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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

How Did Muhammad Deal with Christians in the Regions that He Conquered?

Peter Cotterell is former Principal of the London School of Theology and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. An expert in Islamic studies, Cotterell is the author of nineteen books, including Islam in Context (with Peter Riddell) and the forthcoming One God.

Although Ethiopia, just across the Red Sea from Arabia, had possessed a Christian church since the first part of the fourth century, and although a sizeable Christian community at San’a lay some five hundred miles south of Mecca, it appears there were only few Christians around Mecca itself. Warakah ibn Nawfal, the cousin of Muhammad’s first wife Khadija, might have been a believer. In the Traditions, he is presented as a Christian who had studied the Bible and knew Hebrew. But he might simply have been one of many who abandoned Arabia’s polytheism in favor of monotheism, without knowing anything about either Christianity or Judaism.

After Muhammad had subdued Mecca and drawn the Arab peoples into Islam, he moved to expand the influence of Islam beyond the Arabian peninsula and amongst other peoples. He had already encountered the Jews at Medina, and found them bitterly opposed to his teaching. But at Tabuq, near to the Gulf of Aqaba, he learned of the existence of a Christian community and led the attack on them. The Christians submitted, but were not compelled to convert to Islam. However they were required to pay a poll tax, the jizzya, which apparently paid for protection by and from Muslim forces. And a treaty established the terms for non-Muslim minority life in a Muslim majority state. These Christians were declared dhimmis, along with Jews and (later on) Zoroastrians. All three were “People of the Book,” those who had a written scripture.

The Covenant of Umar

Since the details of Muhammad’s treaty with the Christians of Tabuq are not known, Islam has focused instead on the so-called Covenant of Umar, a collection of covenants made with various non-Muslim groups and given authority by association with the caliphate (i.e., successors to Muhammad).1 There are several versions of the covenant, some of them expressed as though the Christians were requesting and suggesting them, others representing the caliphs’ initiatives. The following provisions are common to most versions of the covenant, which delineates dhimmi status:

  • No attempt will be made to convert Muslims.

  • There should be nothing said derogatory of Muhammad.

  • Worship should be conducted in private, quietly, and with no public display of religious symbols.

  • Buildings of worship might be repaired, but new building may not be erected.

  • Some visible mark of the dhimmi must be worn, usually a colored sash.

  • Muslims must be shown respect.

  • Non-Muslims must not be given positions of authority over Muslims.

  • The dhimmi should be subject to Shari’a Law.

The Clash of Empires

However, this early period represents only one aspect of the question of Islam’s historical treatment of Christians. More significantly we have the question of the later confrontation between successive Muslim caliphates and the Christian empires based in Rome and Constantinople (Byzantium), and more recently between Muslims and the West (often assumed to be Christian).

The Muslim Caliphates, conforming to the theology of the extension of Islam, were all expansionist:

  • The Umayyad Caliphate (640-750) and the advance through Syria to the gates of Constantinople, paralleled by the advance across North Africa into Spain and France

  • The Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) and the absorption of Turkey

  • Transitional period (1258-1300), when the Muslim world existed only in the form of independent political and social units

  • The Ottoman Caliphate (1300-1924), the fall of Constantinople and the 1917 assault on the Armenians

The period covering the rise of Muslim empires broadly coincided with the existence of “Christian” empires, huge areas largely dominated by the Church. If we look back to the first three hundred years of Christianity, when it existed as a persecuted, minority, religious cult, this subsequent imperial power wielded by the Church was extraordinary. The shift began in the fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine professed Christ and made Byzantium his capital, leaving the bishop of Rome as the most important political and religious figure in the West. From this point on, the distinction between Church and state was often difficult to detect.

Inevitably, when territorial boundaries separated Christian state from Muslim caliphate and the Muslim caliphate sought to expand dar al-Islam (“The Territory of Islam”), religious war ensued—jihad.2 In that circumstance, the principles set out and exemplified by Muhammad became operative: the People of the Book, usually Jews and Christians, were given three alternatives: conversion to Islam, submission and the acceptance of dhimmi minority status, or death. Not surprisingly, the Christians dug in their heels and then pushed back.


The Covenant of Umar is often associated with the Second Caliph (the second successor of Muhammad, after Abu Bekr, the first Caliph). Instead, it should probably be related to the fifth Caliph, also named Umar, although the variety of forms in which it exists suggests that there was no original “Covenant of Umar.”


See Parts I & II of this series, "Does a Literal Reading of the Qur’an Generate Terrorism?" & "Muhammad, From Prophet to Warrior."