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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 25

Synopsis: The episode begins with a Muslim army led by al-Muthanna and a much larger Persian army lined up across a river from each other. All that separates them is a small bridge. As the Muslims cross the bridge to get to the Persian army, the latter fire volley upon volley of arrows, killing numerous Muslim warriors. The Persians then unleash a full infantry charge led by (wait for it) war elephants!! This strikes fear into most of the Muslims and their horses, which begin to withdraw from the battle. The battle is a complete rout in favor of the Persians. Their overwhelming numbers and their use of war elephants decimate the Muslim ranks. We are then taken to a scene after the battle showing Persian warriors slaying the wounded Muslims on the battlefield. The next scene shows one of the Persian commanders at Ctesiphon telling the empress that although the battle was won, over 6000 Persian soldiers fell in the battle (a massive number). Indeed, he continues, the small contingent which was sent to pursue the remnants of the Muslim army after the defeat at the river/bridge were decimated by them, and two of Persia’s top generals were killed. The commanders then exchange blame with each other and the discussion then degenerates into bickering and squabbling about political rivalries. The empress demands everyone be silent and focus on the matter at hand.

In Medina, Umar is addressing the congregation in the mosque and talking about the issue of dowries and marriage. He tells people to not demand high dowries from potential spouses in order to make marriage easier; he even suggests that if a dowry exceeds 500 dirhams, the remainder will be confiscated and deposited in the Bayt al-Mal (state treasury). A woman in the mosque shouts out and rebukes Umar, citing the words of the Prophet. Umar, humbled, tells her that she is indeed correct and he takes back his suggestion. Rather, he advises people to be merciful to one another and think of the social consequences of higher dowries. The whole exchange serves to highlight how the caliph was not above admitting his errors, even when corrected by the most minor members of the congregation. Next, Umar receives word from one of the commanders in Iraq about the major defeat inflicted upon the Muslims. Umar laments the defeat and goes on to praise al-Muthanna ibn Harith, who still maintains the struggle against the Persians. Umar vows to support him and empower him with all his resources, even if he has to physically go to Iraq and fight alongside him. Umar then orders Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas to send messengers to every Arab tribe summoning them to jihad against the Persians in Iraq. The next scene shows the empress in Ctesiphon making the decision to abdicate her rule in favor of Yazdgard III, the last remaining male heir in the Sassanian line. She expresses her dismay that she failed to adequately prevent the Arab threat. Finally, she begins to think to herself what a man the caliph in Medina must be to command such respect and to encourage his troops to persevere so much against their foes.

In Medina, Umar is making the rounds in the agricultural areas around the city and ensuring everything is going smoothly. He eventually encounters a child who he speaks with and finds out that his father is serving as a soldier in Iraq. It’s a nice little scene whereby Umar shows his concern for the ordinary people of Medina and seeks to ensure their lives are as easy as possible. Later, Umar is sitting in the mosque and is talking to one of the wealthier Muslims who owns a large tract of land outside Medina, which has agricultural value but is largely unused. Umar explains that the man should either utilize all the land or the unused parts should revert to the Muslim community and become–so to speak–a “communal farm” from which they could benefit. The man is resistant to this idea, but Umar stresses that the welfare of the Muslim community comes before all us, even personal rights of property.

At Damascus, some Arab (Christian) notables in the city are discussing the state of the siege and whether or not they should surrender to the Muslims to ensure their own lives and property. Meanwhile, in the city square, two men (from the Arab population) are being brought for execution, accused of aiding and abetting the enemy. This causes an uproar among most of the Ghassanids in Damascus and leads to clashes between the Byzantine troops and Arab citizens in the city. In Medina, a Christian woman approaches the caliph and asks him to help her settle a debt since she is unable to raise enough money to do so. She sees her crucifix and tells her that, ofcourse her debt will be settled, but asks her what has prevented her from embracing Islam. She responds that she is an old lady and does not devote too much time to such thoughts. Umar  tells her she can believe what she likes, he was just curious to know. However, soon after, Umar runs into Ali and explains to the latter that he feels bad for even asking the lady the question…Ali responds that he did not do the wrong thing, and his intentions were probably in the right place.

The next scene shows Yazdgard III making his entry into Ctesiphon to great fanfare and crowds cheering. The scene culminates with the emperor entering the palace and sitting down on the throne. Back in Medina, Umar is walking around Medina again and, while in the “suburbs” around the city, comes across a woman cooking nothing but hot water in a pot while her children cry in the background. He asks why this is…she answers that this is because of their poverty and states that God will judge Umar for this injustice. Umar’s son, who is walking next to him, is about to say something (probably to tell the woman that the caliph himself stands before her), but Umar silences him by raising his hand. Umar asks the woman how  she expects the caliph to have known about her needs…she says that he should be aware of every single one of his subjects. Umar says that she should not worry, he will be back with something to help her in this hardship. He rushes to the Bayt al-Mal and grabs a whole sack of grain and carries it on his back, walking through the city and back to the woman. The burden is tremendous and Umar nearly collapses under its weight, but he nevertheless keeps walking. When he reaches the woman, he places some of the grain in the pot of boiling water. He then serves the food to the woman and her children. During all this, Umar’s son is watching with tears in his eyes. The woman thanks Umar a lot and tells him that he has been kinder to her this night than the “Amir al-Mu’mineen” has ever been. Umar smiles and tells her to go to the residence of the caliph tomorrow and she will find him there.

Review: This episode was the most touching and relevant so far. Yes, it does continue the broader story with the Persian and Byzantine wars, which was great and all (especially the war elephants..WOW!), but it brings the focus back to Medina in an important way. I loved the way that Umar’s sincerity, concern, and humility were brought out very clearly through his interactions with the various people in Medina. The final sequence, in which he helps the woman in need without revealing his identity as caliph, was extremely touching and his decision to carry the heavy load on his back and personally assist the lady was a representation of his remorse for being unaware of her situation. This depiction definitely stems from classical accounts but it does so much more. It seeks to underscore the role of the ruler as someone who genuinely cares for his people and seeks their well-being. In some sense, it was a very explicit critique of the current state of leadership in the Arab and Muslim world, which could not be further from the model of justice and public welfare upheld by Umar ibn al-Khattab.

Another major aspect I liked about this episode (as well as the previous one) was the careful attention devoted to the internal developments within the Persian empire. The struggle against the Muslims is represented through the lens of how a mid-7th century Persian empress/emperor would have seen it. Persian historical figures are given their own unique characters and personalities and the diversity of thoughts/feelings are expressed very clearly. In this way, the producers and writers have not fallen into the general trend within Arab cinema of stereotyping Persian historical figures and histories to conform to certain models. Rather, it seems, the director was quite insistent on giving the Persian side of the story its own “voice” and perspective so that, even as antagonists to the Muslims, the audience can still admire and, more importantly, understand their decisions and actions.

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