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

By the late Professor Abdul Latif TIBAWI


It was, however, the second caliph, ‘Umar b. Al-Khattăb, who organized the conquest of the whole of Syria, Al-‘Iraq, and Egypt, and who, moreover, devised a system of administration, which had the double merit of simplicity and practicability. ‘Umar was further responsible for the expulsion of the Christians of Najrăn from Arabia, and his name is associated with alleged restrictive measures supposed to have been imposed on Christian subjects and generally known as the Ordinance of ‘Umar. We will deal with Najrăn and then the Ordinance of ‘Umar last. Our immediate concern is to draw illustrations of his general policy as revealed by the early sources. The illustrations we propose to take are the following: (a) the terms agreed in respect of Damascus and Jerusalem; (b) the case of the land of As-Sawăd in Al-‘Iraq; c) the case of the land of Egypt.

The Arab and Semitic inhabitants of Syria seem to have responded more readily than the Arabs of Al-Hirah to their racial ties with the Muslim conquerors.“1” They had good reasons for hating their Byzantine rulers. They were antagonized by sectarian differences,“2” heavy incidence of taxation, and, as far as some border princes were concerned, by the withdrawal of cash subsidies just on the eve of the Muslim conquest. Although the conquest was easy, the Arabs fought at least two major battles before they conquered Syria. Perhaps one of the contributory factors to their success was the general tolerant attitude of the military commanders in their dealing with the civilian population.

When Khălid b. Al-Walid, who was ordered from Al-‘Irăq to Syria and assumed command of the Muslim armies, reached the gates of Damascus he laid siege to it. After six months, its surrender in A.H. 14/A.D. 635 was arranged by the Bishop of the city on these terms:”3″

‘In the name of Allah the merciful, the compassionate. This is what Khălid Ibn al-Walid would grant to the people of Damascus if he enters their city. He would give them security of their lives, property, and churches.“4” Their city shall not be demolished, and Muslims shall not be quartered in their houses. These terms are given as a pact of Allah and a protection of His Messenger…. So long as they pay the poll-tax nothing but good shall befall them.’

The poll-tax was assessed, as hitherto, at one dinar and one jarib of wheat per male adult. Both the military commanders and the civilian population understood that the payment of tax was in return for protection. Thus when military considerations preceding the battle of Yarmük necessitated a retreat, all the towns with which capitulation agreements had been signed received back the amounts they paid to the Muslims, who were not, according to the terms of the compact, able to protect them.”5″ Him is reputed to have shut its gates in the face of the Byzantine army.”6″ On the other hand, the town wrote to Muslims: ‘We very much prefer your government and justice to the oppression and injustice of our former rulers.”7″

Jerusalem does not seem to have shared these sentiments. If only because Hellenistic influence was here, as in a few other places, more marked. After a prolonged siege, the Patriarch Sophronius sued for peace, and expressed an earnest wish to settle the terms of the capitulation with the Caliph himself.”8″ The Patriarch was no doubt aware of the Muslim veneration of Jerusalem as the first qiblah and the traditional site associated with the Prophet’s Isra’ and Mi’raj.”9″ The request suited ‘Umar’s purpose. He was anxious to meet the commanders and give them personal directions as to the administration of the conquered province. He travelled all the way from Medina to the military camp of Al-Jabiyah northeast of the Sea of Galilee. His subsequent visit to Jerusalem and his exchanges with the Patriarch deserve careful investigation which the limited scope of this paper does not permit. We are more concerned here with the terms of the surrender of Jerusalem which took place in A.H. 17/A.D. 638:

'In the name of Allah the merciful, the compassionate'

.“10” ‘This is the covenant which ‘Umar, the servant of Allah, the Commander of the Faithful, granted to the people of Aelia.“11” He granted them safety for their lives, their possessions, their churches, and their crosses. . . . They shall not be constrained in the matter of their religion, nor shall any of them be molested.“12” No Jew shall live with them in Aelia.“13” And the people of Aelia shall pay jizyah as it is customary in the (other) cities. It is incumbent upon them that they drive out from their city the Byzantine and brigands. Whoever leaves the city shall be safe in his person and his property until he reaches his destination. Whoever remains shall receive the same treatment as the people of Aelia. . . . Nothing shall be taken from the people to whom this covenant is given until the harvest has been gathered in. The terms of this covenant are guaranteed by the pledge of Allah, the protection of His Messenger, and the protection of the Caliphs and of the Faithful, as long as they (to whom the pledge is given) pay jizyah.’

Like other treaties before it, there is no mention in this one of the amount of t he jizyah which must have been agreed separately. There was no uniform rate. In general, it was four dinars from the rich, two from the less well-to-do, and one from those who are not destitute, infirm, or dependent like monks on charity. With the exception of the payment of tribute the Muslim conquerors made little or no demands on their subjects. The internal administration was so little disturbed that no change was made in its system or personnel. Ecclesiastical authorities remained in control of the religious affairs, and such civil service as was required by the Muslims was entrusted to former Byzantine or local officials. The country was in military occupation, and the Muslim rule was primarily military in character to start with. Syria was divided into four military districts, each district was aptly called jund, army, corresponding roughly to previous divisions. The four divisions under ‘Umar were those of Dimashq (Damascus), Hims (Emesa), Al-Urdun (Jordan), and Filastin (Palestine). But soldiers were forbidden to live in the cities or to acquire immovable property.“14” They kept to their camps like Al-Jăbiyah and Amwăs. The conquered land was by practice, later systematized into law, a state domain, fai’, which was left in the hands of its former owners to work it and pay the Muslim state the dues.


We turn now to the eastern front in Al-‘Iraq. Some of the pagan Arab tribes that were encountered by the Muslim armies seem to have accepted Islam. However, there were, apart from the people of Al-Hirah, other Christian Arabs who were not prepared to renounce their faith by embracing Islam. The case of Banu Taghlib deserves to be noted here. This tribe had sent a deputation to the Prophet and it was agreed that the pagans among them would accept Islam, while the Christians would pay tribute and keep their faith. Apparently this agreement was considered a personal one which was terminated with the death of the Prophet. During Umar’s caliphate, a new agreement was offered to Banü Taghuib. In return for the payment of tribute they were to be left free to profess Christianity, but not to constrain any member who wished to embrace Islam, or to bring up the children of those who embrace it in the Christian faith.“15”

Banü Taghlib, however, considered the payment of tribute as a sign of humiliation. They sent a deputation to Umar. The Caliph was advised to make concessions to a proud Arab tribe, lest they be compelled to emigrate to Byzantine territory and strengthen the enemy to the disadvantage of Islam.“16” Umar did make a concession which seems to have been merely verbal. Banu Taghuib were to pay a double-tithe, not called jizyah, but sadaqah as if they were Muslims.“17” Not only they escaped the indignity of jizyah. They won honour by fighting on the Muslim side and contributing to the victory over the Persians at the battle of Buwaib. This fact resulted in their exemption as we shall point out below.

Although skirmishes in Al-‘Iraq “18” started at least as early as those in Syria, large-scale fighting with the Săsănids did not begin in earnest till the whole of Syria was practically in Muslim occupation. Sad b. Abi Waqqas won at Al-Qadisiyyah in A.H. 16 A.D. 637 “19” such a decisive victory over the Persians as opened all the fertile lowland of Al-Iraq west of the Tigris to Muslim occupation. With Sa’d’s entry into Al-Madă’in (Ctesi-phon), the Persian capital, and other events that followed this victory we are not concerned here. Suffice it to say that within four years after Al-Qadisiyyah, an army that advanced north joined, near Al-Mausil, another that had advanced from Syria into northern Mesopotamia. The inhabitants of the towns and villages of Al-lraq, mostly Semites and many of them Arabs professing Christianity, were as glad to get rid of the Persians as were the inhabitants of the towns and villages in Syria glad to get rid of the Byzantines, for the same or similar reasons. Thus here again the Muslim conquerors found themselves in a friendly country. As in Syria, the Muslims kept themselves in military camps, left the civil and religious affairs of the people in the hands of their ecclesiastical authorities or in the management of former officials of the Persian administration. But there was a much greater influx into Al-Iraq of Arabs who came to settle permanently and make it their new homeland.

The spoils of war were fabulous, and the proverbial fertility of the lowlands around the two rivers known as As-Sawăd posed some problems for Umar and his commanders. The legal fifth of the booty (ghanimah) was received by the Caliph for the state treasury, Baitu Mali’l Muslimin; the rest was distributed among the victors on the spot. With regard to the land, ‘Umar declared it as fai’. “20” state-domain, to be held by its former owners in return for payment of revenue to the state treasury. He is reputed to have ordered the land to be surveyed and a census of the population taken for the purpose of assessing revenue.

The assessment and incidence of taxation was similar to the system devised for Syria. Distinction must he made here between two kinds of taxes, though not vet between the two relevant Arabic terms that refer to each tax. No doubt Christians, and certain others, paid a tax for religious freedom and independence in the administration of their religious affairs. They also paid a tax either cash or in kind on the produce of the land. At this early stage, both taxes are covered by the term jizyah.“21” Later on, a distinction was made between a poll-tax “jizyah’. and a land-tax (kharaj). In both Syria and Al-‘Iraq there were also what may be called emergency’ dues demanded for the support of the armies. Specified quantities of wheat, oil, honey, &c.;, are mentioned, together with the obligation-by no means of universal application-of entertaining for three days soldiers passing through any given locality.“22”


1) Cf. W. Muir, The Caliphate, p. 127: ‘The Muslims were to all intents and purposes in a friendly country. Cf. further Caetani, iii. 813.
2) Cf. W. A. Shedd, Islam and the Oriental Churches (New York, 1908), pp. 105-109, who quotes Finlay.
3) Baladhuri, p. 121.
4) The legend that the Muslims shared the churches at Damascus, especially the Cathedral of St. John, with the Christian inhabitants has been exploded by no less an authority than Caetani, iii. 355 f. 387 f.
5) Abu Yusuf, Kitab al-Kharaj, p. 81; cf. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam,p. 61.
6) Baladhuri, p. 137; cf. Muir, The Caliphate, p. 127.
7) Baladhuri, p. 137.
8) Baladhuri, pp. 138-9; Tabari, i.2404.
9) Cf. Qur’an, Surah xvii. I.
10) Tabari, i. 2405 f.: this source gives an earlier date for the surrender of Jerusalem; see the Encyclopaedia of Islam, ii, pt. 2, pp. 1094 f. article ‘Al-Kuds’ by F. Buhl. Cf. Hastings’s Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, xii, article by T. W. Arnold on Toleration (Muhammadan), 365-9, especially p. 367 on Jerusalem.
11) The name given to the city bt Hadrian after removing all the Jews from it in A.D. 130 was Aelia Capitolina. Only the first part of this name was preserved in early Arabic usage as Iliya. Cf. G. Le Strange, Palestine under the Moslems (London, 1890), p. 84.
12) Some claim that the clauses that follow are accretions, but there is nothing in them that seems to be at variance with practice of the time. Hence they may be accepted as authentic evidence, in intention if not in wording. Caetani, iii. 952 f., discusses the treaty in detail.
13) This clause must have been inserted at the request of the Patriarch. During the Perso-Byzan-tine war, the Jews aided the Persians who, in turn, slaughtered many Christians. Cf. A. L. Wismar, A study of Tolerance as practised by Mohamed (pbuh) and his Immediate Successors (New York, 1927), pp. 82-83.
14) Cf. the tradition of the prophet: ‘The stability of my followers rests upon the hoofs of their horses and the points of their lances; so long as they do not work the land; whenever they begin to do that, they become like the rest of them.
15) Tabari, i. 2482.
16) Baladhuri, p. 171.
17) Caetani, iv. 226 f. suggests that this was an invention of a later epoch to explain a fiscal situation of a Christian tribe being treated as if it was Muslim.
18) Arab writers like to describe the victory of the Banu Bakr led by Hani’ b. Mas’ud Ash-Shaibani over a Persian army at Dhu Qar some time after A.D. 610 as a rehearsal for the major victories under Muslim commanders. When he heard of the victory, Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said: ‘This is the (first) day whereon the Arabs have obtained satisfaction from the ‘Ajam (Persians). ‘The last phrase of this tradition is hard to construe with sense. Literally it means ‘through me they (i.e. the Arabs) have been victorious’, but the context seems to suggest rather this: ‘through me they will be (more) victorious’. Cf. the commentary on Surah x1viii 15 quoted above (note 2, p.32).
19) The date is variously given. See the Encyclopaedia of Islam, ii, pt. 2, pp. 611 f., article ‘Al-Kadisiya’ by M. Streck.
20) Surah viii. 42. The distinction made by ‘Umar between movable property which can be shared between the Caliph purse, and his soldiers, and immovable property like land which cannot be shared is not explicit in this verse. Cf. Surah lix.6-7.
21) Cf. the Encyclopaedia of Islam, i,pt.2,pp.1051-2, article ‘Djizya’ by C.H. Becker.
22) Cf. Abu Yusuf, Kitab al-Kharaj, p.22 The entertainment of soldiers was, however, a relic of Byzantine practice to which Muslim soldiers seldom resorted, as they were under orders to keep to their camps.

The Islamic Quarterly, London
January – April 1961