A Holiday Message from the Life of Omar


Jerusalem lights

From the Greek and Syriac sources of the Church Elders

There are those who love and there are those who hate. Of which were our pious predecessors and of which are you?

When the Muslims surrounded Jerusalem, the inhabitants said they would surrender the city only if the Muslim ruler himself —Omar, the second successor or “Caliph,” of the Prophet Muhammad— came to them.1 So Omar sojourned by camel from Damascus, Syria to Jerusalem in the Holy Land. As Omar approached the city, his servant became weary, so he ordered his servant to ride the steed while he walked it by the reins.

When they entered Jerusalem —records indicate it very well could have been Easter— the people of the city mistook the servant for the Caliph. When corrected, they couldn’t believe that this man in tattered and dirty clothes, leading on foot his servant who rode his steed, was the ruler of this new people who were conquering the Persian and Roman Empires, the greatest empires the world had ever seen, with such speed that had never been seen before. St. Sophronius, Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem, greeted Omar with a set of fresh regal clothes and insisted he wear them instead of the dirty rags he was wearing. According to the Greek chronicler Theophilus of Edessa (695-785CE), Omar refused saying, “It is not right for a man to take from another what God has not decreed for him, for God has given to each and every one of humanity from His Divine knowledge, and he who desires to receive something from his companion exceeding that, does so against God.”2 Yet, the Christians of the city were outraged and Omar sensed that they found it humiliating to concede the city to someone who looked so base and common. So he compromised. Theophilus further records from Omar, “Because you request it of me, and have shown me such great honor, please lend me these clothes and I will wear them while you wash mine. When mine are returned, I will return these clothes to you.” Michael the Syrian, 12th Century Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, says about Omar, “He was certainly just and removed from greed, to the degree that from all the empire that the Arabs ruled, that is, from all the wealth and treasures of the Romans and Persians, he took nothing for himself. He did not change the simplicity of his habits, not even the piece of hide that was placed under him when he rode by camel and that he used for sitting on the ground or sleeping on.”3

As the time approached for the Muslim noon prayer, Sophronius invited Omar to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in all of Christianity that contains the Golgotha, the Hill of Calvary where Christ was to be crucified, as well as the tomb where Christ was to be interred. Omar refused saying that he feared future generations of Muslims might seek to make it a Muslim holy site. So he prayed opposite the southern courtyard of the Church where, sure enough, they eventually built the Mosque of Omar that stands there to this day facing the empty tomb of Jesus Christ.

Patriarch Eutychius of Alexandria of the Greek Orthodox Church (877-940CE) records:

“When the gate of the city was opened, Omar came in with his entourage and sat at the aetrion of the Church of the Resurrection. When the time of prayer approached, Omar said to Patriarch Sophronius: ‘I want to pray.’ And he responded: ‘Commander of the faithful, pray in the place where you are now.’ And Omar said: ‘I do not want to pray here.’ The patriarch and then led him to the Church of Constantine [the Church of the Resurrection] where he spread a mat made of straw on the floor of the church. But Omar said: ‘I do not want to pray here either.’ He went out to the steps, which are at the gate on the eastern side of the Church of St. Constantine, and he prayed alone on the steps. Then he sat down and said to Patriarch Sophronius: ‘Patriarch, do you know why I did not pray inside the church?’ He answered: ‘I do not know, Commander of the Faithful.’ And Omar said to him: ‘If I had prayed inside the Church, you would be losing it and it would have gone from your hands because after my death the Muslims would seize it saying: Omar has prayed here. Give me a piece of pergamene4 to write for you a document.’”5

Eutychius goes on to relate the terms written in that document protecting the Church and the churches surrounding it forbidding Muslims from congregating near its steps for their prayers.

While some Muslims bicker over whether they should bid their Christian fellows “Merry Christmas” or any other variety of holiday greetings throughout the year, I urge them to drop such vain harangues. Instead, reach into the psyche of Omar, inspired by the Prophet Muhammad whom he served and later succeeded, and how he treated the Christians who found themselves under his rule. Had he wished, he could have done away with the Christian and Jewish populations and history would have no less recorded him as yet another conqueror. When the Christian Crusaders invaded Jerusalem 400 years later, they did slaughter the Muslims, Jews and even those Christians of sects they deemed heretical in a stadium as if it were sport. No man, woman, child or even babe in arms was spared.6 The year prior to that, in 1098, the Crusaders had actually cooked and eaten the Muslims of Ma`rrat al-Nu`man in Syria. It is said that babies were skewered on spits, broiled and eaten.7

But that is not our way and any who adopt such ways in God’s name profane the very core of Islam. Omar chose the path of love, compassion, and mercy. He gave the Christians freedom and brought the Jews back to the Holy Land from whence they had been driven out just a decade before and successively in the centuries preceding that. The city’s Christians entrusted the keys to the Church of Holy Sepulchre into the hands of the Muslim family of Nusaybah. Today, a millennium and a half later, a member of that Muslim family unlocks the Church in the morning and locks it up at night. The Christians of Jerusalem would have it no other way.8

Will the Christians love you when you deal with them thus? Some will. Some won’t. In spite of acknowledging the magnanimity of Omar related above, Theophanes the Confessor (760-818CE) refers to him as a devilish beast and mocks him for entering the city in dirty clothes.9 God even tells us in the Qur’an, “The Jews and Christians will never be fully satisfied with you until you follow their respective religions.”10 It should matter to you naught! Be good and seek no reward. We do not let the pleasure of people guide our actions. We do not behave well towards goodness nor do we mete ill with evil. Jesus is recorded in Islamic sources as saying:

“Virtuous action does not consist in doing good to someone who has done good to you—that is merely returning a favor. Virtuous action consists in doing good [even] to those who have wronged you.”11

Thus, we behave as our beloved Prophet Muhammad, the servant and messenger of God, instructed and exemplified seeking only the pleasure of the very One Whom we —Jew, Christian and Muslim— worship as the One God who rules over all with Love and Mercy. Seek not the pleasure of mankind because they will never truly be pleased with you no matter what you do. Love and brotherhood in humanity are found in behaviors well beyond the realm of mere words. Ponder well. Let your attitude and behavior towards your Christian fellows speak louder than any bidding of “Merry Christmas” ever could.

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  1. The Encounter of Eastern Christianity with Early Islam, Emmanouela Grypeou, Mark N. Swanson and David Thomas []
  2. Theophilus of Edessa’s Chronicle- And the Circulation of Historical Knowledge in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, Liverpool University Press- Translated Texts for Historians, Robert G. Hoyland []
  3. Ibid []
  4. A type of parchment named after the ancient city of Pergamum in Aeolis []
  5. The Encounter of Eastern Christianity with Early Islam, Emmanouela Grypeou, Mark N. Swanson and David Thomas []
  6. “In this temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet colored to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.” Gesta Francorum Jerusalem Expugnantium, Fulcher of Chartres []
  7. “Some people said that, constrained by the lack of food, they boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots, impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.” Citing Rudolph of Caen, The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials, Edward Peters. []
  8. The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Adrian Hastings, ‎Alistair Mason, ‎Hugh Pyper []
  9. Theophilus of Edessa’s Chronicle- And the Circulation of Historical Knowledge in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, Liverpool University Press- Translated Texts for Historians, Robert G. Hoyland []
  10. The Holy Qur’an, Chapter al-Baqara 2:120 []
  11. Walk on Water, The Wisdom of Jesus from Traditional Arabic Sources, Hamza Yusuf. This work cites Ahmad bin Hanbal as the source. Begging the esteemed Hamza Yusuf’s pardon, “[even]” added by the author for clarity and context. []

33 Comments

  1. Eman says:

    Thank you for this wonderful and insightful piece. I still do not know whether or not prophet Mohammed PBUH greeted the christians or jews in their holidays. If you have any information on that please do share. Thank you again .

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Eman, that discussion is outside the scope of this article and a point I tried to make was that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with it. What good is saying “Merry Christmas” when we haven’t even treated our Christian neighbors properly? I believe it is a moot point because we have a ways to go in establishing better relations with our Christian friends. Of course, they have a ways to go with us as well, but we have to start with ourselves first.

  2. Jameel says:

    Excellent article with historical references,mashAllah !
    But it seems the writer wanted to potray a “soft” image of Islam,while we all know this behaviour of Omar(Ra) was due to the peaceful surrender of the city.
    That’s the foreign policy of Khilafah.
    Either accept Islam,surrender and pay jizya(as citizens) or fight !
    The people of holy city accepted to surrender,so there was no need for fight !

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Jameel, I did not try to “portray” anything. I quoted straight from the Church elders of Palestine. So if they wanted to portray anything, that was their own doing, not mine.

      Comments like yours represent the exact mentality that this article –as you’ve noted, heavily sourced and referenced– intends to debunk. You sound as if you’ve been learning Islamic history from Pat Robertson.

  3. Yaqoob says:

    Quite an interesting read. Jazakallahu Khair

  4. Maryam Amirebrahimi says:

    Powerful. Beautiful. Incredibly relevant and needed. Like all your articles, barak Allahu fik Ustad Shibli.

  5. Jinan Bastaki says:

    So so beautiful. May we honor their memory and follow in their footsteps!

  6. Abdul Rasyid says:

    Shukran, Jazakallahu Khair

  7. Anis Ahmed says:

    Great article!

  8. Ben says:

    Other narrations I have heard include different details (which do not impact the high character of Omar but are interesting).
    One example is that the Christians had a believe that the just ruler they were waiting to submit to would have a certain number of holes in his garments (I think it was 12 or 13) but they could only count 1 less than that on Omar. When they asked him about how many holes were in his garment he lifted his arm to expose another hole which they had not seen.

    I would be interested in the author’s opinion of such details… Are they just romanticised embellishments?

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Ben, that’s an interesting story but I am unfamiliar with it. Please note the subtitle that indicates this was from the perspective of the Church elders in and around the time and place of the events. I have not read the story you mention from those sources. If you find any additional information then please do share. Thanks.

  9. Ahmed Zaafran says:

    Your articles are succinct, well thought out, and relevant to our time and needs. Thank you for your work and contributions. They are invaluable.

  10. Abu Hameed says:

    References were great, but the author shouldn’t have undermined the importance of the prohibition of saying “Merry Christmas”. If the author wanted to focus on Omar’s treatment only, then he should have only done so. He shouldn’t have gone the extra step and undermined the prohibition of Christmas greetings.

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Thank you for telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. As far as undermining your specific opinion on saying “Merry Christmas”, people do have a right to do that. Nonetheless, I did no such thing. I gave no opinion on what anyone should do in regards to that. Au contraire, I emphasized strongly how irrelevant that is when we should be focusing more on how we actually treat our Christian neighbors.

      • Abu Hameed says:

        And that’s the lacking part of your article in my opinion. Problem is that you did give your opinion by claiming that this matter is “irrelevant”. It would have been best to remain neutral and not make mention of it at all in my humble opinion.

        Otherwise, great article.

        Abu Hameed.

  11. hajj O says:

    You miss the point oh ignoramus!
    Omar was being his humble self.

  12. Lotfi says:

    Salam.

    Thanks for a good article.

    By the way, didn’t Omar come from Madinah, the seat of the Caliphate then, rather than from Damascus?

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Peace be unto you, dear Lotfi. That’s a question that I’ve noticed buzzing on social media. We have to keep in mind that historical evidence is often at odds with popular historical folklore in our communities. Often times historical records are even at odds with themselves. So we have to collect and research as much as we can to get a greater picture.

      While it is correct that Omar was based out of, and ruled from, Medina, he was in Damascus when Jerusalem capitulated on the condition that he himself receive the city. Tabari records in his monumental work of historical record, in volume 12, under “The Conquest of Jerusalem”:

      “According to Sālim b. `Abdullāh: When `Umar reached al-Jābiyah, a Jew said to him: “O Commander of Faithful, you will not return to your country before God has granted you victory over Jerusalem.” While in al-Jābiyah `Umar b. al-Khattāb saw an approaching detachment of horsemen. When they came close, they drew their swords, but `Umar said: “These are people who are coming to seek an assurance of safety. Grant it to them.” They drew near and it became clear that they were people from Jerusalem. They made peace with `Umar on the condition that they would pay the poll tax and opened up Jerusalem for him. When `Umar was granted victory over Jerusalem, he summoned that same Jew, and it was said to him: “He is, indeed, in possession of knowledge.” `Umar asked the Jew about the False Messiah, for he was wont to ask about him a great deal. The Jew said to him: “What are you asking about him, O Commander of the Faithful? You, the Arabs, will kill him ten odd cubits in front of the gate of Lydda.””

      The gate of al-Jabiyah is an ancient gate for the city of Damascus, Syria. Thank you so much for your question and your cordiality in asking it.

  13. Sarah says:

    I liked this article. I learned something about Islamic history. I do believe greeting others with Merry Christmas just shows respect for other people religious or secular traditions.Most who celebrate Christmas now a days don’t do it in a religious aspect, and all I am doing is wishing them to have a good holiday as they do around Ramadan time. Nothing more nothing less. I believe this helps build bridges between us and portrays a good image of Islam for non-Muslims.

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Sarah, I don’t disagree with your opinion and I, myself, don’t really have an opinion on the matter. As I mentioned, I believe the entire issue of saying “Merry Christmas” besides the point. Rather, we should focus on how we treat our Christian neighbors. I can not emphasize this enough and if I have to keep repeating it, I gladly will. All the best.

      • Sarah says:

        Yes Shibil, the proof is in the pudding you could say. Treating non-Muslims with respect and kindness goes a long way. I have had people at work tell me they haven’t had great interactions with Muslims in the past. They tended to close themselves off and not want to converse much. By trying to be friendly and cheerful with them (and yes, acknowledging their holidays) it shows that Muslims are kind warm people who are much like them. It doesn’t mean we need to go out drinking with them, just maintain good relations and SMILE :)

  14. Skeena says:

    We learn much from the life of Hazrat Omer Farooq. Second calipha in islam.he proved with his great service that he was a great calipha and a great person. he served the Islamic society very much liked this site . Good work. Keep on working like this and so on.

  15. Anees says:

    Beautiful piece ma’sha’allah. I’m tempted to share this with a Christian friend that I’ve made over the recent months and who has come to understand Islam better, after an initial period of friction when we first starting sharing and educating each other (living in the same city) on our faiths.

    Anyways, such a great example in Hz. Omar (RA) – one that I wish more Muslims would follow, myself included. As you said in the above reply, both sides have a long way to go, but if we lead by example, more likely both sides can come to a better place in our relations with each other.

    Jazak’Allahu Khairan.

  16. Malik says:

    It’s very refreshing to read about the islamic history from a non islamic perspective.

    It’s quite unfortunate focus of some is diverted by trivial matters and subsequently missing the plot of the article which has been pain-stakenly researched and written succintly for our benefit. May Allah bless Brother Shibli for his time and effort.

  17. Nuraini says:

    I think the point of the article is that, even according to the non-Muslim sources, Omar went to quite unnecessary trouble to ensure the *protection* of trinitarian Christians’ ability to worship in a way that Muslims clearly disagree with. By comparison, merely wishing that Christian neighbours and acquaintances to have a happy time during their holiday is a much lesser deed and not worth stressing about. After all it’s not like we’re going to mass with them or agreeing with their theology or singing theologically incompatible carols with them (not that many of them are still left in the West that still go to Christmas mass anyway).

    • O H says:

      It is a flawed premise. We cannot extrapolate this event to other issues relating to Non-Muslims. Each issue has it’s own principle and evidence tackling the issue.

  18. O H says:

    Some good interesting points made in this article. Like most issues in Islam we cannot derive ahkaam and general rulings/guidelines from one single event but we also have to look at other similar circumstances as well by the Prophet and other Sahabas. We are Ummatun Wasat-a just and balanced nation not going to either extremes.

  19. HC Law says:

    Is The GOD MUSLIM ,JEWS AND CHRISTIAN whoship the same GOD ? Can some one kindly answer my question ?

    • Yasir says:

      Greetings! @HC Law

      The Jews, Christians and Muslims are supposed to worship the Only Same One GOD Who Revealed their Respective Books through their Respective Messengers.

      But the GOD worshiped by the Muslims is not the same GOD worshiped by the Jews and Christians. For the GOD of the Muslims has no partner or wife or son or any equal in HIS Divinity or Attributes/Actions or Lordships but jews and christians has godS to worship.

      Prophet Abraham and the Muslims worship the Same one GOD. Prophet Abraham was neither a jew nor a christian but a Muslim like His Grand Children Moses,David,Solomon,Jesus&Muhammad (Peace be upon them all).

      Kind Regards
      Yasir

      • Shibli Zaman says:

        Yasir, usually I hear this sad polemic from extremist Christian groups but I guess I’ve, unfortunately, seen the day that a Muslim uses it too. God says in the Qur’an:

        .{وإن الذين أوتوا الكتاب ليعلمون أنه الحق من ربهم وما الله بغافل عما يعملون}:
        “Those who were given the scripture (Jews and Christians) know that it (the Qur’an) is the Truth from THEIR LORD and ALLAH is not heedless to what they do.”
        [The Qur'an 2:144]

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      HC Law, yes. Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God of Abraham. Don’t listen to anyone who says otherwise.

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