Christians and Jews Under Islam

Najib Saliba, PhD

Dr. Saliba is professor of Middle East history at Worcester State College, MA. He delivered this paper at the annual symposium of the Antiochian Orthodox clergy in the Antiochian Village, Ligonier, PA, July 21–25, 2008.  This year’s symposium focused on the early relations between Christianity and Islam. Three papers were delivered. A spirited discussion followed each paper. The symposium in which this paper is being given, “Christians and Jews Under Islam,” held at Antiochian Village, Ligonier, PA, July 21–25, 2008, could not have come at a better time. Those of us who may follow Middle East news closely but have no solid foundation in Middle East history might think that unrest, conflict and bloodletting have always been endemic to the Middle East. “This is the Middle East,” we might say: “What do you expect?” Well, I am happy to say that such has not been the case.

This article will show that, for centuries, perhaps a millennium, during which Islam dominated the area, conflict between Jews, Christians and Muslims was the exception, not the norm. The norm was peace, harmony, coexistence and cooperation among those of the three religions. Islam, the name of the third and last monotheistic religion, means “submission” or “surrender” to the will of God, Allah in Arabic. It comes from the same root as silm or salam, meaning “peace.” Hence the popular Arabic greeting, al-Salamu Alaikum, “peace be upon you.”

Islam arose in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula, in Mecca, early in the seventh century AD. Until this time the Arabs were still predominately polytheistic, with Mecca being the chief center of pagan worship. There were scattered Christian and Jewish tribes around but neither Christianity nor Judaism had made any significant success in converting the pagan Arabs to either religion. It was in this pagan context that Muhammad was born about 570–71 AD. As he grew up in Mecca, we are told, he felt sorry for the spiritual state of Arab society and the neglect of traditional values that the Arabs at one time had held in high esteem. Meccan society at the time was very materialistic. Mecca was the chief business center in Arabia and well-known for its business connections with Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran and India. Muhammad, the account goes, used to spend time alone and ponder the spiritual impoverishment of his fellow Arabs. In 610, when he was about forty years old, he had his first revelation and began his call to Islam. This call at first elicited mockery, opposition, threats and persecution. Muhammad persisted nonetheless. By 632 AD, the year of his death, he had united virtually all or most of the Arabian Peninsula for the first time in history. He created out of hitherto feuding Arab tribes a mighty united community under the banner of Islam.

Muhammad’s successors, the caliphs, expanded the Arab state outside Arabia to the northeast and northwest. Between 634 and 642, Arabs occupied Iraq, Iran, Syria and Egypt. In the following half-century or so, Arabs were in control of a territory stretching from central Asia and the Indus River in the east to Spain in the west. Wherever the Muslim Arabs went, they took with them their language and their religion.

As a religion, Islam is no stranger to Christianity and Judaism. All three are monotheistic and worship the same God; Jews call him Jehovah or Yahweh, and Muslims and Christian Arabs call him Allah. Muslims consider Abraham to be the first monotheist and the builder of the Ka‘bah, now the holiest shrine in Islam. When Muhammad was challenged by his opponents to produce evidence for the existence of Allah, he cited the Jewish and Christian prophets who preceded him, Abraham, Moses and Jesus,1 Jesus being acknowledged only as a prophet. Muhammad told the Meccans that Allah had sent the same message earlier to Jews and Christians; that Allah was the same God for all; and that Islam fulfills and completes the earlier revelations.2 In addition to belief in one God, the three religions also believe in paradise and hell, in angels and devils, in life after death, and in the last day of judgment. They also share the duties of fasting, prayer, performing pilgrimages, feeding the hungry and promoting justice.3

While they share these similarities, there are a few differences as well. Islam accuses Christians and Jews of having corrupted the divine revelations they had received from God. Islam also rejects the divinity of Jesus, and rejects the Trinity as a form of shirk, or creating associates to Allah. Also, Islam denies the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, though it accepts his virgin birth and his miracles. Islam teaches that Jesus was uplifted alive to Heaven where he awaits the end of time to fulfill his mission.4

Important as these differences are from a Christian viewpoint, Christians do well to acknowledge signs of respect for Christ and Mary in the Islamic tradition. The Koran, the Muslim holy book, holds Jesus and Mary in high esteem. One whole chapter in the Koran (Sura 19) is devoted to Mary. Jesus is referred to as the son of Mary, a vindication of his sinless birth.5 The Koran pronounces Christians as the closest of the religious communities to Muslims, “…for among them are found priests and monks humbly devoting themselves to God.”6 In his book, The Muslim Jesus, Professor Tarif Khalidi points out over 300 hadiths or sayings about Jesus found in the Koran and the Muslim popular literature. All are highly respectful of Jesus and refer to him as a Muslim prophet, the Spirit of God or the Word of God.7 Perhaps it was Islamic respect that led 138 Muslim clerics and scholars from different Muslim countries to sign a letter last year and send it to leaders of major churches calling for a dialogue between Christians and Muslims to defuse tension between the West and the Muslim world. “The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians,” the letter said.8

In light of the above, how did Muhammad deal with the Christians and Jews he encountered in the Arabian Peninsula? As his authority Muhammad expanded, Muslims came in contact with Jewish tribes at the Khaibar Oasis northwest of Madina, Christians at Tabuk in northwest Arabia, the Christian tribe of Banu Taghlib in northeast Arabia, and Christians and Jews at Najran, Yemen. At first, Muhammad considered Christians and Jews as allies and potential converts to Islam, since his message was similar to theirs. They, however, rejected him and did not recognize him as a prophet of the stature of Moses and Jesus.9 Despite being snubbed, Muhammad considered Christians and Jews possessors of divine revelations, Ahl-al- Kitab, “people of the Book,” or dhimmis, entitled to protection in return for submission and tribute.10 The Koran addresses Muslims saying: “Be courteous when you argue with the People of the Book, except with those among them who do evil. Say: ‘We believe in that which is revealed to us and which was revealed to you. Our God and your God is one. To Him we surrender ourselves.’” Accordingly, Muhammad concluded treaties with both communities assuring them peace, toleration and freedom of work and worship. The Christians of Banu Taghlib got preferential treatment. They were declared allies of Muhammad and did not have to pay tribute. In the same spirit, Muhammad sent a letter to the monks of Mount Sinai around 630 AD, saying, “Verily, I, the servants, the helpers and my followers defend them because Christians are my citizens. And by Allah, I hold out against anything that displeases them.” The letter went on to assure Christians that they would have security of life, religion and property. It ended with the admonition that its terms were binding on all Muslims till the Day of Judgment. This letter and the way Muhammad dealt with the Christians and Jews of Arabia became the model that Muhammad’s successors followed in dealing with Ahl-al-Kitab outside Arabia.

It was not until the conquest of Iraq, Syria and Egypt that the Arabs came in contact with large numbers of Christians and Jews. Damascus surrendered in 635, Iraq in 637, Jerusalem in 638, and Alexandria in 641. Iraq, Syria and Egypt were predominantly Christian at the time of the conquest. In dealing with an overwhelmingly Christian population, Arab commanders and Caliph Umar I followed the example set by Muhammad in Arabia. Thus, Khalid ibn al-Walid, the Arab commander to whom Damascus capitulated, issued the following declaration to the people of Damascus:

“In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful. This is what Khalid ibn al-Walid would grant to the inhabitants of Damascus if he enters therein: he promises to give them security for their lives, property, and churches. Their city shall not be demolished, neither shall any Muslim be quartered in their houses. Thereunto we give them the pact of Allah and the protection of his Prophet, the caliphs, and the believers. So long as they pay the poll tax, nothing but good shall befall them.”11

The fall of Jerusalem was not substantially different. Jerusalem has had a special place in Islam. Following the retreat of the Byzantine army northward, the city came under the control of Patriarch Sophronius, who refused to surrender the city except to Caliph Umar himself. Accordingly, Caliph Umar came especially from Medina to receive Jerusalem.12 Patriarch Sophronius took the Caliph on a tour of the holy places. While touring the Church of the Holy Sepulcher about noontime, Umar went outside to perform the noon prayer. Having finished, the patriarch asked why he didn’t pray in the church. Umar responded saying, “I fear that after I am gone, my followers will come and say ‘Umar prayed here.’ You might lose your church.” Umar reinforced the Prophet’s policy of toleration toward the people of the Book. Under the Byzantines, Jews were barred from Jerusalem. The Arabs allowed them in again.13 Michael Penn, a professor of early Christian-Muslim relations at Mount Holyoke College, is a student of early Syriac manuscripts. He came across letters written by Christians who were hostile to Islam, but he also found a document written by a Christian bishop in the middle of the seventh century that says, “Arabs aren’t opposed to Christianity, they respect our religion, honor priests and holy men. We have records of Muslim rulers helping found Christian monasteries.”14 Professor Penn also found an extended prayer by a Christian on behalf of a Muslim ruler. The highlight of his research, however, was a seventh-century canon law permitting Christian priests to administer last rites to Muslims as well as perform exorcisms to heal Muslims using Christian relics.15

Thus, in return for submission and the payment of the jizya, the poll tax, Islam guaranteed the people of the Book security of life, property and protection in the exercise of their religions.16 Dhimmis had full autonomy under the leadership of their religious chiefs. Each community exercised jurisdiction over matters of personal status, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. So long as they submitted to the Muslim state and paid the jizya, Christians and Jews were left alone to run their own lives without interference.

The jizya, which adult, sane dhimmi males paid for protection and exemption from military service, was reasonable and not oppressive. It was based on one’s ability to pay and sometimes set by agreement. It was paid either in money or in kind. Peasants in rural areas usually paid one gold dinar or 12 silver dirhams in addition to one jarib of wheat per head. Urban dhimmis paid from a minimum of one gold dinar or 12 silver dirhams to a maximum of four gold dinars or 48 silver dirhams, depending on their wealth. Women, children, old men, slaves, poor monks, and the mentally sick were exempt.17 If monasteries were rich, superiors paid the tax. Monks in Egypt were exempt until the period of Umar II, 717–720. Thereafter, they paid the jizya.

Positions in government administration and the economy were open to dhimmis. In fact, from the Arab conquest to the beginning of the eighth century, the language of the administration remained Persian in Iraq and Greek in Egypt and Syria. Only dhimmis, especially Christians, had the linguistic and administrative skills to keep the government functioning.18 Even after Arabization started under Caliph Abd al-Malik in the late seventh century, dhimmis continued to fill important positions in government. The well-known St. John of Damascus, his father and grandfather, served the Umayyad state in high office in Damascus. St. John, whose Arabic name was Mansur, and the famous Christian poet al-Akhtal, befriended Yazid, the future Caliph.19 St. John was also noted for his theological dialogues with Muslims regarding the divinity of Christ. Jews, of course, were not excluded from government posts and Arab courts. The Jewish physician – philosopher ibn Maimoun, or Maimonides (1135–1204), distinguished himself in the service of the Ayyubid Court in Cairo. Furthermore, Jewish and Christian merchants played significant roles in banking and the economy. In the intellectual sphere, when Caliph Ma’mun (813–33) of the Abbasid Caliphate founded Bait al-Hikma, the house of wisdom, in Baghdad, he employed Christian translators under the direction of Hunain ibn Ishaq, himself a distinguished scholar, to translate Greek works into Arabic. Between 750 and 950, over the course of two centuries, Christian translators, among others, made available to the Muslim mind virtually the whole Greek and Syriac philosophical, medical and scientific body of knowledge in Arabic.20

The Shia Fatimid Caliphate based in Cairo was noted for its tolerant attitude to Christians and Jews, except for the period of Caliph al-Hakim (996–1021). Several individuals of Jewish and Christian background reached the second highest position in the state, that of wazir. Whereas Ya’qub ibn Killis and Hasan Ibrahim, both Jews, converted to Islam and assumed that office, four Christians filled the position as Christians, with one even carrying the title of saif al-Islam, or “sword of Islam.” Badr al Jamali, an Armenian Christian slave, who served Caliph al-Mustansir (1036 –94) as governor of Greater Syria, carried the title of “wazir of the sword and pen,” equivalent to minister of defense and the civil service.

The same policy of toleration, “live and let live,” which characterized Arab Muslim rule in the east, was also practiced in Spain under Arab rule. Between 711 and 718, the Arabs were in control of almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. Spanish cities usually surrendered without a fight, as the natives were assured of security of life, religion and property. 21 Thus, Islam and the Arabic language were introduced into Spain and found a receptive population. People began to learn Arabic and convert to Islam, as happened in Syria, Iraq and Egypt. Spain, called Andalus by the Arabs, became a model of toleration and religious coexistence. It flourished economically, intellectually and socially. Cordoba, capital of Muslim Spain, rivaled Baghdad and Constantinople in the tenth century as a cosmopolitan city, noted for trade, culture and learning. It was known as “the ornament of the world” and had a university and a library containing 400,000 books. The closest library to it in Europe was in Switzerland with 600 books. Christians and Jews, along with Muslims, shared in the wealth of Cordoba and occupied high positions in society and the royal court.22 In the words of professor Zachary Karabell, “Jews tended to benefit both in Spain and the Mediterranean world. In the towns and cities, Jews found themselves in unique positions as intermediaries between Muslim-dominated Spain and the rest of the world. Having suffered severe discrimination at the hands of the Visigoths, Jewish communities under the Muslims enjoyed more freedom, affluence, and social standing than any Jewish community would until the nineteenth century.” By the middle of the ninth century, more natives had adapted to Arab culture, converted to Islam, and learned and spoke Arabic, which led some Christian zealots to fear for the future of Latin and Christianity in Spain. Paul Alvarus, a Spaniard, spoke for many when he wrote, “The Christians love to read the poems and romance of the Arabs, they study Arab theologians, and philosophers, not to rebut them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets and apostles? Alas! All the talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books – they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention.”24

As was the case in the Arab state, the attitude of the Ottomans to Christians and Jews was essentially the same. So long as they submitted, paid the jizya and stayed away from seditious acts, they were left alone. Ottoman subjects were organized into three millets, or religious communities: the Muslim millet, the Greek Orthodox millet and the Jewish millet. Each millet was autonomous under its religious chiefs who served as links between the Ottoman government and their flocks. Religious chiefs were sometimes responsible for collecting Ottoman taxes from their communities. Issues of personal status were also under their control. No effort was made by the Ottomans to convert people to Islam. When conversion did occur, it was not the result of pressure. The Ottomans did not proselytize. They were more interested in taxes than in “saving” souls. When Constantinople fell to Muhammad II in 1453, its population was declining. The sultan restored order and opened the city to all, Muslims, Christians and Jews, to settle in it. Those who had fled were encouraged to return.  Muhammad II installed a new Patriarch, Gennadius, and invested him with more authority than a patriarch had exercised under the Byzantines. The Patriarch and his Holy Synod settled doctrinal questions, disciplined members of the Church, managed church property and levied taxes on clergy and laity. Freedom of conscience and worship was guaranteed. The Patriarch exercised considerable civil authority over his community and was considered a government official with the rank of wazir. The sultan promised the Patriarch and his ecclesiastical hierarchy protection against fellow Christians, be they Roman Catholics or Serbian Orthodox rivals. In return, the Patriarch promised to guarantee Greek civil loyalty and prevent Greek intrigue with the Ottomans’ enemies.25 At a time when Jews were being persecuted in Europe and Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats during the period of the Reformation, the millet system of the Ottoman Empire guaranteed non-Muslims a large degree of toleration and security.

No wonder then, some 100,000 Jews from Spain and other parts of Europe found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Thirty to forty thousand settled in Istanbul and fifteen to twenty thousand in Salonika. Others settled in Izmir (Smyrna) or elsewhere. With time, they flourished economically and became skilled merchants, bankers, and artisans.26

Although tolerated, protected, and many of them well-to-do, Christians and Jews were not without complaints under Islamic rule. They lived under certain legal and social disabilities. They were considered subjects, not citizens on an equal level with Muslims. Muslims were first class, dhimmis second. Dhimmis could not bear arms or testify in a Muslim court against a Muslim. They could repair or rebuild existing churches but not build new ones on new sites. Christians could not proselytize. A Muslim could marry a Christian woman but a Christian could not marry a Muslim woman unless he converted. A Christian or a Jewish life cost less than a Muslim one in blood money. In their daily life dhimmis were expected to be respectful of Muslims and not to be offensive or provocative. Christians sometimes could not ring church bells. Certain Caliphs like Umar II (717–20) and al-Mutawakkil (847–61) enforced dress restrictions on dhimmis – “for protection,” they claimed. Dhimmis were not supposed to ride horses either. The Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim, considered deranged by some, persecuted dhimmis and destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Balkan Christians in the Ottoman Empire were subject to the dev - shirme, a levy on rural Christian boys. Bright boys were educated and given jobs in the civil service, while others joined the Janissary Corps. Enforcement of the above disabilities was not uniform, varying from Caliph to Caliph and region to region.

Serious as these disabilities may seem from a contemporary viewpoint, they pale when compared to the fate of Muslims and Jews in Catholic Spain, Jews in medieval and modern Europe, and Palestinians, Muslims and Christians, in the modern Jewish state of Israel. As Arab rule in Spain began to crumble in the late eleventh century, Catholic zeal began to rise against Muslims and Jews demanding their conversion or expulsion. Thus the toleration and religious diversity which was the hallmark of Andalusia began to wane. When the city of Saragosa fell in 1118, the whole Muslim population fled, leaving a ghost town behind. The population of Seville was totally expelled in 1248. But when the Christians could not get the city to function, the Muslims were asked to return.27 Mosques were either destroyed or turned into cathedrals. The Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469 augured badly for Muslims and Jews. Pressure increased on both communities to convert or get out. Some converted openly but continued to practice their religion secretly. In 1478, the notorious Spanish Inquisition was founded to find those false converts and deal with them. When the city of Malaga fell to the army of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1487, most of its Muslim population was sold into slavery.28 The final indignity took place in 1492 as the last Muslim principality, Granada, fell to the reconquering Christians. The Muslim population was given the choice of surrendering peacefully in return for security of life, religion and property, or resist and lose all. Unwilling to resist, the Emir surrendered the keys of the city in January, 1492. But Ferdinand and Isabella did not keep their side of the bargain. Flushed with victory against the Muslims, they decreed the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, to be followed by the Muslims in 1502. We call this today ethnic cleansing. Ferdinand’s and Isabella’s decrees banning Muslims and Jews from Spain remained effective until 1968.

The religious and ethnic persecution of Jews by Christians in medieval and modern Europe is well known and need not occupy us here. However, the story that is still under wraps is the treatment of the Palestinians, Muslims and Christians, at the hands of the modern state of Israel. This tragedy occurred in the full light of history, three years after the establishment of the United Nations, and is still unfolding. Seven hundred and fifty thousand of the natives of Palestine, Christians and Muslims, were driven out of their homes and lands. Five hundred thirty-one Palestinian villages were willfully destroyed. Houses of worship were closed, destroyed, or turned into restaurants or bars. The Truman administration and the British government were fully aware of what was happening but did nothing to prevent it. Today, sixty years later, there are some four million Palestinians living in exile, in camps, in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon or elsewhere. The three million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza have been deprived of the most basic elements of human rights. They have no security of home, land, life, water or livelihood. This ongoing Palestinian tragedy has been told and meticulously documented by the Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, in his book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (One World, 2006). Anyone interested in the Palestinian story must read this book.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that the treatment of the Christians and Jews by Muslim states, Arab or Ottoman, was far superior to the treatment Muslims and Jews received at the hands of Christian states, or Palestinians at the hands of the Jewish state of Israel. In his book, Syrian Christians in Muslim Society, professor Robert Haddad states that “Islamic tolerance served to insure Christian survival.”29 “No attempt was made by any Muslim government to exterminate the Christians, and only rare and isolated attempts were made forcibly to convert them.”30 Prof. Haddad, however, does not cite any example of attempts to force Christians to convert. Similarly, Prof. Zachary Karabell states that, “[f]or a millennium and a half, until the end of World War II, Jews under Muslim rule enjoyed more safety, freedom, and autonomy than they ever did under Christian rule. Muslim States over the course of fourteen centuries have allowed for religious diversity and not insisted on trying to convert those who follow a different creed.”31


1. Richard Fletcher, The Cross and the Crescent (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 12.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid, p. 18.

4. Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus (Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 14.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid, p. 16.

7. Ibid, pp. 4–5.

8. The Christian Science Monitor, March 19, 2008.

9. Maxime Rodinson, Mohammed (Vintage Books, 1974), p. 238.

10. Sura 29, N.J. Dawood, The Koran (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 196; Fletcher, p. 20.

11. Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, 8th ed. (London, 1964), p. 150; Zachary Karabell, Peace Be Upon You (New York: Knopf, 2007), p. 27.

12. Hitti, p. 154; Fletcher, p. 116; Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates (Longman, 1986), pp. 61–62.

13. John Esposito, Islam, the Straight Path (Oxford, 1988), p. 63.

14. Interview in The Boston Globe, June 9, 2007.

15. Ibid.

16. Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden: Cornell University Press, 1974), pp. 75–76; Alfred Guillaume, Islam (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 53; Esposito, p. 39; Frederick M. Denny, An Introduction to Islam, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1994), p. 86; Robert Haddad, Syrian Christians in Muslim Society (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1970), p.8.

17. M.A. Shaban, Islamic History, 600–750 (Cambridge University Press, 1971), p. 44; Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, pp. 91–93.

18. Kennedy, p. 118; Karabell, p. 46; Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, pp. 91–93.

19. Hitti, p. 246.

20. Haddad, p. 12.

21. Karabell, p. 66

22. Ibid, p. 69.

23. Ibid, p. 71.

24. Ibid, p. 67; R.M. Savory, ed., Introduction to Islamic Civilization (Cambridge, 1977), p. 128.

25. Fletcher, p. 137; Karabell, p. 182.

26. Karabell, pp. 171–72.

27. Fletcher, pp. 112–113; Karabell, pp. 155–57.

28. Hitti, p. 554.

29. Haddad, p. 5.

30. Ibid, p. 8.

31. Karabell, p. 8.


* Dr. Saliba is professor of Middle East history at Worcester State College, MA. He delivered this paper at the annual symposium of the Antiochian Orthodox clergy in the Antiochian Village, Ligonier, PA, July 21–25, 2008. This year’s symposium focused on the early relations between Christianity and Islam. Three papers were delivered. A spirited discussion followed each paper.  This article was first published in the October 2008 edition of The Word