When Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 637, religious rights and freedoms were preserved for the city’s non-Muslim residents.
Jerusalem is a city holy to the three largest monotheistic faiths – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Because of its history that spans thousands of years, it goes by many names: Jerusalem, al-Quds, Yerushaláyim, Aelia, and more, all reflecting its diverse heritage. It is a city that numerous Muslim prophets called home, from Sulayman and Dawood to Isa (Jesus), may Allah be pleased with them.
During the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ’s life, he made a miraculous journey in one night from Makkah to Jerusalem and then from Jerusalem to Heaven – the Isra’ and Mi’raj. During his life, however, Jerusalem never came under Muslim political control. That would change during the caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of Islam.
During Muhammad ﷺ’s life, the Byzantine Empire made clear its desire to eliminate the new Muslim religion growing on its southern borders. The Expedition of Tabuk thus commenced in October 630, with Muhammad ﷺ leading an army of 30,000 people to the border with the Byzantine Empire. While no Byzantine army met the Muslims for a battle, the expedition marked the beginning of the Muslim-Byzantine Wars that would continue for decades.
During the rule of the caliph Abu Bakr from 632 to 634, no major offensives were taken into Byzantine land. It was during the caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab, that Muslims would begin to seriously expand northwards into the Byzantine realm. He sent some of the ablest Muslim generals, including Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-’As to fight the Byzantines. The decisive Battle of Yarmuk in 636 was a huge blow to Byzantine power in the region, leading to the fall of numerous cities throughout Syria such as Damascus.
In many cases, Muslim armies were welcomed by the local population – both Jews and Christians. The majority of the Christians of the region were Monophysites, who had a more monotheistic view of God that was similar to what the new Muslims were preaching. They welcomed Muslim rule over the area instead of the Byzantines, with whom they had many theological differences.
Capture of Jerusalem
By 637, Muslim armies began to appear in the vicinity of Jerusalem. In charge of Jerusalem was Patriarch Sophronius, a representative of the Byzantine government, as well as a leader in the Christian Church. Although numerous Muslim armies under the command of Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-’As began to surround the city, Sophronius refused to surrender the city unless Umar came to accept the surrender himself.
Having heard of such a condition, Umar ibn al-Khattab left Madinah, travelling alone with one donkey and one servant. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he was greeted by Sophronius, who undoubtedly must have been amazed that the caliph of the Muslims, one of the most powerful people in the world at that point, was dressed in no more than simple robes and was indistinguishable from his servant.
Umar was given a tour of the city, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When the time for prayer came, Sophronius invited Umar to pray inside the Church, but Umar refused. He insisted that if he prayed there, later Muslims would use it as an excuse to convert it into a mosque – thereby depriving Christendom of one of its holiest sites. Instead, Umar prayed outside the Church, where a mosque (called Masjid Umar – the Mosque of Umar) was later built.
The Treaty of Umar
As they did with all other cities they conquered, the Muslims had to write up a treaty detailing the rights and privileges regarding the conquered people and the Muslims in Jerusalem. This treaty was signed by Umar and Patriarch Sophronius, along with some of the generals of the Muslim armies. The text of the treaty read: