During his last illness Abu Bakr had conferred with his people, particularly the more eminent among them. After this meeting they chose ‘Umar as his successor. ‘Umar was born into a respected Quraish family thirteen years after the birth of Muhammad (peace be on him). Umar’s family was known for its extensive knowledge of genealogy. When he grew up, ‘Umar was proficient in this branch of knowledge as well as in swordsmanship, wrestling and the art of speaking. He also learned to read and write while still a child, a very rare thing in Mecca at that time. ‘Umar earned his living as a merchant. His trade took him to many foreign lands and he met all kinds of people. This experience gave him an insight into the affairs and problems of men. ‘Umar’s personality was dynamic, self-assertive, frank and straight forward. He always spoke whatever was in his mind even if it displeased others.
'Umar made no secret of his acceptance of Islam. He gathered the Muslims and offered prayers at the Ka’aba. This boldness and devotion of an influential citizen of Mecca raised the morale of the small community of Muslims. Nonetheless ‘Umar was also subjected to privations, and when permission for emigration to Medina came, he also left Mecca. The soundness of ‘Umar’s judgment, his devotion to the Prophet (peace be on him), his outspokenness and uprightness won for him a trust and confidence from the Prophet which was second only to that given to Abu Bakr. The Prophet gave him the title ‘Farooq’ which means the ‘Separator of Truth from False hood.’ During the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar was his closest assistant and adviser. When Abu Bakr died, all the people of Medina swore allegiance to ‘Umar, and on 23 Jamadi-al-Akhir, 13 A.H., he was proclaimed Caliph.
After taking charge of his office, ‘Umar spoke to the Muslims of Medina:
Once a woman brought a claim against the Caliph ‘Umar. When ‘Umar appeared on trial before the judge, the judge stood up as a sign of respect toward him. ‘Umar reprimanded him, saying, “This is the first act of injustice you did to this woman!”
He insisted that his appointed governors live simple lives, keep no guard at their doors and be accessible to the people at all times, and he himself set the example for them. Many times foreign envoys and messengers sent to him by his generals found him resting under a palm tree or praying in the mosque among the people, and it was difficult for them to distinguish which man was the Caliph. He spent many a watchful night going about the streets of Medina to see whether anyone needed help or assistance. The general social and moral tone of the Muslim society at that time is well-illustrated by the words of an Egyptian who was sent to spy on the Muslims during their Egyptian campaign. He reported:
‘Umar gave his government an administrative structure. Departments of treasury, army and public revenues were established. Regular salaries were set up for soldiers. A popuation census was held. Elaborate land surveys were conducted to assess equitable taxes. New cities were founded. The areas which came under his rule were divided into provinces and governors were appointed. New roads were laid, canals were lug and wayside hotels were built. Provision was made for he support of the poor and the needy from public funds. He defined, by precept and by example, the rights and privileges of non-Muslims, an example of which is the following contract with the Christians of Jerusalem:
Those non-Muslims who took part in defense together with the Muslims were exempted from paying Jizya, and when the Muslims had to retreat from a city whose non-Muslim citizens had paid this tax for their defense, the tax was returned to the non-Muslims. The old, the poor and the disabled of Muslims and non-Muslims alike were provided for from the public treasury and from the Zakat funds.
In 23 A.H., when Umar returned to Medina from Hajj;, he raised his hands and prayed,
‘Umar died in the first week of Muharram, 24 A.H., and was buried by the side of the Holy Prophet (peace be on him).