Sectarianism breeds schisms, and fanaticism produces factionalism; togetherness and unity become erroneous. This applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Many otherwise innocent Muslims are under an inherited out-of-date impression that the Prophet’s generation became polarized between those who were pro-Imam ‘Ali and those who were pro-‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. From this simplistic understanding of history the seeds of sectarianism were sowed far and near. The social and cultural fabric of the society that both Imam ‘Ali and ‘Umar belonged to is either dismissed, or written off, or thought of no more!
In this inaccurate perception of our own history some Muslims think that Imam ‘Ali was somehow browbeaten or had his arm twisted by the second khalifah, ‘Umar. This notion has to be plucked out of the psychology of such sectarians. And to do that we have to use our minds and deploy our intelligence to weed out the bad feelings that spring from such an erroneous recall of our common history.
It all begins with an incorrect assessment of the members’ divine commitment in that first Islamic society in Madinah — the capital of the Islamic state. To try to set the record straight (with the hazard of skipping the details) it should be elementary knowledge and uncomplicated recognition that the Islamic social order after our beloved Prophet (pbuh) passed away was fragile. The selfish tribal culture of Arabia was submerged by the selfless universal ideology of Islam. But that Arabian culture was not thoroughly defeated: there were dual-loyalist Muslims otherwise known as the munafiqs; there were callous or unsympathetic Arabians who were so significant that they are mentioned in the Quran as al-A‘rab, and there were still kafirs and mushriks within the Arabian Peninsula even though their numbers were of no significance.
Add to that the presence of pockets of what may today be called Zionist Jews and imperialist Christians scattered at a distance from Madinah. Then there were those individuals who had just become Muslims during the few years prior to the Prophet’s passing away. In the midst of all this there stood an Islamic government with an Islamic leadership supported by an Islamic base of the Muhajirun and Ansar. This Islamic governance came into being after 23 years of struggle and sacrifices that left many people with their tribal background thinking their particular tribes and chiefs lost their position of power and control over their tribe and locals.
This social fissure expressed itself during the last year of our dear Prophet’s life when breakaway tendencies began to show their contentious faces and some individuals claimed prophethood and other tribes showed reluctance to be part of an Islamic society with Madinah as its capital. These centrifugal forces — the mish-mash of tribes and clans scattered throughout the Hijaz and Arabia — were on the mind of anyone from the Muhajirun and Ansar who would likely assume the highest office in an Islamic government. This abbreviated and essential component of our history is omitted from our minds when we recall the character of Imam ‘Ali and ‘Umar.
The Wars of Riddah [renunciation of civic Islam] demonstrate and prove the breakaway undercurrent that was just beneath the surface in Arabia at that historical juncture. This breakaway challenge could only be met and subdued by Imam ‘Ali (who was the most qualified to lead the Islamic order) consenting to Abu Bakr and ‘Umar being the successors to Allah’s Prophet (pbuh) not on the basis that they were more qualified than Imam ‘Ali but that they were more qualified to keep an Islamic social order together. Remember, Imam ‘Ali through his active and chivalric participation in the battles of Islam alongside the Prophet had earned the aversion or antipathy of many families, even after they became Muslims, because one of their own was felled in those battles by Imam ‘Ali. If this simple but lost fact can settle into the minds of those who misread Islamic history we can then go on to speak about the fairness of ‘Umar with the help of Imam ‘Ali.
The fact is that with the teamwork of ‘Umar and Imam ‘Ali there was forward movement on practically all fronts. First off, ‘Umar’s bay‘ah was unprecedented — a unanimous agreement concerning his ten-year governance unlike any other. There was no internal sedition activity (fitnah) to speak about. It was a period of relative harmony among the communities and tribes within the Islamic domain. During his period in office the two superpowers of the time were defeated, that is, the Roman-Byzantine and the Persian-Sassanid empires. During ‘Umar’s time in power all of Iraq was liberated as were significant parts of Persia and Khurasan. The Sassanid Kingdom (a member of the Persian dynasty that ruled from 224–651ce) was the one that superseded the Parthian Empire, and challenged Roman power in the east. It was the last line of Persian kings before the Islamic liberation. The Islamic armed forces, during ‘Umar’s administration, terminated and finished off Byzantium’s military colonization of Bilad al-Sham (the Levant), Egypt, and Libya. The Islamic outreach was so extensive that Byzantium lost some 75% of the territories it occupied. It was the cooperation and coordination of ‘Umar and Imam ‘Ali that made it possible for a small city-state in Arabia (Madinah) to develop into an enhanced power with a geographical stretch from Afghanistan eastward, Armenia northward, the Arabian Sea southward, and North Africa westward. During ‘Umar’s time in office, and for the first time, al-Quds (Jerusalem) —the first qiblah and the third Sacred Sanctuary, the area of the Isra’ and the Mi‘raj — became an integral part of the Islamic fatherland.
Just like the Arabian surface-Muslims who could not reconcile themselves to the immediate leadership of Imam ‘Ali, so was the case with surface-Muslims in Persia who could not reconcile themselves to the victorious leadership of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab because they viewed him as one who brought down their erstwhile empire, considered by some as the number one empire of its time. In their wildest imagination they could not come to terms with the fact that “Arabian cricket-eating warriors” were capable of defeating a world-class empire! And to add insult to injury, in their view, Persia now became an Islamic governorate. It is reported that in the final military encounter between the Islamic and Persian militaries, the Islamic force comprised some 30,000 facing off against a Persian army of around 150,000.
This writer has not come across any negative depiction concerning the relationship between ‘Umar on one side and Imam ‘Ali’s close companions ‘Ammar ibn Yasir, Salman al-Farisi, al-Miqdad ibn al-Aswad, and Abu Dharr al-Ghifari. Rather, ‘Umar appointed ‘Ammar to be the governor of al-Kufah, and Salman to be the governor of al-Mada’in. Al-Miqdad was appointed as commander of one of the armies that liberated Egypt. It is reported that Abu Dharr was very dear to ‘Umar. ‘Umar’s relationship was an amicable and cordial one with all the companions who were pro-Imam ‘Ali, the likes of al-Bura’ ibn ‘Azib al-Ansari, Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman, ‘Udayy ibn Hatim al-Ta’i, Hujr ibn ‘Udayy al-Kindi, Hashim ibn ‘Utbah ibn AbiWaqqas, Malik ibn al-Harith al-Ashtar, al-Ahnaf ibn Qays al-Tamimi, and the two brothers Sahl and ‘Uthman, the sons of Hanif al-Ansari. All of them were tasked with positions of responsibility and duties that they discharged selflessly and honestly.
Both ‘Umar and Imam ‘Ali had their own type of charisma and humility. Both reflected their divine commitment in their own ways. They both were sensitive on their inside and showed an uncompromising transparency. They ruled with adamant justice. They were spirited and daring. And they also were austere and frugal. This is the way al-Shahid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr says it, “Both ‘Ali and ‘Umar lived with the people, for the people in the midst of people sharing their hurts and hopes.” What attest to this are their expressions that deliver the same general meaning. ‘Umar would say, “Hold yourselves accountable before you are held accountable [by the Almighty].” ‘Ali would say, “The most serious dishonor [a person may have] is to bring shame on someone while that shame is in him.” The oft-repeated saying, “If poverty was a man, I would have killed him,” is attributed to both of them. What harm is there in identifying similarities between these two towering figures? After all they both had as their reference Allah (swt) and His Prophet (pbuh). It is reported that our dear Prophet said, “The most unyielding upholder of Allah’s din, from among my Ummah, is ‘Umar.” And he said to Imam ‘Ali, “Whoever loves you, loves me; and whoever hates you, hates me.”
The sectarians circulate among their crowd a fabrication about ‘Umar. They say that he assaulted al-Zahra’ — the adored and cherished daughter of the Prophet (pbuh), the wife of Imam ‘Ali — and some of them sensationalize this to conjure bad or even hostile feelings toward ‘Umar. By spreading such a rumor they insult our intelligence by portraying Imam ‘Ali, the bold warrior, as helpless and powerless — a husband who cannot defend his wife, who is the daughter of his Prophet and his cousin, and the mother of his children! Is it possible to view Imam ‘Ali incapable of coming to the defense of his other half while she is being stricken and punched?!
We would suggest that someone find such a narration in the reference book on hadith, al-Kafi by Muhammad Ya‘qub al-Kulayni, which is considered by almost all Shi‘is to be the most reliable book of the Prophet’s recorded hadiths. To the best of our knowledge, not much credibility is given to this myth or fiction by such scholars as the late Sayyids Muhammad Husayn Fadlullah, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Abu al-Qasimal-Khu’i and ‘Ali al-Sistani.
It is reported that some sons in the progeny of Imam ‘Ali had the names Aba Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman.
Another incident that has collected layers of historical dust and attests to ‘Umar’s love for the Prophet’s family is the following. Oneday, ‘Umar asked Imam Husayn to come and visit him. The following day, knowing that Imam Husayn did not come and visit, ‘Umar asked him, “Why didn’t you come?” Imam Husayn answered, “But I did. [However] I realized that your own son ‘Abdullah was not able to see you because you were busy.” And so ‘Umar answered him, “Do you [dare] compare yourself to ‘Abdullah [my son, meaning you are more important to me than my own son]. You [the Prophet’s household] are the crowns of our heads.” And ‘Umar placed his hand on Imam Husayn’s head. When ‘Umar allocated distributions from the budget of the Islamic treasury, he began by Imam ‘Ali first, and then Imams Hasan and Husayn. Doesn’t this tell us the affection that ‘Umar had for the family of the Prophet (pbuh)? And there are yet other citations and instances that dispel the notion that there were bad feelings between Imam ‘Ali and ‘Umar.
We hope a day will come when the mudslinging among Muslims will come to an end — an end that can be encapsulated by an understanding that if Shi‘ism means the love of the Prophet (pbuh) and his posterity then all Muslims are Shi‘is and if Sunnism means falling in line with the Sunnah of Allah (swt) and His Prophet then all Muslims are Sunnis. And if this meaning takes root in the Muslim public mind we can consider ‘Umar’s time in office was a shield that protected the Prophet’s intimate family members from a jahili backlash that would have brought down the house of Islam a generation before Karbala’. This may sound too terse for some sectarians but if Imam ‘Ali and ‘Umar were to be understood in the context of their times we may advance the following sum-up: the khilafah of ‘Umar was a Shi‘i administration in practice but not in theory.
Indeed, Allah and His angels bless the Prophet: [therefore] O you who are faithfully committed [to Allah] bless him and concede to him [without question] (33:56).