Muqawqis and the

Letter Under Glass in Istanbul

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?

41:54 Lo and behold, they are in doubt regarding the encounter of their Lord. Lo, He truly encompasses everything.

Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, which is 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 a thousand-year-old letter, now a shrunken piece of parchment, is carefully preserved behind glass. It is one of the letters that the Prophet 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.

The Prophet’s ultimatum to his neighbours to convert or Islam will be imposed by force followed a less formal warning to the remaining tribes of Arabia. 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 in 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 he 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; we do not make idle threats. Allah echoed His Messenger's warning 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.”

The intimidating letters did not have the desired effect and the Prophet and his successors made good on the threat they contained. Within twenty short years after the Prophet’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.

In the letter, the phrase “and gain twice as much reward for having introduced Islam to your followers” is a reminder that Jihad then, and perhaps to a lesser extent now, was very much about plunder, for the additional riches could only come from those who refused Islam, refused to Submit, and therefore could legally be dispossessed of all they own, then killed or enslaved along with their wives and children.

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 to Islamic scholars and historians to whom we are indebted for reporting on what Muqawqis said and did in response to the Prophet’s invitation and which includes the following purported 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.

Muqawqis’ response would indicate that he both respected and perhaps feared God’s Messenger (the reason for the tribute of fine Egyptian fabrics, a stallion and the two slave-girls/sisters) and that he knew what would please God’s Messenger.

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

Some have disputed Islam’s account of what Muqawqis said and did after receiving the Prophet’s ultimatum. The two main sticking point 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) “Christian 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.

This early capitulation allowed a relatively small Arab invasion force (later re-enforced by desert Bedouins when it became evident that Egypt was ripe for the taking and plunder was to be had, followed by veterans of the northern campaigns to gain converts to Islam 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 life-saving jizya would not be available to the vanquished.

Bernard Payeur