The Pact of ‘Umar

Niall Christie

Interactions with Non-Muslims

After the rapid expansion of the Muslim dominion in the 7th century, Muslim leaders were required to work out a way of dealing with non-Muslims, who remained in the majority in many areas for centuries. The solution was to develop the notion of the dhimmi.[1] Dhimmis were required to pay an extra tax, but usually they were unmolested. This compares well with the treatment meted out to non-Christians in Christian Europe. The Pact of ‘Umar is supposed to have been the peace accord offered by the caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab to the Christians of Syria, a “pact” which formed the pattern for later interaction. The association with this caliph ‘Umar is problematic, however; it is likely that the regulations were actually only formalised under the Umayyad caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (a.k.a. ‘Umar II, r. 717-20). The text below is drawn from Siraj al-Muluk,[2] a “mirror for princes”[3] work completed in Egypt in 1122 by a Spanish Muslim scholar and author named Abu Bakr al-Turtushi (d. 1126).

We heard from ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Ghanam [died 78/697] as follows: When ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, may God be pleased with him, accorded a peace to the Christians of Syria, we wrote to him as follows:

In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate. This is a letter to the servant of God ‘Umar [ibn al-Khattab], Commander of the Faithful, from the Christians of such-and-such a city. When you came against us, we asked you for safe-conduct[4] for ourselves, our descendants, our property, and the people of our community, and we undertook the following obligations toward you:

We shall not build, in our cities or in their neighborhood, new monasteries, 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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

We shall not seek to resemble the Muslims by imitating any of their garments, the qalansuwa,[5] the turban, footwear, or the parting of the hair. We shall not speak as they do, nor shall we adopt their kunyas.[6]

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

We shall not engrave Arabic inscriptions on our seals.

We shall not sell fermented drinks.

We shall clip the fronts of our heads.

We shall always dress in the same way wherever we may be, and we shall bind the zunnar[7] round our waists.

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.

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

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

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

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

If we in any way violate these undertakings for which we ourselves stand surety, we forfeit our covenant,[8] and we become liable to the penalties for contumacy and sedition.

‘Umar ibn al-Khattab 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.”

Questions for Consideration

  1. What is the status of non-Muslims under Muslim rule like? Is it good? How about compared to other societies of the time?
  2. With whom does the power lie in this contractual relationship?
  3. Given that it is likely of later provenance, why do you think that Muslim authors ascribed this pact to ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab?

  1. Arabic: A complex word that includes the meanings "protected person," "one under obligations" and "adherent of a pact,"; in this case, the agreement between the Muslim rulers and their non-Muslim subjects.
  2. Arabic: "A Lamp for Rulers."
  3. A guide to princely conduct aiming to influence the conduct of rulers. Such works were produced in both Europe and the Muslim world in the middle ages.
  4. Aman in Arabic
  5. A type of hat.
  6. A particular naming convention by which a father or mother adopts the name Abu (father of) or Umm (mother of), followed the name of their first son.
  7. A type of belt used to indicate that the wearer was a dhimmi.
  8. Or "pact." Dhimma in Arabic.


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Niall Christie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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