The Christian communities of the Near East under caliphal rule

The general principles of the treatment of the non-Muslims, on which the Islamic state's legislation later drew, were thus shaped in the course of the first Djihad. The legal convention that regulated relationships between the Islamic power and the subdued "Detainers of the Book," dhimma, defined the latter's obligations and the former's guarantee of security Thus it conferred on the "Detainers of the Book" who recognized the Islamic domination and were disposed to pay the jizya (a progressive tributum capitis) the status of "Conventional Population," dhimml.21 The conventions knew a variety of formulations: to the extent that divergent attitudes among the different ethno-confessional groups inhabiting the conquered regions persisted, the new masters treated each community differently.22 The Arab Christians, whom the Muslims at first recognized as kin, were granted certain privileges in paying tribute. The eastern dyophysite polemics against the Theopaschite language (i.e., language that attributed Christ's sufferings and death to God the Son) used by the mia-physites seemed to the Muslims to point in the same direction as their own rejection of Jesus's divinity. Consequently, the eastern dyophysite version of Christianity, in Muslim eyes, stood closer to the true religion, hence the Syriac Church of the East was also granted a privileged place amongst the Christian communities. At any time, however, all Christian subjects of the caliphs might be associated with the rival empire, and announcements of Byzantine victories on the distant Anatolian frontier were often accompanied by massacres of Christians in the caliphate, especially in northern Syria and Egypt.

Since non-Muslims were tolerated in the land of Islam as "Detainers of the Book," it was their patriarchs or catholicoi who were recognized as the legal chiefs responsible to the Islamic authority. Religious structures were thus the only form of autonomy left to dhimmi, while they were deprived of the capacity to give their religions political dimension. The caliphate supported the

21 Rubin, Dhimmis and Others, 116-24; on Arabic Christianities, see Griffith in this volume.

22 Troupeau, "Eglises et chr├ętiens," 375-456, 407-11.

jurisdiction of the churches, seeing in them institutions able to assure civil control over the conquered populations. The accumulation of civil responsibilities in the hands of the prelates transformed them into political figures unparalleled elsewhere. Within their communities, the patriarchs also acquired the moral authority of protectors against the exactions of a hostile state and the authority of national leaders. In the case of the miaphysite Syrians, Copts, and Armenians, the triple role of their leaders stimulated a transformation of the anti-Chalcedonian confession into an integral element of ethnic identity. This transformation was not inconsistent with the miaphysites' doctrinal views: the confluence of religious, civil, and national prerogatives in the figures of the miaphysite patriarchs was rather in harmony with the monenergist Christology generally adopted by these churches.

However, the prelates enjoyed only limited immunities, and the caliphs exercised absolute power over their lives. From the eighth century on, the caliphs also exercised increasing influence in the nominations of the prelates of the Syrians and Copts. The "Conventional Populations" found all external manifestations of their cult prohibited, including the construction of new sacred buildings, as well as the reconstruction of ruined ones. In reality, the last injunction was often interpreted as a proscription of any kind of church repair. Prohibiting every kind of missionary activity in the land of Islam further strengthened the association between confessional and ethnic identities and encouraged conservative attitudes among Christians. Moreover, any innovation in the dhimmi's way of life was considered as a further deviation from the originally revealed laws by which the "Detainers of the Book" were expected to abide.

The destruction caused by the war ofconquest and the control maintained by the caliphate over communications between different churches contributed to the reciprocal isolation of the various Christian cultures. However, while in certain regions this caused the extinction of Christianity, in others it created conditions for the original development of local traditions based on native languages. On the southernborders ofthe caliphate, for example, the autonomous Nubian and Ethiopian kings assumed important ecclesiastical responsibilities which accentuated the link between religious and national identity and also conditioned the survival of Christianity in their countries. By the end of the seventh century the Nubian kings recognized the authority of the Alexandrian patriarch, and in Nubia in the following decades the miaphysite faith was to prevail over the Chalcedonian, owing to the proximity of Alexandria and to the absence of contacts with the empire. Moreover, the Nubian kings on various occasions were able to exercise pressure upon the caliphate in order to protect their Coptic coreligionists from the caliphs' exactions. However, the obstacles placed by the caliphate on communication between the Alexandrian patriarchate and the Nubian kingdoms, as well as the Muslim colonization of the Red Sea coasts of Africa (as, later, of the Ethiopian plateau) contributed, from the ninth century, to the weakening of Christianity in Nubia and, a century later, to a long period of decay in the ancient Christian kingdom of Axum in the Eritrean highlands. 23

Another example may be drawn from the northern borders of the caliphate, where the Georgian Church acquired in the middle of the seventh century an effective autocephaly which a century later was officially recognized by the Melkite patriarch ofAntioch. Thereafter, the existence of an ancient literary tradition in the national language rendered possible the development of a distinct culture in Georgia.24 In Armenia, literary activity in the national language had continued practically uninterrupted ever since the invention of the Armenian alphabet in 406. The Melkite communities, concentrated in the urban areas of the patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem and deprived of easy communication with the hellenophone empire, were the first amongst the Christian communities to adopt, already in the course of the eighth century, the conquerors' language in their writing. Although in the course ofthe ninth century the Arabic language was also introduced into the writing of the East Syrians and, later, of the West Syrians and Maronites, Syriac has always remained the liturgical language of these communities. As for Egypt, in the course of the ninth century the monastery of St. Macarius in the Wadi Natrun adopted the Bohairic Coptic dialect of Lower Egypt, which thus supplanted the ancient Sahidic dialect of Upper Egypt. Although from the middle of the tenth century on Arabic was progressively introduced into Coptic Church writing, Bohairic has ever since remained the liturgical language ofthe Coptic Church.

The Muslim conquerors mainly aspired to convert Arabs, and during the greater part of the Umayyad period (661-749) the idea of Arab ethnic identity prevailed over the universalistic trend dominant in the Qur'an (4.79; 7.158; 34.28). Conversion to Islam of non-Arabs was often obstructed, particularly during the age of the early Umayyads, because it would reduce the income of the caliphate's treasury.25 The Arab tribes experienced the heaviest pressure to convert and most of the bishoprics of the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf were extinguished toward the last quarter of the seventh century. Although most of them abandoned Christianity by the end of the eighth

23 Cuoq, Islamisation, 9-63.

24 Martin-Hisard, "Christianisme et ├ęglise," 554 ff., 576-84.

25 Waardenburg, Muslims and Others, 97-98.

century, a portion of the Lakhmids, who shared the confession of the Church of the East favored by the caliphate, remained Christian at least until the beginning of the eleventh century. Also a small section of the miaphysite Taghlibids, a nomadic Arab tribe of Upper Mesopotamia, remained Christian throughout the Abbasid period.

During most of the Umayyad period, high capitation was a major cause of defection from the Christian faith. The Caliph 'Umar II (717-20) significantly augmented the jizya, began to oust the dhimmi from administrative positions, and prohibited them from testifying in court. He also seems to have been the first caliph to prescribe external discriminatory signs for the dhimmi. These were meant to express their humiliated position and to induce their conversion to Islam. In the later centuries the payment of jizya was usually accomplished as a public rite, meant to express, according to Muslim jurists, the humiliation of the dhimmi.26 Under these conditions, social pressure became as important a reason for Christian defections as the burden of tribute, especially under the caliphs who reinforced the discriminatory signs and vexatious rites. By the second half of the eighth century the conversions to Islam reached significant proportions. Nevertheless, in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia, Christian populations remained in the majority at least until that time and in some rural and mountainous areas for much longer. Furthermore, for more than two centuries following the Arab conquest, the administrative and medical professions in the caliphate were still dominated by non-Muslims.

The gradual augmentation of the jizya (towards 868 it was double that of the previous period) provoked several revolts, the fiercest in Egypt and Armenia. In Egypt, the drastic impoverishment of the Coptic Church caused the introduction of simony. The worst persecutions befell Christians under the Umayyad 'Umar II, the Abbasid al-Mutawakkil (847-61), and the Fatimid al-IHakim (996-1021). The hardening exactions during the Abbasid period (7501258) increased the hostility of Christians toward the religion of Muhammad. No longer did they associate him with the biblical patriarchs and prophets as they had done in the early period. The deteriorating conditions of the dhimmi under the Abbasids, particularly during Byzantine advances in Asia Minor, provoked their emigration from Armenia and Syria to Byzantium and Georgia, and from Arabia and Egypt to Nubia and Ethiopia. Many communities took refuge in mountainous regions.27

The progressive installation of Muslim populations, first on the periphery of Christian cities and then at their centers, intensified the contacts between

27 Morony, "Age of Conversions," 135-50.

Muslims and Christians and created more occasions for conversions to Islam. It also resulted in the abandonment by Christians of numerous inhabited centers and in the Islamicization of vast regions. The steadiest decline in numbers occurred among the Melkites, and especially among those who resided outside Palestine, for linguistically they represented the most Arabicized group. By the time of the Byzantine reconquest, Christians had become a minority in most of the cities of the eastern Mediterranean region. In certain places, the Christian communities were completely extinguished either as a result of conversion to Islam (especially in the cities) or of emigration (especially in areas adjacent to frontiers). Nevertheless, in spite of the efforts of the Umayyads to integrate Jerusalem into Islam by the construction of two important mosques in 691 and in 705-15, the city remained the focal point of pilgrimage for Christians of all confessions. In 1009, Caliph al-IHakim ordered the demolition of the complex of the Holy Sepulcher. Three years later, however, in 1012, the new governor of Syria allowed its reconstruction. The complex was entirely restored with Byzantine help between 1027 and 1048.

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