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Christians in the Caliphal Empires

Giovanni Sale, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Mar 2nd 2021


In order to understand the challenges Christian communities in the Middle East face, it is necessary to understand the ways in which, through centuries of history, Islam institutionally organized its relations with the different religions – in particular with Christianity – across its vast territories. This is a problem that Islam had to face very early on, because the prophet Muhammad, in organizing the nascent Muslim community, also had to legislate regarding the relations to be maintained with the Jews and Christians who had lived for centuries in the Arabian peninsula, even before the beginning of the “great conquest” that changed forever the face of the southern shore of the Mediterranean and the regions of the ancient Fertile Crescent.

Eastern Christians before the Muslim conquest

First of all, one must avoid an overly irenic and linear reading of the history of ancient Christianity in the Middle Eastern and Maghreb regions and must consider, as is often done, the Islam of the origins – strongly motivated on a religious and political level to expand outside the Arabian peninsula – as a destructive and always oppressive force against Christianity and Christians. In fact, Eastern Christianity had long since been divided into different confessions of faith, on the basis of theological disputes with strong political significance. This fact certainly favored the Muslim conquest of these territories, beginning in the 7th century, and divisions among Christians largely continued in these regions after Islamic domination.

Even in our day, these internal divisions within Christianity in regions where it is markedly in the minority “often make it difficult to consistently defend the identity and interests of the Christian minority in the face of the religious majority or the state,”[1] which often calls itself “Islamic.” The most striking case is that of the Holy Places, where rivalries and divisions between Christian denominations and churches are sadly visible, despite the ecumenical dialogue started between them in recent decades.

This historical aspect deserves to be studied in depth. We recall that, from the 3rd century until the 7th century, when the Muslim conquest took place, Christianity in the East extended over an extensive territory, including Egypt and Mesopotamia (passing through Palestine, Syria, western Asia, as well as some regions of the Arabian Peninsula). It was governed by three important patriarchates – that of Alexandria, that of Antioch and that of Constantinople – which recognized themselves in communion with Rome.

In that period the Christian Churches were subject to imperial rule. In fact, under the authority of the first Roman emperors of the East, beginning with Constantine, the first Councils which would progressively establish Christian dogma: that of Nicaea (325), that of Constantinople (381), that of Ephesus (431) and that of Chalcedon (451) were convened. All these Councils, because of the heated doctrinal debates and the historical context in which they took place, had as one of their consequences the splitting of the Christian world, while their definitions, like imperial decrees, were imposed by the emperor, considered the defender of the faith and the Church. Dissidents were condemned as heretics and often harshly persecuted. This happened with the Arians and later, with greater determination, with the Nestorians and the Monophysites.

It should also be remembered that these theological disputes – in particular the one with the Monophysites who, against the Chalcedonian definition, recognized the divine nature alone in Jesus Christ – arose from different sensibilities and cultures (the Greek, the Coptic, and the Syrian-Armenian), as well as from rivalries between the great patriarchates, which were often fighting to assert their supremacy.[2]

Beginning in the mid-5th century, the Christian oikoumene was divided into two different obediences: the Imperial-Chalcedonian, headed by the two most important patriarchates (Rome and Constantinople), and the non-Chalcedonian, headed by the patriarchate of Alexandria and in part by that of Antioch. The Coptic, Jacobite and Armenian Gregorian Churches still belong to the latter. This opposition with the passage of time took on a political hue, and basically indicated the rejection, by the so-called “peripheries of the Empire,” of the growing influence of the imperial Church of Constantinople (formerly Byzantinium).

Muslim expansion and the system of protection

It was in this period of strong opposition between the different Eastern Churches, often accompanied by bloody persecutions conducted by the Eastern Emperors against the Monophysites, that the Muslim conquest of several Christian regions, such as Egypt, Syria and Persia, began. It seems that in these provinces of ancient Christianity the populations, and to some extent the hierarchy, welcomed the new conquerors as liberators, especially since the tributes usually imposed by them were less than the taxes paid to the Byzantines. “The initial inexperience of the Muslims in such matters proved to be financially beneficial.”[3] It is not surprising, therefore, that the “liberators” from the beginning found the native populations willing to collaborate in the construction and strengthening of their dominion.

In fact, with the Arab invasion, which was not bloodless, the Christians of the Syrian-Egyptian-Mesopotamian Churches, “escaping the authority of the Byzantine power and passing under Muslim protection, changed their status.”[4] From subjects, as they were under Constantinople, they became “tolerated communities,” first of the Muslim Umayyad Empire of Damascus (661-750) and then of the Abbasid Empire of Baghdad (750-1258). “The status of Christians became that of dhimmi, that is, individuals who benefited by virtue of belonging to the Koranic category of People of the Book from the physical protection of Muslims.”[5] It should be kept in mind that this new status protected Christian communities not only from attack by Muslims, but also from aggression by other enemy peoples.

From the beginning, Islam practiced an effective regime of tolerance toward the Christian and Jewish populations in the conquered territories. In this regard, the famous orientalist Bernard Lewis has written: “Christianity was defeated, but not destroyed. The processes of settlement, conversion and assimilation gradually reduced Christians from the condition of majority of the population to that of a minority.”[6] They were protected by the tolerance of the Muslim state and were able to play an important role in the creation of classical Islamic civilization.

This legal regime of protection was based on important Koranic provisions and had very precise limits, which, essentially, were of three types.

The first limits were of a religious nature: the protected could follow their religious faith, but they were forbidden any missionary activity, while Islamic activity was openly encouraged. In this way, religious processions, the ringing of bells and the display of sacred symbols, in particular the cross, were forbidden to Christians. Moreover, it was forbidden to build new churches, while for the restoration of the old ones the permission of the governmental authority was required, and was rarely granted, usually after the payment of large sums of money.[7] This has meant that in the Islamic world an indigenous Christian architecture did not develop, as happened in other regions.

The second type of limitation was of a social nature and expressed in a concrete way the minority status of the dhimmi compared to the Muslim. Such limitations therefore had an openly discriminatory character. These rules prohibited the protected from exercising functions in the political or military sphere. They were also subject to a tax of capitation of a personal nature (jizya), provided for by sura 9:29 of the Koran, and to a tax on land (kharaj).[8]

Even today the payment of the protection tax is envisaged in the political manifesto of some fundamentalist parties, as is the practice of damaging crosses and other Christian symbols or of burning churches (often killing many worshippers), as has happened in several countries – for example, Syria, Nigeria and Yemen – where Shari’a law is, in some parts of these countries, applied in full force. Unfortunately, such outbursts of destructive violence are often encouraged and justified by influential members of both Sunni and Shiite clergy. Yet, writes scholar Bernard Heyberger: “The Muslim tradition offers resources to justify tolerance, to reject the use of force and to propose non-violent action as alternatives.”[9]

The third type of limitation concerned the family sphere, in particular the question of mixed marriages. According to Islamic law – still in force today in countries where Shari’a law is applied – the only form of mixed marriage permitted is that of a Muslim man marrying a Christian woman, who may continue to practice her faith; however, all children born of the marriage must be educated in the Islamic faith. Instead, if a non-Muslim intends to marry an Islamic woman, he has the obligation to convert to Islam, because otherwise the children would become non-Muslims. The application of these principles in the past years has created many problems for the Egyptian Coptic community, causing ongoing tension between the two communities that needs to be resolved.

It is not without reason to affirm that the application of such principles, that is, of such Koranic-Shariatic norms, made possible, starting from the first centuries of the conquest, the slow but decisive Islamization of the areas of ancient Christianity subjected to caliphal power. In short, the protected, in the Muslim state, were considered second class citizens, to whom an openly discriminatory statute was applied. They were subjected, according to Koranic law, to certain “humiliations” and were “tolerated” in this category, in which the Koran included the members of the so-called “religions of the Book”, i.e. Christians, Jews and Sabians.

At the time of the occupation of the Persian or Sassanid Empire, Zoroastrians were also considered protected. An 8th-century testimony reveals that a Muslim commander in southern India entered into a treaty of protection with the Buddhists, ensuring the inviolability of their temples. “After all,” the source says, “a temple of Buddha is no different from the religious buildings of the Christians and the fire shrines of the Zoroastrians.”[10] Later treaties of protection were also made with the followers of other religions, such as the Mandaeans

On the other hand, the members of unprotected religions, such as the hated polytheists of the Arabian Peninsula (against whom the Prophet had had to fight), did not enjoy any form of protection; they were therefore obliged to convert to Islam, otherwise they were executed. In this last category were also included atheists and unbelievers. This explains why, on a religious level, radical Islam does not recognize freedom of religion and conscience. All the leaders of fundamentalist movements – starting with al-Qaeda – still today consider unbelieving and westernized Muslims the worst enemies of authentic Islam, and as such they can be killed.[11]

Despite the discrimination to which they were subjected, Christians played a very important role in the formation of Arab culture. Precisely because they were excluded from political and military activities, they devoted themselves to commerce or, like many Jews, to the administration of the State and the exercise of the liberal professions. In addition, in the era of the great caliphates, they applied themselves to the study of ancient philosophy and the empirical sciences. Since many Christians of the cities, in particular the more affluent, were familiar with Greek-Hellenistic and Byzantine culture, they played a significant role of mediation in the transmission of such knowledge (often very useful for the administration of the State) to the Arab-Muslim world, “thus providing an indispensable contribution to the flowering of the new Islamic cultural and philosophical synthesis, which took up and reworked, the Greek cultural heritage.”[12]

If it is true that Arab culture reached its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries, and that by transmitting to the “barbarized” West the works of Aristotle and other Greek authors it facilitated the first cultural rebirth of modern Europe, it should not be forgotten, however, that this was made possible thanks to the work of inculturation carried out in previous centuries by the Christian component of the Arab world.[13] The role and influence of Christians declined from the 10th century, especially due to the decrease in their numbers in many Islamic provinces, such as in the Maghreb, where the indigenous Christian element ended up disappearing little by little.[14]

According to Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, this occurred due to a continuous “erosion” from both below and above, basically due to the ambiguities of the protection system. From below, i.e. at the level of the popular masses, this occurred for economic, social and political reasons. “From above, i.e. at the level of the elite, for the same reasons: the ministers or doctors of the caliphs will be incessantly invited to adhere to Islam, if only formally, in order to remain in office.”[15]

Many times conversion, especially for those who worked in the administration or at court, was somehow forced, and this was also justified theologically. The great Muslim thinker Al-Gh?zal?, who died in 1111, wrote in this regard: “Certainly it is not good to exert pressure in matters of religion; but it must be recognized that the sword or the whip are sometimes more useful than philosophy or conviction. And, if the first generation adheres to Islam only with its tongue, the second will also adhere with its heart, and the third will consider itself as Muslim all along.”[16] This is what in fact happened.

In short, the centuries from the 11th to the 17th were characterized by a slow but gradual decline of Christian communities within the Arab-Muslim world. In the first general census, carried out in the Ottoman Empire in 1570, i.e. in the period of its greatest splendor, the Christians residing in the vast territories of the Sultan-Caliph of Istanbul were only 8 percent of the total population.[17] This percentage is very low, if one considers that these regions, such as Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor, were lands of ancient and flourishing Christianity. However, it was in the Ottoman Empire that Eastern Christian communities experienced an improvement in their general conditions, which also led to an increase in their population.

The ‘millet’ system in the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire since the beginning (15th century), and in particular after the conquest of Constantinople (1453), which was the center of the Christian world of the East, adapted, from the administrative point of view, the millet system, with which it conferred a certain legal protection to the recognized religious communities present in the Empire. At the beginning, the so-called “nations,” recognized by the Sultan-Caliph as structural components of his Empire, were four: the millet[18] of Sunni Muslims, placed in a privileged position; the very ancient millet of Jews; the millet of Greek Orthodox (Chalcedonian[19]); and the millet of Armenians (non-Chalcedonian[20]). Ottoman propaganda presented the five “nations” (with the addition of the Seljuk Turks) as the five fingers of the sultan’s hand, and therefore, by their nature, in an equal position.[21]

The juridical significance of this complicated system of protection is still controversial among scholars. According to some, the millet, because of the wide autonomy in civil and religious matters granted to the “protected,” would have been a sort of sub-state without borders, which did not identify itself with a particular territory, but with a diaspora.[22] For others, however, the various millets did not constitute autonomous political entities within the Ottoman administration. According to Livio Missir di Lusignano, the theocratic structure of the Ottoman Empire meant that the millets were an essential and constitutive part of the Empire itself, but not as a state within a state. So much so, says the scholar, that the dhimmi were recognized with the status of real “subjects” (like those of Muslim faith), and their religious leaders were considered by the administration as imperial officials.

In reality, the millet system was a useful tool, created by the Ottoman administration, which considered religious tolerance as a practical necessity to govern and keep together an Empire that was so vast from a geographical point of view and so diverse from the point of view of the populations that composed it, belonging as they did to different races, cultures and religions. The forced conversion of the entire Ottoman population to the Islamic faith – which at times was attempted – was not possible, indeed it could be totally counterproductive; consequently, tolerance and integration of non-Muslims were the only viable choice, dictated not only by moral and religious considerations, but above all by practical and political motivations.

In this perspective, the system was based on two fundamental pillars: political loyalty of non-Muslim subjects and payment of taxes. The proper functioning of the system depended on the full realization of these two objectives, so much so that the millet, rather than a confessional-based grouping, was considered a kind of fiscal entity, that is, a focus for a mode of revenue collection organized on a religious basis.[23]

Some scholars believe that in the Ottoman Empire a different religious affiliation was not a reason for social discrimination. “If it is true,” writes Livio Missir di Lusignano, “that there were some humiliating norms for non-Muslims, this is not enough to say that Christians were considered, compared to Muslims, second-class citizens.”[24] This was perhaps true from the point of view of law, but in fact – as is often recalled by the sources – the condition of the non-Muslim citizen was, so to speak, of the “second category”; otherwise, one would not understand the frequent protests made by the religious leaders of the protected to the Sublime Porte against abuses or violence suffered and, above all, starting from the first decades of the 19th century, the continuous request for guarantees and protection that the Greek or Armenian millets made to the Sultan, through the mediation of the Christian States of the West.[25]

However, it must also be remembered that, while in Europe, from the 15th century onward – that is, after the expulsion of the Moors from Spain by the Catholic monarchs – the new Christian order, finally reconstituted, tolerated within itself only a few Jewish communities (gathered in some centers and enclosed in ghettos), on the other side of the Mediterranean, the largest existing Muslim Empire experimented with new forms of co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Jews. This was certainly due to historical contingencies and to economic and social needs, but in any case new and unprecedented forms of cooperation and relative tolerance were the subject of experiment.[26]

In the 19th century, during the period of decline of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, the number of recognized millets increased to 14. This happened with those recognized by the Sublime Porte and under pressure from European powers, who wanted to assert their influence in the internal affairs of the Empire. In 1831, thanks to the good offices of French diplomacy, the millet of Eastern Catholics was recognized, thus being emancipated from the Orthodox one. From 1836 the Latin Catholics were permitted their official delegate to the Sublime Porte in the person of the so-called “Latin Consul,” who was the French representative to the Sultan.

The important reforms of the 19th century implemented by “modernizing” sultans (in the period of the so-called Tanzimat laws – i.e. of “reorganization” – of 1839 and 1853), while proclaiming the equality of all citizens of the Empire and freedom of worship, did not in fact abolish the millet system (which formally continued to exist until the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire); indeed, they ended up further strengthening the community structure of the Jewish and Christian minorities. In fact, the individual communities, with their consultative bodies and managerial institutions, were entrusted with important tasks, such as the management of the civil state and other duties concerning the internal life of the community. This has favored, even in modern times and within nation-states, the maintenance of the old system’s institutional structures, and in some ways has even strengthened the cultural and religious identity of individual communities. It should also be remembered that in some Islamic countries, such as Iran, the regime of protection is still in force. In this state, which was not part of the Ottoman Empire, Armenian and Chaldean Christians, unlike other Christians, are considered “protected” by the Muslim public authority.[27]


Obviously, the ancient millet system should not be overestimated, as has sometimes been done. It must be remembered, however, that it strongly permeated with its “communitarian” spirit the entire Ottoman society until its decline, and therefore also the Christian communities of the Middle East. Today, these communities live within the framework of national states of which they feel fully a part, but they perceive themselves as minorities in countries that are for the most part Islamic, and therefore – especially in periods of social and political crisis – exposed to discrimination or reprisals, as for example the Copts in Egypt. In such precarious situations, they need to be protected and reassured, above all by state authority and the international community, while inter-community ties are strengthened (often spearheaded by religious leaders), as happened in the millet system.

However, modernity, by placing the rights of the person at the center, poses new challenges to Middle Eastern Christians as well, and not only to them. For example, the challenge exists of whether to defend first and foremost the rights of communities or those of individuals, that is, whether to give preference to the old – but still in force – system of community-religious belonging, with all the differences existing within it, or to privilege the individualistic and secular element of the right of citizenship, which knows no differences of race, ethnicity or religion.

However, the correct application of this last element implies, on the part of the public authority, the acceptance of two fundamental principles that are dear to western democracies: the separation of the State from religion, and therefore the assumption of a fully secular public system; and that of its ability to protect the individual, or rather the human person, from all forms of coercion. For the moment, it does not seem that this principle is being fully respected. But it is to be hoped that the world of Muslim culture and tradition, where many – though often numerically reduced – Christian communities live, will find its own way toward democracy and the protection of the rights of all citizens.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 3 art. 6, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.0321.6

[1].    J. M. di Falco – T. Radcliffe – A. Riccardi (eds), Il libro nero della condizione dei cristiani nel mondo, Milan, Mondadori, 2014, 117.

[2].    Cf. J. Maïda, “Gli arabi cristiani: dalla questione d’Oriente alla recente geopolitica”, in A. Pacini (ed), Comunità cristiane nell’islam arabo. La sfida del futuro, Turin, Edizioni Giovanni Agnelli, 1996, 35.

[3].    A. Noth, “L’Islam delle origini”, in U. Haarmann (ed), Storia del mondo arabo, Turin, Einaudi, 2010, 63.

[4].    J. Maïda, “Gli arabi cristiani…”, op. cit., 36.

[5].    Ibid.

[6].    Cf. B. Lewis, La costruzione del Medio Oriente, Rome – Bari, Laterza, 2003, 19.

[7].    Cf. A. Fattal, Le statut légal des non-musulmans en pays d’Islam, Beirut, Imprimérie Catholique, 1958, 174f.

[8].    Cf. S. K. Samir, “Le comunità cristiane, soggetti attivi della società araba nel corso della storia”, in A. Pacini (ed), Comunità cristiane nell’islam arabo…, op. cit., 77f.

[9].    J.M. di Falco – T. Radcliffe – A. Riccardi (eds), Il libro nero della condizione dei cristiani nel mondo, op. cit., 122.

[10].   Quoted in A. Noth, “L’Islam delle origini,” op. cit., 64.

[11].   Cf. R. Guolo, Il partito di Dio. L’ Islam radicale contro l’Occidente, Milan, Guerini and Associates, 2004, 77f.

[12].   A. Pacini, “Introduzione”, in Id. (ed), Comunità cristiane nell’islam arabo…, op. cit., 5. For example, St. John Damascene (7th-8th century) “received positions of trust from the court [of the caliph]” (Patrologia, V, Rome, Istituto Patristico Augustinianum, 2000, 233).

[13].   Cf. ibid.

[14].   From the 10th century onward, the Arabic influence in the Christian world is felt more strongly. The language of the conquerors was used by Christians in daily life and also in the liturgy of the various Churches.

[15].   S. K. Samir, “Le comunità cristiane, soggetti attivi della società araba…”, op. cit., 83.

[16].   Ibid., 84.

[17].   Cf. A. Pacini, “Introduzione”, in Id. (ed), Comunità cristiane nell’islam arabo…, op. cit., 6. It should also be remembered that Christianity, in general, resisted better in the countryside – rarely touched by imperial administration – than in the cities. In recent times, the exodus from the countryside, especially in the Syrian-Palestinian region, has determined the almost total disappearance of an ancient rural Christianity and its culture. This has altered the composition of Eastern Christian communities, which have been urbanizing since the 19th century.

[18].   Shiite Muslims had no millet. In fact they were considered heretics.

[19].   Included in this were several peoples of Chalcedonian Christian faith, namely the Greeks, Bulgarians, Moldovans, Serbs, Albanians, Croats, Syro-Lebanese and other peoples.

[20]. Included in the non-Chalcedonian millet were the Gregorian Armenians, Assyrians, Copts and Ethiopians.

[21].   Cf. S. Trinchese (ed), Le cinque dita del sultano. Turchi, armeni, arabi, greci ed ebrei nel continente mediterraneo del ’900, L’Aquila, Textus, 2005, 13.

[22].   Cf. L. Missir di Lusignano, Eglises et État en Turquie et au Proche Orient, Brussels, Missir, 1973, 35; Id. Familles latines de l’Empire Ottoman, Istanbul, Isis, 2004, 14.

[23].   Cf. K. H. Karpat, The Politicization of Islam. Reconstructing Identity, State, Faith, and Community in the Late Ottoman State, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, 5.

[24].   L. Missir di Lusignano, Églises et État en Turquie et au Proche Orient, op. cit., 38.

[25].   Cf. S. K. Samir, “Le comunità cristiane, soggetti attivi della società araba…”, op. cit., 77-81.

[26].   Cf. G. Sale, Stati islamici e minoranze cristiane, Milan, Jaca Book, 2008, 193f; A. Riccardi, Mediterraneo. Cristianesimo e Islam tra coabitazione e conflitto, Milan, Guerini e Associati, 1993, 18f; G. Del Zanna, I cristiani e il Medio Oriente (1798-1924), Bologna, il Mulino, 2011, 25f.

[27].   Cf. B. Heyberger, Il libro nero della condizione dei cristiani nel mondo, op. cit., 126. In Iran, in addition to Armenian and Chaldean Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are also recognized and therefore subject to the regime of dhimma. These religious communities are also entitled to a reserved share of seats in Parliament. Cf. B. De Poli, “Islam e secolarizzazione”, in Le religioni e il mondo moderno. Islam, III, Turin, Einaudi, 2009, 236.

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