Caliph Umar: Conqueror of Jerusalem
Venerated by Sunni Muslims and reviled by Shi’ites, Caliph Umar is a pisive figure in Muslim history. A contemporary of Muhammad, Umar was one of the first and most powerful Muslim leaders. But he did not begin that way. Before Umar converted to Islam, he was one of its most passionate enemies, actively persecuting Muslim worshippers.
A popular Sunni legend tells that in his effort to quash Islam once and for all, Umar resolved to murder the Prophet Muhammad. On his journey he stopped at the home of his sister, and discovered that she and her husband had converted to Islam. At first he beat her, but upon hearing her recite verses from the Koran, was overcome by their beauty and decided to convert to Islam himself.
But regardless of how Umar came to convert, once he did, he quickly rose in the ranks to become one of Muhammad’s closest advisors and most ardent supporters. Eventually he was to succeed Abu Bakr as Caliph, which made him the second caliph of the Islamic empire.
Umar was the first Muslim leader to expand the Islamic empire to non-Arabian regions; during his reign as caliph, he helped to conquer Mesopatamia and some of Persia from the Sassanids, and took Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Armenia and North Africa from the Byzantine empire.
Umar’s conquest of Jerusalem was famously peaceful, leaving intact the Christian holy sites and permitting Jews to reenter the city and settle near the Western Wall. It was an event that signified the dramatic shift of Jerusalem from a Christian-dominated city to a part of the Islamic empire. The claim of Islam was reinforced by Umar’s clearing of the Temple Mount to build a rough-hewn wooden mosque on the spot, a precursor to Al Aqsa Mosque.
The reign of Umar ended abruptly in 644 A.D., when he was assassinated by a Persian prisoner of war, and wars of succession frayed the close-knit fabric of the empire. But in spite of the chaos that ensued after Umar’s death, Muslim sovereignty in Jerusalem was to flourish for centuries to come.
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