The Christian apostle Paul (Saul of Tarsus) and Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Muslim ruler after the death of Prophet Muhammad, were both great men of faith who etched their influence on their respective religions.
In his commentary on Paul, Luke Timothy Johnson, a professor at Emory University, said: “Paul was a key figure, if not the key figure, in the gentile mission by which Christianity became a world religion rather than a Jewish sect.”
Umar ibn al-Khattab was an implacable force in the history of Islam. Prophet Muhammad once said of Umar’s tenacity, “If Satan would encounter you in the way, he would certainly take a different way from that of yours.”
Besides their shared historical importance, Paul and Umar had something else in common: Both were skeptics who found faith.
Let’s begin with Paul, who initially doubted the truth of Christianity. Born a Jew, he enjoyed special privileges because of his Roman citizenship. According to Acts 22:4, Paul was seeking to put to death members of the Christian movement: “And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.”
Acts 8:1-3 also portray Paul as a collaborator in the stoning of Stephen: “And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women, committed them to prison.”
Acts 22: 6-8 recount how Paul changed from a persecuting skeptic to a man of faith: “And it came to pass that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me?’ And I answered. “Who art thou, Lord?’ And he said unto me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecute.’ ”
Umar converted to Islam in the sixth year of the Prophethood of Muhammad and remained a constant companion to the Prophet until Muhammad’s death. Like Paul, Umar was privileged, part of a middle-class family. He learned to read and write as a child, skills very uncommon in polytheistic Arabia. Historians say that when Prophet Muhammad proclaimed his mission, only 17 people among the Quraysh clan were literate.
Umar, a man of great physical strength and a champion wrestler, wanted to settle the argument between believers and nonbelievers and set out to kill Prophet Muhammad. On his way, he met a friend who was surprised by the sword in Umar’s hand and asked him where he was going.
“To put an end to Muhammad’s life,” he replied.
“Before you do so,” said his friend, “you should go to your own house. Your sister and your brother-in-law have already embraced Islam.”
Infuriated, Umar set out to his sister’s house and after finding her reciting the Koran, he beat her mercilessly.
But she said he could never turn her heart away from Islam.
Puzzled by her steadfastness, Umar questioned her, and she recited some verses from the Koran. The divine message softened Umar’s heart and he immediately set out to the house of the Prophet to offer his allegiance and service.
In today’s world, where religious and ethnic bigotry are rampant, it’s imperative that right-minded people put into practice the examples of both Paul and Umar, who were brave enough to abandon their prejudices when confronted with divine truth.
Imam Ivan G. Nassar is the assistant imam and Islamic studies instructor at Masjid Al-Warith Deen in Cleveland.