Lion of the Desert: Omar Mukhtar

Lion of the Desert: Omar Mukhtar

On this day 9o years ago (16th September 1931) Omar Mukhtar (rahimahullāh) at the age of 73, was executed and hanged to martyrdom by Italian colonial forces.

Omar Mukhtar was born in the year 1858 in an impoverished household in the region of Cyrenaica which was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. As a young individual Omar lost his father and spent much of his youth in poverty. He was taken under the care and guidance of one of the Mashayakh in his home town.

Omar was known to have developed a lifestyle of not sleeping more than three hours every night in order to worship Allah (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) at the last third of the night and to then recite Qur’an until Fajr. He had memorised the Qur’ān in its entirety and was known as a humble and deeply religious man. He was reported to have completed the recitation of the Qur’ān in its entirety every seven days, irrespective of the trials and tribulations he faced in his life. His wisdom and courage was one that was evident in his life, and as such an example for people to learn and follow.

The Lion’s historical summary

Omar Mukhtar etched his name in the annals of history when he valiantly defended his people, their property and honour by engaging the noble concept of Jihād against the brute of European colonialism. Arguably, the act of resisting an armed occupation through an armed means, was later protected under international law.

It is reported that our hero Omar earned his nickname as Asad al-Sahara’ – ‘Lion of the Desert’ – during his caravan trails to Sudan as a young man. Such a journey was fraught with dangers not least of it being on the route of a fearsome lion. On one such journey, Omar decided to face the danger head on when with a shotgun in hand and on horseback, he pursued the lion and killed it.[1] Omar lived a simple life as a teacher having been educated in the schools of the powerful Sanusi Sufi order.[2]

The despotic occupation

In 1911 however, the Italians made a grab for Libya from the disintegrating Ottoman Caliphate when Omar was approximately 53 years of age. The Italian fascists, led by Benito Mussolini referred to invasion of Libya as the ‘Roman Reconquista’ ­– “reclaiming” lands which once fell under Roman rule. The usage of the word “Reconquista” was of course interesting given that it is widely associated with the period in history where as part of wider Crusades, Christians set out to conquer Muslim Spain, which they eventually succeeded in.

Omar was deeply concerned about the occupation of their land which had been forcibly and inhumanly taken away from them. He proclaimed that it was their God-given right to resist such injustice as he refused to be conquered. The event marked the beginning of a series of battles between the Italian occupiers and the Muslim forces led by Omar.

The Lion’s resistance

His skills of guerrilla warfare, his strength, spirit and zeal would put one of the world’s most powerful armies at the time, with its superior and modern weaponry and men half his age, to shame. Against Italian tanks and aeroplanes, Omar’s active fighters numbered between 1,000 and 3,000, on horseback and for the most part lightly armed, who trounced Mussolini’s armed forces almost on a daily basis, fighting more than 250 skirmishes and engagements a year. To counter this, the Italian fascists set up concentration camps to target civilians. In 1930, up to 100,000 Bedouin men, women and children – about half the tribal population of Cyrenaica at the time – were herded into desert camps where many died. Much like today with the approach of Israel in their war with Palestinians, the more defeats they would suffer, the more severe the punishments they would afflict on civilians.[3]

After 20 years of resisting and inflicting severe defeats and setbacks to their unwanted European invaders, Allāh sought to elevate Omar’s rank in the hereafter (inshā’Allāh) and immortalise his heroic status in this earthly life when He, in His wisdom permitted that Omar be captured and wounded by Italian colonial forces in 1931. In captivity, Omar was made lucrative offers by the Italians to end the resistance to which he responded that he would not cease to resist:

“until I achieve one of the two highest levels; martyrdom or victory. And I swear by Him who knows what is in men’s hearts that if my hands were not bound this very moment, I would fight you with my bare hands, old and broken as I am.”[4]

At the time of his hanging when asked if he wished to say any last words, he replied with the Qur’anic response: “Innā lillāhi wa innā ilayhī rāji’ūn” Certainly from Allāh we have come, and to Allāh we will return. Twenty thousand concentration camp inmates and Cyrenaican notables were forced to watch Omar Mukhtar’s death.

Omar Mukhtar is well-known for his various statements that only further exemplifies his fearless, brave and courageous character. One of his most recalled and inspirational statements is when he remarked,

“We’ll never surrender, we’ll win or die you’ve to fight the next generation and the next…and I’ll live more than my hanger”

Omar Mukhtar was also known for applying justice and holding to the principles of Islam. During one incident Omar Mukhtar, protected two surviving Italian prisoners, stating that “We do not kill prisoners”. His fellow warrior said “They do it to us.” To which he responded with these majestic words: “They are not our teachers.”

The struggle of Omar Mukhtar which should continue to inspire Muslims in an age where the colonialist and imperialists which started their ceding of Muslim lands at the time of Omar Mukhtar, has continued unabated today through the use of their agents, dictators, ‘terrorist’ groups and despots whom they had played a hand in installing to continue their dominance over the Muslim world.

The symbol of resistance

Indeed, right to this very day, Omar Mukhtar is recognised as a symbol of resistance in the Muslim world. This was not on account of him sitting quietly whilst injustice, tyranny and oppression descended and spread in the land, but rather because he courageously stood up having full certainty of the promise of Allāh and exemplified the verse in the glorious Qur’ān:

“How often has a small party vanquished a numerous host by Allāh’s permission, and Allāh is with the patient.”[5]

Commenting on this verse, Prominent Islamic thinker Syed Qutb says,

“Certainly, they had the advantage of faith in their cause and trust in their leader, but the harsh reality of the situation told them they were the weaker side, and that their faith would be put to the test. Would that invisible force of faith triumph? How strong was their faith in God, and would they be able to harness that force in their favour and prevail?

At that decisive moment, a small group of true believers stood up to express their faith: “But those of them who were certain that they would meet their Lord said, ‘How often has a small host triumphed over a large host by God’s grace. God is with those who remain patient in adversity.” (Qur’ān 2:49)

To the believer’s mind, that is the way it should be: believers are always numerically less than their enemies, because they need to sacrifice more and work harder to earn God’s grace and pleasure. But they triumph because they draw their strength from God Almighty and their faith in Him. The believers are aware that their victory comes from God as a reward for their patience and perseverance.” [6]

It is important that young Muslims revisit the life and thoughts of these great exemplars to gain confidence and to unite to free themselves and the ummah from the grip of the enduring imperialism and coloniality by being upholders of justice and speaking truth to power. It is also worth reminding those who seek to pigeonhole Muslims to divide them by portraying some as ‘violent’ and others as ‘peaceful’, that Omar Mukhtar was in fact a Sufi, part of a group who are today often thought of as being pacifist or otherwise compatible with western hegemony.

We should not let those in contemporary times who claim to wear the garb of Sufism and “peace”, whilst being complicit and providing cover for the crimes of dictators such as Sisi in Egypt or Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya as well as others, to misrepresent to us the great tradition of Sufis who have always fought (with their words and deeds) to defend themselves and their communities from aggression and oppression.

A man who was firm in his faith at a time when others fled or surrendered to the occupiers – Omar had reliance in the almighty deeply rooted in his heart. He was a man whom not only regularly read but acted upon and held his Qur’ān high vowing to Allah (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) that he would not discontinue his fight against the occupiers of his land. He strongly believed in this to such an extent that it didn’t bother him if he was alone in this fight until victory had been achieved or that he had attained the righteous status of a martyr. He had directed, guided and personally participated in 1000 battles in the last twenty years of his worldly life.

We ask that Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) grants Omar Mukhtar (rahimahullāh) and all those who were killed unjustly Jannat al-Firdaus and that He brings about much greater good for their people in this world and the next.



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