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Umar ibn Abdul Aziz: The Rightly Guided Reformer

After the death of Prophet Muhammad the rapidly expanding Islamic nation was led by a series of men known as the four rightly guided Caliphs.

They were men that had learnt their Islam directly from the Prophet himself and governed strictly according to the Quran and authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad.

By 644CE both the Persian and Byzantium empires had fallen to the Muslim armies. Slowly over the next decades the people of the conquered empires adapted both the language and religion of the conquerors. At the same time the character of the Muslim leaders was changing. The men who had ruled strictly by the word of God had been replaced by others. The caliphate that was to have been an elected position was replaced by hereditary succession. The Umayyad dynasty was established.

Although they did not strictly follow the ways of their predecessors they were historically considered to be an extremely successful dynasty. The Umayyads managed to maintain political and religious unity of the Islamic nation and greatly expanded its borders. However they have gone down in history as particularly autocratic and secularly minded.

Umar Appointed to the Caliphate

When Umayyad Caliph Sulaiman ibn Abdul Malik (ruled from 714 until 717) lay on his deathbed, he attempted to earn the pleasure of God by following the example of the early Caliphs and nominating someone other than one of his own sons as the next Caliph. He therefore appointed his distant cousin Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, his successor. Umar was then faced with the seemingly impossible task of returning the Islamic nation back into a nation of people who obeyed the laws of God above all else.

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Umar ibn Abdul Aziz had served as the governor of Egypt and Madinah for more than twenty-two years. He had been educated and trained by a well-known scholar by the name of Salah ibn Kaisan. Before his accession to the Caliphate, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was a young man, fond of fashion and fragrance, however when he accepted the responsibility of leading the Islamic nation, he proved to be  the most pious, able, far-sighted and responsible of all the Umayyad Caliphs.

Umar tried to rule in a way similar to how the Islamic state was governed in its infancy. He immediately began by adhering to Islamic principles. When news reached him of his nomination to the Caliphate, he addressed the people saying:

“O people! The responsibilities of the Caliphate have been thrust upon me without my desire or your consent. If you choose to select someone else as the Caliph, I will immediately step aside and will support your decision”.

This was a breath of fresh air to the people who were longing for a return to the days of Prophet Muhammad and his four immediate predecessors. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was unanimously elected.

Umar immediately discarded his extravagant lifestyle and tried to emulate Prophet Muhammad and his closest companions. One of his first actions was to return the lavish estates and palaces owned by members of the Umayyad dynasty to the public estate.

Umar’s Reforms

When previously there was no answerability to the people, Umar re-established accountability and abolished the corrupt practices by which the government officials had become rich, powerful and abusive. The people responded with enthusiastic support, and overall productivity throughout the empire increased.

The renowned Islamic scholar, Ibn Kathir, records that because of the reforms undertaken by Umar, the annual revenue from Persia alone increased from 28 million dirhams to 124 million dirhams.

Umar continued to follow the example set by Prophet Muhammad and sent emissaries to China and Tibet, inviting their rulers to accept Islam. It was during this time that the religion of Islam began to be accepted by large segments of the populations of Persia and Egypt.

When the once corrupt officials complained that because of conversions, the revenues of the state had declined, Umar wrote back saying he had accepted the Caliphate to invite people to Islam and not to become a tax collector. Umar used his position to uphold the rights and responsibilities that are inherent in the Quran and the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad.

The infusion of non-Arabs into the fold of Islam shifted the centre of the empire from Madinah and Damascus to Persia and Egypt. Umar made large and astonishing changes to the way the empire was run. His strict adherence to Islamic principles even allowed him to offer stipends to teachers whilst encouraging education for men, women and children.

Through his personal example, he instilled piety, steadfastness, business ethics, and Islamic morals and manners into the general population. His reforms included the strict abolition of alcohol, he forbade public nudity, and he eliminated mixed bathrooms for men and women. Umar also oversaw the fair dispensation of money given in charity.

Umar’s efforts to transform the Islamic Empire into a well-run Islamic community knew no bounds. Just as he transformed his life he also transformed the empire. Umar undertook extensive public works throughout the empire, in Persia, Khorasan (includes parts of modern day Iran, Afghanistan and central Asia) and across North Africa. This included roads, bridges, canals, inns for travelers, educational facilities and medical dispensaries.

Umar ibn Abdul Aziz became known as the fifth rightly guided Caliph of the Islamic nation because of his similarity to the first four Caliphs. The first four Caliphs learned their Islam straight from Prophet Muhammad and kept strictly to the guidelines of the Quran and the authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad. However after their death the Caliphate became a dynasty and many of the guidelines imposed by God Himself were relaxed or forgotten altogether.

Many Firsts

Umar ibn Abdul Aziz revived righteous Islamic principles and began to put jewels into the crown of the Islamic Empire. One of his first acts was to replace corrupt and tyrannical Umayyad administrators with honest and just people and another was to restore to their rightful owners the properties confiscated by the Umayyad dynasty.

Within the first ten years of the conquest of Sindh (part of modern day Pakistan), in 718 CE Umar became the first Caliph to commission a translation of the Quran from Arabic into another language – Sindhi. This was at the request of the Raja of Sindh. Sindh was yet another area of the Islamic empire conquered by the will of God and the impeccable Islamic morals and manners of war, not known in other parts of the world at that time. At the same time Umar’s armies waged a defensive war against the Turks who had ravaged Azerbaijan and massacred thousands. Umar permitted his forces to wage war only under strictest conditions, including that women, children or prisoners would not be executed, and that a fleeing, defeated enemy would not be pursued.

Amongst many firsts, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz was the first Muslim ruler to turn his attention away from external conquest. He recalled the Muslim armies from the borders of France, India and the outskirts of Constantinople. It was during his Caliphate that internal uprisings and disturbances ceased, and the true Islamic faith taught by Prophet Muhammad, flourished once again. Greed however does not surrender to faith without a battle, thus there were many disgruntled people unhappy with Umar’s rule.

Yet the reforms continued. Under Umar’s instructions the viceroy in Spain took a census of the diverse nationalities, races and creeds, inhabiting that section of the Empire. A survey of the entire peninsula including cities, rivers, seas and mountains was made. The nature of the soil and varieties of mineral sources and agricultural produce was carefully counted and recorded, bridges in southern Spain were constructed and repaired and a large mosque was built at Saragossa in northern Spain.

In the time between the four rightly guided Caliph and Umar ibn Abdul Aziz the Public Treasury was freely used for private purposes by the Umayyad Caliphs. Umar immediately put a stop to this practice but at the same time made himself a number of dangerous enemies. Nevertheless he continued to institute reforms and revivals that caused the poor, weak and righteous Muslims to feel strong and protected as they once had under the early Caliphs. One of the most important measures was his reform of taxation.

Umar ibn Abdul Aziz’s following the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad was kind and just toward non-Muslims. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians were allowed to retain their churches, synagogues and temples. In Damascus, where the Basilica of John the Baptist had been turned into a mosque, Umar ordered it returned to the Christian church.

Umar’s administration of the Empire was impartially just and went directly against the interests of the Umayyad dynasty, of which Umar was a distant member but far from the line of succession. The influential Umayyad’s could not tolerate their loss of power, prestige and finances.

Umar’s reforms were too much for them to tolerate. A slave was bribed to administer a deadly poison. When the Caliph felt the effects of the poison and had come to understand the plot he sent for the slave and asked him why? The slave replied that he was given one thousand dinars so Umar then deposited that exact amount into the Public Treasury and freed the slave. He advised him to leave immediately in case Umar’s enemies killed him. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz died after a rule that lasted only two and a half years. He was thirty-nine years old at the time of his death.

Post Script

There is an unauthenticated but nonetheless beautiful story about Umar ibn Abdul Aziz’s lineage.

Umar ibn Abdul Aziz is related to Umar ibn al-Khattab because of a famous event during the second Caliph’s rule. During one of his frequent journeys to survey the condition of his people, Umar overheard a milkmaid refusing to obey her mother’s orders to sell adulterated milk. The girl replied that although Caliph Umar was not looking at them, God was always watching over everyone.

The next day Umar ibn al Khattab sent an officer to purchase milk from the girl and found the milk unadulterated. He then summoned the girl and her mother to his court and told them what he had overheard. As a reward, he offered to marry the girl to his son Asim. She accepted, and from this union was born a girl named Layla who would in due course become the mother of Umar ibn Abdul Aziz.


(From Discovering Islam archive)