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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 24

Synopsis: The episode begins with Abu Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah and Khalid ibn al-Walid praising the victory at Yarmouk as a decisive one, which would hopefully pave the way for the conquest of most of Syria. Khalid then goes to the encampment and gives his condolences to the widow of Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl who was killed during the battle. He also praises the brave conduct of the Muslim women in the course of the battle. Khalid then goes to Abu Suyan’s tent where he is being healed up (his eye is seriously injured after being hit with an arrow) by his wife Hind and his son Yazid. Khalid tells Abu Sufyan that his sacrifice will be rewarded by God. We also see Suhayl ibn Amr comforting his son Abu Jandal who was injured in the arm during the battle.

The next scene shows Abu Ubayda speaking with Khalid. The latter tells him that he has heard the news that Abu Bakr has passed and Umar has become caliph. He asserts that the former was more beloved to him than the latter, but he will nevertheless hear and obey the commands of the new ruler. He also expresses his willingness to step down as supreme commander of the army and fight under the banner of Abu Ubayda. Nevertheless, Khalid is rather ticked off by Umar’s decision.

The next scene goes to Byzantine Emesa (Homs) where Heraclius is addressing his generals and laying out a military strategy following the defeat at Yarmouk. He then expresses his intention to leave Syria and go to Constantinople. Back in Medina, Umar is rebuking a merchant in the marketplace for having overpriced his goods and then explains to all those assembled that fairness and justice are absolute values, even in the marketplace. The caliph then expresses his intention to appoint market inspectors (muhtasibs) to monitor the conduct of people in the markets and ensure fair-dealing. The people whole-heartedly agree. As their discussions continue, a messenger comes into the city and announces that the Muslims won a major victory against the Byzantines at Yarmouk, prompting major celebratory reactions from the Medinians and Umar to praise God. The people are then all gathered in the mosque and Umar is addressing them, underscoring the importance of the victory at Yarmouk for the whole Syria campaign. He then brings up the issue of his demotion of Khalid from the position of supreme commander of the army, and acknowledges that many people will have found this to be a strange decision. He then lays out three reasons to justify this decision: 1) It was becoming an issue of concern that the people were saying “if not for Khalid, X and Y would never have occurred”…Umar states that became worried that people would forget that events and victories come only from God, 2) a major difference of opinion exists between the caliph and Khalid regarding the issue of political authority and the amount of central control Medina can exercise over its representatives, 3) Islam is not merely about war, but about establishing and ordering society. Umar felt that Abu Ubayda would be the most qualified to organize the Muslim conquests in Syria, due to his supreme religious knowledge and political wisdom. Umar finishes by saying that he wanted to lay out his opinion clearly so people would not spread rumors. He then asks God to forgive him if he has erred, since he was a mere mortal.

The next scene goes to Damascus, where the Muslims are preparing to besiege the city. Abu Ubayda decides that, due to the vastness of the city, the Muslims should besiege all five gates and spread their forces (each commanded  by their general). As they are talking, they are approached by the Christian Arab tribes of Banu Ghassan. The Ghassanid chieftain explains that, although they share a religious affiliation with the Byzantines, they share an ethnic and linguistic tie with the Muslims and therefore ask to join forces with them, especially now that Byzantine persecution/oppression has become overbearing. The chieftain explains how they have seen the justice of the Muslims in the regions under their control and would like to join them in their enterprise. He adds that the Ghassanids have numerous men at their disposal and valuable knowledge of Byzantine terrain and siege technology which would help the Muslim cause. Abu Ubayda responds by offering them the dhimma pact, in which their lives and possessions (and lands) will be theirs to control and govern in exchange for paying the jizya tax. He continues and says that they will fight their enemies and protect them from all threats. The Ghassanid chieftain agrees to these terms. Within the city of Damascus, the Byzantine governor is speaking to his commanders and expressing optimism that matters are in their favor, especially since the city has enough food resources for six months and the Arabs have very little knowledge of siege warfare.

In Medina, we see the first market inspector (muhtashib), a woman from among the Ansar, walking through the marketplace and ensuring that all dealings are done fairly. She happens across a merchant who was attempting to cheat a customer and she rebukes him. The merchant scoffs at being ordered around by a woman, but at that point Umar appears and tells him (and the onlookers) that this is the market inspector who will ensure justice and fair-dealing in the marketplace and will serve as a reference for all those merchants/customers seeking to understand the prohibited and the permissible with regard to buying and selling. As Umar keeps walking in the market place he runs into an individual with a particularly large belly and asks, outraged, what was going on. The man cheerfully replies that it’s a blessing from God, but Umar rebukes him and explains it is actually a punishment! He then explains the importance of good health and maintaining one’s fitness.

Meanwhile in Iraq, in the Persian capital Ctesiphon (al-Mada’in), which is beautifully reconstructed, the famed general Rustam enters the city with military reinforcements and is given an audience with the empress/princess. They talk for a little bit about the internal Sassanid dynastic crisis, and Rustam offers his unconditional support to her. The empress explains that the Arab threat has become unbearable and that if no action is taken it is likely that the Persians will be enslaved under Arab dominion; even death is a better option than that, she says. Rustam wholeheartedly agrees.The elders assembled in the court then all agree that the princess should be made empress over Persia for a period of 10 years, until the Arab threat is resolved, before the dynastic issue within Persia is revisited. She appoints Rustam as supreme commander of the Persian armies. Soon after, Rustam is preparing the war strategy and notes to his commander that al-Muthanna in Iraq is at al-Hira with merely a few thousand soldiers while the bulk of the Muslim army is in Syria. He suggests that they attack while he is cut off from that larger force. Rustam explains that his strategy is to overwhelm the enemy by sending wave after wave of armies to weaken them.

The next scene takes the viewer to al-Namariq where al-Muthanna is leading his army and comes across a far larger Persian force in battle formation. al-Muthanna shouts the takbir and leads the charge of his infantry and cavalry against the Persians. The battle intensifies and the Muslims seem to be getting the upper hand…then the scene transitions into the next one where the empress at Ctesiphon is shown receiving word that the Persian force was overwhelmingly defeated  by al-Muthanna at al-Namariq, but also the four other major armies were also decisively defeated. The commander who delivers this news explains that the Muslims, despite their small numbers, have defeated four major armies. The empress looks deeply troubled, so the commander suggests that she order Rustam to lead a major army against the Muslims himself. Meanwhile in Damascus, the siege has intensified and has taken its toll on the Muslims. The Ghassanids are seen helping the Muslims deploy siege weaponry and mangonels which begin to make an impact on the walls. Back in Ctesiphon the empress is criticizing Rustam for the shortcomings of the Persian army and imploring him to ensure victory. For her, such a victory is directly related to securing her own political base.

Review: I have very little to say about this episode, except that the series continues to do a great job with character development and representation of these events. I particularly enjoyed the emphasis on the political situation within Persia, since it adds a great deal of depth to the broader developments occurring. It was great that they managed to strike a balance between events in Medina and events on the Byzantine/Persian frontiers. The character of Umar continues to impress and the representation maintains its faithfulness to classical accounts.

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