Umar ibn al-Khattab Research Paper

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After the Prophet Muhammad, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab was one of the most influential rulers during Islam’s formative years. He was responsible for the first codification of Islamic law, for devising the Islamic calendar, and for many of Islam’s more proscriptive ordinances and attitudes.

One of the ten Companions of the Prophet to whom Muhammad promised paradise, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab ruled from 634 CE to 644 CE as the second of the four Rashidun (Arabic: “rightly guided”), or universally acknowledged, caliphs. (‘Umar’s daughter was Hafsah, one of Muhammad’s wives.) After Muhammad, ‘Umar is one of the principle personalities of Islam, having presided over a crucial era in Islam’s political and doctrinal formation, playing a role analogous in many ways to that of Saint Paul in Christianity.

An early convert to Islam, ‘Umar took part in the Hijra of 622 CE that marked the flight of Muhammad from Mecca and the establishment of the first Muslim community at Medina. Becoming caliph following the death of Abu Bakr, (c. 573–634 CE; reigned 632–634 CE) and assuming the title of commander of the faithful, he governed the Arabs during their most dramatic period of military expansion, which included the conquests of southern Iraq (from 635 CE), Palestine (638 CE), Syria (637 CE), western Iran (from 641 CE), Egypt (642 CE) and Libya (643 CE). Among the many important administrative developments credited to his reign are the first codification of Islamic law, the devising of the Islamic calendar, and the establishment of the Islamic magistrate that registered the Muslims of Medina and Arab soldiers, among whom the booty from the conquests and the tribute they generated was to be formally shared. Allotments were based on one’s tribal pedigree and the length of one’s family’s association with Islam. As much a system of control as reward, it was intended to maintain the cohesiveness and distinctiveness of Arab identity in the face of geographic dispersal, a tendency manifest also in ‘Umar’s policy of establishing Arab-only garrison towns in conquered areas to prevent religious and cultural contamination by the conquered peoples.

He is most famous among non-Muslims for the so-called Pact of ‘Umar, which is held to mark the first formal elaboration of the protection extended in principle to all conquered peoples who were adherents of revealed religions. The designation “People of the Book” originally applied only to Christians and Jews, but was soon extended to include Zoroastrians, eventually Buddhists, and in some cases members of other religions in accord with the necessities of governance. The origin of the pact is said to be negotiations that ‘Umar carried out with the people of Jerusalem sometime between 636 CE and 638 CE, around the time of their surrender. The Islamic conception of the city as a holy site was coalescing at this time. ‘Umar is said to have entered messiah-like on a donkey; he eschewed an offer to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the grounds that Muslims would later demand it be destroyed to make way for a mosque. Indeed, the spot nearby where he is said to have prayed is the site of the present Mosque of ‘Umar.

By allowing non-Muslims wide liberties and permitting them to continue to administer the conquered lands, ‘Umar confronted two serious challenges to instability resulting from the incredible pace of the conquests and the paucity of Arab military forces: namely, the potential for popular unrest and rebellion and the necessity to maintain the economic viability of the new territories. Although the various rough surrender agreements were undoubtedly negotiated ad hoc by local commanders, ninth-century and later Islamic jurists conceived of an elaborate and standardized pact, which they then attributed back to ‘Umar himself. In a less tolerant vein, ‘Umar originated the policy that the Arabian Peninsula itself should be inhabited solely by Muslims, and Christians and Jews were expelled. His attitude to gender role was also famously inflexible and many of the more restrictive Islamic traditions in this regard can be traced to his influence.

‘Umar was choleric and uncompromising, his formidable character and famous ill-temper stifling opposition. In the finest Machiavellian style, he played off potentially dissenting elements among the Companions of the Prophet and the tribal leaders, depending as much as he could on officials and lieutenants of his own making, all the while supporting the power of the Meccan elite, particularly the future caliphal family, the Umayyads.

On 3 November 644 CE ‘Umar was murdered by a Christian slave belonging to the governor of Basra (in southern Iraq), who was apparently distraught at having failed to negotiate fiscal concessions from the caliph. After his death, the Meccan elite continued to dominate the caliphate, electing another of their group, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, as successor—a fact that would exacerbate divisions in Islam between the Syrian-Meccan faction and the Iraqi faction, which tended to support the claims of ‘Ali (c. 600–661 CE), the fourth caliph.

‘Umar is intensely revered and romanticized, particularly by Sunni Muslims. Famous for the strength of his convictions and unwavering rigor, he is considered by many to be the originator of many of Islam’s more proscriptive ordinances and attitudes.


  1. Busse, H. (1984). Omar b. al-Khattab in Jerusalem. Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, 5, 73–119.
  2. Crone, P., & Hinds, M. (1986). God’s caliph: Religious authority in the first centuries of Islam. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Donner, F. M. (1981). The early Islamic conquests. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  4. Madelung, W. (1997). The succession to Muhammad: A study of the early caliphate. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Tabari (1989–1993). The history of al-Tabari (Vols. 11–14). Albany: State University of New York Press.
  6. Tritton, A. S. (1970). The caliphs and their non-Muslim subjects: A critical study of the covenant of ‘Umar. London: F. Cass.

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