The Corrupt British Parliament and the Umayyad Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz – A Comparison

At the Cop26 conference in Glasgow on November 10, 2021, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country.” This was in response to the furor surrounding the latest allegations of sleaze, following the resignation of former British cabinet minister Owen Paterson. Mr. Paterson had used his position and office to earn a total of £500,000 by lobbying for two corporations, which the Standards Committee described as “an egregious case of paid advocacy”. [1] Johnson’s comments addressed public outcry over Conservative MPs voting to prevent Mr. Paterson’s 30-day suspension for breaking parliamentary rules, as well as to change the procedures for how MPs are taken to task. 

This latest controversy struck at the very heart of the UK’s system of government and the ethical base of Western liberal democracies. Johnson argued that liberal democracy is the best system of government because of its moral grounding. [2] Abuses of authority, in cases such as that of Owen Paterson and the parliamentary vote in his favour, undermine the moral foundations of this system that the UK government claims to follow.

This was not the first instance of corruption amongst the British parliament and ministers. Recently, there was significant media coverage of accusations against former British Prime Minister David Cameron, for exploiting private contacts with former government colleagues (including the current British Chancellor Rishi Sunak) to benefit himself while working for the collapsed finance company Greensill Capital. He was reported to have made over $10 million for only two and a half years of part-time work. British Home Secretary Priti Patel was also lauded on Twitter for claiming expenses of over £77,000 on eyebrow grooming. Another Tory MP was found to have claimed expenses on a charitable visit to a food bank. [3]

There have been countless other examples of MPs and ministers using their positions and influence to enrich themselves. Perhaps most significant was the UK parliamentary expenses scandal, exposed by the Daily Telegraph in 2009. The newspaper reported that MPs abused the system of expenses, using public money extravagantly. This included filing expenses claims for subsidising property development, furnishing properties which were not their second homes and overclaiming for food, even when parliament was not sitting. Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith even entered an expenses claim for pornographic films purchased by her husband!

In light of this state of affairs, a comparison with the Caliphs who ruled the Islamic world seems pertinent. There is value in studying examples from the past when such corruption and greed was not widespread. The power accessed by rulers can often magnify greed, as we have seen in the British parliamentary examples, yet the Muslim leaders exemplified below were considerate with their exercise of wealth for personal benefit. Specifically, we shall examine the scrupulousness and asceticism (zuhd) of the Umayyad Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz, who was very careful in spending public money and lived a simple life even after he became the ruler.

He was very prudent when it came to using the funds of the state treasury. For example, as narrated by ‘Umar ibn Muhajir, a candle was lit for ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz while he was dealing with the needs of Muslims. When he finished, he blew it out and lit his own lamp. [4]

One incident as narrated in Tarikh al-Khulafa of Suyuti which illustrates his scrupulousness is when he craved apples and so a man of his family sent him some as a gift. He said, “What a beautiful smell it has and how good it looks!” He then said “O boy! Give it back to the one who brought it, send him our greetings and tell him that his gift has been appreciated by us as he wished.” The boy said, “O Amir of the Believers! He is your cousin and a member of your family, and you know that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ used to accept such gifts.” He said, “Woe unto you! It was a gift for him but for us it is a bribe.” [5]

His asceticism is described by Malik ibn Dinar, may Allah have mercy on him, who said: “‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz was brought a piece of ambergris; he closed his nose lest he may smell some of its fragrance.” [6] Malik then said, “People say that I am an ascetic (zahid). However, the real ascetic is ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz to whom this worldly life has come but he abandoned it.” 

‘Abdul ‘Aziz ibn ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz narrated, “I was summoned by Al-Mansur. He asked me, “How much money did ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz have when he became the Caliph?” I said, “It was forty thousand dinars.” He asked, “And how much was it upon his death?” I answered, “It was four hundred dinars.” [7] Muslim ibn Zaid said, “‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz used to spend two dirhams on his family during the morning and evening, i.e. the entire day.” [8] Similarly, ‘Awn ibn Al-Mu’tamir narrated that ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz asked his wife, “Do you have a dirham in order to buy some grapes?” She said, “No. You are the Amir of the Believers and you cannot afford a dirham?” He said, “This is better than dealing with shackles in Hellfire.” [9] In stark contrast, the rulers of today use their position to amass vast sums of money and live in opulence.

An incident from the period of the second Caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra), illustrates how a truly Islamic ruler is held accountable when he is thought to be corrupt. Some cloth from the spoils of war was distributed to the people, out of which each companion had one piece of clothing cut. One day ‘Umar got up to speak and said: ‘Lower your voices so that I may hear you.’ He was wearing two pieces of that cloth. Salman al-Farsi (ra), a senior companion said, ‘By Allah, we will not hear you, because you prefer yourself to your people.’ ‘How is that?’ asked Umar. He said: ‘You are wearing two pieces of cloth and everyone else is wearing only one.’ ‘Umar asked his son, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar (ra) to confirm he had gifted his share to his father, to which ‘Abdullah replied ‘Yes’. ‘Now we shall hear you,’ replied Salman. [10]

The values apparent in the above examples have been lost along the way. The recently released Pandora Papers show how even the rulers of the Muslim world today enrich themselves at the expense of the Muslim Ummah and use secretive offshore companies to hide their ill-gotten wealth. But Allah has promised us that these kings and emirs will be replaced by such rightly guided rulers as ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz. He has decreed that those of us who strive to hold the oppressors to account will be rewarded with success both in this world and the Hereafter:

The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “Prophethood will last with you for as long as Allah wants it to last. Then there will be a Caliphate according to the Method of Prophethood, and things will be as Allah wishes them to be. Then Allah will end it when He wishes. Then there will be hereditary rule, and things will be as Allah wishes them to be. Then Allah will end it when He wishes. Then there will be an oppressive rule, and things will be as Allah wishes them to be. Then Allah will end it when He wishes. Then there will be a Caliphate according to the Method of Prophethood.” Then he ﷺ fell silent. [11]

Works cited:

[1] House of Commons Committee on Standards: Third Report of Session 2021-2022 – Mr. Owen Paterson. https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/7644/documents/79907/default/

[2] Robert Audi, Moral Foundations of Liberal Democracy, Secular Reasons, and Liberal Neutrality toward the Good, 19 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol’y 197 (2005). Retrieved at: http://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndjlepp/vol19/iss1

[3] ‘Callous’ Tory MP claimed £1 parking parking expenses to visit a food bank. Retrieved from https://metro.co.uk/2021/03/13/callous-tory-mp-claimed-1-parking-expenses-to-visit-food-bank-14238763/

[4] Imam Abu Muhammad Abdullah ibn Abdul Hakam (2012), ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz: A Classic Biography of the Fifth Righteous Khalifah, Zam Zam Publishers

[5] Al-Suyuti, Jalal al-Din, Tarikh al-Khulafa’

[6] Imam Abu Muhammad Abdullah ibn Abdul Hakam (2012), ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz: A Classic Biography of the Fifth Righteous Khalifah, Zam Zam Publishers

[7] Al-Suyuti, Jalal al-Din, Tarikh al-Khulafa’

[8] Imam Abu Muhammad Abdullah ibn Abdul Hakam (2012), ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Aziz: A Classic Biography of the Fifth Righteous Khalifah, Zam Zam Publishers

[9] Al-Suyuti, Jalal al-Din, Tarikh al-Khulafa’

[10] Ibn Qutaibah, ‘Uyun al-Akhbar

[11] Musnad Ahmad (4/273 #18596).  Al-Haythami states in Majma’ al-Zawa’id that the narrators of this hadith are trustworthy (5/191)

Photo via Massimiliano Morosinotto


About the Author: Abdul Malik Salam is a graduate of the University of Birmingham in the UK with a degree in theology. His interests include Sufism, Islamic theology and jurisprudence. You can find him on twitter here.

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