The exact date of the birth of Umar is not known. The concensus of opinion, however, is that Umar was born at Mecca around 580 A.D He was younger than the Holy Prophet of Islam by about ten years.
Umar belonged to the Adi clan of the Quraish. It was one of the ten clans of the Quraish who inhabited Mecca.
The pedigree of Umar was: Umar the son of Khattab; the son of Nufail; the son of Abul Uzza; the son of Riza; the son of Ribah; the son of Qurat; the son of Adi; the son of Katb.
The pedigree of the Holy Prophet was: Muhammad (peace be on him) the son of Abdullah; the son of Abdul Muttalib; the son of Hashim; the son of Abd Munaf; the son of Qussay; the son of Kulab; the son of Ka'b.
In the case of Abu Bakr and the Holy Prophet, Murrah in the eighth degree was their common ancestor. In the case of the Holy Prophet and Umar, Ka'b in the ninth degree was their common ancestor.
Among Umar's ancestors, Adi rose to prominence as a diplomat, and the clan came to be known after him. Whenever the Quraish of the day had to negotiate any settlement with any other tribe, Adi represented the interests of the Quraish as an ambassador. Even in the case of disputes among the Quraish themselves, Adi acted as the arbitrator. After the death of Adi the two offices of diplomatic representation and arbitration became hereditary in his descendants.
Umar's grandfather Nufail arbitrated in a dispute between Abdul Muttalib, the grandfather of the Holy Prophet and Harab bin Umayyah over the custodianship of the Ka'bah. Nufail gave his verdict in favour of Abdul Muttalib. Addressing Harab bin Umayyah he said:
"Why do you pick a quarrel with a person who is taller than you in stature; more imposing than you in appearance; more refined than you in intellect; whose progeny outnumbers yours and whose generosity outshines yours in lustre? Do not, however, construe this into any disparagement of your good qualities which I highly appreciate. You are as gentle as a lamb, you are renowned throughout Arabia for the stentorian tones of your voice, and you are an asset to your tribe."
This address is indicative of Nufail's skill in diplomacy and his highly developed sense of judgment.
Khattab the father of Umar was among the prominent members of the Banu Adis. The Banu Adis had some feuds with Banu Abdul Shams. The Banu Abdul Shams were stronger in power and position, and the Banu Adis as a safety measure had to seek alliance with some other clan. They allied themselves with Ranu Shams. On this alliance, Khattab composed the following verses:
"How can Abdul Shams still threaten us,
The house in which Umar was born in Mecca was situated midway between Safa and Marwah. During the period of his caliphate, Umar had the house dismantled, and the site was turned into a camping ground.
Umar's mother was Khantamah who was the daughter of Hisham bin al-Mughirah. Al-Mughirah was a personage of high rank among the Quraish. In the event of war he marshalled the Quraish troops and led them to war. Hisham the maternal grandfather of Umar and al-Walid the father of the renowned General Khalid were brothers. Khalid was thus a cousin of Umar s mother and his maternal uncle.
Abu Jahl whose personal name was Amr bin Hisham bir al-Mughirah was a brother of Umar's mother, and his maternal uncle. One of the sisters of Umar's mother, Umm Salma was married to the Holy Prophet of Islam.
Umar had several brothers and sisters. The most well known out of these were: Zaid and Fatima. Zaid and Umar were step brothers, their mothers being different. Nevertheless the two brothers were devoted to each other. When Zaid was later martyred at the battle of Yamama during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, Umar was highly grieved. He used to say, "Whenever the wind blows from Yamama, it brings me the fragrance of Zaid."
Fatima was the real sister of Umar. She was married to her cousin Saeed bin Zaid bin Amr. She played an important role in the conversion of Umar to Islam.
Amr, a brother of Khattab was a paternal uncle of Umar. Zaid the son of Amr, and a cousin of Umar was among the distinguished persons of the Quraish, who before the advent of Islam gave up idolatry, and came to believe in the unity of God. Zaid was a poet. One of his poems reads:
"I believe in one God,
Khattab the father of Umar persecuted Zaid for his religious beliefs. Zaid died before the Holy Prophet of Islam announced his prophetic mission. When the Holy Prophet proclaimed his prophethood, Saeed the son of Zaid who had married Umar's sister Fatima, was among the early converts to Islam.
No account is preserved about the early life of Umar during the days of ignorance. Umar belonged to an ordinary family of average means and there was nothing conspicuous about Umar or his family during the days of ignorance to be recorded or chronicled. We can merely pick up stray accounts here and there, and try to weave them into a readable narrative.
It appears that Umar grew up as a typical Arab-a tall young man with a fine physique and impressive personality. When he was a child his father put him to the task of grazing camels. Khattab was a hard taskmaster, and Umar often recalled how his father belaboured him mercilessly whenever there was a lapse on his part. Umar also recalled that when he was a child he used to graze the flocks of goats and sheep of his maternal aunts who doled out pittance to him in the shape of dates.
As a child, Umar used to graze the animals under his charge in the grazing ground Dajnan, about ten miles from Mecca. When Umar became the Khalifa, he happened to pass through Dajnan. Turning to his companions he said:
"Gracious heavens! There was a time when I used to roam about this desert as a camel-herd, wearing a felt jacket, and whenever I sat down tired my father beat me. Now the times have changed. There is now none save God as my superior."
Among the Quraish of those days, reading and writing was not in vogue. In spite of that Umar received education in reading and writing. It is related that among the Quraish of Mecca only seventeen persons could read and write, and Umar was one of them. That has to be acknowledged as a great attainment.
Umar's father was an authority in tracing genealogies. Under the guidance of his father, Umar also acquired matchless skill in the matter of the study of pedigrees.
Umar knew intimately as to who was who among the Quraish. He was also well versed in the knowledge of the history of Arabia.
Umar was blessed with a strong physique. He could undergo great rigours. He could travel on foot for miles. He was an athlete and a wrestler. He participated in the wrestling matches on the occasion of the annual fair at Ukaz, and he won in most of such matches. From the accounts that have come down to us it appears that Umar had attained perfection in the art of wrestling.
Some first hand descriptions of the physical appearance of Umar have come down to us. Ibn Saad and al-Hakim have recorded a description of Umar as Abu Miriam Zir, a native of Kufa described him. Zir said:
"I went forth with the people of Madina on a festival day, and I saw Umar walking barefoot. He was advanced in years, bald, of a tawny colour-a left handed man, tall, and towering above the people."
Ibn Umar described the physical appearance of Umar as follows:
"He was a man of fair complexion, a ruddy tint prevailing, tall, bald and grey."
Ubayd bin Umayr described Umar as follows:
" Umar used to overtop the people in height."
Salima bin al-Akwa'a said about him:
" Umar was ambidexter; he could use both his hands equally well."
Ibn Asakir records on tile authority of Abu Raja al-U'taridi that:
"Umar was a man tall, stout, very bald, very ruddy with scanty hair on the cheeks, his moustaches large, and the ends thereof reddish."
Umar was a skillful rider. He could successfully manage even the wildest of horses he would literally jump on the back of the horse, and sit with such ease and steadiness that he appeared to be a part and parcel of the horse he rode.
He was very intelligent and shrewd. He was a good public speaker. He was gifted with an uncommon degree ot tact and judgment, and on several occasions he successfully undertook ambassadorial missions on behalf of the Quraish.
By all accounts he was self-respecting, broad-minded and sincere. He was a man of strong convictions, a good friend, and a bad enemy. Like the rugged hills around him, he was harsh and stern, violent in temper, but very good of heart. He was always prepared to stand up against the oppressor and espouse the cause of the weak.
He followed the profession of a trader. He undertook journeys to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere for the purposes of trade. He was a successful trader, and he made good money as a result of these commercial journeys. When Umar migrated from Mecca, according to his own account, he was one of the richest Quraish merchants.
In his books, Akhbar-ul-Zaman, and Kitab-ul-Ausat the celebrated historian Masudi is understood to have related the incidents of the travels of Umar Masudi states that Umar paid visits to several Arabian and Persian princes. These books of Masudi have, however, been lost, and the details of these journeys are no longer available to us.
Before his conversion to Islam, Umar had three wives His first wife was Qariba bint Abi Umayya al-Makhzumi. She belonged to the same clan as the mother of Umar. She was one of the most beautiful women of Mecca of the day. His second wife was Zainab bint Maziun. She was the sister of Usman bint Maz'un an early companion for whom the Holy Prophet had great regard. She was the mother of Abdullah and Hafsa. His third wife was Malaika bint Jarul al-Khuzai. She was also called Umm Kulsum.
When the Holy Prophet (peace be on him) proclaimed his apostlehood, the reaction among the Quraish was violent. Umar, a young man of strong convictions, held the new faith to be a sacrilege of the idols of Katbah. Young, well-built, and fiery-tempered as he was, Umar was in tile forefront in opposition to Islam.
Some accounts have come down to us showing Umar's attitude to Islam in the days before his conversion. Umar has related that in the days of ignorance he was one day standing by an idol with a number of Quraish when an Arab sacrificed a calf. From the belly of the calf the following cry was heard:
"O blood red one,
This corroborated what the Holy Prophet (peace be on him) said. Umar, however, dismissed the cry as sheer hallucination.
It is on record that along with some Arabs Umar went to a soothsayer, and asked him to look into the matter of Muhammad (peace be on him) who had proclaimed a new faith. The soothsayer looked to the beaven for a long time. Then he leapt and said:
"O men, God has honoured and chosen Muhammad,
Umar cursed the soothsayer and returned home very cross and upset.
Lubna, a maid servant of Umar, accepted Islam. When Umar came to know of her conversion, he beat her violently and asked her to retract. She said that he might kill her, but she would not leave Islam. Thereafter it became the wont of Umar that he would beat her every day and would stop beating till he himself felt exhausted. In spite of that, the slave girl remained steadfast.
Umm Abdullah bint Khatamah, a lady related to Umar, also accepted Islam. Umar was very furious at her conversion. As she along with her husband Amar bin Rabiah and other early converts decided to migrate to Abyssinia, Umar felt moved. He visited her and said, "Umm Abdullah are you going?" She said, By God, you have made our living in Mecca very difficult. There is no option with us but to migrate elsewhere." Inadvertently Umar said, 'Umm Abdullah, may God protect you; go in peace." At that time Umm Abdullah felt that in spite of Umar's opposition to Islam, he would one day accept the new faith.
We have it on the authority of Umar himself that one day he came across the Holy Prophet in the Ka'bah. The Holy Prophet was reciting verses from the Holy Quran and as Umar listened to these verses he felt that it was the work of some poet. Then the Holy Prophet recited, "This is the revealed word of God; it's not the work of any poet. Yet you people do not believe". Thereupon Umar felt that if this was not the work of any poet it would be the work of a soothsayer. Thereupon the Holy Prophet recited the verses, "And this is not the word of any soothsayer; it is divine word communicated through Gabriel." Hearing these verses Umar stood transfixed for some time. In his heart of hearts he thought that perhaps truth lay with Muhammad (peace be on him).
Umar, however, dismissed these feelings and soon he was his former self very hostile to Islam. He went to the Quraish and participated in their counsels. They felt concerned that the venom of the new faith was spreading and the only remedy was that Muhammad (peace be on him) should be killed. All present at the meeting agreed that Muhammad (peace be on him) should be killed. Then the meeting invited volunteers who would kill the Prophet. Umar volunteered to kill the Prophet, and vindicate the faith of their forefathers.
One hot sultry day in the year A.D. 616, Umar buckled his sword and set out to kill the Holy Prophet (peace be on him). In the way, Umar met Nuaim bin Abduilah. He was a friend of Umar. He had been converted to Islam, but Umar did not know of that.
Noticing the dark frowns on his face, Nuaim asked Umar what he was up to. Umar said that he was going to slay Muhammad (peace be on him), and thus vindicate the gods of Ka'bah. Nuaim said! "Beware if you harm Muhammad (peace be on him) you will not be safe from the fury of Banu Hashim. Desist from such a course in your own interest". Umar ejaculated angrily: "It appears you have also become a Muslim." Nuaim said, "Umar, do not bother about me, but take care of your sister and brother-in-law who have been converted to Islam, and who may be reading the Quran at this very moment."
That made Umar pause. Instead of going to the Holy Prophet, he went to the house of his sister. His sister was Fatima and her husband was Saeed bin Zaid. Umar loved his sister. He had never thought that his brother-in-law or his sister would have the audacity to accept Islam. This was news to him. He could not believe it, but he thought it advisable to verify the facts.
As Umar stepped into the house of his sister, he found that both Fatima and her husband were reading the Quran from a leaf. Seeing Umar, his sister hid the leaf. Fatima rose to welcome her brother with a smile. But there was a dark frown on the face of Umar. "What were you reading", he thundered. "Nothing", replied Fatima.
Umar caught his brother-in-law by the throat and said, "So you have apostasised from the faith of your forefathers". Saeed retorted, "Rather we have abandoned falsehood for truth." Thereupon Umar was about to strike Saeed when Fatima intervened saying, "Hands off from my husband. If ypu have anything to say, say it to me, but do not touch my husband." Umar asked, "Is it a fact that you have become Muslims." She replied, "Yes. we have become Muslims. You may kill us if you like, but we will not waver in our faith".
Umar stayed his hands and desired that the leaf from which they had been reading should be shown to him. Fatima said that he could not touch the sacred leaf until he had washed his hands. Umar washed his hands, and the sacred leaf was handed over to him. It was the Sura Ta Ha. It read:
As Umar read the verses over and over again, he felt as if these verses were addressed to him in person, and the mysterious Ta Ha referred to Umar-the Man. Umar shuddered with the fear of God, and he felt as if his conscience was upbraiding him, "Umar, how long would you stay away from the path of truth. Has not the time come for you to follow the truth?"
And then Umar resolved that he would lose no time in following the truth. Turning to his sister and brother-in-law he said, "I came to you as an enemy of Islam; I go from you as a friend of Islam. I had buckled this sword to slay the Prophet of Islam; I now go to him to offer him allegiance."
Fatima and Saeed cried "Allah o-Akbar".
The episode has been dramatised by Allama Iqbal in his poem "Secrets of the Self". He has exhorted the Muslim women to be like the sister of Umar. He says:
"O Muslim women;