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October 15, 1999 No.
50

Conference on Muslim-Christian Relations.

On September 7th, 1999, the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies convened the "Third International Academic Conference on Muslim Jerusalem."[1] The conference, titled "Muslim-Christian Relations in Jerusalem - Past, Present, and Future," discussed the status of non-Muslim minorities in an Islamic state in general, and in Jerusalem in particular, following its conquest (638 AD) by the second Muslim Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab.

Non-Muslim Minorities under Muslim Rule

Most speakers praised the Muslim treatment of non-Muslim minorities. Dr. Said Ramadhan Al-Buti said, "Non-Muslims are not viewed by Muslim rule as a burden, …as long as they remain submissive, just like the Muslims, to the state's regime."

"The first Muslim State that was founded by the Prophet Muhammad included both Muslim and Jewish tribes. Islam acknowledged the existence of the Jews and did not seek to assimilate them. If only the Jews had remained loyal to the covenant on which the [Muslim] State was established, the Muslims would have remained loyal to them."

"The term 'minority' is alien to the spirit of Islam, because it divides the population of the state to an upper class majority and a lower class minority…"

Dr. Shafiq Jabr Ahmad Mahmoud argued that the Muslim rulers' approval of intermarriage [of a Muslim with non-Muslim women] demonstrated a favorable approach towards their Christian subjects. For example, "one of the Fatimid Caliphs took two Christian women as wives. He also had Christian ministers, and he appointed a Christian as the governor of Palestine. "Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi [Saladin]," Dr. Mahmoud continued, "had many assistants from among the Eastern Christians... one of his assistants advised him to destroy the Church of the [Holy] Sepulcher [in Jerusalem] in retaliation for some Christians' cooperation with the Crusaders. Salah Al-Din, however, decided to follow the steps of Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab and to respect the Christians and their religion."

Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab and the first Muslim Conquest of Jerusalem

All scholars speaking at the symposium agreed that the treatment of Christians following the conquest of Jerusalem by Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab was, in general, just.

Christian scholar, Dr. Jreis Khuri, praised the Muslim conquerors and deemed it "a liberation of the city." Dr. Khuri went on to praise the Muslim treatment of Christians in the first stage following this "liberation," but had reservations regarding the historic period that followed. He said that the Muslim rulers humiliated the Christians and segregated them [from the Muslim community] by forcing them to wear special clothing, forbidding them from riding horses and by heavy taxation. Although the taxation of non-Muslims is part of the Islamic Dhimma system, Dr. Khuri stated to his fellow scholars that the Caliphs' treatment of the Christians contradicted the teachings of Islam.[2]

Dr. Khuri's lecture was interrupted several times by Muslim scholars who objected to his complaints. They claimed that the times when Christians under Muslim rule were attacked were "black periods" for the Muslims themselves.

Dr. Al-Buti confronted Dr. Khuri, asking: "If indeed the situation of the Christians matched your description, how come they opted towards the Muslims in the Crusades?" Dr. Al-Buti reminded the audience that the Christians and Jews living in Jerusalem in the 7th century also welcomed the Muslim conquest, having suffered from the Byzantine rule that preceded Islam.

Dr. Zaki Badawi concurred with Al-Buti’s opinion. "In general," he added, "Muslims are more capable than any other culture or nation of treating minorities positively."

Dr. Badawi lamented that there were no Jews participating in the conference. "We mention them in each and every speech," he said, "they should have participated with us and presented their views on the subject."[3]


[1] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, September 10, 1999

[2]The Dhimma system is the Islamic legal structure ordained by the prophet and his followers. According to it, the lives and property of non-Muslim monotheists (Christians, Jews, and others) are protected under Muslim rule in return for a poll-tax (jizya). However they remain inferior to Muslims, enjoy limited rights, and are subject to prohibitions in most fields of life.

[3]In an unrelated comment, Dr. Michel Brayer, a researcher at Saint Mary College, said that "Britain's identification with the Jews, especially following the Nazi Holocaust, caused great damage to the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem." He added, "The Vatican led the opposition to the Zionist plan in Palestine following the Balfour Declaration… However, after WWII the Vatican became weaker and it is no longer capable of competing with Jewish influence, after the Nazi Holocaust and the massive international aid to the Jews… It is high time the Palestinians stopped paying the price for other people's crimes against the Jews."