Christians Under Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) and His First Two Caliphs – Part Three

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 Melkites.

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 motives.“14”

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 one.

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, Chicago, 1908).
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), p. 218.
12) On Abu Bakr’s renewal of the agreement see Tabari, i. 1987-8.
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, p. 178.
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, pp. 61-62.
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