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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review of Episodes 1-3

How does one represent one of the most important men in Islamic (and world) history on screen? Some people in certain circles would even question whether such an individual can ever be represented faithfully in any medium. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second successor to the Prophet Muhammad, is a historical figure of immense complexity.  He began as one of the staunchest enemies of Islam and the Prophet before converting to the faith and eventually becoming its most ardent proponent and most important advocate. He was the initiator of the conquests of neighboring lands which weakened the Byzantine Empire and brought down the Sassanian Persian state, opening the way for the preaching and establishment of Islam in those lands. He institutionalized the Islamic Hijri calendar and the Ramadan tarawih prayers, in addition to a number off other things. From all perspectives, he is one of the key figures in the establishment of Islam as a world religion. His justice and mercy to Muslims and non-Muslims alike were renowned around the world and are still invoked as a paragon for just leadership.

Washington Irving, the renowned American historian from the 19th century said this about him in his well-received work “Muhammad and his Successors”:

“The whole history of Umar shows him to have been a man of great powers of mind, inflexible integrity, and rigid justice. He was, more than any one else, the founder of the Islamic empire; confirming and carrying out the inspirations of the Prophet; aiding Abu Bakr with his counsels during his brief caliphate; and establishing wise regulations for the strict administration of the law throughout the rapidly-extending bounds of the Muslim conquests. The rigid hand which he kept upon his most popular generals in the midst of their armies, and in the most distant scenes of their triumphs, gave signal evidence of his extraordinary capacity to rule. In the simplicity of his habits, and his contempt for all pomp and luxury, he emulated the example of the Prophet and Abu Bakr. He endeavored incessantly to impress the merit and policy of the same in his letters to his generals. ‘Beware,’ he would say, ‘of Persian luxury, both in food and raiment. Keep to the simple habits of your country, and God will continue you victorious; depart from them, and he will reverse your fortunes.’ It was his strong conviction of the truth of this policy which made him so severe in punishing all ostentatious style and luxurious indulgence in his officers. Some of his ordinances do credit to his heart as well as his head. He forbade that any female captive who had borne a child should be sold as a slave. In his weekly distributions of the surplus money of his treasury he proportioned them to the needs, not the merits of the applicants. ‘God,’ said he, ‘has bestowed the good things of this world to relieve our necessities, not to reward our virtues: those will be rewarded in another world.’

Obviously, within Islamic tradition the praise for the man is even more illustrious, as is evident from the following words of  ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud, one of the closest companions of the Prophet:

“Umar’s submission to Islam was a conquest, his migration was a victory, his Imamate (period of rule) was a blessing, I have seen when we were unable to pray at the Ka’bah until Umar submitted, when he submitted to Islam, he fought them (the pagans) until they left us alone and we prayed.” (Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, “Tarikh al-Khulafa’   

In light of this reality, therefore, I return to my initial question: how can anyone attempt to represent this man on screen while remaining faithful to his complexity and doing his accomplishments justice? I personally don’t have an answer to this, but this Ramadan MBC is broadcasting a 30-part series purporting to represent ‘Umar’s career. Although it is only three episodes in, I wanted to give a small review of what I have seen so far in order that others (who may not have seen it or do not have access to the Arabic language) may have a vague idea regarding the representation of this great man. It is also a way of helping myself keep track of the story. Hopefully, every two or three episodes I will do the same.

The series starts during the final pilgrimage of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab where he stops in the caravan and looks towards the desert and begins reminiscing…suddenly, we are back in the pre-Islamic era and the show picks up by showing the youth of ‘Umar, his relationship with his family and the beginnings of his career as a merchant in Syria. The series does a good job emphasizing his knowledge of Arabic poetry and the strength of his character. Personally, I was a bit disappointed by the representation of Byzantine Damascus, which is depicted as more similar to Rome in the 2nd century A.D. than Byzantium in the late 6th century. Senators walking around in togas and Roman soldiers wearing the armor of Julius Caesar is not even close to how Byzantine Syria would have appeared in this time. Arab cinema really needs to work on its historical accuracy with regard to props and costumes. Anyways, this distraction aside, they did a good job capturing the ethnic and religious diversity in Syria, using ‘Umar’s relationship with a Ghassanid Arab merchant (who is Christian) as a point of departure for addressing this issue. His concern for the social and political situation of the Arabs in the Peninsula is also highlighted. The rest of the episode was rather slow, but did a good job building character. It is shown how, gradually, ‘Umar was drawn into the influential and powerful circles of Quraysh, where he earned the respect of the notables. It also shows him developing is own, independent thought-process. This becomes quite important later.

The show then turns the spotlight to another series of events happening in Mecca…the beginning of a revelation to Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah, the final Prophet. For anyone who has seen “The Message” or is knowledgeable of the biography of the Prophet the course of events will be very familiar. Out of respect for the Prophet, his image is not shown nor is his voice heard. The depiction of many of the most important companions (Bilal, ‘Ammar ibn Yasir, ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud) is also done very well and one cannot help but feel drawn into the story through their story. One thing the series does particularly well is devoting a significant amount of attention to each character, highlighting their struggles and focusing on their perspective (even the villains are given ample space to voice their views and justifications). The beginning of the Revelation is represented particularly well, with the representation of a young ‘Ali and an elderly Waraqah ibn Nawfal (Khadija herself is not shown) remaining faithful to the Islamic texts. One of the most powerful scenes in the show so far was when ‘Ali, about 8 or 9 at this point, declares his devotion to the new faith and belief in One God confidently and proudly when questioned by his father Abu Talib, who remains a devotee of the old tribal/pagan tradition. It was very moving, especially in light of the importance of ‘Ali as one of the closest companions to the Prophet and his key role in Islam. The conversion of Abu Bakr, played by Ghassan Massoud (Saladin from “Kingdom of Heaven), is also done magnificently. The sincerity and dedication of Abu Bakr comes out very clearly throughout the first few episodes, and there is one particularly powerful scene where there is an exchange between him and ‘Umar, where he tries (yet fails) to convince him of the role of Muhammad as the final Prophet.

Social relations in jahiliyya are also addressed head-on in this show, with a slight hint at a critique of the present reality in the Islamic world. Slavery, social inequality, and the rights of women are all issues which come out in the first three episodes. Islam is shown to be as much a social movement as it was a new faith, a fact which was deeply troubling to the ruling elite. I was glad to see that the producers did not shy away from giving the spotlight to several prominent female characters, notably Hind (one of the primary villains) but also the slave-girl Rayhanna. Both actresses do a great job! The major villains (Abu Lahab, Abu Jahl, al-Walid ibn Mughirah, Abu Sufyan) are all played by superb actors who do a great job convincing the viewer that they are downright sinister. Abu Lahab in particular is singled out as perhaps the most significant opponent of the new faith and of the Prophet. However, by no means are any of these characters one-dimensional. They all have motives, doubts, and multiple factors informing their actions. One major criticism I would have at this point is that I feel the show moves quite quickly through all these events, throwing out a lot of names which may be difficult for the amateur viewer, who is rather unfamiliar with the history, to keep track of.

As the show gives the viewer a clearer idea of the beginnings of Islam (Qur’anic verses are recited in their entirety) and Quraysh’s clash with the Prophet intensifies, the story turns back to the character of ‘Umar. He is shown as rather conflicted…he holds no personal grievance against the Prophet but strongly opposes him because he (‘Umar) is devoted to the idea of tribal solidarity, respect for elders, and the need for families to remain united. Islam, he declares, has nullified all these things and thrown the entirety of Quraysh into turmoil. As Abu Bakr, ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, and Abu ‘Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah (all from prominent and influential Qurayshi families) convert to the new faith, he feels that the community has fragmented. At this point, he has still not adopted the hardened attitude towards the faith which would make him one of its staunchest persecutors. Towards the end of the last episode, he is seen as taking part in the discussions in the inner circle of Quraysh which have centered on how to best deal with the Prophet and the new faith. I am really anxious to see how it develops.

I suppose it is an advantage to know how this story progresses and ends (historically-speaking), but watching it unfold on screen has been a real pleasure and is quite interesting. It allows one to look at all these events and characters in new ways. This is helped, ofcourse, by the fact that the story thus far has been engaging, the dialogue superb (much of it drawn from primary Arabic texts), the acting convincing, and the soundtrack excellent.
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