This past Ramadan, just as we did last Ramadan, every night after Taraweeh prayers we settled down as a family and, while digging into various edible treats we watched the series of the life story of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (RA), the Companion of the Prophet Mohammed (SAWS), and the second Caliph after his death. It comes in 30 episodes and mercifully, the version my son downloaded has English subtitles. From the very first episode it dives into life in Mecca in the 7th century, and, for reverts like me, the Arabic names and the ignorance of knowing who is related to who can make it very confusing. It didn’t help that, last year, we didn’t know how to adjust the light for the first few episodes so I couldn’t see anyone’s face clearly enough and could only identify them by their clothes…..when they changed their clothes I was totally stuffed. Alhamdulilah we managed to adjust the picture and all their faces came into focus, and then it was a challenge trying to remember who was the son or brother of whom. The man who acts as Omar is an unknown actor…..for good reason….he can’t act for nuts, but that’s okay because so much of what he says are Omar’s own words (not all though – there are times when it’s obvious that a point is deliberately being made, a good point maybe but nevertheless not something that Omar himself said) and, he was such an interesting person with a unique view on life that he grabs your attention almost from the beginning. Admittedly there are a lot of minutes spent on him as an old man sitting on a horse looking back, reminiscing on his life, or travelling very s….l….o….w…..l….y on a camel, at which point my husband irately would ask to ‘fast forward’, and this in addition to me asking ‘who is that again?’ meant that the 40 minute episode usually lasted a lot longer……with the kids patience proportionately decreased.
I cannot recommend this series highly enough. Right from the beginning it grabs your interest as it shows the huge dilemma that the Prophet (SAWS) and the Message posed to the elite in Mecca – their agonising discussions on what to do with him, their plots and plans which usually backfired, and the fear of those first Muslims in disclosing their faith in this ‘new’ religion to their families. For me it was so refreshing to see these Companions of the Prophet in their true light – they were……well…….like the rest of us. When we read about the lives of the people on whom the Prophet (SAWS) could count on as his companions we can often be misled into thinking that they were so perfect that we could only hope to emulate them, when in fact they were as human as the rest of us and also, refreshingly, as diverse. They each had their strengths and weaknesses, and they did not change miraculously overnight into perfect people once they accepted Islam. Their strengths before Islam were their strengths after Islam, but so were their weaknesses and these they had to work on just like the rest of us.
Of course they had the huge blessing of the Prophet (SAWS) among them to guide them and inspire them to be better human beings. Although we also have his guidance and, of course, the Message from Allah, the Qur’an, we don’t have this blessing, but then, we don’t have the huge tests that those first Muslims had to endure either. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to have to go out in battle and see your own family – father, brother, son, uncle, cousin, nephew, former close friend – as your enemy and have to fight them for the sake of Allah. And we’re not talking about cowardly suicide bombers, or those cowards who plant a bomb and then run and hide while it goes off and kills scores of innocent people, or snipers who hide behind their guns at great distances – never mind those who sit in comfort while firing off long range missiles that decimate whole villages and towns. No…..we’re talking about hand-to-hand combat for sheer survival with those whom they loved….and probably still did as you cannot turn love off like a tap.
The series shows how the Message of the Qur’an blew like a wind through Mecca changing its inhabitants forever. How it travelled from land to land through people who were willing to make huge sacrifices, and through its core Message which attracted people from all walks of life.
The surprising thing for me were the moments when I actually felt what the first Muslims were going through – that feeling of realisation that THIS is it…..this Message makes sense and gives meaning to everything….even the most meaningless event in life. At the same time how do you turn around to those you love, who have cared for you and always looked out for your best interests, and tell them that you no long believe in what they believe and in what they have inculcated in you all your life. Not only that…..how do you tell them that you are afraid for them and their souls? I have to admit that, at times, I sat quietly in tears, while the rest of my family watched because it brought back a lot of memories for me and…..a lot of regrets.
But it’s not all doom and gloom….in fact the series is more about how Islam changed Omar (RA) from the person he was, into an Islamic version of himself, and the same with the rest of the Companions. There is one father, and his two sons who made us laugh every time they had a scene together. You can so well understand the father’s frustration when first one son becomes Muslim and then the other. One son is a lot more vocal while the other is more conciliatory but the dialogue between the three is really amusing, and also quite touching.
The series filled in a lot of the blanks in my knowledge of Islamic history, provided a timeline of events and the story lines on various personalities filled them out as real people rather than the cardboard cut-outs that they sometimes come across in books.
For me, watching this series developed a real connection between me, in the here and now, and those who lived then, a sense of continuance, a sense of familiarity, and a sense of love and appreciation for all they did so that I could live the life I do today.
Of course it helps a lot when you have someone who understands Arabic and has some knowledge of Islamic history beside you when you are watching it as they can fill in some very interesting details: there was the time when Omar (RA) was emigrating to Madina, and the people of Mecca were imprisoning people to stop them from going. He stood in the main public area and announced that he was emigrating and that anyone who wanted to leave a bereaved parent, wife or child could try to prevent him! What it didn’t say was that he brought something like 20 others with him, people who were in a much weaker position and who would never have been able to emigrate without his protection. When it showed Hind’s fear of facing the Prophet after having his uncle killed in battle, one of my daughters told me the story of when she made her pledge to the Prophet (SAWS) along with all the other women in Mecca, she was so embarrassed that she covered her face so he wouldn’t recognise her, but, of course he did. When he (SAWS) asked them if they had any questions she asked so many and was so impertinent that she made Omar laugh! The series itself kicked off many interesting discussions between us as a family, from which I, myself, learnt a lot…..not least that somehow…..despite me….my children know quite a lot about their deen Alhamdulilah!
Abu Bakr (RA) and Omar (RA) were the two closest friends of the prophet (SAWS), and they became the 1st and 2nd Caliphs respectively. They also could not have been more different in temperament and personality – completely chalk and cheese. They might not even have become good friends if it wasn’t for Islam, and yet they loved each other so much and had so much respect for each other. It reminds me of all the friends I’ve been blessed to meet since I became Muslim, from all over the world and all walks of life, and how we too became good friends through a common goal – growing in faith in Islam.
It was very refreshing and also somewhat comforting to see how these people did not change into wonderful people overnight, and most of them still retained their own personalities and all of them had to work on their own weaknesses – a great comfort to those of us who despair sometimes of ever being as good as we should be.
I love the fact that 1400 years later we still wear the same clothes, fulfil the same Islamic obligations in the same manner and try to practise Islam in the same manner just as they did. There is a sense of continuity and kinship down through the years, a real feeling of being part of the Ummah Alhamdulilah.