By Salman Yazdani
Whenever we talk of great generals or kings of the world one name usually comes to our mind, i.e., Alexander the Great. For obvious reasons he deserves this reputation, but many of us don’t know that there was another ruler in history who was greater than many influential kings in every respect, even greater than Alexander the Great. He was Umar ibn Al-Khattab, a companion of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the second caliph of Islam.
During Umar’s reign, the Islamic empire grew at an unprecedented rate, taking Mesopotamia and parts of Persia, effectively ending the Persian Empire, and taking Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa and Armenia from the Byzantines. The Battle of Yarmouk, fought near Damascus in 636 C.E., permanently ended Byzantine rule south of Anatolia.
He defeated two super powers of his time – Rome and Iran, and even today no country is as big as Umar’s empire. He not only conquered these countries on horse back but also ruled them effectively.
The Encyclopedia Britannica (9th edition, “Popular Reprint”, 1888) acknowledges Umar’s achievements as follows: “To ‘Umar’s ten years’ Caliphate belong for the most part the great conquests. He himself did not take the field, but remained in Medina; he never, however, suffered the reins to slip from his grasp, so powerful was the influence of his personality and the Moslem community of feeling. … The saying with which he began his reign will never grow antiquated: ‘By God, he that is weakest among you shall be in my sight the strongest, until I have vindicated for him his rights; but him that is strongest will I treat as the weakest, until he complies with the laws.’ It would be impossible to give a better general definition of the function of the State.”
Umar is regarded as one of the greatest political geniuses in history and his leadership is exemplary. We see that not only the empire was expanding at an unprecedented rate under his command, but its political structure was also being built and strengthened to create the strongest cohesion within. This was a challenging task but Umar was a gifted orator, and this ability won him a soft corner in the hearts of people.
In his research paper Vision and Visionary Leadership – An Islamic Perspective Saeed M. Mohtsham writes about Umar’s rule, “He used to monitor very closely the public policy and had kept the needs of the public central to his leadership approach. As second caliph of Islam, he refused to chop off the hands of the thieves because he felt he had fallen short of his responsibility to provide meaningful employment to all his subjects. As a ruler of a vast kingdom, his vision was to ensure that every one in his kingdom should sleep on a full stomach.”
Another evidence of Umar’s extraordinary caliber can be seen in Washington Irving’s book Mahomet and His Successors, where he writes, “The whole history of Umar shows him to have been a man of great powers of mind, inflexible integrity, and rigid justice. … The rigid hand which he kept upon his most popular generals in the midst of their armies, and in the most distant scenes of their triumphs, gave single evidence of his extraordinary capacity to rule.”
In 637 C.E., Muslims finally entered Jerusalem peacefully after a prolonged siege. Umar personally came to Jerusalem to sign a treaty, and entered the city humbly. People saw him walking beside a camel upon which his servant was sitting. They shared turns over it, and it was his servant’s turn when they reached the city. He was so down to earth and humble that he never ate two curries in one meal; he would sleep on the ground with a stone under his head for a pillow. He wore coarse clothes and his shirts had as many as 14 patches on torn places. When he died he was under debt and his house was sold to clear the money owed.
Professor Philip Khuri Hitti acknowledged this fact in his book “History of the Arabs”: “His irreproachable character became an exemplar for all conscientious successors to follow. He owned, we are told, one shirt and one mantle only, both conspicuous for their patchwork, slept on a bed of palm leaves and had no concern other than the maintenance of the purity of the faith, the upholding of justice and the ascendancy and security of Islam and the Arabians. Arabic literature is replete with anecdotes extolling Umar’s stern character.”
The sense of duty and fear of God made Umar exceedingly painstaking in every matter. He was very meticulous in appointment of governors and judges and made them follow strict codes of conduct. It was mandatory for them to reach Mecca on the occasion of Hajj, so that people could present their complaints. Umar allowed very high salaries to these officials to minimize the chances of corruption.
Washington Irving mentions in book Mahomet and His Successors, “In his weekly distributions of the surplus money of his treasury he proportioned them to the wants, not the merits of the applicants. ‘God,’ said he, ‘has bestowed the good things of this world to relieve our necessities, not to reward our virtues: those will be rewarded in another world.’”
Umar’s general instructions to his officers were, “Remember, I have not appointed you as commanders and tyrants over the people. I have sent you as leaders instead, so that the people may follow your example. Give the Muslims their rights and do not beat them lest they become abused. Do not praise them unduly, lest they fall into the error of conceit. Do not keep your doors shut in their faces, lest the more powerful of them eat up the weaker ones. And do not behave as if you were superior to them, for that is tyranny over them.”
Umar was a pioneer in many affairs. Most of the reforms and administrative systems introduced by him are still in force today. For the first time in the world, Umar allocated stipends for infants, disabled, widows and helpless people. Under his rule, state intervention to control the price of merchandise was introduced.
He initiated the concept that rulers and government officials must declare their assets. He also started giving punishments to dishonest judges. For the first time, elite and ruling class had to undergo accountability. Umar began the public ministry system, where the records of officials and soldiers were kept, including all of his messages to Governors and heads of states.
For the first time in history, he established a special cell that investigated the complaints against the officers of the State. This department acted as administrative court, where the legal proceedings were personally led by him. He was the first to appoint police forces to keep civil order. He started the concept of jail and introduced complete judicial system to the society. He created army garrisons and many other things as well.
Today, when a letter is sent through a post office, when a police officer wears uniform, when a soldier goes on leave after six months, when government gives grants to children, disabled, widows or helpless people, they only follow the system which was initiated by Umar.
Indeed, Umar was a great ruler and he had a lasting impact on not only his reigning region but the entire world.