“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 19

Synopsis: This episode begins by showing Sajjah in her hometown and provides some of her back-story. Although she resides among the Banu Taghlib (a Christian tribe) she herself seems to be a soothsayer-pagan type, who has a reputation for witchcraft among the people. The next scene goes to the settlement of Tulaiha al-Asadi (a false prophet in Arabia). One of the Arab delegations (‘Uyayna) arriving at his tent asks him if he is indeed a prophet who receives revelation, and he responds in the affirmative. When Tulaiha proceeds to recite a “revelation” (merely some poetry with convulsions), ‘Uyayna is unimpressed and tells him that he has seen similar things from sooth-sayers…he also says that Musaylima from central Arabia has also declared himself a prophet so there is no shortage of self-proclaimed holy men in Arabia. ‘Uyayna then goes on to tell Tulaiha that he has probably heard of the victories of the Muslims against the Ridda in northern-central Arabia. He says that Abu Bakr did not accept the compromise solution of the tribes not paying zakat, and so–as a result–‘Uyayna declares his intention to leave Islam altogether and regain the independence for his tribe which had existed before Islam. He asserts that he and his tribal allies were all prepared to recognize Tulaiha’s claim to prophethood and to join their forces with his to fight against the Muslims. The point, ‘Uyayna asserts, is that the truthful (claimant) will be distinguished from the false claimant on the day of battle. For their part, these Arab tribesmen seem prepared to join their fate with Tulaiha’s. The next scene returns to Sajjah, who is shown curing a man from epilepsy in front of the tribe. The scene is later revealed to be a set up by the man and Sajjah to convince the people of her “powers”.

In the next scene, the elders of the Banu Taghlib are discussing their political situation and are emphasizing how they are caught between the Byzantine-Sassanid strugle. Sajjah then shows up and derides these tribal elders and tells them that they have deprived the Banu Taghlib of its greatness and destiny. Sajjah tells them that they should pay attention to events in Arabia where a caliph has declared war upon most of the peninsula for having apostatized from Islam. She then tells the tribesmen that a competition for political authority is ongoing and Banu Taghlib should get involved. One of the elders asks her what she thinks they should do; Sajjah responds that they should place themselves under her authority and she will deliver them political dominion, underscoring that their fate lies neither with Byzantium nor Persia but with the Arabs. She suggests that the Banu Taghlib (between Iraq and Syria), Banu Rabi’iah, and Banu Tamim (from Najd) all unify into one political force under her sovereignty. She says that then they would proceed to annihilate the Islamic state in Medina, thereby securing for themselves dominion over all the Arabs. One of the tribesmen responds incredulously that the Arabs would ridicule them for being ruled by a woman…Sajjah responds that she is not any woman, but a prophetess who commands legions from the heavens. The next scene shows her, veiled and armed, leading the Banu Taghlib army while on horseback.

The next scene goes to the Muslim encampment with Abu Bakr addressing his various commanders/generals and laying out a general strategy for defeating the Ridda by going on the offensive. Khalid ibn al-Walid is appointed as the overall commander who would coordinate all the expeditions. Before setting out, ‘Umar approaches the commanders (many prominent Companions) and addresses them with a motivational speech, reminiscing how the Prophet had transformed Arabia from jahiliyya to Islam and reminds them all what they were fighting for. He then prays for their success before departing, but then turns back to warmly embrace his brother Zayd ibn al-Khattab before leaving once more. As he is walking, ‘Umar sees Wahshi near a tent and tells him that now is the time to prove himself and to fight in the way of God. As the armies of the Muslims and Ridda draw up for battle the voice of Ghassan Massoud is heard in the background reciting the letter which Abu Bakr sent to the Ridda tribes (under Tulaiha al-Asadi): “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. From Abu Bakr, the successor to the Messenger of God to the Arabs. I have sent you an army composed of the Muhajirun and the Ansar and I have commanded them not to fight until they have called you to the way of God; so whomsoever should accept their call shall not be harmed. On the other hand, if you should refuse then you will be fought.”

Behind the battle lines we see Tulaiha al-Asadi mumbling some words over incense and claiming he is on the verge of receiving revelation which would confirm the victory of his followers. ‘Uyayna looks uninterested and turns back to the affairs of the army. As both armies line up for battle formation, the numbers assembled are massive: thousands on each side. Khalid ibn al-Walid tells one of his commanders to call the athan, which the latter does. The other army refuses to respond in kind and maintains their battle formation, which Khalid (and his commanders) take to mean an insistence on battle. He then draws his sword, shouts the takbir and leads the army in the charge against the Ridda tribes. The battle is extremely brutal and Khalid is knocked off his horse but he continues to fight on foot with two swords drawn (his classical battle-stance). As the Muslims gain the upper-hand, some of the tribal contingents in Tulaiha’s army begin to retreat haphazardly. The rest of the army, including Tulaiha, follow suit and the Muslims declare victory. During the retreat ‘Uyayna is captured and brought before Khalid. The former tells the latter that he recognizes that the claims of Tulaiha are false. Khalid orders him sent to Medina as a prisoner and tells the army to pursue the rest of the Ridda tribes. In Medina, Abu Bakr is seen addressing ‘Uyayna and asks him what he should do with him. ‘Uyayna asks for mercy to be shown. He tells him that he sincerely repents from his apostasy and wants to rejoin the Islamic community. Abu Bakr turns to the major Companions who are assembled and asks if they accept this plea, and they all respond that they do.

The next scene shows Abu Bakr and ‘Umar discussing the strategy for suppressing the Ridda tribes, and the latter suggests directing Khalid ibn al-Walid towards Najd and the Banu Hanifa. Abu Bakr responds by saying that he would not do so until Khalid had secured his rear by bringing the Asad and Ghatafan tribes (under Tulaiha al-Asadi’s authority) into submission first. Abu Bakr expresses apprehension that the Banu Tamim will be a most formidable foe, as they their numbers and power are vastly increasing. The next scene goes to Najd to the Banu Tamim encampment. One of the emissaries of Sajjah is summoning one of the tribal chiefs of the Banu Tamim (Malik ibn Nuwayra by name) to meet his master, who he affirms is a prophetess who will effectively bring the Arabs under her dominion. Malik expresses skepticism, but nevertheless agrees to meet Sajjah. When he is brought to her presence, Malik demands to know what the evidence for her prophethood is; she responds that victory in battle will be her proof and affirms that thousands who had followed the Christian faith now follow her instead. Malik expresses interest in joining his forces with Sajjah’s but postpones his decision. Later, Malik’s wife Laila is seen rebuking him for even considering to place himself and his army under the authority of such a wicked woman. Laila explains that his decision to join his army with Sajjah’s and fight against the Muslims will only bring forth disaster. She implores her husband, without success, not to make this decision, but he already has his mind made up.

In Medina, Abu Bakr is outraged at the new development of Malik ibn Nuwayra’s alliance with Sajjah. He then consults with ‘Umar about how this affects the broader strategy of unraveling the broader rebellion in Arabia. Abu Bakr then explains to ‘Umar that the pride of these Arab tribes would not allow them to explicitly return to polytheism and as a result they have chosen to follow false prophets. Back in Najd, Malik ibn Nuwayra and his wife Laila are arguing, and she continues to implore him not to follow the “sorceress” Sajjah who will bring him to ruin; at this point Malik strikes his wife. Laila then declares to her husband that she is a devout Muslim, a follower of the Prophet, and she absolutely disbelieves in all the false prophets, whether Sajjah or Musaylima and vows to disassociate herself from all who follow the latter (even her husband). Malik, however, insists that only death will part them. Later, Malik is advising Sajjah about military strategy, explaining the implications of the recent victories of the Muslims in southern Arabia.  Also, much of Najd has surrendered to Abu Bakr, including the tribes of Asad and Ghatafan. Sajjah seems like she isn’t very interested in this warning and calls her army to mobilize for combat.

Review: This episode was quite interesting in many ways. I never expected so much emphasis to be placed upon the Ridda wars and I was pleasantly surprised that they did a good job providing specific background and detailed context regarding this major conflict in early Islam. I was quite satisfied with the way the Ridda was represented and, again, was glad that they showed that a variety of motivations animated the Arab tribes to rebel against Medina, and “Ridda” in this context refers equally to theological apostasy as well as a political break with the caliphate. Many viewers will certainly appreciate that the writers and producers brought all the major actors from the Ridda wars (Tulaiha, Sajjah, Musaylima, etc.) into the story and explained the various geographic and tribal scope of the events in question. The depiction of the organization of the Muslim army was done well and the representation of Abu Bakr and Umar following events in Medina accurately represents the complex reality in which much of the responsibility for prosecuting the war was in the hands of generals and commanders far away from the center of power; this throws into sharp relief the decision-making process of the early caliphate, which was less an organized state apparatus than it was a small centralized political body (Medina) with an army. The battle scenes were also, as always, evocative and entertaining to watch. I was delighted to see the scenes with Khalid ibn al-Walid in the midst of battle…his strength and courage are captured magnificently by the actor and the producers deserve additional praise for ensuring that the actors themselves (and not stunt doubles) were used in the battle scenes. This makes things a little more realistic for the viewer.

The representation of Sajjah was also another major positive aspect of this episode. The actress does a wonderful job playing the role of this historical figure and conveys both the confidence of Sajjah and her political abilities. Some may take issue with the overemphasis on Sajjah (as opposed to Musaylima for example), but I thought it was a good decision on the part of the writers/producers. I hope they wrap up the whole Ridda wars by the end of the next episode so as to devote enough time to ‘Umar’s caliphate. Although the Ridda wars are certainly an important point in early Islam and would shape the series of events to follow, the show claims to be about ‘Umar and should reorient its focus–at least in the last 10 episodes–on this figure. Below, I have included a map of the Ridda wars for all those interested.

One major critique I had of the this episode (and, more broadly of the show) is that there is a tendency to ignore certain characters at times in favor of others. For example, Abu Sufyan in Mecca is, for most viewers, an extremely interesting figure, especially considering his complex relationship with Medina and his rather unfriendly stance towards Abu Bakr. It would have been interesting if they had shown, briefly at least, what was going through his head while the Ridda wars were going on. Another key character (or, I should say, THE key character) who should have gotten more attention is ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. He was not only a major participant in the Ridda wars, but he was very often the voice of mercy and justice throughout the conflict, during which many lines were blurred (it is easy for us, living comfortably in modern times, to forget the harsh realities of warfare in the seventh century). His knowledge of tribes and his political astuteness would have also greatly assisted him in this task. One need also mention that his wife (the mother of his son Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah) was herself a captive from the Ridda wars, so his relationship towards the whole conflict is rather important. After the focus placed on ‘Ali in the previous episodes, it would therefore have been fitting to give him some additional screen time.




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