The Second Caliph 'Umar & Extending Civil Liberties to Non-Muslims
During 'Umar's caliphate the dhimmis (religious minorities in the Islamic State) enjoyed full religious freedom and civil liberties. They had the full right of practicing their own religious rituals and rights. They played their bugle and punctually held their socio-religious fairs and carried the cross in procession. As for the issue of enforcing conversion to Islam, Caliph 'Umar and his administrators never adopted such policies and they always maintained the Quranic principle that there is no compulsion in religion.
Not only did non-Muslims have the right to full religious freedom but they also enjoyed the right of equal citizenship. It was reported that during the reign of 'Umar, a Jew was disposed of a plot of land and a mosque was constructed on the site. Learning of this incident, 'Umar ordered for the demolition of the mosque and restored the land to its original owner. A Lebanese Christian scholar, Professor Cardahi wrote in 1933 that "this house (with the above piece of land) of the Jew, known as Bait al Yahudi, still exists and is well known".
One of the highlighting examples of tolerance and coexistence occurred during the reign of ‘Umar when the city of Jerusalem was freed from the Roman forces. The Patriarch of Jerusalem refused to give the keys of the city to anyone except to the Caliph personally. Therefore, 'Umar travelled to Jerusalem and met the Patriarch at the gate and they went together to visit the historical Church of Resurrection. When the time of prayer came, the Patriarch courteously requested that the Caliph offer his prayer in the church. ‘Umar kindly declined his invitation and said, "If I do so, the Muslims may sometime in future infringe upon your rights by pretending to follow my example." Instead of praying inside the cathedral, he offered his prayers at its steps outside.
The atmosphere of coexistence disseminated during the whole reign of 'Umar's caliphate where adherents to all religions enjoyed full and sedulous rights and protection. Non-Muslims continued to have their own properties and land possessions and a ban was imposed on Muslim citizens of the State with regard to the purchase of lands belonging to the dhimmis. Such policies were put into effect during the pact of Ileliyah in which Caliph 'Umar pledged the following,
"This is a peace granted by God's servant, Amir al- Muminin, 'Umar to the people of Ileliyah extending to their life, property, churches, healthy, diseased and their co-religionists. Their churches will not be made into residential places nor shall they be destroyed. Neither shall their territories be damaged whereby causing them loss. The number of their crosses and their assets will not be reduced and they will not be asked to become Muslims…"
The interests of the non-Muslims were highly regarded in areas where Islam spread such as in Syria, Mah Dinar, Jurjan, Azerbaijan, and Moqan. All non-Muslim subjects were given a pledge for the safety and security of their lives, properties, religion and customs. When Syria was conquered, 'Umar ordered Abu ‘Ubaidah "to prevent Muslims from oppressing the dhimmis, from causing any loss to them, from dispossessing them without reason, and finally stick tenaciously to the fulfillment of the promises given to them."
In Homs, Muslims took the jizyah from the Christian and Jewish population in exchange for their protection from the Roman forces. To the surprise of Abu 'Ubaidah, the supreme commander, the Roman forces intensified its military forces and the Muslim army had to retreat as he was not going to be able to protect the city of Homs. Abu 'Ubaidah returned the tax money that was paid by the people of Homs due to their failure of keeping their pact of security and safety intact. The people of Homs were moved by such a generous act and pledged that they will protect their city and would not let the Romans conquer them in hope that Muslims will return.
Another example is that of the Patriarch of Alexandria who suffered severe persecution from the Romans. In 20 A.H. The Muslim forces divested the Romans from their authority over Egypt and restored the fugitive Patriarch to his former post. It was during these days that one of the distinguished ecclesiastical heads remarked that "today I witness in this city of Alexandria, salvation and contentment reigning after a long period of persecution by the Roman rulers.”
The second righteous caliph ‘Umar bin al-Khattab followed the leading example of the Prophet Muhammad and the Caliph Abu Bakr in dealing with religious minorities who resided within the boundaries of the Muslim state. If the credit of extending social security to non-Muslims was given to the first caliph, the second caliph went even a step further in developing both safety and prosperity of the lives of the non-Muslims living in the Muslim communities through setting fine examples of social behavior and administrative attitudes toward religious minorities.
During 'Umar's reign, extreme leniency and liberality were shown to minorities even when they committed dangerous acts against the Islamic state. For example, the inhabitants of Arbasus, a town near the frontiers of Syria, made an agreement with the victorious Muslim army which guaranteed peace and protection to them in exchange for their loyalty. While this pact was still intact, the Christian residents of Arbasus worked for the Romans who were political opponents of the Muslims. The commander 'Umair bin Sa'd consulted the Caliph on this issue of treason and 'Umar responded with the following, "The commander should ask the offenders to resettle elsewhere offering them double cost for their flocks and property or that he should wait for one year to see if they change their conduct for the better." The final decision was to banish the dangerous elements of Arbasus from the Islamic state for dishonoring their agreement with the Muslims and for committing treason, an act which barred them from becoming citizens of the Islamic state.
In another incident, the governor of Yemen sent multiple complaints to the Caliph about the conspiracies of some minority groups and sought his direction. The governor suggested their banishment from the Islamic territory. Caliph 'Umar refused the governor's proposal of banishing the defaulters for the fear that this action might adversely affect innocent families. Hence, he suggested instead that these groups should be resettled into some other part of the Islamic state. However, they were to be provided with better housing arrangements and compensation for their properties in cash. This group preferred to settle in Syria and the government accepted their choice and gave them both lands and houses.
Caliph ‘Umar integrated non-Muslims in his administration. In the famous history book titled "Al-Ansab", it was reported by al-Baladhuri that ‘Umar wrote to his Syrian governor asking him to send a Greek who could properly assess the accounts of the revenue department. Therefore, a Christian was appointed as the head of the accounts portfolio in the Prophet's city. The non-Muslim communities used to be consulted in economic, administrative and military matters of the state especially when it was directly pertinent to them. Non-Muslims also served in the Muslim armies but they were not obligated to do so and those who chose to do so were recruited on a voluntary basis.
‘Umar introduced an equitable inaugurated economic system based on equal opportunity. The religious minorities were free to enter transactions, make agreements in business, spend and keep money and have full share in commercial prosperity. No specific taxation was introduced to harass them. As for the jizyah it was introduced as a taxation for maintaining protection and security in exchange for not being recruited in the Muslim army. The jizyah tax was not levied upon the destitute, the downtrodden, women, children, religious heads and the sick people of the non-Muslim communities. When it came to collecting tax revenues on land, revenues were collected leniently and the terms of agreement with the landlords were lenient.
It is a known fact that during the reign of Caliph ‘Umar, poor Jews and Christians were maintained at the expense of the State and on the alms and donations collected from the Muslims. It is reported that ‘Umar encountered an old Jewish man begging so he gave him some money from the government treasury and directed the cashier to give him monthly financial support.
The spirit of love, compassion and sympathy were major elements in the Islamic society among all different religious votaries. Abdullah ibn 'Umar, the son of the second Caliph, would not eat the meat of a goat slaughtered for him until he had sent some of it to his neighbors. The tradition of feeding one's neighbors was a common Prophetic tradition that was widespread among the companions.
When it came to war booty, Muslim soldiers were not despoilers and were not aiming at looting booties. ‘Umar had always been very cautious when it came to war spoils and always warned the soldiers not to indulge in worldly gains. The famous speech of 'Umar that he delivered to a dispatched army shows the true essence of jihad,
"Do not show cowardice in an encounter. Do not mutilate when you have power to do so. Do not commit excess when you triumph. Do not kill an old man, a woman or a minor, but try to avoid them at the time of the encounter of the two armies and at the time of the heat of victory and at the time of expected attacks. Do not cheat over booty. Purify jihad from worldly gains. Rejoice in the bargain of the contract that you have made with God and that is the great success."
Muslim armies march to war with a high sense of morality and ethical conduct as they were commanded not to destroy lives and destroy properties. Landowners whose crops or produce were damaged due to the movement of the troops received ample compensation for what they had lost. At one time, the Caliph satisfied a tiller by giving him 10,000 dirhams from the State Treasury because his harvest had been spoiled by the army. Before the advent of Islamic conquests, non-Muslim populations suffered the brunt of Roman and Persian colonization of their lands.
Sir William Muir, the Scottish Orientalist, said, "The people of Syria, too, apart from the religious persecution to which they had been subjected, suffered from increased taxation, and in consequence remained passive spectators of the invasion of their country, hoping more, indeed, from an occupation by the Arabs, who abstained from pillage, and whose rule was mild and tolerant, than from the continuance of the status quo" (The Caliphate, p. 65).
To sum up the treatment of non-Muslims during the reign of ‘Umar, we can honestly say that Islam with its moral principles introduced to the world a much needed sense of justice, moderation and coexistence among world religions and especially minority religious groups within Muslim nations. Encouraging religious pluralism was a new phenomenon in ages whose annals were stained with episodes of religious persecution and where religious discord and strife were only suppressed with much bloodshed.
Islam brought a new dawn of civil liberties and religious freedom to all religious communities when it gained political prominence which revolutionized conditions in the conquered countries.