The Pact of Umar

LAST SATURDAY, in the Kenyan town of Machakos, representatives of Sudan’s northern—based Muslim government joined with a Christian-led southern rebel faction to sign a protocol that could eventually end the country’s 19-year civil war. While still short of a full peace accord, the accomplishment is impressive. To reach this détente after a bloody roller—coaster ride of ethnic and religious warfare, Sudan’s Muslim rulers have had to back away from a pact supposedly as old as Islam itself.

The Pact of Umar, a document purportedly signed by the second caliph, Umar I (634–44), is the source of the restrictive regulations on non-Muslims embedded in the shari'aor Islamic law. In 1983, Sudan’s northern Muslim government took a fundamentalist turn and imposed the shari'a on the Christian south. This triggered the warfare that has since killed more than 2 million Sudanese and displaced millions more.

Under shari'a, both Jewish and Christian minorities (dhimmi, or literally “protected peoples") have freedom to remain in Muslim countries but no freedom to recruit. Conversions can only be to Islam, not away from it.

Like other early and medieval documents with weighty consequences for politics and religion, Umar’s pact is hard to pin down to a date. It may have originated as early as 673, after the Muslims conquered Christian Syria and Palestine. But scholars date the text in its current form to about the ninth century.

The pact is purportedly written by the conquered Christians themselves. In it, those Christian subjects gratefully receive the protection of their Muslim masters and in return agree to certain religious and social strictures:

"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 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 cap, the turban, footwear, or the parting of the hair. We shall not speak as they do, nor shall we adopt their surnames. 

“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 sell fermented drinks. 

“We shall shave the fronts of our heads. . . . 

“We shall not display our crosses or our books in the roads or markets of the Muslims. We shall use only clappers [wooden noisemakers used to call people to worship] in our churches very softly. 

“We shall not raise our voices when following our dead. We shall not carry lighted candles on any of the roads of the Muslims or in their markets. We shall not bury our dead near the Muslims.”

Whatever its true age, the pact has been used as the model for Muslims’ treatment of Christians and Jews in many territories from the Middle Ages down to today. Under its strictures, dhimmi have been disallowed from exerting any authority over Muslims in many Muslim countries, and so have been barred from the army or civil service. Often, they have also had to pay an onerous head-tax or tribute (jizya).

Some Muslims and non-Muslims have pointed to the dhimmi tradition rooted in the Pact of Umar as proof that Muslims have treated “religious others” with relative tolerance. Certainly, throughout most of world history, Muslims have not dealt with the monotheistic Christians and Jews as implacable foes, as they have the pagans. Rather, they have allowed these fellow “peoples of the book” living in their territories to keep practicing their own religion.

However, history has seen both less and more oppressive implementations of the dhimmi system, sometimes mixed with the sterner practices of jihad. And clearly Christians in Sudan have decided that the price of Islamic protection in this tradition is high enough to warrant resistance to the death.

Faced with such resistance, the modern Muslim leaders of Sudan seem at last to be backing away from the ancient pact. The Machakos Protocol is the fruit of several years of such retreat. Practically, this has already meant the easing of strict Islamic dress codes and other social legislation—enough that non-Muslim exiles have begun returning home.

Under the new protocol, the Muslims have agreed that though they may impose shari'a in the north, they will not infringe on non-Muslims’ rights by doing so in the south. Northern leaders will have six years to prove they are serious about creating a friendlier environment for Christian and other non-Muslim Sudanese to practice their faiths. After that time, southern Sudanese will be able to vote in a referendum deciding whether to stay with the largely Muslim north or form an independent state.

Time will tell whether the legacy of Umar can be so swiftly disowned.

For two alternative texts of the pact itself, see—umar.html and—umar.html.

On the recent events in Sudan, see

By Chris Armstrong

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #74 in 2002]

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