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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 9

Synopsis: The episode begins with the Quraysh discussing the implications of the continued Muslim residence in Abyssinia. Abu Jahl explains that they have mercantile interests in that country which they cannot allow to be jeopardized. He suggests that they should send emissaries to the Negus (king of Abyssinia) in order to turn him against the Muslims in his kingdom. ‘Amr ibn al-‘As is chosen for the mission. As ‘Amr arrives in the presence of the Negus, he is embraced warmly by the Ethiopian monarch indicating that they have a very close friendship. ‘Amr brings the king expensive and extraordinary gifts to win his favor. Their discussion soon turns towards the Muslims, and ‘Amr explains how he completely abhors how they departed from the religion of their people and forefathers. He continues and asserts that the Negus should hand them over to ‘Amr so he can take them back to their families, who will know how best to deal with them. The Negus is rather surprised and asserts that the perspective of the Muslims is rather different based on what he has heard. The Negus then goes on to explain that it would be outrageous for him to hand over a people who sought his protection…and, as an Arab of Mecca, ‘Amr should understand the concept of “jiwar” (extension of protection to those seeking it) and respect it. ‘Amr pushes the matter a bit further…and the Negus explains that before even considering the matter, he needs to allow the Muslims to speak in their own defense with regard to the accusations leveled against them. He suggests a public engagement where both the Muslims and ‘Amr can put forward their own arguments…”proof against proof” as the Negus says. ‘Amr looks apprehensive and is reluctant to accept this.

The next scene shows the Muslims in Abyssinia (led by Ja’far ibn Abi Talib) discussing this suggestion among themselves and they come to the uneasy conclusion that they should certainly engage ‘Amr in public. The next sequence of events should be familiar to all who have seen “The Message.” As ‘Amr is on one side and the Muslims (led by Ja’far) are on the other and the Negus is sitting on his throne, ‘Amr bows deeply to the monarch. The Muslims, ofcourse, do not bow but greet the monarch with “Assalamu ‘alaykum.” The Negus responds quite harshly and asserts that the Muslims know the accusations leveled against them: they have entered into a religion which is neither of their forefathers (paganism) nor that of Abyssinia (Christianity)…therefore, he asks, what is this new religion?! Ja’far then begins his speech (taken word for word from classical sources): “Oh king, we were an ignorant people who worshiped idols, consumed unlawful things, and the strong among us would oppress the weak. We were in this state until God sent to us a messenger from among ourselves, and to whose moral qualities and truthfulness and noble lineage we can all attest. He called us to the worship of the One God and abandon the worship of idols made of stone/wood. He also enjoined us to speak truth, maintain trusts, avoidance of bloodshed, and prohibiting the forbidden things. He also enjoined us to abstain from reprehensible actions such as the exploitation of people and the expropriation of the wealth of orphans. He called us to the worship of God alone, joining with Him no partner. Thus, we followed him and believed in him and what he brought from God. As a result, our own families and people attacked us, tortured us, and attempted to force us to abandon our faith. When their oppression became overwhelming, we came to your land and we sought your protection…we hope we will not be wronged by you, O king.” The king is moved by these words and asks Ja’far if he has an example of what the Prophet has brought from God. Ja’far responds in the affirmative. The Negus asks him to recite some words. Ja’far begins to recite the first several verses of Surah Maryam, dealing with the birth of John the Baptist/Yahya. This moves the Negus completely and he begins weeping. He asserts that these words and that which was brought by Christ seem like two rays of light emanating from the same lamp. He turns to ‘Amr and tells him to be gone and that he would never hand the Muslims to him. The king also tells ‘Amr that he used to think that he had a sound mind and logic, but now he sees that he was mistaken given the opposition of ‘Amr to such a beautiful message. ‘Amr tells the king that if he gives him one more day, he’ll bring a very strong argument against the Muslims, which even the king (with his sympathy towards them) will not be able to deny.

The next day, ‘Amr states that the Muslims say incredible things (used in the negative sense) about Jesus, so let the king ask them about it. The king turns to the Muslims and asks for an explanation. Ja’far explains that they only say about Jesus that which is in the Qur’an: that he is the Word of God and His spirit which was cast into the womb of the Virgin Mary, and that he is a prophet and servant of God. The king approves and declares the Muslims to be safe in his land and that even for a mountain of gold he would not let any harm come to them. He gives ‘Amr back his gifts and tells him to depart.

Following Amr’s return to Mecca, Khalid ibn al-Walid is making a joke about the failure of his mission to Abyssinia. This infuriates ‘Amr, who then goes on a diatribe against the idols…he starts (alarmingly!) yelling at the images of the pagan gods, demanding to know why they did not come to his aid at such a critical moment. Again, Khalid starts laughing.

The subtitles show that the year is now 617 (the 7th year after the first revelation). ‘Umar is shown embracing two other Muslims and engaging them in small talk, at which point the two sons of Suhayl ibn ‘Amr appear and greet them with the salaam. They then head to prayer together. Meanwhile, the Quraysh are having yet another council (!!) and Abu Jahl declares that they need to kill Muhammad to end the entire matter of Islam. His suggestion is met with approval from the main nobles. The next scene shows Abu Talib, sensing the increasingly violent tendencies of the Quraysh, imploring his clan of Banu Hashim to protect Muhammad, even though they may not all follow his faith. Only Abu Lahab refuses, who rushes to the idols of al-Manat and al-‘Uzza to declare his allegiance to them. Abu Jahl, back at the council, then lays down the terms of the boycott of Banu Hashim (a set of clauses which would be hung at the Ka’ba), which, in summary, generally asserts that no Meccan tribe will interact with/intermarry/trade with the clan of Hashim until they give up Muhammad.

The next scene shows ‘Umar traveling on the road with his young son ‘Abd Allah, when three men block the road and attacking him. He says he has no problem fighting them in defense of himself, his child, and his property, so if they want let them attack…at which point they flee. ‘Umar then starts giving his son advice about bravery. As he continues on the road, he runs into Abu Bakr. Apparently, they were both taking supplies to aid the Banu Hashim, who were suffering greatly under the pressure of the boycott. As the subtitles indicate the beginning of the year 618, we see the tragic effects of this boycott: poverty, starvation, and death. It has been three years since the beginning of the boycott and the pressure against the Banu Hashim has become overwhelming and the entire clan has been forced to live in the rocky hills near Mecca, having been driven from the town. Abu Talib then orders his son ‘Ali to go to the Prophet, to accompany him, and defend him even at the risk of his own life. Ali pledges himself to this.

Back in Mecca, a rift has occurred among the Quraysh, with some of them moved to pity by the state of the Banu Hashim, but Abu Jahl and his circle remain adamant that the boycott will remain in place. The party against the boycott then vow to tear the manuscript hanging in the Ka’ba down…as they enter the Ka’ba, they find that the notice has been torn and eaten by termites except for the words “In your name O God” (bismika Allahum). ‘Umar, observing all these events, then rushes to the Prophet to tell him the news.

The next scene shows Abu Talib dying, with ‘Ali tending to him. The Prophet then enters the room. Abu Talib asserts his love for Muhammad and states that he wishes he can live longer just to spend the time in his company, but alas death arrives. He then points to ‘Ali, Hamza, and al-‘Abbas and tells the Prophet to place his reliance in them, as they will never let him down. He then passes away.

The next scene fast forwards to the year 621 and the ‘Aws and the Khazraj (Arab tribes from Yathrib/Medina) pledge their allegiance to the Prophet and believe in his message. Some Meccan sahabis are then shown as being in Yathrib teaching the new converts the precepts of the new religion. The Medinian phase of Islam is about to begin…

Review: This episode was simply wonderful! I wasn’t sure that they would have been able to pull off such an inspiring and powerful episode right after the last one, but they did this and more. The two most powerful scenes were the exchange between Ja’far ibn Abi Talib and the Negus in Abyssinia and the death of Abu Talib. I find myself becoming increasingly appreciate of all the characters, all of whom are played excellently, and their role in the broader story. I am really thankful the producers and director decided to focus the story more upon the Prophetic biography and the story of the rise of Islam, rather than exclusively on the figure of ‘Umar. This makes for a much better series and also greatly exalts the figure of ‘Umar by highlighting (without overemphasizing) his role in this magnificent series of events. I was a bit disappointed they completely skipped the episode of the Isra’a and Mi’raaj, since that is an extremely important point for the early Muslim community, where both ‘Umar and Abu Bakr (not to mention ‘Ali, ‘Uthman and other prominent sahaba) prove their loyalty to the Prophet by continuing to follow him…even as some Muslims abandoned him. However, it was perhaps necessary to do so in order that all the major events be covered in the space of 30 episodes. This episode ends at the point right after the oath of allegiance of the Medinian tribes to the Prophet and, thus, right before the hijra…which marks a major milestone in the history of Islam. I’m very eager to see how they represent what happens next…

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