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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 5

Synopsis: As the council of Quraysh drags on, ‘Umar opposes Abu Jahl yet again in his suggestion that the clan of Banu Hashim should be ostracized. ‘Umar argues that since the followers of the Prophet hail from every tribe, including his own, it should be up to each clan to convince (through persuasion or persecution) the members of their family who have embraced the new faith to abandon their path. It is unjust, he asserts, to punish the entire tribe of Hashim for the “trouble” caused by one man. Indeed, he continues, punishing the entire clan of Hashim may actually create sympathy for Muhammad and his cause. Utbah ibn Rabi’ah states that this is all fine and all, but it would be better to preclude conflict altogether by offering Muhammad power and wealth in exchange for him abandoning his preaching. He then heads to the Prophet’s house, where he blames him for causing dissension within the tribe and speaking ill of the gods, and asks him whether there is anything he seeks (in terms of worldly goods). ‘Utbah says that if he seeks power, then the Quraysh would make him master over them and if he seeks women they would grant him 10 of the most beautiful women of the tribe…The next scene shows ‘Utbah returning to the council with a strange look on his face and declaring that he has returned from hearing words that he had never heard before, neither from poets nor from soothsayers. If Quraysh were clever, he says, they would exploit the greatness of these words to become masters over all the Arabs in the Peninsula…this creates an outrage in the council and accusations that ‘Utbah has been bewitched. Matters soon get out of hand, and Abu Jahl and Abu Hudhayfa (‘Utbah’s son and a convert to Islam) soon have a major confrontation, which nearly comes to physical blows. Before they all depart, ‘Utbah tells Abu Jahl to worry about the Muslim converts among his own relatives rather than worry about the rest of Mecca.

Abu Jahl then begins his persecution of the Muslims within his extended family…having several imprisoned. ‘Umar then confronts the imprisoned Muslims and tells them that they brought this predicament on themselves before questioning them about the religion of Islam. He seems to like what he hears so he undoes the ropes binding them and releases them. But he warns them that this is the last time he will let them off…he reiterates his staunch opposition to Islam. The next scene shows ‘Umar having gathered the clan of Banu ‘Adi and declaring that the time has come to find those who have adopted Islam within the clan and deal with them harshly, punishing them severely until they return to idol worship; he vows that no mercy shall be shown. He states that those who have become Muslim will have brought such severity and harshness upon themselves by refusing to break with Muhammad. There follow a few scenes showing major persecutions of Muslims from all the major clans. Stonings, whippings, and executions are all depicted. One particularly disturbing/powerful scene is Abu Jahl walking amongst the tortured Muslims, some tied to stakes and others to the ground, taunting them that they are the “kings of Persia and the Levant” (referring to a famous promise of the Prophet to his followers in Mecca that they would be blessed with worldly power in the future, with the two major empires succumbing to their authority) while the rest of the Quraysh look on and laugh. The sadism and brutality of the Quraysh against the Muslims comes out clearly throughout the scene. The scene ends with Abu Jahl declaring that he had made an example out of those who dared abuse the gods and follow Muhammad and will continue to do so until they turn back from the “falsehood” which they follow.

The next scene shows ‘Umar persecuting his own clansmen who have adopted Islam in a similar way…with whipping and imprisonment and harsh words. His brother (Zayd) then confronts him and states that he has become completely transformed into something dangerous. ‘Umar responds by saying that he has been driven to such extremes solely by his desire to keep his clan united and the traditions respected. Briefly, the camera then turns to the desert (and back to the present) where the elderly ‘Umar is again shown, deep in thought but now full of tears, before returning to the past sequence of events.

The next scene shows Bilal praying, declaring his obedience to God’s will and that of His Prophet, and asking God’s deliverance from the persecution faced by the Muslims…at which point two Qurashi nobles enter the stable where he is praying and carry him off. Next, we see Bilal before a council being questioned about his faith…whereby he declares his belief in the One God. Umayyah (the slave-master) scoffs and says that the only lord of a slave is his master or the god of his owners, before declaring that he will inflict such a punishment upon Bilal that it will resonate throughout Arabia. Bilal is then paraded through the streets of Mecca by Umayyah to the spot where all other Muslims are being tortured and whipped. Throughout the ordeal, Umayyah asks him “who is your god now?!” to which Bilal declares “Ahad, Ahad” (God is One). The torture intensifies and Bilal is about to fall unconscious…at which point Abu Bakr appears and yells “stop!” which seems to frighten the Quraysh and Bilal is carried away. Later, Wahshi and Bilal are having a conversation again…at which point the former mocks the latter for getting involved within what he defines as a “dispute between Arabs, not slaves.” Bilal is offended at this characterization and declares this is a dispute between “truth and falsehood” and that he firmly wants to be associated with the party of truth, represented by the Prophet, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, ‘And al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf and ‘Ammar ibn Yassir (among others). The next scene is also disturbing (and will be familiar to anyone who has seen “The Message”): Bilal tied down in the hot sun with a massive boulder being heaved upon his body. This scene is interspersed with scenes of Abu Jahl persecuting the family of ‘Ammar ibn Yassir. Abu Jahl cruelly taunts and threatens Sumayya, who responds by calling him “the enemy of God” which leads him to become even crueler in his torture. ‘Ammar, in tears, says “patience” while watching his mother and father being tortured. Meanwhile, Umayya is imploring Bilal to utter the names of the pagan goddesses, and he continually responds with “Ahad, Ahad” which infuriates Umayyah.

Review: I thought that this was one of the most powerful episodes of the series so far. It brings together all the major themes (social revolution, persecution, tribal dissension) which the emergence of Islam brought to Mecca. In particular, I thought the representation of the persecution of the early Muslims was done brilliantly…very true to the Islamic texts and powerfully shown on screen. Any Muslim watching this should have tears in their eyes as the struggles of the early community in the face of such harsh persecution are brought to life on screen. The character of ‘Umar also becomes more interesting as he becomes one of the primary persecutors of the Muslims in Mecca…and his ferocity in perpetrating such cruel acts upon them is no less than that of Abu Jahl and Umayya. I appreciated that they focused much more on the social dynamic of the rise of Islam, rather than emphasizing exclusively the religious or theological aspects. Yes, it is true, that the Quraysh were staunchly opposed to the message of worshiping One God, but it is also equally true that they saw Islam as a social menace which upset the established order. The latter perspective is brought out very clearly within the character of ‘Umar. Another thing which has really drawn me into the series is the focus on Bilal as one of the key protagonists of the series…this has been said before, but I’ll say it again: Bilal ibn Rabah (RAA) as a prominent companion definitely does not receive enough attention within modern discussions of early Islam, even though his life provides us with a perfect lens through which to view the rise and development of the faith. It also goes without saying that he was one of the most prominent early Muslims whose very life embodies the revolution (political, social, military) that the Prophet (SAW) brought to the world.  The turmoil which Qurashi society was thrown into as a result of the preachings of the Prophet and the response of the Quraysh are definitely represented very well within this show…although, in my opinion, “The Message” is still better in his regard. All that said…’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s episode!

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