Monday, July 14, 2014

The Rashidun: Umar ibn al-Khattab

Medina - Capital of Rashidun Caliphate
Arabia, 632 - The Prophet Mohammad just passed away, leaving not instruction who would succeed him. To solve the problem, the Companions gathered in the hall in Central Arabia to discussed who would succeed the Prophet. Four nominees were made. And from the four men, Abu Bakar, became the successor and the first Rashidun Caliph. But, in just two years, the new Caliph died. He passed the job to his supporter, Umar ibn al-Khattab.

Caliiph Umar ibn al-Khattab (579-644) reigned as the second Rashidun Caliph from 634 to 644. During the rise of Islam in Mecca under the Prophet Mohammad, he stand against it. He even persecuted the followers of the Prophet until one day he heard his sister, Fatima, and her husband Said ibn Zayd reciting verses. Upon hearing the words of Allah, in 617, Umar ibn al-Khattab converted to Islam. Umar became a close companion of the Prophet. Following Mohammad even during the time of Hijira and the Battle of Badr. In 625, he and the Prophet became relatives when the Umar’s daughter, Hafsah, married Mohammad. In 632, the Prophet Mohammad passed away, living no instruction who would succeed him. Later on, an election was held to decide who would become the successor of the Prophet. Umar was nominated. But instead, he supported another nominee and a senior of him, Abu Bakar. Upon the election of Abu Bakar, Umar was the first to acknowledge the new Rashidun Caliph. Lucky for Umar, Abu Bakar reigned short, from 632 to 634. The dying Caliph returned the favor to Umar when he was selected by Abu Bakar to succeed him. Upon the death of Abu Bakar, Umar was hailed as the new caliph and given the title of al-Mu’minin or leader or commander of the faithful.

One of the hallmarks of Umar’s reign was the expansion of the territories of the Rashidun Caliphate. During the previous caliph, invasion of the Levant region under the Byzantine hegemony began. Also, an invasion of Sassanid held territories in modern day Iraq also began. Umar just needed to continue what his predecessor started. The Caliphate military was more than ready to face their enemies. They had fast and mobile Bedouin horsemen to lead the charges. The infantry had high morale and well-experienced. The battles during the previous al-Ridda or Apostasy War. In addition, the spirit of Jihad lingered upon the soldiers, increasing their bravery and courage. With strong cavalry and infantry, the Rashidun also had great and experienced generals as well. Generals like Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-As continued to serve under Umar. They would lead the expansion of the Rashidun Caliphate through many directions.

In 634, the war against the Byzantine Empire of Emperor Heraclius began. The first clashed happened in the Battle of Ajnadyn. General Khalid ibn al-Walid led his forces to victory and brought substantial territory into the Caliphate. After the battle, more victories followed. And before the year ended, the main city of Damascus fell to the Rashidun. Then 636, the Muslim army began to march towards Jerusalem, one of the most revered Holy Cities for Islam. The Byzantine forced faced off once again against the Rashidun army in the Battle of Yarmouk. The battle was a humiliation for the Byzantine forces. After the battle, 50,000 Byzantine force either dead or captured. By November 636, the city of Jerusalem was besieged by Muslim forces. Umar personally supervised the siege. After four months, the city finally fell.

While Rashidun forces fought the Byzantine in the northwest, another Rashidun army fought the Sassanid Persians of Emperor Yazdegerd III in the northeast. Byzantine and Sassanids formed an alliance during the time of Abu Bakar in order to strengthen themselves against the growing threat of the Rashidun Caliphate. In order to dismember the alliance, Rashidun army marched against Sassanian positions in Iraq. When Umar came to power, he continued the battle against the Sassanians. In 636, the Rashidun forces under Sa’ad ibn Abi-Waqqas scored a victory against Sassanians in the Battle of Qadisya. It was a momentous battle for the Muslims as they slaughtered the Sassanian Army along with its commanders.  The failure of the Sassanian forces led to the siege of their capital, Ctesiphon, upon the entry of 637. The siege lasted throughout early 637 when finally it fell to hands of the Rashidun Caliphate. With the fall of Iraq, the core lands of the Sassanians, Persia, was open for invasion. In 641, the invasion of Sassanid Persia began. The highlight of the invasion was the Battle of Nanavand in 642. It was dubbed Conquest of Conquests. The Sassanians were defeated and it signaled the fall of the Persian Empire.

After the capture of the Levant and Iraq, Umar set his eyes on Egypt. In 639, under the command of Amr ibn al-As, Rashidun forces marched against the Egyptians.  In 641, Byzantine forces were captured after a seven month siege of Babylon Fortress in modern day Cairo. On the same year, the capital of Byzantine Egypt, Alexandria, capitulated to the forces of Amr ibn al-As.

The capture of Egypt led to the opening of possibility of Muslim conquest of Northern Africa. Rashidun forces in Egypt continued to march south. Meanwhile, another Rashidun Army, invaded Tripolitania in 643.

There were a lot of reasons attributed for the defeat of the two great empires against the rising Rashidun Caliphate. First, the two Empires were weaken by the long and devastating war against each other before the rise of the Caliphate. Second, they deemed that the Arabians would not post threat against them because they were divided into several tribes. Third, the sects of Christians like the Coptic and the Nestorians as well as the Jews persecuted by the two Empires welcomed and supported the invasion of the Muslims who showed compassion and tolerance towards them. With weaken armies and resentful citizens, the Muslims successfully launched campaigns that catapulted the Muslims to the world stage.

While Rashidun forces busied themselves with campaign abroad, Umar also spent energy in enacting policies in maintaining the large Rashidun Empire. He appointed governors from other Arabian tribes to manage the new territories. It also helped to the overreliance of the Caliph from officials from the Quarysh Tribe. Also, he retained efficient governors appointed by his predecessor. In order to tighten control military garrisons or amsar (misr in singular) were established in Basra, Kufah, and Fustaf. He also made nomadic Arabian tribes to settle to new cities or be tax. This along with higher taxes on non-Muslims called the Jizya filled the coffers of the Rashidun treasury. With money, Umar enacted pension system for military officers and remaining Companions and relatives of the Prophet Mohammad, whose names were compiled in a registry called Diwan. But the most important contribution of Umar to the Islamic world, he proclaimed that the year when the Hejira occurred would be the start of the Islamic Calendar.

The decade long reigned of Umar saw great expansion, but also a great tragedy. A Persian Christian Slave named Abu L’liah Firoz went to the caliph to save him from his abusive boss. But Umar, instead, dismissed the slave. In anger, the slave stabbed Caliph Umar. Umar was able to set up a six man Shura that would oversee who would succeed him. In 644, the Calip Umar ibn al-Khattab passed away. The shura elected Uthnam ibn Affan as the new caliph.

Over the decade rule of Umar, many things were achieved. Major cities of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Ctesiphon fell in the hands of the Caliphate. Major Empire went from great to declining because of the advances made by the Empire. He also exhibited great administrative skills in order to maintain the newly conquered lands. But because of one fatal decision, his reign ended tragically.

See also:
Abu Bakar
Ali ibn Abi Talib
Uthman ibn Affan

Adamec, Ludwig. Historical Dictionary of Islam. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2009.

Bowen, W. The History of Saudi Arabia. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Glasse, C. The New Encyclopedia of Islam. California: AltaMira Press, 2002.

El Hareir, I. & R. M’Baye. The Spread of Islam throughout the World. Paris: UNESCO, 2011.

Netton, I. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Islamic Civilisation and Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Wynbrandt, J. A Brief History of Saudi Arabia. New York: Facts On File, 2010.

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