After the period of the Khulafā ar-Rāshidīn (the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, r. 633-661), which encompassed the reigns of Abū Bakr ibn Abi Quhāfah, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb, ‘Uthmān ibn Affān, and ‘Alī ibn Abi Tālib (‘Alī’s son and successor al-Hasan ibn ‘Alī is sometimes also included), rarely has a Muslim leader enjoyed a reputation of being not only a capable leader but a just and pious person as well. All of the Khulafā ar-Rāshidīn were of the closest Companions (radiAllāhu anhum ajma‘īn) of the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa sallam), as were some of the leaders who immediately followed, such as Mu‘āwiyah ibn Abu Sufyān (r. 661-680) and ‘Abd Allah ibn az-Zubayr (established a rival caliphate to the Umayyad dynasty in Hijāz, c. 680-692). From them, because of their close association with the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa sallam), there could be a stronger expectation of pious and just leadership based on Islamic teachings. But any such expectation from their successors must have been lost soon after Mu‘āwiyah’s reign, for the Umayyad caliphs who followed generally showed less-than-adequate administrative ability and even less piety and sense of justice. But, there was one significant exception to this trend in the Umayyad dynasty: ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz (r. 717-720), the eighth Umayyad caliph.
‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz, also known as ‘Umar II, is a highly respected figure in Islam to this day, in both the Sunni and Shi‘ī communities. Born in 682 CE, he was, on his father’s side, the son of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Marwān ibn al-Hakam. His mother was ‘Umm ‘Āsim Layla bint ‘Āsim ibn ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb – hence the first of the two reasons why he was called ‘Umar II is that he was the great-grandson of the second Rāshidūn caliph. The second reason for this was that, in his role as a leader, first as the Governor of Madīnah and then as the caliph, the piety and sense of justice that had distinguished the leadership of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb. ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz was a scholar himself, introduced many social reforms based on the teachings of Islam, and patronized some of the pioneering scholars of the Islamic sciences such as Ibn Hazm (d. 737) and Ibn Shihāb az-Zuhrī (d. c. 741). His detailed biography will be presented in another post, inshāAllah. Here we will try to understand ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz through his own words – some of the letters which he wrote and the sermons which he delivered during his short reign, as they were recorded in Tārīkh at-Tabarī.
One of the first letters that ‘Umar wrote after coming to power was to Yazīd ibn al-Muhallab, the Governor of Khurasān. “Now then,” wrote ‘Umar, “[my predecessor] Sulayman was one of God’s servants upon whom God bestowed His blessing and then took him away. He designated me as his successor and he designated Yazīd ibn ‘Abd al-Malik – if he is still alive – to succeed me. The office that God has entrusted and allotted to me is not easily borne. Were it my desire to take many wives and acquire wealth, then the sums that He has already given me are greater than that attained by any of His creatures. But I fear, in connection with the office or which I have been chosen, a difficult reckoning and a painful questioning, except for whatever defense from trial God may grant me, in His mercy. Those at our end have sworn the oath of allegiance, so now let those at your end do the same.” Yazīd ibn al-Muhallab immediately noticed something different about the new caliph, just from the wording and tone of the letter he had received. In fact, Yazīd went as far as to give up his position because he did not feel that he would be able to serve under a caliph so different from his predecessors. ‘Umar asked Yazīd to appoint his replacement, and Yazīd appointed his son, Makhlad, before himself returning to Damascus. (p. 93)
Later on, he wrote to the Governor of Kūfah as follows: “Greetings from the servant of God, ‘Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, to ‘Abd al-Hamīd. Now then, the army of al-Kūfah has been stricken by trial, hardship, and deviation from the judgements of God, as well as by corrupt customs that were imposed on them by evil governors. The foundation of religion is justice and performance of good deeds, and there is nothing more important to you than your soul. Remember that even the smallest sin is insignificant. Do not treat uncultivated land like cultivated land, nor cultivated land like uncultivated land. Nothing should be taken from cultivated land, except the rate of the tribute. Take it gently, leaving the peasants unruffled. Do not take as tribute anything but the weight of seven (i.e. a dinar weighing seven mithqāls)… Follow my instructions in this matter, for I have commissioned you to carry out what I was commissioned to do by God. Furthermore, do not hasten, on your own initiative, to cut off the arm of the thief or to crucify someone until you have consulted with me on the matter. Finally, consider the request of women and children who desire to go on pilgrimage and immediately pay them one hundred dirhams by means of which they may perform the pilgrimage. Farewell.” (p. 96)
‘Abd ar-Rahmān ibn Nu‘aym, another one of ‘Umar’s subordinates, also received letters from him issuing specific instructions, such as: “Do not destroy a church, synagogue or fire temple with respect to which an agreement has been concluded with you, and do not permit the construction of a new church or fire temple. Do not drag lamb to its place of slaughter or sharpen the knife over the head of the animal. Do not combine two prayers without an excuse.” (p. 101) Another letter addressed to ‘Abd ar-Rahmān offered a general reminder: “Indeed, action (‘amal) and knowledge (‘ilm) are closely related, so be one who is knowledgeable of God and one who acts on His behalf. There have been people who were knowledgeable but did not act – their knowledge was detrimental to them.” (p. 93)
It is very clear from these letters that ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz attempted, in his short three-year reign as caliph, to revive the spirit of ideal Islamic leadership which was grounded in Islamic law and theology and effectively dealt with the political realities of his time. But more importantly, these letters express his personal piety, and that was what really distinguished him from the other Umayyad caliphs. By this time, the intellectual position was already starting to be accepted in society that as long as the ruler effectively administered the state, his shortcomings in piety and spirituality could be overlooked. It was against this backdrop of hopelessness that ‘Umar II suddenly appeared, and this explains his popularity during his reign and right up to today.
His sermons expressed his personal piety even more than his letters, since they were addressed to the general public and not to his governors (and hence didn’t focus on issuing specific instructions). On one occasion, he said: “He who acts without knowledge causes more corruption than good, and he who does not consider his speech to be part of his actions sins repeatedly. Satisfaction is scarce, and the true believer should rely on patience: God never bestowed a blessing upon one of His servants and then took it away from him, giving him patience in return for that which was taken away, except that the replacement was better than what was taken away from him.” (p. 101)
Reminders about knowledge and death seem to have been a common theme of his sermons. “He who gives sincere advice to his brother,” he said, “in matters of religion and looks out for the well-being of the latter’s daily affairs has fulfilled his brotherly obligation and carried out the duty that was incumbent upon him. Fear God. Accept these words, for they are offered as sincere advice to you with regard to your religion; and cling fast to them, for they constitute a warning that will save you in the afterlife. The sustenance has been apportioned; therefore, let no believer exceed what has been apportioned to him, and be united in seeking the good. In contentment there is abundance, subsistence, and sufficiency… What you see will pass away, and what has been is as if it never was, and all will soon be dead. You have seen the stages of the dying man, both when he is in the agony of death and the people all around him are saying, ‘He has passed away, may God have mercy on his soul.’ You have witnessed the hasty manner in which he is removed, and the division of his estate, when his face is lost, his memory forgotten, and his doorway forsaken, as if he had not mixed with those who kept their word, nor inherited the lands [i.e. as if he had never existed]. Therefore, beware the horror of a day on which not so much as the weight of an ant on the scale will be despised.” (p. 100)
One of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz’s more famous sermons was delivered in Khunāsirah (a place near Nishapūr in modern-day Iran), in which he said: “O people, you were not created in vain, nor will you be left to yourselves. Rather, you will return to a place in which God will descend in order to judge among you and distinguish between you. Destitute and lost are those who forsake the all-encompassing mercy of God, and they will be excluded from Paradise, the borders of which as wide as the heavens and the earth. Don’t you know that protection, tomorrow, will be limited to those who feared God (today), and to those who sold something ephemeral for something permanent, something small for something great, and fear for protection? Don’t you realize that you re the descendants of those who have perished, that those who remain will take their place after you, and that this will continue until you are all returned to God? Every day you dispatch to God, at all times of the day, someone who has died, his term having come to an end. You bury him in a crack in the earth and then leave him without a pillow or a bed. He has parted from his loved ones, severed his connections with the living, and taken up residence in the earth, whereupon he comes was to face with the accounting… Therefore, fear God before death descends and its appointed times expire. I swear by God that I say these words to you knowing that I myself have committed more sins than any of you; I therefore ask God for forgiveness and I repent. Whenever we learn that one of you needs something, I try to satisfy his needs to the extent that I am able. Whenever I can provide satisfaction to one of you out of my possessions, I seek to treat him as my equal and my relative, so that my life and his life are of equal value. I swear by God that had I wanted something else, namely, affluence, then it would have been easy for me to utter the word, aware as I am of the means for obtaining this. But God has issued an eloquent Book and a just example (sunnah) by means of which He guides us to obedience and proscribes disobedience.” (p. 98-99)
After delivering this sermon, ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz lifted up the edge of his robe and began to cry, causing the people around him to break into tears as well, and then he stepped down from the mimbar (pulpit). The reason that this became one of his more famous sermons was that it was destined to be his last before he passed away – rahimahAllāhu ta‘āla.
In conclusion, let’s briefly return to a reflection made earlier: there was an emphasis on knowledge and death, particularly in his sermons. If this emphasis was something he believed and practiced in his own life (and it seems that he did), then it’s important to note that this emphasis encompasses the two most essential sources of guidance for a leader, and particularly a Muslim leader. Knowledge of both the dīn (religion) and the dunya (i.e. worldly knowledge), on the one hand, enlightens and empowers the leader by helping him (or her) make informed decisions. And the remembrance of death humbles the leader by reminding him that this life is temporary, and that he himself, despite his authority, will be answerable to Allah ta‘āla. And, of course, “leader” here does not necessarily mean a caliph, president, etc. but rather anyone who has authority over anyone else, such as parents over children. As such, it is important for every Muslim to ensure that, following the example of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz, for us knowledge and death should always remain part of the picture.
Source: al-Tabari, Muhammad ibn Jarir. The History of al-Tabari, Vol. 24: The Empire in Transition: The Caliphates of Sulayman, ‘Umar, and Yazid A.D. 715-724/A.H. 97-105. Translated and Edited by David Stephan Powers. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.