Discover the genius leadership of Umar ibn al Khattab

In the famous Michael H. Hart’s book “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History” where first place was taken by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the only Companion (Sahabi) who was chosen to be also included in this list was ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam, and one of the greatest companions of the Prophet ﷺ [1].


The main reason why he was chosen by Hart, to put in his own words, was because “the conquests made by the Arabs under ‘Umar, taking into account both their size and their duration, are substantially more important than those of either Caesar or Charlemagne” [2]. Considering how much the personalities of Caesar and Charlemagne are revered in Western history, it is really amazing that ‘Umar was considered as more influential by the same western historians!


And it was not only Michael Hart who considered ‘Umar as one of the greatest leaders of all time. In Encyclopedia Britannica, we can read that ‘Umar was “a strong ruler, stern toward offenders, and himself ascetic to the point of harshness, ‘Umar was universally respected for his justice and authority”.


Also, Washington Irving, in his book “Muhammad and His Successors”, writes that “The life of ‘Umar, from beginning to end, shows that he was a man of great brilliance who was committed to righteousness and justice”.


The fact that ‘Umar’s leadership was so great, that even non-Muslims had to appreciate it, and he became universally accepted as an extraordinary man, in whose hands the Islamic openings of new lands became possible, show us that in his example, we can learn great lessons of leadership which today is so lacking in the Muslim world.


In this article, we will discuss those traits of leadership and personality which made ‘Umar one of the greatest companions who was appointed as second Caliph by Abu Bakr, the closest companion of the Prophet ﷺ, himself.


To know more about Abu Bakr’s life: Abu Bakr As-Siddiq: an outstanding Reasoning and Intellect



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‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab and his wisdom in the governorship


In one of his first, if not the first, speeches that ‘Umar gave to the people, he said: “I will not delegate to anyone else any of your affairs that I can deal with directly, and if there is anything that I cannot deal with directly, I will try to delegate it to people who can deal with it and are trustworthy, […] if they do well, I will reward them, and if they do badly, I will punish them” [3].


‘Umar understood that the responsibility for success is in the hands of the rulers and not the ruled. Thus, his first concern was not to deal with ordinary people by teaching them obedience or fixing their mistakes. Rather, his first concern was the governors of those areas which were hardly reachable by himself.


Because of this concern, his first and most important task was to choose and appoint the ablest governors who would take care of the Caliphate provinces. The primary reason he would appoint a governor was not merely his piety or righteousness but his political ability to properly take care of the land and people living therein.


Such governors had to be knowledgeable of Islamic rulings and governance principles and had to have experience in ruling other people. Sometimes ‘Umar would have to choose between a person with the greatest character and righteousness and a person who is worse in character but more knowledgeable and experienced in politics. In this scenario ‘Umar would choose the second [4].


Umar ibn al Khattab name in Arabic
Credit: Petermaleh

Also, he would do his best in appointing those people who were similar to the ruled. Thus, the village people would get a person who himself is from the village, and town people would be governed by somebody from town and knew their culture better. It would make it much easier for a governor to understand the expectancies of the governed [5].


To avoid misuse of power or jealous accusations, ‘Umar would never choose any of his relatives to government positions, even if they were qualified to do the job. Also, he would not appoint anyone who expressed a wish to be governor, as the intention of such men is highly questionable. Anyone who is God-fearing would never suggest himself taking such a responsible position as a governor [6].


Another important clause stipulated by ‘Umar on his governors was the prohibition of indulging in trading activities [7]. Because of it, there was no distraction for the ruling personnel, and they could fully concentrate on their jobs. Also, it made it impossible for the governors to abuse their powers for trading benefits or benefit from the people who would try to appease the ruler by helping in their trade or accepting higher prices.


If today politicians were prohibited from business activities, surely, we would live in a much less corrupted world!


All of these conditions that ‘Umar applied in choosing the governors, and his primary concern about the rulers and not the ruled made the Caliphate strong. The extreme caution with which ‘Umar used to pick up the most suitable men assured that they would be good in their ruling and that their people would love and support them.


As we know, for a state to survive, it is not enough to acquire land but to avoid people’s rebellions by addressing their concerns and giving them their rights. Considering that Muslims came as rulers with different religions and cultures, it is really shocking to see that there were few rebellions against Muslim rule in the newly opened lands. The primary reason for that was the assurance of their rights that Islam gave. But this assurance would be impossible without able rulers who were committed to Allah, justice, and the well-being of humans around them.


If it was not for ‘Umar’s wisdom in choosing governors and strictly observing their conduct, the world of Islam probably would be much different today.



Principles of ‘Umar’s leadership



In his personality, ‘Umar based his life on faith in Allah and the preparation for the Day of Resurrection. It made him not only fear Allah but to fear Him even in the smallest matters. He is known for saying that “if a lamb were to die on the banks of Euphrates, I would fear Allah might call ‘Umar to account for it” [7]. This shows us how strict he was on himself and how he took every matter seriously, even if it was trivial.


This led him to rebuke not only his governors who showed any signs of bad conduct but even himself! It is narrated that ‘Urwah ibn az-Zubayr said: “I saw ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab carrying a vessel of water on his shoulder, and I said, ‘O Ameer al-Mumineen, you should not have to do this.’ He said, ‘When delegations came to me listening and obeying, I felt a little proud, and I wanted to put a stop to that.’” [8]


‘Umar, during his caliphate period, has shown a living example of how Muslim leaders should be applying the Shariah principles in their governance and their lives. For him, Caliphate was not a chair of power. Rather it was a great test and trial. It was a responsibility and obligation, which may bring virtue if his conduct is correct, but also may bring punishment if he is not doing his best or neglecting any of his duties.


Therefore, ‘Umar diligently took care of his position, and after assuring that all of the governors in the Caliphate are trustworthy, righteous, and knowing how to do their job, ‘Umar took as his second task to increase the wellbeing of the people. It is simply the case that if people are happy with their ruler and know that he is doing his best, they will be motivated to obey him and work hard for the government.


Indeed, in a government based on the Shariah system, there is no boss and employee relationship. Rather, it is a relationship between a leader and his followers.


Thus, ‘Umar not only contemplated about the livelihood of people, he brought leadership to a new level and lived through the hardships of simple people by himself so that he would not only witness the life of his subordinates but would also experience it. It is narrated that he has said, “How can I be concerned for the people if I do not suffer what they suffer?” [9].


On top of that, ‘Umar was stringent in applying the principles of equality between all people. Once, he had to judge a case between a Jew and a Muslim and gave preference to the Jew who he saw to be right in the dispute. In another case, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas (one of the ten who were given glad tidings of Paradise) came to ‘Umar pushing and shoving through the crowd that surrounded him, was condemned by ‘Umar for such an action, as everyone is equal and he had no special right to come closer when there was no more space, even if he was one of the best companions!


And lastly, ‘Umar ensured the highest level of justice in the new Caliphate with such diligence that today he is remembered mostly for it [10]. An Arabic story about ‘Umar reads “, If they ask you about justice in the Muslim lands, tell them that ‘Umar has passed away”. There was nothing more important for ‘Umar than justice. He would feel no sympathy to anyone when disputes were referred to him, even if the accused person would be his closest companion or friend! Thus, he is known for punishing most prominent companions of the Prophet ﷺ for their mistakes.


All of these principles which ‘Umar applied during his Caliphate made him trusted and beloved by all people, old Muslims, new converts, and those who belonged to other religions. He presented himself as a man of principle and virtue, not as a man of whims and desires. People were happy with his rule, satisfied with his governors, and safe from oppression. It made the newly expanded Caliphate stable. And because of this stability, further openings of new lands to Islam was possible.


Umar ibn Al-Khattab – an example of leadership for our era


As we have seen, it was ‘Umar’s strictness in applying equality, justice and good governance that made the rule of the Caliphate and its further expansion possible. Without its application today, books of history would not be talking about the “seemingly miraculous success of Islam” [11].


However, it should be pointed out that all of these principles are not the principles Umar initiated by himself. Those are the same principles and rulings derived from the Quran and the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. ‘Umar was but a living example of those principles. And his strictness in their application made him a genius leader.


If today we are to complain that the Muslim community doesn’t have good leadership, then we should not complain that we have extraordinary talented and smart leaders. Rather, we should complain that we are not strict in fear of Allah and the preparation for the Hereafter. It is these two things that made Islam strong and the Caliphate big. These two things made ‘Umar genius, not a good strategy or careful planning, which are never less important, but useless without reference to Shariah.


Suppose we will concentrate on the application of the same principles. If we are strict inequality and justice, intolerant and harsh to oppression, and critical of self and environment, we will be able to create a great leadership, similar to that of ‘Umar.


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[1] Michael H Hart, The 100: A Ranking Of The Most Influential Persons In History (Toronto: Citadel, 1992), p. 262.

[2] Ibid, 265.

[3] Ali M. As-Syllabi, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab: His Life And Times. Vol 1 (International Islamic Publishing House, 2007), p. 172.

[4] Ali M. As-Sallabi, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab: His Life And Times. Vol 2 (International Islamic Publishing House, 2007), p. 47.

[5] Ibid, 48.

[6] Ibid, 50.

[7] Ali M. As-Sallabi, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab: His Life And Times. Vol 1 (International Islamic Publishing House, 2007), p. 232.

[8] Ibid, 242.

[9] Ibid, 193.

[10] Ibid, 189.

[11] Max Rodenbeck, “The Early Days“, Nytimes, 2008, link.


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