Umar ibn al-Khattab

Umar ibn al-Khattab

The Muslim administrations of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Africa followed a certain system worked out at the very beginning of the invasions. This system was conditioned by the prevailing ideology at the time. Islamic society was roughly structured into four classes: These were the House of the Prophet (Al al-Bayt), meaning the wives of the Prophet and his immediate family; the Companions (al-sahaba), who were the first people to accept Islam and the prophecy of Muhammad and many of whom had made the Hijra and fought alongside him; the Muslim Arabs who formed the bulk of the army and the upper echelons of the administration; and the “clients,” or mawali, non-Arabs who became Muslim by means of attaching themselves to certain Arab tribes as clients and paid taxes to the Islamic treasury.

The treasury (bayt almal) paid out stipends to the fi rst three classes in descending order of importance, while the mawali partly fi nanced the state.The man most responsible for the administration of the early empire was the able Umar ibn al-Khattab. He has largely gone down in history as the second caliph in Islam, but he may also have been the real founder of the Islamic state. A sober, powerfully built man with a resonant voice, he was at fi rst an enemy of the prophet Muhammad, but upon converting to Islam, Umar became one of the staunchest followers of the faith, and the one person (after the Prophet’s cousin Ali and his closest companion, Abu Bakr) whom the Prophet relied upon for counsel and advice.

Umar is also known as a reformer, having introduced a number of legislative and religious changes within the Islamic body politic that had far-reaching effects. Among these were legal prohibitions against drinking wine; the introduction of night prayers (tarawih) in the month of Ramadan; and the call, repeatedly made, for a defi nitive collection of the text of the Qur’an (which remained in oral form for a long time, memorized by men and women until the time of the caliph Uthman, Umar’s successor). Finally, Umar was for free-market reforms and the prohibition of trade monopolies (ihtikar).

Umar’s prowess in battle was equaled by his genius for military strategy, and he was a confi dent leader when it came to deciding which of his generals to dispatch to any given battlefront. For instance, he plucked Khalid ibn al-Walid out of Iraq just as he had secured his greatest victory and dispatched him to Syria to further secure that province from Byzantine attack. Under his command, expansion was waged on three fronts: Iraq-Iran, Syria, and Egypt and North Africa.

Among Umar’s notable achievements as an administrator was the establishment of several garrison cities that later developed into major trade and religious centers. Of these, the most important were Basra and Kufa in Iraq and Fustat in Egypt. Kufa became the fi rst capital of Iraq, and Basra, its main port. Traditionally, historians believed that these cities were designed as military cantons, meant to segregate and keep “pure” the Arab tribesmen who made up the fi rst wave of Islamic armies.

However, some scholars have made the argument that these garrison cities were designed to attract a whole host of social forces, from the transient merchant to the Greek-speaking scribe. They, in fact, became the advance cities of the embryonic Islamic state. Rather than conquering the older, traditional centers of learning and trade instituted by the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires, Umar’s experiment led to the creation of an alternative urban experience, which may have contributed to the slow but sure Islamization of the native population of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Africa.

By far the most important of Umar’s innovations was the fi nancial system and the implementation of fi scal responsibility. The state was divided into provinces governed by a military commander, assisted by a fl edgling bureaucracy.

All state offi cials received salaries, including the caliph. This was not only to keep them honest (and Umar judged himself as severely, if not more so, as other Muslim commanders) but also to grant them the freedom to govern their province without worrying about gaining a livelihood.

Besides the commander, each province was entitled to an imam, or prayer leader; a qadi, or judge; and an offi cial to oversee the bayt al-mal (treasury). Another offi ce, the diwan, or registry, originally a Sassanian offi ce, was assigned the task of keeping track of the troops and their dependents, for each fi ghter had a salary commensurate to the level he had reached in the army.

The offi ce started tracking each fi ghter from the time he had joined the army and noted at which juncture of the expansion of the Islamic state he had declared his submission to Islam. Women and children received a fi xed income, the Prophet’s wives and family receiving the highest stipends of all.

Umar ordered that the fertile and well-watered lands originally part of the Sassanian domain were to be held in perpetuity by the state. This entitled the inhabitants of these agricultural lands to collect the harvest, a portion of which was allotted to the state in the form of the kharaj tax and then distributed to the military and the rest of the population. This was to ensure a rough equality in economic resources for all Muslims, although fi eld commanders were granted more discretion in the administration of their plots of land than others were.

Meanwhile, a poll tax was imposed on minorities called the jizya, signifying that these people were regarded as dhimmis, or “protected” minorities; in a sense, they were to pay for their protection by the Islamic state. A large proportion of the inhabitants of Iraq were Christians or Jews at the time of the Islamic conquest and chafi ng under the misadministration of the Sassanians. Despite this tax burden, many non-Muslims deserted the Sassanians early on in the battle for Iraq and chose instead to live in peace under their new Muslim rulers by paying the jizya.