The Covenant of Umar I (634-644) 

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The Covenant of Umar I (634-644)


The year after the death of the prophet in Arabia, the stage was set for a full-dress invasion of neighbouring lands. In 634 the Arab forces won a decisive victory at Ajnadayn, and Damascus surrendered to Khalid ibn-al-Waleed in September 635. Jerusalem capitulated in 638 and Caesarea fell in 640, and between 639 and 646 all Mesopotamia and Egypt were subjugated. The last links connecting these Christian lands with Rome and Byzantium were severed; new ones with Mecca and Medina were forged. In about a decade the Muslim conquests changed the face of the Near East; in about a century they changed the face of the civilised world. Far from being peripheral, the victories of Islam proved to be a decisive factor in pruning life and growth of Eastern Christianity.


After the Arab invasions have stopped, there arose the problem of administering these new lands. Umar ibn-al-Khattab (634-644) was the first man to address himself to this problem. Despite the fact that later additions were made to it, it is agreed that the surviving covenant represents Umar's own policy. The conquered peoples were given a new status, that of dhimmis (or ahl-al-Dhimmi). As dhimmis they were subject to tribute which comprised both a land-tax (later kharaj) and a poll-tax (later jizyah) while they enjoyed the protection of Islam and were exempt from military duty, because only a Muslim could draw his sword in defence of Islam.



How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs


The Christian community, educated and civilised in the multicultural Byzantine east, was the catalyst that brought modern education and learning to the invading Arab tribes. By translating the works of the Greeks and other early thinkers and by their own contribution, the Christian community played a vital rule in transmitting knowledge. Later on, that flourished in the major Arab contribution to the fields of science and art. Some names of Eastern non-Arab Christians that should be remember for this often forgotten and unappreciated fact are:



Yusuf al-Khuri al-Qass, who translated Archemides lost work on triangles from a Syriac version. He also made an Arabic of Galen's De Simplicibus temperamentis et facultatibus. Qusta Ibn Luqa al-Ba'lbakki, a Syriac Christian, who translated Hypsicles, Theodosius' Sphaerica, Heron's Mechanics, Autolycus Theophrastus' Meteora, Galen's catalog of his books, John Philoponus on the Phsyics of Aristotle and several other works. He also revised the existing translation of Euclid. Abu Bishr Matta Ibn Yunus al-Qanna'i, who translated Aristotle's Poetica. Abu Zakariya Yahya Ibn 'Adi al-Mantiqi, a monophysite, who translated medical and logical works, including the Prolegomena of Ammonius, an introduction to Porphyry's Isagoge. Al-Hunayn Ibn Ipahim Ibn al-Hasan Ibn Khurshid at-Tabari an-Natili, and the monophysite Abu 'Ali 'Isa Ibn Ishaq Ibn Zer'a. Yuhanna Ibn Batriq, an Assyrian, who produced the Sirr al-asrar. 'Abd al-Masih Ibn 'Aballah Wa'ima al-Himse, also an Assyrian, who translated the Theology of Aristotle (but this was an apidged paraphrase of the Enneads by Plotinus). Abu Yahya al-Batriq, another Assyrian, who translated Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos. Jipa'il II, son of Bukhtyishu' II, of the prominent Assyrian medical family mentioned above, Abu Zakariah Yahya Ibn Masawaih, an Assyrian Nestorian. He authored a textbook on Ophthalmology, Daghal al-'ayn (The Disease of the eye). Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, an Assyrian. Sergius of Rashayn, "a celepated physician and philosopher, skilled in Greek and translator into Syriac of various works on medicine, philosophy, astronomy, and theology". Other Monopysite translators were Ya'qub of Surug, Aksenaya (Philoxenos), an alumnus of the school of Edessa, Mara, bishop of Amid.



For further details, see book review: How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs[47]



The Ummayads


The Ummayad caliphs (661-750) lived as Arabs first and Muslim second. As a consequence, their era was liberal in both political and religious matters. However, during the rule of the Ummayad caliph Umar II (717-720) there arose the concern to summon conquered peoples to Islam and to create favorable conditions allowing an equitable or better participation of all Muslims in the social and political life of the community. Umar was shocked that non-Muslims should exercise authority over Muslims, and tried to prevent it. In Egypt he removed some of the Coptic officials from their positions and replaced them by Muslims, and it seems that he applied this policy throughout the whole empire. He wrote to the governor of Egypt: "I do not know a secretary or official in any part of your government who was not a Muslim but I dismissed him and appointed in his stead a Muslim." This policy of Umar II was translated during the later Abbasid era into a major program due to the discontent of many Muslims with the excesses and corruption of the liberal Ummayad caliphs and the frustration that non-Arabian Muslims, especially Persian Muslims, felt on being treated as second-class citizens. Also due to external political circumstances and to the unruly and socially disruptive conduct of some Christian groups, Umar II reacted with some vehemence against the Christians. He abrogated the jizyah for any Christian who converted, and imposed other demeaning restrictions:


Christians may not be witnesses against Muslims. They may not hold public office. They may not pray aloud or sound their clappers. They may not wear the qaba', nor ride on a saddle. A Muslim who would kill a Christian would be liable to a fine, not death. He abolished the financial arrangements whereby churches, convents and the charities were maintained. Despite these exceptions, Ummayd rule was characterised on the whole by political as well as religious and intellectual liberalism. That is why Ummayad caliphs, with the exception of Umar II, did not press for or even favour, conversion to the Islamic faith.



The Abbasid Era (750-1258)


With the Umayyad's fall in 750 the hegemony of Syria in the world of Islam ended and the glory of the country passed away. The coming to power of the Abbasid dynasty marked a radical change in the balance of power within the caliphate. In a vast and complex body such as the caliphate had now become, there was an intricate network of party interests, sometimes conflicting and sometimes coinciding. The recovery of the equilibrium was thus no simple matter; and for the whole of this century, (i.e., the 8th century) the caliphs had as a prominent aim the framing of a policy which would rally the majority of the inhabitants behind it. In an Islamic environment, it was inevitable that such a political struggle should have religious implications. First, and vis-a-vis other Muslim groups, the Abbasid caliphate touched a number of risings of Kharajites who refused to submit to the new rule. There were also other opponents who questioned the legitimacy of the Abbasids' claim to the caliphate. As for the Christians as well as for the rest of ahl-al-Dhimmi, the Abbasid era would prove to be less tolerant of non-Muslims and would either re-enact old anti- Christian legislation or create new restrictions.


The Abbasids chose Baghdad for headquarters, though for a short period of time al-Mutawakkil (847-861) transferred his his seat back from Iraq to Damascus (885). As the Melkites[48] were few in numbers in Mesopotamia it was the Nestorians and the Jacobites who under Abbasid rule shared more strongly in the literary life of the country and brought greater contributions.The beginning of the Abbasid caliphate until the reign of al-Mutawakkil (847-861) marked the zenith of the Nestorian Church from mid 8th century to mid 9th century. This prodigious success was made possible by the great number of zealous and educated monks, formed by the many schools existing at the time. In Baghdad itself, there were apparently many important monasteries, groups of professors, and students. There were, for example, the school of Deir Kalilisu and Deir Mar Fatyun and the school of Karh.


In the last two schools medicine and philosophy were taught along with the sacred disciplines. Christian physicians and especially scribes exerted some kind of tutelage within the Nestorian Church, and tried their best to obtain for their community a more benevolent legislation from Muslim rulers. Though the Abbasids showed tolerance towards the other religious, non-Muslim groups, still their tolerance was displayed mostly vis-a-vis some of their coreligionists who lived on the margins of traditional Islam.


The Christians, especially the Melkites who lived in the eastern provinces of the empire, had much to endure. Before, al-Mutawakkil Abu Gafar al-Mansur (754-775) imposed many vexing measures upon the Christians. In 756, he forbade Christians to build new churches, to display the cross in public, or to speak about religions with Muslims. In 757, he imposed taxes on monks, even on those who lived as hermits, and he used Jews to strip sacristies for the treasury. In 759, he removed all Christians from positions in the treasury. In 766 he had the crosses on top of the churches brought down, forbade every nocturnal liturgical celebration and forbade the study of any language other than Arabic. In 722, he required both Jews and Christians to exhibit an external sign to distinguish them from other believers. Abu Gafar al-Mansur also put in prison, for different reasons, the Melkite Patriarch Theodoret, the Patriarch Georges, and the Nestorian Catholicos James. Al-Mahdi (775-785) intensified the persecution and had all the churches built since the Arab conquest destroyed. The Christian tribes of Banu Tanuh, which counted 5000 fighters, were forced to embrace Islam. Angered by the defeats he incurred at the hands of the Byzantines, al-Mahdi sent troops to Homs in Syria, to have all the Christians abjure their faith. However, many of these laws were not enforced. For example, when Umar II tried to dismiss all dhimmis from government services, such confusion resulted that the order was ignored.


The Barmakid viziers, of Turkish origin, who were the strong arm of the Abbasid caliphs, seem to have manifested a certain measure of benevolence towards ahl-al-Dhimmi (the tributaries) and especially towards the Christians. It is only at the end of the rule of Harun al-Rahid (786-809), i.e., after the disgrace of the Barmakids, that some measures were taken against the Christians. Harun al-Rashid re-enacted some of the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish measures introduced by Umar II (717-720). In 807, he ordered all churches erected since the Muslim conquest demolished. He also decreed that members of tolerated sects should wear a prescribed garb. But evidently much of this legislation was not enforced. Under his son al-Ma'mun (813-833) there was in 814 a general persecution in Syria and in Palestine. Many Christians and church dignitaries escaped into Cyprus and into Byzantine territories. Conditions under al-Watheq (842-847) did not improve and were sad indeed for the Christians. Under al-Mutawwakil (847-861) there was intensification of discontent on the part of Christians due to harsh conditions imposed on them. In 850 and 854 al-Mutawwakil revived the discriminatroy legislation and supplemented it by new features, which were the most stringent ever issued against the minorities. Christians and Jews were enjoined to affix wooden images of devils to their houses, level their graves even with the ground, wear outer garments of yellow colour, and ride only on mules and asses with wooden saddles marked by two pomegranates-like balls on the cantle. Basing their contention on a Qur'anic charge that the Jews and the Christians had corrupted the text of their scriptures (Surs. 2:70; 5:16-18), the contemporary jurists ruled that no testimony of a Jew or Christian was admissible against a Muslim.


Legally speaking, the law put the male dhimmi below the male Muslim in nearly every way. It protected his life and property but did not accept his evidence. Eight acts put the dhimmi outside the law: conspiring to fight the Muslims, copulation with a Muslim woman, an attempt to marry one, an attempt to turn Muslim from his religion, robbery of a Muslim on the highway, acting as a spy or a guide to unbelievers, or the killing of a Muslim. However, despite these stringent laws, the social status of Christians was not that bleak. The consequences of this anti-Christian legislation were mitigated to a certain degree by the number and influence of some Christians in prestigious and vital professions, such as in medicine and high positions of government; e.g., Abu l-Hasan Sa'id ibn Amr-ibn-Sangala, who occupied the position of secretary under the Caliph al-Radi (934-40), and who was as well appointed as special secretary for the two sons of the Caliph in 935, and also Minister of Expenditure, and who rendered inestimable services to the Christians. Because Islam prohibits the practice of usury to Muslims, Christians exercised a certain monopoly on the trades of goldsmith, jeweller, and money-lender. Consequently, many Christians were rich and this stirred further feelings of jealousy against them. On the whole, relations between Muslims and Christians were peaceful and unfair laws were not always enforced.


However, the Christians could not help but feel and endure the stigma of inferiority. Even the literature of Islamo-Christian controversy should not mislead us on their true condition in the land of Islam. The tolerance they enjoyed was not the result of a state policy consistently upheld by all the caliphs. On the part of the caliphs, it was mostly motivated by their concern to protect and advance the sciences and the arts. The Islamisation of Syria and Iraq and other lands no doubt facilitated Arabisation. After the Arab military victory, there was the conquest and victory of Islam as a religion when many Christians in Syria and other lands converted to Islam to escape their oppressive and humiliating conditions. Finally there was the linguistic victory as Arabic supplanted Greek and Syriac.


Addendum: Persecution of the Coptic Church

The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt[49]


Perhaps the greatest glory of the Coptic Church is its Cross. Copts take pride in the persecution they have sustained as early as May 8, 68 A.D., when their Patron Saint Mark was slain on Easter Monday after being dragged from his feet by Roman soldiers all over Alexandria's streets and alleys. The Copts have been persecuted by almost every ruler of Egypt. Their Clergymen have been tortured and exiled even by their Christian brothers after the schism of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. and until the Arab's conquest of Egypt in 641 A.D. To emphasise their pride in their cross, Copts adopted a calendar, called the Calendar of the Martyrs, which begins its era on August 29, 284 A.D., in commemoration of those who died for their faith during the rule of Diocletian the Roman Emperor. This calendar is still in use all over Egypt by farmers to keep track of the various agricultural seasons and in the Coptic Church Lectionary.


For the four centuries that followed the Arab's conquest of Egypt, the Coptic Church generally flourished and Egypt remained basically Christian. This is due to a large extent to the fortunate position that the Copts enjoyed, for the Prophet of Islam, who had an Egyptian wife (the only one of his wives to bear a child), preached especial kindness towards Copts: "When you conquer Egypt, be kind to the Copts for they are your proteges and kith and kin". Copts, thus, were allowed to freely practice their religion and were to a large degree autonomous, provided they continued to pay a special tax, called "Gezya", that qualifies them as "Ahl Zemma" proteges (protected). Individuals who cannot afford to pay this tax were faced with the choice of either converting to Islam or losing their civil right to be "protected", which in some instances meant being killed. Copts, despite additional sumptuary laws that were imposed on them in 750-868 A.D. and 905-935 A.D. under the Abbasid Dynasties, prospered and their Church enjoyed one of its most peaceful era. Surviving literature from monastic centers, dating back from the 8th to the 11th century, shows no drastic break in the activities of Coptic craftsmen, such as weavers, leather-binders, painters, and wood-workers. Throughout that period, the Coptic language remained the language of the land, and it was not until the second half of the 11th century that the first bi-lingual Coptic-Arabic liturgical manuscripts started to appear. One of the first complete Arabic texts is the 13th century text by Awlaad El-Assal (children of the Honey Maker), in which the laws, cultural norms and traditions of the Copts at this pivotal time, 500 years after the Islamic conquest of Egypt were detailed. The adoption of the Arabic language as the language used in Egyptians' every-day's life was so slow that even in the 15th century al-Makrizi implied that the Coptic Language was still largely in use. Up to this day, the Coptic Language continues to be the liturgical language of the Church.


The Christian face of Egypt started to change by the beginning of the second millennium A.D., when Copts, in addition to the "Gezya" tax, suffered from specific disabilities, some of which were serious and interfered with their freedom of worship. For example, there were restrictions on repairing old Churches and building new ones, on testifying in court, on public behaviour, on adoption, on inheritance, on public religious activities, and on dress codes. Slowly but steadily, by the end of the 12th century, the face of Egypt changed from a predominantly Christian to a predominantly Muslim country and the Coptic community occupied an inferior position and lived in some expectation of Muslim hostility, which periodically flared into violence. It is remarkable that the well-being of Copts was more or less related to the well-being of their rulers. In particular, the Copts suffered most in those periods when Arab dynasties were at their low.


The position of the Copts began to improve early in the 19th century under the stability and tolerance of Muhammad Ali's dynasty. The Coptic community ceased to be regarded by the state as an administrative unit and, by 1855 A.D., the main mark of Copts' inferiority, the "Gezya" tax was lifted, and shortly thereafter Copts started to serve in the Egyptian army. The 1919 A.D. revolution in Egypt, the first grassroots display of Egyptian identity in centuries, stands as a witness to the homogeneity of Egypt's modern society with both its Muslim and Coptic sects. Today, this homogeneity is what keeps the Egyptian society united against the religious intolerance of extremist groups, who occasionally subject the Copts to persecution and terror. Modern day martyrs, like Father Marcos Khalil, serve as reminders of the miracle of Coptic survival.


Despite persecution, the Coptic Church as a religious institution has never been controlled or allowed itself to control the governments in Egypt. This long-held position of the Church concerning the separation between State and Religion stems from the words of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, when he asked his followers to submit to their rulers: ‘‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.'' [Mathew 22:21]. The Coptic Church has never forcefully resisted authorities or invaders and was never allied with any powers, for the words of the Lord Jesus Christ are clear: ‘‘Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.'' (Mathew 26:52). The miraculous survival of the Coptic Church till this day and age is a living proof of the validity and wisdom of these teachings.



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