Hadrat Umar ibn al-Khattab – his generous treatment of Non-Muslims

By Zakaria Virk, Toronto, Canada

Sayyedna Hazrat Umar ibn al-Khattab (586- Nov 3. 644) was one of the outstanding figures of early Islam. His crowning achievement was laying the foundation of Islamic Empire. He belonged to the clan of Adi of the tribe of Quraish. He was a businessman by profession. He was one of the few in Mecca who could read and write in those days. In his youth he was proficient in wrestling, horseback riding,  swords-manship, and oratory. After his immigration to Medina in 622 he became one of the closest advisors of Prophet of Islam. His daughter Hazrat Hafsa was married to Prophet Muhammad (saw) who also had the singular distinction of receiving the standard text of the Quran after its compilation during the caliphate of Hazrat Abu Bekr al-Siddik.


It was his energetic leadership, political insight that laid the solid foundation of Islamic Empire. Muslim conquests of Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Iran and Egypt during his caliphate displaced the two super powers of Byzantine and Persia. He was a great statesman, military planner, wise ruler, and a strict administrator. He was stern towards the offenders and himself ascetic to the point of harshness. (1) On the day he took charge of his office, he delivered the following inaugural speech to the citizens of Medina:

O people, you have some rights on me which you can always claim. One of your rights is that if anyone of you comes to me with a claim, he should leave satisfied. Another of your rights is that you can demand that I take nothing unjustly from the revenues of the state. You can also demand that …. I fortify your frontiers and do not put you in danger. It is also your right that if you go to battle I should look after your families as a father would while you are away.

O people, remain conscious of Allah, forgive me my faults and help me in my task. Assist me in enforcing what is good and forbidding what is evil. Advise me regarding the obligations that have been imposed upon me by Allah.  

He was an embodiment of equity and justice. Once Abee bin Kaab brought a claim against him in a court in Medina. Hazrat Umar appeared as defendant before the trial judge, Zaid bin Sabit. When he arrived in the court, the judge stood up as a sign of respect towards the Caliph. Hazrat Umar reprimanded him for his partiality, ” this is the first act of injustice you did to this person”, and sat down with the plaintiff.

The soundness of Hazrat Umar’s judgment, his devotion to the Prophet (peace be on him), his outspokenness earned him trust and confidence of the Prophet which was second only to Hazrat  Abu Bakr. The Prophet gave him the title ‘Farooq’ which means the ‘Separator of Truth from False hood.’ During the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, he was his closest assistant and trusted adviser. When Hazrat Abu Bakr died, the people of Medina swore allegiance to Hazrat Umar, and on 23 Jamadi-al-Akhir, 13 A.H( 634), he was proclaimed the second Caliph of Islam.

He led an austere life fully imbued with the spirit that his Master was imbued with. He would preside over the meetings of the advisory council in the mosque, received ambassadors from Persia and Roman empires on the floor of the mosque. He did not mind delivering letters received from the battlefield to the families in Medina. There were patches in his coarse clothes, he received a stipend of two dirhems    a day from the state treasury. He used to sleep on the floor, and very seldom ate food made from wheat flour. He was energetic, and feared for his high moral character.

During the lifetime of the Prophet of Islam, four persons were designated to give verdict in religious matters, Hazrat Umar, HazratAli, Hazrat Muaaz, and Hazrat Aboo Musa al-Ashari.  Once Hazrat Umar instructed Hazrat Abu Musa Ashari, “if you are faced with a difficult problem, and cannot find solution from the Quran and Hadith, and you are in doubt concerning it, you should reflect on it judiciously, try to find similar events and cases, finally, use your discretion.”

A visitor from Iraq came to Medina and obverved;  I went to a festival outside Medina, and I saw Umar, tall, bald, and grey, he walked barefoot, drawing a red embroidered cloth about his body with his hands and, he towered above the people as though he were on a horseback. (2)

He was a firm believer in the efficacy of prayer. It is said that once the Christian Copts of Egypt became worried when the yearly flood in the Nile was delayed. This would have threatened their crops.

They decided, according to an old custom, to cast into the river an effigy of a beautiful woman, The Bride of the Nile. They sought permission from the Caliph. Hazrat Umar sent the following reply to them:

From Commander of the Faithful,  to river Nile.  Greetings,  If in times you have risen on your own will, then stay your flood; but if by will of Almighty Allah, then to Him we pray that your waters may rise and overspread the land.

Hazrat Umar instructed that this letter should be cast into the river, it will be enough. It was done, and tide began to rise in large quantities.

Once bubonic plague broke out in Syria, which devastated the cities of Damascus, Hims and reached as far as Basra. Hazrat Umar decided to travel to Syria to inspect the devastation first hand. Hazrat Abu Obeida, the commander in chief in Syria and other notables met him near to the border. People advised the Caliph to return to Medina, he yielded to their request. However one of the courtiers remarked,  ” Why should we run away from the decree of Allah”. The wise Caliph replied ” if we flee, it will be from one decree of Allah into another.”

He remained caliph for 10 years and six months.  While at the zenith of his career he was struck down on, 26th Dhulhajja 23AH (3rd November 644), by a Persian carpenter Firoz (Abu LuLu). At the time he was leading the Fajr prayer in the mosque. Firoz had appealed to the Caliph to be relieved of two dirhems ( 10 pennies) a day tax but denied.  He was one of the ‘chosen ten’ ( ashra mubashira) companions of Prophet of Islam who were assured of paradise. Before his death he set up a committee of six illustrious companions of the Prophet who selected Hazrat Usman as the third caliph of Islam. He was blessed with seven sons, Hazrat Abdullah, Ubaidullah, Asim, Abu Shahma, Abdur Rahman, Zaid, Mujeer and three daughters Hazrat Hafsah, Fatimah and Roqayya.

His life has been summed up rightly in these words: “Simple and frugal; doing his duty without fear and favor; energetic even to harshness, yet capable of tenderness towards the weak; a severe judge of others and especially of himself, he was born a ruler and every inch a man”. (3)  

He had brownish complexion, very tall, strong physique, thick beard with long moustache, receding hairline.  He normally wore a long cloak (ridda), a cap and sandals with laces. He slept on a bed of palm leaves. His diet was dates, or coarse barley bread dipped in salt; his drink water; sometime he would eat bread without salt by way of penance. He preached in a tattered cotton gown, torn in 12 places. During his numerous travels, he would take no tent but would throw his gown over a low bush and lie down in the shade thus produced. He performed the pilgrimage nine times during his caliphate. Piety, abstinence, and downright simplicity were the hallmark of his character. “His walking stick, ” wrote one Muslim historian, ” struck more terror in those who were present than another man’s sword.”    

Writes Ameer Ali ” (He was) stern but just, far-sighted thoroughly versed in the character of his people, he was especially fitted for the leadership of the unruly Arabs. He had held the helm with a strong hand. He was a man of towering height, austere and frugal, always accessible to the meanest of his subjects.” (4)  

On one occasion Hazrat Umar fell sick, the physician prescribed honey as treatment but there was none at home. There was some honey in the state treasury, he went to the mosque, got permission from the people and then took some.

Hazrat Umar was strict towards his own family. Once he gathered his immediate family and said to them: “ I have forbidden the people to do so and so. Now the people look at you as birds look at flesh, and I swear by God that if I find any one of you doing any wrong, I will double the penalty against him(5) 

Once Hazrat Ali was sitting in the company of Hazrat Umar. A Jew entered and lodged a complaint against the former. Addressing him as “Aba Hassan” the Caliph asked Hazrat Ali to defend himself. Hazrat Ali submitted his explanation and as the Jew failed to establish his case, The Caliph dismissed the case on grounds of merit. As soon as the complainant left the room, the Caliph asked Hazrat Ali why he had frowned when asked to tender an explanation. Hazrat Ali replied that he was not at all displeased; on the contrary he frowned for the reason that the Caliph had addressed him with a term of endearment, Aba Hasan.  Being one of the parties to the suit, with the Caliph as the judge, the mode of address was not consonant with the true spirit of justice..

Hazrat Amru bin Qais ( Abu Moosa Ashari) was at one time administrator of state treasury during his caliphate. Once during the clean up of the treasury building, Abu Moosa found a dirham on the floor. He gave it to Hazrat Umar’s son who was standing nearby. On inquiry, Hazrat Umar was told that Abu Moosa gave the child this dirham. Hazrat Umar called for Abu Moosa and said ” could you not find a better enemy than Umar’s son. Do you want people to question me about this lousy dirham on the day of judgement”. The dirham was duly deposited in the treasury.

When the spoils of Medain & Jalula (Irak) arrived in Medina, the Caliph was found weeping. Asked why was he crying, he replied that in these spoils he saw the ruin of his people. He was right in his foresight for it was not very long before Muslims lost the qualities of austerity and self sacrifice with the arrival of abundant riches.

On one occasion Hazrat Umar asked Hazrat Salman Farsi, one of the illustrious companions of the Prophet, whether he was a Caliph or a King? Hazrtat Salman replied, ” If you extort money from the people, if you misappropriate money from Bait al- Mal, then you are a king, else a Caliph.” By God, said Hazrat Umar, I know not whether I am a Caliph or a King. And if I am a King, it is a fearful thing.

Whenever he appointed a governor he used to draw up in writing a certificate of investiture, which he caused to be witnessed by some of the Emigrants or Helpers. It contained the following directions: “That he must not ride on horseback, nor eat white bread, nor wear fine clothes, nor set up a door between himself and those who had ought to ask of him.”  He used to record the possessions of his Amils at the time of their appointment; and whatever was later acquired by them, was partly or wholly confiscated. Hazrat Amr ibn al-Asi had his possessions confiscated by the Caliph, as he did not own any slaves, vases, animals and commodities when he was made governor of Egypt. Similarly the Caliph confiscated 12000 dirhems from Hazrat abu Hurairah who was once governor of al-Bahrain.


Ijtehad by Hadrat Umar

During the Caliphate of Hadrat Abu Bakar, the punishment for a drunk was 40 lashes; Hadrat Umar increased it to 80. During the time of Hadrat Abu Bakar, selling and buying of a Umme-walad (a female slave who has given birth to children) was legal, Hadrat Umar stopped this practice. During the expedition of Tabook, Prophet of Islam (SAW) set one dinar as payment for every prisoner, but Hadrat Umar set different amounts for different countries. Prophet of Islam distributed some vanquished lands among the soldiers, but Hadrat Umar put an end to this practice. Regarding a person who does ‘Halala’ Prophet of Islam condemned him as cursed, but Hadrat Umar said: A person who does halala or engages in this business, I will stone him”. Prophet of Islam never offered 20 rakat of tarawih, alone or in congregation, but Hadrat Umar made it compulsory to be offered in congregation. During the time of Prophet Muhammad (saw), zakat or charity were given to people inclined towards Islam (muallafat al-quloob), but Hadrat Umar stopped it. Hadrat Abu Bakr set 100 lashed plus banishment for someone engaged in adultery, but Hadrat Umar stopped the banishment. During the time of Prophet Muhammad up to the Caliphate of Hadhrat Umar, there used to be only one call to salat (prayer) ‘azan’, before Khutba, but Hadrat Usman changed it to two azan. Holy Quran allows marriage with Christian and Jewish women, provided they are righteous. When Hadhrat Umar noticed people were abusing this permission, he put an end to it. Noble Quran allows cutting of hand of a thief, but Hadhrat Umar disallowed it during period of famine. Prophet of Islam instructed his Companions to pass on the traditions they had heard, but Hadrat Umar restricted transmission of Hadith. Upto the Caliphate of Hadrat Abu Bakr Siddiq (ra), women were allowed to go to the mosque freely, but Hadrat Umar disallowed them.

Treatment of conquered

Hazrat Umar not only devised but also controlled the general policy and laid down the rules for administering the newly conquered territories and its people. Accondingly, the conquered masses were left undisturbed in their religion, community life, and properties provided they paid the protection money (Jizya). However this tax was levied on the able-bodied men only. It was not levied on women, children, the poor, aged who could not work, as also the blind, the lame, and the insane. Religious leaders like priests, or monks who were dependent on alms of the rich, were also exempted.

Local notables were included in the new administration, old taxes were collected, Greek, Persian, or Copt remained the official language in these territories for fifty years. Conversion of the subjects to Islam was not encouraged.  Non-Muslims took part in consultations in matters of national interest. In Iraq local Zoroastrians and Magian chiefs were consulted, and a Copt from Egypt was invited to Medina for consultation. The head of the revenue department in Medina was a Greek.  In the year 13AH( 635) 4000 prisoners arrived in Medina after the capture of Kaisariyah (Caesarea), some of them were employed as clerks and some as manual laborers for the Muslims. Hazrat Aboo Moosa Ashari had a Christian secretary.

Hazrat Umar Farooq is reported to have said that if possible he would like to travel in all the provinces, spend two months in each so everybody could bring his complaints to him. The story is told of   a person Kabu al-Ahbar , who asked how could he possibly have audience with the Commander of the Faithful?   “There is no door between him and the people. You can speak to him every day in the streets and in the mosque.” was the reply. (6)  People were free to send their complaints to the Caliph against their respective governors. For instance, Hazrat Sad ibn abi Waqas, governor and commander-in-chief in Irak, was dismissed from his job in 642 on a complaint that he had erected a wooden door for governor’s mansion, which he surrounded with a fence of reed.

Non-Muslims did not perform military duty instead they paid tribute. They were given the jurisdiction over their canon law, which was a sort of partial autonomy. Those who took part in defense of the Islamic State were exempted from paying jizya. If Muslims army had to retreat from a city whose non-Muslim citizens had paid their tax for their defense, the tax was duly returned to them. The tale of Christian tribe of Banu Taghlib (Christian Arabs) is remarkable in this respect. The Muslim commander Waleed pressed them to abjure their faith. Hazrat Umar was displeased with his actions and instructed: ” Leave them in the profession of the Gospel“. The tribe sent a deputation to Hazrat Umar with the request that they be allowed to pay double the zakat (sadakah) or ushar, instead of poll-tax as they were too proud to pay the tax of the ‘uncircumcised’. The Caliph allowed them to pay double the amount of zakat and that they do not christen their children. (7)

Life and property of zimmis ( non-Muslim subjects) was as inviolate as that of a Muslim. If a Muslim by chance killed a non-Muslim, Hazrat Umar made sure that the killer was handed over to the family of the victim.  Once a member of the tribe of Bakr ben Wail killed a Christian of the tribe of Jabrat. Hazrat Umar instructed the chief of the Wail tribe to hand over the killer to Hunain, a relative of the victim, who had the killer pay the price in kind.

Hazrat Umar instructed Muslim armies to act humanly, not to destroy any crops. The landowners whose crops were damaged with the movement of the troops were given ample compensation. Once he gave 10,000 dirhems to a farmer whose harvest was spoiled by the Muslim army.

Following incident illustrates Hazrat Umar’s tenderness for the ahluz zimma ( people of the covenant). On his way back from Syria, he passed by some men who had been standing in the sun with oil poured over their heads ( to attract the flies). Upon inquiry he was told that they were liable for tribute, had not paid it, and were being punished until they do. Their excuse was that they were too poor to pay. Upon hearing this Hazrat Umar said, ‘Let them go, do not annoy them, for Prophet of Islam said:

La tuazzibu Nasa,  fa- ina Lazeena Yuazzibu Nasa fi al-Dunya, Yo- azzibohomu Allah Yomul Qiyamat.   Do not  annoy people,  for one who annoys people in this world will be punished on the  day of judgement.  (8)

Later he passed a house where an old blind man was begging. He touched him on the arm from behind, and said, ‘ To which of the people of the Book do you belong?’ He replied that he was a Jew, and begged to provide for his daily needs and food and to pay the tribute. Hazrat Umar took him by the hand, sent him to the treasury with this message ‘ See to this man and his like, for we have not done right if we devour their youth and neglect their old age. The zakat ( religious tax) is for the poor and needy, this man is one of the needy of the people of the Book.’ The man was freed from paying tribute. (9)  

He inferred from a verse of the Holy Quran that sadaqa money should be expended on two groups of society, fuqara and masakin. By the former is meant the helpless Muslims, and by latter needy Jews and Christians. Accordingly non-Muslims were also helped from such monies. Once Hazrat Umar saw an old Christian begging, he inquired from him why was he begging?  ” I have to pay jizya, and I am unable to do that due to my age” was his reply. Hazrat Umar regretted the fact that we enjoy the fruits of their labor when they are young, and should be neglectful when they are old. He brought the old man home, gave him few things, and directed the supervisor of Bait al-Mal (state treasury) to give him subsistence allowance. The man was also exempted from paying jizya.

When Hazrat Umar was passing through al-Jabiyah in the province of Damascus, he saw some Christians smitten with elephantiasis, and he ordered that they be given something out of the sadakahs and that food stipends are assigned to them.

Once some Muslims dispossessed a Jew of a plot of land and built a mosque on the site. Upon learning this Syedna Hazrat Farooq Azam issued the directive that the mosque be demolished and land returned to the owner. This home was called Bayt al-Yahoodi and still stands in Lebanon. (10)

Old age pension was given to the old people whether they were Muslims or non-Muslims; similarly poorhouses were open to all. When Jews of Khaybar and Christians of Najran were ordered to settle elsewhere they were paid full value of their lands and properties. Likewise when the people of Araboos, a town situated on the border between Syria and Asia Minor, were exiled because of their espionage for the Romans, they were given double the value of their properties, land and cattle.

Hazrat Umar ordered the construction of garrison towns (Kufa, Basra, Wasit and Fustat) outside the major cities so as to protect the military from mixing with the local population. These cantonments were strategically located, for instance the Syrian and Iraqi garrisons (AMSAR) stood on the edges of the desert. Because of their location, it was easy to bring reinforcements to these military bases, and to plan further conquests. The conquest of Azerbeigan and Armenia was organized from Kufa. (11)

      God has placed truth upon Umar’s tongue and heart.                                                                         Prophet Muhammad (SAW)

After the conquest of Irak and Iran, he took following steps to regenerate the new territory under Muslim rule. 1. A cadastral survey of land was set on foot 2. New system of land assessment was introduced 3. Taxes were revised 4. Peasantry was secured in the possession of their land 5. A network of canal dug out for cultivation 6. Cultivators were given advances 7. Sale of land prohibited as safeguard against the eviction of local peasants 8. Broken aqueducts were restored 9. Liberty of conscience was allowed to all. Muslims were forbidden to interfere with their religion. 10. Those who kept their faith ( zimmis, protected people) were made to pay a higher tax in lieu of their exemption from the military service.

History has recorded the following conversation, which took place between his imperial majesty Heraclius, and a Muslim captive.

“What sort of palace has your caliph?” Heraclius asked.

“Of Mud”

“And who are his attendants?”

“ Beggars and poor people”

“ What tapestry does he sit upon?”

“ Justice and uprightness”

“ And what is his throne?”

“ Abstinence and wisdom”.

“ And what is his treasure?”

“ The bravest of the Unitarians”. (12)

Once Hazrat Umar ordered Abu Moosa Ashari to bring his secretary to the mosque, he explained that he could not do so, as he was a Christian. Then on one occasion Hazrat Umar advised his Christian slave to accept Islam, on his refusal he uttered the following Quranic verse “There is no compulsion in matters of faith.“

Peace treaty with Christians of Syria

Following is the text of the peace treaty offered by the Caliph Umar to the Christians of Syria.

We heard from ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Ghanam [died 78/697] as follows: When Umar ibn al-Khattab, may God be pleased with him, accorded peace to the Christians of Syria, we wrote to him as follows: In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate. This is a letter to the servant of God Umar [ibn al-Khattab], Commander of the Faithful, from the Christians of such-and-such a city. When you came against us, we asked you for safe-conduct (aman) for ourselves, our descendants, our property, and the people of our community, and we undertook the following obligations toward you:

We shall not build, in our cities or in their neighborhood, new monasteries, Churches, convents, or monks’ cells, nor shall we repair, by day or by night, such of them as fall in ruins or are situated in the quarters of the Muslims.

We shall keep our gates wide open for passersby and travelers. We shall give board and lodging to all Muslims who pass our way for three days.

We shall not give shelter in our churches or in our dwellings to any spy, nor bide him from the Muslims.

We shall not teach the Qur’an to our children.

We shall not manifest our religion publicly nor convert anyone to it. We shall not prevent any of our kin from entering Islam if they wish it.

We shall show respect toward the Muslims, and we shall rise from our seats when they wish to sit.

We shall not seek to resemble the Muslims by imitating any of their garments, the qalansuwa, the turban, footwear, or the parting of the hair. We shall not speak as they do, nor shall we adopt their kunyas.

We shall not mount on saddles, nor shall we gird swords nor bear any kind of arms nor carry them on our- persons.

We shall not engrave Arabic inscriptions on our seals.

We shall not sell fermented drinks.

We shall clip the fronts of our heads.

We shall always dress in the same way wherever we may be, and we shall bind the zunar round our waists

We shall not display our crosses or our books in the roads or markets of the Muslims. We shall use only clappers in our churches very softly. We shall not raise our voices when following our dead. We shall not show lights on any of the roads of the Muslims or in their markets. We shall not bury our dead near the Muslims.

We shall not take slaves who have been allotted to Muslims.

We shall not build houses overtopping the houses of the Muslims.

(When I brought the letter to Umar, may God be pleased with him, he added, “We shall not strike a Muslim.”)

We accept these conditions for ourselves and for the people of our community, and in return we receive safe-conduct.

If we in any way violate these undertakings for which we ourselves stand surety, we forfeit our covenant [dhimma], and we become liable to the penalties for contumacy and sedition.

Umar ibn al-Khittab replied: Sign what they ask, but add two clauses and impose them in addition to those which they have undertaken. They are: “They shall not buy anyone made prisoner by the Muslims,” and “Whoever strikes a Muslim with deliberate intent shall forfeit the protection of this pact.” (13) 

The following incident is a splendid example of beneficence by the Muslim army at Hims (Emesa), Syria. Hazrat Abu Obaidah, commander in chief, was faced with a dilemma when the Romans mustered their forces against them. To ensure the success of his strategy, he consulted his commanders and came to the conclusion that the Christian population of the city should be asked to evacuate the town. One of his lieutenants stood up and said: O Amir, you have no right to demand the evacuation. We gave these protected people (zimmis) peace on the condition that they live peacefully. Hence there is no fear of their becoming perfidious.  Hazrat Abu Obaidah admitted his error and decided that kharaj be returned to the Christians as the Muslims had failed to protect them. The Jews of this town equally touched by this generosity. They shut the gates of Hims and guarded them with their men. (14)

Freedom of religion in Egypt

Whereas the orthodox Church of Byzantine had persecuted the Christians of Syria and Egypt as heretics, Muslims treated the Copt community in Egypt with respect and dignity. It is noteworthy that Coptic Patriarch Benjamin, a fugitive in the desert for last 12 years, was summoned by Muslim governor ( Amil) Hazrat Amr ibn al-Asi, from his hiding in order to resume the leadership of the Coptic Church. The victorious Muslim commander said to him:

“Resume the government of all your churches and of your people, and administer their affairs. And if you will pray for me, that I may go to the West and to Pentapolis, and take possession of them, as I have of Egypt, and return to you in safety and speedily, I will do for you all that you shall ask of me.” Then the holy Benjamin prayed for Amr, and pronounced an eloquent discourse, which made Amr and those present with him marvel, and which contained words of exhortation and much profit for those that heard him; and he revealed certain matters to Amr, and departed from his presence honored and revered. And all that the blessed father said to the commander Amr, son of Al-Asi, he found true, and not a letter of it was unfulfilled.

In the spring of 644, Hazrat Amr ibn al-Asi, delivered the following sermon.  After giving praise and thanks to Allah, he urged his listeners to observe the ordinances of religion, to give alms, and to avoid avarice, ostentation, and gossip. Idleness and frivolity were the chief sources of vice. Then changing his tone, he said, The Nile floods have fallen, the spring grazing is good. There is milk, for the lambs, and the kids. Go out with Gods blessing and enjoy the land, its milk, its flocks, and its herds. And take good care of your neighbors the Copts, for the Messenger of God himself gave orders for us to do so.

Covenant of Umar

When Muslims took over Jerusalem in 636 ( 15 AH) the Christian patriarch Sophronius agreed to surrender the city provided the Caliph of Islam gave them the articles of their security and protection with his own hands. Hazrat Umar, the conqueror of Syria, Persia, and Egypt, emperor of the faithful, acceded to his request, without an escort he rode on the back of his red camel with one attendant to Jerusalem. It was in striking contrast to the pomp and pageantry of haughty emperors of Byzantine and Iran. His dress was a coarse woolen garment, with a sword hung from one shoulder and a bow on the other. On the camel he had a couple of sacks, one filled with fruits, the other with sodden barley in the husk called sawik (called satoo in India).  Before him he had a leather bottle of water and behind him was suspended large wooden platter. When he halted on the way in a town, people were uniformly invited to partake of his homely fare; and everyone dipped their fingers in the same dish with the mighty successor of the Prophet of Islam.

In Jerusalem he entered into an agreement with Christians giving them security of life, property, and freedom of religion. This is referred to as Umar’s Covenant; it stipulates the following conditions:

In the name of Allah, Ever Gracious, Most Merciful.

This is the covenant of peace which Umar, the servant of God and the commander of the faithful, has made with the people of Elia(Jerusalem). This charter which is vouchsafed to them guarantees them protection of life, of property, of churches, of crosses, those that set up, display and honor these crosses. Their churches shall not be used as dwellings, nor destroyed, nor shall they or their compounds, their crosses and their belongings be diminished in any way. They shall not be subjected to persecution in matters pertaining to their religion, nor shall they be in any way annoyed. No Jew shall dwell with them in Jerusalem.

It is incumbent on the people of Jerusalem that they should pay the jizyah as people of other towns do. They must turn out the Greeks and the robbers. Whoever of the Greeks leaves the town, his life and property shall be protected till he should reach a place of safety. Whoever should stay in Jerusalem, he shall be protected and he must pay jizyah like the rest of the inhabitants. Whoever should wish to go away with the Greeks and take his property, shall leave behind their churches and crucifixes, there is protection for them as well.  Their lives, properties, churches and crosses shall be protected till they reach a place of safety. There shall be no payment of tribute till the harvest is gathered in.

Whatever is contained in this deed is under the covenant of God and His Messenger, and under the guarantees of his successors and the faithful, as long as the inhabitants pay the jizyah. “

Witnessed by:

Khalid bin Walid, Amr ibn al-As, Abdur Rahman ibn Auf, and Muawiyah ibn Sufiyan.

During his ten day stay in Jerusalem, Hazrat Umar conversed with the Patriarch familiarly, and asked him questions concerning the religious antiquities of the city. One day they visited the Church of the Resurrection together, and at the appointed hour of prayer, the Patriarch asked him to offer his zuhr salat in the cathedral. The Caliph declined the offer saying that if he were to do so, his followers might one day claim this place as Muslim place of worship. He spread his prayer mat on the steps of the porch, and offered his devotions right there.

Later he visited Bethlehem and prayed in the church of Nativity. Following incident is recorded in Le Strange’s book, Palestine Under the Muslims. It is reported, when he was in Bait Lahm  a monk approached him and said: ” I would obtain mercy of thee for Bait Lahm”. Said Omar; ” I know nought of the place but would like to see it.” When Omar came, he said to the people, ” Ye shall have mercy and safe conduct, but it is incumbent upon us that every place where there are Christians, we should erect a mosque. ” The monk answered ” There is in Bait Lahm an arched building ( Haniyyah) which is built so as to be turned towards your kiblah, take this and make it a mosque for the Muslims and do not destroy the church. Omar spared the church, saying his prayer in that arched building and made it a mosque, laying on the Christians the service of lighting it with lamps and keeping it clean and its repair. (15)

Another version

There is another version of covenant said to have been reached after a conversation between Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Abu Obaida (chief commander in Syria) and Constantine, the eldest son of Heraclius.

These are the terms imposed on the Christians. The rich are to pay forty-eight dirhams, the middle class twenty-four, and the poor twelve. They are not to build churches, not to lift up a cross in the presence of Muslims, and to beat the nakus (bells) inside the churches only. They are to share their houses that the Muslims may dwell in them, otherwise, I (UMAR) shall not be easy about you.

They are to give the part of the churches towards Mecca as mosques for the Muslims, for they are in the middle of the towns. They are not to drive pigs into the presence of Muslims. They are to entertain them as guest three days and nights. They are to provide mounts, for those on foot, from village to village. They are to help them and not to betray them. They are not to make agreements with their enemies. He who breaks these conditions may be slain and his women and children made slaves. ( ASTritton, page 11).

In the year 639 (18AH) Hazrat Umar decided to visit Syria. He took his usual route, passed through a town Ayla (modern Aqaba). He was riding on his camel without any pomp or retinue. He decided to enter the village unrecognized, therefore he changed places with his attendant and put him in the front.

Where is the Ameer? Asked the citizens eager to see the Caliph. “He is before you” replied the Caliph with double meaning. People went forward and he alighted on the house of local Bishop to take shelter from the heat. His shirt was torn due to the long journey, which the Bishop happily stitched.

The Bishop gave him a new shirt as well, but the Caliph felt more comfortable in his old shirt.

In his last testament he enjoined his successor   “I commend to his care the zimmis, who enjoy the protection of God and of the Prophet; let him see to it that the covenant with them is kept, and that no great burdens than they can bear are laid on them.”

Burning of the library

The story about the burning of the Alexandrian library in 641 on orders of the Caliph is totally baseless & without historical evidence. Western historians have alleged that Hazrat Umar ordered the destruction of the Alexandrian library as everything was contained in the Quran. The fact of the matter is part of the library was destroyed in 48 BC during siege of the city by Julian Caesar, and the rest was demolished in the reign of Emperor Theodosius who ruled in the fourth century.

Emperor Theodosius was a devout Christian opposed to books written by pagans. The books were fed to the furnaces of the city baths in 389 BC. When Muslims took over the city in seventh century, nothing remained of the library for Muslims to destroy.   ( 16) No contemporary author of Hazrat Umar has written anything about this alleged incident. No author, whether Muslim or Christian, who wrote within 500 years of Islamic conquest of Egypt has recorded anything about the burning of the books. It was, first referred to in a description of Egypt by Abdul Latif al Baghdadi (1162-1231). ( 17)

His famous sayings

  • A person, who calls himself dweller of paradise, is in fact a dweller of hell. One who calls himself a scholar is in fact uninformed. .
  • If a person’s parents are opponents of God and His messenger, it does not behoove a believer to be friendly with them.
  • In this world wealth brings you respect, in the world to come it is in good deeds.
  • Truth perverted is no better than a lie; and a lie leadeth to hell fire.
  • God looks for virtue and good works, not to birth. In His eyes all men are equal.
  • Ware-fare is a stubborn thing, and only the cautious man is fit for it.
  • Arabs are like camels; whatever is good for the camels is good for them.

Scores of anecdotes given in this article abundantly illustrate that Hazrat Umar was indeed one of the greatest, most just, most wise ruler of Islam. In the Islamic world, he is often referred to as Farooq Azam, title he richly deserves. I will now list some of the initiatives he under took that left an indelible imprint on the history of this world.

His 45 Initiatives 

Numerous “firsts’ are attributed to Hazrat Umar. Following is a list of these brilliant initiatives, some of them still in use as a testimony to his towering personality.

–   Suggested Adhan ( Muslim call to prayer) to Messenger of Allah which he had seen in a vision.

–   Established Baitul Mal (State Treasury)

–   Established courts and instituted the office of judgeship. Created the office of Kazi (title Hakim u Shara). Appointed special Judges in Palestine and Damascus to lead prayers, & administer justice. Fixed salaries for judges ( Hazrat Zaib bin Sabit was a salaried judge in Medina), made Judiciary distinct from Executive branch of the government.

–   Introduced Islamic calendar starting with the era of Hijra (AH), first day of lunar year in which emigration took place, namely 16th July 622. Hazrat Ali suggested this tom him.

–  Introduced Old Age Pensions.

–  Founded military cantonments (Amsar) like Kufa (18AH),  Basra (17AH), and Fustat. Nominated junior officers such as Aarif and commanders of the marches. Built frontier fortresses (Ar. Hisn).

–  Instituted the congregational prayer of Taraveeh, during Ramadhan ( month of fasting)

–  Set punishment for drunkenness, & adultery at eighty lashes

–  Adopted the title of Ameerul Momineen ( Commander of the Faithful) in the year 19 AH, instead of Khalifa Khalifa Rasulullah.

–  Fixed cash salaries for army officers, soldiers and volunteers, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

–    Established the department of finance under the name Diwan (Register). A register was kept of all persons, men, women and children ( Muslim & non-Muslims) entitled to stipends. Stipends were assigned according to priority of conversion to Islam and affinity, & service rendered to the Apostle of Allah in his fields of battle.

–    Conducted census of the population for distribution of revenues.

–    Established tithe on agricultural production for distribution to poor (except cereals).

–    Taxed agricultural production generated by river water

–    Established the prison houses. Purchased the house of Safwan bin Umayya for 4000 dirhems, and converted it into a prison house.

–    Made it compulsory for soldiers to wear metal jacket, tour of duty set at four months.

–    Started nightly rounds for welfare of the population. Introduced night watches.

–    Created the office of Sahib us-Shurta (Captain of the Guard), re-organized police department.

–    Established spy agency. Started muster rolls ( inspection of the soldiers)

–    Established Majlis Shura ( consultative body of trusted advisors)

–    Constructed caravansaries on the road between Mecca & Medina

–    Established daily allowances for poor Christians and Jews

–    Suggested compilation of Holy Quran to Hazrat Abu Bakr

–    Established principle of Qiyas in Islamic jurisprudence.

–    Ordered the pronouncement of ‘as-salatu khairum min noum’ in daybreak (Fajr) prayer.

–  Declared three pronouncements of divorce without prescribed period, inadmissible.

–   Declared specific punishment for lampooning.

–  Levied zakat (poor tax) on horses sold in trading

–  Instituted system of Waqf (religious endowments), gave his own land for this purpose

–  Started the delivery of Friday sermon. During his caliphate 1400 mosques were built.

–   Established stipends for Imams and Muezzins.

–   Forbade mentioning a woman by name in poetry

–   Levied zakat (poor tax) instead of Jizya (capitation tax) on the Christian tribe of Banu Tughlab

–   Started allowances for orphan children, as well as poor and disabled.

–   Issued an ordinance that no Arab should be made a slave. An important step towards abolition of slavery.

–   Enlarged the space around Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, nearby houses demolished and took steps to have a public square around the edifice for prayers. He raised a low wall around the Haram mosque no higher than a man’s stature, on which lamps were placed.

–   Established a State archive for the safe custody and preservation of the records of Caliphate.

–   Introduced postal system to receive up-to-date reports from the battlefront.

–   Created the office of Hajib (Chamberlain).

–   Constructed a network of canals in Iraq, appointed special officers for their supervision. Re-excavated a disused canal in Egypt ( bewteen Nile and Red Sea, which remained navigable for eighty years. The canal was called Khalij Ameerul Momineen). Built two dams in Mecca after floodwater penetrated into Masjid al-Haram.

–   Ordered mensuration of land, field by field in Syria, Iraq and Persia and fixed assessment on a uniform basis. This land survey (Ar. yamsah) gives the area of land, quality of the soil, & nature of produce.

–   Divided conquered lands into provinces, and appointed Ameers (governors). Lands in the conquered countries were held by the State, income distributed to people.

–   Introduced the art of coinage ( a silver dirham with inscription alhamdolillah, or Muhammad Rasulullah, or La Ilaha illala wahdahu.    )

–   Forbade the sale of holdings and agricultural lands in the conquered countries to ensure prosperity of the agricultural classes. Also no Muslim could acquire land from natives of the soil.

–   Promulgated Covenant of Umar ( outlining fiscal, religious, and civil regulations for non-Muslim subjects).

– Appointed teachers in every country whose job it was to instruct people in teachings of the Quran. Founded schools and set up endowments for their upkeep in every part of the empire. Education was made compulsory both for boys and girls.



  1. Encyclopedia of Islam, page 119, Volume 12, 1991
  2. Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, page 408, 1989
  3. Literary History of Arabs, by R.A. Nicholson, page 189
  4. Short History of Saracens, by Syed Ameer Ali, page 48
  5. Literary History of Arabs, page 187
  6. Great Arab Conquests, by John Glubb, page 269, 1963
  7. The Origins of Islamic State, Tr. by P.K. Hitti, page 284, 1966 ( Kitab Futuhul Buldan by al-Baladhari)


  1. Al-Farooq by Shibli Noamani, page 391, 1899, Urdu
  2. Caliphs and their non-Muslim subjects by A.S. Tritton, page 137, 1930 Aligarh, India
  3. Mission of Islam by S.M. Iqbal, page 136, 1977 New Dehli
  4. Islam and the Arab World, by Bernard Lewis, page 203, 1976
  5. History of Arabia by Andrew Crichton, page 332, 1845, New York
  6. Sirajul Muluk, by al-Turtushi, pages 229-230 ( visit this site: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/pact-umar.htm
  7. Mission of Islam by S.M. Iqbal, page 138
  8. Palestine under the Muslims by Guy Le Strange, page 300, 1890
  9. Short History of Saracens, page 42.
  10. History of Medieval Islam, by J Saunders, page 53, 1965

Suggested Reading

Caliph Umar Farooq versus Emperor Heraclius: Who gave us our Religious Freedoms?

3 replies

  1. In your article you have stated in the time of Prophet mohhammad sallalahu alay hi vassalam 20 rakaat were not offered????

    listen this scholar from UK who have given evidance in his lecture on TV about the 20 rakaat….whatever he has stated is based on the Hadith of sia sitta…

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