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A Brief Biography of KhalīfahʿUmar bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz
By: Abdullah Farooqui, Tanwir Student, Class of ‘23
Born in AH 61, ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz was the grandson of Umm ʿĀsim who was the granddaughter of the second caliph, ʿUmar RA. He ascended the throne during troubling times when the ummah was beginning to lose its way. Post Khilāfat al-Rāshidah, the Rightly Guided Caliphate, the Umayyad empire took control and brought back old, regressive values of the pre–Islamic Arabs such as Arab racism, tribal pride, partisan spirit, and nepotism. This resurgence of Islamically ignorant values vexed the masses of the empire who still held onto Islamic values and harbored love for its scholars. The most notable of these scholars in terms of popularity was ʿAlī b. Ḥusayn. The misconduct of the elite increased the influence of scholars like Ibn Ḥusayn who were evidently pious and simplistic in comparison. An Islamic voice would not easily be heard, however, due to the firm grip the empire had on its people and within its ranks.
ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz was a cousin to the reigning caliph Sulaymān. Due to the hereditary practices of the time, he did not have much hope to ascend the throne. He had experience in politics as the governor of Medina since before Sulaymān’s rule. In terms of appearance, ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz was a well put together aristocrat and a standard for the youth in a fashionable sense. He was only able to ascend the throne by being nominated by Sulayman, who died before he could confidently entrust the nation to one of his minor sons.
Upon ascending the throne, ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz completely changed. He considered himself the successor of ʿUmar RA over the past rulers. All the excess wealth and treasure of the nation was immediately put into the state treasury. Cruel governors were removed, and royal slaves were emancipated by the new Caliph. His main principles were to avoid collecting any excess wealth for the Royal family which even resulted in his inability to perform Hajj. By the end of his rule, the disparity in wealth was so insignificant that there was difficulty finding recipients for zakat.
Masses of people were converting during his rule which posed a risk to the kingdom in the form of lowered taxes, but ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz accepted this societal reform head on. He made a living through cultivation while also distributing royal family land to landless cultivators, criminalizing unpaid labor, and fighting corruption through a 100–300-dinar bounty for exposing it. Out of fear of losing Islamic guidance, ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz also sought to compile whatever prophetic traditions the empire could preserve in writing.
Compared to other rulers of the time, ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz viewed the game of thrones in a much more spiritual light. He believed that the real gauge to judge the might of a kingdom was righteousness and that there was no benefit in conquering with force. The desire to seek God’s guidance for one’s own fault was held to the same standard as the desire to succeed the enemy in the eyes of ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz. The culture and the talk of the laymen also changed dramatically under his rule. The topics of interest shifted from Sulayman’s love for non-Arab architecture, women, and banquets to the love of prayers and Islamic teachings.
ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ruled for only two years and five months. The abrupt reform brought by his rule was much too dramatic for the Umayyads. He died in AH 101 due to a poisoning reasonably inferred to have been orchestrated from within the royal family. A full scale and long-lasting revolution could have realistically been achieved if not for his sudden death.