World History 1 182 - 11.3.4 Islamization before the Crusades

What was it like for Indigenous peoples of captured territories to live under Islamic rule during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the experience was variable, especially considering the size of the empire the Abbasids came to rule. What is surprising is that the majority of these inhabitants were not Muslims themselves.

The largest group belonged to eastern Christian denominations, including Melkites, Jacobites, Copts, and Nestorians, but significant minority populations of Jewish people and Zoroastrians also lived throughout the empire. We have seen that non-Muslims were allowed to keep their religion and continue to live under Islamic rule by paying a special tax. Early on, the Muslims instituted a series of rules to limit the interactions between themselves and non-Muslims, and a later series of regulations regarding religious intermarriage and child-rearing slowly converted more of the population to Islam over time.

For example, a Muslim generally could not marry a non-Muslim under Islamic law, but if such a marriage occurred, a Muslim woman’s future husband had to convert to Islam to marry her, and the children of a Muslim husband had to be raised as Muslim. Thus, it seems likely that the process of conversion to Islam at this time was quite slow and that the Muslims remained a numeric minority for centuries even though they wielded the majority of power in the empire.

In Their Own Words

The Pact of Umar

The “Pact of Umar” is a legal document detailing the rights and responsibilities of Christians living under early Islamic rule. Often attributed to Umar, the second Rashidun caliph who ruled from 634 to 644, it may date anywhere from the seventh to the early ninth century.

In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate. This is a letter to the servant of God Umar, Commander of the Faithful, from the Christians of such-and-such a city. When you came against us, we asked you for safe-conduct 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 Quran 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 [a type of headwear], the turban, footwear, or the parting of the hair. We shall not speak as they do, nor shall we adopt their kunyas [a part of an Arab name].

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 [alcoholic] 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 [a type of belt] 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 been allotted to Muslims.

We shall not build houses overtopping the houses of the Muslims. . . .

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, and we become liable to the penalties for contumacy and sedition.

—“The Status of Non-Muslims Under Muslim Rule”

  • Who is said to be writing this agreement, and why does that matter? Why was it written?
  • You may see the pact as onerous and limiting for Christians. Can it be read differently? How?

Even during the Abbasid period, Islam was still a new religion. The Muslims benefited from allowing non-Muslim communities a certain amount of autonomy and segregation, so long as this did not limit or infringe on the rights and privileges of the ruling Muslim elite. They even allowed non-Muslim religious courts to adjudicate many cases among Jewish people and Christians. They may also have feared a temptation among adherents to stray from the new faith to older traditions like Christianity and Judaism, which had a great deal in common with Islam at that time.

Along with religious conversion to Islam, cultural conversion, which took place much more rapidly, formed part of the process of Islamization in the Middle East and North Africa. As the early Islamic state grew wealthier and more powerful through continued expansion, and as the Arab-Muslim conquerors became a clearer and stronger elite in the new society, members of the nobility of Indigenous populations were keen to maintain their own wealth and status in whatever ways they could. Thus, they began to bring aspects of Arab and Islamic culture into their daily lives while retaining their commitment to their own religious communities.

It became common, then, for Christians in places like Jordan and Egypt to adopt the Arabic language while outside their homes or churches, and a native language such as Syriac or Coptic within their own communities and for their worship. Non-Muslim men and women also adopted styles of dress and grooming similar to those of the Muslim elite (even if there was anxiety among religious leaders about this type of acculturation, as seen in the Pact of Umar), along with naming practices, especially in places like Islamic Spain. They also began to embrace aspects of Islamic art and architectural design. In the same way as the Rashidun and the first Umayyad caliphs had relied upon imitative design and symbols to legitimize themselves in the earliest period of Muslim rule, so did non-Muslims now adopt features of Islamic culture to gain, maintain, or regain status within the Abbasid world.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax