We have chosen of `Umar b. al-Khattâb to be our example of how the Companions emulated the Prophet (peace be upon him), because `Umar had special qualities that make him of particular interest to us. He was one of the closest of people to the Prophet (peace be upon him). In fact, Abû Bakr was the only person who was closer to the Prophet than `Umar. Also, from among the Companions, `Umar played the greatest role in spreading the message of Islam and in developing the Islamic state.
During the Prophet’s lifetime, `Umar had the opportunity to issue legal verdicts. During Abû Bakr’s time as Caliph, he carried out the role of a minister of state. Thereafter, he was appointed Caliph and assumed that responsibility for more than a decade. During that time, he instituted the state records, established the national treasury, and brought about numerous other developments. During his era, the frontiers of the Muslim world expanded considerably.
When we study the story of `Umar’s life from its biographical sources and then look at his narrations from the Prophet (peace be upon him), we see a stark contrast. On the one hand, `Umar spent a considerable amount of time in the Prophet’s company. He had been ever at his side. However, when we consider the number of hadîth that he narrated from the Prophet (peace be upon him), we find them to be surprisingly few.
We would be wrong to draw from this the conclusion this that `Umar was unconcerned about following the Prophet (peace be upon him). If that were the case, why did the Prophet (peace be upon him) say: “Allah has placed the truth upon `Umar’s tongue and in his heart. He speaks the truth.”?
If emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) had meant simply relating his words without understanding, then `Umar would surely have been one of the Companions to have narrated the most hadîth.
If emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) had meant blindly imitating his actions, then there would not have been the expansion in the domain of juristic reasoning that took place after the Prophet’s death. We would never have seen the state records and all of the other measures that `Umar instituted for the public welfare that did not exist in the Prophet’s day.
If emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) had meant following the Prophet’s example without seeking to understand and analyze what he did, then `Umar would never have discussed and debated matters with the Prophet (peace be upon him) the way that he did on many occasions. He did so about the prisoners of war after the Battle of Badr, about the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, and about the funeral prayer of `Abd Allah b. Ubayy b. Salûl. He was also more than willing to volunteer his opinion when he saw the need to do so.
If emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) had been something superficial, `Umar never would have cut the trees of Hudaybiyah or broken the stones of Mina, or placed a moratorium on the distribution of Zakâh funds for the purpose of reconciling people’s hearts to Islam.
At the same time, if emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) had meant investigating, analyzing, and second-guessing everything that the Prophet (peace be upon him) ever said or did, then `Umar would never have made his famous statement before kissing the black Stone: “I know that you are nothing but a stone. You cannot hurt or help anyone. And had I not seen the Prophet (peace be upon him) kissing you, I would never kiss you.”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) attested to `Umar’s right-guidance when he said: “Indeed, the truth expresses itself on his tongue.”
Likewise, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Abide by my Sunnah and the Sunnah of the Rightly Guided Caliphs who shall come after me.” The Pious Predecessors all agreed that the Rightly Guided Caliphs were Abû Bakr, `Umar, `Uthmân, and `Alî.
He also said: “Of those who come after me, follow the example of Abû Bakr and `Umar.”
`Umar enjoyed the acceptance of all the Companions. The Prophet (peace be upon him) bore witness to his good character and conduct on more than one occasion. From this we know that `Umar was clearly one of the closest people to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and to the Prophet’s example, even if he narrated relatively few hadîth and even though he instituted many new developments that had been unknown to the Muslims before his tenure as Caliph.
From these facts, we can surmise that `Umar understood the emulation of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to be a matter of following his way, his approach, his methodology – to emulate how the Prophet himself had related to the revelation given to him by his Lord and the way that he conveyed the Message to humanity. For indeed, this is how the Prophet (peace be upon him) set the best example of conduct, an example through which the guidance of the Qur’ân was communicated to the rest of humanity.
In spite of the fact that all of the Companions shared in the principle of emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him), each had a unique way of doing so that accorded with his personality and spirit. So even if `Abd Allah b. `Umar endeavored to walk down the paths that the Prophet (peace be upon him) walked, following his very footsteps and seeking shade under the very same trees – we find that his father, `Umar b. al-Khattâb, took another approach to emulation, and approach that was defined by certain clear principles and that presents us with a general concept of emulation and a coherent methodology.
`Umar’s Concept of Emulation
The methodology of `Umar in emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) was governed by the following principles:
1. `Umar considered the ideal of emulation to be embodied in preserving Allah’s Book and in focusing one’s efforts upon it. He understood this from the prophet’s initial prohibition of writing down the Sunnah when the Qur’ân was being revealed. He understood that the preservation of the Sunnah was implicit in the preservation of the Qur’ân and in living according to its dictates.
2. `Umar would accept without question in matters which had no rational explanation behind them, like his kissing the Black Stone because he saw the Prophet (peace be upon him) doing so, even though he did not understand it. However, since he saw the Prophet (peace be upon him) doing so, he did likewise, knowing that whatever the Prophet (peace be upon him) did was the truth. He did not add anything of his own when it came to such matters. Indeed, he prohibited others from going beyond what the Prophet (peace be upon him) did or instructed.
3. `Umar saw the emulation of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in a broad, social context – a way that people dealt with one another and what they put into practice as a community. This can be clearly seen in studying `Umar’s life, in how he was averse to accepting that which was strange and how he pt great weight on the general transmission of practices as applied by the people and as they were relevant to the people as a community. This approach would later become embodied in Mâlik’s juristic principle that the practice of the people of Madinah – their collective practice – is to be taken as a source of Islamic Law.
We see how, when Abû Mûsâ al-Ash`arî informed `Umar of a hadîth that he had not been familiar with, `Umar insisted that he produce others to testify to what he said.
4. `Umar’s emulation of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and imitation of his ways made him extremely strict when it came to the narration of hadîth. He was extremely careful not to allow anything to be falsely attributed to the Prophet (peace be upon him). I believe this was due to his astute awareness of the circumstances, for he feared that people would busy themselves with narrating hadîth and become less careful about verifying what was being said. He also feared that people might become neglectful of the Qur’ân from which the Sunnah derives its authority.
His strictness with respect to narrating hadîth did not indicate a lack of concern for the Sunnah. Quite the contrary, he was planting the first seeds of hadîth criticism by emphasizing the need for scientific scrutiny in the verification of the texts and of the character of those who narrate them. These measures that `Umar applied were what later developed into the sciences of hadîth by way of which the Sunnah was preserved and protected from corruption.
`Umar fully appreciated the need to preserve and safeguard the Prophet’s example in its pristine purity for future generations, free from being mixed up with the opinions of the narrators.
5. `Umar had witnessed many different things during his years with the Prophet (peace be upon him). He had seen him in war and peace. He had seen the him carry out various roles, that of governor, judge, preacher, jurist, father, husband, and legislator. From all of this, `Umar acquired a clear understanding of how to emulate the Prophet (peace be upon him) and was able to develop a methodology that recognized various levels of emulation, a methodology that was able to distinguish between obligatory matters and those that are customs subject to being abandoned or modified depending on the time and circumstances.
`Umar possessed a spirit of emulation that afforded him with an understanding of the spirit of Islamic Law – an understanding of its broad objectives as well as its particulars. This can be seen in his practical application of the Qur’ân and Sunnah both during the Prophet’s lifetime and after his death – in the discussions that he had with the Prophet (peace be upon him) during his lifetime and in the juristic decisions that he later made on his own. These include his nominating Abû Bakr for the office of Caliph after the Prophet’s death, his policy on not using Zakâh funds to reconcile people’s hearts to Islam, his imposing a produce levy on captured lands, his expansion of the Sacred Mosque, his appointing a chamberlain, and numerous other policies that he enacted.
Though it sometimes appeared that he acted contrary to the sacred texts in certain matters, a careful study of his exercise of juristic discretion shows that he had been correct in his decisions and acted in accordance with the dictates of the sacred texts, if not always a superficial understanding of their meanings. He acted upon the spirit of the texts where the texts required it and upon the face value of the texts where the texts required it.
In conclusion, we would like to reiterate that a complete picture of how to emulate the Prophet (peace be upon him) needs to be taken by looking at the practice of all of the Companions. No one from among the Companions ever claimed to have comprised within himself every aspect of the Prophet’s example, so that the understanding of others could be dispensed with. If that were the case, then he would have been no different than the Prophet (peace be upon him). Instead, each Companion expressed his emulation of the Prophet (peace be upon him) through the filter of his own, unique personality.
The very existence of the Companions shows how important it is to have a collective, social application of emulation that shows us the way that the Prophet (peace be upon him) dealt with the revelation and applied it to the real situations that the people faced. Through their collective example, we can see how the Prophet (peace be upon him) was able to build up the individual believer, the Muslim community, and the nation according to the teachings of the Qur’an.
Some Companions conveyed to us the Sunnah by relating numerous hadîth. Others, by contrast, conveyed to us the Prophet’s example through their visible works, by applying it to all the circumstances that they faced.
If we understand the emulation of the Prophet (peace be upon him) within the narrow confines of Islamic Law, then we are restricting the Prophet’s mission to matters of the lawful and the prohibited. However, this is only one of the levels on which our emulation of the Prophet (peace be upon him) must be carried out. The Prophet’s life has many other dimensions to it that we must pay attention to. He was the Seal of the Prophets and the Message that he came with is the final Message for all humanity.
I do not suspect that any of the Companions failed to realize this broad understanding of what it means to emulate the Prophet (peace be upon him).
And Allah knows best.