Is this Narration of Umar (ra) about Choice of the Caliph Authentic?

Answered by Shaykh Abdullah Anik Misra

Question

Someone said this was a quote of Umar (RA) when establishing the caliphate: “O group of Muhajireen! Verily, the Apostle of God died, and he was pleased with all six of you. I have, therefore, decided to make it (the selection of khalifa) a matter of consultation among you so that you may select one of yourselves as khalifa. If five of you agree upon one man, and there is one who is opposed to the five, kill him. If four are on one side and two on the other, kill the two. And if three are on one side and three on the other, then Abdur Rahman ibn Auf will have the casting vote, and the khalifa will be selected from his party.”

Is this a reliable narration? What does it mean?

Answer

In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate

This report is taken from Imam Tabari’s 4th century magisterial work on history Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk and later quoted by the 7th-century historian and scholar Ibn al-Athir in al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh. I could not find an earlier reference to this wording neither in the works of history nor (most importantly) in the works of hadith.

The incident of when Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) prescribed the method for selecting the new khalifa of the Muslims by nominating six of the most senior companions at the time is well known in the books of history.

However, the wording used in the narration above is mentioned without a chain of narration or source, making it a report whose narration cannot reliably be authenticated, according to the standards of hadith. As such, one cannot say for sure that it was said in that way, but rather, the more reliable wordings which do not mention killing those who oppose to new leader should be taken.

Not Every Report Compiled in the Books of History is Authentic

It is well-known in the Islamic scholastic tradition that the books of history were not concerned primarily with authentication and chains of narration (as opposed to the hadith works), but rather with compiling whatever historical reports were available and recording them in one place as a service to the Ummah. Therefore, it is essential to note that many non-verified accounts of history should be taken with a grain of salt while comparing them to more authenticated narrations.

This is vital to know in our times, especially since non-Sunni groups and Islamophobes exploit quotes like the above to detract from the status of the prophet’s companions, the orthodoxy of Ahl al-Sunna, or worse, from the truth of Islam itself. Unsurprisingly then, the quote you mentioned only seems to be promoted by sectarian websites.

Understanding the Context and a More Authentic Report

Even if the above quote were accurate, this would have clearly been a hyperbole (non-literal exaggeration) because the life of a Muslim is sacred through the text of the Quran and innumerable hadiths of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). Obviously, the Commander of the Believers, Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him), would uphold that to the highest degree. [Quran, 5:32]

Alternatively, another report on the incident in our hadith texts with a complete chain of narration does not mention any command to execute any of the nominees for leadership for merely disagreeing with the choice, but instead quotes the instruction that “whoever among you [unjustly] seizes control of leadership without consulting the Muslim community, then slay him.” [Abd al-Razzaq, Musannaf]

This second report warns not to let anyone unjustly conduct a tyrannical coup d’etat and forcibly take control of the umma from the rightful caliph. This is a far cry from what the first report in the question seems to insinuate.

The point being made is that division and political dissension leads to civil strife, which is an existential threat to the entire community, especially in a time when two of the world’s superpowers had been in an all-out conflict with the Muslims (the Persians and the Romans).

In closing, one should be very careful of what they read on the internet and return to authentic traditional sources of knowledge and verification and valid scholarly interpretation before coming to any conclusions.

Wassalam,
[Shaykh] Abdullah Anik Misra
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Abdul-Rahim Reasat

Shaykh Abdullah Misra was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1983. His family hails from India, and he was raised in the Hindu tradition. He embraced Islam in 2001 while at the University of Toronto, from where he completed a Bachelor of Business Administration. He then traveled overseas in 2005 to study the Arabic language and Islamic sciences in Tarim, Yemen, for some time, as well as Darul Uloom in Trinidad, West Indies. He spent 12 years in Amman, Jordan, where he focused on Islamic Law, Theology, Hadith Sciences, Prophetic Biography, and Islamic Spirituality while also working at the Qasid Arabic Institute as Director of Programs. He holds a BA in Islamic Studies (Alimiyya, Darul Uloom) and authorization in the six authentic books of Hadith and is currently pursuing specialized training in issuing Islamic legal verdicts (ifta’). He holds a certificate in Counselling and often works with new Muslims and those struggling with religious OCD. He is an instructor and researcher in Sacred Law and Theology with the SeekersGuidance The Global Islamic Seminary. Currently, He resides in the Greater Toronto Area with his wife and children. His personal interests include Indian history, comparative religion, English singing, and poetry.