Christians and others in the Umayyad State
The papers in this volume were prepared for a conference entitled Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians in the Umayyad State, held in June 2011 at the University of Chicago. The goal of the conference was to address a simple question: just what role did non-Muslims play in the operations of the Umayyad state? It has always been clear that the Umayyad family (r. 41–132/661–750) governed populations in the rapidly expanding empire that were overwhelmingly composed of non-Muslims — mainly Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians — and the status of those non-Muslim communities under Umayyad rule and more broadly in early Islam has been discussed continuously for more than a century. It is impossible to do justice here to decades of scholarship devoted to non-Muslims in early Islam since it has become a field of its own and generated its own industry.1 Topics such as non-Muslims’ perceptions of emergent Islam, the legal status of non-Muslims under Islamic rule, theological debates between Muslims and non-Muslims, or the historiographical divide between Muslim and non-Muslim sources — to name but a few — have prompted important debates.2
Recent scholarship suggests, however, that the lines of division between the various “religious communities” of the Late Antique and early Islamic Middle East were more blurred than long assumed. Reducing these communities to their theological dimensions proves problematic, while the definition of legal categories was certainly not a straightforward process.3 It has thus recently been shown how non-Muslims could resort to Islamic law when their interests were better served by it, rather than calling on their own communal jurisdictions.4 Moreover, religiously mixed families and intermarriages contributed to shape a much more complex image of societies, not fully bound by the lines dividing religious communities.5
At the cultural level too, a sharp opposition between Muslims and non-Muslims should be avoided. Multilingualism was the norm, rather than the exception, among the learned.6 This is certainly best exemplified by the scholars engaged in the so-called translation movement from Syriac, Greek, and Pahlavī into Arabic that culminated in the early Abbasid period,7 but multilingualism was already the rule in Umayyad times as evidenced by many scholars or documents, such as Egyptian papyri and even some caliphal inscriptions.8
More broadly, modern scholarship has also created a false dichotomy between “internal” (i.e., Muslim) and “external” (i.e., non-Muslim) sources, thus artificially separating sources along linguistic lines. Such an assumption is highly problematic given that non-Muslim scholars abounded at Muslim courts, and that many of them composed various scientific or historical works in some official capacities. The historiographical implications of this remark are quite imposing and invite us to rethink the categories we are traditionally using to approach early Islamic history and historiography.9
The more specific question of non-Muslims within the early Islamic state has received, however, much less attention. Historians have duly acknowledged the prominence of non-Muslim local élites in the aftermath of the conquest in various capacities, ranging from tax collectors to clergymen and various powerbrokers.10 The new rulers co-opted the scribes and clerks of the former Sasanian and Byzantine empires to run their tax administration, since they lacked skilled personnel of their own who knew the terrain and the traditional procedures of revenue assessment and collection. These non-Muslim administrators, and their descendants (since such work tended to run in families), continued to serve in the Umayyad state for over a century, as is visible especially in the rich documentation offered by the Egyptian papyri.
The above shows that there is no doubt that non-Muslims of various faiths and ethnicities served in the Muslim armies during the conquests, in practically all of the lands these armies undertook expeditions, and the same applies to the Muslim fleets of Egypt, the East, and Africa. They served there either as individuals or as groups, although the latter was almost certainly more frequent and surely more effective; and they served in a variety of capacities, assisting the Muslims as couriers, guides, lookouts, spies, advisors, laborers, workmen, technicians, sailors, and mercenaries. While some were intentionally brought into the ranks of the Muslim armies by the Muslim government through its commanders in the field, or forced to serve as part of the compulsory public service requirement of the tribute, others came forward voluntarily to the aid of the Muslims for a variety of motives, ranging from fear to profit. They sometimes actually fought alongside the Muslims in battle, while in others they did not (as in the fleet), and they also were sometimes compensated for their work, while others they were not — the sources, all of them, do not allow for making an estimate about the ratio of one practice to the other. This compensation could come in the form of money or provisions — in one case, even women — and perhaps even some prestige; it could, however, come indirectly, especially in the form of exemption from paying the tribute.
Most of the ways in which the non-Muslims aided the Muslim armies may have been improvised by the Muslims due to need, especially at the beginning of the conquests. For the non-Muslims, however, these ways were not that new, as they had been through them during the rule of the previous empires, especially as the non-Muslim sources point out. Indeed, our study has shown that there was a great deal that did not change for both governments and people of the Near East under the young Islamic empire. Just like the Byzantines and the Sasanians before them, the Muslims not only made use of the services of the local populations to support their military operations, employing them as guides, spies, and mercenaries, but also took them with them to battle to fight in their wars. Like them, too, they made non-Muslims help their military campaigns by drafting people into auxiliary works to promote their war effort under the legal tax cover of compulsory public service, and they moved whole populations from one place to another for defense and other purposes, manning posts on the frontiers with advance guards composed of indigenous, mostly unconverted, people. This is yet another facet of the continuity between the pre-Islamic and Islamic Near East.