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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 20

Synopsis: The episode begins in the Muslim encampment with Khalid ibn al-Walid expressing anger and outrage that Malik ibn Nuwayrah (with his ally Sajjah) have waged war upon a smaller Arab tribe (adherents of Islam) and vows to kill Malik with his own hands, whether in battle or afterwards since he accuses Malik of deliberately waging war upon an innocent tribe. One of Khalid’s lieutenants warns Khalid that Abu Bakr had not given them the order to march against Malik or Sajjah, so they should not set out. Khalid agrees and stays put. The next scene shows Sajjah leading her armies towards a place known as al-Yamama and reciting war poetry to rile up her followers. At al-Yamama Sajjah and Musaylima (another self-proclaimed prophet), who is fortified in his castle, agree to negotiations and meet privately to talk. Meanwhile, Malik and his wife Laila are talking and he expresses concern that now he has become the ally of Sajjah, his fate is tied closely with hers. Laila tells him that he brought this mess upon himself and that sooner or later the “Successor to the Prophet” (Abu Bakr) and the “Sword of God” (Khalid ibn al-Walid) will deal with him. Malik rebukes her and asks if this is the manner in which she addresses her husband…she replies that as far as she is concerned, he is no longer her husband.

The next scene shows Sajjah and Musaylima in a tent talking, and Sajjah asks Musaylima to prove that he indeed receives revelation from God. He then recites a few couplets of poetry, which makes Sajjah laugh and declare that she is not so easily fooled. Musaylima then proceeds to offer her an alliance: a portion of the revenue of Yamama and his hand in marriage in exchange for her departing (with her army) back to her homeland. She agrees and the next scene shows her mustering the troops to withdraw from al-Yamama. Malik ibn Nuwayra is outraged and asks Sajjah about the agreement that existed between them. She responds that it has been nullified and that the Banu Tamim could not as they wished, as she was returning to the Banu Taghlib in Iraq. Malik expresses major frustration at this turn of events and worries that Khalid ibn al-Walid’s army will crush their (now rather small) force.

In the Muslim encampment, Khalid has made the decision to march out and engage the remnants of the RIdda in Najd. Some of his lieutenants tell him that he has no permission from Medina to do so, but Khalid responds that an opening/opportunity has opened up to crush several of the enemy armies, and he will not wait for a response or permission from Medina before setting out. His point is to underscore the fluidity of the situation and to emphasize his own authority as a military commander on the ground who was far more aware of the development of events than the leadership in Medina. The next scene shows Khalid’s army outside Malik’s encampment…the athan (call to prayer) is being declared (as mentioned last time, this was a signal to the opposing army to respond in kind as a means of repentance). One of Malik’s lieutenants implores him to respond to the athan, citing the fact that Sajjah’s large army has deserted them, but Malik is intransigent and refuses to surrender. He also says that he refuses to fight (or even flee), to the confusion of his lieutenant. A rather violent wind/sandstorm is ongoing, so one of the commanders on the Muslim side suggests that perhaps Malik’s army responsed with the athan but they did not hear. but the others in the army say that this is not the case. The Muslim cavalry then ride into the encampment and take everyone captive, including Malik himself.

Next, we see Khalid sitting in his tent with three of his commanders, who are all disagreeing about whether or not they heard the athan being called before they charged into the camp. Khalid looks quite exasperated and confused at this. One of Khalid’s commanders reminds him that, legally speaking, in cases of uncertainty the benefit of the doubt is given to the accused, therefore the Muslims should incline towards the opinion that Malik’s army did indeed respond with the athan. He also underscores how the army of Malik did not put up any resistance and surrendered immediately, suggesting that they did not seek war. Khalid tells his commanders that it seems they are making excuses for Malik simply because of his nobility and reputation among the Arabs. One of his lieutenants tells him that this is not the case at all. Rather, he continues, they merely want to ensure that justice is done and no blood is spilled unjustly. Khalid explains that this specific issue aside, Malik had refused to pay zakat, allied with Sajjah, and fought against the Muslim tribes of Banu Tamim…this, therefore, was sufficient grounds for his prosecution as an enemy. His commanders then suggest that he send Malik to Medina, where Abu Bakr will adjudicate the case and decide his fate. Khalid, clearly frustrated and feeling his authority challenged, insists that he will not refer every little matter back to the caliph in Medina, which was distant from the field of operations. The bickering continues but Khalid finally asserts himself and decides that he will make the final decision and the matter shall not be referred back to Medina. Khalid declares that Malik, who was responsible for the shedding of Muslim blood, should be killed for his crimes. He leaves the tent, with his commanders and lieutenants exchanging uneasy looks. Khalid then goes to Malik (whose hands are bound) and questions him. Malik insults Khalid’s status and asserts himself as being more noble (in tribal standing). Khalid continues to press Malik further, laying out his crimes: abandoned Islam, allied with Sajjah, fought against other Muslims, etc. He then asks Malik to lay forth his opinion about zakat. Malik says that, if the Muslims desire, he has no problem with prayers; Khalid sternly reminds him that prayers are laid down by God, and not the Muslims themselves. Malik continues and insists that he will never pay zakat, since it was his wealth to do with as he pleased. Khalid then tells Malik that there is no separating between prayer and zakat (since they appear side by side in the Qur’an)…Malik responds that that is indeed what “their companion” (i.e. the Prophet) used to say. Khalid is both offended and outraged at this characterization of the Prophet and orders Malik’s execution. One of the Muslim commanders (Abu Qatada) tells Khalid not to carry out this order, but the latter insists. The execution is not shown, but it is understood that it is carried out.

The next scene shows Abu Qatada in Medina, reporting to Abu Bakr about what had transpired with Malik and the Banu Tamim. He says that he implored Khalid not to execute Malik (an opinion shared by Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar) but the former refused to listen. Abu Qatada even insists that he heard the athan proclaimed from Malik’s army camp, but he was contradicted in this by other witnesses from the Muslim army. He then asserts that Khalid took the rather disturbing step of marrying the widow of Malik. Abu Qatada says that he was very shocked by this conduct and felt the need to return to Medina to report this to the caliph. Abu Bakr asks Abu Qatada whether the widow of Malik acquiesced to the marriage or not. ‘Umar, who is sitting next to Abu Bakr, is clearly outraged and interjects and says that it matters little, since she was considered a captive and her opinion either way would not have changed her fate. ‘Umar says this in the defense of Laila, not in order to justify the conduct of Khalid. Abu Bakr sternly asks Abu Qatada who granted him permission to leave the army and return to Medina. ‘Umar tries to speak in Abu Qatada’s defense, but Abu Bakr silences him. Abu Bakr tells Abu Qatada to return immediately to the army and not abandon his post again. Abu Qatada obeys and departs. ‘Umar asks Abu Bakr why he was so stringent upon Abu Qatada yet did not comment on the conduct of Khalid. Abu Bakr responds that he did not want to set a precedent which would encourage lieutenants and commanders to desert their posts in the midst of a war. He says that this would lead to the complete collapse of discipline within the army and the subversion of the chain of command. ‘Umar understands, but asks Abu Bakr what the fate of Khalid will be and whether he will be punished. Abu Bakr asks why he should punish Khalid. ‘Umar is surprised and tells Abu Bakr that Khalid deserves to be punished since he killed another individual (unjustly). Abu Bakr says he did not kill him without just cause, and enumerates Malik’s many offenses and crimes (including his apostasy and the shedding of Muslim blood). ‘Umar, however, remains unconvinced that this should have resulted in his execution. Furthermore, ‘Umar argues, Khalid had no authorization from Medina to attack Malik’s camp…Abu Bakr responds that it is impractical and unnecessary that his generals refer back to him with regard to every step they take. ‘Umar states that he firmly disagrees, and says that the actions of the generals reflect upon the leadership in Medina and, therefore, Abu Bakr is obligated to ensure that all his generals operate under an acceptable code of conduct. He then cites the words of the Prophet to the effect that a leader is responsible for his flock. Abu Bakr tells ‘Umar that with regard to worldly matters (government, decision-making) things are not as clear-cut as the permitted and the prohibited (al-halal wal haram) as laid out in the Qur’an. All men can do is judge to the best of their abilities, place their trust in God, and hope they come to the right decision. Abu Bakr then philosophizes some more about the nature of government and political theory. ‘Umar states that this is well and all, and Abu Bakr has his own opinions obviously, but this absolutely does not excuse Khalid from his reprehensible action, notably his marrying of Malik’s widow. Umar implores Abu Bakr to remove Khalid from his command. Abu Bakr strong disagrees with this opinion and asserts that he would never sheathe a sword that God had unleashed upon the disbelievers (a reference to the Prophet’s designation of Khalid as the “sword of God”). Abu Bakr asks Umar why he is being so stringent upon Khalid and wonders whether there is some old enmity between the two men that lingers on. ‘Umar states that he holds no grudges, but his only concern is the welfare of the Muslims. Abu Bakr states that his only concern is the welfare of the Muslims as well…and removing Khalid from his command would greatly harm their welfare by depriving them of their greatest general. Umar asserts that this is what he fears the most: that Khalid will be singularly identified with the success of the Muslim army, which would increase his own arrogance and sense of self-importance.

The next scene shows Khalid and his army at ‘Aqraba in central Arabia, with the letter of Abu Bakr to his general being voiced over by Ghassan Massoud. The letter is advising Khalid about how he should fight the Banu Hanifa, whose strength and resources are vast. We are then taken to the battlefield, where massive armies are assembled on either side. Musaylima leads the army of the Banu Hanifa and delivers a speech to his troops in which he tells them that everything is at stake in the battle and their honor is on the line. On the Muslim side, Wahshi is shown sharpening his spear. Khalid then rides out into the center between the two armies and puts forth a challenge to single combat. Musaylima sends out two of his best men, who approach Khalid (one with a mace and the other with a sword). Khalid fights with a spear and shield against the two opponents. He finally defeats them both, which prompts the Muslim army to erupt into shouts of “Ya Muhammad” (the slogan of the Muslim forces during the Ridda wars). Musaylima looks downcast and worried, and Khalid calls out to him that he has a chance to save himself and his people by entering into Islam. He tells Musaylima to acknowledge that he was deviant and that there is only One God and Muhammad is His Prophet. Musaylima responds by ordering his men into battle position, at which point Khalid draws his sword, proclaims “Ya Muhammad” and leads the charge. A barrage of arrows is unleashed from Musaylima’s army which cuts down many of the Muslim warriors. Several prominent Companions (including Abu Hudhayfa ibn ‘Utbah, ‘Abd Allah ibn Suhayl and Zayd ibn al-Khattab) are shown as being killed by Musaylima’s forces, who are both extremely well-trained and numerically superior to the Muslims. Although the charge has been stopped, Khalid bravely charges into the midst of the opposing army with the aim of killing Musaylima, but his spear throw narrowly misses, but this scares Musaylima enough to order a retreat back into the fortress of Yamama.

The Muslims pursue them to the walls of the castle, but are locked out. The Muslims take this opportunity to gather the fallen from the battlefield. Khalid bends over the dead body of Zayd ibn al-Khattab and prays that his martyrdom is accepted. He then goes to the body of Abd Allah ibn Suhayl and says that the Prophet loved him greatly and hopes that God accepts his sacrifice. Some of Khalid’s commanders ask him what course of action they will take against Musaylima and his army who are holed up in the fortress. One of the Muslim warriors suggests that he should be catapulted over the walls so he can open the gates for the rest of the army. Umm ‘Imara is shown on the battlefield mourning her son who has fallen; she herself has sustained several wounds during the battle. The episode closes by showing the Muslim army, organized in ranks, marching upon the walls of the fortress and raising ladders against the walls.

Review: This episode, which attempts to wrap up the major battles of the Ridda wars, was quite intense, despite the fact that it does not cover very much ground, as the Ridda wars are still ongoing. However, in the issues it raises and the development of the characters (and their relationship with one another), it was quite significant. From the outset, let me say that I was incredibly surprised that they covered the issue of Khalid ibn al-Walid’s misconduct (or “alleged misconduct” depending on which sources you believe) in such depth and with such frankness. In doing so, the producers and writers have shown their willingness once again not only to remain faithful to the classical sources and to to challenge their viewers, but also allow them come to their own conclusions. I thought the debate between Abu Bakr and ‘Umar about Khalid’s conduct and the nature of morality in political decision-making was extremely well-placed and very relevant not only to the story being developed, but also to a 21st-century audience. By representing this discussion faithfully (i.e. without introducing any anachronistic elements), I thought the writers did a very good job in underscoring both the contrast between Abu Bakr and ‘Umar and also highlighting the gravity of Khalid’s conduct. Khalid as well emerges as a very complex figure, whose increasing sense of his own importance leads him to make decisions which clash with the established opinions of the Muslims. I will not attempt to moralize, but I will say that this episode certainly underscored an important point: the humanity of the Sahaba, meaning their absolute fallibility and capacity to commit errors. Nothing brought this out more clearly than the discussion between Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. I applaud the producers and writers for their treatment of this sensitive issue and for refusing to shy away from potential controversy. And, without a doubt, the representation of the entire episode of Malik ibn Nuwayra is bound to attract major controversy!

The battle of ‘Aqraba was represented quite well, with the choreography and cinematography of the action sequences becoming even better as each episode passes. The scene of Khalid engaging two of the Banu Hanifah warriors was simply magnificent. With the battle scenes, there is very little attempt to glamorize warfare but, rather, there is an implicit critique of the nature of war and its tragic consequences throughout. This may not seem obvious to the casual viewer, but if one compares how this series has focused on the wounds of battle, the terrible violence involved during war, and the bloody consequences of combat in comparison with other Arabic-language series which have downplayed all these themes and have tended to portray warfare as a heroic feat, one will realize the extent to which this is the case. Particularly powerful, for me, was how the scenes of the death of each of the major companions (Zayd ibn al-Khattab, Abd Allah ibn Suhayl, Abu Hudhayfa ibn Utbah) were all shown in graphic detail and were clearly designed to emotially affect the viewer. These were all major characters of the series, who played a major role within the series of events from the beginning. Therefore, the viewer has developed a very close relationship with each of these characters and, thus, is doubly stunned when they are abruptly killed on the field of battle. It definitely throws the reality of war into sharp relief, and underscores the commitment of these men (and women!) to the cause of Islam.

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