| By the late Professor Abdul Latif TIBAWI
The basis of the earliest attempts to lay down
certain rules for the treatment of Christians who fell under Muslim
dominion must be sought in the Qur'ăn and in the precedents set
by Muhammad (pbuh) in his dealings with certain Christian communities.
To the Muslim mind, the matter is governed by divine guidance as
revealed in the Qur'an, and confirmed hr the action taken by the
Prophet and his immediate successors in the light of that guidance.
Viewed from this angle, Muslim conquests and the spread of Islam
outside Arabia were merely a fulfillment of divine command. Muhammad's
mission (pbuh) was to mankind as a whole, and Islam was a universal
religion the spread of which was a duty incumbent on the Prophet,
his successors, and their followers. Any study of conquest of territories
inhabited hr Christians, and the pattern of administration evolved
by the Islamic state for these territories and their inhabitants,
must take note of this Muslim view both as regards the divine origin
of the Qur'ăn and as regards the comprehensive mission of Mohammed
Most if not all Orientalists, however, did not,
and still do not, study the Qur'an, the life of the Prophet, and
at least early Islamic history with sufficient allowance for the
Muslim viewpoint. To most of them, the Qur'ăn is Muhammad's own
creation (pbuh), inspired not by God but, in part. By imperfect
knowledge of other religions. To some of them, like Muir. Lammens,
and Caetani, Muhammad's mission (pbuh) was not to the whole world,
but was restricted to the Arabian Peninsula, or even to a very small
portion of it. The notion that the heritage of Islam is the whole
world is to Muir an afterthought. He asserts that Muhammad's 'world
(pbuh) was Arabia, and for it the new dispensation was ordained'.2
Caetani. Take another example, contends that Muhammad's ambitions
and endeavors were very limited. Assuming that the Qur'an was Mohammed
(pbuh) composition, he argues that had the Prophet had a mission
to humanity, he would have left more explicit indications of it
in the Qur'ăn. The reference to the treatment of the Jews and Christians
in the Qur'ăn, the argument continues, is brief and incomplete and
occurs in one of the last chapters.' 3
But other Orientalists, including Goldziher,
Nöldeke, and Arnold, came closer to the Muslim view of the scope
of Muhammad's mission (pbuh). Thus Goldziher maintains that from
the beginning the Prophet's gaze was fixed on a considerably wider
field than Mecca and Arabia.4 T. W. Arnold,
who made a detailed study of the subject, is even more explicit.
'From its very inception', he writes, 'Islam has been a missionary
religion, both in theory and in practice.' Again, 'the missionary
spirit of Islam is no afterthought in its history; it interpenetrates
the religion from its very commencement'. Its message 'was not for
Arabia only; the whole world was to share in it' .5
Having stated two opposite views of the question,
let us now examine the evidence of the Qur'ăn itself. As the revelations
came down occasionally to suit particular situations,6
the Qur'an is best viewed historically, parallel as far as possible
to the events in the life and mission of the Prophet. In the beginning,
the divine command to Mohammed (pbuh) was to 'warn thy near kindred'.7
But the horizon of his mission was widened to embrace not only the
Prophet's relatives but also Mecca and its neighborhood: 'This book
which we have sent down is blessed... that thou mayest warn the
mother of cities and those that live round about her.'8
The next enlargement of the scope of the mission makes it as comprehensive
as the human race. 'And we have not sent thee', reads the verse
in question, 'otherwise than a bringer of good news and a warner
to all mankind (kaffatan li 'l-nas) .'9
Indeed, God in the Qur'ăn, unlike, for example, the God of the early
Israelites, is no tribal deity exclusive to an Arab tribe or even
the Arabs in general. Nay, God is repeatedly proclaimed as for all
mankind, Lord of the World, rabbu 'l-~ălamin.10
Further evidence of the universality of Islam's
mission may be sought in the sayings and actions of the Prophet.
Those who try to deny this universality, as well as like-minded
writers, tend to question the authenticity of some traditions and
even the historicity of some events. They seem to overlook the idea
that what is really more important here is what the Muslims believe
to be, and accept as, facts, not so much what may be deduced by
rational or irrational means. Inasmuch as beliefs were, and are,
bases for action, their significance to the historian must not be
diminished in any way. If this criterion is accepted, then we may
look with confidence at the following as admissible evidence.
Al~Waqidi 11 has a tradition
that, on one occasion, Mohammed (pbuh) repeated what is in effect
confirmed by the Qur'an that while every other prophet had a commission
to his own people, he was sent to all mankind. Another tradition
has it that Mohammed (pbuh) was destined to extend his dominion
over the lands of the Byzantine and Persian empires 12. This
seems to fit in well with the action of the Prophet. In the sixth
year of the Hijrah he sent messengers with letters to, among other
rulers of the Arabs and non-Arabs, the Persian and Byzantine emperors,
the Negus of Abyssinia, the Muqauqas of Alexandria and al-Hărith
b. Abi Shammăr al-Ghassăni whose identity is difficult to establish
13. The murder of one of the Prophet's messengers in Ghassănid
territory provoked the sending of an expedition to Mu'tah, not led
by the Prophet but under the command of Zaid b. Hărithah. This was
the first major warlike action against a Christian community. After
the Farewell Pilgrimage, the Prophet ordered an expedition (ba'th)
against the Byzantines (Rum) in Palestine and appointed Usamah b.
Zaid as commander. But the Prophet was taken ill before the dispatch
of the expedition and one of his last commands before his death
was to expedite its dispatch 14. The Prophet's wish was both
an authority and encouragement for Abu Bakr to proceed with operations
against adjacent Christian territory.
It is necessary at this juncture to be clear
about the attitude of the Qur'ăn to Christians before we proceed
to discuss their treatment at the hands of Muslim generals and administrators.
While the Qur'an proclaims that 'verily, the (true) religion in
God's slight is Islam', it deals with two categories of communities
outside the fold: (a) the pagans who worshipped idols; they were
never to be tolerated; their choice was either to embrace Islam
or be liable to punishment or death; (b) the People of the Book
(Ahlu'l kitab), the Jews and Christians, and by later practice also
certain others, 15 ' were tolerated under some conditions.
The revelations concerning this subject are here again best viewed
historically in conjunction with the development of Muhammad's mission
(pbuh). 'Say to those who have been given the Book and the ignorant,
Do ye accept Islam? Then, if they accept Islam, are they guided
aright, but if they turn away, then they duty is only preaching....'
Circumstances had changed, however. The Christians
(and the Jews) failed to respond to this early conciliatory attitude,
and on the whole refused to embrace Islam. But meanwhile the Prophet's
position had been more firmly established, and the divine revelation
was accordingly varied shortly before Muhammad's death. The often-quoted
verse reads as follows: 'Fight those of the People of the Book who
do not believe in God and in the last day, and do not prohibit what
God and His Messenger have prohibited, and do not profess the true
religion, until they pay the jizyah out of their own hands and be
humbled.' 17 It is clear in the context of the verses that
follow immediately that this revelation refers to the Jews and Christians.
It is little appreciated that when permission
was first given to Mohammed (pbuh) to use force in his cause, the
purpose was purely defensive. Up to the Pledge of 'Aqabah' he was
commanded merely to preach and to suffer persecution patiently.
But since the enemies of Islam in Quraish persisted not only in
rejecting the new faith, but in persecuting its adherents and in
seeking to deflect them from the freedom of professing it, permission
was given to fight those who aggressed against them. 18 The
relevant verse reads as follows: '(Fighting) is permitted to those
who have been fought and thereby wronged... . 19 ' All warlike
actions in Islam belong to the period following this permission
and the Prophet's alliance with the people of Medina and his Hijrah
to it. At first he concentrated on Quraish, but later he spread
his faith and political power over other Arab tribes inside the
Peninsula. Later still, or simultaneously, he started to explore
external expansion, and made contact with Christian communities.
The Prophet's exploration of external expansion laid the foundation
for the Muslim pattern of dealing with Christian communities.
As a result of the expedition to Tabük, the
Prophet received Yuhannah b. Ru'bah, the Christian chief (sahib)
of Aylah (modern Aqabah) who agreed to pay jizyah and was, in return,
guaranteed protection and safety of person and property for himself
and his people.' 20 Ibn Hishăm's account and the terms
of the Prophet's guarantee (amanah) to Yuhannah contain the two
important terms of jizyah and dhimmah. The former came to be known
as a poll- or capitation-tax levied from the 'People of the Book'
as protected communities under a covenant (dhimmah), hence the term
ahlu 'l-dhimmah for Christians, Jews, and certain others, tolerated
under Muslim law and practice.21
Within the Arabian Peninsula, the Prophet's policy
is illustrated by the case of the Christians of Najrăn, who lived
in southern Arabia northeast of Al-Yaman, in the midst of an idolatrous
tribe, Banu Al-Hărith b. Ka'b. Khălid b. al-Walid was sent by the
Prophet in A.H. to call them to Islam for three days 'before he
could proceed to fight them' in case of refusal. Some of the pagans
and some of the Christians accepted Islam, but many in Najran itself
remained faithful to Christianity. A deputation of them called on
the Prophet, and in return for their agreement to pay jizyah, they
were guaranteed freedom to profess their own faith and security
of person and property 'until God comes with His command'.22
Thus the general outlines of policy were already
clear when the Prophet died in A.H. 10 A.D. 632. The pagan Arabs
had no option but to accept Islam if they did not wish to face its
armed might. Christians (and certain others) inside Arabia and in
adjacent territories outside it had a third alternative; without
resort to arms, they could retain their faith and pay tribute. Mohammed
(pbuh), the Messenger of God. had also become head of a state. He
was bound, in the first instance, to offer Islam to the People of
the Book, but he did not force them to embrace it if they accepted
its political supremacy.
Muhammad's successor, as the temporal but not
the spiritual head of the Muslim community, was Abü Bakr. His immediate
task was the subjugation of apostates (murtaddün, hence riddah,
apostasy) and the elimination of false prophets. This task took
nearly a year to accomplish successfully. As soon as it was over,
Abü Bakr's next decisive move seems to have been animated both by
the religious zeal of Muhammad's khalifah as well as by the prudence
of keeping the armies that won the Riddah Wars occupied in external
action. He immediately embarked on conquest in Syria and Al-Iraq.
With the course of the conquest we are not concerned here, nor with
any detailed study of the causes of the campaigns. 23
Suffice it to quote here one of the earliest and most trustworthy
Arab historians of the conquest. According to him, Abü Bakr's letters
to the tribes calling recruits for the campaign in Syria summoned
the people to a holy war ( jihad), but did not omit to remind them
of the booty that a war with the Byzantines would yield. 24
From Abü Bakr's short caliphate one or two illustrations
will now be given to show how military commanders tried to implement
the general policy of the young Islamic state with regard to its
Christian subjects. Here again there is room for argument and historical
doubt as to details, 25 but the general principles
emerge substantially as laid down by the Qur'an and as practiced
by the Prophet. Apart from the distinction between the treatment
of pagans and the People of the Book, there emerged in practice
a distinction between a town that capitulated peacefully (ukhidhat
sulhan) and another taken by the force of arms (ukhidhat 1anwatan)
In the former case, the terms were generally mild and were binding
on the conquerors; in the latter, the captured town was at the mercy
of the commander who could impose any terms. Some dismiss this distinction
as a legal fiction invented by later jurists. But they seem to forget
that it is confirmed by early practice as we know it in early historians.
Besides, it is almost a universal law of war.
In Syria one of the first considerable towns
to capitulate was Busra, one of the Ghassănid capitals. The terms
agreed with the city authorities were the annual payment by every
adult male of one dinar and one jarib of wheat. 26
The same or similar terms were granted to other towns. In Al-lraq
the first Muslim success was the capture of AL-Hirah, capital of
the Lakhmids. The town was inhabited by Christian Arabs and well
fortified. Khălid b. al-Walid laid siege to it and offered the people
to embrace Islam. . 'Woe to thee!' he said. 'Infidelity (kufr) is
a trackless desert; only the most foolish of the Arabs would persist
in it; here are two guides, an Arab and a stranger, and of the two
you choose the stranger! 27 This appeal to the people
of Al-Ijirah to put racial affinity above religious faith did not
obviously produce the desired effect. They preferred to retain their
faith and to pay jizyah in a lump sum of 6o,ooo dirhems. 28
1 This is a shorter, revised version of a dissertation that
was awarded the first Munroe Prize in an open competition at the
History Department in the American University of Beirut.
2 W. Muir, The Caliphate, Its Rise, Decline, and Fall (Edinburgh,
3 L. Caetani, Annali dell' Islam (Milano, 1905-26), v.323-4.
4 I. Goldziher, Vorlesungen uber den Islam (Heidel-berg,
5 T.W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam (London, 1913),pp.4,11,28.Cf.R.A.
Nicholson,A Literary History of Arabs (Cambridge,1923),p.184.
6 Cf. Surah xvii.105
7 Surah xxxvi.214
8 Surah vi.92
9 Surah xxxiv.27;cf.xxi.107 We have not sent thee save as
mercy to all creatures, rahmatanli l-alamin, lxviii.52: '...it (the
Qur'an) is no other than a warning unto all creatures',dhikrun li
10 See, for example Surah i. 1; vi.160
11 J. Wellhausen, Muhammad in Medina, da ist Vakidi's Kitab
alMaghazi in verkurzter deutscher Widergabe (Berlin 1882),p.403.
12 Al-Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghazi, ed. A. Von Kremer (Calcutta,
1856), p.363. The allusion in Surah xlviii. 15, 'Say to those bedouins
who were left behind. "Ye shall be called out against a people
endowed with vehement valour, and shall fight them or they shall
become Muslims..."'is taken by some authorities to refer to
the Byzantines and the Persians. Muhammad is reputed to have referred
to Bilal as 'the first-fruits of the land of the Abyssinians' and
to Suhaib as 'the first-fruits of the land of the Byzantines'. Both
were, of course, early converts originally of Habashi and Rumi origin
respectively. See further Ibn Sa'd, Tabaqat, ed. E.
Sachau et al. (Leiden and Berlin, 1904-28), ii. pt. i, p. 83.
13 Ibn Hisham, Sirah, ed. F. Wustenfeld (Gottingen, 1859-60),
p.97i; Tabari, Ta'rikh, ed.M. de Goeji (Leiden, 1879-1901), i. 1560
ff.; Caetani, i. 725 f., questiond the authenticity of these letters.
14 Ibn Hisham, pp.970, 1006-7; Al-Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghazi
(Wellhausen's short German translation), pp. 434-5; Al-Waqidi, Futuh
15 Chiefly the Sabians (As-Sabiun in the Qur'an v.73)
and the Magians (Al-Mujus or 'Zoroastrians' in the Qur'an
16 Surah iii.19.
17 Surah ix. 27 Let us for the present accept 'tribute' as a
rough translation for the term jizyah.
18 Ibn Hisham, pp. 313-14.
19 Surah xxii.40. Almost all the European translators adopt,
contrary to the received text, the active yuqatiluna, and
not the passive yuqataluna whcih we follow here. According
to Baidawi (Istanbul, 1314), ii.104: Cf. Al-Kashshaf (Culcutta,
20 Ibn Hisham, p.902; Tabari, i. 1702; Baladhuri, Futuh al-Buldan,
ed. M. de Goeje (Leiden, 1866), p.59
21 Cf. the Encyclopaedia of Islam, i,pt.2,pp.958-9,article Dhimma
by D.B. Macdonald.
22 Ibn Hisham,pp.958-62;cf. Abu Yusuf, Kitab al-Kharaj (Bulaq
1302),pp.40-41. The phrase 'until God comes with His command' is
questioned by some as a later interpolation.
23 Of the champions of the other-than-religious motive of
the expansion of Islam mention may be made of Caetani, ii. 831 f.;
C. H. Becker, The Expansion of Saracens, Cambridge Medieval History,
ii, chapter 11-12 (Cambridge, 1913), pp. 329-89; especially pp.
330-1; and H. Lammens, Le Berceau de l'Islam (Rome, 1914), i. 174
f. De Goeje, Memoire sur la conquete de la Syrie (Leiden, 1900),
fully admits the validity of the religious motive, p.4.
24 Baladhuri, p. 107. cf. 256-7. The significance of the use
of the term jihad here in the sense of 'holy war' must not escape
notice. More significant still is the use of the same term in connexion
with the Prophet's preparations for Tabuk; he tried to evoke in
some of his reluctant followers a desire for jihad. See Al-Waqidi
(ed. von Kremer), p. 425.
25 Cf. L. Cheikho, 'Uhud Nabiyyu 'l-Islam wa'l-Khulafa ar-Rashidun
li n-Nasara in Al-Mashriq xii (1909), 609-18, 674-882.
26 Baladhuri, p. 113, cf.147. The dinar (cf. late Greek denarion
and Latin dearius), a gold coin equal, in the days of 'Umar, to
27 Tabari, i. 2041.
28 The dirham (cf. the Persian diram, Greek drachme, and Latin
drachma) was a silver coin that prevailed in Al-Iraq.
The Islamic Quarterly, London
January - April 1961