Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz, the celebrated Umayyad Caliph whose empire stretched from the shores of the Atlantic to the highlands of Pamir, was sitting in his private chamber examining a pile of State documents. The dim light of the room was adding to the serenity and sombreness of the place and the Caliph could scarcely feel the arrival of his wife, Fatima, till she addressed him :
“Sire! Will you spare a few moments for me? I want to discuss some private matter with you.”
“Of course”, replied the pious Caliph, raising his head from the papers, “But, please put off this State lamp and light your own, as I do not want to burn the State oil for our private talk.”
The obedient wife, who was the daughter of Abdul Malik, the mighty Umayyad Caliph and the sister of two successive Umayyad Caliphs, Waleed and Sulaiman, complied accordingly.
The short rule of Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz was like an oasis in a vast desert-a benevolent rain which had fallen on an arid soil. It was the brightest period in the 91–year Caliphate of the Umayyads, which, though short lived, had transformed the outlook of the State and had released such powerful democratic forces that after his death the attempts for the restoration of autocracy under Hisham failed miserably and ultivately culminated in the fall of the Umayyads at the hands of the Abbasides.
Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz, surnamed ‘al Khalifat as Saleh’ (The pious Caliph) was the son of Abdul Aziz, the Governor of Egypt, and his mother, Umme-Aasim was the grand daughter of Caliph Umar. He was born in 63 A.H. i.e. 682 A.C. in Halwan, a village of Egypt, but he received his education in Medina from his mother’s uncle, the celebrated Abdulla ibn Umar. Medina, which in those days was the highest seat of learning in the world of Islam, was greatly instrumental in moulding his life to a pattern quite distinct from those of other Umayyad Caliphs. He remained there till his father’s death in 704 A.C., when he was summoned by his uncle Caliph Abdul Malik and was married to his daughter Fatima. He was appointed Governor of Medina in 706 A.C. by Caliph Waleed. Unlike other autocratic governors, immediately on arrival in Medina, he formed an advisory council of ten eminent jurists and notables of the holy city and carried on the administration with their consultation. He empowered them to keep a watchful eye over his subordinates. This step had a salutary effect on the residents of Medina, who hailed his beneficent Administration. He successfully strove to erase the signs of ravages, committed in the holy cities of Islam under Yazid and Abdul Malik. During his two-year stay as the Governor of Medina, he repaired and enlarged the Mosque of the Prophet as well as beautified the holy cities with public structures, constructed hundreds of new aqueducts and improved the suburban roads leading to Medina. “Moderate, yet firm”, says Ameer Ali, “anxious to promote the welfare of the people whom he governed, Umar’s rule proved beneficent to all classes.” His patriotic rule was for the good of his subjects.
His just administration attracted from Iraq a large number of refugees who were groaning under the oppression of Hajjaj bin Yusuf. But, according to Tabari, this migration highly enraged the tyrant who prevailed upon Waleed to transfer him from Medina which he left amidst “universal mourning.”
The Umayyad Caliph Sulaiman ibn Abdul Malik who had great respect for Umar bin Abdul Aziz nominated him as his successor. On his death the mantle of Caliphate fell upon Umar bin Abdul Aziz who reluctantly accepted it. Giving up all pomp and pageantry the pious Caliph returned the royal charger, refused the police guard and deposited the entire equipment meant for the person of the Caliph in the Baitul Mal. Like a commoner he preferred to stay in a small tent and left the royal palace for the family of Sulaiman. He ordered that the horses of the royal stables be auctioned and the proceeds be deposited in the Treasury. One of his family members asked him why he looked downhearted. The Caliph replied instantly, “Is it not a thing to worry about? I have been entrusted with the welfare of such a vast empire and I would be failing in my duty if I did not rush to the help of a needy person.” Thereafter, he ascended the pulpit and delivered a masterly oration saying: “Brothers! I have been burdened with the responsibilities of Caliphate against my will. You are at liberty to elect anyone whom you like.” But the audience cried out with one voice that he was the fittest person for the high office. Thereupon the pious Caliph advised his people to be pious and virtuous. He allowed them to break their oath of allegiance to him, if he wavered from the path of God.
His short rule was noted for great democratic and healthy activities. He waged a defensive war against the Turks who had ravaged Azerbaijan and massacred thousands of innocent Muslims. The forces of the Caliph under the command of Ibn Hatim ibn Ali Naan Al Balili repulsed the invaders with heavy losses. The Caliph permitted his forces to wage a war against the notorious Kharijis, but under conditions that women, children and prisoners would be spared, the defeated enemy would not be pursued, and all the spoils of war would be returned to their dependents. He replaced corrupt and tyrannical Umayyad administrators with capable and just persons.
His first act after assuming office was the restoration to their rightful owners the properties confiscated by the Umayyads. He was hardly free from the burial ceremonies of Caliph Sulaiman and wanted to take a short respite when his son asked him if he would like to take rest before dealing with cases pertaining to confiscated properties. He replied “Yes, I would deal with these after taking rest.”
“Are you sure that you would live up to that time?” asked the son. The father kissed his dear son and thanked God that he had given him such a virtuous son. He immediately sat up to deal with this urgent matter and first of all returned all his movable and immovable properties to the public treasury. He deposited even a ring presented to him by Waleed. His faithful slave, Mazahim was deeply moved at this uncommon sight and asked, “Sir, what have you left for your children”?
“God”, was the reply.
He restored the possession of the garden of Fidak to the descendants of the Prophet which had been appropriated by Marwan during the Caliphate of Usman. He bade his wife Fatima to return the jewellery she had received from her father Caliph Abdul Malik. The faithful wife cheerfully complied with his bidding and deposited all of it in the Baitul Mal. After her husband’s death, her brother Yazid who succeeded him as Caliph offered to return it to her. “I returned these valuable during my husband’s lifetime, why should I take them back after his death”, she told him.
The restoration of Fidak provoked mixed reaction from the people. The fanatical Kharijis who had become hostile to the Caliphate soon softened towards Umar bin Abdul Aziz, proclaiming that it was not possible for them to oppose a Caliph who was not a man but an angel.
The house of Umayyads accustomed to luxuries at the expense of the common man, revolted against this just but revolutionary step taken by the Caliph and bitterly protested against the disposal of their age-long properties.
One day, the Caliph invited some prominent members of the House of Umayyads to dinner, but advised his cook to delay the preparation of food. As the guests were groaning with hunger, the Caliph shouted to his cook to hurry up. At the same time he asked his men to bring some parched gram which he himself as well as his guests ate to their fill. A few minutes later the cook brought the food which the guests refused to take saying that they had satisfied their appetite. Thereupon the pious Caliph spoke out, “Brothers! when you can satisfy your appetite with so simple a diet, then why do you play with fire and usurp the properties and rights of others.” These words deeply moved the notables of the House of Umayyads who burst into tears.
In general, he laid great stress on compensating the victims of illegal extortion in any form.
His administration of impartial justice went against the interests of the Umayyads who were accustomed to all sorts of licences and could hardly tolerate any check on their unbounded freedom. They plotted against the life of this virtuous member of their clan. A slave of the Caliph was bribed to administer the deadly poison. The Caliph having felt the effect of the poison sent for the slave and asked him why he had poisoned him. The slave replied that he was given one thousand dinars for the purpose. The Caliph deposited the amount in the Public Treasury and freeing the slave asked him to leave the place immediately, lest anyone might kill him. Thus died in 719 A.C. at the young age of 36 at a place called Dair Siman (The convent of Siman) near Hems, one of the noblest souls that ever lived in this world. His martyrdom plunged the Islamic world into gloom. It was a day of national mourning; the populace of the small town came out to pay their last homage to the departed leader. He was buried in Dair Siman on a piece of land he had purchased from a Christian.
Muhammad ibn Mobad who happened to be in the Durbar of the Roman Emperor at that time reports that he found the Emperor in drooping spirits. On enquiry he replied, “A virtuous person has passed away. This is Umar bin Abdul Aziz. After Christ if anyone could put a dead person to life it was he. I am hardly surprised to see an ascetic who renounced the world and gave himself to the prayers of God. But I am certainly surprised at a person who had all the pleasures of the world at his feet and yet he shut his eyes against them and passed a life of piety and renunciation.”
He reportedly left behind only 17 dinars with a will that out of this amount the rent of the house in which he died and the price of the land in which he was buried would be paid.
“Unaffected piety,” says Ameer Ali, “a keen sense of justice, unswerving uprightness, moderation, and an almost primitive simplicity of life, formed the chief features in his character.” The responsibility of the office with which he was entrusted filled him with anxiety and caused many a heart searching. Once he was found by his wife weeping after his prayers; she asked if anything had happened to cause him grief, he replied, “O! Fatima! I have been made the ruler over the Moslems and the strangers, and I was thinking of the poor that are starving, and the sick that are destitute, and the naked that are in distress, and the oppressed that are stricken, and the stranger that is in prison, and the venerable elder, and him that hath a large family and small means, and the like of them in countries of the earth and the distant provinces, and I felt that my Lord would ask an account of them at my hands on the day of resurrection, and I feared that no defence would avail me, and I wept.”
His honesty and integrity have few parallels in the history of mankind. According to Tabaqat ibn Saad, he never performed his private work in the light of a lamp which burned the State oil. On every Friday, Farat ibn Muslama brought State papers for his perusal and orders. One Friday the Caliph brought a small piece of State paper in his private use. Muslama who was aware of the exceptional honesty of the Caliph thought that he had done it out of sheer forgetfulness. The next Friday when he brought back home the State papers, he found in them exactly the same size of paper which was used by the Caliph.
Out of the funds of Batul Mal, a guest house was founded for the poor. Once his servant burned the firewood of the guest house to heat water for his ablution. He forthwith got the same quantity of firewood deposited there. On another occasion, he refused to use the water heated from the State charcoal. A number of palatial buildings had been constructed in Khanasra out of the funds of Baitul Mal which were occasionally used by other Caliphs when they visited that place, but Umar bin Abdul Aziz never used them and always preferred to camp in the open.
According to the author of ‘Tabaqat ibn Saad’ he got his articles of luxury and decoration auctioned for 23 thousand dinars and spent the amount for charitable purposes.
His diet used to be very coarse. He never built a house of his own and followed in the footsteps of the Prophet. Allama Siyuti in his well-known historical work “Tarikh ul Khulafa’ (History of the Caliphs) states that he spent only two dirhams a day when he was the Caliph. Before his election as Caliph his private properties yielded an income of 50 thousand dinars annually but immediately after the election he returned all his properties to the public coffers and his private income was reduced to 200 dinars per annum.
In spite of the fact that Umar bin Abdul Aziz was a loving father, he never provided his children with luxuries and comforts. His daughter Amina was his favourite child. Once he sent for her, but she could not come as she was not properly dressed. Her aunt came to know of it and purchased necessary garments for his children. He never accepted any presents from anyone. Once a person presented a basket full of apples. The Caliph appreciated the apples but refused to accept them. The man cited the instance of the Prophet who accepted presents. The Caliph replied immediately, “No doubt, those were presents for the Prophet, but for me this will be bribery.”
Ibn al Jawi, his biographer, writes that “Umar wore clothes with so many patches and mingled with his subjects on such free terms that when a stranger came to petition him he would find it difficult to recognise the Caliph.” When many of his agents wrote that his fiscal reforms in favour of new converts would deplete the Treasury, he replied, “Glad would I be, by Allah, to see every body become Muslim, so that thou and I would have to till the soil with our own hands to earn a living.” (Encyclopaedia of Islam). According to Fakhri, “Umar discontinued the practice established in the name of Muawiya of cursing “Ali from the pulpit in Friday prayers” (Encyclopaedia of Islam).
He was very kind-hearted. Once he was moved to tears on hearing a tale of woe related by a villager and helped him from his private purse. He was kind to animals even and several stories concerning this are found in the early historical records.
He had complete faith in God and never cared for his life. Unguarded, he roamed about in streets listening to the complaints of the common man and assisting him as much as he could.
He introduced a number of reforms; administrative, fiscal and educational. A reformer appears in the world when the administrative, political and ethical machinery is rusted and requires overhauling. This unsurpassable reformer of the Umayyad regime was born in an environment which was very gloomy and necessitated a change. His promising son, Abdul Malik a youth of 17 advised his father to be more ruthless in introducing his beneficial reforms, but the wise father replied, “My beloved son, what thou tellest me to do can be achieved only by sword, but there is no good in a reform which requires the use of the sword.”
Under his instructions, As Samh, his Viceroy in Spain, took a census of the diverse nationalities, races and creeds, inhabiting that country. A survey of the entire peninsula including those of her cities, rivers, seas and mountains was made. The nature of her soil, varieties of products and agricultural as well as mineral sources were also carefully surveyed and noted in records. A number of bridges in southern Spain were constructed and repaired. A spacious Friday Mosque was built at Saragossa in northern Spain.
The Baitul Mal (Public Treasury) which was one innovation of Islam and had proved a blessing for poor Muslims during the regime of ‘Pious Caliphs,’ was freely used for private purposes by the Umayyad Caliphs, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz stopped this unholy practice and never drew a pie from Baitul Mal. He separated the accounts for ‘Khams, ‘Sadqa’ and ‘Fi’ and had separate sections for each. He immediately stopped the practice of richly rewarding the authors of panegyrics of the royal family from the Baitul Mal.
One of the most important measures was his reform of taxation. He made adequate arrangement for easy realisation of taxes and administered it on a sound footing. He wrote a memorable note on taxation to Abdul Hamid ibn Abdur Rahman which has been copied by Qazi Abu Yusuf; “Examine the land and levy the land tax accordingly. Do not burden a barren land with a fertile one and vice versa. Do not charge the revenue of barren land.” His generous reforms and leniency led the people depositing their taxes willingly. It is a strange paradox that in spite of all oppressive measures adopted by the notorious Hajjaj bin Yusuf for the realisation of taxes in Iraq, it was less than half of the amount realised during the benevolent regime of Umar bin Abdul Aziz.
He paid special attention to the prison reforms. He instructed Abu Bakr ibn Hazm to make weekly inspection of jails. The jail wardens were warned not to maltreat the prisoners. Every prisoner was given a monthly stipend and proper seasonal clothing. He advised the jail authorities to inculcate love for virtue and hatred for vice among the prisoners. Education of the prisoners led to their reformation.
The public welfare institutions and works received much stimulus All over his vast empire thousands of public wells and inns were constructed. Charitable dispensaries were also opened. Even travelling expenses were arranged by the Government for the needy travellers. A large number of inns were constructed on the road leading from Khorasan to Samarkand.
Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was a capable administrator well versed in his duties towards this world and the hereafter. He was extremely hardworking and when people urged him to take rest, he never heeded them. He had set before himself Caliph Umar’s administration as a model to be copied. According to the well-known Imam Sufian Suri, there are five pious Caliphs namely Abu Bakr, Umar Farooq, Usman, Ali and Umar bin Abdul Aziz. The outstanding feature of his Caliphate was that he revived Islam’s democratic spirit which had been suppressed after the accession of Yazid. In a letter addressed to the Prefect of Kufa, he exhorted his govemors to abolish all unjust ordinances. He wrote, “Thou must know, that the maintenance of religion is due to the practice of justice and benevolence; do not think lightly of any sin; do not try to depopulate what is populous; do not try to exact from the subjects anything beyond their capacity; take from them what they can give; do everything to improve population and prosperity; govern mildly and without harshness; do not accept presents on festive occasions; do not take the price of sacred book (distributed among the people); impose no tax on travellers, or on the marriages, or on the milk of camels; and do not insist on the poll tax from anyone who has become a convert to Islam”
The pious Caliph disbanded 600 bodyguards, meant for guarding the person of the Caliph. He received lesser salary than his subordinates. He attracted around him a galaxy of talented men who counselled him on State matters.
That Umar bin Abdul Aziz was very kind and just towards non-Muslims has been acknowledged by the Encyclopaedia of Islam. As a devout Muslim he was not only graciously tolerant to the members of other creeds but also solicitous towards them. Christians, Jews and fire worshippers were allowed to retain their churches, synagogues and temples. In Damascus, Al-Waleed had taken down the ‘basilika’ of John, the Baptist, and incorporated the site in the mosque of Umayyads. When Umar became Caliph, the Christians complained to him that the Church had been taken from them, whereupon he ordered the Governor to return to the Christians what belonged to them. While he endeavoured to protect his Muslim subjects from being abused, he was also anxious that his Christian subjects should not be rushed by oppressive taxation. In Aila and in Cyprus the increased tribute settled by treaty was reduced by him to the original amount.
Once a Muslim murdered a non-Muslim of Hira. The Caliph, when apprised of the event, ordered the Governor to do justice in the case. The Muslim was surrendered to the relations of the murdered person who killed him. A Christian, filed a suit against Hisham ibn Abdul Malik who later on succeeded as Caliph. The just Caliph ordered both the plaintiff and the defendant to stand side by side in the court. This annoyed Hisham who abused the Christian. Thereupon the Caliph rebuked him and threatened him with dire consequences.
Umar bin Abdul Aziz laid great emphasis on the ethical aspects of education in order to turn the hearts of people towards charity, forbearance and benevolence. He relentlessly discouraged and punished laxity of morals.
All these beneficial measures added to the stability of the State and the prosperity of the people who lived in peace and tranquility. During his short reign of two years, people had grown so prosperous and contented that one could hardly find a person who would accept alms. The only discontented people were the members of the House of Umayyads who had been accustomed to a life of vice and luxury and could hardly change their heart.
Umar bin Abdul Aziz did not lay much stress on military glory. He paid greater attention to internal administration, economic development and consolidation of his State. The siege of Constantinople was raised. In Spain, the Muslim armies crossed the Pyrennes and penetrated as far as Toulouse in central France.
His short reign was like a merciful rain which brought universal blessings. One of its special features was that almost all Berbers in Northern Africa as well as the nobility of Sind embraced Islam of their own accord. “Umar, however, by no means felt obliged to spread Islam by the sword,” adds the Encyclopaedia of Islam “He rather sought peaceful missionary activity to win members of other creeds to the faith of the Prophet.”
Umar bin Abdul Aziz was a unique ruler from every point of view. The high standard of administration set by him could only be rivalled by the first four Caliphs of Islam. “The reign of Umar II,” writes Ameer Ali “forms the most attractive period of the Umayyads” domination. The historians dwell with satisfaction on the work and aspirations of a Ruler who made the weal of huis people the sole object of his ambition.” His short but glorious reign has no match thence after. “As a Caliph, Umar stands apart,” acknowledges a European orientalist.
“He was distinguished from his predecessors and successors alike. Inspired by a true piety, although not entirely free from biotry, he was very conscious of his responsibilities to God and always endeavoured to further what he believed to be right and conscientiously to do his duty as a ruler. In his private life he was distinguished by the greatest simplicity and frugality.”