The Plight of the Christians in the Middle East

8/20/2007 12:32:00 AM

Today, there are 30 million Christians who live in countries whose majority are Muslims. Some 15 million Christians live in Indonesia; somewhere between 6 and 12 million live in Egypt; 3 million in Pakistan; Christians make up 3 percent of Iraq’s population of 30 million and 2 percent of Jerusalem’s population.

In Turkey, the Christian population numbered 2 million in 1920, but now numbers a few thousand. In Syria Christians represented about one third of the population at the beginning of the twentieth century, today they count for less than 10 percent. In Lebanon the number went from about 55 percent 70 years ago to under 30 percent today. At present rates in the Middle East, the 12 to 15 million Christians will in a decade have been substantially reduced to the point that they will have lost their cultural vitality and political significance. This exodus is a result of the unprecedented mistreatment of Jews and Christians throughout the Middle East.

Egyptian Christians are embattled minority with dwindling right; trapped in poverty and uncertainty, despised and distrusted as second class citizens; facing discrimination in education, jobs and from police and the courts. Often they are victim of brutality. This applies to many countries with a Muslim majority. Yet no Muslim leader voices his objection to such a treatment.

In Iraq, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians have been randomly assassinated, , Christian women have been threatened unless they cover their heads, Christian shop owners of liquor stores, music stores, fashion stores and beauty salons have been attacked. Islamists make it clear that these establishments and not welcomed. And yet no ruler in the Middle East voiced objection to such atrocities.

When Islam spread in the Middle East during the seventh century, the attitude to the People of the Book, as Jews and Christians are called, does not entail any obligation on the part of the Muslim either to convert or to exterminate them. It is at that time that Islam’s reputation as a religion of toleration arises.

The People of the Book are considered as dhimmi (from Aramaic dmm, i.e.the insulted ones), that is, as persons in possession of a protective treaty, dhimma, in which they renounce certain rights and in return enjoy the practice of their religion and their customs.

Much has been made of the so called Covenant of ‘Umar as a document of an approximate description of the actual state of affairs around 800 A.D. It demonstrates beyond doubt the isolation of non-Muslims within their own religious groups. Their personal safety and their personal property are guaranteed them at the price of permanent inequality. The Covenant of ‘Umar is in the form of a letter presented by the Christian community to the second Caliph (‘Umar bin al-khattab, the second successor to the Prophet Muhammad). It reads the following: “when you (i.e. ‘Umar) came to us we asked of you safety for our lives, our families, our property, and the people of our religion on the conditions: to pay tribute out of hand and be humiliated; not to hinder any Muslim from stopping in our churches by night or day, to entertain him there three days and give him food there and open to him their doors; to beat the naqus (the wooden board which serves as ‘bell’ amongst the Easter Christians) only gently in them and not to raise our voices in them in chanting;….not to build a church, convent, hermitage, or cell, nor repair those that are dilapidated; nor assemble in any that is in a Muslim quarter, nor in their presence; not to display idolatry, nor invite to it, nor show a cross on our churches, nor in any of the roads or markets of the Muslims; not to learn the Koran nor teach it to our children; not to prevent any of our relatives from turning Muslim if he wish it;….not to resemble the Muslims in dress, appearance, saddles….; to honor and respect them, to stand up for them when we meet together;….not to make our houses higher (than theirs); not to tip weapons or swords, nor wear them in a town or on a journey in Muslim lands;….not to strike a Muslim; not to keep slaves who have been the property of Muslims. We impose these terms on ourselves and on our co-religionists; he who rejects them has no protection.” (See A.S. Tritton, The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects, London, 1930).

Leaders of the Christian communities in the Middle East have done their utmost to please their Muslims neighbors. One Christian Patriarch claims that “Islam saved us from the atrocities of the Byzantine”; another Christian bishop claims that “the ancestry of the Christians are Arabs”, that the “blood of Arabs runs in our veins”; another leader says “we (Christians) belong to the Arab tribe of Taghleb, or the tribe of Ghassan; another claims, contrary to the fact, that “we (Christians) are not dhimmi, and most of them use verses from the Quran to support the claim that Islam is a tolerant religion. They often refers to the Quranic verse, which reads: “There is no compulsion in religion” Quran 2:256, and “For you is your religion and for me is mine” (Quran 109:6).

Dhimmi is a word which is used twice in the Quran (9:8 and 10), in the context of Muhammad’s dealings with idolators (mushrikun), who are accused of not honoring their covenants or agreements with the prophet; as a result the prophet is also released from his commitments, and their position becomes rather more vulnerable. But in the period of the conquests the term comes to be used more with reference to the agreements made between the conquered population and their Muslim rulers, and therefore more specific.

In some Christian circles in the Middle East, there are those who believe that Islam “always coexisted with Judaism and Christianity peacefully on religious plane though there were clashes between Muslims and Christians in Medieval ages and not between Islam and Christianity”; most of the prevailing thoughts among Christian leaders as well as Muslim writers in the Middle East blame the Western media for projecting clash of interest as clash of religions, or clash of civilizations.

To defend these arguments which claim that Islam is a tolerant religion, Christian leaders and Muslim writers in the Middle East quote certain verses from the Quran: “If thy Lord had pleased, all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them. Will thou then force them till they are believers?” Quran 10:99. Some quote another verse which reads: “May thou will kill thyself with grief, sorrowing after, if they believe not in this argument (non-believers)”, Quran: 18:6.

Christian leaders in the Middle East defend the status quo by using the same arguments which are raised by Muslims about the so-called ‘peaceful co-existence’ of religious communities under Islam: “the Negus of Abyssinia had given refuge to Muslim migrants to Ethiopia before they migrated to Medina.” They claim, according to Islamic traditions that stated by Ibn Ishaq’s book (Al-Sirat Al-Nabawiyya), that “a Christian delegation from Najran met the Prophet led by Abdul Masih, the Prophet met with the delegation inside the mosque at Medina and he (the Prophet) treated them with respect and in friendly way.” Another Christian bishop in Lebanon do not hesitate to use verses from the Quran, not the Bible, to support his argument.

Muslims on the other hand refer to the same quotations to stress their belief that Islam could co-exist with Christians and Jews peacefully. To promote such arguments, they quote the Quran. One of the verses refers to Christian priests and monks who are “humble and engage in worshipping God.” Muslim writers claim that the Quran treats all human beings on equal plain whatever their creed or color or nation or tribe. They refer to the following Quranic verse: “And surely we have honored the children of Adam, and we carry them in the land and the sea, and we provide them with good tiding, and we have made to excel highly most of those whom we have created.” Quran 17:70.

Muslim writers quote the Quran in order to promote the so-called ‘peaceful co-existence’ with other religions: “For every one of you we appointed a law and a way. And if Allah had pleased he would have made you a single people, but that he might try you in what he gave you. So vie one with another in virtuous deeds.” Muslim writers claim that Allah did not create all human beings as one community, but rather different sects distinctively. They claim that plurality of religions and ways of life and different laws co-exist peacefully with the Muslim community.

The Islamic Conquest

At the dawn of the Islamic invasion of the seventh century, The vast majority of the population of the conquered Byzantine provinces was Christian, belonging to one church or another, and in the Sassanian Empire (Persia) too there was a significant Christian minority presence, consisting mostly of Nestorian Christians (popularly known as the Assyrian Church) . Even the Arab tribes of Ghassan and others were members of the Christian community. There were bishops among them. Their language, like the rest of the Middle East, was Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. Christian churches and literature spread all over the Middle East. But their status started to decline over the years which followed the invasion.

The initial phase of the encounter between Muslims and Christians should be seen as lasting for roughly 200 years that is until the first half of the ninth century.

Muslim law and, even more, Muslim mentality insisted from the beginning of Islam upon emphasizing without letup the disabilities to which the dhimmi (Christian) was subjected. From the beginning, Islam regarded both Christians and Jews as second-class citizens. Time and again the Muslim texts, which are represented in the Hadith (i.e the interpretations given by Muslim commentators on the Quran and the sayings attributed to the Prophet and his way of life), assert the intention of humiliating the dhimmi. Never was he (Christian or Jew) to be left in doubt about his inferior status. This anxiousness on the part of the Muslim commentators to cajole their own susceptibilities by hurting those of non-Muslims increased as time went by. And it must be said that, on the whole, relations between the communities steadily deteriorated. A Muslim always regarded the Christian to be inferior regardless of the ancestry. In other words, a Christian of Arab ancestry is no different from Greek or European dissent; they are all considered dhimmi and were always second-class citizens.

Under al-Mutawakkil (847-61) a wave of anti-dhimmi feeling swept the Middle East. This Caliph, Barhebraeus (d.1286) reports, “was a hater of the Christians, and afflicted them by ordering them to bind bandlets of wool round their heads; and none of them was to appear outside his house without a belt and girdle. And the new churches were to be pulled down. And if they should happen to have a spacious church, even though it was ancient, one part of it was to be made into a mosque. It may be mentioned in this connection that there is some evidence to suggest that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Great Mosque in Damascus was, to a certain extent, shared with the Christians, (see Ibn Jubair, Travels). Christians were not lift up crosses during their feasts of Hosanna (Palm-Sunday).

To promote hatred of the Christians, al-Jahiz wrote a risala in which he pointed out the reasons of their comparative popularity and then went on to explain why they should be detested and abhorred. Al-Jahiz makes it clear that the masses to the Christians is the fact “they are secretaries and servants to kings, physicians to notable, perfumers, and money-changers, whereas the Jews are found to be but dyers, tanners, cuppers, butchers and cobblers. Our people observing thus the occupations of the Jews and the Christians concluded that the religion of the Jews must be compared as unfavorable as do their professions.” (See Radd ‘ala ‘nasara by Al-Jahiz – Arabic version).

Al-Jahiz continues: “Our nation has not been afflicted by the Jews, Magians (persians), or Sabians as much as by the Christians; for (in the polemics with us) they choose contradictory statements in Muslim tradition (as the target of their attack). (They select for disputations) the equivocal verses of the Quran, and (hold us responsible for) hadiths, the chains of guarantors of which are defective….”

Abrogation in Islam

According to Muslim interpreters, no body is allowed to interpret the Quran unless he knows what abrogation means (see Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al Quran –Arabic version). In one instance Ali (son in law of the Prophet) asked a judge: do you know what abrogation and what abrogated means? The judge said no, and then Ali said: you are doomed and caused other to be doomed. (See same reference)

Abrogation in Islam means to take away, thus the Quranic verse stated: “Allah abrogates what Satan says, and then Allah corrects that”. It also means to change for one another as the Quranic verse states “and if we change one verse for another”. Abrogation also means to turn and move as stated in the following verse: “We used to abrogate what you previously did”.

All Muslim commentators agree on the principle of abrogation, but some disagree as to whether a Quranic verse may be abrogated by the Sunnah (sayings attributed to the Prophet). They state that the Quran says: “what we abrogate from a verse or forget it, we bring a better one (verse) and equal to it”. Others state that the Sunnah may abrogate verses from the Quran because the Sunnah is also from Allah. Muslim interpreters believe that if the Sunnah is an order from Allah, then it can abrogate a Quranic verse, but if it were a result of opinion, it does not cause abrogation.

In Islam, there are different categories of abrogation. One deals with a general rule such as the direction of prayers towards Mecca (the direction used to be towards Jerusalem, then the Prophet changed and ordered his followers to pray towards Mecca); also falls under this category the replacement of the fast of Ahura by the fast of Ramadan. A second category is based on the reason for abrogation, when the reason goes away, then the abrogation is not necessary such as the case when Allah orders some one to be patient because of lack of money, then the order is abrogated when the same person becomes rich.

According to Muslim tradition, there are verses from the Quran that does not allow abrogation, they include the following chapters: Al-fatiha, Usuf, Yas, Al-Hajarat, al-Rahman, Al-Hadid, Al-saff, Al-Um’aa, Al-Tahrim, Al-Mulk, al-Haqa, Nuh, Al-jinn, Al-Mursalat, ‘Amm, al-Nazi’aat, al-Infitar and the following three chapters, al-Fajr to the rest of the chapters except the verses of al_teen, Al’Asr and al-Kafireen (they accept abrogation).

Twenty five chapters of the Quran allow abrogation, they are: Al-baqara and three chapters follow that, al-Hajj, al-Nur, al-Ahzab, Saba’, Al-Mu’min, Al-Shura, Al-dhariyat, Al-Tur, Al-Waqi’ah, Al-Mujadilah, Al-muzamil, al-Mudather, Kawrath, and Al’’Asr. The following chapters allow the abrogation: al_fath, Al-Hash, al-Munafiqun, Al-taghabun, Al-Talaaq, and Al’A’la.

We will not concern ourselves in this study with the verses that fall under the rule of abrogation in general, instead, we will deal with the abrogation concerning the issues discussed above, which is related to the topic of the so-called Islamic “toleration to the other religions” mainly Christianity and Judaism.

According to Al-Suyuti, who is an authority on Islam, there are one hundred twenty four verses in the Quran that have been abrogated by one Quranic verse; he calls it ‘the verse of the sword’. It states the following: “And when the forbidden months have passed, kill the “Mushrikeen” wherever you find them and take them prisoners, and beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and observe prayer and pay the Zakat (almsgiving), then leave their way free, surely, Allah is most forgiving, merciful” (Quran 5:9, the Holy Quran, English translation by Maulawi Sher-‘Ali).

Modern Muslim writers replaced the word “mushrikeen” by the term ‘idolators’. But in Arabic, the word includes both: Christians and idolators. In Arabic the stem root is “ishrak” which means ‘in addition’, ‘to associate someone with Allah”. That follows the Christian’s belief, which is based on the fact that Jesus is God. The Muslims consider that to be “ishrak” (i.e. worshipping two Gods), in other words, they believe that Christian worship Jesus and God at the same time, that in itself, Muslim say, is “ishrak”.

So what are the verses that are considered to be abrogated by the verse of the sword? According to Muslim interpreters, they include the following: “And say to the people well done” (i.e. the People of the Book ‘Christians and Jews’). This verse has been abrogated more than one thousand years ago by Muslim commentators.

The verse of the sword forbids fighting during the forbidden month (these are three months of the year during which fighting among the Arabs was forbidden). But Muslim commentators say the verse is abrogated because another verse in the Quran commands the Muslim to “kill all the Mushrikeen” (i.e. Christians and Pagans) (Sea Kitab al-Itqan by Al-Suyuti, Maktabat al-Ma-aarif in Riyadh, Saudi Arabic, volume 2 pp 64, 1996).

Muslim writer’s quote the Quran in matter s related to judiciary. The Quran says: “if they come to you (litigating) you may rule on their matter…” this shows good judgment on the part of the Muslim judiciary. But unfortunately, this verse has been abrogated by the following one: “And if you judge, then be guided with the Islamic Shari’a” (you may not rule according to their norms by the Islamic Shari’a).

In the matter of judiciary, it is necessary to bring two witnesses, the Quran says the following: “bring two from among them” (i.e. Christians or Jews). This verse has been abrogated by the following: “And bring fair witnesses from amongst you” (i.e. from the Muslim community. (See same reference, pp. 65)

Ibn Al’Arabi, a Muslim authority on the interpretation of the Quran, quoted by Al-Suyuti as saying: “everything between the pages of the Quran regarding forgiveness to non-believers by the Muslim community, or compassion and mercy has been abrogated by the verse of the sword (i.e. Quran 5:9, sighted above). Ibn al-‘Arabi states that this verse alone abrogated one hundred twenty four verses.

According to Shaidalah, a Muslim source of Jurisprudence, the Quranic verse that we mentioned earlier which states: “you have your religion and I have mine” has been abrogated by the verse of the sword (Quoted by Al-Suyuti, pp. 68).

The verse of the sword abrogates the following (in italic) of the Quranic verse: “We believe in Allah and what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob and his children (i.e. the twelve children of Jacob), and what was given to Moses and Jesus, and what was given to all other prophets from their Lord…” (Quran 2: 257). Muslim commentators state that the part in italic is abrogated.

Muslim writers in modern times, try to hide the fact that many verses from the Quran are abrogated. This may be the reason why Muslims around the word sympathize with what is known as “extremists” or “fundamentalists”, “radical Islam” or “militant Islam”. The mild reaction by Muslims around the world to the attack of September 11 on the United States is caused by the principle of abrogation; doing otherwise by Muslims, would be a violation to the principle. Muslims do not hesitate to go along with our ignorance of the Islamic Shari’a by stating that Islam is a “peaceful religion”. Many Western scholars, who do not understand the Islamic Shari’a well, tend to believe in everything written between the two covers of the Quran, not knowing that one hundred twenty four verses which deal with the Christians and Jews are in fact abrogated and non-existent.

Gabriel Sawma is considered an authority in Islam, a lawyer in international law , professor of Semitic Studies, and author of the book: The Qur’an: Misinterpreted, Mistranslated, and Misread. The Aramaic Language of the Qur’an.

Visit Prof. Gabriel Sawma's websites:

  1. syriacaramaicquran.com
  2. gabrielsawma.blogspot.com
  3. syriacaramaicquran.com