The caliphate of Umar (r.a), which spanned the ten years between 634 AD (12 Hijri) and 644 AD (22 Hijri), is regarded as one of the most exemplary, exceptional and idealized periods in Islamic history. His most important quality, which also made him so dear to everyone’s hearts, was doubtless his understanding of leadership and his exacting sense of justice. When he had just assumed the title of caliph, Umar (r.a) declared that he would follow the path of the Prophet (s.a.w), which was founded on the principles established by the Quran, and his successor Abu Bakr (r.a), thereby pointing to the foundation of his philosophy of administration.
The Guiding Principle in Administration: Justice
One of the most important qualities that distinguish Umar (r.a) is his keen sensitivity to justice. He was a leader who knew his people very well and had the capacity to analyze them thoroughly. When the people first offered their allegiance to him, he gave his word and swore in the name of God that he would try to lead his people to the right path, pointing out that the camel goes whichever way its owner leads it. The “right path” that he mentioned was the decisions and practice of the Prophet (s.a.w), which gave a living form to the Quran. From the day he became Muslim, Umar (r.a) was present the closest circles around the Prophet (s.a.w), and during this companionship, he gained invaluable experience by observing the way the Prophet (s.a.w) made decisions and applied the principles of revelation to daily life. Due this closeness to the Prophet (s.a.w), Umar (r.a.), along with Abu Bakr (r.a.), has been described as the vizier of the Prophet (s.a.w). During the caliphate of Abu Bakr (r.a.) he was also extremely close to the caliph, and he played a key role in important administrative affairs. Such an illustrious background bestowed upon him invaluable knowledge and experience.
In the face of rapid change, Umar (r.a) on the one hand made it a priority to follow the path of the Prophet (s.a.w) and his successor Abu Bakr (r.a). On the other hand, he tried to produce new solutions in order to overcome the newly emerging obstacles, proving that he is a charismatic leader who does not shrink from making radical decisions and implementing unique and original practices. Among these new decisions, we can count his attitude towards particular groups of alms receivers (mu’allafat al-qulub), praying the tarawih prayer in congregation, establishing the pilgrimage boundary points (meeqat) for Iraqi pilgrims, and including the property found on a dead enemy soldier (salab) in the general war booty pool and thereby subjecting it to distribution. Thus, he emerged as a leader who did not passively follow changing conditions and dynamics, but who in contrast actively governed and directed these new developments and changes.
Umar (r.a) is also known as a caliph who actively and consistently sought counsel. Especially regarding controversial issues or important decisions, he would act only after consulting his council and asking their opinion. Both Umar (r.a) and his predecessor Abu Bakr (r.a) in fact adopted this practice from the Prophet (s.a.w) himself, who often consulted his associates about important administrative decisions. Among Umar’s (r.a) council the following names could be found: Ali (r.a); Abbas (r.a), the Prophet’s (s.a.w) uncle; Abbas’s son Abdullah; Uthman (r.a); Zayd b. Thabit (r.a); Abdurrahman b. Awf (r.a); and Usayd b. Hudayr (r.a). However, these names were not fixed; when appropriate, different people could be invited to take part in the council. This principle of openness was to such an extent that regarding the military strategy for the ongoing war in Iran, the opinion of an Iranian war prisoner and slave (Hurmuzan) was consulted.
Opening important issues that concerned all Muslims to discussion was not a mere formality; the opinions of the council members were taken seriously, and an open environment was fostered, where everybody could state their opinion freely. Indeed, Umar (r.a) as caliph made the following warning to his council members: “I am one of you. I do not expect you to follow my decisions or wishes. You have a book in your hands that contains and speaks the Truth. Whatever I have said, I tried to say it in accordance with this book. You should also reflect about what is true and right, and state a preference accordingly…”
Known for his sense of justice, the Caliph Umar (r.a) adopted a transparent style of administration and took special pains to stand at an equal distance to all sections of society. He expected the same attitude from his administrators and reminded them frequently to avoid discrimination between people. For example, at the end of a long letter he sent to the governor of Basra, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, he made the following warning: “When people come to you for a hearing or when you gather a council, treat people equally. In this way, the weak will not despair of your justice. And the strong will not get the feeling that you may oppress others for your own gain.”
Certain accounts mention that Umar (r.a) had a severe character. Once, some people from the public who found him too stern relayed their complaints to him through Abdurrahman b. Awf. He in turn clarified that he had no bad intentions and that his extreme care in certain matters only stemmed from his concern to seek God’s pleasure. Umar (r.a) would elect government officials, especially senior administrators like governors, commanders, judges, or alms distributors, after a detailed and meticulous selection process. Before dispatching them to their duties, he would always advise them at length and remind them especially to be at the service of the people, never neglect justice, and avoid the violation of rights at all costs. According to an account by Abu Ubayd (r.a), he would make the following warnings before sending the administrators off: “I am not sending you to the people as oppressors. Do not come to my presence with injustice. Do not deprive anybody of the rights that they have.”
The Caliph took special care with the alms officials responsible for collecting and distributing alms and taxes. He advised them to treat the people softly and to refrain from being aggressive. He asked them not to hurt people by forcefully taking their most valuable possessions and not to force them to pay taxes above their means. He wanted them to treat the non-Muslim populace with the same courtesy that they showed towards the Muslims, reminding them to collect their taxes in accordance with the same principles.
A true champion of transparency, the caliph would sit down with the people after the congregational prayer and listen to their problems. He would advise his administrators to act similarly; he encouraged them to always keep their door open and give people the opportunity to speak to them about their problems in person. Before assigning a government post, Umar (r.a.) would thoroughly evaluate the candidates. He would continue to inspect them during their tenure, paying close attention to the complaints of the public. During each Hajj season, he would bring together the administrators and the people, so that problems could be discussed in the fairest manner possible. Umar (r.a.) also formed an inspection committee, headed by Muhammad b. Maslama (r.a), in order to inspect the provincial administrative units. He also kept an eye on the happenings at the front by listening to the military messengers. For example, when he met with Amr b. Madiqarib, who had come to Medina right after the Qadisiyya War, the first thing Umar (r.a.) asked was whether the people were happy with Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas (r.a). When Amr praised Sa’d, the caliph became suspicious and voiced his concern by saying, “It sounds like you are praising each other”. When Amr responded, “I am only telling you what I saw,” Umar (r.a.) was finally convinced that he was indeed telling the truth. Later, when Umar (r.a.) received a complaint about Sa’d, he sent Muhammad b. Maslama (r.a) to Kufa as an inspector. Upon hearing that the governor was guilty, he discharged him from duty. There are several examples of the caliph changing the governor upon receiving complaints from the public.
Since the provincial administrators had important jurisdiction as representatives of the caliph, Umar (r.a.) tried to keep the control in his own hands. He would frequently write letters requesting information or he would expect the administrators to keep him up to date. He tried to keep the connection between the center and the periphery alive by saying, “Write to me, write to me constantly. Write to me in so much detail that it is as if I can see you.”
Like his predecessor Abu Bakr (r.a), Umar (r.a) was careful not to give administrative posts to his relatives. In other words, he did not use his position and power to discriminate between people. When we keep in mind the importance of tribal allegiance in the Arab social life of the time, we can appreciate the import of his attitude. We should note here that despite being offered by others, he did not nominate his son Abdullah as a candidate for caliphate. Umar (r.a.) explained his determination to keep his relatives away from government posts in the following words: “Whoever gives an important post to someone only because he loves him or because he is a relative, he betrays God, His Messenger (s.a.w), and the Believers. Whoever gives a position of power to a bad person on purpose, it means he is just as bad.” According to an account, when Umar (r.a) formed the committee that would elect the next caliph, he told the two strongest candidates, Ali (r.a.) and Uthman (r.a.), to never give official positions to their relatives if they become caliph.
In assigning governorships or generalships, or in cases of discharge from duty, the guiding principle for Umar (r.a.) was not religious, tribal or social status, but basic rights and justice. As in the case of the previous example, such qualities as being one of the first Muslims, owning the title “Conqueror of Iran”, or having received praise from the Prophet (s.a.w) himself did not prevent the dismissal of the governor Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas. We have to note here that Umar (r.a.) cared deeply about the Companions and especially the first Muslims. However, in administrative assignments, his guiding principle was sincerity and merit. For example, when he was about to dispatch the army to Iran, and the Companions were slow to respond to his call for men, he assigned Abu Ubayd b. Mas’ud as-Saqafi as general, since he was the first to volunteer. When some Companions criticized this decision and claimed priority, Umar (r.a.) responded: “If the Companions believe that they are superior to other people and thus have certain privileges by virtue of being the Prophet’s (s.a.w) friends, then they should assume full responsibility and carry out their duties. If a non-Companion shows the attitude expected from a Companion, then in the eyes of Umar he has more priority than a Companion.”
There are many examples of the Caliph’s policy of merit, which dictates that the main principle in official assignments should be competence, not religious or social status. For example, when asked in his deathbed whether he would nominate someone for the caliphate, he said he would not nominate anybody, adding that he would have nominated Abu Ubayda (r.a) or Huzayfa’s (r.a) slave Salim, if they had been alive. After this, he delegated the issue of election to a committee of six formed for this purpose. By including a slave in his wishlist of nominees and implying that he would appoint a slave as the leader of all Muslims, Umar (r.a.) made it clear that he was at an equal distance to all sections of society and that merit for him was the decisive principle.
Reason Behind the Expropriation of Conquered Territories
One of the most important administrative decisions that Umar (r.a) made concerned the conquered territories: instead of giving them the status of war booty and distributing them among the soldiers, he declared the land government property. This was in contrast to previous practice, where a fifth of war booty would go to the state and the rest would be shared among the combatants. However, Umar (r.a) did not distribute the extensive conquered lands of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. This decision, which was radical for his time, points at the foundation upon which his philosophy of government rested. When the lands of Sevad were conquered, the soldiers demanded their distribution. Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas (r.a) wrote a letter to Umar (r.a), conveying the request, and asked his opinion. The caliph consulted his associates and discussed the issue with them at length. The remarkable thing here is the care Umar (r.a) took to avoid imposing his opinion and his effort to find a proper solution by taking the opposing views into consideration. After long negotiations, the Caliph rejected the proposal to distribute the lands among the soldiers on the grounds that it would cause big problems in the future. He grounded his decision on a religious level by listing verses 6-10 of Surah Hashr. According to his interpretation, the phrase “those who come after them” in the tenth verse point to all those Muslims who will come after the Immigrants (Muhajirun) and the Helpers (Ansar). Thus, these verses dictate that the lands should not be distributed.
Regarding the conquered lands, the Caliph pointed out that in case of distribution among the soldiers, there would be no lands left for the future generations. In addition, he observed that it would cause the native peoples of these lands to suffer major status loss and risk enslavement, and that future Muslims could possibly oppress these people. To complement, he pointed out that when these lands are not distributed, the locals would continue living on their own land and cultivating it, and that these regions would act as buffer zones, the borders being protected by border units.
Just as he opposed the enslavement of conquered people, Umar (r.a) ordered the release of locals who were sold to slavery. When Abu Musa, who conquered Ahwaz, sold the local men and women as slaves and concubines to the Muslims, the caliph sent word to the governor, ordering the slave status to be removed and the locals to be treated as protected minorities instead. Thus, Umar (r.a) opposed the distribution of conquered lands and the enslavement of their inhabitants, instead including them in the legal system as protected minorities and taxing the produce that they got from the land. He even provided state support for the locals to participate in and continue local production. In addition to this land tax, called haraj, the protected minorities paid a special tax for exemption from military duty and state protection, called jizya, and this system brought significant contributions to the treasury. By not interfering in the social life of the minorities, the state also prevented them from siding with the enemy.
While Umar (r.a) opposed the distribution of conquered lands on principle, he also came up with new solutions in order to respond to queries about this issue. For example, he rechanneled state income to the constituents by giving out a yearly salary. He gave additional monthly aid to the poor. He would personally go out to the streets, walk around among the public, identify the needy and help them in person. There are accounts narrating that he took the supply records of the tribes of Huzza and Aslam, traveled to the region, and distributed provisions to those in need. It is also narrated that when he saw a woman from Aslam pretending to cook on the stove in order to appease her hungry and wailing children, he was deeply touched by the scene and helped her extensively. After visiting the tribes near Medina personally and listening to their complaints, he expressed his regret that people in more distant places could not reach him, saying that he intended to go to Syria, stay there for two months and hear from the people in person. However, he passed away before he could realize this wish.
Treatment of the Protected Minorities (Dhimmis)
Just as Umar (r.a) adopted the principle of justice and equality in his treatment of the Muslim populace, he showed the same spirit towards the minorities. He was especially careful about the protection of minority rights. Their lives, properties, and families were under state protection, and they were guaranteed protection from exile and over-taxation. While the rights granted to the minorities were recorded in treaties and contracts, special measures were taken to ensure compliance with the guidelines in these treaties. Governors and generals were issued special warnings about their compliance with the treaties, and we have some striking examples of this trend. When the city of Hims was conquered, the public was given the reassurance that their lives and property were under protection, and that in exchange they would be paying an annual minority tax as required by their status of protected minority. However, when news came in the eve of Yarmuk War that the Byzantine forces had undertaken extensive military preparations, Abu Ubayda b. Al-Jarrah (r.a) decided, as part of his military strategy, to vacate the conquered cities. He returned the taxes collected from the minorities, since the guarantee of protection previously granted could no longer be upheld. Their taxes returned, the people of Hıms were left free to do as they pleased. Content with the Muslim administration, they requested the treaty to continue as before.
While collecting taxes from the protected minorities, maximum care was taken to comply with principles of justice and equality. Taxes were regulated in accordance with the income potential of the conquered lands and their fitness for agriculture. When the lands of Sewad were taken, a committee headed by Uthman b. Huwayris was dispatched to make new tax regulations for the lands in question. Taxes were determined by considering all significant factors, including irrigation. Even previous tax regulations put in effect by the Sasanids were examined, so that the resulting tax burden would be as fair as possible. Before enacting the determined taxes, the Caliph would invite experts and representatives from the local populace to Medina and ask them if they thought the tax amount determined for them was fair. During the reign of Umar (r.a), Muslims spread far and wide, and people of different religions and ethnicities very rapidly became their subjects. Despite this rapid spread, there was no revolt against the newcomers in these newly conquered lands. It is clear that military might alone is not sufficient to keep acquired territories under control, not to mention the fact that Muslims did not possess a big enough military power to keep all these territories under tight control. Thanks to their fair and just rule, Muslim conquerors managed to maintain peace and calm in these places, and the locals gradually became Muslims of their own account.
Special care was taken also regarding the minorities’ freedom of belief and worship. They could continue to adhere to their own religious beliefs, and measures were taken to prevent harm to their clergy and places of worship. When the patriarch of Jerusalem invited Umar (r.a.) to pray in the church, he was concerned that his behavior could be misinterpreted in the future and thus led the prayer in open air. When Egypt was conquered, Amr b. As (r.a) did not touch the churches and other places of worship in the city. This led to such contentment with the Muslim administration among the public that they preferred Muslim rule to the Byzantine or Sasanid one. Similarly, certain tribes and communities of Damascus, such as the Samiris and the Ra’ban, as well as some Jewish tribes, embraced Umar’s (r.a) rule so much that they acted as spies for the Muslims to gain intelligence about Byzantine military activities. In exchange for this service, Umar (r.a) exempted them from the minority protection tax (jizya).
Financial assistance from the treasury went not only to the Muslims but also to the non-Muslims. During his visit to Damascus, the Caliph personally helped an old and incapacitated woman from the local non-Muslim populace. In response to her expressions of gratitude, he said: “It goes against our worldview to tax you when you are young and desert you when you grow old.” According to his interpretation, the verse “Alms are for the poor and the ailing” in chapter Tawba of the Quran does not only cover Muslims, but People of the Book as well.
The Special Care Taken with Public Property
One of the issues that Umar (r.a) treated with utmost care and attention was the handling of public property. It is narrated that he used his private belongings when conducting private business and used state property only when he was on government business. As a sign of this care, he never accepted the gifts that officials from the newly conquered territories sent to him and donated these to the treasury instead. He also forbade his officials from accepting gifts on his behalf and his governors from accepting any gifts at all. When the governor of Azerbaijan, Utba b. Farqad, sent him flour sweetmeat (halwa), he did not accept this gift, writing to him in a letter: “Do you yourself eat sweets that are not the product of your own labor?” If the governors happened to have accepted gifts before, he ruled that the monetary value of the gift should be calculated and this amount should be deducted from the taxes to be collected. Since he himself declined gifts, he had the value of the gifts sent to Medina calculated and in a similar way deducted this amount from the tax that the locals were required to pay. Following the orders of the Caliph in this matter, Habib b. Maslama, who was engaged in battles in the region of Tiflis, made the following comments about gift-giving in a letter he sent to the ruler of Jurjan, who wanted to reach a settlement with him:
“Your messenger Nukli came to me and conveyed your request… You have sent us many gifts and voiced your contentment with our peaceful approach, expressing a wish to make peace. I have had my officials calculate the value of your gifts and deducted that amount from the taxes you will be required to pay. I have also written a pact as per your request…”
Just as Umar (r.a) treated the gifts sent to him as public property and donated them to the treasury, he did the same with the gifts sent to his wife. During the correspondence with the Byzantine emperor, the empress sent valuable gifts to the wife of the Caliph, but he donated these to the state treasury.
On the other hand, Umar (r.a) took strict measures to prevent abusive use of public property by government officials. He elected candidates for government posts with utmost care, and he determined and recorded all their assets and financial holdings. He also periodically demanded a financial disclosure from his officials, to be handed over to appointed inspectors. When he discharged officials, he had their financial holdings inspected again, in order to detect any exploitation or abuse. When he received complaints about the economic behavior of Amr b. As (r.a), he sent Muhammad b. Maslama (r.a), head of the inspection committee, to Egypt. When Amr could not explain the origin of some his assets, they were confiscated. When reports came about a government official hoarding property in Ahwaz, the caliph sent inspectors, who at the end of their evaluations confiscated half of this official’s property. In addition to these measures, the Caliph forbade civil servants from engaging in other gainful employment, especially trade, fearing abuse and misconduct.
The Operation of the Judiciary
One of the most important developments and changes during the rule of Caliph Umar (r.a) took place in the judiciary. For the first time in the history of the Muslim community, a senior judge (qadi) elected by the Caliph was appointed to each province. In this way, legal authority was taken away from the governors, paving the way for partially independent courts. In addition, a separate judge was assigned to each military unit. The Caliph established important guidelines and principles regarding the proceedings of the legal system. The letter he sent to Abu Musa al-Ash’ari gives important clues about the legal system of his time and the principles upon which the cases were processed. In this letter, the Caliph demanded that judicial proceedings be grounded on the clear rulings of the Quran and the precedent of the Prophet’s (s.a.w) practice (sunna). He emphasized the importance of an unbiased and fair judge. According to the caliph, when the judge is unbiased and fair, those who have a claim to power fear his influence, while the disadvantaged can believe in the existence of their rights and actually take refuge in the justice system. If the judge issues a wrong verdict and has the chance to redeem it, he should do so, whatever the personal cost. In addition to these, Caliph Umar (r.a) decreed that those who were on the public record as liars should be prevented from witnessing at court, otherwise granting each Muslim the right to being a witness. At the end of a long list of directives, the Caliph concludes the letter by pointing to the heavy responsibility that the judges bore and maintains that the duty of the judge is to distribute the treasures of God’s mercy and bounty justly among his servants.
Caliph Umar (r.a) stands out on the pages of history with his unique ruling style, the open-minded attitude with which he applied the principles of Islam to daily life and kept apace with changing circumstances, his original initiatives and legal rulings, and the innovative executive decisions he made in the face of unprecedented expansion. Thanks to these outstanding qualities, he gained the approval of all, regardless of their bias, and secured a special place in the hearts of Muslims as an idealized and exemplary ruler and believer.
Life and Religion, A Publication of the Turkish Diyanet Foundation and the Istanbul Office of the Mufti, 2013