Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Pact of Umar

How Medieval Islamic Jurisprudence codified the status of non-Muslims in Islamic Territories

According to Islamic tradition, the Pact (Covenant) of Umar (c. 717 A.D.) is a treaty edicted by the Umayyad caliph Umar II (not to be confused with the second caliph Umar who had made the first treaty with Christians in Jerusalem known as "Umari Treaty") for the ahl al-kitab (اهل الكتاب) ("People of the Book") living on the lands newly conquered and colonized by Muslims. Muslims 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 dhimma, or "protected person", who kept their religion to accept and submit to some rules. The Pact of Umar enumerates in detail many of the conditions of their subjugation, and served as a key foundational text in the legal elaboration of dhimmi status during the classical period of Islamic jurisprudence.


The Pact of Umar is a fundamental document in prescribing the condition of tolerated "People of the Book" (Jews and Christians) living within Muslim-controlled states.

Dhimmi are granted the right to practice their own religious rites in privacy. Manifesting their religion publicly or converting anyone to it was prohibited, as was building houses of worship or repairing such as fell into ruins. Protection of their persons and property was part of the pact and the punishment for infringement was less (sic!) severe than for a Muslim, though any violation of the terms of the pact by Dhimmi rendered them "liable to the penalties for contumacy and sedition." Additionally, during certain periods of persecution, these rights varied or did not apply (sic!).

To secure their rights, dhimmi would pledge loyalty to their Muslim rulers, pay a special poll-tax (the jizya) for adult males, and in general show deference and humility to Muslims in social interactions.

While the conditions of the Pact were authoritative, the level of enforcement varied, as shown by the existence of churches constructed long after the Muslim conquests.


Modern scholars have questioned the authenticity of this agreement (which exists in several different textual forms), claiming it to be the product of later jurists who attributed it to the caliph Umar in order to lend greater authority to their own opinions:

Western orientalists doubt the authenticity of the Pact, arguing that it is usually the victors, not the vanquished, who propose, or rather impose, the terms of peace, and that it is highly unlikely that the people who spoke no Arabic and knew nothing of Islam could draft such a document. Academic historians believe that the Pact of Umar in the form it is known today was a product of later jurists who attributed it to the venerated caliph Umar I in order to lend greater authority to their own opinions. The striking similarities between the Pact of Umar and the Theodesian and Justinian Codes suggest that perhaps much of the Pact of Umar was borrowed from these earlier codes by later Islamic jurists. At least some of the clauses of the pact mirror the measures first introduced by the Umayyad caliph Umar II or by the early Abbasid caliphs.[1]

Scholars have argued that the Pact may have direct pre-Islamic inspiration:

It has recently been suggested that many of the detailed regulations concerning what the ahl al-dhimma were and were not permitted to do come from an earlier historical precedent, namely the regulations which existed in the Sassanian Persian Empire with reference to its religious minorities in Iraq. Here there was a highly developed Jewish community, and separate Monophysite and Nestorian Christian communities, and during the late Sassanian period the rulers experimented with arrangements by which efforts were made to ensure the loyalty of the population by granting military protection and some degree of religious toleration in return for the payment of taxes. (Goddard p. 47)

The Status of Non-Muslims Under Muslim Rule

After the rapid expansion of the Muslim dominion in the 7th century, Muslims 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 "dhimma", or "protected person". The Dhimmi 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 to the Christians of Syria, a "pact" which formed the patter of later interaction.

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 (aman) 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 bide 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, the turban, footwear, or the parting of the hair. We shall not speak as they do, nor shall we adopt their kunyas.
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 zunar 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 beenallotted 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 [dhimma], and we become liable to the penalties for contumacy and sedition.

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."

from Al-Turtushi,
Siraj al-Muluk, pp. 229-230.

[This was from a hand out at an Islamic History Class at the University of Edinburgh in 1979. Source of translation not given.]
This text is part of the
Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.
Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.
  (c) Paul Halsall Jan 1996;


More Readings:

Pacte d'
Umar (here on Wikipedia, English: here in French)
Pact of Umar, 7th Century? in, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies (en)
Islam and the Jews: The Pact of Umar, 9th Century CE in Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies (en)
Jacob Rader Marcus, Marc Saperstein,
The Jew in the Medieval World. A Source Book, 315-1791, Hebrew Union College Press, 1999, 570 p. (ISBN 087820217X), p. 14-16 (en)


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