OMAR, COVENANT OF (Ar. ʿahd /ʿaqd - "covenant," or shurūṭ – "stipulations"), the series of discriminatory regulations of *Islam applied to the *dhimmī, the protected Christians and Jews, and attributed to the second caliph, Omar (634–644). In various versions it is said that when the Christians of Syria sought their security from Omar, they offered to abide by these conditions. M.J. de Goeje and Caetani have pointed out that this is unlikely because Omar was known for his tolerant and friendly attitude toward the protected subjects who subordinated themselves to him. Furthermore, during the first 50 years of the rule of the *Umayyad Dynasty the protected subjects did not complain of any restrictions, and some of them attained high positions in the administration, while churches were built with the protection of the caliphs. A second reason for doubting the authenticity of the document, as A.S. Tritton wrote, is that "[i]t is not usual for a conquered people to decide the terms on which they shall be admitted to alliance with the victors" (The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects, 8).

Recent research on the Covenant of Omar sees the document in a different light and considers many of its provisions to be consistent with the early years of the conquest, which began in earnest under the caliph Omar. Albrecht *Noth argued that many of the "stipulations" have their source in the conquest treaties or otherwise reflect the reality of Muslim–non-Muslim relations in the earliest period of the conquest. He contended that the terms in the covenant originally did not have the restrictive, discriminatory purpose that is so obvious in the actual text of the covenant as it existed later on. Many of the stipulations were devised, Noth claimed, to create boundaries between the Muslims and their subjects and protect the fragile identity of the conquerors.

Mark Cohen discussed numerous versions of the covenant, including new ones from the beginning of the tenth century, and addressed the mysterious literary form of the document. Extending Noth's insight, and paying attention to the structure of the texts (as opposed to their content), he explained the document as a petition from the conquered, in which they offered submission in return for protection. In turn, they received confirmation (a decree) from the caliph Omar. This conformed with the normal procedure in Islamic administration and would have been recognized as "authentic" by medieval Muslims. In addition, by placing the restrictive stipulations in the mouth of the dhimmīs, the Muslim case for enforcing the laws and for answering the dhimmīs whenever they violated the rules and claimed ignorance of them was strengthened.

Arabic historical sources indicate that the first caliph to issue discriminatory regulations was Omar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (717–720) (Omar II), a zealous ruler who ordered the governor of Khurasan not to authorize the erection of synagogues and churches, to compel "them [Christians and Jews?] to wear special hats and mantles which would distinguish them from the Muslims, and to prohibit them from using a saddle, and from employing a Muslim in their service." These conditions, in addition to the obligation of paying the poll tax, expressed the degradation of the protected subjects according to the principle defined in the *Koran (Sura 9:29), where the word "sāghirūn," "kept low," appears, and in keeping with the concept of ghiyār, "segregation." Several of the stipulations themselves are identical with the anti-Jewish laws of the Byzantine emperors.

The conditions of the covenant and related texts are not uniform but consist of a collection of regulations and administrative restrictions which were promulgated or repromulgated by caliphs and sultans over the generations whenever religious fanaticism or envy of the status of the protected subjects was in the ascendant. There are various versions of these conditions, ranging from the early kitāb al-ʾUmm of Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (767–820), the founder of the Shāfiʿī school, and fatwās (responsa) of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855) to the writings of the chroniclers of the *Abbasid and especially the *Mamluk periods, including that of Ibn Khaldūn (1322–1406) and those of two other versions, a short one and a lengthy one brought by Qalqashandī of the 15th century in Egypt. There is also a Hebrew adaptation in the Divrei Yosef of Joseph b. Isaac *Sambari who lived in Egypt (1640–1703).

The following points may be summarized from the various versions: (a) The erection or repair of churches and synagogues which did not exist during the pre-Muslim period was prohibited. (b) The Koran was not to be taught to protected subjects. (c) Protected subjects were not to shelter spies. (d) They were not to buy a Muslim slave or maidservant, nor such as were formerly owned by a Muslim. (e) They were not to sell intoxicating liquors to Muslims, nor carcasses of animals not ritually slaughtered, or pork. (f) They were not to employ a Muslim in their service, and in partnerships with non-Muslims they were restricted to the role of the "silent" rather than the trafficking partner. (g) Protected subjects were to honor the Muslims and stand in their presence. They could not deceive or strike them. (h) They were to accommodate Muslim travelers for three days. (i) They were not to prevent anyone from converting to Islam. (j) They were not to resemble Muslims in their clothing or hairdressing. The Jews were to wear yellow clothes, girdles, and hats, the Christians, blue. The girdles were not to be of silk. The color of their shoes was to differ from that of the Muslims. (k) They were not to be called by Muslim names or appellations. (l) Entry into bathhouses was only to be authorized when a special sign was worn on the neck which would distinguish them from Muslims. Special bathhouses were to be built for women so that they would not bathe together with Muslim women. (m) They were forbidden to carry arms. (n) They were not to ride on horses or mules but only on asses, and then on packsaddles without any ornaments, and not on saddles. They were to ride sidesaddle. (o) Their houses were not to be higher than those of the Muslims. (p) Their tombs were not to be higher than those of the Muslims. (q) They were not to raise their voices in their churches or be seen in public with crosses. (r) They were not to be employed as government officials or in any position which would grant them authority over Muslims. (s) The property of the deceased was to belong to the authorities until the heirs proved their right to it according to Islamic law. If there was no heir, the property would be transferred to the authorities.

The head of the religious community was responsible for the enforcement of these conditions. Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1200) relates that in 1031 the Christian catholics and the Jewish exilarch were ordered to supervise the members of their communities and ensure that they wore the special garb which had been imposed on the protected subjects. Other sources mention that it was the duty of the raʾīs al-yahūd, "head of the Jews" (in Hebrew, the *nagid), "to protect the Muslims from the Jews" by assuming responsibility for the execution of these conditions. The rights which stemmed from the upholding of the Covenant of Omar were security of life and property, freedom of religion, and internal autonomy. Anyone transgressing the covenant or related prohibitions forfeited his right to security, especially in the case of one of the following conditions: failure to pay the poll tax; refusal to accept a Muslim legal decision; the murder of a Muslim by a protected subject; immoral relations with a Muslim woman; spying on behalf of the enemy; and cursing the Prophet in public, which was punishable by death.

The fact that instructions for upholding the covenant were repeatedly issued during various periods, and sometimes at short intervals, shows that most of the conditions were not respected. The Abbasid caliphs also issued discriminatory laws against the Christians and Jews, e.g., Hārūn al-Rashīd (786–809), al-Maʾmūn (813–833), al-Mutawakkil (847–861), who was the most extreme and published a series of restrictions in 850 and 854, and finally al-Muqtadir (908–932). The rulers required the services of physicians, clerks, specialists in minting coins, and other professionals who served them faithfully. They explained that these people were even authorized to serve as viziers upon the condition that their function consisted merely of the execution of orders (tanfidh) and that they were not empowered with any personal initiative (tafwīḍ). During periods of religious fanaticism, churches and synagogues were destroyed under the pretext that it had been forbidden to build them (see above, regulation (a)). The most outstanding example was the act of the *Fatimid caliph al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allah (996–1021) who, as the result of extreme religious fanaticism, ordered–in Egypt from 1004 and in other countries from 1008–the destruction of all churches, including that of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and of all the synagogues throughout the Fatimid empire, in addition to a series of restrictions, which included the choice between forced conversion to Islam or departure from the country. But this was exceptional during the period of Fatimid rule, which was generally characterized by tolerance and during which Jews and Christians rose to important public positions.

The Decrees of the Almohads

Under the rule of the fanatical *Almohads in Spain and Northern Africa during the 12th century, the alternative was placed before the Jews of conversion to Islam, death, or leaving the country, and restrictions in the spirit of the Covenant of Omar were also imposed on the converts to Islam, who were suspected of only having converted outwardly. They were prohibited from possessing slaves and were disqualified from acting as guardians of orphans; the latter were removed from their families and handed over to Muslims. They were also forbidden to engage in commerce. The purpose of these restrictions was also to separate them from the Muslims by special dress. They were not allowed to wear the ʿimāma and iḥrām (kinds of headgear). Instead, they were requested to cover their heads with a kind of cap known as a qalansuwa. They were ordered to wear black clothes with particularly wide hems. These restrictions were in force until the reign of Abdallah ibn Manṣūr (1199–1214). Even after the decrees of the Almohads were abolished from the 13th century onward, the ghiyār decrees governing dress were not completely annulled, but were not enforced as strictly as previously.

The Mamluks

Religious fanaticism intensified during the period of the wars against the crusaders; this was evident from the campaign of incitement and pressure for the application of the Covenant of Omar, and even harsher restrictions during the *Mamluk period (1250–1516). This situation was connected with the fact that the foreign ruling class (the Islamized Mamluk slave dynasty) desired to appear as the protector of Islam and thus came under the influence of religious fanatics. It is known that the regulations concerning distinctive dress and the prohibition of riding horses were enforced with more severity than the other restrictions. The Mamluk rulers, nevertheless, could not dispense with the employment of the protected subjects as officials, among them some of whom attained respected positions. This fact and their obvious economic success occasionally gave rise to waves of jealousy and hatred which resulted in the publication of decrees concerning the enforcement of the laws, especially the exclusion of Jews and Christians as public officials. This was the case in 1290, when a decree in this spirit was issued by Sultan Ṣalāṭ al-Dīn Khalīl ibn Qalāʾūn. In 1301 churches and synagogues throughout the empire were closed down for a year. There was even a tendency to destroy them, and this was only averted after it was "proved," with the support of bribery, that they had been erected during the pre-Muslim period. During the middle of the 14th century there was a renewed wave of fanaticism which brought about very severe legislation in 1354, not only including the previous restrictions of the Covenant of Omar but also new restrictions which also affected converts to Islam, e.g., the prohibition of their employment as officials and physicians, the severance of all relations with their nonconverted relatives, and their obligatory presence five times a day at the mosque.

The Ottoman Empire, the Maghreb, and Iran

In the *Ottoman Empire (and in *Iran, with stricter, Shiite embellishments) the Covenant of Omar was in force until the middle of the 19th century. The authorities imposed special dress, and Jews and Christians were forbidden to acquire slaves. There was a prohibition on the construction of synagogues and churches, which could only be circumvented by bribery and special authorization. During the 17th century synagogues and churches in the empire were destroyed on a number of occasions. The jizya (poll tax) was also paid, except for those connected with the royal court, e.g., court physicians, who were exempted and who were the only Jews authorized to ride on horses and wear clothing in keeping with their status.

In the 19th century, under the pressure of European countries, especially Britain, France, and Austria, firmans were issued which abolished the discriminatory measures against the Christians. The first of these abolished the poll tax (1839). It was not enforced, and under further pressure an additional firman was issued in 1855, and again in 1856 when the prohibition on the carrying of arms by non-Muslims was also abolished and they were exempted from military service. As an alternative to military service a ransom tax known as bedel askeri, which in practice replaced the poll tax, was imposed. This tax was not abolished until the revolution of the Young Turks in 1909, when non-Muslims were also ordered to serve actively in the army.

In the countries of the Maghreb, the Covenant of Omar remained in effect until more recently. The jizya was taken into consideration in the Tunisian Constitution of 1857. In the *capitulation treaties between Morocco and the European countries in the second half of the 19th century certain persons are mentioned who were exempted from this tax.

Even though in principle the Covenant of Omar applied equally to Christians and Jews, the position of the former within society was generally more favorable as a result of the backing they received from European states. Thus, in 1664 all the European Christians in Egypt were exempted from the poll tax. Similarly, in the emirate of Bukhara only the Jews paid this tax.

It may be said that in principle protected subjects were bound by the Covenant of Omar, but that its enforcement was conditioned by internal factors of the Muslim countries; it was dependent on the internal struggles and the conflicts between religious and economic interests, on the one hand, and the influence and the status of the protected subjects themselves and their ability to lessen the severity of the decree, on the other. The execution of the restrictions was dependent on the will of the ruler, who generally gave preference to economic interests over religious law. Rarely was the covenant enforced against Jews alone. Exceptions to this were in North Africa in the post-Almohad period, when converted Christians, unlike converted Jews, failed to revert to their former religion, and in the Yemen, where very few Christians dwelled. The so-called "pogrom" against the Jews of Granada in 1066 was also an exception proving the rule.


M. Steinschneider, Polemische und apologetische Literatur in arabischer Sprache… (1877), 165–87; M.J. de Goeje, Mémoires d'histoire…, 2 (1886), 143; R. Gottheil, in: Old Testament and Semitic Studies in Memory of W.R. Harper, 2 (1908), 353–414; idem, in: JAOS, 41 (1921), 383–457; L. Caetani (ed.), Annali dell' Islam, 3 (1911), 957; A. Tritton, The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects (1930); L.A. Mayer, in: Sefer Magnes (1938), 161–7 (English summary); W.J. Fischel, Jews in the Economic and Political Life of Mediaeval Islam (19692); idem, in: Zion, 5 (1940), 209–13; Ashtor, Toledot, 1 (1944), 305–7; idem, in: Sefer Zikkaron… G. Hirschler (1940), 73–94; A.S. Halkin, in: Joshua Starr Memorial Volume (1953), 101–10 (Hebrew); Dinur, Golah, 1 pt. 1 (19582), 60–70; M. Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam (1955), 175–201; A. Fattal, Le Statut légal des non-Musulmans en pays d'Islam (1958); B. Lewis, Emergence of Modern Turkey (1966), 114, 331; H.Z. Hirschberg, in: A.J. Arberry (ed.), Religion in the Middle East, 1 (1969), 150–60. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: A. Noth in: Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 9 (1987), 290–315. M.R. Cohen, in: ibid. 23 (1999), 100–57; idem, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (1974). B. Lewis, Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople (1974), vol. 2, chap. 11; idem, The Jews of Islam (1984); D. Tsadik, in: Islamic Law and Society 10, 3 (2003).

[Eliezer Bashan (Sternberg) /

Mark R. Cohen (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.