“Zero Dark Thirty”: Righteous Vengeance and the War on Terror

Last night, I had the opportunity to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which follows the CIA’s manhunt for Osama bin Laden between September 2001 and May 2011. Following her earlier film, “The Hurt Locker” (2008), Bigelow once again puts the spotlight on the United States of America’s “War on Terror”, although this time by shifting the spotlight from the minefields of Iraq to the mountainous terrain of Pakistan and Afghanistan (“AfPak”).  Overall, I felt the film left much to be desired and I feel it frames the hunt for Osama bin Laden rather problematically. As such, the film needs to be critically scrutinized in several ways. As most people are already aware, the film has raised much controversy due to its representation of torture, as well as its rather detailed information about the purported inner workings of the CIA. With regard to the first issue, voices ranging from Glenn Greenwald (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/14/zero-dark-thirty-cia-propaganda) to Senator John McCain (http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/12/18/sen-mccain-rejects-torture-scene-in-zero-dark-thirty/) have expressed major concern and strongly critiqued the film. Nevertheless, there were other voices which rushed to the film’s defense and insisted that it was not attempting to depict torture as “morally excusable” but rather as an effective means of extracting information (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/zero-dark-thirty-is-not-pro-torture/266759/). Other reviews (notably http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2012/12/the-torture-narrative.html ) have sought to provide a more “balanced” approach to the issue, by praising the film for its presentation of torture as an incontrovertible fact of the War on Terror, while leaving it to the audience to draw their own moral conclusions. The film’s controversy, especially as pertains to the representation of torture, has even prompted the US Senate to launch an open investigation into the links between the filmmakers and CIA officials (http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/senate-panel-opens-zero-dark-probe-article-1.1232118). In this review, I will not weigh in on either of these issues, since there are an increasing number of articles on the issue, addressing the problem from various legal, moral, and political perspectives. If one is interested in this developing controversy, the articles linked above are a good start.

My review, which is informed by my interests in the geo-politics of the Middle East and political Islam, is an attempt to locate some of the strong points of “Zero Dark Thirty” while also providing some critical perspective on the film.


Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment was its ability to tell a story spanning several continents, and a period of ten years through the eyes of a single CIA agent without losing pace or the engagement of the audience. It successfully maintains a level of suspense throughout. Although the runtime of 157 minutes was rather long, the film is well-paced . The unfolding of the events which culminated in the assassination of Osama bin Laden through the eyes of a CIA agent, known to the audience only as “Maya”, reflects good story-telling which captures the interest of the audience, who are left in the dark about the sequence of events (unless, ofcourse, they are intimately familiar with the chronology, names, and events of the War on Terror) which takes the viewer on a long journey through the narrow alleyways of Rawalpindi to the fast-paced politics of Washington D.C. to the undercover nightclubs of Kuwait. The unfolding of these events occurs exclusively through the eyes of Maya and it is her journey/perspective which is the main plot of the film. Naturally, this approach to the story of the War on Terror presents its own set of problems, which I will discuss more below. In addition to the plot, the cinematography is excellent and some sequences (especially that of the raid itself) are quite stunningly executed.

The most compelling aspect of the film, in my opinion, is that it depicts the viciousness and brutality of torture, terrorism, and war in a manner which I believe no previous mainstream film has done. I felt that by underscoring the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, 7/7 (and others) which were committed by Islamists worldwide, the film highlighted an uncomfortable truth: a global terrorist threat did (and does) exist.  Moreover, by showing—in graphic and painful detail—the use of tactics such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation on detainees, the film throws into sharp relief the reality of torture in a way which is intended to be discomforting to the viewer. Torture, Kathryn Bigelow seeks to remind us, is not merely a theoretical concept which one either supports or abhors depending on their political or moral philosophy. Instead, we are forced to endure torture in its raw form: the methodical imposition of pain and suffering upon another human being, whose humanity is highlighted by the very act of their dehumanization. These scenes were quite faithful to the psychological and physical reality of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in which the victims is at the utter mercy of their tormenters. The way in which these scenes are filmed makes the viewer a reluctant spectator (and, thus, a participant) in the horrific process endured by the detainees as they are subjected to indescribable horrors. Whether these scenes serve to reinforce torture as a “necessary evil” or whether they represent a critique of this tactic as an abuse of human rights is up for debate, and (as mentioned above) has dominated the discussion of the film. (For the record, my own perspective on the matter falls closest to Glenn Greenwald’s). Another element of the film which I think deserves praise is its highlighting the violence associated with the raid itself, in which the reality of the raid is shown as faithfully as possible. The filmmakers have no illusions about the nature of warfare or the unrestrained manner in which the US Special Forces carry out their mission. Questions of limiting civilian deaths or impinging upon the sovereignty of an independent nation are non-issues, and do not even enter the discussions of the CIA represented in the film. For the CIA, the question is whether or not Bin Laden was indeed hiding in Abbotabad, not whether a raid would be launched without the knowledge of Pakistan.  As for the raid itself, the situation is uncertain, confusion is rampant, women and children are harmed, and a level of violence becomes acceptable which would be unthinkable in any other situation. The woman in the compound, who was shot and left to bleed to death by the US Special Forces, is a case in point. The seeming willingness of the US Special Forces to open fire upon an unarmed Pakistani civilian population also demonstrates this point quite aptly. The screams, horror, and tears of the women and children of the Bin Laden household are contrasted with the euphoria of the US soldiers following the assassination of the world’s most wanted man. This contrast seems reflective the director’s overall attempt throughout the film to remain faithful to the reality of the situation rather than glamorize or demonize the various participants in these events.


Unfortunately, I feel that the film’s strengths are almost completely overshadowed by various shortcomings and weaknesses. As powerful as the depiction of torture may have been in the film, one cannot help but feel troubled that the audience is encouraged to accept the contention that there is a direct relationship between the use of torture to extract information and the prevention of terrorism. Indeed the protagonist herself is transformed from an individual who is a rather reluctant observer of the application of torture to one who becomes one of its most enthusiastic advocates. The fact that the entire premise of the film is that torture led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden leaves a bitter taste…not just because this is a blatant lie but because it expects the audience to acknowledge that the use of such cruelty is justified. I also had major issues with the way that Islamic culture was represented, with each society depicted in very monolithic and stereotyped ways. Burqas (those associated with Taliban rule) are depicted as the norm in Pakistan’s urban centers, nightclubs with scantily-clad women are apparently representative of Kuwait, and absolute emptiness and US military bases are all we see of Afghanistan. Everywhere Muslims are shown, they are either angry or scowling; except, ofcourse, for one Muslim CIA official who is shown as praying in his office. In short, the Islamic world is definitely not a place any “civilized” person would like to be and Muslims are only “there” insofar as they can provide valuable intelligence on the whereabouts of terrorists or as part of the cultural landscape. The devout CIA officer aside, there is not a single positive representation of Muslims in the entire film. Moreover, Levantine Arabic seems to be the only foreign language used in the entire film. It is used to communicate with militants in the Arab world, Europe, the Persian Gulf, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, even when those being communicated with are not even Arab. And apparently Falafel, Hummus, and Tabouli have become staple foods in Pakistan.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the film was the narrative which it promotes. By focusing exclusively on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, key facts of the War on Terror are completely obscured.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (in which thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians were killed) are completely glossed over. The strategy of drone strikes which intensified during the Obama administration also receives no attention, and is referenced—in passing—only once (and even then with no real implications). The invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan, the numerous atrocities of US soldiers in those countries, and the direct impact which this had upon anti-American feeling in the Islamic world is totally ignored and brushed aside. In fact, the War on Terror which is represented in this film would be unrecognizable to most social scientists and security studies experts. It is a reality in which the US is essentially the victim (“they killed 3000 of us on 9/11, and we only killed 4 of them [high-ranking terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda]”) fighting an uphill battle against a well-organized, global network of Islamist terrorists devoted to the utter destruction of the Western world…all with one man—Osama bin Laden—at the head. As such, the film completely disentangles the hunt for Bin Laden from the broader context of the War on Terror (as experienced by millions of individuals across the Islamic world) and US foreign policy in the Middle East. We are led to believe that US foreign policy is driven by the singular purpose of capturing Bin Laden–thereby exacting retribution for 9/11–and preventing global terrorism. Moreover, the film further decontexualizes the existence of Islamist violence by depicting the militants as relishing in the murder of Americans for no other reason than the apparent pleasure which these individuals derive from human suffering. Unlike films such as “Syriana” or even “Body of Lies”, absolutely no attempt is made in “Zero Dark Thirty” to give the audience any perspective or understanding of the enemy, their raison d’être, or even their complexity.  It is extremely unlikely that even with this information, the viewer would even conceive of Islamist violence as in any way justified. But in refusing to even offer the viewer the opportunity to place Islamist violence in its appropriate context and to understand the roots of terrorism, the film insults the intelligence of its audience. It reinforces the mistaken belief that global terrorism simply exists (and reproduces itself) independent of any socio-economic or geo-political context and is simply a dangerous threat that ought to be completely eliminated (by force).  The inevitable result is a regurgitation of the “they hate us because we’re free” narrative. At one point, a television monitor displaying the news in the background utilizes this very phrasing, hence reminding the audience about the “real cause” of terrorism.


By failing to even mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, explicitly identified by the terrorists who committed the attacks in Madrid and London as their rationale, the film seems to advocate a perspective of Islamist violence which completely eliminates causality. By this, I simply mean that by taking the reality of drone strikes, major wars/occupations, and a massive civilian casualty rate out of the picture, Islamist militancy is left as a nihilistic, destructive ideology which draws adherents for no other reason other than the apparent appeal of such a worldview. No explanation whatsoever is given for the expansion of the al-Qaeda network, even though the Iraq war and the subsequent transformation of al-Qaeda from an organization into an ideological force (stretching from Indonesia to the US), both key developments of the War on Terror in which the US played a decisive role, were the reasons for this expansion. Again, the audience is simply left to imagine a massive, trans-national, centrally-directed terrorist network bent on the absolute destruction of the Western way of life (there is not a single reference to any of the tens of thousands of Muslims claimed by al-Qaeda ofcourse!). All that lies between this looming threat and the civilized world is a small group of CIA operatives, whose activities, we are told, have a direct bearing on the preservation of life as we know it. Maya, in particular, seems to take this sense of mission to heart and stubbornly continues the hunt for Bin Laden for over a decade, convinced that his elimination would bring down the entire network al-Qaeda network. (Maya, it should be said, is one of the most unlikeable characters in the entire film, or for that matter any recent film I’ve seen). This conception of al-Qaeda as a centrally-directed, trans-national network/organization animates much of the film and paints a very misleading picture of the War on Terror. By making the issue all about Bin Laden and forgetting the broader issues at play, the film unnecessarily keeps the audience bogged down in a “September 12th” mindset, in which the entire decade of events following the September 11th attacks are secondary. True, this is reflective of Maya’s own character and worldview (whose obsessive passion for finding Bin Laden is seemingly her only animating force in life), upon which the film’s plot is based. However, I thought it was a rather irresponsible decision on the part of the filmmakers to completely obscure the very important developments between 2001 and 2011, which greatly transformed not only the course of the “War on Terror” but the entire regional dynamic as well.


It seemed that the filmmakers feared that an incorporation of this context (i.e. the actual reality) would have lessened the significance of Bin Laden’s death.  Vengeance, not solving the problem of global terrorism or “protecting the homeland” (a phrase used over and over again), is therefore the main theme of the film. This becomes clear as the US Special Forces deliver bullets into the bodies of militants (and one woman) with ease and satisfaction, and the gratification which Maya exhibits upon looking down on the bullet-ridden body of Bin-Laden. One would almost be forgiven if they were to believe that in that moment global terrorism was defeated and world peace restored. This “mission accomplished” attitude which the film aproaches the assassination of Bin Laden, while serving the purpose of accommodating the desire for vengeance felt by many Americans for the man’s crimes, does more harm than good because it puts forth the mistaken notion that this assassination had any impact upon global terrorism, which continues unabated and is as serious a problem as ever.  By refusing to even integrate the hunt for Bin Laden within the larger context of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (which claimed about 7000 American lives, more than double those killed on 9/11), the very important question of “at what cost [to US and the Islamic world] was vengeance/justice exacted?” by the killing of Bin Laden is never even raised, and the questions of “was it worth it?” or “did it matter?” are inconceivable. These are questions which the audience and the American public will certainly be asking in the years to come, as the economic, geo-political, and human consequences of the War on Terror become more apparent. It is these repercussions which will remain with us all for decades to come, long after the name Osama bin Laden has been forgotten. Bin Laden may have been killed (and good riddance!), but each drone strike and atrocity committed by the coalition forces in Afghanistan creates new terrorists every day, many of whom advocate ideological and political visions far more radical than that even conceived by Bin Laden. If the terrorist networks which have arisen in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali and the Arabian Peninsula are any indication, the War on Terror has entered a new, troubling phase.

The utter silence, shrugs, and lack of any applause/cheers at the end of the film in the theater is perhaps an indication that many Americans are thinking along the same lines. At the end of the film, one is left with very little with which to take away and, despite some compelling sequences, the critical questions which the audience sincerely hopes the film will address are ignored altogether.



“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 30

Synopsis: The episode begins with Umar sitting and talking with Uthman and Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf. The caliph reveals that he has now officially gotten married to Umm Kulthum, the daughter of ‘Ali and Fatimah. The next scene shows Abu Sufyan and Suhayl ibn Amr waiting impatiently outside Umar’s chambers in order to meet the caliph. Eventually, they get fed up of waiting and depart, going into the streets of Medina. Abu Sufyan expresses major indignation and asserts that those who were lowly in the era of jahiliyya are now given precedence over the Quraysh (a few non-Qurashi’s were given an audience with Umar while Abu Sufyan was waiting). Suhayl tells Abu Sufyan to fear God and not let the mentality of jahiliyya overcome him. He explains to the latter that those who were “lowly” are given precedence because of their good deeds and early conversion. Abu Sufyan asks God’s forgiveness and agrees with Suhayl. Suhayl then declares his intention to move to Syria and spend the last years of his life there. The next scene shows Umar, Uthman and some other senior Companions. The others are trying to convince Umar to reinstate Khalid as governor of Qinnasrin, explaining that Umar’s proposal to remove him seems unfair. Umar is unmoved by these arguments and states that Khalid was rather selective in his distribution of the wealth gained from the wars against Byzantium, and this was sufficient grounds to remove him from office.

The next scene goes to Damascus where Abu Ubayda is comforting Khalid by explaining that he should look forward to the rewards he will receive in the Hereafter rather than be troubled by the affairs of this world. Khalid agrees and tells Abu Ubayda that, although he disagrees with Umar’s decision (to remove him as governor), he will nevertheless obey the caliph. He then departs the governor’s palace and, once in the city square, expresses his reservations about Umar’s decision to his close associates. Back in Medina, Khalid’s kin are outraged at Umar’s decision to remove him from his governorship. Umar explains the situation and asserts that he removed Khalid due to the latter’s mismanagement of the wealth of his province. The Banu Makhzum (Khalid’s kin) state that Umar is their fellow tribesman and should show favor to them; Umar asserts that this is exactly why he has been so harsh on Khalid, so that none will assert that he had ever showed favoritism to anyone, whether blood relatives or otherwise.

The next scene shows the ambassador of the Byzantine emperor entering Medina along with his entourage and expressing surprise at the humble nature of the Muslim capital. The ambassador approaches the Companions and tells them that he has come to negotiate a peace treaty and would like to be taken to the caliph. He is led to the mosque of Medina, where Umar is sleeping under a palm tree just outside. The Companions point to the figure lying on the ground and tell the ambassador that this is their caliph. The ambassador looks quite surprised and rather amused. As the caliph sits up, the ambassador admits that since entering the city he has been surprised and has asked himself whether this was indeed the place from where the armies and notables which conquered Byzantine Syria had set out from. He then proceeds to respectfully praise the caliph’s great humility and justice. The next scene shows Umar and his entourage riding north to Syria, but are met in the desert by Abu Ubayda and others. Umar asks why they have met them halfway, when they were due to meet in Damascus. Abu Ubayda explains that there has been a major outbreak of plague in Syria and they thought it prudent not to expose the caliph to that. Umar consults with the senior Companions and decides to return to Medina. The next scene goes to Damascus, where the plague and its effects are shown. Abu Ubayda is seen walking around the city and comforting those suffering from the disease. He then goes to the house of Suhayl ibn Amr, where the latter is dying and his son (Abu Jandal) is seated at his bedside. After a few moments Suhayl passes away, uttering the declaration of faith very faintly. Both Abu Ubayda and Abu Jandal are grieved and pray for Suhayl’s soul. In a later scene, Abu Ubayda finds that he has contracted the plague, as some of its symptoms become evident. Next, we see Abu Ubayda lying on his deathbed surrounded by Yazid ibn Abu Sufyan and ‘Amr ibn al-‘As. Abu Ubayda tells them to ensure they maintain their prayers, pay the zakat, and to maintain the obligatory and recommended acts prescribed by Islam. He then passes away.

Back in Medina, Umar and the senior Companions are mourning the passing of Abu Ubayda and eulogizing him. The next scene goes to the year 642 and shows ‘Amr ibn al-‘As leading Muslim troops into Egypt. We hear (in the voice-over of the actor reading Amr’s letter to Umar) that ‘Amr has conquered most of Egypt, established peace treaties (dhimma) with the local population, and overcome most of the Byzantine garrisons in the country with the assistance of the Egyptians. At the moment, ‘Amr continues, the Muslims are besieging the last major Byzantine stronghold in Egypt, Alexandria. As Umar reads out the letter in Medina, the Companions rejoice and praise God. The Companions comment on how relatively little warfare ‘Amr had to engage in to overcome the Byzantines in Egypt. ‘Umar explains that this is the best of victories: one that is achieved with as little bloodshed as possible. The caliph writes back to ‘Amr and advises him on how to proceed in Egypt. In Alexandria itself, the Patriarch Cyril (al-Muqawqis) is advocating a peaceful surrender to the Muslims, citing the fact that no aid was forthcoming from Constantinople. It seems he convinced the others, because the next scene shows ‘Amr and the Muslim army entering Alexandria in triumph. The next scene shows the news being announced in the mosque of Medina, to the elation of the Muslims assembled.

The next scene goes to Emessa (Homs) where Khalid ibn al-Walid is on his deathbed dying. He is surrounded by his household, whom Khalid tells not to hold any grudges against Umar since all that the caliph had done was for the pleasure of God. Khalid then utters his famous words: “I have fought in countless battles and there is not a single part of my body which is not covered with the strike of a sword, a spear, or an arrow…yet, I die in my bed like an old man. May the eyes of cowards never sleep!” In Medina, Umar and all the Companions are in the mosque mourning and eulogizing Khalid ibn al-Walid. Umar is especially grieved and feels that he was rather unjust and overly harsh towards Khalid while he was alive. He mourns the death of Abu Bakr and says that the latter was a far better judge of the character of men than he (Umar).

The next scene shows an important-looking Persian official being escorted around Medina by some Muslim soldiers, who are looking for the caliph. When they arrive in the mosque they find Umar sleeping on the ground. When the caliph wakes up, the soldiers explain that the Persian official is Hurmuzan, an important general and governor from Iran who surrendered willingly to the Muslims on the condition that he will be delivered to the caliph in Medina. Umar explains to Hurmuzan that he is responsible for the deaths of countless Companions of the Prophet and justice will best be served by his death. Hurmuzan asks the caliph for some water. Hurmuzan holds the cup of water in his hand and asks Umar if he will be safe until after he drinks the water. Umar responds in the affirmative. Hurmuzan then drops the cup and the water. He explains to the caliph that he is now safe, since Umar promised that he would not kill him until he drunk THAT cup of water. Umar protests and accuses Hurmuzan of trickery, but the rest of the Companions affirm that Hurmuzan is right and that the caliph implicitly agreed to spare his life under that condition. Umar grudgingly agrees with the rest of the Muslims. Hurmuzan, touched by the caliph’s acceptance of this agreement and the Companions’ dedication to justice, then gives a short speech about how, even before this moment, saw how the Arabs triumphed due to their faith in God and God’s assistance. Although most of Iran has fallen to the Arab armies and nothing remains of former Persian glory, he asserts that Islam will ennoble the Persians as it did the Arabs. He then proclaims his conversion to Islam and ‘Umar invites him to stay with the Muslims in Medina, where he will be given a residence and stipend. Hurmuzan agrees.

The next scene shows a Copt from Egypt riding into Medina and entering the mosque, where he asks to see the caliph. Umar is seated and asks what he can do for the man. The latter proclaims that he has suffered an injustice at the hands of Muhammad ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, the son of the governor of Egypt. He asks the caliph, under the terms of the dhimma, to help him. Umar promises that he will. The next scene shows ‘Amr ibn al-‘As and his son in the royal palace in Egypt. Amr tells the latter that he has received a letter from the caliph in Medina demanding that Amr send his son to the city. Amr asks his son if there is some issue he should know about, since he was surprised by the letter. The next scene shows Amr and his entourage arriving in Medina. We are then taken to the mosque where Umar is talking with both Amr and his son…and then the caliph summons the Egyptian Copt. The caliph offers the Copt his walking stick and tells him to beat Amr’s son in the same manner as the latter had beat him. The Copt takes the stick and begins beating the guy. Umar then tells the Copt to beat ‘Amr himself, since as the ruler he was responsible for ensuring justice for his subjects but failed. The Copt asserts that he has no interest in doing so and is satisfied with his revenge. Umar then turns to Amr and tells him that his subjects need to be granted justice, for they are all free men and not slaves and should not be treated as such. Later, Amr asks the caliph if he seeks to provoke the people to rise up against their governors. Umar responds that if it is for a just cause then this is permitted. He explains that without justice the very foundations of the state will crumble. ‘Amr concurs. He then asks the caliph if he would grant permission for an expansion westward to Libya, but Umar responds negatively. The caliph explains that it is necessary for the Muslims to put their internal matters in order and to build up the institutions of Islam within the conquered territories before extending their rule further. As they finish their conversation, al-Mughirah ibn Shu’bah–flanked by Abu Lu’lu’–approaches the caliph and tells him that his new slave (Abu Lu’lu’), acquired after the battle of Nahawand, is one of the best craftsman and blacksmiths he has encountered. Umar and Abu Lu’lu’ exchange an uneasy look.

The next scene shows Abu Lu’lu’ at night entering Hurmuzan’s residence. The former explains that, although Muslim, he feels a great hatred for the Arabs and, especially, for Umar for having conquered Persia. He continues and asserts that the “holy fires” which had burned in Persia for over 1000 years were extinguished by the Arabs, who had once been the slaves of the Persians. Hurmuzan tries to dissuade Abu Lu’lu from such thoughts and talk, but the later continues and becomes more passionate. This provokes Hurmuzan into asserting his own misgivings about the fall of Persian rule…he explains that he feels torn in two: completely accepting of Islam but completely regretful of the fact that Persian domination has come to an end. He quickly realizes what he is saying and stops. He angrily accuses Abu Lu’lu’ of awakening the devil (of ethnic/national sentiment) within him and demands that he leave at once.

The next scene goes to the year 644 and shows the Hajj to Mecca, led by Umar. This is essentially a repeat of the very first sequence of the first episode of the show. The caravan then returns to Medina. In the city, Abu Lu’lu’ approaches Hurmuzan and shows him a dagger that he has acquired and implies that he will use it to assassinate the caliph, “the man responsible for the fall of Persia.” Hurmuzan is fearful and rushes away from the scene asserting that he wants nothing to do with this plot. The next scene shows the Muslims praying fajr in the mosque, with Abu Lu’lu in the congregation. As Umar leads the prayer and recites the fatiha during the first rak’a, Abu Lu’Lu (standing in the first row) pulls the dagger from his robes, approaches the caliph and stabs him several times (once in the back, and three times in the stomach) before fleeing. The next scene goes to Umar lying on his bed, surrounded by all the Companions, all of whom look very somber. The caliph praises God that his death did not come at the hands of one of the righteous Muslims. He then beckons to his son Abd Allah ibn Umar and tells him to go to A’ishah (the Prophet’s widow) and tell her that Umar requests to be buried next to his Companions and those he loves (the Prophet and Abu Bakr). Umar then turns to the rest of the Companions and states that he feels responsible for the succession to the caliphate. Al-Mughirab ibn Shubah suggests that Umar make his son, Abd Allah, successor. Umar is horrified at the idea and responds that he would never place such a burden upon any of his own family. Rather, he will allow the matter to go to a consultation between the most senior Companions of the Prophet still living: Uthman, Ali, Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf, Talha ibn Ubayd Allah, al-Zubayr ibn Awwam, and Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas. He orders them to meet and decide upon a successor from among themselves. Umar then lays down his final testament in which he urges his successor to care for all the Muslims and non-Muslims in the Islamic polity and to uphold justice. He then passes away, amidst great mourning in Medina and throughout the conquered lands.

Review: This episode was done magnificently. Truly, a great way to end this amazing series, Since I’ll be writing a more comprehensive review of the entire show, I’ll keep this one short. The writers and producers did a great job showing all the important anecdotes mentioned within the classical accounts (the case of the Copt, Hurmuzan, removal of Khalid from governorship) and stringing them together in a coherent fashion. I thought the exchange between Abu Sufyan and Suhayl was shown particularly well, and it underscored–at least for me–the reality that existed by the death off Umar (and which would assert itself in the caliphate of Uthman) of a number of Qurashi late comers to Islam feeling that their status had been undercut by the earlier converts from the “lesser” tribes. Abu Sufyan emerges as the representative of this school of thought. The representation of both Khalid ibn al-Walid and Abu Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah in this episode firmly highlighted these characters’ honor, nobility, and dignity. The scenes of their deaths were particularly powerful and were depicted as faithfully as could be to the traditional narratives.Umar’s reaction to the death of Khalid was done particularly well and may as well have been taken, word for word, from the earliest sources. The sorrow of the caliph combined with his regret for how harshly he treated Khalid come out very clearly and powerfully during this scene.

The representation of Hurmuzan was very intriguing to say the least. The character, while historical and important in his own right, is made in this episode to represent the tens of thousands, if not millions, of Persians who would enter into Islam in the aftermath of the conquest of the Sassanid empire. As such, he represents all the anxieties, ambitions, and internal conflict which would have accompanied the embracing of Islam by this community. As a people who were subjected to a conquest by their hated subordinates (the Arabs), the psychology of the new Persian converts becomes evident through the character of Hurmuzan. The relationship of Hurmuzan to Islam is rather schizophrenic…on one hand, he fully accepts the tenets of the new faith and believes firmly in God, but on the other hand he finds it difficult to reconcile himself to the Islamic polity (and its leadership) which destroyed the “glorious” Persian empire. Abu Lu’lu’, as a character, represents the most extreme of the latter tendencies and this hatred drives him to assassinate the caliph.

The martyrdom of Umar was shown perfectly and was extremely difficult to watch. The ruthlessness of Abu Lu’lu’ in perpetrating this act while the Muslims were in the midst of prayer, the consolation of Umar that his murderer was not among the Companions of the Prophet, and his concern for the welfare of the Muslim community after his death all came together quite effectively in the final scenes. The concern of Umar to be buried next to Abu Bakr and the Prophet underscored how much love the caliph had for these two individuals and how he always aspired to be considered among their ranks. I was glad they did not dwell too much upon the succession issue, since that takes one too far away from the main theme of the show: the life of ‘Umar. The closing sequence, where they showed all the people and lands under the caliphs control, from Iraq to Egypt to Arabia to Syria, was a great way to end the show by showing that Umar was not merely one man in Medina or, as he always insisted, simply one of the Muslims but a great contributor to a magnificent civilization. He was truly a successor to the Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr.


“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.


“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 28

Synopsis: The episode begins with al-Khansa’ looking anxiously in the Muslim encampment at al-Qadisiyya for her sons. When she finds out they have been killed, she remarks that God has honored her with their martyrdom and she prays that God will reunite her with them in the abode of mercy. The next scene shows both armies preparing for a third day of battle. The battle then gets underway and the two armies charge against each other. During the battle, the Muslims focus their attack on the elephants in the Persian army and take out several of them. This prompts a retreat from many of the Persian soldiers. The result is a complete rout and a victory for the Muslims.

The next scene goes back to Medina where Umar is anxious to hear word about events in Iraq. He sits by the road on the outskirts of the city for any news. Finally a messenger arrives and delivers the news about the Muslim victory at al-Qadisiyya; Umar is elated and overcome at such good tidings. The messenger tells Umar that all the top Persian military leadership, including Rustam, were killed and only the general Hurmuzan survived. He continues and explains how the Muslims completely routed the Persian army and pursued those retreating. Umar asks how many Muslims were killed in the battle, and the messenger replies that over 8500 Muslims were martyred. Umar then begins to weep in sorrow. The messenger then asks where he can find the Commander of the Believers (i.e. the caliph). Between his tears, Umar cannot help but be amused at this question.

The next scene goes to Ctesiphon, where Yazdgard III is in his palace where he is gathering his things and orders his wife to prepare to depart from the city. His wife urges him to stand his ground and fight for his patrimony but Yazdgard insists on a withdrawal from the city. The next scene shows the Muslim army, led by Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas entering Ctesiphon in triumph. As the Muslim commanders enter the royal palace, they express their awe and praise God that they were blessed enough to triumph and realize this historic moment. The next scene shows all the booty and riches from the royal palace at Ctesiphon brought to Medina. Ali, Umar, and other prominent Companions are staring at the pile of riches. Umar begins weeping and says that he does not fear the Muslims falling into poverty, but he fears what will follow due to their enrichment and acquisition of such riches. He asserts that the temptations of this world will deter the Muslims from pursuing the rewards of the Hereafter. Umar then summons Suraqah ibn Malik and asks him if he knows what the pile of riches in front of him is; the latter answers that he does not. Umar explains that this is the treasury, bracelets, and crown of the Persian emperor. Suraqah still looks confused. Umar tells him that this is the fulfillment of the Prophet’s promise and allows him to wear these items. After he has, Umar then orders him to place them back on the pile, explaining that–although he wore them as the Prophet promised–at the end of the day this wealth is the property of the Muslims and will be divided accordingly.

The next scene shows Umar making his nightly rounds around the city, in order to check on the well-being of the Muslims. The next morning, Umar is with Ali and Uthman, as well as some other major Companions, and they are discussing how to divide the spoils from the conquests among the Muslims. Umar explains that Abu Bakr used to divide the spoils equally among all the Muslims. Umar explains that his opinion is entirely different. He asserts that he feels it is not correct to reward those who fought against the Prophet in the same manner as those who fought with him, nor to place those who converted before the conquest of Mecca with those who converted afterwards. He asks the opinion of the rest of the Companions and they respond that, whatever they may feel about this, the final decision is in Umar’s hands. However, they recommend that a register (diwan) is drawn up in order to keep track of the salaries (ata’) granted to different individuals. Umar agrees, and Ali insists that a similar register be drawn up to keep track of the kharaj (land tax). Here, we have the beginnings of the Muslim bureaucracy. In another discussion (during a later scene), Ali and Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf are disagreeing about the division of spoils/land in Iraq and Syria. Ali insists that the wealth reverts to the control of the caliph and is distributed among the Muslims according to need, rather than allowing such wealth to be divided between the soldiers. Umar strongly agrees with Ali’s position and decides to make the lands conquered part of the patrimony of the Muslims rather than the property of the individual conquerors, a situation he feels would lead to the rise of a wealthy aristocracy which would not benefit the Muslim masses. He also explains that such a policy would maintain the interests of the local peasantry.

Next, we see Umar receiving a letter from ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, who has been besieging Jerusalem for months and explains to the caliph that the city’s notables refuse to surrender to anyone except the caliph himself. The major Companions, notably Ali, tell Umar that, indeed, he should go to Jerusalem himself and accept the surrender and draw up peace terms. Ali explains that by accepting the surrender himself and guaranteeing the rights of the inhabitants, this will ensure that future generations of Muslims do not violate these terms. The next scene shows Umar, riding on a camel, arriving at the gates of Jerusalem with his entourage. The patriarch, Sophronius, asks his servant which of the Arabs is actually the caliph and the servant points him out. As Umar approaches, Sophronius welcomes the caliph into the city. Umar then is heard giving the terms of the peace treaty (known as the “Pact of Umar”) to the inhabitants of the city, which include freedom of religion, guarantees for their lives and properties and churches. The episode ends as the two men, Sophronius and Umar, approach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Review: I’ll keep this review short. Overall, a good episode which moves the story along significantly. I’ll start with the things I really liked before moving on to the criticisms. First, I really enjoyed how they emphasizes Umar’s role (in conjunction with the other Companions) in establishing the Muslim chancery and bureaucracy since this allows the viewer to appreciate that until this moment the Islamic community and did not have the apparatus of a functioning “state”. As with previous episodes, I think Umar’s style of rule and his demeanor were brought out really well in this one and enjoyed the scenes where an individual had trouble distinguishing the caliph from the other members of the Muslim community. The debates between the Companions about the division of spoils and the establishment of the diwan system was also well done and underscored that there were serious disagreements among prominent Muslims about the way to go about establishing a viable economic and political system…in other words, nothing was set in stone. The final scene, showing the caliph’s entry into Jerusalem, was also done quite well and I appreciated its inclusion.

My main criticism surrounds the representation of the battle of Qadisiyya. Historically-speaking, this was perhaps one of the most important and decisive battles of the Islamic conquests, but the show did not underscore how epic and central it was. In fact, the viewer doesn’t really get the impression that it was an encounter on the scale of Yarmouk, which in fact it was. I was disappointed by this and felt that more effort could have been put into the depiction of this battle. Even the death of Rustam, a scene which attracts the attention of many classical chroniclers, was not represented on screen. More troubling was the lack of any reference to the thousands of Persian prisoners of war who converted to Islam following the battle, a hugely important event since this represents the beginnings of non-Arab Islam and these converts would play a major role in the Muslim community. Overall, although I was satisfied with the episode, it feel rather rushed and certain details could have been emphasized more over others.


“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 27

Synopsis: The episode begins by showing an absolutely massive Persian force, with cavalry and elephants, led by the general Rustam heading out to meet the smaller Muslim army encamped at al-Qadisiyya. In the Muslim army, led by Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, we learn that al-Muthanna ibn Harith has passed away and in his last words he left advice for how the Muslims could best combat the Persians and defeat them. The next scene then goes to Medina where Umar is walking through the streets. Two women approach him with a grievance. Apparently one of them has been divorced by her husband for no just cause and seeks reprieve; Umar is outraged and seeks out the husband and rebukes him for doing such a thing. Umar then goes back to walking around the city and comes across another man who he stops. He tells him that he has heard that someone has come to ask for his sister’s hand in marriage but he (the brother) has refused. The man responds that the potential groom is from a lower tribal group and that his own family is from Quraysh; therefore, such a match cannot be realized. Umar rebukes him and reminds him that all human beings are descendants from Adam and, thus, tribal standing is of little value. Umar then speaks to all those assembled in the city square and talks about the importance of Muslim unity and the need to remain as one community, rather than small, isolated groupings in society.

The next scene goes back to al-Qadisiyya where Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas is lying ill in bed, apparently suffering from some sort of sickness. He tells his wife he doesn’t know what to do while battle lies ahead. She suggests that he designates someone from the army to lead and report back to him about the developments. The famed poetess al-Khansa’ then enters upon Sa’d to check upon his condition and tells him her story of her encounter with Umar ibn al-Khattab, whom she praises as one of the most understanding and sincere people she has ever met. Back in Medina, Umar is consulting with Uthman and the other Companions about his ideas about expanding the mosque in Medina, since the population of the city has vastly increased. While in the midst of these discussions, a man comes to him and asks if he can help him with a problem; Umar is annoyed and tells the man that he is busy, pushing him away. The man, saddened, walks away. Umar is upset with himself for how he reacted and so summons the man back to his presence. Umar demands that it is only just that the man push him in the same manner that he did previously; the man refuses and tells the caliph that he forgives him. The next scene shows Umar in his house praying to God and asking for His mercy and forgiveness.

Back at al-Qadisiyya, the Persians and the Muslims are assembled across the battlefield from one another. The Muslims shout the takbir several times. The Persians send out one of their champions, who is met by one from the Muslim army. The Muslim wins and kills his opponent. The Persians send out another of their champions, who is met by another Muslim warrior, who easily slays his opponent. The Muslim infantry and cavalry then charge against the Persian army, who respond by sending out their own infantry and elephants against the Muslims. The elephants inflict major damage on the Muslim army. As the Banu Tamim and Banu Asad (both former Ridda tribes) join the fight, the odds begin to even for the Muslims. The next scene shows the first day of fighting over and the wounded being healed and the dead being gathered from the battlefield. Al-Khansa’ finds that all four of her sons (‘Amr, ‘Amrah, Yazid, and Mu’awiyah) are alive and well and she prays for their victory against the Persians. Meanwhile, the force commanded by al-Qa’qa’ from Syria reaches Iraq and marches towards the battlefield. The strategy devised is to divide the forces into 10 groups of 1000 who would march behind each other in order to give both the Muslims and Persians at the battlefield that the numbers of Muslim reinforcements were endless. As wave after wave of the Muslim cavalry reinforce the main army at al-Qadisiya (the battle now in its second day), the Muslims are elated while the Persians begin to get anxious. Al-Qa’qa steps forward and asks for the Persians to send out their champion…Rustam sends out one of the Persian generals. With difficulty, al-Qa’qa’ defeats and kills him. Al-Qa’qa’ demands the Persians to send out another of their champions; they send out two. These two are also defeated and killed. Meanwhile, the reinforcements from Syria continue to arrive and strengthen the Muslim army. The two armies eventually both charge against one another. During the battle, heavy casualties are inflicted on both sides and all four of al-Khansa’s sons are killed.

Review: This episode was done well, although it was not as exciting as the others. As with the previous ones, I was glad they struck a balance between events in Medina and the battlefields in the Iraq/Syria. I enjoyed the scenes with Umar, since they once again underscore his style of leadership and his own sense of justice and fairness. The episode also raised several important social issues about marriage and divorce which are relevant to the modern audience, so I thought that was quite good.

With regard  to how they portrayed the first two days of the Battle of Qadisiyya, I was satisfied. I was grateful they mentioned the participation of the tribes of Banu Tamim and Banu Asad, both of whom were key tribes during the Ridda uprising in Arabia. By doing so, not only were they faithful to the traditional accounts which emphasizes these tribal groups’ participation in the battle, but also shows the wisdom of Umar in reintegrating these tribes into the framework of the Islamic military and state. I thought the inclusion of al-Khansa’, perhaps the most famous Arab poetess of the seventh century, into the story was important and a nice touch. Her presence at al-Qadisiyya is well-attested historically, as is the fact that all four of her sons were killed in the battle. Upon receiving the news, she apparently said “Praise be to God who honored me with their martyrdom. And I have hope from my Lord that he will reunite me with them in the abode of his mercy.” The battle-scenes were not as well-executed as the previous sequences in the series, but I expect they’re saving that for the climax of the battle.


“Umar” Ramadan Series: Review and Synopsis of Episode 26

Synopsis: The episode starts where the last one left off, with Umar and his son walking back into Medina at night. As they walk, they overheard a mother and her daughter arguing in their house. The mother is ordering her daughter to mix the milk with the water (a form of increasing the amount so as to sell more in the market), but the daughter refuses, asserting that the caliph forbade this practice since it is a form of cheating. The daughter then tells her mother that God sees all and He will reward them if they do not use trickery. Umar tells his son that they will inquire in the morning about the identity of the two individuals. The next morning, Umar and his two sons return to the house and knock on the door. The mother nervously answers and lets them in, but is surprised to see the caliph and nervously asks if everything is ok. Umar asks to speak with her daughter. The mother then brings her out. Umar explains to both of them that he overheard their exchange from the night before (the mother starts panicking, but Umar tells her to calm down but never to repeat such a sin again) and that he proposes that such a righteous woman (the daughter) marry his son if she would be willing. The daughter approves.

The next scene goes to Ctesiphon and Yazdgard III is in his bedchambers with his new wife/concubine (?) and is expressing both his happiness about his newly-acquired position as emperor but also a certain sadness about having now been cut off from the rest of the world. However, he expresses delight at his new-found power and authority and states that he feels invincible and larger-than-life. In Medina, Umar is sitting in his house and two men are brought before him (one plaintiff and one defendant). He opens by praying to God that he will judge justly between them and asks the plaintiff to explain his grievance. The issue is essentially a land dispute. In the end, Umar judges in favor of the man who was wronged (the plaintiff). The next set of people to come into the room are a group of young men and an older individual. The latter explains that they stole one of his camels. Umar asks if this is true and the men reply in the affirmative. Umar asserts that it is then only just to apply the legally-prescribed punishment upon them. However, he first asks what they did with the camel. They say that they slaughtered it, ate from it, and distributed the remainder of the meat. The caliph asks what drove them to do this. They respond: hunger. Umar is shocked and explains that he will certainly not apply any punishments against these people.

A few scenes later, we are back at the siege of Damascus and Khalid ibn al-Walid and one of the other Muslim commanders are discussing strategy. Apparently, the day is one of a major Byzantine festival which involves a lot of drinking and Khalid suggests mounting an assault that night while the soldiers are drunk out of their minds. The next scene shows the Byzantines inside the city drinking and feasting. That night, as the soldiers inside the gates are rather drunk, the Muslims mount their assault by swinging ropes and ladders over the city walls. Khalid is among the first to infiltrate the city and fights the few guards at the eastern gate, Word reaches the city’s governor about this fact and he decides to surrender the city to Abu Ubayda in order to avoid the fate of a conquered people (according to the laws of war, surrendering cities were treated better than conquered ones). The next morning, the Muslims enter the city triumphantly. As Khalid and Abu Ubayda enter the palace in Damascus, they reaffirm the guarantee of safety for the people of Damascus and their property. Abu Sufyan then enters the city and expresses his wonder about the fulfillment of this event…he then expresses his desire to reside in the city. Khalid ibn al-Walid reminds him that the war for Syria is still far from over.

In Medina, Suhyal ibn Amr himself delivers the news to the caliph about the capture of Damascus. Umar expresses great joy and praises God. He then gathers all the prominent Muslims in a council in the mosque at Medina and tells them that, although the victory in Syria was welcome, the situation in Iraq was still dire. Umar explains that the stage is set for a major battle between the Persians and the Muslims in Iraq and, as such, he has ordered Khalid (and his army) as well as al-Qa’qa’ (and his army) to return to Iraq and rejoin al-Muthanna. Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas is to be appointed the supreme commander of Muslim forces in Iraq. The next scene goes to Ctesiphon where we are told that the massive Arab forces assembled (including Muslims from Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, and Medina) have encamped at al-Qadisiya. Yazdgard III expresses his exasperation that no Persian army has yet confronted them. The episode ends with him ordering them to set out to wage war against the Muslims encamped at al-Qadisiyya.

Review: This episode was done wonderfully as well! I was quite pleased that they brought in the story of the girl and her mother, the former whom eventually married the caliph’s son. Interestingly, it is from this couple whom the caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (d. 720) would be descended (on his maternal side), which makes it even more interesting that this was shown; for those interested, the daughter of the girl shown and Asim ibn Umar was Layla, who would become the mother of Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz. Focusing on this sequence also gave viewers an appreciation of why Umar ibn al-Khattab is renowned for his justice and wisdom, since he did not punish  the mother for her misdeed but, rather, rewarded the daughter for her own righteousness. Another scene I really appreciated was the court-case held in the presence of Umar in which he acquits the young men accused of stealing due to their hunger. I felt that this perfectly conveyed Umar’s commitment to justice and his astuteness in applying the law, considering ALL the specific circumstances involved in the case and not merely the crime and its prescribed punishment. Moreover, I thought they did a great job showing that Umar, although caliph, attended to legal matters himself.

Yazdgard III was represented quite well I thought. I liked how they emphasized his newly-acquired power and the effect that this had upon him. The final scene with him commanding his generals to go to war highlights his new conception of himself and his arrogance about his position as emperor. Again, I really appreciate that they devoted considerable attention to the internal developments within the Persian court, which allows the viewer to appreciate the dynamism and complexity of events. The capture of Damascus was shown really accurately. I was glad that they mentioned/showed that the city was both conquered by force and fell peacefully, but that the Muslims decided to recognize the latter condition even though a conquest-victory (‘anwatan) would have allowed them to seize the possessions and properties of the inhabitants, thereby enriching themselves. This emphasizes the Muslims’ mercy towards the people they conquered, as well as their realism…it wasn’t feasible for them to attract the enmity of a much-larger conquered population at a time when the conquests were still ongoing. Anyways, this historic fact of “the dual conquest” of Damascus is an important one for the later history of the city (Khalid’s forcible entry into the city was used by later generations to justify the full seizure of the Church of St. John which was then transformed into the Umayyad Mosque) and is mentioned in all the historical accounts.

Finally, I was intrigued by the inclusion of the discussion following the fall of Damascus between Khalid ibn al-Walid and Abu Sufyan. Abu Sufyan declares his joy that God’s promise has been fulfilled and the Quraysh have now become “kings” in the lands of Byzantium, where they had once been looked down upon as members of a lesser civilization; Khalid reminds him that they are servants of God and not kings or princes. Abu Sufyan tells him to use whatever word he wishes. The latter also expresses his desire to settle in Syria along with his sons Yazid and Mu’awiyah. Thus, we see the roots of the Umayyad dynasty (which would rule the Islamic world from 661 to 750…and until 1031 in Iberia) being planted in the city of Damascus. It also shows that, from the writers’ perspective, Abu Sufyan, although now a convert, was still very much animated by some of the forces of jahiliyya (tribal pride, love of power/wealth).



“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.


“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 🙂