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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 22

Synopsis: The episode begins in the Byzantine city of Antioch (in modern-day southern Turkey), where the Emperor Heraclius is being briefed on the situation in Syria, where between 10-20,000 Muslim soldiers have invaded. The emperor is told that the Muslims are traveling light and do not have any heavy weaponry. The Muslims, we are told, are also divided into four major armies. Heraclius lays out his strategy, based on the fact that the Byantines far outnumber the Muslims, of fighting each of the Muslim armies separately as opposed to having them all join forces and engage in one major battle.

In Medina, Abu Bakr is reading the report of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, commander of the army in Palestine, to the rest of the Companions. ‘Ali and Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas weigh in with their opinions (I won’t bore anyone by giving a detailed summary of military-related discussions). Finally, Abu Bakr decides that the best course of action is to have Khalid ibn al-Walid go from Iraq to Syria to command the overall forces (who were led by Amr ibn al-‘As, Abu Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah, Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl and Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan). Abu Bakr states that a single, major battle in Syria would break the power of the Byzantines there, which would allow the Muslims to focus their attention on Persia. Several of the Companions express apprehension about this plan, but are overruled by Abu Bakr who continues to explain why this is a superior strategy. He states that if the Byzantines, the most powerful kingdom on earth, were to suffer a defeat at the hands of the Muslims this would be a major victory (in real, as well as psychological, terms). Conversely, he says, if the Muslims were to lose, then the Persians would go on the offensive and the hearts of the Muslims would weaken. Thus, almost everything was at stake with the battle against the Byzantines. Umar agrees but questions how Abu Bakr could place Khalid at the head of the army, when it contained such illustrious, early converts as Abu Ubayda. Abu Bakr recognizes Abu Ubayda’s precedence and superior religious virtue, but asserts that in the matter of war there was no equal to Khalid ibn al-Walid. ‘Umar still looks defiant, but does not provide any response (thus, implicitly, agreeing).

In Iraq, Khalid is with his commanders laying out his plan for how they will cross the Syrian desert to link up their forces with the other Muslims in Palestine. The army then sets out and is shown riding in the Syrian desert. Meanwhile, the Muslim army is seen encamped at Yarmuk (near the modern-day Golan Heights) across the valley from a massive Byzantine force which is also encamped. A Muslim messenger sent by Khalid from Iraq then approaches Abu Ubayda and delivers a letter. The letter is explaining to Abu Ubayda that Abu Bakr has commanded Khalid to take his forces from Iraq to Syria, where he was to engage and defeat them at Yarmuk. Khalid recognizes Abu Ubayda’s superior status and, as such, felt the need to write to him before his arrival in order to inform him of the caliph’s commands. Abu Ubayda finishes the letter and turns to his commanders, telling him that the caliph’s orders will be followed (i.e. Khalid will be designated the supreme commander of the army). The second letter from the messenger is addressed to the general body of the army and Abu Ubayda tells the messenger to read it out to them, which he does. The letter urges the soldiers to stay firm and not lose heart.

In Medina, Abu Bakr, Uthman, and Umar are sitting and talking. Abu Bakr tells them that Khalid has crossed the Syrian desert in less than 5 days, a feat that normally required over two weeks to accomplish. They all praise God that He has brought this about. Umar then goes on to express his reservations about Khalid’s wisdom, telling the caliph that although he has succeeded in crossing the desert, his strategy was very risky and reckless, and placed the entire army in danger. He adds a few more critiques as well. Abu Bakr tells Umar not to be so harsh on Khalid. At this point, Abu Bakr tells Umar to go lead the people in prayers since he was too frail and sick to do so himself.

The next scene has the Muslim and Byzantine armies faced off against once another. The battle begins with the Muslims unleashing a volley of arrows into the Byzantine ranks and ‘Amr ibn al-‘As leading the cavalry charge. Khalid ibn al-Walid and Abu Ubayda then also lead their men into the Byzantine army. The scene then transitions into the next one with Heraclius expressing frustration at the defeat at the battle of Ajnadayn (634) in Palestine, which we just witnessed. He is baffled by the fact that the Byzantine forces stationed in Yarmuk remained encamped and did not set out to augment the forces at Ajnadayn.

Back in Medina, Abu Bakr is extremely ill and is on his bed surrounded by Ali, Umar, and Uthman. He tells them that he is on the verge of death and that he frees them all from their oaths to his command (as caliph). He urges them all to select an individual from among the Muslims who is most capable of administering their affairs. As they leave the house, ‘Umar walks speedily ahead of the rest and ‘Ali asks him where he is going in such a hurry. Umar responds that he wants no part of leadership and that the senior Companions should decide between themselves who should succeed Abu Bakr. The Companions return to Abu Bakr and tell him that he should designate a successor since they will not be able to do so themselves. Abu Bakr then proceeds to ask each of the Companions (‘Abd Allah ibn Abbas, Uthman, Ali) about what they think of Umar and they all respond with praise for his character and virtue. However, one of the Companions enters into Abu Bakr’s chambers and expresses major reservations about appointing ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab as caliph, since the latter was hot-tempered and rather strict in his understanding of Islam. Abu Bakr acknowledges that Umar was strict and harsh but insists that he is among the best of the Companions. He continues and says the Muslims need a leader like Umar, who had no attachment to this world, was absolutely firm upon the path of truth, and a devout follower of the way of the Prophet. The individual finally agrees with Abu Bakr.

The next scene shows Abu Bakr, in an extremely weakened state, standing in the middle of the mosque in Medina asking the Muslims whether they would approve if he appointed someone to succeed him as caliph and administrator of their affairs. They all express their approval. Abu Bakr continues and says that, with God as his witness, he has not selected anyone from among his relatives or someone unfit for the position; rather, he has chosen Umar ibn al-Khattab. Everyone expresses their approval and Abu Bakr returns to his house. Later, Umar is shown entering Abu Bakr’s house and expresses his shock that he consulted the people about this matter, but did not ask ‘Umar what he thought. ‘Umar insists that he does not want anything to do with political authority. Abu Bakr responds that, indeed, had he known that Umar sought such a thing he would never have appointed him as his successor. He tells him that this order will be implemented, whether Umar approves or not. Umar then sits at Abu Bakr’s bedside and the latter gives him advice and prays that he will be a good leader and just. He also prays that God will allow great victories and conquests to be manifested at his hand. He then advises him with regard to the Muslim armies in Syria and Iraq.

The next scene has Uthman in the mosque reading out Abu Bakr’s final will and testament in which the caliph proclaims Umar his successor. Uthman then calls upon Umar to step forward and extend his hand so that he may accept the oath of allegiance. With reluctance, Umar does so. Meanwhile, Abu Bakr is sitting inside his house on his bed when his daughter (and Prophet’s widow) Aishah walks in (neither seen nor heard). Abu Bakr tells her that she is the most beloved person to him and explains to her which of his assets will be given over to Umar, who would in turn transfer them to the Bayt al-Mal (the general property of the Muslims). Next, we see Abu Bakr passed away his deathbed surrounded by all the major Companions. Ali declares that “we are from God and to Him we return” and eulogizes the caliph, emphasizing his struggles in the path of truth, his justice, and his piety. Umar then asks ‘Ali whether they should bury Abu Bakr next to the Prophet as per his will; ‘Ali approves. The next scene has Umar sitting down after prayers and praying to God that He gives him the strength an courage to execute his function as caliph as well as he can. The final scene has Umar ascending the minbar in the mosque in Medina and preparing to give his first address to the people.

Review: I thoroughly enjoyed this episode! It deals, quite simply, with two key issues: the war against Byzantium and the succession to Abu Bakr. The representation of the reality of the war with Byzantium was done quite well I thought and the difference of opinion of Abu Bakr and Umar regarding Khalid ibn al-Walid are made even more evident. This was an important point which I was glad the episode highlighted. It was refreshing to see the reappearance of some of the Qurashi converts to Islam (such as Abu Sufyan and Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl) on the front-lines in Syria. Again, I thought it was a wise decision on the part of the director to show the scenes of the warfare in Syria interspersed with discussions in Medina to underscore the level of planning and coordination which went into these expeditions.

The succession issue was also portrayed very well, with close attention given to specific accounts in the classical sources over others (which is fine because, as mentioned before, the entire show is merely an interpretation). I appreciated how Umar completely backed down from the position of authority at first, but then realized that Abu Bakr’s decision had much wisdom behind it and the consensus of the vast majority of Companions. I was also grateful how they emphasized Umar treating his appointment as a massive burden of responsibility rather than as a reward, which underscores how this great man viewed leadership (esp. when compared with many later Muslim rulers up to our own time!). One thing I was also appreciative of was the central role which Ali plays throughout the episode.

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