Which Historical Questions Can Be Asked of the “Pact of ‘Umar”?

The origins of “The Pact of ‘Umar” are unknown but have been attributed colloquially to ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second Righteous Caliph. Scholars have suspected that it derives from a later period, possibly under Umar II, because the need for such a document would have been greater under rapid Ummayad expansion of the Islamic empire. Regardless of the original source, this text is often cited by historians as foundational for understanding pan-Islamic relations between Muslims and Christians. The implication is that its spirit was somehow transmitted across the known Ummah to inform interreligious dynamics everywhere Muslims went. It is included in the reader edited by Olivia Remie Constable (Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources) because of a similar presumption. Though this text is difficult to historically verify in terms of origin or influence, there are a number of ways it can be used to illuminate interreligious dynamics between Christians and Muslims in general. Ultimately, with regards to how it can be used in studying al-Andalus, I take the approach of Janina Safran in her book Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus. Her approach is not to assume that the text directly influenced relations there, but rather, to look at how jurists might have invoked boundary-drawing through legal opinions and practice enforcement in a similar spirit as the “Pact” itself.

If we accept the text’s assertion that it was written by Syrian Christians petitioning ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, certain points come to the fore. First, it would imply that the contents of the text were consensual, rather than a tool for subjugation of Christians by Muslim masters. This would make the enforcement of these rules among other Christians much easier because Christians had originally sought them. It would also imply a greater voice for Christians with the Caliph than one would first assume. Declaring that they “shall not teach the Qur’an to [their] children”[1] would seem more like an assertion of their religious freedom, rather than a stipulation from an Islamic authority dissuading them from conversion. Additionally, the forbiddance of engraving Arabic inscriptions on their seals would seem to be a linguistic-cultural rejection, in addition to the religious one. The points about differing from Muslims in terms of dress, burial of the dead and even house construction would also signify an anxiety among Christians about establishing demarcations between themselves and Muslims. It implies that, like other points in Christian history[2], Christians were well aware of some of the prerequisites of religious conversion (including economic, social custom and linguistic acquisition of a conquering group[3]) and the Pact of ‘Umar represents their attempts to stave off that influence as long as possible. This boldness is only slightly curtailed by the addendum of two additional stipulations by ‘Umar which might then be seen as a reassertion of Muslim dominance over this list of conditions.

If, however, this document is seen as a Muslim composition, then the boldness of the Christian petitioner falls away. It still remains that a Muslim author claiming its Christian origins would make subjugation of future conquered Christians much easier; however, this gives the document a tone of coercion or propagandas that highlights the dominance of the Muslims. In this case, the additional conditions tacked on by ‘Umar signify their ultimate authority over their dominated subjects. Perhaps one of the most interesting turn-arounds in meaning is the clause about forbidding the teaching of the Qur’an to Christian children. Seen as an act of religious self-preservation for Christians, this clause takes on a completely different meaning under a Muslim authority and raises all kinds of historical questions about why Muslims might have been trying to temper conversion rates (likely for taxation purposes or to avoid biddah). This complicates the narratives of Muslim religious coercion by force and, along with the stipulations about dress, other identifying markers and the selling of fermented drinks, signals a Muslim anxiety about mixing with Christian populations.

While thought experiments might be useful for showing how a different text can be viewed in terms of the memoryscape of the group it is ascribed to, it is difficult to historically corroborate its actual use in places in like al-Andalus. In her book’s introduction, Janina Safran notes that Maliki jurists of the ninth and tenth centuries “do not refer to the ‘Pact of ‘Umar’, nor do they detail comparably specific terms of any other surrender treaty or contract of protection between Muslims, Christians and Jews.”[4] Rather, while jurists did address issues found in the ‘Pact of ‘Umar’, their engagement with these matters ought to be considered independently of its template because overemphasis of the Pact threatens to obfuscate the historical complexities particular to al-Andalus and specific time periods. While differentiating between Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects was of immediate concern to jurists, how this was conducted and negotiated was less straightforward than the Pact would have us believe. Finally, as we have seen, the difficulties of establishing basic facts about the text make such extrapolations speculation at best.

[1] “The Pact of ‘Umar” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. University of Pennsylvania Press: 2011, pp. 43-44.

[2] Markus, Robert. The End of Christianity. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1990: pp. 27-43.

[3] Katznelson, Ira and Miri Rubin, “Introduction” in Religious Conversion: History, Experience and Meaning. Ashgate Publishing, Surrey England: 2014.; Rambo, Lewis R. and Charles E. Farhadian, “Converting: Stages of Religious Change” in Religious Conversion: Contemporary Practices and Controversies. Cassell: NYC. 1999.; David Baer, Mare. “History and Religious Conversion” in The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2014.

[4] Safran, Janina. Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Islamic Iberia. Cornell University, 2013: pp.15 – 17.


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