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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 11

Synopsis: The episode begins with one of the chieftains of the Jewish tribes venting about the claims of Muhammad, about the universality of his message, and his assertion that he receives revelation from God, in the same manner as Moses. The diatribe is meant to underscore the rejection of the Prophet’s message by this individual who seeks to convince his compatriots to also oppose the coming of Islam. At this point, another Jewish tribesman (a rabbi) interrupts and suggests that the new arrangement should not be thought of as bad…after all there now exists a legal document (Constitution of Medina) that regulates the relationship between the various communities in Medina based on rights and responsibilities. He also indicates that the new religion is closer in its spirit to Judaism than Arabian paganism. This is met with loud disapproval from the crowd who assert that they are God’s Chosen People and their law cannot be superseded. The rabbi responds by telling them that he does not seek to introduce doubt about their faith and, indeed, he is the most knowledgeable about faith/jurisprudential matters, but that he urges them to honor the pact they signed with the Prophet, since keeping true to pacts is a matter of religious faith. The chieftain responds with strong disagreement and suggests that they will only utilize the pact as it suits their interests, and will feel free to violate it whenever it seems most convenient.

The next scene opens with Bilal giving the athan (call to prayer) from the roof of the mosque of Medina (minarets would not arrive for another couple of centuries) with onlookers expressing surprise. Abu Bakr, who is just outside the mosque looks up at Bilal and smiles approvingly. When ‘Umar arrives on the scene, he tells Abu Bakr that he envisioned this moment (Bilal giving the athan) in his dream…Abu Bakr responds and tells him that, indeed, another Sahabi (from the Ansar) also had the exact same dream and told the Prophet as well, who responded by saying “indeed, this is a truthful vision(ru’ya haqq)”. He then tells ‘Umar to go to the Prophet and tell him about his vision/dream as well.

The next scene shows Mecca with a few pagans slaughtering a goat at the base of the statue of Hubal. Khalid ibn al-Walid and ‘Amr ibn al-‘As are then shown having a deep discussion about the current state of affairs in Mecca now that the Muslims (and the Prophet) have left the city. Khalid expresses sorrow that the Muslims have left, since he states that they are the families and relatives of the Quraysh and their departure deeply grieves the soul, as one grieves for a departed family member. ‘Amr ibn al-‘As solemnly nods his approval. Khalid then goes on to raise the possibility of a future conflict between the Quraysh and the Muslims in Medina. He asserts that if the Quraysh were to win (on the battlefield), it would still be a defeat (for Mecca/Meccans) and if Quraysh were to lose, it would also be a defeat for Mecca and Meccans. He then expresses great frustration at the situation, where neither defeat nor victory can improve the situation. ‘Amr responds by saying that if Muhammad truly is a Prophet and aided by God, then the proof of this will become clear in the end with the victory of his message, but if he was not what he claimed to be then the Quraysh (“we”) will defeat him.

Back in Medina, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (speaking on behalf of the Prophet, who cannot be shown or heard) is calling the Muhajirun and the Ansar to arms. He asserts that the caravan of Quraysh is passing on its way to Syria and is laden with the wealth and goods of the Muslims, which the Quraysh had confiscated following the hijra of the Muslims to Medina. He declares that the Prophet has commanded that the Muslims raid the caravan and regain their lost property, since that is the just course of action. In the background, ‘Abd Allah ibn Ubayy and one of the Jewish chieftains (same one as before…forgot his name!) are discussing what they just witnessed and agree that it is in their interest that the Muslims clash with the Quraysh, so as to hasten their downfall and bring about their political collapse in Medina.

In Mecca, a messenger rushes into the city on horseback announcing that the Muslims were on their way to raid the lucrative caravans on their way to Syria. In response, Abu Jahl makes a call to arms and war. He then straps himself down with armor and weaponry (and I must say, they did a great job with accuracy in this regard!) and runs into Khalid ibn al-Walid who is also in full gear. Abu Jahl tells Khalid there’s no need for him to come to the battle and it is best he remains in Mecca to guard the rear of the Quraysh. Meanwhile, among the sons of Suhayl ibn ‘Amr, a rift has developed. Both are still imprisoned…but eventually ‘Abd Allah decides to join his father in taking part in the expedition against the Muslims, while Abu Jundal remains staunchly committed in his faith and refuses to abandon his faith. The Qurashi army is then shown setting out in great pomp and splendor, with music playing and Hind bint ‘Utbah reciting war-like poetry to encourage the army. Many of the chiefs of Quraysh are in the army…’Utbah ibn Rabi’ah, Umayyah ibn Khalaf, Abu Jahl. As they continue their march in the desert, a messenger arrives from Abu Sufyan to tell the army that they no longer need to continue since the caravan barely escaped from the Muslims’ raid and is in good condition. ‘Utbah is elated, but Abu Jahl insists on continuing the march. He states that they should not stop until they head to the wells of Badr (where the Muslims are encamped), defeat them, celebrate with wine and listen to the songs of slave-girls…that, he says, is the only way to restore the honor of Quraysh among the Arabs.

At the wells of Badr, ‘Umar and Hamzah–at the head of the small raiding force (313 in all)–see the Qurashi army approaching. When Hamzah announces their approach, many of the Muslims are hesitant and cry out that they were not expecting to encounter another army in battle. On the Qurashi side, ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Suhayl ibn ‘Amr has taken a horse and defected to the Muslim side; apparently his intention all along has been to do so…his earlier declaration of abandoning Islam being a farce. Suhyal ibn ‘Amr, disappointed at his son’s action, is then approached by ‘Utbah ibn Rabi’ah (whose son Abu Hudhayfa is in the Muslim army as well), who asserts the tragedy of fathers and sons having to fight against one another. As Abd Allah ibn Suhayl reaches the Muslim camp, he is warmly embraced by ‘Umar and ‘Ali who are elated that he is in good health and that he has joined them. When they ask about the state of his brother Abu Jundal, Abd Allah is shown recalling how Abu Jundal did not have the ability or heart to meet his own father on the battlefield and would prefer to remain imprisoned until God delivered him from his fate. Again, back in the Qurashi camp, ‘Utbah is shown trying to convince Abu Jahl and the others to turn back since he insists that no good can come from fighting Muhammad and meeting their own cousins, nephews, and sons in battle. Abu Jahl responds by insulting ‘Utbah, accusing him of being soft because his own son was a Muslim and even suggesting he was a coward in battle. This last point is overkill and ‘Utbah vows to prove Abu Jahl wrong (by fighting the Muslims).

Next, we see Abu Bakr approaching the Prophet’s tent to tell him that the Muslims are prepared for battle and the lines have formed. Next we see the Muslim army assembled, all dressed in white and quite organized, preparing to meet the Quraysh, who outnumber them 3:1. As is customary in these ancient battles in Arabia, the Quraysh send out three of their champions to fight in single combat…in this case they are ‘Utbah ibn Rabi’ah, al-Walid ibn ‘Utbah, and one other. From across the battle-lines, Bilal eyes Umayyah (his former master and tormenter) with a look that is essentially a death stare, which seems to really unsettle Umayyah. The Muslim army then shouts in unison “God is One” (Ahadun Ahad) several times, which was the slogan used at the battle of Badr. Next, ‘Utbah and the two other Qurashi champions step forward with swords drawn and demand equals from among their peers to combat. Hamzah and ‘Ali (armed with his characteristic double-tipped sword Zulfiqar) both step forward accompanied by another Muslim I didn’t recognize. ‘Ali fights al-Walid ibn ‘Utbah, Hamzah engages the unknown guy, while ‘Utbah combats the anonymous Muslim. ‘Ali swiftly and powerfully disarms his opponent and cuts him down. Hamzah then knocks his counterpart down to the ground and eliminates him quite quickly as well. As the fight between ‘Utbah and the other Muslim seems to reach a stalemate, and ‘Utbah tries to retreat…Hamzah blocks his path and kills him. Amidst shouts of “God is One” from the Muslims and shouts from the Quraysh the armies charge each other. On the Qurashi side, the left flank is led by Umayyah and the central force by Abu Jahl. On the Muslim side, the core force is led by Hamzah, the left flank by ‘Umar, and the right flank by ‘Ali. As the two armies clash, there’s an interesting first-person view which shows the perspective of the Prophet as he also charges with the Muslims. As the Quraysh charge Umar’s flank, he orders his troops to unleash a volley of arrows upon the Quraysh before continuing the charge. The battle is intense and is shown in far more detail than I can even attempt to convey in words. Both ‘Umar and Ali’s battle skills and courage are highlighted in some detail throughout the sequence. Shortly into the battle, Abu Jahl is badly wounded by a Muslim sword striking his thigh. As he lays on the ground in pain, ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud pins him down and strikes the death blow, but not before a short exchange between them. Next, Bilal is shown seeing Umayyah on the battlefield and charging at him before swiftly killing him, as vengeance for all the torture he put him through. The confusion that arises as a result of the death of their generals lead the Quraysh to retreat hastily, although a few of them (including al-Walid ibn al-Walid ibn Mughirah, the brother of Khalid ibn al-Walid) are captured.

The episode ends with the Muslims celebrating their victory by declaring the Oneness of God and with the Qurashi prisoners being led away.

Review: I have to say, in all honesty, that this was probably one of the most exciting and fast-paced episodes of the series thus far. Without a doubt, it represents the culmination of the first part of the series, which focused on the humiliation and persecution of the Muslims. In this episode, we see the first major Muslim response with the militarization of the resistance to the Quraysh and the call to arms, which culminates with the Battle of Badr. We see the full maturation of many of the characters encountered in the previous episodes and a lot of the earlier/slower scenes of dialogue and character development make much more sense in light of this episode.

Before giving a detailed review of my thoughts on the battle, I wanted to get my criticisms out of the way. I was really disappointed that the verses from the Qur’an (esp. Q. 22:39: أُذِنَ لِلَّذِينَ يُقَـتَلُونَ بِأَنَّهُمْ ظُلِمُواْ وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَى نَصْرِهِمْ لَقَدِيرٌ/ Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory) which provided the justification for the use of armed force by the Muslims were not even mentioned in the episode. This is an essential point which brings the issue back to the divine origin of the message and the broader implications it has. In other words, I think it was important for them to represent this (the beginning of armed struggle) as fundamental religio-political shift in the approach of the Muslims, not merely a singular, reactionary moment in the history of Islam. After all, the verses which were revealed which call for the fighting of oppression and the overthrowing of tyranny are not merely relevant to the Battle of Badr, but are relevant for all time, as we can see from current events in the Islamic world. Indeed, the valiant resistance in Syria has invoked this verse again and again in reference to their struggle against the tyrannical Assad regime. It also would have been nice for these verses to have been given some screen time, especially since the Qur’an is essentially the heart of Islam and the prime motivator for the Muslims, so it needs to be injected more into the dialogue and script. Also, I am  bit disappointed with their representation of the Jewish tribes…the portrayal is simply so confused that it seems quite unrealistic. Just my critique.

Now, the battle…let me begin by saying that the Battle of Badr sequence in this episode was one of the most realistic and profound representations of medieval warfare I’ve ever witnessed. Every swing of a sword and every movement has you on the edge of your seat…the bravery of ‘Ali, the valor of ‘Umar, the determination of Bilal are all portrayed brilliantly as if straight out of the Prophetic biography or the maghazi literature. The only other comparable scenes I’ve seen in non-Hollywood productions are the battle sequences from “Mongol”. Armor, weaponry, tactics, battlefield interaction…all done excellently! I think this is a huge step forward for Arab cinema and hopefully a sign of good epic productions in the future! I particularly liked the equal amount of attention given to many of the characters, and the ability of the director to emphasize ‘Umar’s contributions to the struggle against the Quraysh and his defense of Islam without overemphasizing it! ‘Ali, Hamzah, Bilal, Abu Bakr, and ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud are all given their fair share of screen time and Ali, in particular, comes into his own as a major figure in this episode. The actor’s elegance in carrying himself, his beautifully-recited Arabic, and his smooth handling of a sword all point to the fact that he was an excellent choice to play ‘Ali, the knight of Islam (as he is known in Muslim folklore). Again, I cannot emphasize enough how well this scene was put together…the soundtrack, acting, choreography, and the costumes/props make this one of the best battle scenes ever to be shown in an Arabic television series. I was especially delighted by the fact that they did their research and portrayd the leather armor, battle standards, and military tactics correctly. One slight inaccuracy, however, was the use of curved swords/scimitars, which were actually NOT used by the Muslims/Arabs until much later and were an influence of Persian and Turkish military culture. At this juncture, the Muslims would have used similar swords to the Byzantines of the time…which is to say, straight-edged swords. The sword of ‘Ali, Zulfiqar, would be the exception to this ofcourse.

The representation of the deaths of the major opponents of Islam and chieftains of Quraysh in this battle was also done rather well. To show Bilal killing Umayyah and ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud killing Abu Jahl was perfect, especially in light of the character developments and interactions shown in earlier episodes. Also, this happens to be exactly how the Prophetic biography and maghazi literature portrays these events. I really enjoyed seeing how the Quraysh went from an arrogant, powerful force enshrouded with song, musk, wine, and silk robes at the beginning of the episode to a defeated, leaderless retreating rabble by the end of it. It shows how powerful and transformative of an event this one battle was. I can say so much more but I’ll leave it there…this review is longer than usual as it is!

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5 Comments

  1. Mohammad Z Momin says:

    Thanks for the episode reviews, enjoying reading them, and also helps to somewhat understand the actual episode in Arabic after reading the review, due to my lack of knowledge of the Arabic language. I wanted to ask, din’t Imam Ali get the sword Zulfiqar at Uhad or atleast after the battle of Badr? or am I mistaken?

  2. fate7a says:

    Thanks for this review as usual Mohammad. I was actually going to comment on Dhulfiqar myself. While Shias believe that Imam Ali (a) got the sword in the Battle of Uhud, most Sunni historians believe that he got it in the Battle of Badr and that it was the former sword of Abu Jahl… so I thought it was interesting that even though the series is trying to be historical, it got this point wrong!

    I also wanted to say that I really agree that they’ve chosen a great actor for Imam Ali (a) and they’ve done a great job presenting him. All of the actors are really good actually. But one thing is Imam Ali is kind of old. Imam Ali (a) was quite young at this point… but he’s got grey hair already!!

  3. fate7a says:

    (BTW.. the history stuff is what my history teacher said…. but I haven’t personally researched it myself)

  4. ballandalus says:

    No problem! Yes, you are correct. It was just after Badr that he acquired it, but almost all depictions (even in the Message) show him as having it during the Battle of Badr. I guess it’s because it’s his identifying symbol.

  5. ballandalus says:

    I totally agree about the actor. Excellent choice, but a bit old! Even the other figures are all supposed to be in their prime (some will live all the way until the end of the 7th century!) but already look like they’re in their 50s or 60s! I guess it’s hard finding young Arabic-speaking actors who can pull off these roles,

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