Christians Under Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and His First Two Caliphs – Part One

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 (pbuh).

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….’ 16

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, 1924),pp.42f.
3 L. Caetani, Annali dell’ Islam (Milano, 1905-26), v.323-4.
4 I. Goldziher, Vorlesungen uber den Islam (Heidel-berg, 1910),pp.25- 27.
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 l-alamin.
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.
 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.
 Ibn Hisham, pp.970, 1006-7; Al-Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghazi (Wellhausen’s short German translation), pp. 434-5; Al-Waqidi, Futuh ash-Sham (Cairo,1304),i.2.
Chiefly the Sabians (As-Sabiun in the Qur’an v.73) and the Magians (Al-Mujus or ‘Zoroastrians’ in the Qur’an xxii.17).
Surah iii.19.
Surah ix. 27 Let us for the present accept ‘tribute’ as a rough translation for the termjizyah.
 Ibn Hisham, pp. 313-14.
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, 1276/1859),ii.908
 Ibn Hisham, p.902; Tabari, i. 1702; Baladhuri, Futuh al-Buldan, ed. M. de Goeje (Leiden, 1866), p.59
 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.
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.
Cf. L. Cheikho, ‘Uhud Nabiyyu ‘l-Islam wa’l-Khulafa ar-Rashidun li n-Nasara in Al-Mashriq xii (1909), 609-18, 674-882.
 Baladhuri, p. 113, cf.147. The dinar (cf. late Greek denarion and Latin dearius), a gold coin equal, in the days of ‘Umar, to 10 dirhems.
27 Tabari, i. 2041.
 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