Compiled by Zia H Shah MD
The square minaret of the Umar Mosque, with a dome of the Christian Quarter in the foreground, is an eloquent testimony of events showing early Muslim’s religious tolerance, from fourteen centuries ago.
This picture very powerfully established Islamic belief in freedom of religion and puts to rest, the accusation, for all periods to come that Islam was spread with sword. For the Muslims the political struggle was always divorced from the freedom of religion.
The modest Umar Mosque was built in the 12th century directly across from the main entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The mosque is named after Hazrat Umar, whose actions after his takeover of Jerusalem ensured, in the eighth century, that the Church of Holy Sepulcher remained open to Christian worship. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, known as the Church of the Resurrection to Eastern Orthodox Christians, is one of the most sacred places in Christianity. It stands on a site that encompasses both Golgotha, or Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb (sepulcher) where he was buried. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been an important pilgrimage destination since the 4th century, and it remains the holiest Christian site in the world.
After a brief and bloodless siege, initiated after the offensives by the Byzantines colonies, Muslims seized control of Jerusalem from the Byzantines in February 638. Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab accepted the city’s surrender from Patriarch Sophronius in person. Umar(ra) the great Church of the Holy Sepulcher and offered a place to pray in it, but he refused. He knew that if he prayed in the church, it would set a precedent that would lead to the building’s transformation into a mosque. He wanted the Christians to have their freedom of religion and their worship places safeguarded. Therefore, he instead prayed on the steps outside, allowing the church to remain a Christian holy place.
The Umar Mosque was built near the site of these events in 1193 by Saladin’s son Afdal Ali. The location is not exact, for the entrance to the Church was on the east in Umar’s time; the present entrance was only inaugurated in the 11th century. Reached by a short stairway that descends from Christian Quarter Road, the mosque has a distinctive square minaret. The base of the minaret contains some Crusader masonry and was given its present form around 1460.
To support the above description of the religious tolerance of Umar let me quote from the writing of Sir William Muir, a nineteenth century British historian of early Muslim history:
“Mahometan (Muslim) tradition gives no further detail respecting this memorable visit (to Jerusalem). But Christian writers say that Omar accompanied the Patriarch over the city, visited the various places of pilgrimage, and graciously inquired into their history. At the appointed hour, the Patriarch bade the Caliph perform his orisons in the church of the Resurrection, where they chanced to be. But he declined to pray either there, or in the church of Constantine where a carpet had been spread for him, saying kindly that if he did so his followers would take possession of the church for ever, as a place where Moslem prayer had once been offered up. Umar also visited Bethlehem; and having prayed in the church of the Nativity, left a rescript with the Patriarch, who accompanied him on the pious errand, securing the Christians in possession of the building, with the condition that not more than one Mussulman (Muslim) should ever enter at a time.” 
The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1888 states on page 563 and 1907 edition on page 586, under the heading Mohammedanism:
“To Umar ten years Caliphate belong, for the most part, the great conquests. He himself did not take the field, but remained in Medina; he never, however, suffered the reins to slip from his grip, so powerful was the influence of his personality and the Muslim community feeling. His political insight is shown by the fact that he endeavored to limit the indefinite extension of the Muslim conquest, to maintain and strengthen the national Arabian character of the commonwealth of Islam; also by making it his foremost task to promote law and order in its internal affairs. The saying with which he began his reign will never grow antiquated, ‘By God, he that is weakest among you shall be in my eye the strongest, until I have vindicated for him his rights; he that is strongest I will treat as the weakest, until he complies with the law’. It would be impossible to give a better general definition of the function of the state.” 
This was indeed an amazing expression of the democratic principle that no one is above the law or below it for that matter. Umar not only preached it but practiced it to the utmost. His quote in the older paper version of the Encyclopedia Britannica was an amazing testament to the character of Umar. Unfortunately that fundamental piece of his caliphate history is not mentioned in the online version now.
Encyclopedia Britannica online version states about him:
“On Muhammad’s death in 632 Umar was largely responsible for reconciling the Medinan Muslims to the acceptance of a Meccan, Abu Bakr, as head of state (caliph). Abu Bakr (reigned 632–634) relied greatly on Umar and nominated him to succeed him. As caliph, Umar was the first to call himself ‘commander of the faithful’ (amir al-mu’minin). His reign saw the transformation of the Islamic state from an Arabian principality to a world power. Throughout this remarkable expansion Umar closely controlled general policy and laid down the principles for administering the conquered lands. The structure of the later Islamic empire, including legal practice, is largely due to him. Assassinated by a Persian slave for personal reasons, he died at Medina 10 years after coming to the throne. A strong ruler, stern toward offenders, and himself ascetic to the point of harshness, he was universally respected for his justice and authority.” 
In the rest of this chapter now we will examine individual writers’ writings about this great hero of early Islam.
Washington Irving (April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859) was an American author of the early 19th century. Best known for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” (both of which appear in his book The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.), he was also a prolific essayist, biographer and historian. His historical works include biographies of George Washington, Oliver Goldsmith and Muhammad, and several histories of 15th century Spain dealing with subjects such as Columbus, the Moors, and the Alhambra. Irving also served as the U.S. minister to Spain from 1842 to 1845.
In his book “Lives of Successors of Muhammad”, Washington Irving estimates the achievements of Umar in the following terms:
“The whole history of Umar shows him to have been a man of great powers of mind, inflexible integrity and rigid justice. He was more than anyone else the founder of the Islamic empire; confirming and carrying out the inspirations of the Prophet; aiding Abu Bakr with his counsels during his brief Caliphate; and establishing wise regulations for the strict administration of the law throughout the rapidly-extending bounds of the Muslim conquests. The rigid hand which he kept upon his most popular generals in the midst of their armies, and in the most distant scenes of their triumphs, gives signal evidence of his extra-ordinary capacity to rule. In the simplicity of his habits, and his contempt for all pomp and luxury, he emulated the example of the Prophet and Abu Bakr. He endeavored incessantly to impress the merit and policy of the same in his letters to his generals. ‘Beware’ he would say of Persian luxury both in food and raiment. Keep to the simple habits of your country, and Allah will continue you victorious; depart from them and He will reverse your fortunes. It was his strong conviction of the truth of this policy which made him so severe in punishing all ostentatious style and luxurious indulgence in his officers. Some of his ordinances do credit to his heart as well as his head. He forbade that any female captive who had borne a child should be sold as a slave. In his weekly distributions of the surplus money of his treasury, he proportioned them to the wants, not the merits of the applicants. ‘God’ said he, ‘has bestowed the good things of this world to relieve our necessities, not to reward our virtues: those will be rewarded in another world’.” 
In the words of Washington Irving again:
“In the administration of affairs, his probity and justice were proverbial. In private life he was noted for abstinence and frugality and contempt for the false grandeur of the world. Water was his only beverage. His food a few dates, or a few bits of barley bread and salt but in time of penance, even salt was retrenched as a luxury. His austere piety and self-denial, and the simplicity and almost poverty of his appearance were regarded with reverence in those primitive days of Islam. He had shrewd maxims on which he squared his conduct, of which the following is a specimen. ‘Four things come not back: the spoken word; the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.’ During his reign mosques were erected without number for the instruction and devotion of the faithful, and prisons for the punishment of delinquents.” 
According to the Wikipedia, Sir William Muir (1819 – 1905) was a Scottish Orientalist. He was born at Glasgow and educated at Kilmarnock Academy, at Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, and at Haileybury College. In 1837 he entered the Bengal Civil Service. He served as secretary to the governor of the North-West Provinces, and as a member of the Agra revenue board, and during the Mutiny he was in charge of the intelligence department there. In 1865 he was made foreign secretary to the Indian Government. In 1867 he was knighted, and in 1868 he became lieutenant-governor of the North-West Provinces. In 1874 he was appointed financial member of the Council, and retired in 1876, when he became a member of the Council of India in London. He had always taken an interest in educational matters, and it was chiefly through his exertions that the central college at Allahabad, known as Muir College, was built and endowed. Muir College later became a part of the Allahabad University. In 1885 he was elected principal of Edinburgh University in succession to Sir Alexander Grant, and held the post till 1903, when he retired.
In his book The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall from original sources, Sir William Muir says the follows about Umar:
“So died Umar, next to the Prophet the greatest in the kingdom of Islam; for it was all within these ten years that, by his wisdom, patience, and vigor, the dominion was achieved of Syria, Egypt, and Persia. Abu Bakr beat down the apostate tribes but at his death the armies of Islam had but just crossed the Syrian frontier. Umar began his reign master only of Arabia. He died the Caliph of an empire embracing some of the fairest provinces under Byzantine rule, and with Persia to boot. Yet throughout this marvelous fortune he never lost the balance of a wise and sober judgment, nor exalted himself above the frugal habit of the Arab chief. ‘Where is the Caliph?’ the visitor would ask, as he looked around the court of the Madinah mosque; and all the while the monarch might be sitting in homely guise before him.
Umar’s life requires but few lines to sketch. Simplicity and duty were his guiding principles; impartiality and devotion the leading features of his administration. Responsibility so weighed upon him that he was heard to exclaim ‘O that my mother had not borne me; would that I had been this stalk of grass instead!’ In early life, of a fiery and impatient temper, he was known even in the later days of the Prophet, as the stern advocate of vengeance. Ever ready to unsheathe the sword, it was he who at Badr advised that the prisoners to be all put to death. (The Holy Prophet forgave them on all) But age, as well as office, had now mellowed this asperity. His sense of justice was strong. And except it be the treatment of Khalid, whom according to some accounts, he pursued with an ungenerous resentment, no act of tyranny or injustice is recorded against him; and even in this matter, his enmity took its rise in Khalid’s unscrupulous treatment of fallen foe. The choice of his captains and governors was free from favoritism and (Moghira and Ammar excepted) singularly fortunate. The various tribes and bodies in the empire, representing interests the most diverse, reposed in his integrity implicit confidence, and his strong arm maintained the discipline of law and empire. …… Whip in hand. he would perambulate the streets and markets of Madinah, ready to punish offenders on the spot; and so the proverb ‘Umar’s whip is more terrible than another’s sword’. But with all this, he was tender hearted, and numberless acts of kindness are recorded of him, such as relieving the wants of the widows and the fatherless.” 
Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) was an English historian and Member of Parliament. His most important work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. The History is known principally for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open denigration of organized religion.
To describe Gibbon’s comments about Umar let us start with his description of Abu Bakr(ra) classical work ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, Gibbon writes:
“When Abu Bakr assumed the office of caliph, he enjoined his daughter Ayesha to take a strict account of his patrimony, that it might be evident whether he were enriched or impoverished by the service of the state. He thought himself entitled to a stipend of three pieces of gold, with the sufficient maintenance of a single camel and a black slave; but on Friday of each week he distributed the residue of his own and the public money, first to the most worthy, and then to the most indigent of the Muslims. The remains of his wealth, a coarse garment, and five pieces of gold, were delivered to his successor, who lamented with a modest sigh his own inability to equal such an admirable model. Yet the abstinence and humility of Umar were not inferior to the virtues of Abu Bakr: his food consisted of barley bread or dates; his drink was water; he preached in a gown that was torn or tattered in twelve places; and a Persian satrap, who paid his homage as to the conqueror, found him asleep among the beggars on the steps of the mosque of Muslims. Economy is the source of liberality, and the increases of the revenue enabled Umar(ra) to establish a just and perpetual reward for the past and present services of the faithful. Careless of his own emolument, he assigned to Abbas, the uncle of the Prophet, the first and most ample allowance of twenty-five thousand dirhams of pieces of silver. Five thousand were allotted to each of the aged warriors, the relics of the field of Badr, and the last and the meanest of the companions of Mohammad was distinguished by the annual reward of three thousand pieces. ….. Under his reign and that of his predecessors, the conquerors of the East were the trusty servants of God and the people; the mass of public treasure was consecrated to the expenses of peace and war; a prudent mixture of justice and bounty maintained the discipline of the Saracens, and then united, by a rare felicity, the dispatch and execution of despotismwiththeequalandfrugalmaximsofarepublicangovernment.”  
His food consisted of barely bread or dates; his drink was water; he preached in a gown that was torn or tattered in twelve places; and a Persian satrap, who paid his homage to the conqueror, found him asleep among the beggars on the steps of the mosque of Medina. 
Hitti was educated at an American Presbyterian mission school at Suq al-Gharb and at the American University of Beirut. After graduating in 1908 he taught at the American University of Beirut before moving to Columbia University where he taught Semitic languages and won his PhD in 1915. After World War I he returned to American University of Beirut and taught there until 1926. In February 1926 he was offered a Chair at Princeton University which he held until he retired in 1954. He was both Professor of Semitic Literature and Chairman of the Department of Oriental Languages. After formal retirement he accepted a position at Harvard. Philip Hitti almost single handedly created the discipline of Arabic Studies in the United States. In 1945 he served as an advisor to the Arab delegation at the San Francisco Conference which established the United Nations.
In his book “History of the Arabs” Professor Philip K, Hitti has assessed the achievements of Umar in the following terms:
“Simple and frugal in manner the energetic and talented Umar (634-644) who was of towering height, strong physique and bald headed, continued at least for some time after becoming the Caliph to support himself by trade and lived throughout his life in a style as unostentatious as that of a Bedouin Sheikh, In fact, Umar(ra), whose name according to Muslim tradition is the greatest in early Islam after that of Mohammad, has been idolized by Muslim writers for his piety, justice and patriarchal simplicity and treated as the personification of all the virtues a Caliph ought to possess. His irreproachable character became an exemplar for all conscientious successors to follow. He owned, we are told, one shirt and one mantle only, both conspicuous for their patchwork, slept on a bed of palm leaves, and had no concern other than the maintenance of the purity of the faith, the upholding of justice and the ascendancy and security of Islam and the Arabians. Arabic’ literature is replete with anecdotes extolling Umar’s stern character. He is said to have scourged his own son to death for’ drunkenness. Having in a fit of anger inflicted a number of stripes on a Bedouin who came seeking his succor against an oppressor, the Caliph soon repented and asked the Bedouin to inflict the same number on him But the latter refused So Umar(ra) retired to his home with the following soliloquy: “O son of al-Khattab humble thou wert and Allah has elevated thee, thou went astray, and Allah ‘hath guided thee; thou were weak, and Allah hath strengthened thee, Then He caused thee to rule over the necks of thy people, and when one of them came seeking thy aid thou didst strike him! What wilt thou have to say to thy Lord when thou presentest thyself before Him’, The one who fixed the Hijrah as the commencement of the Muslim era, presided over the conquest of large portions of the then known world, instituted the state register and organized the government of the new empire, met a tragic and sudden death at the very zenith of his life when he was struck down by the poisoned dagger of a Christian Persian slave in the midst of his own congregation.”
In his book ‘History of Egypt’, Jurji Zaidan, a Christian historian has paid a tribute to Umar in the following words:
“In his time various countries were conquered, spoils were multiplied, the treasures of the Persian and Roman Emperors were poured in streams before his troops, nevertheless he himself manifested a degree of abstemiousness and moderation which was never surpassed. He addressed the people clad in a garment patched with leather. He was himself the first to practice what he preached. He kept a vigilant eye over the Governors and Generals and enquired strictly into their conduct. Even the great Khalid bin Walid Was not spared. He was just to all mankind and was kindly even, to non-Muslims, iron discipline was maintained every where during his reign.” 
Michael H. Hart (born April 28, 1932 in New York City) is an astrophysicist who has also written three books on history. Hart, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science who enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean war, received his undergraduate degree at Cornell in mathematics and later earned a PhD in astrophysics at Princeton University. He also holds graduates degrees in physics, astronomy, and computer science, as well as a law degree. He was a research scientist at NASA before leaving to be a professor of physics at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He has also taught both astronomy and history of science at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland. His published work in peer-reviewed scientific journals includes several detailed computer simulations of atmospheric evolution.
According to wikipedia.com: His first book was The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, which has sold more than 500,000 copies and been translated into 15 foreign languages. His second book, A View from the Year 3000, published in 1999, is a history of the future which includes both technological advances and political developments.
In his book the 100 men: A ranking of the most influential persons in history, Michael H Hart has ranked Umar as number 51. Umar is the only other Muslim other than the Prophet Muhammad(sa) who is on the top of the list to make the list of Michael Hart. He enjoys a position above 49 other very influential people, including President Thomas Jefferson, President John F Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth I, Prophet Zoroaster and the scientist Rene Descartes. Michael H Hart writes:
“Umar ibn al-Khattab was the second, and probably the greatest, of the Moslem caliphs. He was a younger contemporary of Muhammad, and like the Prophet, was born in Mecca. The year of his birth is unknown, but was perhaps about 586. Umar(ra) was originally one of the most bitter opponents of Muhammad and his new religion. Rather suddenly, however, Umar(ra) became converted to Islam, and thereafter was one of its strongest supporters. (The parallel with the conversion of St. Paul to Christianity is striking.) Umar(ra) became one of the closest advisors of the prophet Muhammad, and remained so throughout Muhammad’s life.
In 632, Muhammad died without having named a successor. Umar(ra) promptly supported the candidacy of Abu Bakr, a close associate and father-in-law of the Prophet. This avoided a power struggle and enabled Abu Bakr to be generally recognized as the first caliph (i.e., as the ‘successor’ of Muhammad). Abu Bakr was a successful leader, but he died after serving as caliph for only two years. He had, however, specifically named Umar(ra) (who was also a father-in-law of the Prophet) to succeed him, so once again a power struggle was avoided. Umar(ra) became caliph in 634, and retained power until 644, when he was assassinated in Madinah by a Persian slave. On his deathbed, Umar(ra) named a committee of six persons to choose his successor, thereby again averting an armed struggle for power. The committee chose Othman, the third caliph, who ruled from 644 to 656.
It was during the ten years of Umar’s caliphate that the most important conquests of the Arabs occurred. Not long after Umar’s accession, Arab armies invaded Syria and Palestine, which at that time were part of the Byzantine Empire. At the Battle of the Yarmuk (636), the Arabs won a crushing victory over the Byzantine forces. Damascus fell the same year, and Jerusalem surrendered two years later. By 641, the Arabs had conquered all of Palestine and Syria, and were advancing into present-day Turkey. In 639, Arab armies invaded Egypt, which had also been under Byzantine rule. Within three years, the Arab conquest of Egypt was complete.
Arab attacks upon Iraq, at that time part of the Sassanid Empire of the Persians, had commenced even before Umar(ra) took office. The key Arab victory, at the battle of Qadisiya (637) occurred during Umar’s reign. By 641, all of Iraq was under Arab control. Nor was that all: Arab armies invaded Persia itself, and at the battle of Nehavend (642) they decisively defeated the forces of the last Sassanid emperor. By the time Umar(ra) died, in 644, most of western Iran had been overrun. Nor had the Arab armies run out of momentum when Umar(ra) died. In the East, they fairly soon completed the conquest of Persia, while in the West they continued their push across North Africa.
Just as important as the extent of Umar’s conquests is their permanence. Iran, though its population became converted to Islam, eventually regained its independence from Arab rule. But Syria, Iraq, and Egypt never did. Those countries became thoroughly Arabized and remain so to this day.
Umar(ra), of course, had to devise policies for the rule of the great empire that his armies had conquered. He decided that the Arabs were to be a privileged military caste in the regions they had conquered, and that they should live in garrison cities, apart from the natives. The subject peoples were to pay tribute to their Moslem (largely Arab) conquerors, but were otherwise to be left in peace. In particular, they were not to be forcibly converted to Islam. (From the above, it is clear that the Arab conquest was more a nationalist war of conquest than a holy war, although the religious aspect was certainly not lacking.)
Umar’s achievements are impressive indeed. After Muhammad himself, he was the principal figure in the spread of Islam. Without his rapid conquests, it is doubtful that Islam would be nearly as widespread today as it actually is. Furthermore, most of the territory conquered during his reign has remained Arab ever since. Obviously, of course, Muhammad, who was the prime mover, should receive the bulk of the credit for those developments. But it would be a grave mistake to ignore Umar’s contribution. The conquests he made were not an automatic consequence of the inspiration provided by Muhammad. Some expansion was probably bound to occur, but not to the enormous extent that it did under Umar’s brilliant leadership.
It may occasion some surprise that Umar – a figure virtually unknown in the West – has been ranked higher than such famous men as Charlemagne and Julius Caesar. However, the conquests made by the Arabs under mar, taking into account both their size and their duration, are substantially more important than those of either Caesar or Charlemagne.”