Letter to Usama bin Zaid

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Letter to Usama bin Zaid
by Umar, translated by Simon Ockley
As printed in the 1708 History of the Saracens

In the name of the most merciful God,

From the servant of God, Omar Ebn Al Khattab, to his lieutenant, greeting. I praise the only God, besides whom there is no other; and I pray for his prophet Mohammed, upon whom be the blessing of God. There is no turning back the decree and determination of God; and he that is, written an infidel in the secret book,[1] shall have no faith. My speaking thus is occasioned by Jabalah Ebn Al Ayham, of the tribe of Gassan, who came to us with his relations, and the chief men of his tribe, whom I received and entertained kindly. They made profession of the true religion before me; and I was glad that God has strengthened the true religion, and the professors of it, by their coming in, and knowing what was in secret. We went together on pilgrimage to Mecca, and Jabalah went round the temple seven times. As he was going round, it chanced that a man of the tribe of Fezarah trod upon his vest, so that it fell from his shoulders. Jabalah turned himself about, and said, ‘Woe be to thee! Thou hast uncovered my back in the sacred temple of God.’ The man swore that he did not intend it. But Jabalah boxed him, broke his nose, and beat out four of his fore teeth. The poor man hastened to me, and made his complaint, desiring my assistance. I commanded Jabalah to be brought before me, and asked him what moved him to beat his brother Mussulman after this fashion, and knock his teeth out, and break his nose. He told me that the man had trodden upon his vest, and uncovered his back; adding, that if it had not been for the reverence he bore to the holy temple, he would have killed him. I told him he had made a fair confession against himself; and if the injured person would not forgive him, I must proceed with him by way of retaliation.[2] He answered, that he was a king, and the other a peasant. I told him, no matter for that, they were both Mussulmans, and in that respect equal. Upon which he desired that his punishment might be deferred till the next day. I asked the injured person whether he was willing to stay so long. To which he gave his consent. In the night, Jabalah and his friends made their escape, and he is gone to the Grecian dog; but I hope in God that he will give thee the victory over him. Sit down before Hems, and keep close to it; and send thy spies towards Antioch, for fear of the Christian Arabs. Health and happiness, and the blessing of God, be upon thee and all the Mussulmans.

Translator's footnotes[edit]

  1. The Mohammedans believe that there is kept in heaven a register of all persons and things, which they call “Allauh ho’hnehphoud,” “the table which is kept secret.” In this book all the decrees of God, and whatsoever shall come to pass, are supposed to be written.
  2. Retaliation, or “lex talionis,” according to which the offending person is to suffer the same hurt which he doth to another, was commanded the Jews, Exod. xxi. 24. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” It is also expressly enjoined by Mohammed, Koran ii. 173, who probably borrowed it, as he did a great many other things, from the Jews. The modern Rabbins interpret this command of the Mosaical law as inflicting nothing more than a pecuniary mulct. Don Isaac Abarbanel has a great many arguments to prove that it ought not to be understood in a literal sense. To instance in one or two: He asks, suppose the offending person should have but one eye, or one hand, ought be to be deprived of the one, because he had struck out an eye or cut off another man’s hand that had two? Again, how would it be possible for a judge to inflict a punishment, which should be exactly the same with the injury, since that stroke might prove mortal to one man, which was not so to another; and so a man might pay for a wound which was not mortal, with the loss of his life? Thus far Abarbanel. But the practice of the Mohammedans is contrary. The injured person, however, may if he pleases accept of any other satisfaction; but if he comes to a judge, and demands retaliation, he is obliged to let him have it.