It was the year 17 after the Hijrah.
Two years earlier Amiru al-Mu’minin Umar (Allah be pleased with him) traveled from Madinah to Jerusalem to receive its keys from its patriarch Sophronius. This time, having left Ali ibn Abi Talib (Allah be pleased with him) in charge of things at Madinah, he was once again on the road to Syria. Accompanying him on this journey were Madinah’s leading Muhajirin and Ansaar. Their purpose was to come to the aid of Abu Ubaydah (Allah be pleased with him) who was under siege by the Byzantines in Hims, to disrupt alignment of the people of Upper Mesopotamia with the Byzantines against the Muslims, and to generally raise the spirits of the troops.
A grueling desert trek of some 800km, normally covered by caravans in three weeks, brought them to a village called Sargh. Today the Jordanian village of al-Mudawwarah stands close to its location, just 15km from the Saudi-Jordanian border. It was to this spot that the generals of the armies in Syria came to meet the Commander of the Faithful.
Umar’s strategy worked. A force which he ordered to be dispatched from Kufa to Hims under command of Qa’qa ibn Amr combined with the battalion of Khalid ibn Walid that had arrived in Hims from Qinnasrin before the siege. Their combined forces, together with the news of help on the way from Hijaz under Amiru al-Mu’minin himself, broke both the Byzantine spirit and the potential alliance with Upper Mesopotamia. In buoyant spirits, Muslim troops opened the gates of Hims and rushed at the now demoralized besiegers. The Byzantines broke and fled.
Three days later Abu Ubaydah (Allah be pleased with him) and his fellow commanders presented themselves before Amiru al-Mu’minin at Sargh.
Every reason existed for this meeting to be one of joy, optimism, and the sharing of triumph. Companions who had not seen one another for months if not years were meeting again. Stories of victory and courage would be shared, and collective thanks would be given to Allah. But most importantly, Umar would be there.
Umar, the rock that personified resoluteness, whose inspired leadership diffused confidence and trust in Allah, but who, by the severe austerity of his own conduct, stood like a towering bastion against the love of this ephemeral world that constantly threatened to creep into the hearts of his conquering subjects.
Yet, despite all the reasons for happiness and joy, a sombre cloud was hanging over the gathering at Sargh. For distressing news has been received from Palestine. In the town of Amawaas the plague had broken out.
Umar (Allah be pleased with him) called the commanders of his Syrian armies into conference. Along with the senior companions (Sahabah) who had come with him from Madinah, they took their seats on the ground: Khalid, Abu Ubaydah and Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan (Allah be pleased with them).
Opinions differed. Some felt that the journey should go ahead, while others thought it undesirable that the Muslim leadership should enter a land in which plague was spreading. Umar listened attentively. When the time came to decide, all fell silent. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on Amiru al-Mu’minin.
“I and those with me will return to Madinah.”
For a moment everything went dead silent. Time appeared to hold its breath. No one spoke. Amiru al-Mu’minin had spoken. The consultation was over. Umar rose to leave.
Suddenly the silence was pierced by a voice in anguish. It was Abu Ubaydah. He had been one of those who advised that the journey should go ahead. But it was not by the dismissal of his own advice that he was aggrieved. He believed, having been taught so by Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), that all things, death included, happen by the foreordained decree of Allah. For Amiru al-Mu’minin to turn back at the news of plague appeared to go completely against the grain of this tenet of faith. Abu Ubaydah felt compelled to speak. He was after all this Ummah’s Custodian of Trust.
“Would you flee from the decree (Qadar) of Allah, Amiru al-Mu’minin? Would you flee from what Allah has preordained?”
A second silence imposed itself on the gathering, this one even more deafening than the first. Umar, having half turned away already, went stiff for a moment. Around them life went on in the usual clatter and banter of an army camp. But within that circle it grew very, very silent.
Umar slowly rotated back to face his interlocutor. A look of pain and dismay passed over his face. And then he spoke.
“If only someone else said it, Abu Ubaydah. How I wish those words came from the tongue of someone other than you!”
Umar loved Abu Ubaydah dearly and held him in the highest esteem. This was one of the ten men whom Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) promised Jannah. It was to him that Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) gave the epithet, Custodian of Trust of this Ummah. It was men such as he of who Allah said, “They are indeed and in truth the real believers”, and whilst walking on the face of this earth they heard revelation descending in which Allah declared to all the world that He is pleased with them and they with Him.”
It is not befitting that two men of such high stature differ so publicly. It is even less desirable that an aspect of faith should be drawn into their difference. And then, Umar just didn’t like having to go against Abu Ubaydah. But when truth requires to be stated, all other considerations recede into secondary status.
Before speaking his mind, though, Umar needed his discomfort to be heard. “How I wish, Abu Ubaydah, that it was someone other than you who spoke those words!”
A moment’s pause. And then, in his own characteristic fashion, Umar clarified an aspect of belief in Qadar which Abu Ubaydah appears not to have grasped or to have for the moment lost sight of.
“Yes, indeed. We flee from Allah’s Qadar. Towards Allah’s Qadar. We flee from what Allah preordained to what Allah preordained.”
Consider this. You come with your flock to a valley with two sides. One side is lush and fertile, the other is dry. If you graze your flock on the fertile side, is it by anything other than what Allah preordained that you do so? And if you graze them on the dry side, is it by anything other than what Allah preordained?
The lesson was crystal clear. Nothing you do, no route you take, and no choice you make is beyond the pale of Qadar. Such is our belief in Qadar. So whatever you may want to question, do not question our belief in Qadar.
Among the men who had come with Umar from Madinah was Abdur Rahman ibn Awf (Allah be pleased with him). For some or other reason he was absent from this council. When he arrived a while later he was appraised of what had transpired between Umar and Abu Ubaydah. Unlike the others, though, he had actually heard something from Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) that had a direct bearing on the matter in question. And as was the habit of the Sahabah, he promptly transmitted what he heard.
“I heard Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) say: ‘If you hear about a plague in a land, then do not enter that land. And if a plague breaks out while you are there, then do not flee it and leave.’”
Although Umar did not know it at the time of his altercation with Abu Ubaydah, the hadith fell squarely on his side. But no surprise there. This was Umar, after all. The man whose words had so often before been confirmed by nothing less than revelation from on high. The one about who Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, if there is in this Ummah an inspired person as there were in previous nations, then it would be none other than he.
We could of course go on and on enumerating his merits and extolling his achievements. But this is where we stop.
We stop because what needed to be learnt has been understood. So often it is those we hold in the highest esteem who throw at us the accusation that our choices and actions go against belief in Qadar. The sincerity and concern for the religion with which they do so are probably no less than of Abu Ubaydah ibn Jarrah (Allah be pleased with him).
So how are we to respond?
Do we hit back in similar tone and innuendo? Do we reverse the accusations and guilt-tripping? And most importantly, do we succumb to the demands of base instinct and dispense with all reverence and respect?
Allah forbid than any of those thoughts should even come to mind. And if ever they do, then may Allah forgive us for even thinking that.
If we are to respond, we will respond in the manner taught to us by those who were taught by Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace). We will respond in the words and attitude of the one man of whom Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) said that if there were to be a prophet after him it would be he. Ours will be the response of Amiru al-Mu’minin Sayiduna Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him).
“If only someone else said it, Abu Ubaydah.”
How we wish, our dearest elders, that these hurtful words were spoken by someone other than your respected selves!
And that is as much as we will ever say.
Biography of Mufti Taha Karaan:
Mufti Taha Karaan is a Shafi’i scholar born in Cape Town, South Africa, to a family renowned in both its maternal and paternal lineage for Islamic scholarship. His father, the late Mufti Yusuf Karaan (may Allah have mercy on his soul), was one of the most distinguished Islamic scholars in the Cape.
Mufti Taha completed his Qur’anic memorization in one year at the Waterfall Islamic Institute, the oldest Islamic seminary in South Africa. During his stay, he assisted in the editing of the Qur’anic prints that the Institute has become famous for the world over. After finishing four years of the ‘alim course in two years, he journeyed to the Indian sub-continent and Dar al-Uloom Deoband, graduating from there in 1991 with the highest of distinctions, as did his father, in a class of over 700 students. He then travelled to the Middle East and completed a two-year graduate diploma at the Higher Institute for Islamic Studies in Cairo, Egypt.
Mufti Taha is the recipient of numerous chains of transmission (ijazaat), from well-respected scholars in India, Pakistan, South Africa, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others, in numerous fields of Islamic study.
Currently, Mufti Taha is the Mufti of the Muslim Judicial Council. He is a sought-after speaker at Islamic symposia and conferences but attends them sparingly, preferring to spend most of his time at the Islamic seminary, Dar al-Uloom al-Arabiyyah al-Islamiyyah, that he founded in 1996. The educational thrust of the seminary reflects Mufti Taha’s own pioneering vision and commitment to squarely interface with the challenges of the modern age through the twin objectives of preservation and progress.
In his teaching, writing and legal verdicts (fatawa), Mufti Taha regularly addresses contemporary issues such as the challenges of post-modernity, feminism, Islamic economics and finance, the old and new Orientalisms, and fiqh issues affecting Diaspora Muslim communities.
His students describe him as divinely-gifted with encyclopaedic knowledge; possessed of a near photographic memory; an insatiable bibliophile within the Islamic sciences and without; a teacher that never ceases to inspire; endowed with an elegant calligraphic hand and a penchant for poetry; thoroughly unassuming, pleasant, brilliant and tender-hearted.