| By the late Professor Abdul Latif TIBAWI
The conquest of Egypt was entrusted to 'Amr b. Al-'AS, who
as a merchant in pre-Islamic days knew the country, its wealth,
and the routes leading to it."1"
Moreover, his army which had occupied Palestine west of the
river Jordan was seasoned and ready when, according to tradition,
Amr sought and received the approval of Umar when he was at
Al-Jabiyah or in Jerusalem to receive its surrender. After an
easy march, 'Amr laid siege to Babalyan, near the site of modern
Cairo, with the Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyrus (Al-Muqauqas'
"2" of the Arabic sources),
holding the fortress as the representative of Heraclius the
Emperor. The fortress fell in A.H. 20/A.D. 641. Later in the
year the capital Alexandria itself surrendered. The usual guarantees
of life, property, and freedom to profess the Christian faith
were given here as elsewhere. But the terms"3"
included also the payment of a tribute of two dinars by every
male adult, "4" and of and-tax
in kind, and a guarantee not to help the Byzantines to land
forces to recover the country once those who elect to leave
have left under The terms of the agreement.
Ibn Abd 'il-Hakam, the earliest Arab authority on the conquest,
states that the Copts, the native Christian population, were
instructed by Their ecclesiastical authorities to refrain from
obstructing the Arabs. A modern scholar "5"
explains the reason in these words: 'the rapid success of The
Arab invaders was largely due to the welcome they received from
the native Christians, who hated the Byzantine rule not only
for its oppressive administration, but also, and chiefly, on
account of the bitterness of the Theological rancour. . . .'
This, of course, refers to the persecution of the native Monophysites
by the ecclesiastical authorities of the official church, The
Much the same pattern of administration was maintained in Egypt
as had already become the established practice in Syria and
Al-Iraq. Much the same system of taxation. Women, "6"
children, aged men, and, according to some authorities, also
monks were exempted. The civil service was almost entirely manned
by native Copts. The Arabs lived in :Military camps, such as
Al-Fustăt (from the Byzantine fossatum camp). I may be inferred
from a correspondence between Amr and the Caliph on delays in
tax payment that the people of Egypt may have been overtaxed."7"
But this was not so. There is no doubt that the burden and incidence
of taxation was lighter than under the Byzantines "8"
There was one innovation, however, the privileged classes who
were exempt under Tae former rulers were now liable to tax."9"
The wealth that had poured into Medina not only from Egypt,
but also from Syria and Al-Iraq, was so fabulous that a lesser
man than 'Umar might have failed to administer it properly.
This is not the place to go into details about his institution
of what amounted to a national pension scheme. Soon after Al-Yarmuk
and Al-Qadisiyyah, a system was devised for the distribution
of the income, after defraying the costs of state administration.
This is called Ad-Diwăn by later writer like Ibn al-Tiqtaqa
in Al-Fakhri. The allowances were graduated according to relationship
to the Prophet, priority of conversion to Islam, and participation
in the early wars of Islam from Badr to the battles in Syria,
Al-Iraq, and Egypt. Nor were the ordinary citizens, the widows,
orphans, and slaves forgotten."10"
The covenant made by the Prophet with Najrăn
has been mentioned above. It will be remembered that the covenant
contains in its concluding phrases the equivocal words hattaya't
ya Allahu bi amrihi. This may mean 'until Day Of Judgement,
or 'until circumstances change by God's command'. Now according
to tradition circumstances did change, and the Prophet ordered
during his last illness that within the Arabian Peninsula
'there shall be no faith other than Islam'. "11"
That is the authority for the removal of the people of Najrăn
during the caliphate of 'Umar. The question, however, has
been asked, 'If this was the command of the Prophet, why did
Abu Bakr neglect to execute it? Why did he renew the guarantee
to the people of Najrăn given by his master?"12"
Why did 'Umar himself not act earlier?'
It seems that early inaction was dictated
by caution, not neglect. Neither Abü Bakr nor 'Umar were really
free to act before the second did. They had their hands too
full to cause an internal commotion. First came the civil
war which shook the nascent Islamic state to its foundation;
then came the perilous external wars in Syria and Al~Iraq
. Umar did not take action before these two territories were
firmly under his control, and the might and wealth of the
Islamic state greatly increased. Under these circumstances
Najrăn was not a 'political' menace."13"
There is no evidence that Najran ceased to pay the tribute
under their covenant. Umar's action, therefore, seems to spring,
not from political or economic, but from purely religious
Other explanations were advanced. Some mention
that Najrăn was doomed because of its stubborn refusal to
embrace the state religion. Others that internal division
led the people of Najran themselves to ask to be removed.
Others still, that they practiced usury contrary to their
compact and thus invited trouble. But the only explanation
that seems to command the support of tradition is the religious
Be that as it may, when it ~vas decided to remove the people
of Najrăn in A.H. 15/A.D. 636, they were offered land in exchange
for their own in Syria or Al-Iraq, and were exempted from
the payment of jizyah yak for twenty-four months. Some of
them went to Syria, but the majority settled in the neighbourhood
of Al-KUfah, one of the new military camps which grew into
a large city. The original home of Najrăn in Arabia became
a state domain.
The earliest mention of the so-called Ordinance of Umar is
by an author who died in the middle of the fifth century of
the Hijrah. Nor are its provisions respecting alleged restrictions
to be imposed on Christians (and certain other adherents of
recognized religions) reproduced by various authors in the same
terms. The following is a summary of one version, framed in
the form of a letter from a given Christian city or community
to the caliph or his representative and opens as follows:"15"
'When you came to us we asked of you safety of our lives, our
families, our property, and the people of our religion, on these
conditions: to pay tribute out of our own hand and be humbled'.
So far the terms sound familiar and genuine. But the document
proceeds to recount, in details, and in language unusual for
any compact made by Muhammad (pbuh) and his early successors,
restrictions on the Christians in respect of worship in their
churches and the display of crosses and the ringing of church
bells; in respect of their dress, haircut, and manner of address
in conversation; in respect of height of their houses and the
kind of saddles for their mounts; in respect of their conduct
towards Muslims and even the former slaves of Muslims.
Modern research has established that these and other similar
provisions represent the intolerance of a later age. 'There
is abundant evidence', writes a well-known authority, "16"
'to show that the Christians in the early days of the Muhammadan
conquest had little to complain of in the way of religious disabilities.'
De Goeje"17" and Caetani
"18" have proved that these
restrictions attributed to ~Umar belong to a later age."19"
It is safe, therefore, to say that Umar was not responsible
for, nor did he initiate, any of the measures ascribed to him.
His principal concern was the preservation of the Muslim community
and state by keeping a Muslim standing army in camps, well supplied,
equally with the state treasury, by the enormous revenue collected
from ahlu'dhimmah and others. Vexatious measures going so far
as to prescribe the kind of attire his Christian subjects were
permitted to wear ill accords with his character, or indeed
with his conduct with the Patriarch Sophronius in Jerusalem.
The assumption, however, that not only the Islamic state but
the whole Muslim community lived on the labour of their non-Muslim
subjects is greatly exaggerated. True, the Christian (and other
non-Muslim) subjects of the first two caliphs bore at first
almost the whole burden of taxation. The Muslims, on the other
hand, were liable only to Zakah as a religious duty. Those of
them who cultivated land in the Arabian Peninsula had to pay
also a kind of tithe ('ushr), and soon after the settlement,
contrary to 'Umar's first orders, of whole tribes in Al-~Iraq
and Syria, the Muslims had to pay kharaj on the land they worked.
It is now necessary to make some distinction between the taxes
paid by the Muslims on one hand and those paid by non-Muslim
subjects on the other, and to point out briefly the religious
and political significance in each case. The Qur'ăn is specific
about the payment of jizyah "20"
by the People of the Book. This is the only term used in the
treaties concluded by the Prophet and the military commanders
of his first two caliphs. It meant, in practice, both a poll-tax
and a land-tax. The first may be called 'protection' tax levied
in return for safety of life, property, and freedom of worship
and was a Muslim innovation; the second was a normal form of
revenue under any government. When exactly the term kharaj,
in the sense of land-tax, was first introduced is very hard
to establish."21" But it
seems that it was more frequently used when land-tax became
payable by Muslims outside the Peninsula. Br the strength of
local tradition, the use of the term kharaj "22"
seems to have been gradually adopted instead of, or together
with, the term 'ushr' This resulted sometimes in a confusion
between one kind of jizyah levied from non-Muslims, and kharaj
from Muslims as land-taxes. During the caliphates of Abu Bakr
and Umar the two terms seem to have thus become interchangeable."23"
The religious significance of the payment of jizyah is obvious.
During the caliphate of 'Umar, it acquired also national' and
military significance. It is commonly assumed that the notion
that jizyah was in lieu of military service is a gloss of later
times. That does not seem to be the whole truth. Let us take
the case of Banü Taghuib again. They objected to the payment
of this tribute on two grounds: (a) that it was in general a
mark of humiliation which they as an Arab tribe were unable
to bear; (b) that it implied that they were either incapable,
or not trustworthy, to fight in the ranks of the Muslims."24"
Balădhuri confirms "25"
that Christian Arabs who served in the Muslim army were exempted
from the payment of jizyah. Nor was this an isolated case. The
help of some Christian tribes on the frontiers of Islam was
occasionally secured under similar arrangement. 'It is very
noticeable', wrote an eminent Orientalist,"26"
'that when any Christian people served in the Muslim army, they
were exempted from the payment of the tax.
There were three possible policies with regard to religion
in the event of conquest in the period preceding and following
the expansion of Islam roughly from A.D. 550 to 6~o. The victors
might try to force their subjects to abjure their faith and
accept that of their masters who might resort to measures of
oppression and persecution to achieve this end. This policy
was tried by the Byzantines in Syria and Egypt with disastrous
results. The second possible policy is complete freedom, leaving
the subjects undisturbed in their faith without any inducements
to change it. The third alternative is tolerance in the sense
of not victimizing the subjects who fail to embrace the religion
of their masters. Religious persecution as practiced by the
Byzantines was clearly foreign to the system introduced in Syria,
Al-'Iraq, and Egypt by the first two caliphs. Their policy was
a mixture of freedom and tolerance, while complete freedom was
foreign to the spirit of the times, the Muslims were bound,
as adherent of missionary religion, to offer it to their prospective
subjects who, in the event of refusing it, were neither persecuted
nor oppressed. They were required to pay tax, 'not as a penalty
for their refusal to embrace Islam' as T. W. Arnold has demonstrated,
but in return for protection,"27"
i.e. in lieu of military service. The notion that the Muslim
came with the Qur'ăn in one hand and the sword in the other,
offering no other alternative, is utterly false and contrary
to the Bur' an itself, and the practice of Muhammad (pbuh) and
his successors."28" Those
Christians who embraced Islam did so of' their own choice and
free will "29"All the available
evidence confirms that the Christians in Syria, Al-Iraq, and
Egypt enjoyed under the first two caliphs freedom and tolerance,
both religious and civil, as they never heard of under their
former Christian masters.
1) Ibn Abd il-Hakam, Futuh Misr, ed. Charles C. Torrey (New
Haven, 1922), p.53.
2) On the identity of Al-Muqauqas see A. J. Butler, The Arab
Conquest of Egypt (Oxford, 1902), pp.508-26.
3) Ibn Abdi l-Hakam, pp. 70 f.; Baladhuri, pp. 214-15; Tabari,
i. 2588 f.
4) Amr's report to the payment of poll-tax. See Ibn Abd il-Hakam,
Futuh Misr, p. 82.
5) Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, p.102.
6) Ibn Abdi l-Hakam, p. 70; Baladhuri, pp.214-15; cf. H.
I. Bell, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, Catalogue with Texts
(London, 1910), iv, pp.xxv and 173. This source mentions trade-taxes
corresponding to land-tax.
7) Ibn Abdi l-Hakam, pp. 158-81.
8) Cf. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt, pp.453-4.
9) For detailed examination of the Moslems in Egypt (Old
Testament and Semitic Studies in Memory of W.R.Harper, vol. ii,
10) Ibn Sa'd, iii, pt. I, pp. 213-14; cf. Baladhuri, p.453.
11) Ibn Sa'd, ii, pt. 2, p. 44. Cf. Tabar i, i.2482 in connexion
with Banu Taghlib. Al-Bukhari's Sahis (Bulaq, 1296), v. 128; Muslim's
Sahih (Cairo, 1331), v. 160. Cf. Muir, The Caliphate (London, 1883),
12) On Abu Bakr's renewal of the agreement see Tabari, i.
13) Cf. however, Abu Yusuf, Kitab al-Kharaj, p.41
14) Umar himself, according to a tradition preserved in Muslim's
Sahih v. 160, heard the Prophet say: Truly, I will drive out the
Jews and the Christians from the Arabian Peninsula, until I have
left none but Muslims there. Al-Bukhari's Sahis, v. 128, contains
a similar but, shorter tradition in the form of a command: Drive
out the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula.
15) Cf. Ibn Asakir, At-Ta'rikh al-KAbir (Damascus, 1329),
i. 149-50 on the supposed agreement with Damascus. For another text,
16) Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, p.59
17) Memoire sur la conquete de la Syrie, pp. 143 f.
18) Annali, iii. 957-9
19) Muir, The Caliphate, p.139, has also arrived at
the same conclusion.
20) Surah, ix.27
21) A. S. Tritton, Islam and the Protected Religions (Journal
of the Royal Asiatic Society, pt. iii (1928), 285-508), asserts,
without giving any indication of dates, that the usage of jizyah
and kharaj is not primitive. The original text of this essay
was written before the publication of A.S. Tritton's The Caliphs
and their Non-Muslim Subjects. Although this work contains much
useful material, its usefulness is somewhat diminished by a peculiar
manner of presentation in which little or no respect fo rhistorical
sequence is observed.
22) Cf. the Greek choregia and the Aramaic keragga. See the
Encyclopaedia of Islam, i, pt. 2, pp. 902-3, article Kharadji by
The W. Juynboll.
23) Baladhuri, p. 131, however, makes a clear distinction
between the two taxes as paid by non-Muslims.
24) As mentioned above Banu Taghlib did fight in the cause
of Islam and they were exempted from the payment of jizyah.
25) Futuh, p. 159, cf.p.252.
26) See the cases cited by Arnold, The Preaching of Islam,
27) Cf. TAbari, i. 2050. Cf. 2055.
28) Cf. Goldziher, Vorlesungen uber den Islam, p.25.
29) Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, pp. 51-52; cf. p.420:
'On the whole, unbelievers have enjoyed under Muhammadan rule a
measure of toleration, the like of which is not to be found in Europe
until quite modern times.
The Islamic Quarterly, London
January - April 1961