Muslim Fable- Caliph Umar bin al-Khattab and his Slave

The informant is a nineteen-year old student born in Australia who’s lived in Egypt for two years, England for two years, Jordan for four years, Egypt for two years, India for four years and currently resides in Los Angeles, CA for university.  He is the son of an Egyptian ambassador and speaks Arabic, English and French. He shall be referred to as SH. SH explains that there are a series of fables relating to Caliph Umar bin al-Khattab, mostly morality tales telling of his incredible sense of justness that is admired widely by Muslims. He details that he learned these orally from relatives when he was growing up. Here, he tells one that features the Khalifa entering the newly conquered city of Jerusalem:

SH: He, I believe like, they, this Caliph had actually, um, taken Jerusalem, and so he was traveling to Jerusalem to sort of like enter the city and one of the things he did, for example, was he would switch off between him and his slave, like, they were on a camel traveling the desert to Jerusalem and that’s when he would enter the city as the Caliph and sort of like, I dunno, I’m not sure exactly what that would entail. But he would enter the city so he was switching between him and his slave uh, you know, and, uh, at some point they were about to reach Jerusalem and it was the slaves turn to, you know, ride the camel so the slave tells him ‘you’re the Caliph, you can’t enter Jerusalem except on the camel’ and he says ‘no, no, it was your turn,’ so he enters Jerusalem, you know, holding the camel while the slave’s sitting on top of the camel, so that’s, you know, very fair, very just. This tale exhibits justness to the point of almost-shocking regal humility. While the Caliph is obviously ranked above his slave, he insists on allowing him his proper turn on the camel. As the relative of an important figure, SH heard this story within the context of relatives telling him about leadership. Aside from being an incredibly generous gesture to the slave, it is a very public gesture of his greater devotion to fairness than to his own high ranking. By my own analysis, I feel that this gesture would have seemed even more shocking in that time period. Today, if a president were seen letting an assistant drive his car, this would be worthy of great media attention. The social class difference between a Caliph and slave would be far greater, thus dramatizing the Caliph’s generous nature. By publicly entering the city this way, I feel the story is saying that such an expression was made to set a widespread example, which is clearly demonstrated by the story’s continued popularity in Muslim culture. Thus, listeners should take away that justness and fairness should always be practiced, even in the face of public scrutiny. Annotation: Mukarram, Ahmed M., and Muzaffar Husain Syed. Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Delhi: Anmol Publications, 2005. Google Books. A similar version of this story appears in an account of the history of Islam. In this version, the Caliph responds to the slave’s offer to ride with, “The honour of Islam (i.e. being Muslim) is enough for all of us.” This story also extends past SH’s version, as it includes the Caliph becoming angry at the Muslim commanders in the city for wearing expensive clothing and not living humbly as demanded by their religion. While still suggestive of great justness and humility, this story also shows a darker side of the Caliph and does not function as well as a fable. The focus of SH’s telling on the Caliph and the slave emphasizes humility in relations with others as opposed to engagement in an opulent lifestyle, thus serving as a better fable about leadership.