Some names throughout our Islamic history deserve honourable mentions of changing the world, such as Tariq b. Ziyād and Muhammad Al-Fātih, to name a few. Yet ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz, the man who is part of the lineage of the mighty Companion ʿUmar b. Al-Khattāb, stands out for many reasons. Before we delve into his story, we must first think of the qualities and characteristics a person needs in order to change the world.
Undoubtedly, boardroom words such as determination, intelligence, hard work, patience, and perseverance all need their place in any changemaker’s toolkit. However, in the life of a Muslim, there is one distinct quality we need above others: taqwa. Without having taqwa of Allāh, it would be near impossible to achieve anything. Whatever you achieve will be for the very few moments you are awake for in this world, and it will only be for this world.
The personality we will discuss has a colossal story – one that requires an entire book. Nevertheless, I will aim to summarise it in this piece bi ithnillāh.
The legacy of ʿUmar b. Al-Khattāb
The greatness of ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz actually starts during the time of his great grandfather, ʿUmar b. Al-Khattāb, who was known to patrol the streets of Madinah to check on the affairs of the Muslims. On one particular night, he had issued an order. Every Muslim knows of the justice of ʿUmar, who would not allow any kind of injustice, treachery, or dishonesty in trade. So, what was this order? ʿUmar said that no one is to mix water with milk in order to make it appear as if there is more milk.
One evening, when ʿUmar was out in the streets, he overheard a conversation between a mother and her daughter. The mother was telling the daughter to add water to milk in order to make more money and profit, but the daughter reminded her of the command of ʿUmar. The mother said, “What will make ʿUmar know what it is that we are doing?” The daughter replied, “Even if ʿUmar does not know, the Lord of ʿUmar will know!”
We do not worship ʿUmar b. Al-Khattāb. Instead, we obey him, because of our worship of Allāh. The powerful words of the daughter to her mother struck the heart of ʿUmar b. Al-Khattāb. He marked the door that night, and the next morning he gathered all of his sons that were not married and said to them, “Which one of you wishes to marry so that I can marry him off?” One of his sons answered and said, “Me, O father. I want to get married.” ʿUmar said, “Go to this house that I have marked, and I will marry you off to this pious young woman.”
ʿUmar took his son and proposed to the daughter on his behalf. The son of ʿUmar became wedded to the young woman, and they had a daughter whose name was Leyla. After ʿUmar b. Al-Khattāb had passed away, his grand-daughter Leyla married ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz.
When ʿUmar b. Al-Khattāb was still alive, he had a dream where he saw a grandchild of his. ʿUmar would narrate this dream to the people of Madinah around him. He would say, “One of my children will come with a big scar on his face, and he will fill the world with justice, just like it was filled with injustice.” Some narrations state that ʿUmar would add, “And his name will be ʿUmar.”
After marrying ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz, Leyla has a son with him whom she names ʿUmar. This young child’s father, ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz, was appointed as the minister of Egypt, so ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz was born in Egypt, which at the time was called Umm al-Dunya, the ‘Mother of the World’.
One day, ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz is out with his father in the stables with the horses, when suddenly a horse bucks and hits ʿUmar in the face. Blood pours out, and as his father tends to his injury, he says, “If you are the one that ʿUmar was talking about, then that is a great blessing for you.” At this moment, ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz is thinking, “It could be my son.” Up until that point, it was thought that the one whom ʿUmar b. Al-Khattāb had seen in the dream was a son of ʿAbdullah b. ʿUmar, who had a son called Bilāl who was of great stature.
ʿUmar in Madinah
ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz then sends his son ʿUmar from Egypt to Madinah to study and learn. He puts his son under the care of one of the scholars of Madinah, Saleh b. Khaysāb. ʿUmar grows up in Madinah. He memorises the entire Qur’ān, then memorises many hadīth. One day, he is late for salāh. Saleh b. Khaysāb sees him in the back row, finishing off the prayer after everyone has finished, so he approaches ʿUmar and asks him why he was late for salāh. ʿUmar replies, “My servant was combing my hair, and because my hair was not sitting straight, I was delayed.”
Saleh b. Khaysāb is not happy with this answer and says, “Your hair prevented you from getting to salāh on time?” He sends a letter to ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz in Egypt. Upon receiving the letter, ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz immediately sends a messenger to Madinah and instructs him to cut all of ʿUmar’s hair off. He sends a letter with the messenger in which he states, “How dare you let your hair prevent you from getting to salāh on time? Let me teach you the value of salāh.” Sometimes, the lesson is harsh, but this benefits the believer. Something like salāh cannot be taken lightly. It is your connection with Allāh – if you lose it, you lose everything. ʿUmar never came late for salāh ever again.
ʿUmar was living a life of luxury. He was the son of the leader of Egypt, and his relatives from Banu ʿUmair were ruling the Ummah at the time. His father sadly passes away while ʿUmar is still young. ʿUmar spends time with the leadership of the Khilāfa (Caliphate) at the time, his uncle ʿAbd Al-Malik. While growing up with ʿAbd Al-Malik, ʿUmar is liked by ʿAbd Al-Malik, who marries his daughter Fatima to ʿUmar.
ʿUmar now has a wife. He is growing up and becoming an adult. He has lived with the rulers of the Khilāfa at the time. ʿAbd Al-Malik, the father of Fatima, was the Khalīfa at the time. Her grandfather was the Khalīfa. When her father dies, her brother Al-Walīd b. ʿAbd Al-Malik becomes the Khalīfa. But Al-Walīd is a corrupt person, and during his reign, his family are taking the wealth of the people and using it for their own luxuries and benefits. Injustice starts to spread. People are complaining. But Al-Walīd knows ʿUmar is a good person, so he puts him in charge of Madinah.
When ʿUmar becomes in charge of Madinah, he fills it with justice. There becomes no place better to live than Madinah. Al-Walīd gives ʿUmar power over Madinah, Makkah, Tā’if, and in the end, the entire Hejaz. So everywhere else in the Khilāfa is suffering from injustice; people’s wealth and property is being taken, and people’s rights are being violated. There is no justice except in the Hejaz, where ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz is in charge.
Who was Al-Hajjāj b. Yūsuf? He was the one to kill what remained of the Companions. ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz hears that Al-Hajjāj is coming to make ʿUmrah, so he sends a message to Al-Walīd b. ʿAbd Al-Malik, saying, “Al-Hajjāj is coming. Tell him a tyrant like him cannot come to Madinah. He makes his ʿUmrah and leaves from Makkah, or he makes his Hajj and leaves from Makkah. He has no right to come to Madinah. Someone unjust like him is not allowed.”
The Khalīfa at the time has great respect for ʿUmar, so he says to Al-Hajjāj, “Go and do your ʿUmrah or Hajj, but you cannot go to Madinah, because there is someone there who does not like you.” Al-Hajjāj refuses to accept this, so he convinces Al-Walīd to dismiss ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz from leadership. As he is leaving Madinah, ʿUmar is crying. His faithful servant and helper, Muzāhim, asks him, “Why are you crying?” to which ʿUmar replies, “Do you know the hadīth that says that Madinah throws out the impurities from it? I fear that I am from the impurities, and that is why I am being expelled.” Muzāhim says, “It is not so, and it is only a matter of time.”
Sulaimān and ʿUmar
Al-Walīd dies, and as was the norm for Banu Umair, the leadership was passed on to the next in line in the family, which was Sulaimān, who becomes the leader and is more just than Al-Walīd was. ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz becomes close to Sulaimān. Once, they were walking together during a storm. Sulaimān becomes afraid of his life amidst all the lightning and thunder. ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz says to him, “If this is how you are with the mercy of Allāh, then how will you be with the anger of Allāh? Rain is the mercy of Allāh descending. If you are like this now, imagine the anger of Allāh descending.”
During the time of Sulaimān as Khalīfa, both ʿUmar and Sulaimān are making Hajj. They look at the amount of pilgrims, and Sulaimān says, “Look at all of these people here making Hajj.” ʿUmar ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz gives him some advice and says, “Look at them carefully, because every single one of them is going to argue against you on the Day of Judgment. They will take you to account on that Day, and they will complain about you.”
Sulaimān grows old and becomes ill. As he is about to pass away, he thinks about his succession, but one of his sons is too young to take the position of Khalīfa, and the other son is missing. Sulaimān speaks to his faithful minister and advisor Rajah b. Haywā and says, “Who shall I appoint as the next Khalīfa?” Rajah says to him, “There is no one better that I know for this position than ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz.” Sulaimān writes this down in a book and seals it with his seal, then calls his entire family and the rest of the elite and says to them, “All of you pledge allegiance to the name that I have written in this book.” They all said, “Who is it? We need to know before we agree and give our pledge of allegiance” He says, “You are going to agree and give your pledge of allegiance or else none of you will receive anything.”
After they agree, they go to Rajah and say, “Whose name is it?” He does not tell anyone, instead saying, “This is a secret between me and the Khalīfa.” The Khalīfa dies and the book is opened while the elite are all present. Anyone of them could be the leader. They open the book and Rajah reads out: “The Khalīfa is now ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz.” Suddenly, they hear intense crying in the Masjid. They look in a corner and see ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz crying. He was crying at the responsibility that he felt at that moment after living a life of luxury.
Rajah says, “I saw him while he was young. He sent me to buy some clothing for him, so I bought him some clothing worth 500 dinars.” This was a huge amount of money, but ʿUmar had said to Rajah, “This is a really good outfit, except that it is cheap.” Yet at the moment that his name was revealed, he realised that he was responsible for the entire Ummah, and so he cries.
ʿUmar stands up on the minbar and says, “All of you are free from the pledge of allegiance that you gave. I release you from it. You do not have to take me as your leader.” They all turn around and say, “We will not accept anyone besides you.”
ʿUmar as Khalīfa
The first thing ʿUmar does as Khalīfa is to head towards his house. On his way, an entourage of the elite and their horses and servants follow him. ʿUmar asks, “What is this?” They say, “You are the Khalīfa now. You have to follow certain protocols. You have to ride on this horse, not on your own little mule.” ʿUmar replies, “I have nothing to do with this. Leave me be. I am going to use my own mule, and I am going to go to my house.” The elite say, “You cannot go to your house. You have to go the palace, because that is where you will now accept your guests, dignitaries, and everyone else.”
ʿUmar refuses to go and instead heads towards his house, which was a mere hut. From that moment on, because of the responsibility that he has, there was no house in the Ummah that did not live a better life than he did. He had lentils for every meal, to the point where his servants were becoming fed up with the same food. But despite their complaints, he would continue eating basic food.
On one occasion, ʿUmar asks his servant, “How are the people doing?” His servant truthfully says, “Everyone is relaxing and enjoying life, except for me, you, and our riding animal. We are the only ones suffering.”
ʿUmar then brought together Banu Umayyah and the rest of the elite and said to them, “All your wealth and everything that you have will be returned to Bayt Al-Māl [the Treasury]. It does not belong to you. You and your forefathers took it from the people, and it is their right.” The elite refused, but he announced to the entire Khilāfa, “Anyone whose property has been usurped or their rights have been taken, come to me and I will return your rights to you.” He tasked himself with returning all the property to its rightful owners. ʿUmar once became tired from taking care of all of these affairs from Fajr until Dhuhr, so he told the people to wait while he went to rest.
His son, ʿAbd Al-Malik, comes and finds his father is not where he should be, with many people waiting for him. He is his father’s son, so he goes to his father and asks what is happening. ʿUmar says, “I was just resting so that I have the strength to deal with them later.” The response of the son embodies the tarbiyah he received from his father. The son says, “Father, you feel secure that the Day of Judgment will come, and you are here resting while the people are waiting at your door to give them back their rights.” ʿUmar immediately jumps up and leaves to finish what he had started. He returns all the wealth to its rightful owners, and he fills the Earth with justice, like it was filled with injustice.
There becomes no one poor enough to accept Zakāh. ʿUmar has to find people to give money to because the Bayt Al-Māl is full. ʿUmar declares, “Anyone who has injuries that makes him unable to work, give them money so they do not have to work.” Yet there is still too much wealth, so he says, “Anyone who wants to get married, we will pay for their wedding.” Yet there is still too much wealth, so he says, “Anyone who needs their house furnished, we will pay for their house to be furnished.”
The Earth is filled with such justice that the shepherds and the Bedouins from the desert come to visit and say, “Something has happened. Do you have a righteous leader who has taken the Khilāfa?” The people ask, “Why do you say that? What is different?” They say, “We have no fear of the wolf attacking our animals anymore. There is so much justice to the point that the world has changed.”
The death of ʿUmar
The war between good and evil never stops. Banu Umayyah, the tribe from whom ʿUmar took their wealth and returned it to the people, become angry with him. Yazīd b. ʿAbd Al-Malik was from Banu Umayyah. Yazīd pays a boy to poison the drink of ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz. After two years, five months, and five days, ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz drinks his drink and realises it is poisoned. Those around him notice that ʿUmar seems to be affected, and he confirms that he has been poisoned.
ʿUmar knows who has poisoned him, so he calls the boy and asks him, “Who told you to do this?” The boy tells him, “Yazīd b. ʿAbd Al-Malik.” ʿUmar asks, “What did he offer you?” The boy says, “1000 dirhams and my freedom from being a slave.” ʿUmar says, “As for the thousand dirhams, give it to Bayt Al-Māl and return it. As for you, run from here and make sure you are never seen again. If people find out you are the one that poisoned me and I die because of it, they will kill you.” This shows the utmost mercy and justice that ʿUmar had. The boy flees, and ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz succumbs to the poison.
The whole of the Khilāfa and the whole of the Ummah cry, as if it were their father who had died. This is because ʿUmar did not live for himself. He prayed every single night and sat with the scholars where reminders were given about death every night. He lived as the poorest person amongst the people. He established the justice that his grandfather, ʿUmar b. Al-Khattāb, had written down; the fatāwa that he gave, the way he would live, and the way he would command. This made him a boy who changed the world.
His history reads like a dream, like something miraculous. Yet he was a normal human being. He was like any one of the youths we have around us. You can change the world just like ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz did, if you have his characteristics.
What were the most important characteristics that ʿUmar b. ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz had?
- Integrity – but where did he get that integrity from? What did he think about every night? Death. The reality of knowing that tomorrow, or in the next moment, I could be standing in front of Allāh, and He could ask me about everything. There is no escape.
- Intelligence, which he took from the most intelligent person after the prophets and Abu Bakr: ʿUmar b. Al-Khattāb. He asked for his knowledge and books to be brought to him from his family, and he studied and used and implemented what he had learnt.
These characteristics are summarised by Prophet Yūsuf (‘alayhi al-Salām), whose story emphasises the importance of a person having taqwa of Allāh. This means remembering that you are going to stand in front of Allāh and answer every single one of His questions. It means only doing the halāl, and even refraining from some of the halāl so that you are never in any doubt about what you are doing, and staying away from every harām because you fear standing in front of Allāh. It is vital to put up with whatever you are going to face and to deal with every challenge, never failing to realise that Allāh sees what you are doing, and that nothing will ever go to waste.