Ascribed to the second Orthodox caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (634-644), and regarded as a document of primary importance in regulating the relations between the Muslim conquerors of the Middle East and their Dhimmi subjects, that is, the Jews and the Christians, including the Coptic nation in Egypt. The situation of the Copts vis-à-vis the Arab conquerors under the leadership of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As was, however, a peculiar one. Egypt had been under the Byzantine yoke at the time of the advent of the Arabs.

Since the Council of CHALCEDON in 451, the Byzantine lords in Egypt were of the Melchite creed, which the Copts disregarded as heretical. Cyrus al-Muqawqas, the Byzantine ruler at the time of the Conquest, persecuted the Monophysite Copts as heretical; the Copts in return accused him of heresy and loathed the subjugation of their country to the Byzantine empire.

The result of this anomalous situation was that in 641 the Copts did not care who invaded their country, for their position could be no worse than under the Byzantine rule. Therefore, they stood aside during the progressive struggle between the Arabs and the Byzantine defenders of their Egyptian colony. All they knew about the newcomers was that they were monotheistic in their religion, which sounded somewhat like their own Monophysite creed. So it did not matter to them very much who won the ensuing battles.

The triumph of the Arabs at the battle of Heliopolis (641) was followed by the fall of numerous cities in the Delta, including Atrib and Minuf. The terror inflicted on the inhabitants could be matched only by the Byzantine persecution in the prior decade.

According to bishop JOHN OF NIKIOU, the eminent chronicler and eyewitness of these events, people “began to help the Muslims,” at least by carrying fodder and provisions (Butler, 1978, p. 236), which they sorely needed in their struggle. The next decisive step for the Arabs was the capture of the fortress of Babylon, wherefrom the Byzantine masters conducted their firm rule of the Delta in the north and Upper Egypt in the south. This is not the place to discuss the details of the ensuing siege and warfare leading to the surrender of the formidable fortress on Good Friday, 6 April 641 (Butler, 1978, pp. 258-74).

The fate of Egypt was sealed with the fall of the capital city of Alexandria in the next year and the flight of Cyrus to Constantinople after signing the treaty of 8 November 641. According to John of Nikiou (Butler, 1978, pp. 320-21), the stipulations of that momentous treaty were as follows:

  1. payment of a fixed tribute to the Arabs
  2. eleven months of armistice, ending in the Coptic month of Paope on 28 September 642
  3. cessation of hostilities on both sides, including operations against Alexandria
  4. departure by sea of the Roman garrison of Alexandria with its treasure, but Romans within the country to be subject to payment of tribute on leaving
  5. no Romans to attempt recovery of Egypt in the future
  6. Muslims to desist from seizure and interference with
  7. Jews to be permitted to stay in Alexandria
  8. Roman hostages numbering 150 officers and 50 civilians to remain for the execution of the treaty.

The estimate of the tribute in article 1 amounted to 12 million dinars (Butler, 1978, p. 321). The main item of the treaty consisted of the safeguarding of the churches and the security of the Christian population.

Parallel to this treaty, the Arabs seem to have issued the famous Covenant of ‘Umar. The early Islamic historians such as ‘Abd al- Hakam, Kindi, and Baladhuri do not have any record of this covenant, which led some scholars to consider the covenant fictitious or apocryphal. Nevertheless, its detailed citation by al- Qalqashandi (1355 or 1356-1418), even at that late date, leaves no chance for doubting the veracity of the situation as a whole, if not in its minute details.

Here is a summary of al-Qalqashandi’s account of the Covenant (1913, pp. 381-87), which runs in perfect parallel to the Treaty of Alexandria, in its varied stipulations and conditions. First, the JIZYAH, or poll tax, was to be paid by all Dhimmis, that is, protected non-Muslim subjects. Second, Dhimmis were required to offer free hospitality to all Muslim soldiers for three days in their churches.

Third, they were to be loyal subjects to their Muslim rulers. Furthermore, they were permitted to ride only donkeys and they were to ride them sideways. They were required to rise in the presence of Muslims, and they were to wear vestments that were distinguishable from those of their Muslim compatriots. Dhimmis were not to raise their voices in prayer, and they were not to hold ostentatious processions with their censers and scriptures.

Their bells were to be rung in low tones. This special stipulation could be fictitious, since bells appeared in the Eastern churches only in modern times, and certainly not before the seventeenth century, according to the Jesuit C. Sicard (Tager, 1951, p. 54, n. 1). Under these conditions, the Christians, including the Copts of Egypt, were allowed to retain their established churches without interference. However, they were not allowed to restore ruined churches or build new ones.

The covenant also stipulated that Dhimmis were not permitted to be employed in the service of Muslims or the Muslim state in accordance with the dictates of the Qur’an. This principle, however, proved to be utterly impractical for the simple reason that the Copts, who were the accountants, were the only functionaries who could help with the levy of the KHARAJ, or general taxation.

The rulers had no other means of levying taxes but through the good offices of their Coptic subjects. Some rulers occasionally dismissed the Copts from office, resulting in the collapse of the economy and the ultimate return of the Copts to rectify the financial position of the state. Nevertheless, jurists such as Ibn al- continued to uphold this system, at least in theory, in their fatwa (juridical consultation) issued before 1362 (Belin, 1851, p. 419).

The restrictions imposed on the Dhimmis were reinstated by caliphs from time to time. Abu Yusuf Ya’qub, a contemporary Muslim judge of the time of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), states that these conditions were fully recorded in his Kitab al- Kharaj (Book of Taxation). The same Abu Yusuf also says, on the authority of ‘Abd-al-Rahman ibn Thabit ibn Thuban, that ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd-al-‘Aziz wrote to one of his representatives confirming the substance of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s covenant (Ye’or, 1985, p. 169).

In spite of these protestations, financial and political conditions left the Copts in office. Even in the early days of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, the Coptic patriarch BENJAMIN I emerged at Alexandria. Previously, he had spent most of the years of his reign a fugitive moving from one desert monastery to another for fear of arrest by the Byzantine ruler Cyrus al-Muqawqas. Benjamin I was honored by the Muslim victors, who permitted him to occupy numerous churches previously appropriated by the Melchites while the Coptic foundations remained secure under the terms of the Covenant of ‘Umar.

  • Abdur Rahman I. Non-Muslims under Shari‘ah. Brentwood, Md., 1979.
  • Bat Ye’or. The Dhimmis, Jews and under Islam. London and Toronto, 1985.
  • Belin, M. “Fetoua relatif à la condition des Zimmis, et particulièrement des chrétiens en pays Musulmans depuis l’etablissement de l’Islamisme jusqu’au milieu du VIIIe siècle de l’hégire.” Journal asiatique, ser. 4, 18 (1851):417-516.
  • Butler, A. J. The Arab Conquest of Egypt. Oxford, 1902; repr. 1978. Lane-Poole, S. A History of Egypt in the Middle Ages. London, 1921; repr. New York, 1969.
  • Qalqashandi, al-. Subh al-A‘sha, Vol. 13, pp. 383ff. Cairo, 1913. Tager, J. Aqbat wa-Muslimun. Cairo, 1951.