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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 18

Synopsis: The episode begins with ‘Umar weeping and telling his family that the death of the Prophet has inaugurated a difficult period for the Muslim community, as evidenced from events earlier in the day, in which they will be tested and tried beyond measure. He says that while the Prophet was alive, he was the force which guided the Muslims to the right course of action. However, ‘Umar continues, with his death matters have passed into the hands of the Muslims themselves and they must adjudicate and decide the best way forward. This will prove most difficult and trying, ‘Umar insists, and their only guiding force will be their good intentions and their utmost desire for the welfare of the Muslim community. He emphasizes the concept of shura, or consultation, and explains how it will allow all the members of the community to weigh in on decisions and agree/disagree with each other until a resolution (with regard to any given issue) is arrived at. One of ‘Umar’s relatives weighs in and states that this concept is a good one, and one which would be counterbalanced by the Qur’an and the Sunnah, both of which would be absolute sources of guidance for the community. Following a comment from Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar about how voices were raised at Saqifah as a result of initial disagreements, ‘Umar explains the concept of shura in relation with that of ijma’ (consensus) and tells his son that one cannot hope to reach a consensus or agreement without dialogue and discussion in which all parties bring forth their evidence until all come to a final conclusion which is agreeable. He continues and asserts that no one is infallible (‘isma’) and that God will judge according to intentions and it is not for the Muslims to attempt to discern what exists within the hearts of others. He gives an example and says that if an individual speaks a word of truth, it is not fitting for the Muslims to accuse the individual of ill-intent and reject his words. He then declares, quite importantly, that the people will only begin to slander the Companions of the Prophet IF the latter are held to be over all the other people and considered to be infallible. His point is that the Companions are merely like all other people in that they make mistakes. However, he says, in the future a people will arise who harbor particular hatred for the Prophet and Islam and will slander the Companions as a means of undercutting the foundations of the faith. ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar adds that if the people recognize the Companions of the Prophet as prone to making mistakes at times, while being correct at other times then they will be able to excuse their shortcomings while praising their great decisions/deeds…just like with any other human being. It is only when the Companions are held to be far greater than others that problems will arise, as people will expect them to be far greater than any other human being and fault them even for the little things.

The next scene takes place in the mosque in Medina and has ‘Umar and Abu Bakr addressing the congregation. ‘Umar begins by telling the people that they heard what had transpired following the death of the Prophet (i.e. the events at Saqifah) and he wants to affirm to them that this course of events was neither ordained within scripture nor a trust established by the Prophet himself. Rather, ‘Umar continues, it was his own judgement which guided him and the spirit of the verse: “And thus we have made you a just (lit: middle/median) community that you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you” (2:143). He then states that he had believed that the Prophet would remain with his community until its destiny was firmly established, but, alas, he passed away, and it was left to the community to decide on their future course.  ‘Umar states that it is the Qur’an which the Prophet left as a firm source of guidance for the community which is the source from which the community’s decisions should be balanced against. He continues and says that there is no better qualified person to administer the affairs of the Muslims than Abu Bakr, who is mentioned in the Qur’an as the “second of two”  and who was the close Companion of the Prophet throughout his life…so they should give him the oath of allegiance. At these words, the congregation approaches Abu Bakr and gives him their pledge. Abu Bakr then gives his speech: “Praise be to God, who guided us to this [truth], and we would not be guided unless God guided our hearts to it.  Now, O people, I have been made your ruler, though I am not the best among you. If I do what is right, support me. If I do what is wrong, set me right. Follow what is true, for it contains faithfulness; avoid what is false, for it holds treachery. The weaker among you shall in my eyes be the stronger, until, if God wills, I have redressed his wrong; the stronger in my eyes shall be the weaker, until, if God wills, I have enforced justice upon him. Let the people cease not to struggle in the way of God, lest God abase them; let not evil practices arise among the people, lest God bring punishment upon all of them. Obey me as I obey God and His Messenger; if I disobey them, then disobey me!” He ends his speech by calling them to prayer.

Back in Mecca, Abu Sufyan is sitting with ‘Ali and al-‘Abbas and is expressing his outrage at the confirmation of Abu Bakr as the successor to the Prophet. His main grievance is that Abu Bakr comes from one of the lesser tribes of Quraysh: Taym. Abu Sufyan then vows to support ‘Ali with all his resources and manpower against Abu Bakr. ‘Ali, absolutely shocked, suddenly gets up and powerfully tells Abu Sufyan that the latter’s intentions are purely to create divisions between the Muslims and that his heart is still weighed down by jahiliyyah. ‘Ali tells Abu Sufyan that tribes no longer have any value and they have all been made equal, as the Prophet said: “All people are from Adam, and Adam was created from clay”. Yet, ‘Ali continues, Abu Sufyan stands there and talks about “Taym” and “Abd al-Manaf” as if these tribal issues carried any weight.  Ali reminds Abu Sufyan that Islam has been sent as a religion to all people.  He then moves on to discuss the issue of succession to the Prophet and says that if he didn’t consider Abu Bakr as having qualification/legitimacy for the position of caliph, then he would not have left him alone (i.e. he would have openly challenged him), for ‘Ali is not the type to be quiet in the face of injustice. Abu Sufyan then asks, quite underhandedly, whether ‘Ali isn’t more qualified/legitimate to be the successor to the Prophet since he was his closer relative (cousin) and son-in-law? ‘Ali responds that the Prophet was a Messenger of God and not a worldly king, and he vows that he will not separate from the body of Muslims at a time when they are most in need for unity. He stresses that the Arabs have apostatized from Islam and he (Ali) will not simply sit in his house while the rest of the Muslims defend Islam and put down the rebellions of the Arabs. Ali then departs, but al-‘Abbas looks disappointed at ‘Ali’s response and looks at Abu Sufyan before departing as well.

When Ali gets to Medina, ‘Umar asks him what has delayed him from pledging his allegiance to Abu Bakr and tells him the people have begun to talk. ‘Ali, who is frowning, tells him that he was busy with the preparation and burial of the Prophet and that his wife (Fatimah) was quite distraught over the death of her father so he was comforting her. ‘Umar tells him not to be worried and that, thank God, matters have settled down for the best interests of the Muslims. ‘Ali then enters the mosque and tells Abu Bakr (who he addresses as “khalifat Rasul Allah”) to extend his hand so that he can pledge his allegiance. Abu Bakr does so and ‘Ali contracts the oath. The next scene shows Bilal proclaiming in the streets of Medina that the caliph has declared that the army of Usamah ibn Zayd would be sent to Syria, as commanded by the Prophet. ‘Umar is seen questioning Abu Bakr’s wisdom of sending out the army of Usamah at a time when the Arabs have apostatized and pose a major military threat to Medina. Umar suggests that the army, which contains some of the best warriors of the Muslims, should rather be kept in Medina and used to defend the city in case of attack. Abu Bakr says that he shares some of these concerns, but nevertheless will send out the army of Usamah as commanded by the Prophet even if that means that Medina will be completely emptied of fighting men…he then asks Umar if his words are clear enough. Next, ‘Umar tells Abu Bakr that some men in the army have asked him to request that an older individual than Usamah be appointed to lead the army (Usamah at this point is 17 years old). Abu Bakr is angered at this and responds harshly to ‘Umar then firmly asserts that the Prophet himself appointed Usamah, how can Abu Bakr dare to appoint anyone else?!

Meanwhile in Mecca, at the Ka’ba, a speaker is addressing the crowd and telling them that now that Muhammad is dead they have every right to revert back to their previous way of life and owe no oath of allegiance to Medina. Suhayl ibn ‘Amr then appears and tells the speaker to be silent. He ascends the steps of the Ka’ba and addresses the crowd as follows: “O people of Mecca. Do not be the last of those who accepted Islam, but the first of those who apostatize.  By God, this matter (i.e. Islam) will be fulfilled as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has promised! O People of Mecca, where is the pact with God? Is it not enough for you what you have lost and committed before your turn towards Islam? And was not Muhammad the best of creation and  Messenger who advised his community and left it upon the clear, correct path? Did he not, also, make you bear witness to the truth and make you vow that you will testify to that very truth after he passes? By God, Islam will reach the furthest East and furthest West…so let not a hypocritical people who view this faith as merely a trade and worldly matter turn you away from the truth! Verily, the closest of you to the Prophet are not those from his tribe, but those who follow his example and maintain his religion!” After his speech, Abu Jandal tells his father that the Prophet had foreseen that Suhayl would be such an asset to the new faith and speak powerfully in its favor.

The next scene shows Bilal, Umar, and Abd Allah ibn Suhayl talking in Medina about various issues within the Muslim community, notably the foresight of the Prophet with regard to Suhayl ibn ‘Amr. Wahshi then walks towards them…Bilal looks surprised and asks him what he is doing in Medina. Wahshi tells Bilal that his spear (which he holds up) brought a whole world of blame down upon him and he wishes to attempt to make right his wrongs by that very same spear by fighting with it in the way of God.

In the mosque of Medina, several tribal delegations are addressing Abu Bakr. These tribal chiefs are explaining to the caliph that they did have not abandoned Islam like the other tribes, but insist upon maintaining their revenue for themselves. They say that they offered alms and zakat (obligatory tax) to the Prophet when he was alive, but now they refuse to pay it to Abu Bakr (in his capacity as caliph) or to anyone else. Abu Bakr then asks that they deprive him of that which was due to the Prophet and asks for their proof/reasoning. Abu Bakr raises the question of how he can truly be the successor of the Prophet if he does not also administer the wealth of the Muslims and collect the zakat, which was a divine commandment. He also asserts that nothing about Islam has changed now that the Prophet has died, since God’s commandments are eternal. Abu Bakr asserts that he refuses to distinguish between prayer and zakat…because that would lead to following some parts of the Qur’an, while disbelieving in other parts. He says that the commandments of Islam are all one, solid unit so if one is abandoned, the rest will crumble. By God, he declares, all these tribes will continue to pay zakat and give their dues to Medina as in the time of the Prophet or they will face the consequences. Forcefully, he commands them to depart back to their territories. Following their departure, Abu ‘Ubayda and another companion suggest that Abu Bakr reconsider his stance and tell him that they need all the allies they can get in the face of an increasingly violent apostasy in Arabia. Abu Bakr angrily responds that they weren’t paying attention to what he told the tribesmen. ‘Umar asserts that they did hear what was said, but they think it wise not to cause conflict with those tribesmen and focus on the larger problem at hand (the apostasy of the larger tribes), especially in light of the fact that Medina was indefensible in the absence of the army of Usamah. Abu Bakr again states that the zakat is part of the faith and he will not abandon this right of the Muslims (to this revenue). ‘Umar, calmly, tells the caliph that fighting against these tribesmen poses another problem since they did not leave Islam outright as the other tribes, and the Prophet himself asserted that he “I was commanded to fight all people until they declare the Oneness of God…and he who declares this Oneness is safe”. Abu Bakr reminds Umar that these tribesmen, by refusing to pay zakat and by distinguishing between prayer and zakat, have done a massive injustice and that Abu Bakr would fight to ensure that zakat would continue to be paid to Medina, as it was at the time of the Prophet. After a bit more debate, he finally convinces ‘Umar and the others that this is the right course of action and they all agree.

Small Muslim cavalry groups are then assembled, one under the command of ‘Ali and the other under the command of Abu Ubayda, and take to the field. They encounter a vastly more numerous force of the Ridda (apostate) tribes. Ali leads the charge of the Muslims against the other army and they clash. As the fighting intensifies, the camera focuses on Abu Ubayda, ‘Ali and Bilal as they engage the enemy in the middle of the battlefield. A final, surprise cavalry charge from the Muslims disperses the opposing army and ‘Ali proclaims the victory takbir. Following the victory over the Ridda, many delegations are sent to Medina with the zakat and sadaqah from the tribes…underscoring that the defeat of rebellious tribesmen showed the rest of Arabia that Medina under the caliphate of Abu Bakr was a force to be reckoned with. One of the tribesmen who has come to Medina to render the zakat warns Abu Bakr that, although much of the apostasy has died down, there remains a hardcore group of tribesman gathered around Musaylima and Tulayha al-Asadi (both self-proclaimed prophets)…Abu Bakr vows to deal with them in time. At this point, Khalid ibn al-Walid and Usamah ibn Zayd both return from their Syria expedition.

In the mosque of Medina, Abu Bakr is updating the Muslims about the progress of the Ridda wars against the rebellious tribes. Abu Bakr then solemnly states that the rebellion in the Najd region of Arabia has intensified and that he will personally take charge of the army and wage war against those tribesmen. Usamah ibn Zayd is then appointed as the governor of Medina in his absence. The people implore Abu Bakr not to set out on the expedition himself, for fear that he would be injured or killed. Both ‘Umar and ‘Ali join in the chorus and ask Abu Bakr to reconsider his decision. Abu Bakr asserts that by God he has his mind made up. The next scene shows a massive Muslim army led by Abu Bakr assembled in north-central Arabia (Abu Ubayda, Ali, Umar, Bilal are all shown to be in the army). On the other end, outnumbering the Muslims at least 4-1, are the tribesmen of Tamim and others. The Muslims then charge their opponents amidst loud cries of the takbir. The battle is exceptionally intense and brutal. After the enemy general is killed, the opposing army disperses and the Muslims declare victory. Later in the evening, when the spoils are being gathered, a small group of enemy chieftains (with their soldiers) turn themselves in to the Muslim camp and ask for safety. When they are granted an audience with Abu Bakr, they assert that they were wrong about the zakat issue and vow to continue to send to Medina what they were accustomed to do when the Prophet was alive. The next scene, right before the episode closes, goes to the tribal lands of the Banu Taghlib and shows the self-proclaimed prophetess Sajjah…before the credits appear

Review: If one word can sum up this episode, here it is: wow! Despite all my apprehensions, the series of events between the confirmation of Abu Bakr as caliph and the outbreak of the Ridda wars was represented as faithfully as one could have hoped onscreen. The dialogue has gotten far more sophisticated, each of the characters have acquired more depth , and the battle scenes continue to impress! The opening sequence which shows ‘Umar reflecting upon Saqifah and laying out his ideas of shura and ijma’ was rather well done and provides the interpretative lens through which the audience can view the series of events which took place in the previous episode and (presumably) all subsequent episodes. By underscoring the status of the Companions as blessed by the company of the Prophet (and confirmed in their faith by the Qur’an itself), but nonetheless as fallible human beings, the scene seeks to make a proclamation directly to modern audiences about how a representation and reconstruction of events following the death of the Prophet should be understood. Clearly, in the opinion of the writers/producers, the Companions are all simply human beings, who err at times and who are correct at other times, and their actions and decisions should be interpreted in this light. As I said before, this is their particular interpretation (and I will not say whether I agree or disagree) and I appreciate it for what it is.

The scene in the mosque with people giving the bay’ah to Abu Bakr was another scene which I thought was done exceptionally well, and which I believe was extremely important to include. By underscoring how the bay’ah was neither ordained in scripture nor a explicit proclamation of the Prophet (in the same manner as Shi’ites claim for ‘Ali), the producers/writers emphasize how the matter of leadership was a communal issue. Ofcourse, this does not mean that the office of caliph was not imbued with religious importance; quite the contrary as the remainder of the episode demonstrates. However, it emphasizes that the new order which emerged following the death of the Prophet was entirely forged by the Muslim community itself, independent of the Prophet who did not appoint any successor or concern himself with such matters. Ofcourse, voices of opposition will be raised to this characterization from ALL sides (Sunnis, Shi’ites, Sufis, Ibadis, etc.) but, again, I recognize this simply as the interpretation of the writers of the series. In many ways, I can even appreciate the message being conveyed: following the death of the Prophet, the Muslim community was left to fend for itself and survive, taking the Qur’an as its guide. In some sense, this message is extremely relevant to Muslims in the 21st century. For a modern audience, this relevance is far more important than the specific theological-political ramifications of Islamic political theory can ever convey. The speech of Abu Bakr was also quite touching and was taken, word for word, from the established classical sources. The character’s leadership qualities emerge seamlessly throughout the episode.

The scene of the exchange between Ali and Abu Sufyan was extremely powerful. Many will protest against its inclusion for various reasons, but for me the scene captured several important themes. Firstly, it showed Abu Sufyamn who, although Muslim, was still operating under a set of political and social assumptions which had existed in jahiliyya. Secondly, it shows the absolute moral character of Ali, who places the Muslim community at the forefront of his concerns and above even his aspirations to lead the Muslim community. By refusing the aid of Abu Sufyan, Ali is shown as an incorruptible spirit whose love for the Muslims and Islamic unity is absolute. It is also implied, obviously, that Ali was extremely upset that the matter of the Muslims’ political affairs was settled in his absence, as he obviously felt entitled (at the very least) to be consulted about such a major issue. The final thing this scene seeks to convey is that there were several members of the Banu Hashim (especially al-‘Abbas) who felt entitled to a share of power following the death of the Prophet and were disappointed with ‘Ali’s decision not to challenge the legitimacy of Abu Bakr. Again, this brings issues back to the tribal context in which all these events are occurring. The scene of Umar approaching Ali about the lateness of his coming to pledge allegiance and ‘Ali’s stern response to the former was also done well in a way that highlights Ali’s lingering disappointment with the way events played out. The scene of the oath to Abu Bakr itself was done wonderfully and could not have been better. ‘Ali comes off as not only honorable but also as one of the most sincere personalities within the entire series. This is not surprising as history itself testifies to this uprightness of character and absolute moral rectitude. Historically-speaking, these scenes were extremely accurate and faithful to the historical record. I am very glad they decided to ignore the polemical representations of these events (where Ali and Fatimah are physically attacked [!!] and forced under compulsion to render allegiance) on one hand, and the apologetic representation (where ‘Ali rushes to Saqifah to pledge his allegiance) on the other. As many historians (Muslim and non-Muslim) and scholars have shown, those accounts are completely fabricated and date from  much later in Islamic history (when Sunnis and Shi’ites were at each others’ throats, figuratively and literally!) and seek to satisfy sectarian and political agendas far removed from the reality of the Muslim community in Medina in 632.

The scene of Suhayl ibn ‘Amr in Mecca convincing the people to remain faithful to the religion was also done excellently and was a major contrast to Abu Sufyan. This scene was an attempt to demonstrate to the viewer that one cannot generalize with regards to the Quraysh following the conquest of Mecca. Yes, some of the old elite still maintained their old tribal mindset, but others quickly became champions of the new religion, as predicted by the Prophet. Another major scene which I found to be quite striking was the decision of Abu Bakr to send the army of Usamah ibn Zayd to Syria. This was literally taken right out of the classical accounts and everything, from Abu Bakr’s words to his firm response to ‘Umar can all be found–word for word–in Tabari’s great chronicle. I particularly liked how they underscored Abu Bakr’s firm desire to establish continuity with the Prophet’s policies in Medina and implement his final commands and wishes. This also transitions neatly into the scene with the tribal delegations who assert their refusal to pay zakat. Abu Bakr’s strong response and the detailed reasoning and debates presented within the episode shows that the directors/producers take their audience extremely seriously and do not shy away from presenting them with potentially controversial material. At the end of the day, it is for the audience to appreciate the decisions and actions of each character. This scene also captured rather powerfully Abu Bakr’s full development as a character and shows that his role as caliph was accompanied by a sternness and dedication which was not at all evident in earlier episodes. Ghassan Massoud (the actor) does a magnificent job bringing this all out. This scene, like the one focusing on the Syrian expedition, shows that Abu Bakr was insistent that the caliphate stemmed from the Prophet’s authority and was a continuation of his policies in upholding the social, political, and religious structures of Islam. The zakat issue was therefore not a minor point of contention, but essentially tied to the broader question of Muslim unity and the role of the caliph as head of the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet.

Overall, the treatment of the beginning of the Ridda was excellent and the battle sequences were stunning. The tactics, armor, weaponry, and choreography of the battles were all conveyed very accurately. I thought it was important that they showed many of the prominent companions as taking part in the expeditions to show that this was a massive effort on the part of the Muslim community to bring back the rebellious tribes into the sphere of Medina. I appreciated, in many ways, that they explained that many of the tribes were merely rebellious (having refused to pay zakat) while others were outright apostates, following false prophets like Tulayha al-Asadi and Musaylima. In this way, the series maintains its credibility and accuracy. I can’t wait to see the next few episodes!

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