Islamic History, Part 9: The Caliphate of Umar b. al-Khattab (634-644)

Islamic History Series

The reign of Umar b. al-Khattab, or Umar I as he is sometimes known, was one of the most important periods in early Islamic history. While Abu Bakr’s caliphate was really an exercise in succession and consolidation, establishing that the community founded by Muhammad would live on past his death and expending considerable military force to ensure it would hold together, it was under Umar’s leadership that the community became an Empire. The military conquests of his reign were so dramatic that when Patricia Crone and Michael Cook attempted their revision of early Islamic history, Hagarism, they concluded that Umar must have been the real focal figure of the movement, with Muhammad, if he existed at all, having been essentially his herald, only elevated to the status of “Messenger of God” in hindsight.

During Umar’s reign, Arab (Islamic, if you prefer, though what “Islam” meant was probably still somewhat unclear at this point) armies swept across the Iranian plateau and the Levant, and into Egypt and Libya, taking territories that had previously belonged to the two great empires of late antiquity, the Byzantines and the Sasanians, and bringing them into the Islamic world in which they exist to this day. His forces reduced the Roman Empire, which once controlled the entire Mediterranean basin, to an area that basically encompasses modern-day Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans, and they virtually destroyed the Persian Empire, which had existed in various forms, under various dynasties, for over a thousand years, although its final death wouldn’t occur the reign of Umar’s successor. The Islamic world had much more growing to do; eventually it would add North Africa, the Iberian peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, and large parts of southeast Asia to its territory. But under Umar, the only two world powers capable of quashing the nascent Arab empire were dealt devastating, in one case mortal, blows.

Before we get into Umar’s reign we should talk a bit about his activities during Muhammad’s life and under Abu Bakr’s reign; Abu Bakr was so important to Muhammad that we had a pretty good sense of what he’d done before he became caliph, but Umar hasn’t been in our story very much so far. Umar was a Qurayshi from Mecca, about 10 years Muhammad’s junior (he’s thought to have been born around 579). It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Umar was initially a strident opponent of Muhammad’s preaching, which he saw as divisive and detrimental to the Meccan community. The sources tell us that one day in 616, Umar resolved to kill Muhammad, which would have been a bold act because it wasn’t until 619 that Muhammad lost the protection of his tribe against acts of violence. Umar first went to the home of his sister and her husband, who had become followers of Muhammad, and after a quarrel that turned violent he asked to see the Qur’anic verses they had been reciting. After reading them for himself, he was so struck by the beauty of the language and the message that he immediately sought out Muhammad and, instead of killing him, became his follower.

Umar had been so outspoken in his opposition to Muhammad that his conversion carried considerable weight with the rest of the Quraysh, but obviously not enough to make life easier for Muhammad and his followers. He followed Muhammad to Medina, leaving Mecca in broad daylight (most of the migrants fled under cover of darkness) with the threat to kill anyone who tried to stop him. He became a leading member of the movement, participating in all the major clashes with Meccan forces including the conquest of Mecca itself. We saw last time that he was instrumental in holding together the Medinan community after Muhammad’s death and in seeing Abu Bakr installed as Muhammad’s successor (caliph). Indeed, Umar’s most lasting historical mark may have nothing to do with military conquests but may instead be the fact that the caliphate was established at all, that this fragile young movement stayed united after its founder’s death when it could so easily have fragmented and been lost to history.

Umar served as Abu Bakr’s top lieutenant, and was probably the logical choice to succeed him, but he seems to have had few friends among the other leaders of the community, the men who would have been tasked with finding a successor once Abu Bakr died. Umar was apparently a fairly intense guy, strict and imperious, which was evident when he made the decision to kill Muhammad in 616; these charming personality traits hadn’t abated when he converted to Muhammad’s message. Abu Bakr, always the smartest guy in the room, probably knew that Umar was the only person who could succeed him peacefully (or, more to the point, that Umar would make life impossible for anybody else who was chosen to succeed Abu Bakr), so he sidestepped the fact that Umar wouldn’t be appointed his successor in council by designating Umar as his successor in his will.

Unsure whether he could be called “Caliph of the Messenger,” as Abu Bakr had been, or if he’d have to be called “Caliph of the Caliph of the Messenger,” or something clunky like that, Umar formally titled himself amir al-muʾminin, or “Commander of the Faithful,” a title that would be adopted by all future caliphs (the title of “Caliph” was still retained). His choice of title reflects the degree to which, in these still-uncertain early years of the new community, military authority was the most stable and widely recognized kind of authority. In reality his powers extended beyond the military, and he was called upon to issue rulings on all manner of subjects (many we would probably call “religious” nowadays, though it was probably still too soon to be calling this movement a “religion” yet), though his authority in these matters was derived as much from his personal prestige and his closeness to Muhammad as it was from the formal office he now held.

As caliph, one of Umar’s first acts was to demote Khalid b. al-Walid (d. 642), the general who had performed so brilliantly in the Ridda Wars and who had, against incredible odds, led what Abu Bakr had planned as probing strikes against the Sasanians and Byzantines and won major military gains, including the Byzantine city of Damascus.One of the fascinating aspects of Umar’s conquests is that, at least against the Romans, they were accomplished under a general for whom Umar never seems to have felt anything other than mistrust and fear. Umar removed Khalid from command twice (in 634 and again in 638, the second time dismissing him from the army entirely), out of what must have been his fear of Khalid’s popularity with the people and, more importantly, the army; upon the second dismissal, when Khalid went to Umar to complain, Umar is said to have told him something like, “You have achieved what no man did ever before, but in fact it was God who achieved it.” Publicly, Umar held that Khalid’s successes were causing people to venerate him rather than properly credit the successes to God, but privately he must have been very worried about Khalid as a potential threat to his authority.

umar's conquests
The Arab (Islamic) Empire as it stood after Umar’s conquests

After Damascus fell in 634, the Romans must have realized that their strategy to contain the Arab advance wasn’t going to work. After an initial Arab offensive had captured part of Palestine, the Romans seem to have done what they usually did when faced with invasions from “barbarian” (i.e., anybody other than the Persians) peoples: hole up behind their city walls, commission the people of those cities to participate in their own defense, and wait for the invaders to exhaust themselves. In this way the Romans hoped to avoid pitched battle–in the Byzantine era it cost so much and took so long to train an army that the Romans were only willing to risk losing one in the field under the most extreme circumstances. I don’t think you can blame the Romans for adopting this policy; as far as they knew this Arab army was no different from others who had raided the empire for spoils without any intention of sticking around. Nobody in Constantinople knew that these guys were the vanguard of a whole new empire, organized around a whole new religion, just beginning to expand out of Arabia. But unlike, say, the Avars, or the Huns, or previous Arab armies, who were raiders as opposed to conquerors, these Arabs were able, despite a lack of siege equipment, to take and hold fortified Roman cities.

It’s not entirely clear why this was the case. Later Arab sources often–so often that it’s likely a trope or meme–write about somebody in the city having a conversion experience and letting the Muslims in, but we can’t be sure if any of these accounts are accurate. It’s possible, with the memory of the Persian invasion–and the relatively light treatment that cities got when they surrendered easily–still fresh in people’s minds, that surrender just seemed like the best course of action. It’s possible that people in those cities who had maybe benefited from brief Persian rule and regretted being brought back under Constantinople’s rule–i.e., Jews and/or non-Chalcedonian Christians–welcomed the Arabs and opened city gates to them. It’s also possible that, after decades of plague followed by decades of war, the Roman people were simply too exhausted to put up a defense. Certainly the Roman military was. Whatever the cause, though, by it must have been apparent to Constantinople that the Arabs would have to be defeated in pitched battle, that simply waiting them out was not an option.

The Roman Emperor Heraclius (d. 641) and the Persian Emperor Yazdegerd III (d. 651) attempted to make an alliance against the Arabs in 635, but it fell apart when the Romans began a counteroffensive in Syria before the Persians were ready to begin theirs in Iraq. For all the territory the Arabs conquered under Umar, from the Levant (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine), Egypt, and Libya in the west to almost the entire Persian empire in the east, there really seem to have been only two major battles, both fought and won by the Arabs in 636: the Battle of Yarmouk against the Romans and the Battle of Qadisiyah against the Persians. In both cases the much larger armies of the Romans and Persians were utterly beaten by a combination of more experienced fighters (the Arabs were mostly veterans of the Ridda Wars while the Romans and Persians had just pulverized each other’s armies and were both relying to a large extent on new recruits) and smarter generalship. The decrepitude of both major empires was so great by this point that a single conclusive defeat was enough to pierce their imperial armor and leave them in ruins.

Yarmouk was fought in August, when Heraclius attempted to mass his forces against the Arabs, who had divided their army in fourths to speed up pacifying the region. Unfortunately his first target was the part of the army that still had Khalid. Abu Ubaydah, who had been appointed as Khalid’s superior by Umar, wisely turned field command back over to Khalid, who promptly massed his forces on the plains of Yarmouk, along the modern Syria-Jordan border. The Romans massed their five-part army in response, preparing for a large battle, and their soldiers, a mix of mostly Romans, allied Arabs, and Armenians, fell to quarreling among themselves. Khalid made some overtures of negotiating, probably to allow the Roman forces more time to bicker and also for veteran reinforcements to arrive from Arabia.

When the battle finally began it didn’t go well for the Romans, though it wasn’t an immediate rout either. We read that Roman champions were killed in single combat, a few Roman unit commanders actually converted and changed sides on the battlefield, and Khalid was able to use his cavalry to even the odds wherever the Roman advantage in manpower threatened to break his lines. Some of that is probably romanticized (the historicity of single combat in these engagements is iffy, and later Muslim historians loved to write about Byzantine soldiers and civilians Seeing The Light and aiding the Muslim cause), but the quality of Khalid’s generalship is amply attested and seems about right. By the sixth day of the battle, the Romans, who had been on the offensive the entire time to no avail, were broken. Khalid’s cavalry forced the Roman cavalry from the field and then flanked the Roman infantry line, which crumbled.

After Yarmouk the only resistance the Roman Empire offered the Arabs was geographic; the Taurus Mountains had been the empire’s refuge in the face of the Persian onslaught,  and now they prevented the Arabs from moving into Anatolia. But the rest of the empire was lost. Heraclius probably returned to the tactic of ordering cities to close their gates and wait the attackers out and/or wait until the empire could muster up a new army–hey, it had worked pretty well for the Romans for a few centuries now, so why not? But at this point you have to wonder if Heraclius really believed it would work again. Jerusalem fell after a bloodless siege in 637, and Egypt fell after a two year campaign (640-642). The Arab armies were undoubtedly aided by the fact that so many Roman subjects, who were tired of being persecuted by Constantinople for their adherence to unsanctioned Christian sects and who were exhausted by the recent Roman-Persian war, were not greatly inclined to resist the arrival of another conqueror.

Still, the Byzantine Empire survived, which is more than you can say about the Sasanians and I think is a testament to Heraclius’s decision to pull out of Syria and protect what he could. The Persians, who seem to have committed far more fully to trying to defeat the Arabs in pitched battle, were therefore more completely destroyed when that pitched battle failed to go their way. After Khalid was sent to Syria by Abu Bakr, the Persians mounted a counter-offensive that resulted in Iraq being traded between the two sides while Umar directed most of his attention and resources at Syria. Eventually, Yazdegerd was able to muster a large enough force to chase the Arabs out of Iraq and force them to regroup. When they were ready to invade Iraq again, Umar planned to lead this army himself, but he was convinced to remain in Medina for as long as the Syrian front was active, to better manage both wars. He appointed Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas to command the army and ordered them to stop at a small town called Qadisiyah in the south of Iraq, then to stall the Persians with negotiations while the Arab armies did their work in Syria. A large Persian army met them there under the command of Rostam Farrokhzad, and the two sides talked for months, until Umar sent word (after Yarmouk) that the Arabs could stop negotiating and prepare to fight.

This fight went somewhat like Yarmouk, with the Persians on the offensive, in particular using their war elephants to great effect, pushing the Arabs back but never breaking their lines. The Arabs finally drove the elephants off the field on day 3, and on day 4 the Arabs were able to break through Persian lines and Rostam died, either accidentally or at Arab hands–the sources are unclear. Qadisiyah ended Persian control of Iraq; their capital city of Ctesiphon (not far from where Baghdad would later be built) fell in 637, then northern Iraq soon after. The Persians attempted another counterattack but were again decisively beaten by the Arabs at Nihavand in 642, and that was the last time Yazdegerd was able to raise an army. He spent the rest of his life in the eastern fringes of his former empire, running from the court of one minor vassal to another, trying to raise an army but in constant fear that one of these minor princes would kill him as a peace offering to the oncoming Arabs. Which, as it turns out, is what probably happened; he was killed in the city of Merv (in what is today Turkmenistan) in what the sources seem to say was a simple robbery, but was likely arranged by the local ruler. Almost all of his empire, save the far east and a strip of land on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, was in Arab hands by 644.

Umar’s reign is notable both for the enormous conquests that were made and for his administrative reforms, which began the process of turning Muhammad’s band of followers into a functioning political entity that would be able to govern a vast empire. Among many other reforms, Umar organized the army into more of a professional fighting force by creating a master record of soldiers and veterans, known as the diwan, so that their salaries and pensions could be calculated. This record determined benefits based on the length of service provided, so those who had been with Muhammad from his earliest battles against the Quraysh were in line for the highest rewards, and this naturally set Arab “Muslims” (still a nebulous term at this point) above the rest of the empire, with the muhajirun and the Medinan ansar at the highest levels of society. To emphasize the importance of the Hijrah to the emerging community, and to help formalize the empire’s bureaucracy, Umar instituted a dating system starting with the year of the Hijrah as year 1, and the Islamic calendar was born.

Umar began the practice of establishing new provincial capital cities (known as amsar, singular misr) in which to garrison his troops, carefully placed in strategically important locations. This kept the Arab armies set apart from local populations and allowed stricter administrative control as well as ensuring religious cohesion (and this was, after all, a religious movement, even if it may not yet have been “Islam” as we know it today); as such they were crucial to the early development of what became Islam, away from the influence of local Christian and Zoroastrian cultures. The amsar are a big part of the reason why the cultural and political impact of the Arab conquests sustained to the present day. Compare the cultural staying power of Islamic civilization to the Germanic conquests in Western Europe, where within about four centuries a German king would be having himself crowned the Holy Roman Emperor. Or compare the staying power of the Arab conquests to later Mongol conquests, the Mongols being practically the archetype of a conquering force that was itself ultimately conquered by the civilizations it came to rule. They also, I suspect, had benefits in the other direction–by keeping soldiers out of newly conquered civilians’ faces, they made it easier for those civilians to acclimate to the new order of things (which, for the most part, probably didn’t seem all that different from the old order of things).

Some of the more famous and long-lived amsar include the cities of Kufa and Basra in Iraq; Fustat, which would later be absorbed into the city of Cairo (the Arabic name for Egypt is Misr), and the city of Qayrawan (well, it’s not much of a city nowadays, but it is still there) in modern Tunisia. Syria, where Damascus remained the capital, was the one exception to this policy, but Syria had already been so heavily Arabicized even in the pre-Islamic period that it must have made little sense to separate the new Arab soldiers from the local populace.

Among his other administrative advances, Umar also established an independent judiciary by employing experts in the law (particularly family law) as it could be discerned from the Muhammad’s revelations, his own preaching, and his own personal example. These new judges received lifetime appointments at high salaries to make them less susceptible to bribery. Umar emphasized Muhammad’s revelations as the uniting and driving force behind the empire and the key to retaining its cohesion, and made sure that his garrison cities were staffed with formally trained Qurʾan reciters to ensure uniformity of message. He began to formalize the ritual aspects of the emerging faith, as well. He established regular taxes, to finance both his army and a welfare system to provide for widows, orphans, the poor, elderly, and disabled. He also began the study of Hadith, reports of the sayings and deeds attributed to Muhammad, in an effort to root out fraudulent reports; “Hadith science” would become one of the first major academic disciplines in the Islamic world and led directly to the great tradition of Islamic history writing and historiography.

Umar was assassinated, stabbed to death, in 644 by a group of conspirators who had been Persian subjects, as revenge for the Arab conquest of that empire. He lingered for three days, during which time he appointed a six man committee to choose his successor from among their number. He insisted that their vote be unanimous and ordered his son to kill any member or members of the committee who refused to vote for the consensus choice. The committee eventually whittled the choice to three: Ali, a man named Abd al-Rahman b. Awf, or Uthman b. Affan, a very wealthy early convert whose wealth had sustained the movement in some of its more trying periods, and who had been a chief advisor to both Abu Bakr and Umar during their reigns. Each controlled two votes. Abd al-Rahman elected to drop out and throw his support to one of the other two candidates; the sources allege that he asked both whether they would agree to reign according to the examples of Abu Bakr and Umar, and while Uthman said yes, Ali said that he would only be bound by the Qurʾan and the example of Muhammad. Abd al-Rahman then gave his support to Uthman, at which point Ali and his supporter, not wanting to be killed, reluctantly did likewise.

Next time: The caliphate of Uthman

Further Reading:

Remember how I said these reading lists would really overlap for the first few caliphs? Yeah.

Fred Donner’s Early Islamic Conquests.

Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050, his The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live in, and his The Armies of the Caliphs: military and society in the early Islamic State.

Patricia Crone’s God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam.

As always, The Cambridge History of Islam and The New Cambridge History of Islam (also volume 4 of The Cambridge History of Iran) are worthwhile if you’re really looking to immerse yourself, but they’re not for the casual reader.


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