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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 21

Synopsis: The episode begins by showing the assault of the Muslim army upon the walls of Musaylima’s fortress. One of the Muslims gets over the walls and throws open the gates to the rest of the army. The two forces clash inside the courtyard and the battle intensifies. On the battlefield, Wahshi seeks out Musaylima and fights his way towards him. He finds Musaylima and, aiming well, throws his spear with full strength at his opponent, killing him instantly. Wahshi celebrates this act, declaring that he killed “Musaylima the liar/false prophet” and the rest of the Muslim army are elated that their enemy has fallen. Wahshi is later seen telling himself that with his spear he once killed the best of men (Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib) and now with the same spear he killed the very worst of men (Musaylima)…this will now allow him to walk among the Muslims as everyone else, with neither shame nor glory. The next scene shows Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar reporting back to the caliph in Medina about the victory and the course of the battle, and praises the leadership of Khalid ibn al-Walid, without which the Muslims would not have been successful. In the next scene ‘Umar learns that his brother Zayd has been martyred in the battle, which greatly affects him. In Mecca, Suhayl ibn ‘Amr and his son Abu Jandal are mourning the death of Abd Allah, who was also martyred at the Battle of Yamama. Both scenes are extremely emotional and powerful.

Back in Medina, ‘Umar is telling Abu Bakr that as a result of the Battle of Yamama, many of the reciters/memorizers of the Qur’an were martyred and it is likely that many of the Companions who have the sacred scripture memorized would also perish in future battles. ‘Umar, therefore, suggests to Abu Bakr gather the fragments of the Qur’an (from the scraps of parchment, stone, and bone on which it was written; as well as from the memories of the Companions) and compile it into a singular book (mushaf). Abu Bakr asks how he can do something which the Prophet himself did not do. ‘Umar answers that this would be an important and good act. All the senior Companions who are present agree. Abu Bakr concurs and asks who he should appoint for the task. ‘Umar suggests Zayd ibn Thabit, a very important Companion who used to be the scribe of the Prophet, writing down the revelation.

The next scene shows ‘Uyayna, now a Muslim, talking with ‘Umar in Medina and telling the latter that Tulaiha al-Asadi and Sajjah have both abandoned their claims, returned to their tribes, and embraced Islam. ‘Uyayna then shows ‘Umar a land-deed which was granted by Abu Bakr, but would not be considered valid without ‘Umar’s approval. Umar looks at it and tears up the document, prompting protests from ‘Uyayna. Umar asserts that, on his watch, never will such massive amounts of land be granted to single individuals, especially when those individuals were undeserving of such grants. Later, ‘Umar enters into the council where Abu Bakr and other senior Companions are gathered and demands to know why Abu Bakr granted such a large amount of land to ‘Uyayna, especially since that land was the property of the Muslims and they were not consulted. Abu Bakr responds that he consulted the senior Companions; ‘Umar scoffs and says this is insufficient, as the land is the property of all Muslims and they all deserve to have their voices heard in this matter. Abu Bakr then stands up and speaks directly to ‘Umar telling him that he had informed him from the beginning that he was more qualified for the position of caliph but ‘Umar insisted that Abu Bakr should lead the community. ‘Umar replies that he made the right decision in allowing the best of men after the Prophet to lead the community.

The next scene has Abu Bakr holding up a rolled piece of parchment and stating that this was a letter from al-Muthanna ibn Harith al-Shaybani which describes the events of the Ridda in eastern Arabia, and the skirmishes with Persian forces in southern Iraq. Moreover, according to the report, Muslim forces were now operating against Persians in Iraq. The letter asks Abu Bakr to let him know what his next course of action should be. Abu Bakr puts down the letter and turns to the Muslims, asking them what they think should happen. ‘Ali suggests that Abu Bakr should assist al-Muthanna and send him aid against the Persians, especially since the latter were known to have ambitions within Arabia itself, and the other Companions concur. Ali continues and says that now is the time for the Muslims to take such a course of action, especially since the Arabian peninsula has all become Muslim following the defeat of the Ridda; he also says that the Muslim forces have gained massive experience in battle from the Ridda, which would serve them well in a war against Persia. ‘Umar agrees with Ali and adds that opening a front outside Arabia would direct the Arabs of the peninsula–who still held grudges against each other–against a foreign enemy while supporting the interests of Islam. ‘Ali stresses to Abu Bakr rather forcefully that now is the time to strike.

The next scene shows Khalid riding with his army with the letter of Abu Bakr being recited (voice-over), in which the caliph tells Khalid to open up operations in western Iraq against the Persians and lays out how he should conduct his war and how he should establish peace/surrender should the enemy wish it. Abu Bakr also stresses the rules of war and emphasizes that all non-combatants should not be harmed. He then tells Khalid to join his forces up with al-Muthanna and al-Qa’qa’, also operating in the area. The armies (Muslims and Persians) are then shown lining up on opposite sides at a place known as Kathema. The Persian infantry are seen as chained together (in ranks) and their cavalry are fully armored and prepared for battle. The Sassanian general then calls out to the Muslim army to send out their general to fight him. Khalid rides out and the two fight while on horseback, before both getting knocked off and continuing their battle on foot. Eventually Khalid defeats and kills the Persian general, but is surrounded by Persian troops who he proceeds to defeat with the assistance of al-Qa’qa’. The strength and bravery of the two men strike fear into the Persian army, who don’t like their prospects fighting against the Muslims. The Persian army begins to retreat chaotically and the Muslim cavalry pursue them, routing them completely. The next scene shows Abu Bakr in Medina (surrounded by Umar, Uthman, Ali, and other major Companions) reading aloud the report of Khalid who writes to the caliph informing him of the Muslim victory over the Persians at Kathema. While the report continues and speaks of another battle, scenes of warfare are shown on screen. The battle scenes are intense and Khalid is seen as fighting in the midst of battle with two swords drawn. At this point, Khalid writes, there were about three battles fought between the Muslims and the Persians. During the last battle, the Persians brought Arab troops to the battle, presuming that this would allow them to better fight the Muslims. Khalid says that the Persians were led by one of their mightiest generals: Bahram. In the end however, despite the odds, the Muslims were victorious. Khalid continues and says that they then met the Persian forces at Ulays, where the latter had gathered a massive force. He explains that the Muslims attacked the Persian encampment from all sides. He then declares that it was a major victory. In Medina, Abu Bakr and the rest of the Companions are satisfied with this report and thank God. Abu Bakr then proclaims the news loudly for all the people gathered around the mosque to hear.

Back in Iraq, Khalid and the rest of the army are on the banks of the Tigris river with some ships (which had been captured from the Persians) assembled. Khalid orders his men to embark, with their destination being al-Hira, a major Arab city in Iraq. The Muslim army then sets out to al-Hira, by river and by land. When they reach Hira, the Muslim army lines up in ranks outside in rows and Khalid prays to God for a victory. In Medina, Umar and Abu Bakr are talking, and Umar suggests that the spoils of war should not be divided equally, but that the early converts (Muhajirun and Ansar) should be entitled to more than those who converted upon the conquest of Mecca. Abu Bakr says that the reward of those early converts is in the afterlife and he will not divide the spoils unequally. The next day, Abu Bakr gathers together the prominent Companions in a council and seeks their advice in the matter of the conquest of al-Hira and the opening of a new front against the Byzantines in Syria. ‘Umar asserts that the conquest of Syria was foretold by the Prophet, who himself authorized several military expeditions in that direction (Mu’ta, Tabuk etc.), and, as such, it was a matter of great importance for the Muslims. Abu Ubayda says that the Byzantines have persecuted many Muslims within their territories and have killed several messengers sent from Medina (an act of war).  Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas tells Abu Bakr that if he decides to go to war with the Byzantines, he will need to mobilize the southern Arabian tribes from Yemen and bring them to Medina. Abu Bakr then turns to Ali and asks him his opinion on the matter. Ali responds that he views Abu Bakr’s perspective as just and blessed, and that if God wills the Muslims will be granted victory. The next scene shows Abu Bakr in the mosque of Medina announcing to the warriors that they will be setting out for Syria to fight the Byzantines. Bilal goes to Abu Bakr and implores the caliph to allow him to join the army in their expedition, to which Abu Bakr agrees after some hesitation.

Review: Overall, a good episode and a very good introduction to the beginning of the Islamic conquests outside the Arabian peninsula. I particularly appreciated how they linked together the end of the Ridda wars, the war against Persia, and the beginning of the conquest of Byzantium. I thought the scenes showing Suhayl mourning his son and ‘Umar mourning his brother were done exceptionally well and one can feel the emotion and tragedy of these events. Once again, the producers and writers make it a point to humanize each of the characters and to insist on showing the tragic consequences of war. Another major theme which is emphasizes in this episode is the major differences which exist between Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. I thought this was represented tastefully and accurately, since these differences are mentioned very clearly within the classical sources and would manifest themselves clearly when Umar became caliph and broke with some significant policies put forth by Abu Bakr. I was also pleased that this episode gave the viewer insight into the decision-making process of the early caliphate, whereby all the major Companions (Umar, Ali, Uthman, Sa’d, Abu Ubayda etc.) formed a consultative assembly which would advice the caliph on all major issues. The back and forth discussions and the reasoning given for each position put forth allows the viewer to appreciate the complexities of the situation which preceded the conquests and the mindset of many prominent Muslims in Medina at the eve of this transformative period.

Regarding the conquests themselves, I liked the idea of showing scenes of the battles interspersed with the correspondence of the generals back to Medina. In this way, the viewer can appreciate the specific development of events on the battlefields of Iraq, while also understanding that this was a broader effort coordinated (at least officially) from Medina. The battles, as usual, were done well and  Khalid’s character is developed further as the viewer begins to understand not only Khalid’s commitment to delivering victory in battle and ensuring the success of Islam, but also in underscoring his soldiers’ devotion and loyalty to their general.

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