Announcing a Universal War

Jihad in the KoranNarrated Abu Huraira:

Allah's Apostle said, "I have been ordered to fight with the people till they say, 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,' and whoever says, 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,' his life and property will be saved by me except for Islamic law, and his accounts will be with Allah, (either to punish him or to forgive him.)"

Bukhari 52.196

41:53 We shall show them Our Signs in the distant regions and in their own souls, until it becomes clear to them that it is the Truth. Does it not suffice your Lord that He is a Witness of Everything?

Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, now a museum, was home to all the Ottoman sultans until the reign of Abdulmecid I (1839-1860), a period of nearly four centuries. In the Holy Treasury within the third courtyard of the old palace, there is a letter. The more than one thousand-year-old letter, now a shrunken piece of parchment, is carefully preserved behind glass. It is one of the letters that Muhammad sent to the various rulers of the kingdoms that bordered Arabia at the time of the Muslim conquest of the Peninsula, inviting them, and their subjects, to become Muslims.

Muhammad’s ultimatum to his neighbours—to convert or have Islam imposed by force—followed a less formal warning to the remaining tribes of Arabia shortly after the surrender of Mecca. His fellow Arabs had four months to convert to Islam, after which they stood outside the law—Koranic law—and could be robbed, killed or enslaved by any Muslim.

The letter under glass at the old Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is addressed to the governor of Egypt, a fellow by the name of Muqawqis. The last sentence of the letter God's Messenger sent to Muqawqis has a particularly ominous tone (italics mine).

From Muhammad the servant and Prophet of Allah, to Muqawqis, the leader of the Coptic tribe. There is safety and security for those believers who follow the correct path. Therefore I invite you to accept Islam. If you accept it, you shall find security, save your throne, and gain twice as much reward for having introduced Islam to your followers. If you refuse this invitation, let the sin of calamity which awaits your followers be upon you. You too are People of the Book; therefore let us come to a word common between us that we worship none but Allah and shall equalise anything with him. Let us not abandon Allah and take others for lords other than him. If you do not consent to this invitation, bear witness that we are Muslims.

If you do not consent, we are Muslims; in other words, we do not make idle threats. This is a warning Allah echoes in a revelation.

3:64 Say: "O People of the Book, come to an equitable word between you and us, that we worship none but Allah, do not associate anything with Him and do not set each other as lords besides Allah.” If they turn their backs, say: "Bear witness that we are Muslims.”

In the letter, the phrase “gain twice as much reward for having introduced Islam to your followers” is a reminder that jihad is very much about plunder, for these additional riches can only come from those who refuse Islam, refuse to submit, and therefore can legally be dispossessed of all they own, then killed or enslaved along with their wives and children.

The intimidating letters did not have the desired effect, so the Prophet and his successors made good on the threat they contained. Within twenty short years after Muhammad’s death, Muslim armies, during the period known as the Rashidun (the reign of the first four successors to the Prophet known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs), imposed Muslim rule on Persia (including modern day Iraq), Syria, Armenia, Egypt and most of North Africa.

Muqawqis “ordered that the letter should be placed in an ivory casket, to be kept safely in the government treasury,” an important first precaution in ensuring its preservation. It is mostly Islamic scholars and historians to whom we are indebted for reporting on what Muqawqis said and did in response to Muhammad’s invitation, which includes the following letter:

From Muqawqis I read your letter and understood what you have written. I know that the coming of a Prophet is still due. But I thought, he would be born in Syria – I have treated your messenger with respect and honor. I am sending two maids (Maria al-Qibtiyya and her sister Sirin) for you as presents. These maids belong to a very respectable family amongst us. In addition I send for you clothes and a Duldul (steed) for riding. May God bestow security on you.

According to scholar Ibn Sa’d [784-845], Muhammad, upon receiving the letter and tribute, said to a companion: “Miserable man! He would not risk his sovereignty but the sovereignty he loves so much will not remain!”

Muqawqis’ response would suggest that he both respected and feared Muhammad—the reason for the tribute of fine Egyptian fabrics, a stallion and the two slave-girls/sisters —and that he knew what would please him.

Some have disputed Islam’s account of what Muqawqis said and did after receiving the Prophet’s ultimatum. The two main sticking points appear to be 1) “Why would a Christian bishop send two Christian ladies, belonging to noble Coptic families, as slaves to a non-Christian ruler?” and 2) “Christians believe in the Second Coming, not in the arrival of a new prophet, i.e., the Prophet Muhammad.” One explanation is that Muqawqis was a secret convert to Islam and that would explain what he said and did, including facilitating the Muslim conquest of Egypt.

It was this same Muqawqis, also known as Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, who negotiated a separate peace with the Muslims on behalf of the Coptic Christians, which included agreeing to pay the jizya, when the believers invaded Egypt about ten years after the ultimatum was received.

People of the Book, Christians and Jews, are not to be killed if they refuse to become Muslims, as long as they are submissive and agree to pay a poll-tax (a tax levied on people rather than on property) called jizya so that their lives might be spared.

This early capitulation allowed a relatively small Arab invasion force, later reinforced by desert Bedouins when it became evident that Egypt was ripe for the plunder and followed by veterans of the northern campaigns, e.g., Syria, to quickly take complete control of what was then a key province of the Byzantine Empire. Muqawqis, when the Byzantines repudiated his treaty with the Muslims, is said to have asked their commander, Amr ibn al-As, to “not make peace with them, but treat them as captives and slaves,” meaning that the option of the jizya would not be available to the vanquished.

Muhammad followed up his declaration of a universal war with a military expedition against Byzantium.