When Islam began its conquest beyond the borders of Arabia after Mohammed’s death, Muslims, like most emerging empires encountered ruling over other peoples in their midst. Decisions on how to approach ruling non-Muslims had to be resolved. Over time it became necessary to establish contracts or pacts of behavior with non-Muslims in order to clarify the proper treatment of all peoples within the Muslim realm. These contracts believed to be initiated and codified during the reign of caliph Umar bin al-Khattab, (634-644, 12-22 AH) the second of the righteous caliphs after Abu Bakr were called Dhimma, or “protected peoples.”

Basically, these contracts allowed other religions within Islamic rule to flourish as long as the Dhimmi abided by certain demands. These restrictions ranged from benevolent suggestions to persecutory rules. Whatever else one could say about Dhimmi status the following should be noted from the outset. While they were not politically or religiously equal with the Muslim, living under dhimmi restrictions provided a working balance that more or less allowed these religious groups to live within the Muslim world relatively un-molested for long periods of time. In the case of the Jews for example, the evidence shows that under Muslim domination Jews faired far better than their bretheren did under Chrisitanity in Europe during the same period. Dhimmi status existed well into the nineteenth century until the Ottoman Empire officially abandoned the practice.

Dhimmi peoples consisted of Christians, Jews, and to a lesser extent Zoroastrians and Mandaeans.  This paper will concentrate mostly on the Christian and Jewish Dhimmi since they were the two largest of the four groups living under Muslim domination. The Caliph Umar played a major historical role in the development in each pact, and is of primary importance in this piece. This paper will argue that Umar’s experience with both groups reflected a different approach to the Jews than it did toward the Christians, which consequently translated into two very different dhimmi contracts for the two peoples.

In a paper covering a topic such as this a word should be said about available sources. The great difficulty in developing cogent arguments on any subject of this period is the fact that there are no physically written eye-witness primary documents from which to extract research material. “No annals were written in the years immediately after the events; details were preserved by oral tradition.”[1] A perennial problem all historians researching the time period encounter, we are left to do the best we can with what is available.

From this oral tradition in the decades and centuries to follow certain historians emerged to more or less codify what was thought to be the history. This historiographical approach leaves much to be desired in the gathering and keeping of accurate records. The historians themselves become part of the history because their biases and agendas created schools of thought favoring the history according to this historian or that historian. The time and place in which they lived, served as a filter from which they reported the history. Knowing that this approach further complicates the historical record, the difference in time, place of residence within the empire, and the particular caliphate in power must be considered when researching this subject.

It is from these historians, in the case of this particular paper, Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari and Mohammed Ibn Ishak Ibn Yasar that we must depend on for the historical events being reported even though the primary source material has been written in some cases hundreds of years after the fact. Ibn Ishak born in 707 C.E. (85 A.H) is the earlier of the two and for this reason might be more credible.[2] The oral tradition that reached him was only two generations away from the time of the Prophet whereas al-Tabari lived in the tenth century, and probably used Ibn Ishak as one of his own sources for the work he did on Mohammad and the beginning of Islam. However, both are considered to be the standard sources for this period, but both must be scrutinized carefully because of the obvious major historiographical problems that arise from their perspective. Therefore, the reader must be aware while reading this paper that quotes and events described might not be the history as it actually happened but it is as the accepted source presents it.




There are three pacts of Dhimmi contracts talked about in this piece. The first, Mohammad’s early contract with the Jews reflects a cordial relationship between the two peoples. The time spent between this rather friendly alliance and the pact issued by Umar sixteen years later reveals a major shift in the relationship that is essential for understanding Umar’s role in this part of Islamic history.

Even though Umar was not involved in the first pact with the Jews, he was present at the time and understood the importance of an agreement with the Jews of the Hijaz. The second and third pacts discussed take place during Umar’s reign as caliph. The evidence suggests, at least initially, two strikingly different contracts for the two major religious groups, Jews and Christians. They are so stunningly different in both tone and content that it is inconceivable that one is accurate and the other is not, even though that option has to be left open. Of course for only one of the pacts to be valid would indicate that the other is a fraud. There is no evidence to suggest this to be true. Therefore, the two pacts attributed to Umar can be considered  true regardless for which religious group they were intended.

Because of their differences, the two contracts in question cannot be both meant for the same people and written during the same time period. As a result one of two scenarios can be posited as an explanation. Either they were both written at different times for both Christians and Jews, or they were written at the same time, one contract meant for Christians and the other one meant for Jews. Since the Muslims held that dhimmi contracts can be specialized and do sometimes carry completely different rules depending on the people they are concerned with, it is entirely possible that different contracts were written for these two Syrian non-Muslim groups.[3]  The object of this piece will be the sorting out of this historical confusion.




The perplexing problems ruling over Christians and Jews began with the conquest of Syria,[4] completed in 638 CE (15 AH). If Christians and Jews were allowed to remain within the Muslim empire, what would be their role? Those who were Dhimmi or “protected” people needed to be protected both from individuals who might take advantage of their non-Muslim status but also to insure that the dhimmi would never revolt or take the side of Muslim enemies in time of war.

”The Jewish Rabbis showed hostility to the apostle in envy, hatred, and malice, because God had chosen His apostle from the Arabs.” [5]  Jewish resistance against Mohammad at Khaybar and Yathrib remained within living memory among the Arabian Muslim community. It was recognized that a revolt from the Jews could be a serious threat on the Asian continent especially if Christian participation was elicited. All empires throughout history are similar in this respect. There is always a possibility that subjected peoples could rise up and rebel against a central authority. Therefore, empires have classically dealt with conquered lands with caution and reserve. Charles Tilly outlined how empires can benefit the most from the peoples they rule.

The central power exercises some military and fiscal control in each major segment of its imperial domain, but tolerates the two major elements of indirect rule: (1) retention or establishment of particular, distinct compacts for the government of each segment; and (2) exercise of power through intermediaries who enjoy considerable autonomy within their own domains in return for the delivery of compliance, tribute, and military collaboration with the center. [6]

Within the guidelines of Tilly’s explanation the Muslims proceeded to allow the non-Muslim communities to continue using their own laws to govern their own affairs but with certain restrictions. The Muslims were eager to change the daily lives of these people as little as possible.[7] This became the basis for these Dhimmi arrangements. Drawn up in the form of a contract, the Muslim governing authority promised to protect and nurture these communities as long as these restrictions were met.

On the other hand, pagan peoples the Muslims encountered in most cases were forced to convert.[8]  This was the mission of Islam and demanded through Quranic law.  Since Christians and Jews believed in essentially the same God as the Muslims no conversion was necessary. They were known in the Muslim realm as the “People of the Book.” Some have argued that forced conversion of the Christians and Jews in Greater Syria would have been counterproductive for the Muslim economy as well as against the Quran.

The Muslim newcomers used the Christians to administer the unfamiliar urban areas, hence the careers of St. John Damascene, his father, and his grandfather as civil servants. The Umayyad caliphs could not afford to have the administrative and mercantile structure of Greater Syria wiped out in a process of conversions for the sake of Islam. [9]

Greater Syria was therefore spared forced conversion.[10] The Umayyads followed Umar’s lead in allowing the Christian and Jewish presence to maintain its cultural ties to the area.  Of course, it has to be presumed however, that they kept a close watch on the Syrian people’s activities through their appointed governors to make sure that the balance of autonomy and subjection was never compromised by revolt.

Although the original contracts are believed to have come down through Umar, they received their beginnings during Mohammed’s life. The Prophet had set in motion the groundwork for a coexistence with the Jews, which would spread to all non-Muslim “people of the book” within the Muslim world. Exploration between Mohammad’s agreement with the Jews and Umar’s pact with the Jews some years later reveals a sharp distinction in the two agreements. Mohammad’s was conciliatory, friendly, and diplomatically cordial while Umar’s pact sixteen years later was harsh, demanding and restrictive. A complete turn around took place in those intervening years, which accounted for the difference in the two agreements. Understanding Umar’s life experience with these two groups, the Jews and Christians of Byzantine Syria, is essential in sorting out the history.

Tensions between the Jews and Muslims which arose between the time of Mohammad’s and Umar’s agreement contributed heavily to the treatment of Jews within the Muslim realm. The agreement that Mohammad served to Jews was one of equality. Very little difference exists between this agreement and the demands that Mohammad set down for his own people. A sense of working together, living together and fighting together more or less as one community in the service of the same God is the tendency in this agreement. These explanations are conspicuously absent from the “Pact of Umar.”

The Jews of the B. ‘Auf are one community with the believers their freedmen and their persons except those who behave unjustly and sinfully for they hurt but themselves and their families.[11]


Mohammad’s agreement with the Jews as it existed in 622 C.E. (0 AH):

1) A believer shall not take as an ally the freedman of another Muslim against him.

2) The God-fearing believers shall be against the rebellious or him who seeks to spread injustice, or sin or enmity, or corruption between believers; the hand of every man shall be against him even if he be a son of one of them.

3) A believer shall not slay a believer for the sake of an unbeliever, nor shall he aid an unbeliever against a believer.

4) God’s protection is one, the least of them may give protection to a stranger on their behalf.

5) Believers are friends one to the other to the exclusion of outsiders.

6) To the Jew who follows us belong help and equality. He shall not be wronged more shall his enemies be aided.

7) The peace of the believers is indivisible. No separate peace shall be made when believers are fighting in the way of God.

8) Conditions must be fair and equitable to all. In every foray a rider must take another behind him.

9) The believers must avenge the blood of one another shed in the way of God.

10) The God-fearing believers enjoy the best and most upright guidance. [12]



Mohammad needed allies in his struggle to free his people from those who viewed Islam as a threat. The agreement, if followed through to Mohammad’s end vision, to fight along side one another during war would bring the appropriate rewards that come with an eventual victory.  The greatest single difference in the two pacts was that Mohammad’s pact demands that “conditions must be fair and equitable for all.” This contrasted with Omar’s pact written sixteen years later which only agrees to “safe conduct” as long as the first sixteen demands were met.

The agreement above shows an earnest attempt by Mohammad to gain allies in his war against the polytheists. Although relations in 622 CE, (0 AH) between the Jews and the Muslims were very friendly, indications were that   Jewish acceptance of  Mohammad’s agreement was tempered in some communities with suspicion of Mohammad’s ultimate motives.

The Jews had been living a precarious existence in the area since the destruction of their state in Judea five centuries earlier. One must remember that the rule of law was non-existent in the seventh century Arabian Peninsula. Bands of marauders were common. The area was not “culturally felicitous.”[13]  The only way for people to protect themselves was by banning together and using the sword to solve disputes. Within this context the Jews maintained a delicate military balance in these communities where they lived between themselves and the non-Jews that lived among them. These pagan groups were split into permanent factions, which could not muster up enough military opposition to destroy the Jewish community. Frequently, alliances made with the Jews from one group or another was broken. There was no reason to believe that Mohammad and his people would be any different than any of the others that had promised alliances with the Jews.

Jewish suspicions turned out to be correct. Mohammed had demanded that the Jews accept him as the final prophet and join the Muslim community. The Jews refused. Consequently, the alliance between Muslims and Jews did not last. Muhammad became disillusioned with his Jewish allies and threatened them with war if they did not heed to his demands.

To the B. Qaynuqa tribe Mohammad warned the Jews not to break the covenant with God by not accepting him, as the “prophet who has been sent.” The Jews ignored Mohammad’s warnings and the agreement previously initiated by the Prophet was broken.

O Muhammad, you seem to think that we are your people. Do not deceive yourself because you encountered a people with no knowledge of war and got the better of them;’ for by God if we fight you, you will find that we are real men![14]

The fact that the Jews rejected Mohammad as the final prophet might have played into the Muslim rulership during the time that Umar reigned as caliph.  Umar, one of Muhammad’s closest advisors was privy to this insolence on the part of the Jews. To Umar it was unthinkable to reject Muhammad. To do so for a pious Muslim, was to reject God himself. Umar’s belief was probably a general consensus between all Muslims at that time. [15]

 A number of Jews came to the apostle and said: “Now, Muhammad, Allah created creation, but who created Allah?” The apostle was so angry that his colour changed and he rushed at them being indignant for his Lord, Gabriel came and quietened him saying, “Calm yourself, O Muhammad, “ And an answer to what they asked came to him from God: ‘Say , He God is One, God the Eternal, He begetteth not neither is He begotten and there is none equal to Him.” When he recited that to them they said, “Describe His shape to us, Muhammad; his forearm and his upper arm, what are they like?” The apostle was more angry that before and rushed at them. Gabriel came to him and spoke as before. And an answer to what they asked came to him from God: “they think not of God as He ought to be thought of; the whole earth will be in his grasp at the day of resurrection and the heavens folded upon in His right hand. Glorified and Exalted is He above what they associate with Him. [16]

Of course, if the Jews had accepted Muhammad, history would have been very different in that there would have been no Jews in the Muslim world throughout the last fourteen centuries because all or almost all would have converted to Islam.




Umar’s relationship with the Prophet began in opposition. He came to Islam four years before The Hijra. He became one of Muhammad’s most trusted advisers. He apparently was intellectually superior to most of the people surrounding Muhammad, constantly arguing his position as correct and with a tendency to never admit when he was wrong. But, his loyalty to Mohammad and to Allah and Islam was unquestionable. This loyalty continued after Muhammad’s death with Abu Bakr. Even though he had wanted the position of caliph, rather than cause a schism within the ranks of Mohammad’s followers he supported and remained close to Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s successor. Often he would advocate the hard line on issues. Many times this position was not adopted but he continued his loyalty to Abu Bakr. Hardheaded and prone to anger, Umar was feared rather than loved. However, he had a very generous side, which could be most endearing.[17]

Without drawing up a complete psychological profile of this obviously complicated individual, it must be noted for the purposes of this piece that Umar’s polarizing moods probably played into his decisions when deciding on how to legislate on many issues concerning the Ulema, including the facilitation of the dhimmi agreements with non-Muslims. Jews were defiant and Christians by and large were not.[18] Therefore, it seems natural that his experience and demeanor posited a complete opposite attitude toward Jews than toward Christians. Past experiences during those first years of struggle was certainly a factor in Umar developing this position.

One other experience probably helped to solidify Umar’s separate treatment of Jews from Christians in developing two remarkably opposite legislations. It is likely that Umar was exposed to the Syrian Christian policy toward Jews after the conquest of Syria. A striking similarity exists between the “Pact of Umar” and the Theodosian code. In comparison, Umar’s pact seems very tolerant, and for this reason historians labeled the Dhimmi laws as being fair and ahead of their time.[19] The Byzantine declaration against Jewish practices influenced Umar further in considering dhimmi restriction, adding to the argument that he purposely designated two different legislations, one for the insolent Jews and one for the less threatening Christians.

The text of the “Pact of Umar” as it is written here cannot be found in the standard sources. It is included because it exists in several secondary sources as the actual text that Umar agreed to.[20] Although there is some evidence that this pact was genuine, the fact that it is not displayed in either of the generally accepted  primary sources indicates that it might not have been written during Umar’s reign as some scholars have argued. Although attributed to Umar by name it can be found in the more restrictive laws set down during the Ummayyad dynasty, which applied, to both Christians and Jews. Because of the murkiness of the history of this period we have no way of knowing for sure whether Umar actually drew up the “Pact of Umar” or not.

“Umar’s caliphate has traditionally been regarded as the time in which nearly all the major political institutions of Islam had their origin, which cannot have been so in every instance.”[21]  Much of what is attributed to Umar might not have a basis in fact. However, he did legitimize much of what would become standard bureaucratic Muslim governmental procedure. We know for example of the letters, published by al-Tabari was established into Muslim political law in Palestine and Syria regarding Christian and Jewish dhimma. The “Pact of Umar” seems more restrictive than the content of these letters, however. Either Umar wrote different dhimmi laws for Jews than he did for Christians or they were written and enacted into law at different times.

The evidence that these laws come from a later period comes from Boojamra who wrote that from the caliph Umar II in 717 until 850 a series of “discriminatory legislation” was enacted against the Christians of the Middle East.

Christians were excluded from public office, required to wear distinctive clothing, ride without saddles, ring no bells, and erect no new churches. There were occasional violent local persecutions of Christians. While the rule was tolerance, the Jacobite Patriarch Michael the Syrian, who recorded all sorts of outbursts against the Christians during the Ummayyad period, notes that abd al-Malik (685-705) ordered the removal of all corsses, al-Walid (705-715) ordered the destruction of churches, al-Yazid  (720-724) ordered the removal of statues and icons from buildings. Just as serious, an edict of al-mutawakkil in 849-850 forbade the children of the dhimmis to attend Muslim schools or to enjoy Muslim teachers. In general however, a tolerant Muslim control was the practice.[22]

This seems much harsher than the original letters al-Tabari reported that Umar signed into legislation during his travels through Syria during the years 637 and 638 (15-16 AH). This evidence is also much closer to the original “Pact of Umar” in presentation. The other striking difference here is that it is written in the first person plural which indicates a different style than Umar’s letters in al-Tabari, which are all written in the second person plural.[23] [24] This can also be another indication that the two letters were written at two different times by different people representing different entities.


The following is the accepted text of the “Pact of Umar.”

1)We shall not build, in our cities or in their neighborhood, new monasteries, (synagogues) Churches, convents, or monks’ cells, nor shall we repair, by day or by night, such of them as fall in ruins or are situated in the quarters of the Muslims.

2)We shall keep our gates wide open for passersby and travelers. We shall give board and lodging to all Muslims who pass our way for three days.

3) We shall not give shelter in our churches or in our dwellings to any spy, nor bide him from the Muslims.

4) We shall not teach the Qur’an to our children.

5) We shall not manifest our religion publicly nor convert anyone to it. We shall not prevent any of our kin from entering Islam if they wish it.

6) We shall show respect toward the Muslims, and we shall rise from our seats when they wish to sit.

7) We shall not seek to resemble the Muslims by imitating any of their garments, the qalansuwa, the turban, footwear, or the parting of the hair. We shall not speak as they do, nor shall we adopt their kunyas.

8) We shall not mount on saddles, nor shall we gird swords nor bear any kind of arms nor carry them on our- persons.

9) We shall not engrave Arabic inscriptions on our seals.

10) We shall not sell fermented drinks.

11) We shall clip the fronts of our heads.

12) We shall always dress in the same way wherever we may be, and we shall bind the zunar round our waists

13) We shall not display our crosses or our books in the roads or markets of the Muslims. We shall use only clappers in our churches very softly. We shall not raise our voices when following our dead. We shall not show lights on any of the roads of the Muslims or in their markets. We shall not bury our dead near the Muslims.

14) We shall not take slaves who have been allotted to Muslims.

15) We shall not build houses overtopping the houses of the Muslims.

16) When I brought the letter to Umar, may God be pleased with him, he added, “We shall not strike a Muslim.”)

17) We accept these conditions for ourselves and for the people of our community, and in return we receive safe-conduct.

18) If we in any way violate these undertakings for which we ourselves stand surety, we forfeit our covenant [dhimma], and we become liable to the penalties for contumacy and sedition.

19) Umar ibn al-Khittab replied: Sign what they ask, but add two clauses and impose them in addition to those, which they have undertaken. They are: “They shall not buy anyone made prisoner by the Muslims,” and “Whoever strikes a Muslim with deliberate intent shall forfeit the protection of this pact.”


When one views the nineteen laws of the “Pact of Umar” with the Jews certain elements become apparent. The first sixteen items are all restrictions the dhimmi agrees not to do. Only the seventeenth requires the Muslim authority to provide “safe conduct” as long as the first sixteen laws were obeyed.  The eighteenth once again warns the dhimmi of the consequences if any of the first sixteen demands are broken. Umar himself added the eighteenth because he felt he needed these two extra demands on the dhimmi.[25] If this document was written at the time of Umar along with the al-Tabari letters it would constitute two different pacts, one for Christians and one for Jews.

If Umar was responsible for this legislation certain questions can be raised from the text of this document. With the emphasis on equality and evenhandedness that the new religion espoused why were these restrictions uncharacteristically harsh? Did Umar’s involvement in the formation of the document significantly influence the tone of the restrictions? Were these restrictions merely a formality in lieu of Mohammad’s rejection of his alliance with the Jews early in the growth of Islam?  What was their nature in relation to how Muslims viewed themselves in their own world?

If Umar initiated the contract with the Jews then this is the key here. Umar’s own perceptions of the developments with non-Muslims led him to consider Jews different from Christians. The two different experiences required two different pacts with the two peoples. Umar was completely humiliated during the battle at Khaybar. The evidence shows that during the battle the Jews over powered Umar’s forces and forced him and his men to retreat.

Some of the people set out with him, (Umar bin al-Khattab) and they encountered the people of Khaybar. ‘Umar and his companions were put to flight. When they returned to the Messenger of God, Umar’s companions accused him of cowardice, and he accused them of the same.[26]

This must have been a shameful experience for Umar as well as his men. The fact that Umar’s reaction of being accused of “cowardice” by his own men in front of Mohammad indicates a shameful and almost childish defense. He accuses his men of the same “cowardice” that they accused him.  Islam up to the battle of Khaybar, militarily had scored a remarkable string of victories. To make matters worse Mohammad then snubbed Umar. Al-Tabari suggests Mohammad’s displeasure by issuing left handed remarks that if Umar really had love for God and his Messenger he would have stood and fought and surely victory would have been his.

The Messenger of God said “Tomorrow I shall give the banner to a man who loves God and His Messenger and whom God and His Messenger love.” The next day, Abu Bakr and Umar vied for the banner, but the Messenger of God called Ali, who was suffering from inflamed eyes, and having spat on his eyes, gave him the banner. [27]

Al-Tabari’s passage here suggests that Umar was highly insulted and intensely desired to go back out against the Jews of Khaybar and prove his worth to “God and to His Messenger.” But, Umar did not have the chance. Mohammad gave the honor of conducting that day’s order of battle to Ali.

Given Umar’s unforgiving personality with people he did not agree with and his quick temper, we can logically assume that he carried this defeat with him for many years. It is possible that he held some kind of grudge against the Jews because of their defense against him at Khaybar. With religious fervor to insure that the spread of Islam would not fail, to be turned away by Jews who had mocked “The Prophet” might have left Umar bitter and wanting revenge. From this evidence it is not hard to suggest that years later Umar, now in command as caliph would have been hard on the Jews. It is possible therefore that if Umar was the signer of the “Pact of Umar” then this original set of restrictions were meant for Jews. And, only later, long after Umar had died, during the Ummayyed dynasty had set in motion to also include Christians.

Certainly his treatment of Syrian Christians, which can be substantiated through al-Tabari’s primary source, granted a more tolerant tone than what is described in the “Pact of Umar.” In the following letter to Jerusalem Christians Umar conveys a salutary attitude in explaining how little their lives will change under Islamic rule. This letter is indicative of the other letters that Umar wrote while touring successive towns all over the province during the years 636-638 C.E. ( 12-14 A.H.). [28]



In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the assurance of safety which the servant of God, Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, has granted to the people of Jerusalem. He has given them an assurance of safety for themselves, for their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick and the healthy of the city, and for all the rituals that belong to their religion.

1)Their churches will not be inhabited (by Muslims ) and will not be destroyed.

2) Niether they, nor the land on which they stand,  nor their cross, nor their property will be damaged.

3) They will not be forcibly converted. No Jew will live with them in Jerusalem.

4)The people of Jerusalem must pay the poll tax like the people of the (other) cities, and they must expel the Byzantines and the robbers.

5) As for those who will leave the city, their lives and property will be safe until they reach their place of safety; and as for those who remain, they will be safe. They will have to pay the poll tax like the people of Jerusalem.

6) Those of the people of Jerusalem, who want to leave with the Byzantines, take their property, and abandon will be safe until they reach their place of safety.

7) Those villagers who were in Jerusalem before the killing of so-and-so may remain in the city if they wish, but they must pay the poll tax like the people of Jerusalem.

8) Those who wish may go with the Byzantines and those who wish may return to their families.

9) Nothing will be taken from them before their harvest is reaped.

10) If they pay the poll tax according to their obligations, then the contents of this letter are under the covenant of God, are the responsibility of His Prophet, of the caliphs, and of the faithful. The persons who attest to it are Khalid b. al-Walid, Amr b. al-Asi, Abd al-Rahman b. Awf, and Mu’awiyah b. abi sufyan. This letter was written and prepared in the year 15/636-637.[29]


There are some interesting differences between this set of proposals to the Christian community of Syria and the “Pact of Umar, supposedly written to the same people during the same time period. The ten allowances are guaranteed as long as the Christians pay a poll tax. The “Pact of Umar” makes mention of the demand to pay a poll tax as well as fifteen other demands which if they are not kept their religion will not be tolerated.  Point five in the “Pact” states that the dhimmis, whether Christians or Jews, shall not display their religion publicly while the letter of inclusion to Jerusalem Christians clearly allows them to practice their religion in “complete safety for themselves, for their property, their churches, (and) their crosses…” The differences continue through tone and content between the two agreements.

It is not likely that the same person could have written both agreements at approximately the same time meant for the same people.  As the Encyclopedia of Islam noted “Umar’s caliphate has traditionally been regarded as the time which nearly all the major political institutions of Islam had their origin, which cannot have been so in every instance.”[30] Since these two agreements are not consistent with one another and since it has been established that it is unlikely that all political Islamic institutions were not established during Umar’s reign, then it can be argued that these are either different agreements written during different times for the same people or different agreements written during the same period of time for two different peoples.

I would argue the latter. Up to that point in early Islamic history Jews had an entirely different relationship with the Muslim community than did Christians. The literature shows Jews to have been antagonistic, offensive, and defiant. They rejected Mohammad’s advances for an alliance and subsequently held out militarily in Khaybar for several months before they were defeated. People like Umar and other Muslims could draw little distinction between  the Jews and the conflict with the polytheists.[31] On the other hand the Christian community were friendly and forthcoming.[32] Before “The Hijra” Mohammad’s people were persecuted and forced to go underground in order to practice their new religion. A decision was made that the Ulema would flee to Abyssinia where a tolerant Christian community would allow them to recoup and plan future strategies without persecution. The Muslims treatment in Abyssinia was not forgotten when Islam became victorious. Both histories were within the living memory of the Muslim community during Umar’s reign.

The al-Tabari letters were indeed meant only for the Christian community. If that is the case then the Jewish contract must be the “Pact of Umar.” The only alternative is that there was no pact for Jews. Given the hostile relationship that developed between Mohammad’s people and the Arabian Jewish community during the previous years, Umar’s personal negative experience with the Jews during his time as a Muslim, and the obvious danger to allowing such a perceived warlike people to live among the community without restraint makes the possibility highly unlikely that no pact with the Jews was initiated during Umar’s reign.

Therefore, the argument would conclude with the following scenario. Umar and his Muslim leadership decided on two different contracts, one for Christians and one for Jews. Because the Jews posed more of a threat to the new community, there was more of a need to punish and restrict Jewish life. In this way the Muslims could maintain their new position as conqueror as they continue to spread their influence through Asia. The “Pact of Umar” was intended for the Jews of Syria and the al-Tabari letters were intended as the Pact for Christians with full approval from the Caliph Umar.

The rather conciliatory contract with the Syrian Christians created the kinds of problems for the Muslims they tried to avoid with the Jews. Allowing the Christian presence in the early Islamic empire to flourish with a minimum amount of restrictions became the object of Christian resistance as the decades progressed into the next century.  As Boojamra has argued, Byzantine influence was never totally illuminated from Christian life within the Levantine area. Christian resistance bolstered by Byzantine influences led to the kinds of restrictions we read about in the “Pact of Umar” starting during the reign of al-Walid (705-715) ordering the destruction of churches. Familiar restrictions like wearing identifiable clothing; removal of all religious icons like crosses and complete separation of Muslim from Christian was initiated during this period through the end of the Ummayyed caliphate. [33]

A scenario like this would indicate that Christian restrictions while not initially the same as Jewish restrictions became that way within the first one hundred years of Muslim rule of the Levant. Therefore, historically we can use Umar’s “Pact” to signify dhimmi laws regarding both Christians and Jews, understanding that they did not begin that way at the dawn of Islam.

Dhimmi laws were designed to create some order between the dominant religion of Islam and the minority religions that lived within the Muslim realm. For better or worse, dhimmi restrictions functioned fairly well on that account. If one compares Europe’s Christian history and its attitude toward “others” in general, Muslims attained a more humane existence for the minorities that it controlled. However, that should not be held as an excuse for Islamic excesses that the empire took concerning dhimmi practices during certain times in its history either on the caliphate or the local level. Dhimma is still practiced today in some isolated pockets of the Islamic world. However, this kind of legislation is not held up by Muslims in general. It is hard to say whether it will ever make a comeback or will disappear entirely. Thankfully that is a question that the historian is not required to answer.


[1] Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East From the Sixth to the Eleventh Century, London and New York: Longman, 1986, P.60

[2] Ibn Ishak, The Life of Mohammad, (Sirat Rasul Allah) Ibn Hisham ed., A. Guillaume, translator, Lahore: Oxford University  Press, Pakistan branch, 1967, p.xiii.

[3] All through the al-Tabari texts contracts in the form of peace agreements with non-Muslim peoples are many times similar especially in the case of Christians wherever they are encountered.  However, there are distinct differences in how certain towns and communities are approached. Some are harsher agreements than others. This indicates that harsher agreements depended on the level of resistance the Muslims encountered in the conquering of these areas. In other words punitive measures were a considered factor in drawing up these agreements.

[4] Al-Tabari, The History of Al-Tabari, Volume VIII, The Victory of Islam Muhammad at Medina, A.D. 626-630/ A. H. 5-8, Translated by Michael Fishbein, New York: State University of New York Press.,

  1. 107. Parenthetical note added to the text for clarification. “ The land of Syria was the land of Palestine Jordan, Damascus, Hims, and whatever of the land of Syria was on this side of al-Darb. In other words during the seventh century Byzantine Syria consisted of what is today Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

[5] Ibn Ishak, Life of Mohammad, p.239  section 351. See also, Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari: The First Civil War, Volume XVII, From the Battle of Siffin to the Death of Ali, A.D. 656-661/ A.H. 36-40,  translated by G.R. Hawting, New York: State University of New York, 1996, pp.125, 176, 221.

[6] Chales Tilly, “How Empires End,” After Empire, Mark Von Hagen and Karen Barkey eds., New York, Perseus, 1997, p. 2.

[7]John L.  Boojamra, “Christianity in Greater Syria After Islam,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Volume 35, Issue 2-3, 1991,  p.229. “The Umayyad caliphs could not afford to have the administrative and mercantile structure of Greater Syria wiped out in a process of conversions for the sake of Islam.”

[8] Kennedy, The Age of the Caliphates, p. 64. “Sabaeans of Harran continued to flourish throughout the early Islamic period.”

[9] Boojamra, “Greater Syria After Islam,” P. 229

[10] Boojamra, “Greater Syria After Islam,” p. 231.  Boojamra indicates that conversion did take place by the tenth century. Changing the area over from a Byzantine to Arabic culture was a rather slow process. The Muslims only moved from stage to stage as they were firmly established to do so.

[11] Ibn Ishak, Life of Mohammad, P. 233 . The author goes on to quote Mohammad that this agreement “applies to the Jews of the B. al-Najjar, B. al-Harith, B. Sa’ida, B. Jusham, B. al-Aus, B. Tha’laba, and the Jafna, a clan of the Tha’laba and the B. al-Shutayba,” In other words Mohammad is extending this agreement to all Jews on the Arabian Peninsula.

[12] Ibn Ishak,  Life of Mohammad, p. 232, see also, Martin Lings, Mohammad :His Life Based on the Earliest Sources,   Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1983, p. 125

[13] Norman Stillman,  The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source book, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979,  p.4

[14] Ibn Ishak, Life of Mohammad, p. 363. This includes the comment “as the prophet who has been sent” statement by Mohammad. Ibn Ishak recounts this story twice. It is told for the first time on page 260.

[15] Ibn Ishak, “ Life of Mohammad,” p.247-270 passim. Ibn Ishak recounts many instances of Jews insulting, the prophet, denying his sincerity, and taunting him and other prominent Muslims to prove that their religion was genuine.

[16]Ibn Ishak, Life of Mohammad,  p. 270.

[17] Encycloaepedia of Islam, CD Edition,  v.I.I. For evidence showing Umar’s compassion and kindness see The History of al-Tabari, Volume XIV: The Conquest of Iran, G. Rex Smith, translator, New York: State University of New York Press, 1994,pp. 89-164 passim.

[18] Ibn Ishak, Life of Mohammad, p. 462, “We well never abandon the laws of the Torah and never change it for another” was the Jewish reaction when given ultimatum’s to join Mohammad’s religion. There is no evidence that Umar was present when this rejection took place but as one of Mohammad’s trusted generals he must have been privy to this information. P.146, “If you go to Abyssinia…it is a friendly country, until such time as Allah shall relieve you from your distress.” This shows a contrast between the two groups. The Jews on the one hand ridiculing Mohammad at every turn and the Christians literally saving the Ulema in a time of shear distress. These perceptions were probably not lost on Islamic community in general and therefore, Umar probably was well aware of these differences.

[19] The Theodosian code entered into Christian Europe during the reign of Theodosius (379-395). It was at this time that Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. The code basically declared illegal all religions within the empire except Christianity. It would be difficult to draw exact links between the code and Umar’s pact with the Jews. The one aspect that can be defined about the two legislations is that the Theodosian code is harder in tone because it declares Judaism illegal within the Empire which causes all kinds of political ramifications for the Jewish community. But Umar’s legislation recognizes and accepts Judaism as a “brother” religion, it only designates restrictions upon the community in order to maintain that status.

[20]“Pact of Umar, 7th century,” Internet source:  Medieval Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/pact-umar.html.  It is troubling that the earliest likeness to this pact that I could find was not until the  middle of the Ummayyad dynasty. However, it is heavily attributed to Umar b. Khattab, the second righteous caliph by al-Turtushi, an eleventh century historian who wrote a fairly accepted treatise on Islamic history, Siraj al Muluk. However, his credibility is no less in question here than al-Tabari or Ibn Ishak.

[21] E.I. CD Edition v.1.1

[22] Boojamra, “Greater Syria,” p. 232. Boojamra’s piece is clearly a secondary source for this project. However, it should be noted that he cites both Michael the Syrian and al-Tabari for part of the sources for this quote.

[23] Assuming of course that there is no mistake in the translation.

[24] This raises another murky historical question. Either Umar had it written in that fashion to make it appear that it was the Syrian Christian community who proposed the agreement or it really was the Christian community who asked for such a restrictive contract. There is evidence to support both reasons. First, Umar’s suspicions of the Jews that formed during the years Islam struggled for supremacy in the area cannot be discounted. His experiences at Khaybar, as a military man, a leader, and a proud Muslim were not easy to forget. He had a healthy respect for Jewish war making as a result, which he feared could lead to a revolt. However, the Christian community might have asked for those restrictions to be as harsh as they were for the following reasons. Jewish hatred in the Byzantine Roman world was already taking shape for two hundred years before Muhammad’s birth. (Muslims were well aware of this situation. Ibn Ishak recounts the bickering between Jews and Christians as to which one really had the true religion. P.258) The Theodocian laws were highly restrictive and provides a logical reason for Syrian Christians to request that the Jews be kept down. The Muslims not wanting to upset the daily lives of the area’s people, plus Umar and his government’s own problems with Jews were only too happy to accommodate their Christian allies in order to maintain the cultural status quo in conquered Syria. I would refer the reader to the stunning line in Umar’s very conciliatory  pact with Jerusalem Christians in which he states “no Jew will live with them (Christians) in Jerusalem.” Tabari, Volume XII, p. 191. We can assume from this that Jews and Christians were already geographically separated within the city’s walls. Christians viewed living with the Jews side by side as an insult. They had rejected Christ as savior. This is as much an insult to Christian sensibilities as rejecting Mohammed is to Muslims.

[25] Al-Turtushi states categorically that these final laws were added by Umar himself. From the tone of the restrictions it fits Umar’s unforgiving personality for non-believers who mocked the Prophet and his teachings. I have no way of knowing how al-Turtushi came by this information.

[26] Al-Tabari, History of al-Tabari, Volume VIII, p. 119. See also Ibn Ishak, Life of Mohammad  Ibn Ishak gives almost the same view but words it differently. Twice Mohammad sent battle contingents to Khaybar and both times he indicates that they both returned with casualties. The second of these contingents is the one commanded by Umar. He does not mention anything about Umar accused of being a coward.. However, Mohammad is clearly annoyed at the difficulty in securing this battle against the Jews. The third contingent is commanded by Ali, who is ill with some sort of plague that had been harassing  the Muslim troops. But Ali accepts and Mohammad makes the comment that “he is no runaway.”  It is unclear from Ibn Ishak’s words or the translation of them whether Mohammad is attributing this comment to Ali or Allah. However, mentioning “runaway” is an indication that their might have been some humilitating  retreat on either or both of the first two battle contingents.  P.514, section 762.

[27] Al-Tabari, Volume VIII, p. 119.

[28] Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, Volume XII, The Battle of al-Qadisiyah and the Conquest of Syria and Palestine A.D 635-637/ A.H. 14-15. Translated and annotated by Yohanan Friedmann, New York: State Univeristy of New York Press, 1992, p. 192-193. “According to Kahalid and Ubadah: Umar made peace with the people of Jerusalem in al-Jabiyah. He wrote for them the peace conditions. He wrote one letter to all the provinces (of Palestine) except to the people of Jerusalem.” Al-Tabari’s account here is not really clear. The translator/editor refers the reader to notes, 706, and 707. 706 states that the letters were almost identical as can be seen in his letter to the Christians of Lydda, and it is in fact almost identical to the letter to Jerusalem. And , 707 states that the people of Jerusalem received a different letter. But, on inspection at least from these translations the two letters are not the same word for word but they do basically say the same things, protection of home and property, no forcible conversion to Islam, protection of the churches and so on.

[29] Al-Tabari, “Volume XII,” p. 191.

[30] E.I., CD-ROM, v.1.1

[31] Ibn Ishak,  Life of Mohammad, p. 252.

[32] Ibn Ishak, Life of Mohammad,  p. 247. It is interesting historigraphically how Ibn Ishak set up his work. Right after chapters entitled “The Rabbis who accept Islam Hypocritially,” and “References to the Hypocrites and the Jews in the Sura Enjtitled ‘The Cow’” comes “A Deptutation from the Chistians of Najran. Ibn Ishak has subtle changes like that throughout the work when discussing Jews and Christians.

[33] Boojamra, “Greater Syria,” p. 232.

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