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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 23

Synopsis: The episode begins with Umar ascending the minbar/pulpit of the mosque in Medina and taking two steps down, stating that he is of a lower rank than Abu Bakr (when Abu Bakr became caliph he took one step down, citing that he was not on the same level as the Prophet). He opens his speech by giving praise to God and reciting the blessings upon the Prophet, and begins eulogizing Abu Bakr. He states that in Abu Bakr’s wisdom and righteousness, one is hard pressed to emulate his example and the task of succeeding him is a heavy burden to bear. He continues and states that he is merely a man from among them and his desire not to violate the wishes of Abu Bakr was the only reason he accepted to be caliph. Umar continues and starts explaining that he knows people fear his strictness and uncompromising nature. He goes on to state that the people claimed that Umar was harsh towards them even when the Prophet and Abu Bakr were alive, so, they ask, how much stricter will he be now that he has become their ruler? Umar assures them that, as ruler, his strictness will be moderated by his leniency, except against those who perpetrate injustice. He then says: “O people, it is your duty, if I show certain evil qualities, to reprove me for them. You must see that I do not exact from you any tax or anything of what God has given you, except that which He allows. You must see that when I have control of the wealth [of the Muslims], nothing should be spent improperly. You must see that I do not keep you too long in posts of danger, or detain you unreasonably on the frontiers; for when you are away on military service, I must be the father of your families.” He emphasizes that he expects them to keep him in check and correct him if he should go astray. Following this speech, he introduces al-Muthanna ibn Harith to the congregation and explains the dangerous situation in Iraq to everyone. ‘Umar then urges people to volunteer for military service (jihad) in Iraq to fight against the Sassanids. No one responds or steps forward.

The next scene shows Umar asking Ali why no one answered his summons for jihad. Ali responds that many of the Muslims are fearful of the dangers of fighting the Persians, due to their numbers and power. Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas adds that they would be far more willing to volunteer for the war against Byzantium because the battlefield there is better known to them and the general (Khalid ibn al-Walid) is from among their own, whereas al-Muthanna is a foreigner and not a Companion of the Prophet. He also suggests that some of the men believe that victory can only be granted if the army is led by Khalid. Umar is outraged at this and asserts that only God grants victory, not the Ibn al-Walids and Ibn al-Khattabs of this world. Ali calms Umar down and advises him not to push people on this matter, since harshness is not the best way to begin his rule. Umar answers that, as always, he will heed Ali’s advice. Next, we see Umar writing a letter to Abu Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah in Syria telling him that Abu Bakr has passed away and that he (Umar) has become the caliph. He continues and asserts that, with his authority, Abu Ubayda is now the supreme commander of Muslim forces in Syria. He further writes that he has not removed Khalid ibn al-Walid (from the position of supreme commander) due to any hatred for the man, but only because he has the interests of Muslims at heart.

In the next scene, Umar has all the major Companions gathered and is explaining to them the importance of the concept of shura (consultation) in his view of government. He emphasizes that this concept is rooted in the Prophetic example, where he consulted his closest Companions on issues relating to worldly and governmental matters. Umar suggests that the power of consensus and consultation is such that it minimizes the committing of errors since all human beings are, by nature, fallible. This system allows each of them to keep the others in check and for all of them to ensure that the ruler behaves and rules according to what is best. Umar underscores that this is the nature of his political contract with the Muslims, i.e. one based on mutual consultation and consensus. He then moves on to the first matter of discussion, which is the issue of al-Muthanna and the war in Iraq…he asks the Companions to bring forth their opinions about why no man has stepped forward to volunteer. Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas responds that he has already heard Ali’s advice in this regard and that it seems that most people fear to fight against the Persians. One Companion suggests that, although Abu Bakr forbade it, it would be advisable to integrate those former Ridda tribes (who had now repented) into the Muslim army and use them in the conquests. Ali wholeheartedly agrees and says that it is only just that these people be brought into the fold of the Muslim community and that they contribute to the efforts against both Persia and Byzantium. His suggestion is met with wide approval.

In Syria, Khalid and ‘Amr ibn al-‘As are discussing military strategy against the Byzantines and the former is expressing anxiety that the Byzantine forces have diversified their tactics and augmented their numbers. Before departing, Khalid asks Abu Sufyan (serving as a minor commander in the army) how he’s feeling about everything. Abu Sufyan responds that he finds it incredible that, in the times of jahiliyya, the Quraysh would come to Syria as mere traders and had no assurance for their own safety, and would be disparaged by the Byzantines as nothing but a petty people. He continues and says that these same merchants (referring to himself) would go back to Arabia and fight the Prophet, even as he called them to truth and promised them that they would conquer Byzantium. He excitedly adds that today the Arabs are all standing together in a mighty army on the verge of realizing that promise, and he expresses his wonder at how different the present is from the past. Suhayl ibn Amr, Khalid, and Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl all agree with these sentiments.

The next scene shows Umar sending al-Muthanna back to Iraq and reassuring him that reinforcements will be sent shortly. al-Muthanna responds by saying “We hear and obey, O Commander of the Believers (Amir al-Mu’mineen)”. Initially, Umar is outraged by this title, feeling that it overglorifies him but the rest of the Companions agree to its usage and he, reluctantly, acquiesces. In the following scene, we see Umar having all his sons gathered before him in his house at night. He tells them that they may think that because their father is the caliph, they will expect better treatment or some form of privilege. Umar insists that not only behave as upright individuals, but if they should commit a sin or injustice, he will have no hesitation in carrying out the prescribed punishments against them, regardless of the fact that they are his children. He asks firmly if they understand; they respond in the affirmative.

Meanwhile, back on the Syrian battlefront, the captions remind us that the year is 636 and Khalid ibn al-Walid and the other military commanders are discussing the particular strategies against the Byzantines. Khalid expresses optimism that the factors of the battle are in their favor, despite the overwhelming numbers of the Byzantine army. The next scene goes to Yarmuk where massive Byzantine army is assembled opposite a smaller, but substantial, Muslim force. Khalid gives his motivational speech and tells his troops that the entire battle for Syria is at stake with this one battle and that they should all hope for victory or martyrdom. While on the frontlines, Abu Ubayda then receives a message from a courier. He opens the letter, declares “la hawla wa la quwatta illa billah” and tells the courier not to spread the news to anyone. Abu Ubayda then places the letter in his garments and goes back to the matter at hand (the battle). Abu Sufyan is then shown at the encampment of the Muslims (far behind the army) and tells the women there that if they see any of the Muslims fleeing the battle that they should pelt him with stones until he returns to the fight.

At Yarmuk, the battle begins with the Byzantines launching several volleys of arrows at the Muslims, killing many of them and injuring Abu Sufyan in the eye. The Byzantines then launch a massive cavalry and infantry charge at the Muslims, who respond with a similar charge led by Khalid ibn al-Walid and ‘Amr ibn al-As. The battle is extremely brutal with massive casualties on both sides. The Byzantines begin to overwhelm the Muslims, many of whom begin to retreat. However, as they reach the encampment, the women–led by Hind–begin to pelt them with stones and mock them for their cowardice. Seeing the retreat, Umm Amara takes a sword from one of the fallen Muslims and rushes the Byzantines, killing several of them. Many of the other women follow suit and take up arms, stopping the Byzantine advance. This allows the main body of the Muslim army to regroup and launch a major cavalry charge against the Byzantines, which cuts straight through the latter’s army and disperses their troops. Khalid ibn al-Walid is seen fighting on foot, single-handedly fighting many Byzantine soldiers, eventually killing their general. This prompts a victory cry from the Muslim army and strikes fear into the Byzantines, who begin to retreat. The battle ends in a complete rout of the Byzantines and a massive victory for the Muslims.

Review: This episode was simply excellent. Not only did they cover much ground, covering a  period of over two years, but they did so in a way which explained the various developments occurring during this time. The portrayal of ‘Umar’s dealing with his newly-acquired responsibility was done quite well. I really enjoyed seeing the mix of his humility, firebrand nature, and his staunch desire to be just and upright come together on screen. The actor playing ‘Umar does an excellent job bringing all these elements to the fore. I particularly appreciated the emphasis on the concepts of shura and ijma’, both of which were key elements of Umar’s caliphate, and how these were explained to the audience in detail. I feel that it is important for a modern audience to understand that the notion of centralized, absolute leadership did not exist during the time of the Rashidun and that this consultative structure in which the caliph was a primus inter pares (first amomg equals) was the system that was in place. It was particularly refreshing to see each of the major Companions be given adequate screen-time and an important role in this episode, especially as advisers to the caliph. Ali, especially, strikes me as one of the most interesting characters since he is often the Companion who keeps Umar in check and who serves as his most trusted adviser. I feel that, overall, the episode conveyed quite well Umar’s commitment to upholding justice as ruler of the Muslim community and the scene with him warning his sons that their punishment for any transgression would not be lesser than that for any other individual was a telling example of that. The developing story of Umar’s concern about the growing influence of Khalid ibn al-Walid, especially regarding the perception of his importance among many Muslims, also greatly intrigued me and I’m curious to see where they take this angle.

The scenes in Syria leading up to the battle with the Byzantines were also very well-executed. They conveyed the excitement, emotion, and fear of all the Muslims on the frontier with Byzantium quite well. I think they could have done a better job showing the harsh conditions in which the Muslim soldiers and generals had to tolerate since they had been on that frontier for over two years! Abu Sufyan’s transformation, from a cunning new convert who was still attached to the new order to a man who now recognized the change brought by Islam, was also refreshing and added a certain amount of depth to his character. I liked how they devoted a substantial amount of energy and time to the moments before the battle, where the Byzantine force is seen as amassing and the Muslims are shown as fearful. In this battle, the odds were about 5-1 (according to historical accounts; Muslim traditional accounts put it at 100-1 but that is unlikely) so one can imagine the psychology for many of the Muslim soldiers. I know I’ve gone to great lengths to emphasize this point in the past, but I’ll say it again: the Byzantine costumes/armor/tactics are shown COMPLETELY wrong. I really wish that the makers of this extraordinary series would have made some efforts to do their research in this regard. If anyone wants more details about what I mean, I’ll elaborate but check my earlier reviews as well.

The battle itself was, in a word, awesome! The emotions, brutality, and events of the battle were all conveyed perfectly. One has to recognize that this was the most important battle of the Islamic conquests on the western front in order to appreciate its importance and the way it was portrayed. I thought they did a great job showing the involvement of women, since that is a fact highlighted within the classical Arabic accounts as well. The episode perfectly showed the ferocity and uncertainty which characterized the battle and the superior Muslim military strategy which eventually turned the tide against the Byzantines. In addition, the representation of the battle underscored the leadership qualities and personal bravery (as well as outstanding skill) of Khalid ibn al-Walid. One can even say this representation was quite hyperbolic, showing Khalid slay dozens of Byzantine soldiers and wielding a dagger with all the skills of a member of the legendary Assassin’s order. Either way, it enhanced the viewing experience and made for an excellent culmination to an already-great episode. The only major criticism I would have is that they gave the viewer the impression that the battle was fought over a single day, while in fact it lasted for nearly a week!! Below I’ve included, for the benefit of the more military-minded among readers, a series of maps and images relating to the battle. Enjoy 🙂

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