DEATH OF 'OMAR
23 A.H. / 644 A.D.
IT was now the eleventh year of 'Omar's Caliphate, and though some sixty years of age, he was full of vigour, and vigilant in the discharge of the vast responsibilities devolving on him. In the last month of the year he journeyed, as was his wont, to Mecca; and taking the widows of Mohammad in his suite, performed with them the full rites of the annual Pilgrimage. He had returned but a few days to Medina, when his reign came to a tragic and untimely end.
A Persian slave, Abu Lu'lu'a, had been brought by Al-Moghira from Al-'Irak. Made prisoner in his youth by the Greeks, he had early embraced Christianity; and now, taken by the Muslims, his fate was to endure a second captivity as Al-Moghira's slave. When the crowd of prisoners was marched into Medina from the battle of Nihavend, said to have been Abu Lu'lu'a's birthplace, the sight opened springs of tenderness long pent up; and, stroking the heads of the little ones, he exclaimed: "Verily, 'Omar hath consumed my bowels!" He followed the trade of carpenter; and his master shared the profits. Meeting 'Omar in the marketplace, he cried out, "Commander of the Faithful! right me of my wrong, for verily Al-Moghira hath assessed me heavily." "At how much ?" asked the Caliph. "At two dirhems a day." " And what is thy trade?" "A carpenter and worker in iron," he said. "It is not much," replied 'Omar, "for a clever artificer like thee. I am told that thou couldest design for me a mill driven by the wind." "It is true." "Come then," continued the Caliph, "and make me such a mill that shall be driven by the wind." "If spared,"
said the captive in surly voice, "I will make a mill for thee, the fame whereof shall reach from east even to far west"; and he went on his way. 'Omar remarked, as he passed, the sullen demeanour of Abu Lu'lu'a:"That slave," he said, "spoke threateningly to me just now."1
Next day, when the people assembled in the Mosque for morning prayer, Abu Lu'lu'a mingled with the front rank of the worshippers. 'Omar entered, and, as customary, took his stand in front of the congregation, with his back towards them. No sooner had he begun the prayer with the words Allahu Akbar, than Abu Lu'lu'a rushed upon him, and with a sharp blade inflicted six wounds in different parts of his body. Then he ran wildly about, killing some and wounding others, and at last stabbed himself to death. 'Omar, who had fallen to the ground, was borne into his house adjoining the court, but was sufficiently composed to desire that 'Abd ar-Rahman should proceed with the service. When it was ended, he summoned him to his bedside, and signified his intention of nominating him to the Caliphate. "Is it obligatory upon me?" inquired 'Abd ar-Rahman. "Nay, by the Lord!" said 'Omar, "thou art free." "That being so," he replied, "I never will accept the burden." "Then stanch my wound," said the dying Caliph (for life was ebbing through a gash below the navel), "and stay me while I commit my trust unto a company that were faithful unto their Prophet, and with whom their Prophet was well pleased."
So he named, together with 'Abd ar-Rahman, other four,'Ali, 'Othman, Az-Zubeir and Sa'd,as the chiefest among the Companions, to be Electors of his successor, and called them to his bedside. When they appeared, he proceeded:" Wait for your brother Talha" (absent at the moment from Medina) "three days; if he arrive take him for the sixth; if not, ye are to decide the matter without him." Then, addressing each in turn, he warned them of the responsibility attaching to the duty now imposed upon them, and the danger to the one elected
1 So Roderic, the last king of the Goths, asked his vassal Julian,
governor of Ceuta, whom he had deeply wronged, to send him a special kind of falcon, and the
latter replied that he would send him some better than he had ever sentmeaning the Arabs.
Roderic, however, did not see the threat.
1 So Roderic, the last king of the Goths, asked his vassal Julian, governor of Ceuta, whom he had deeply wronged, to send him a special kind of falcon, and the latter replied that he would send him some better than he had ever sentmeaning the Arabs. Roderic, however, did not see the threat.
of partiality towards his own clan and family. "O 'Ali, if the choice fall upon thee, see that thou exalt not the house of Hashim above their fellows. And thou, 'Othman, if thou art elected, or Sa'd, beware thou set not thy kinsmen over the necks of men. Arise, go forth, deliberate, and then decide. Meanwhile Soheib shall lead the prayers." When they had departed, he called Abu Talha, a warrior of note, to him, saying:"Go, stand before the door, and suffer no man to enter in upon them." After a pause he spoke solemnly to those around him:" Tell it to him who shall succeed, as my last bequest, that he be kind to the Men of the City which gave to us and to the Faith a home; that he make much of their virtues, and pass lightly by their faults. Bid him treat well the Arab tribes; verily they are the backbone of Islam; the tithe that he taketh from them, let him give it back unto the same for nourishment of their poor. And the Jews and Christians, let him faithfully fulfil the covenant of the Prophet with them. O Lord, I have finished my course. And now to him that cometh after me I leave the kingdom firmly established and at peace." Then he lay down quietly and rested for a time.
After a while he bade his son 'Abdallah go forth and see who it was that wounded him. Told that it was Abu Lu'lu'a, he exclaimed:#151;"Praise be to the Lord that it was not one who had ever bowed down before Him, even once, in prayer! Now 'Abdallah, my son, go in unto 'Aisha and ask her leave that I be buried in her chamber by the side of the Prophet, and by the side of Abu Bekr. If she refuse, then bury me by the other Muslims, in the grave yard of Al-Baki'1. And list thee, 'Abdallah, if the Electors disagree" (for he was to have a casting voice) "be thou with the majority; or, if the votes be equal, choose the side on which is 'Abd ar-Rahman. Now let the people come in." Crowds had assembled at the door; and, permission given, they approached to make obeisance. As they passed in and out, 'Omar asked whether any leading man had joined with Abu Lu'lu'a in conspiracy against him. "The Lord forbid!" was the loud response, in horror at the very thought.
1 For this burying-ground outside the city, see Life of Mohammad,
1 For this burying-ground outside the city, see Life of Mohammad, p. 199.
Among the rest, 'Ali came to inquire; and as he sat by the Caliph's bedside, the son of Al-'Abbas too came up. 'Omar, who dreaded the factious spirit of the latter, said: "O Ibn al-'Abbas, art thou with me in this matter?" He signified assent, whereupon 'Omar added earnestly: "See that thou deceive me not, thou and thy fellows. Now, 'Abdallah, my son, raise my head from the pillow, then lay it gently down upon the ground; peradventure the Lord may in mercy take me thus, this night, for I fear the horrors of the rising sun." A physician gave him to drink of datewater; but it oozed through the wound unchanged; and so also with a draught of milk. Which when the physician saw, he said: "I perceive that the wound is mortal: make now thy testament, O Commander of the Faithful." "That," said 'Omar, "have I done already." As he lay, his head resting on the bosom of his son, he recited this couplet:
And so, in a low voice, he kept repeating the name of the Lord and the Muslim creed, until his spirit passed away. It was a few days before the close of the 23rd year of the Hijra. He had reigned for the space of ten years and a half.
So died 'Omar, next to the Prophet the greatest in the kingdom of Islam; for it was all within these ten years that, by his wisdom, patience, and vigour, the dominion was achieved of Syria, Egypt, and Persia. Abu Bekr beat down the Apostate tribes; but at his death the armies of Islam had but just crossed the Syrian frontier. 'Omar began his reign master only of Arabia. He died the Caliph of an Empire embracing some of the fairest provinces under Byzantine rule, and with Persia to boot. Yet throughout this marvellous fortune he never lost the balance of a wise and sober judgment, nor exalted himself above the frugal habit of an Arab chief. "Where is the Caliph?" the visitor would ask, as he looked around the court of the Medina mosque; and all the while the monarch might be sitting in homely guise before him.
'Omar's life requires but few lines to sketch. Simplicity and duty were his guiding principles, impartiality and
devotion the leading features of his administration. Responsibility so weighed upon him that he was heard to exclaim , "O that my mother had not borne me; would that I had been this stalk of grass instead!" In early life of a fiery and impatient temper, he was known, even in the later days of the Prophet, as the stern advocate of vengeance. Ever ready to unsheathe the sword, it was he that at Bedr advised that the prisoners should all be put to death. But age, as well as office, had now mellowed this asperity. His sense of justice was strong. And except it be the treatment of Khalid, whom according to some accounts, he pursued with an ungenerous resentment, no act of tyranny or injustice is recorded against him; and even in this matter, his enmity took its rise in Khalid's unscrupulous treatment of a fallen foe. The choice of his captains and governors was free from favouritism, and (Al-Moghira and 'Ammar excepted) singularly fortunate. The various tribes and bodies in the empire, representing interests the most diverse, reposed in his integrity implicit confidence, and his strong arm maintained the discipline of law and empire. A certain weakness is discernible in his change of governors at the factious seats of Al-Basra and Al-Kufa. Yet even there, the conflicting jealousies of Bedawin and Koreish were kept by him in check, and never dared disturb Islam till he had passed away. The more distinguished of the Companions he kept by him at Medina, partly, no doubt, to strengthen his counsels, and partly (as he would say) from unwillingness to lower their dignity by placing them in office subordinate to himself. Whip in hand, he would perambulate the streets and markets of Medina, ready to punish offenders on the spot; and so the proverb,"'Omar's whip is more terrible than another's sword." But with all this he was tender-hearted, and numberless acts of kindness are recorded of him, such as relieving the wants of the widow and the fatherless.1
1 For example, journeying in Arabia during the famine, he
came upon a poor woman and her hungry weeping children seated round a fire, whereon was
an empty pot 'Omar hastened on to the next village, procured bread and meat, filled the pot,
cooked an ample meal, and left the little ones laughing and at play. Similar instances of 'Omar's
conscientious discharge of his duty are given in Tab. i. 2752 ff.
1 For example, journeying in Arabia during the famine, he came upon a poor woman and her hungry weeping children seated round a fire, whereon was an empty pot 'Omar hastened on to the next village, procured bread and meat, filled the pot, cooked an ample meal, and left the little ones laughing and at play. Similar instances of 'Omar's conscientious discharge of his duty are given in Tab. i. 2752 ff.
'Omar was the first who assumed the title Amir al-Mu'minin, or "Commander of the Faithful." "Khalifa (Caliph, Successor) of the Khalifa (Abu Bekr) of the Prophet of the Lord was too long and cumbersome a name," he said, "while the other was easier, and fitter for common use."
According to his desire, 'Omar was buried side by side with the Prophet and Abu Bekr, in the chamber of 'Aisha. Soheib, as presiding over the public Prayers, performed the funeral service, and the five Electors, with the Caliph's son, lowered the body into its last resting-place.
The Muslim annalist may well sigh as, bidding farewell to the strong and single-minded Caliph, he enters on the weak, selfish, and stormy reign of his successor.
The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]
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