The Arab Christians: From the Eastern Question to the Recent Political Situation of the Minorities
From Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East
© 1998 Oxford University Press
Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press
4. The Age of Suppressed Identity (the Muslim Empires)
The Arab conquest changed the situation of the Eastern Christians of Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. By escaping the authority of Byzantine power and coming under Muslim rule, they acquired a different status. From subjects in conflict with the Eastern Roman Empire (except the Nestorians of Persia), they became communities tolerated by the Omayyad (661-750) and later the Abbasid (750-1258) Muslim Empires. Christians acquired the status of dhimmi, meaning individuals belonging to the category of 'Peoples of the Book', as specified in the Koran, who benefit from the physical protection of the Muslims. Under this new status Islam allowed Christians to practise their religion freely and to engage in enterprises. They were also given protection of their lives and possessions. However, they did not take part in the government of the city and had to pay a per capita tax ( jizya ) and a land tax ( kharaj ). In some cases they continued to be subjected to humiliations which were indicative of their inferior position in society.
At the time of the Muslim Empires Christians seem to have benefited from a relatively privileged status. They belonged to a community ( ta'ifa ) which was recognized by the central power. They were sometimes allowed to be administrative officials of the State, as in the Omayyad era. They were actively involved in the translation of Greek works and in the spread of knowledge during the Abbasid era. They were scribes, philosophers, physicians, or poets.
Their political situation remained uncertain and precarious. Some of them experienced difficult periods, as in Egypt at the beginning of the Fatimid era (969-1171) or the Mameluke era (1250-1516), or during the Crusades.
During both the Omayyad and Abbasid caliphates, a vast number of Christians were subjected to a strong Arab influence. Initially this influence was imposed most heavily on the Church hierarchies, but gradually it extended to the people too. Their liturgies soon followed the same fate. Coptic sermons were in Arabic from the eleventh century; those of the Melkites and the Syrian Jacobites from the tenth century. In the Omayyad era the Syrian Jacobites played an essential role in translating Greek or Syriac manuscripts into Arabic. At the dawning of the Ottoman Empire, Christians were therefore already integrated into the Islamic world. They had a different religion, of course, but the same language (except for a few communities such as the Maronites, who underwent Arab influences later). Other Christians, who descended from the Arab tribes of the Northern part of the Arab peninsula, were ethnically Arabs. From this period on, religious affiliation was to determine the social identity and political status of all of them for a long time to come.