The pact of Umar


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The so-called "pact of Umar" is of uncertain authorship and exists in various versions. It is a document that regulates the behavior of Christians and Jews in Muslim lands, Supposedly, it was supposedly originally given by the Caliph Umar ibn al Khatib as a treaty to the patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronias. but in actual fact it is a reflection of customs that had evolved in the lands conquered by the Muslims under Umar bin Aziz and later caliphs. The document illustrates the position of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and some others in Muslim society: they were "protected," provided that they "knew their place."

Arab and other scholars have examined this and several similar documents and concluded that they were probably created in the 9th century or thereafter and were not genuine documents of the time of Umar ibn al Khatib. Ibn Asakir, who reported this version of the pact, also reported four other similar ones. The one before us is the most trustworthy one, but it is also difficult to believe it is authentic. The other documents refer to different locations such as Shams (Syria) or Al Jazeera. This one gives an unnamed city. Could the Christians of this city not have known its name? Or perhaps this was really a generic pact that was offered to the non-Muslims by the conquerors? Could the Christians have taken upon themselves not to study the Qur'an, but at the same time refer to the Jizya tax? There are also anachronisms in this pact, since the Christians supposedly undertook to wear the zunar belt, an item that was not in use at the time of Umar ibn al Khatab, It is not very credible that Christians would voluntarily undertake to humiliate themselves in this way and to set these peculiar conditions and limitations on their worship. It is also suspicious that there is no mention of the pact of Omar in the time of Omar ibn al Khatib, and that all mentions of it seem to begin in the 9th century. It is therefore probable that the document originated in the time of Umar bin Abd el Aziz (717-720 or perhaps later. Umar bin Abd el Aziz liked to use the earlier great Umar as an authority, but he took a much less compromising attitude to non-Muslims. (See The pact of Umar by Maher Y. Abu-Munshar for a detailed discussion.)

However, though it is probable that the document itself is an impostor, like the forged "Donation of Constantine," it is important because it was accepted as genuine. It was used as the basis and justification for enforcing the "Dhimmi laws." These supposedly guaranteed fair treatment of non-Muslims, actually guaranteed that they would always be singled out in society as second class citizens, and were an invitation to persecution by unscrupulous rulers. The creation of this pact myth allowed rulers to claim that Jews and Christians had "violated the pact" if they dared to dress like Muslims or speak like Muslims, or worship too close to Muslims or violate any other provision of the "pact." It was also used to justify suppression of Synagogues and Churches that were built or renovated after the Muslim conquest. Whenever Muslim rulers clamped down on non-Muslims and whenever anti-Semites and anti-Christian elements wanted to raise the ire of the masses against the non-Muslims, they referred to this "pact." For example,  the 1354 Decree against the Dhimmi of Al Malik al Salih refers specifically to the pact of Umar and must have had in mind a document similar to the one below, since it mentions wearing of the Zunar and other provisions that noted in this document.

A different and more lenient version of the pact is given as the Covenant of Umar. That version is more specific in its assertion that the pact was given in Jerusalem and really reads as though it was given by Umar to the Jews and Christians of Jerusalem. However, that is not the pact that was referred to in later restatements of the Dhimmi laws.

Ami Isseroff

January 9, 2010

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Abd al Rahman bin Ghanam related the following: When 'Umar bin Khatib - may Allah be pleased with him - made peace with the Christian inhabitants of Syria, we wrote him the following:

In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Beneficent.

This letter is addressed to Allah's servant, 'Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, by the Christians of such and such city. When you advanced against us, we asked you for a guarantee of protection for our persons, our offspring, our property, and the people of our sect, and we have taken upon ourselves the following obligations toward you, namely:

·        We shall not build new monasteries, churches, convents or monks’ cells in our cities or in their vicinity.  Should any of these fall into ruins, we shall not repair, by day or night, those in our own neighborhoods or those situated in the quarters of the Muslims.

·        We shall keep our gates wide open for passersby and travelers.  All Muslims that pass our way are to be given board and lodging for as long as three days.

·        We shall not hide any spy from the Muslims or give them sanctuary in our churches or shelter them in our homes.

·        We shall not teach our children the Qur'an

·        We shall not proclaim our religion publicly nor attempt to convert anyone to it. We shall not forbid any of our kin from embracing Islam if they desire to do so.

·        We shall show deference toward Muslims.  If they wish to sit, we shall rise from our seats.

·        We shall not attempt to resemble Muslims by imitating any of their garments, as for example, with the qalansuwa (a conical cap)  turbans, footwear or parting of the hair in Arab fashion.  We shall not imitate their way of speech nor shall we adopt their kunyas (Arabic byname, such as "abu Khattib").   

·        We shall not mount on saddles

·        We shall not gird ourselves with swords, bear any kind of arms or conceal weapons on our bodies.

·        We shall not engrave Arabic inscriptions on our signet seals.

·        We shall not sell fermented drinks.

·        We identify ourselves as non-Muslims by clipping the forelocks of our heads.

·        We shall always dress in the same manner wherever we go and we shall bind the zunar (a kind of belt) around our waists.

·        We shall not display our crosses or our books on the roads or in the markets of the Muslims. We shall use only clappers very softly in our churches. We shall not raise our voices in mourning when following our dead.

·         We shall not shine lights on any of the roads of the Muslims or in their markets. 

·        We shall not bury our dead near the Muslims.

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

·        We shall not build houses of taller elevation than the houses of Muslims.

(When I brought the letter to 'Umar - may Allah be pleased with him - he added the clause "We shall not strike any Muslim."

·        We accept these conditions for ourselves and for the people of our community, and in return we shall be guaranteed security.  If we in any way violate these regulations, for which we ourselves stand surety, we forfeit our covenant [dhimma] status and shall become liable to the penalties for rebelliousness and sedition.

Then 'Umar - may Allah be pleased with him - wrote: "Sign what they have requested, but add two clauses that will also be binding upon them; namely, they shall not buy anyone who has been taken prisoner by the Muslims, and that anyone who deliberately strikes a Muslim will forfeit the protection of this pact.

Translated from al Turtushi, Siraj al Muluk, Cairo 1872, pp 229-30.

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