷺ in their fullness.
May Allah be pleased with him, bless his soul, and may he raise many like him among us.
Originally posted 2016-03-22 14:00:13.