November 6

644 The Assassination of Caliph Umar

The death of Muhammed, the founder of the Islamic faith, in 632 led to a period of succession quarrels within the young movement. The claims of Ali, nephew and son-in-law of Muhammed, were set aside in the election of the first three caliphs”, or “Successors”. Abu Bakr, Muhammed’s father-in-law, was the first chosen; he was successful in expanding Islam throughout the Arabian peninsula. By the time he died in 634, he had appointed Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb as the next caliph.

Umar was born c. 583 in Mecca and initially resisted Muhammed and his new religion. After his conversion in 616, he became a firm follower and was among those who migrated from his home town to Medina in 622. He rose high in the estimation of the Muslim elite and helped secure the choice of Abu Bakr. As caliph he proved an excellent administrator; under his guidance Islam continued its rapid expansion.

While worshipping in a Medina mosque, Umar was attacked by Abu Lu’lu’a Firuz, a Persian slave who stabbed him seven times with a poison knife before committing suicide. The motives for the killing are still a subject of debate. In some accounts the assassin was a resentful Christian; in others he was a “fire-worshipper” or Zoroastrian. Some say he was the tool of a larger group of conspirators; others say he hated Umar for supporting the confiscation of too large a proportion of his wages; still others say that Persian animosity to Arabs propelled the deed.

The death of Umar did not end the turbulence of early Islamic politics. The next two caliphs, Uthman and Ali, were also murdered.

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