Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz: The First Reviver of Islam

Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz: The First Reviver of Islam

Saviors in Islam

For those inquisitive human beings who wish to know of the affairs of mankind, a few minutes of watching the news will reveal people suffering around the world. In particular, the Muslim Ummah is the target of oppression, slander, killing, and persecution. Refugees are fleeing their home countries only to be denied by what they had hoped would be safe havens. To produce an exhaustive list of all the people, ethnicities, and groups languishing right now would be a tedious feat. Any person with an ounce of sympathy in their heart would send their thoughts and prayers to these people and ponder over a solution. This is especially true for the believer, as the beloved Messenger of Allah, Muhammad ﷺ, says

“The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.” (Bukhari, Muslim)

مَثَلُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ فِي تَوَادِّهِمْ وَتَرَاحُمِهِمْ وَتَعَاطُفِهِمْ مَثَلُ الْجَسَدِ إِذَا اشْتَكَى مِنْهُ عُضْوٌ تَدَاعَى لَهُ سَائِرُ الْجَسَدِ بِالسَّهَرِ وَالْحُمَّى

In one’s search for a possible solution, it would behoove one to look towards their history as the common adage states, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” From the advent of Islam, its teachings and practitioners have been under attack. From Sumaya (RA) and Yasir (RA), the first martyrs of Islam, to the Crusades where the streets ran red with blood, until now, the Ummah has faced oppression. Islam has not only faced outside attack, but internal struggles with the Khawarij, Mu’tazila, and other deviant groups. It is through this turmoil that the magnificence of Islam shines through. This Deen is unique from other ways of life that have gone extinct or changed over time through innovation and tampering. This Deen was perfected at the time of the Prophet (S).

“This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favor unto you, and have chosen for you as religion Al-Islam.” (Surat Al-Ma’idah: 3)

5:3-{الْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَأَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِي وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ الْإِسْلَامَ دِينًا }

Its eternal truths and principles have given this Deen flexibility in all times and lands. It is through the divine protection of Allah (SWT) that this Deen has been preserved throughout the ages. Allah (SWT) promises in the Qur’an that

“They want to extinguish the light of Allah with their mouths, but Allah will perfect His light, although the disbelievers dislike it.” (Surat As-Saf: 8)

يُرِيدُونَ لِيُطْفِئُوا نُورَ اللَّهِ بِأَفْوَاهِهِمْ وَاللَّهُ مُتِمُّ نُورِهِ وَلَوْ كَرِهَ الْكَافِرُونَ} - 61:8 }

People have spoken against Islam and they will continue to do so, but their voices are muffled by the Word of Allah.

“The word of Allah, that is the highest” (Surat At-Tawbah: 40)

“It is He who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to manifest it over all religion, although they who associate others with Allah dislike it.” (Surat At-Tawbah: 33)

It is the Sunnah of Allah that He executes His will through some natural means, which only serves to strengthen the faith of those who examine these signs and ponder over them. History reveals that in Islam’s darkest times, this religion was safeguarded through beacons of light in the form of righteous individuals who upheld the true Islam. Adhering to the Sunnah of Muhammad ﷺ, they opposed injustice. They stood as pillars with their qualities of sacrifice, unflinching faith, morality, spiritual excellence, and intellect. We find that despite the attacks Muslims have faced, the Ummah always persevered and continued. By the will of Allah, it will continue to do so, as long as individuals hold fast to their Deen and follow the examples of those who suffered and triumphed before. The following article seeks to highlight one such individual, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH).

The Necessity of Reform

The word “khaleefah” literally means “successor”. The Khulafat i Rashideen, widely accepted to be the four rightly guided caliphs that took over after the passing of the Prophet ﷺ, did as well as they could in both an administrative and spiritual sense. They tended to the needs of the state while maintaining a watchful eye over the moral and religious condition of the people. Unfortunately, when the Umayyad Dynasty came into power in 661 CE, the seat of caliph simply became a governing role without any expectation of morality. Customs of the Period of Ignorance which had been repressed under the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ resurfaced as the government lost sight of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Racism, tribalism, and nepotism became staples of the empire. The rulers abused Bayt ul Maal, the government’s treasury in charge of the administration of taxes, zakaat, and expenditures, for their own enjoyment. Extravagance had replaced moral excellence, at least amongst the ruling class. This is not to say the light of Islam had quickly dwindled after the Prophet ﷺ. There were still masses of people and ‘ulema who were firm upon the deen, but it was clear that spirituality was on the decline. Some contemporary scholars of the time that pulled the people back from worldly temptations were the likes of ‘Ali ibn Husain (Zainul ‘Abdin) (RH), Salim ibn Abdullah ibn Umar (RH), Urwah ibn Zubair (RH), and others. They remained separated from the circles of the ruling class and remained as symbols of exemplar behavior. However, the might of the Umayyads grew while the scholars could only do so much. It was a mercy of Allah that Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) ascended to the throne.

Ascension to the Throne

The life of Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) is a proof of the Prophet’s ﷺ statement that

“actions are judged by their ending” (Bukhari).

One would hardly recognize the man based solely on how his life began, but it is in a few short years towards the end of his life that he created a legacy for the books of history and proved to be a miracle for this Ummah.

Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) was born in 61 AH in Madinah. His mother, Umm ‘Asim (RH), was actually a grand-daughter of Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA), the second of the rightly guided caliphs. Interestingly, it is narrated that Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA) during his time as caliph had outlawed the mixing of water into milk in order to cheat people. While walking at night to survey the people, he overheard a woman tell her daughter to mix water into the milk. The girl had refused on account of the caliph’s orders, to which the mother responded that the caliph was not present and would never find out. The daughter replied that even if the caliph is not present, Allah is All-seeing. Impressed by this reply, Umar ibn al-Khattab asked his son ‘Asim (RH) to marry the girl, saying he hoped that the girl would give birth to someone who would rule over Arabia. (Abdul Hakam) The answer to his du’a came through Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH).

Umar ibn Abdul Aziz’s (RH) father, Abdul Aziz, was governor of Egypt and this is where Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) grew up until the death of his father. His uncle, Abdul Malik, the current caliph, summoned him to Damascus where he married him to his daughter, Fatima. After the passing of Abdul Malik, his son Al-Walid I took over as caliph and Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) was sent to be governor of Madinah. Instead of ruling like a dictator as many other governors did, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) formed a council with which he administered the province. He was so effective that complaints to the main capital in Damascus ceased and people even migrated to Madinah from Iraq to escape their harsh governor, Al-Hajjaj bin Yusuf. In response, Al-Hajjaj pressured Al-Walid I to remove Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) from governorship, which he did. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) continued to live in Madinah until he was reluctantly called to action again.

After Al-Walid I’s reign, his brother Suleiman took over. Suleiman fell ill and was desperate to find a successor, but his sons were too young. His advisor, Reja’ ibn Haiwah suggested Umar ibn Abdul Aziz to succeed him. Suleiman accepted the proposal, and after much convincing, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) took the position of caliph. He fit the mold of the archetype set by countless pious individuals who avoided leadership positions out of fear of accountability to Allah (SWT).

As part of the Umayyad family and with his father as governor of Egypt, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. All his wishes and desires were fulfilled at his bequest. He could be recognized by his perfume that would linger in the streets that he used to walk. Yet, he recognized the great trust put upon him as caliph and he feared his reckoning and judgement with his Lord if he wronged anyone. It was this fear and consciousness of Allah (SWT) and doing right by the people that blessed the 2 years and 5 months wherein he reformed the Umayyad Empire.

Reformations

As caliph, his personal transformation led to a revival of the entire empire. He began by removing any oppressive governors. Whereas other rulers took from Baytul Maal for their own pleasure, he was extremely wary and cautious of abusing the people’s money. He took all the jewelry and valuables he received as presents and put them into the Baytul Maal. He freed the slaves of the royal household and removed extravagances from the royal court. He removed unjust taxes implemented by his predecessors, standardized weights and measurements, and reduced corruption amongst the governmental officers. His financial reforms were so successful that it became difficult to find poor people to distribute the zakaat. Not only did he excel at his administrative duties, but he took it upon himself to manage the people’s spiritual and religious advancement to truly be a successor of the Prophet ﷺ as the caliph is meant to. He, being a scholar in his own right, sent out countless edicts and letters advising the rulers and people about religious and moral reforms striving to return the people to the ways of the Prophet ﷺ and the Sahaba (RA). He upheld the Shari’ah and put an emphasis on da’wah to the non-Muslims seeing it as his obligation as the Prophet ﷺ had once held this mission. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment could be argued to be that he is credited as being the first ruler to officially order the collection of hadith through scholars such as Al-Zuhri and Ibn-Hazm. To list all of his reforms and efforts would require a much lengthier endeavor. Instead, we will take a look at his character, highlighted briefly through some stories that have been transmitted about him that made him a legend.

Strong Character

It is difficult to encapsulate the magnitude of Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) in this short article. He had come into power at a time when oppression was synonymous with kings. Before he became caliph, cheating, lying, and drinking were habitual and a ritual for the caliphate. The rulers would take the money of the people without their right. They would kill people just for the way they looked at them. It would have been all too easy for a man born into glitter and glamor to simply follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and continue in corruption. Instead, he sacrificed all luxuries to be the change that he wanted to see in the world. This quality of sacrifice accompanied by his strong iman and understanding gave him the ability to make a difference.

His quality of sacrifice extended even to his family. Upon becoming caliph, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) not only gave up all of his own wealth, but he asked the same of his wife, who was fully entitled to her own wealth. According to Ibn Kathir, the amount of gold given to Fatima, the wife of Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH), by her father on the day of her marriage was never seen before. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) told his wife that he had decided to live a life of hardship, a life where he would prefer the rights of others over himself. He gave her an ultimatum that if she chose to do the same, she could remain with him, but if she chose to continue to live in luxury, then he would have to part from her. Being a strong, pious woman she wholeheartedly proclaimed that she would choose him over gold in the amount of the mountains of Makkah and Madinah.

“And of the people is he who sells himself, seeking means to the approval of Allah” (Surat Al-Baqarah: 207)

These were individuals that would let the luxuries and the wealth of the world go to see the Prophet ﷺ smiling back at them on the Day of Judgement.

No father wants to see his children suffer, but the quality of sacrifice was instilled within his offspring as well. It is narrated that once at the time of Eid, his wife requested him to take his salary one month in advance to buy his children some new clothes. They had been wearing the same old tattered clothing for some time, and she did not want them to be embarrassed in front of their relatives. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) went to his treasurer asking for an extra month of allowance to which his treasurer responded, “Oh Amir ul Mumineen, can you guarantee me that you will live for one more month so that you might repay this wealth?” Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) was unable to and so he returned home. The day of Eid comes and their relatives, officials, and various people come to visit and the children are wearing shabby clothing. At the end of the day, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) approached his children with tears in his eyes asking for their forgiveness that he could not provide for them. One of his eldest children, Abdul Malik, responds “Oh father, don’t apologize. Today was one of the happiest days of our life. Never have we been able to hold our heads up higher than today. Today, we let the world know that our father, Amir ul Mumineen, will never take even a dirham that is not his right. Our father only provides us with halal money.”

Imagine the ruler of all the Muslim lands living such an austere life. He did not even have enough money to go for Hajj. He would sometimes be late for Friday prayer waiting for his only shirt to dry. He never abused Bayt ul Maal. In fact, if anyone wished to discuss any private affairs with him, he would put out the candles provided by the state and bring in his own candles. His wife testifies that at night, when most would be resting or spending time with their spouses, he would stand in prayer and cry in his du’as to Allah. This is what it looks like to be God conscious. Under his rule, non-Muslims were converting in record numbers and as a result income to the state from poll taxes dwindled. He disregarded the money and said “I would be too glad if all the non-Muslims embrace Islam and we have to take up cultivation for earning our living.” He had reformed the zeitgeist of the populace from his predecessors’ time when the topics of conversation would revolve around wealth, architecture, women, banquets, and other worldly affairs to discussions of Allah, prayer, and other Islamic reminders.

Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) sums up his driving force best in his statement to a servant, “Allah has favored me with a disposition, insatiable and ambitious; no sooner do I attain an object I long for, I set my heart upon a still higher objective. Now I have reached a sublimation after which nothing remains to be coveted. Now my ambition aspires for Paradise alone.” In his youth, the world was at his fingertips. As caliph, he gave up this dunya and set his sights on Jannah and this dictated his every word and action. When people would tell him to live like the king that he was, he would recite

“I fear, if I rebel against my Lord, the retribution of an Awful Day.” (Surat Al-An’am: 15).

He was the black sheep of the Umayyad Dynasty, firmly rooted in deen and had his reign been longer than a short 2 years and 5 months, one could imagine the lasting impacts on the world of Islam and history.

Conclusion

We ask Allah to guide the leaders of today and to protect the people from oppression. We may not be leaders, but whatever affairs we manage, we can do so with excellence and justice in mind. Everyone can be like Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (RH) by inculcating his qualities of sacrifice, integrity, and understanding. The Prophet ﷺ taught us that whoever loves this dunya too much, he will harm is akhirah, and whoever loves his akhirah, may lose in this dunya; however, the Prophet ﷺ says to prefer that which will not perish and is everlasting. With the akhirah in mind, we can enact change within ourselves and then we might be able to change the world.

“He has certainly succeeded who purifies himself” (Surat Al-A’la: 14)