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“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 29

Synopsis: The episode begins with Sophronius inviting Umar ibn al-Khattab inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Umar explains that it is actually time for the Muslims to offer prayers. Sophronius suggests the caliph prays inside the church itself, since it is a holy place. Umar replies that he fears that if he does so future generations of Muslims would use his actions as justification for turning the church into a mosque. Rather, Umar says, he would like the patriarch to show him the Rock on the Temple Mount, site of the ancient temple and the site where Muslims believe the Prophet prayed during his night journey to Jerusalem. When they reach the ancient site, the platform (known as the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount) is in ruins and the Rock is covered in rubble and trash. Umar ibn al-Khattab is saddened by this fact and proceeds to personally begin clearing the place by removing the rubble. As he begins to do so, the other Companions with him also begin cleaning the holy site. Sophronius looks on in wonder. When the Rock has been cleared of rubble and garbage, Umar tells ‘Amr ibn al-‘As to call the athan, which he does, and the caliph weeps in happiness at the wondrous event of having the chance to hear the call to pray resound over Jerusalem. The Muslims then gather on the Temple Mount to pray. Before they start praying, Umar asserts that this is the spot where the Masjid al-Aqsa will be established, the place where the Prophet prayed and the place which was the first qibla (direction of prayer) for the Muslim community. The caliph proceeds to thank God and bestow his blessings upon the Prophet. As Umar prepares to depart from the city, Sophronius prays that God will preserve him and blesses him for his just conduct. The caliph tells the patriarch that the Christians of the city were now under the protection of God, the Prophet, and the caliph himself and goes on to explain in some depth the profound importance of “dhimma” (protection) for the Muslims. He asserts that the Prophet had asserted that whoever injured a protected person (dhimmi), it is as if he injured him. Before leaving, the caliph turns to the people of Jerusalem and bids them farewell.

As the caliph and the Muslims are riding away from the city, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As suggests to the caliph that Egypt should be the next conquest of the Muslims. Umar doesn’t seem too enthused, especially since Egypt is a spacious territory and was very distant from Medina, but ‘Amr pushes the issue. The latter explains how he is quite knowledgeable about the affairs of the country since he used to trade there in the days of jahiliyya. He continues and explains that the Egyptian people are staunch opponents of Byzantine rule, which has become oppressive and tyrannical. Moreover, he stresses, the only garrisons in the country are Byzantine garrisons and the Egyptian people would likely not put up any resistance to the Muslim invasion. Umar tells ‘Amr that he cannot make a decision on the matter until he has consulted the other senior Companions in Medina. The next scene shows Umar and his entourage arriving in Damascus, where the Muslims of the city greet him warmly. As he enters the city, the caliph recalls his days as a merchant in his youth. He recites some verses from the Qur’an about how God raises up nations and brings others down, glorifies certain individuals and debases others, all according to His will. As he continues walking, Umar comments disapprovingly on how the Arabs have now begun to dress in fine clothing, like the Byzantines, and have forgotten their humble origins.

The next scene goes back to Medina, where Umar is in the chancery and has received a letter from Abu Ubayda in which the latter explains that a Muslim has killed a Christian in Damascus, and he asks what the punishment should be for the former. Umar writes back and states, as in the Qur’an, that the killer should be sentenced to death unless the family of the victim pardons him. In other words, the law would not be applied differently to Christians than it was to Muslims; all were entitled to justice. The next scene shows Umar sitting in council with the other senior Companions when Abu Hurayra joins the gathering and asks Umar if he wanted to see him. Umar responds affirmatively and tells Abu Hurayra that, although he does not doubt his impeccable religious credentials, he feels that his narration of many hadiths from the Prophet has distracted from the people from the Qur’an, which Umar feels should be prioritized over hadith. However, that issue aside, the caliph expresses his intention to appoint Abu Hurayra as governor of Bahrayn. Umar then lays out his policy for his governors, in which a system of checks and balances is established in order to ensure that they rule justly and do not enrich themselves at their subjects’ expense. Abu Hurayra agrees, The next scene shows Umar coming across an impoverished, blind Jewish man in the streets of Medina. The caliph takes the  man to the Bayt al-Mal and gives him enough money to sustain himself; he then orders his subordinates not to collect any more jizya (poll-tax) from elderly individuals, but rather to ensure that the state pays them a stipend to survive, since that is more just.

The next scene goes to the year of drought in Medina, in which the people are suffering greatly. The caliph and the wealthier Companions are seen doing all they can to alleviate the situation, but it remains dire. Umar vows to not eat meat or butter until the drought disappears and insists that he will endure what the people endure. The next day, Umar is in the chancery dictating a letter to the scribe which is addressed to Amr ibn al-‘As. The letter orders Amr to inform all the other governors in Syria, Arabia, and Iraq not to take any taxes from any individual that year due to the strenuous situation with famines, plagues, and droughts. The next couple of scenes are focused on showing Umar’s empathy with the suffering people and his complete sorrow at seeing their wretched state. In the following scene, we see food aid arriving from Syria and Iraq to Medina. Next, Umar is leading the special prayer for rain and thousands of Muslims pray behind him. Soon afterwards, a downpour begins and all the people of Medina express their thanks to God. Following this sequence, Umar, Uthman, and Ali are sitting together under a canopy and the caliph thanks God that such a trauma has passed the community over. Ali asserts that Umar should not consider what happened a disaster, but rather as a test from which the Muslim community emerged even stronger. Ali explains that if such a drought had occurred during jahiliyya, the Arabs would have torn themselves apart in war, but in Islam they not only endured patiently but actively assisted each other in seeing the situation through. The episode ends with Umar visiting the home of ‘Ali asking the latter for his daughter’s hand in marriage and the latter states that he will consult with her and, if she approves, so will he.

Review: This episode was done quite well. I was particularly touched by the sequence showing the caliph in Jerusalem, especially the scenes where he personally cleans the rubble from the Rock on the Temple Mount. These scenes were taken straight out of the traditional narratives and were executed quite well on screen. Moreover, I really appreciated the writers and producers placing as much emphasis as they did on the concept of “dhimma” and explaining how such a concept functioned in the minds of the early Muslims. There exists a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about this idea, so it was great that the episode placed this idea back into its appropriate context. Moreover, in a Middle East where the rights of religious minorities are increasingly threatened, it was essential for the show to highlight the importance of the tolerance of the early Muslims.

Generally speaking, they did a good job conveying the narrative from the classical accounts in a coherent fashion and without any serious omissions. Everything from Umar’s encounter with Abu Hurayra, his attitude during the drought, and his visit to Jerusalem/Damascus were represented very faithfully. For me, one of the most important themes to be emphasized in this episode was Umar’s love and care for his subjects, to the degree that he even fell ill due to his refusal to eat anything but bread and oil while the drought and famine were ongoing in Medina. The scene of the prayer for rain was especially powerful and conveyed the Muslims’ undying belief that, no matter how hard things had gotten, God would always care for them and assist them in their hardship. Although one can plausibly critique this episode for including far too much material and anecdotes from the caliph’s biography, I personally felt that this was one of the strength’s of the episode and underscored the ability of the director to weave together these various pieces of the story in a coherent fashion.

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