The Conversion of ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab
another significant addition to the strength of islam was the conversion of ‘umar bin al-khattab in dhul-hijjah, the sixth year of prophethood, three days following the conversion of hamzah.[tareekh 'umar bin al-kattab, p.11] he was a man of dauntless courage and resolution, feared and respected in makkah, and hitherto a bitter opponent of the new religion. the traditional account reveals that the prophet [pbuh] once raised his hands in prayer and said:
"o allâh! give strength to islam especially through either of two men you love more: ‘umar bin al-khattab or abu jahl bin hisham."
‘umar, obviously, was the one who merited that privilege. [at-tirmidhi 2/209]
when we scrutinize the several versions that speak of ‘umar’s conversion, we can safely conclude that various contradictory emotions used to conflict with one another within his soul. on the one hand, he used to highly regard the traditions of his people, and was habituated to the practice of indulgence in wine orgies; on the other hand, he greatly admired the stamina of the muslims and their relentless dedication to their faith. these two extreme views created a sort of skepticism in his mind and made him at times tend to believe that the doctrines of islam could bear better and more sacred seeds of life, that is why he would always experience fits of outrage directly followed by unexpected enervation.[fiqh as-seerah, p92,93] on the whole, the account of his conversion is very interesting and requires us to go into some details.
one day, ‘umar bin al-khattab set out from his house, and headed for the holy sanctuary where he saw the prophet [pbuh] offering prayer and overheard him reciting the sûrah al-hâqqah (chapter 69 — the reality) of the noble qur’ân. the words of allâh appealed to him and touched the innermost cells of his heart. he felt that they derived from unusual composition, and he began to question his people’s allegations as regards the man-composed poetry or words of a soothsayer that they used to attach to the noble qur’ân. the prophet [pbuh] went on to recite:
"that this is verily the word of an honoured messenger (i.e. gabriel or muhammad [pbuh] which he has brought from allâh). it is not the word of a poet, little is that you believe! nor is it the word of a soothsayer (or a foreteller), little is that you remember! this is the revelation sent down from the lord of the ‘alamin (mankind, jinns and all that exists)." [al-qur'an 69:40-43]
at that very moment, islam permeated his heart.[tareekh 'umar bin al-khattab p.6] however, the dark layer of pre-islamic tendencies, the deep-seated traditional bigotry as well as the blind pride in his forefathers overshadowed the essence of the great truth that began to feel its way reluctantly into his heart. he, therefore, persisted in his atrocities against islam and its adherents unmindful of the pure and true-to-man’s nature feeling that lay behind that fragile cover of pre-islamic ignorance and mentality. his sharp temper and excessive enmity towards the prophet [pbuh] led him one day to leave his house, sword in hand, with the intention of killing the prophet [pbuh] . he was in a fit of anger and was fretting and fuming. nu‘aim bin ‘abdullah, a friend of ‘umar’s, met him accidentally half way. what had caused so much excitement in him and on whom was the fury to burst, he inquired casually. ‘umar said furiously: "to destroy the man muhammad ([pbuh]) this apostate, who has shattered the unity of quraish, picked holes in their religion, found folly with their wise men and blasphemed their gods." "‘umar, i am sure, your soul has deceived you, do you think that banu ‘abd munaf would let you walk on earth if you slain muhammad [pbuh]? why don’t you take care of your own family first and set them right?"
"which of the folk of my house?" asked ‘umar angrily. "your brother-in-law and your sister have apostatized (meaning to say: they have become followers of muhammad [pbuh]) and abandoned your religion."
‘umar directed his footsteps to his sister’s house. as he drew near, he heard the voice of khabbab bin aratt, who was reading the qur’ânic chapter tâ-hâ (mystic letters, t. h.) to both of them. khabbab, perceiving the noise of his footsteps retired to a closet. fatimah, ‘umar’s sister, took hold of the leaf and hid it. but ‘umar had already heard the voice. "what sound was that i have heard just now?" shouted the son of khattab, entering angrily. both his sister and her husband replied, "you heard nothing." "nay," said he swearing fiercely, "i have heard that you have apostatized." he plunged forward towards his brother-in-law and beat him severely, but fatimah rushed to the rescue of her husband. thereupon, ‘umar fell upon his sister and struck upon her head. the husband and wife could not contain themselves and cried aloud: "yes, we are muslims, we believe in allâh and his messenger muhammad [pbuh] so do what you will." when ‘umar saw the face of his dear sister besmeared with blood, he was softened and said: "let me see what you were reading, so that i may see what muhammad [pbuh] has brought." fatimah was satisfied with the assurance, but said: "o brother, you are unclean on account of your idolatry, none but the pure may touch it. so go and wash first." he did so, and took the page and read the opening verses of the chapter tâ-hâ until he reached:
"verily! i am allâh! lâ ilâha illa ana (none has the right to be worshipped but i), so worship me and offer prayers perfectly (iqâmat-as-salât), for my remembrance." [al-qur'an 20:14].
‘umar read the verses with great interest and was much entranced with them. "how excellent it is, and how graceful! please guide me to muhammad [pbuh] ." said he. and when he heard that, khabbab came out of concealment and said, "o ‘umar, i hope that allâh has answered the prayer of the prophet [pbuh] , for i heard him say: ‘o allâh! strengthen islam through either ‘umar bin al-khattab or abu jahl bin hisham.’" ‘umar then left for a house in safa where muhammad [pbuh] had been holding secret meetings along with his companions. ‘umar reached that place with the sword swinging by his arm. he knocked at the door. the companions of the prophet [pbuh] turned to see who the intruder was. one of them peeped through a chink in the door and reeled back exclaiming: "it is ‘umar with his sword." hamzah, dispelling the fears of his friends, said: "let him in. as a friend he is welcome. as a foe, he will have his head cut off with his own sword." the prophet [pbuh] asked his companions to open the door. in came the son of khattab. the prophet [pbuh] advanced to receive the dreadful visitor, caught him by his garment and scabbard, and asked him the reason of his visit. at that ‘umar replied: "o messenger of allâh [pbuh] , i come to you in order to believe in allâh and his messenger and that which he has brought from his lord." filled with delight, muhammad [pbuh] together with his companions, cried aloud: ‘allâhu akbar’ (allâh is great). [tareekh 'umar bin al-khattab, p7-11; ibn hisham 1/343]
the conversion of ‘umar was a real triumph for the cause of islam. so great and instant was the effect of his conversion on the situation that the believers who had hitherto worshipped allâh within their four walls in secret now assembled and performed their rites of worship openly in the holy sanctuary itself. this raised their spirits, and dread and uneasiness began to seize quraish.
ibn ishaq narrated on the authority of ‘umar [r], "when i embraced islam, i remembered the archenemy of muhammad [pbuh] , i.e. abu jahl. i set out, and knocked at his door. when he came out to see me, i told him directly that i had embraced islam. he immediately slammed the door repulsively denouncing my move as infamous and my face as ugly." in fact, ‘umar’s conversion created a great deal of stir in makkah that some people denounced him as an apostate, yet he would never waver in faith, on the contrary, he persisted in his stance even at the peril of his life. the polytheists of quraish marched towards his house with the intention of killing him. ‘abdullah bin ‘umar [r] narrated: while ‘umar was at home in a state of fear, there came al-‘as bin wa’il as-sahmy abu ‘amr, wearing an embroidered cloak and a shirt having silk hems. he was from the tribe of bani sahm who were our allies during the pre-islamic period of ignorance. al-‘as said to ‘umar: what’s wrong with you? he said: your people claim that they will kill me if i become a muslim. al-‘as said: nobody will harm you after i have given protection to you. so al-‘as went out and met the people streaming in the whole valley. he said: where are you going? they replied: we want son of al-khattab who has embraced islam. al-‘as said: there is no way for anybody to touch him. so the people retreated. [bukhari 1/545; ibn hisham 1/349]
with respect to the muslims in makkah, ‘umar’s conversion had a different tremendous impact. mujahid, on the authority of ibn al-‘abbas [r], related that he had asked ‘umar bin al-khattab why he had been given the epithet of al-farouque (he who distinguishes truth from falsehood), he replied: after i had embraced islam, i asked the prophet [pbuh]: ‘aren’t we on the right path here and hereafter?’ the prophet [pbuh] answered: ‘of course you are! i swear by allâh in whose hand my soul is, that you are right in this world and in the hereafter.’ i, therefore, asked the prophet [pbuh] ‘why we then had to conduct clandestine activism. i swear by allâh who has sent you with the truth, that we will leave our concealment and proclaim our noble cause publicly.’ we then went out in two groups, hamzah leading one and i the other. we headed for the mosque in broad daylight when the polytheists of quraish saw us, their faces went pale and got incredibly depressed and resentful. on that very occasion, the prophet [pbuh] attached to me the epithet of al-farouque. ibn mas‘ud [r] related that they (the muslims) had never been able to observe their religious rites inside the holy sanctuary except when ‘umar embraced islam. [ibn hisham; tareekh 'umar bin al-khattab, p.13; mukhtasar as-seerah p.103]
suhaib bin sinan [r], in the same context, said that it was only after ‘umar’s conversion, that we started to proclaim our call, assemble around and circumambulate the sacred house freely. we even dared retaliate against some of the injustices done to harm us. in the same context, ibn mas‘ud said: we have been strengthened a lot since ‘umar embraced islam.