Did Amr ibn al-As refuse to pray in a church in Jerusalem in case the Moslems seized it?

Anglican Samizdat tells the story of a US church offering to share its building with a Moslem group.  This reminded me of a story about the Moslem conquest of Jerusalem, which I find in various places on the web such as here.

The gates of the city were now opened. Omar went straight to Al-Masjid-i-Aqsa. Here he said his prayer .

Next he visited the biggest Christian church of the city. He was in the church when the time for the afternoon prayer came.

“You may say your prayers in the church,” said the Bishop.

“No,” replied Omar, “if I do so, the Muslims may one day make this an excuse for taking over the church from you.”

So he said his prayers on the steps of the church. Even then, he gave the Bishop a writing. It said that the steps were never to be used for congregational prayers nor was the Adhan [ call to prayer ] to be said there.

This story can be found, unreferenced, in all sorts of places online in various forms.  But none of them give a reference!  And that is always a worrying sign.

A Wikipedia article references Gibbon (vol. 6, p.321 of the 1862 edition, which I find is online here). 

When he came within sight of Jerusalem, the caliph cried with a loud voice, ” God is victorious: ” O Lord, give us an easy conquest!” and, pitching his tent of coarse hair, calmly seated himself on the ground. After signing the capitulation, he entered the city without fear or precaution, and courteously discoursed with the patriarch concerning its religious antiquities. Sophronius bowed before his new master, and secretly muttered, in the words of Daniel, ” The abomination of desolation ” is in the holy place.” At the hour of prayer they stood together in the church of the Resurrection; but the caliph refused to perform his devotions, and contented himself with praying on the steps of the church of Constantine. To the patriarch he disclosed his prudent and honourable motive. ” Had I yielded,” said Omar, ” to your request, the Moslems of a future age would have infringed the treaty under colour of imitating my example.” By his command the ground of the temple of Solomon was prepared for the foundation of a mosch; and, during a residence of ten days, he regulated the present and future state of his Syrian conquests.

That book gives no reference for the remarks of Omar, tho.

A Google books hunt for the same subject brings up Sulayman Bashir, Studies in early Islamic tradition, p.78,  here, who references the 10th century Arabic Christian writer Eutychius, Annals, “II, 17-19”.  Glancing at the Italian translation of this (p.336), I find that it does indeed say something of the sort.  Gibbon had access to Eutychius, in Pococke’s Latin version, so that is probably his source.  So what does Eutychius say?

7.  `Umar ibn al-Khattab then wrote to `Amr ibn al-`As to go with his army into Palestine, saying among other things: “I have appointed as governor of Damascus Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan, Sarhabil (75) Hasan ibn as governor of the territory of Jordan, and Abu `Ubayd ibn al-Garrah as governor of Homs.” `Amr ibn al-`As departed then for Palestine, Sarhabil (75) into the territories of Jordan, and Abu `Ubayd ibn al-Garrah to Ba`albik (77).

/The people of Ba`albik / said: “We have no objection to make a treaty of friendship with you in the same way as the people of Damascus have done.” He gave them his promise in writing and left for Homs. The inhabitants of Aleppo and all the /other/ cities asked him for the same promise in writing. Then came the news to the Muslims of the arrival of `Umar ibn al-Khattab. Abu `Ubayd ibn al-Garrah left the command of his men to `Iyas ibn Ghanm (78); Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan left with Mu`awiya ibn Abf Sufyan, `Amr ibn al-`As and his son `Abd Allah, and they met with `Umar ibn al-Khattab. Then they all went to Jerusalem (79) and besieged it.

Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, then went to `Umar ibn al-Khattab. `Umar ibn al-Khattab granted him his protection, and wrote them a letter which stated that: “In the name of God, the gracious and merciful. From `Umar ibn al-Khattab to the inhabitants of the city of Aelia (80). He granted them a guarantee of their persons, their children, their property and their churches because this /last/ are not to be destroyed nor reduced to places of residence” and swore this in the name of Allah.

When the gate of the city was opened and he entered with his men, `Umar went to sit in the courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection. When it was time for prayer, he said to the patriarch Sophronius: “I would like to pray.”

The patriarch replied: “O prince of believers, pray where you are.”

“I will not pray here,” said `Umar.

Then the patriarch introduced him to the Church of Constantine and commanded a mat to be spread in the middle of the church. But `Umar said: “No, I will not pray here either.”

`Umar came out and walked to the steps that led up to the door of the church of St. Constantine, on the eastern side. He prayed alone on the steps, then sat down and told the patriarch Sophronius: “Do you know, O patriarch, why I have not prayed in the church?”

The Patriarch replied: “I do not really know, O prince of the believers.”

“If I had prayed in the church,” replied ‘Umar, “you would have been removed and you would have lost possession, because on my departure the Muslims would have taken it saying in chorus: ‘Here `Umar prayed.’  Let me take a sheet of paper and you write a ‘charter’ (81).”

`Umar then wrote a ‘charter’ requiring that no Muslim should pray on the steps, not one nor many, and that no ritual prayer should be held there or the muezzin go up there. He wrote a ‘charter’ and gave it to the patriarch. Then `Umar said:

“I am a debtor for the lives and property that I have given. Come, give me a place where a mosque can be built. “

The Patriarch said: “Give the prince of the believers a place where he can raise a temple where the king of the Romans has not been able to build. This place is the rock upon which God spoke to Jacob and Jacob called the “gate of heaven” (82); the children of Israel called it “Sancta Sactorum” and it is at the center of the earth. It was previously the temple of the children of Israel, who have always magnified it, and every time they prayed anywhere they turned their faces toward it. This place I will give you, provided you write me a ‘charter’ that no other mosque will be built in Jerusalem than this.”

It’s worth remembering that this is written three centuries later.   I don’t know what sources Eutychius had, but the whole thing sounds to me a little like a self-serving legend, designed to protect the Christians from Moslem attacks in that difficult period which precipitated the Crusades.

But who knows?  It would be interesting to know what Moslem sources say.


13 thoughts on “Did Amr ibn al-As refuse to pray in a church in Jerusalem in case the Moslems seized it?

  1. Dear Roger,

    You can find the peace conditions written by Umar to the people of Jerusalem in the Muslim chronicle of al-Tabari. A modern translation is available here http://books.google.com/books?id=kTiEmiQzo6EC&printsec=frontcover&hl=ro&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false It is really very hard to find out whether the narrative of the encounter between Saint Sophronius and the Caliph is an accurate one or not. We do know that many documents falsely attributed to the Muslim authorities were, actually written by Christians trying to capture the benevolence of Muslims. Lots of these documents were published by Papadopoulos-Kerameus in the 4th volume of his Analecta.


  2. Thank you Radu – that is very interesting and helpful.

    There was a time when many, many volumes of al-Tabari were online in pirated form. Sadly I did not grab them, and they seem to have vanished away.

  3. The story is suspicious, and I agree with Radu that this story might have been manufactured by the Christians in the region to protect their churches against Muslim intrusions in the generations succeeding the occupation of Jerusalem by the Arabs.

    Umar ibn al-Khattab (and not Amr ibn al-Ass as the heading of the article says) is of course the person meant here. He was the second Caliph of Islam (634-644 AD), and he is known to be the cruellest of all caliphs, and the most hater of non-Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. Muslim were later to use his name in drafting the most oppressive and humiliating rules and against non-Muslims, what they called the Pact of Umar.

    Time and again this pact was used to persecute, oppress and discriminate against the Copts, and other non-Muslims in the area.

    I will study the Muslim references to the story if there is any, and come back to you.

  4. I’ve seen the story attributed to both Amr and Umar, in general circulation. This one is Umar, I agree.

    Anything you can find out will be helpful!

  5. It seems to be combined with a Muslim story, though, because all indications are that the Byzantines were totally successful in building a Marian church (of the Presentation or whatever the East folks call it) on the Temple site.

  6. Roger, recently Simon Sebag Montefiore published a book called Jerusalem: The Biography. I don’t have a copy of it but I reviewed it last time I visited Cornerstone. If you have a copy, see if it talks about the story you cited and the references for it.

  7. I am not sure what lead me to this website. I have been sitting home all day and one question led to another and I reached here.

    This agreement is cited in many books and to say it is a legend just because it is hard to believe that Muslims can be good is just not a valid argument.

    The only reason I am commenting is because one person said that Oma bin al khattab was the cruelest and he hated non Muslims. I want to say he was strict on his inside like his outside. But he wasnt cruel.

    Christians and Jews are both people of the book and they believe in god so we have nothing against them. In fact the prophet in his last speech urged Muslims to care for what we call ( ahl al thima). When Arabs say that you are ( in my thima) thi means that they would protect you in any way possible as you are in their protection.

    Best wishes…
    [Edit to fix typos]

  8. The Rashidun caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab signed a treaty with Monophysite Christian Patriarch Sophronius, assuring him that Jerusalem’s Christian holy places and population would be protected under Muslim rule.[15] When led to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site for Christians, the caliph Umar refused to pray in the church so that Muslims would not request converting the church to a mosque. He prayed outside the church, where the Mosque of Umar (Omar) stands to this day, opposite the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

    Source: wikipedia and Runciman, Steven (1951). A History of the Crusades:The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Penguin Books. Vol.1 pp.3–4. ISBN 0-521-34770-X

    Also i would like to add Umar Ibn khattab was a close companion of prophet Muhammad therefore he understand Islam like no other and i think he followed what prophet Muhammad did like in the Letter to the Monks of St. Catherine in Mt. Sinai.

  9. Go to a Masjid, engage with the imam. He can set you up with Islamic scholars, you can then go up the chain of command (so to speak). There you will find the ancient sources and guidance you are looking for.

    The whole premise of this article is confusing in that, “are Muslims allowed to pray in Churches” isn’t covered by one perspective of one incident in history.

    Dependent on this fact is if Muslims are in authority or not, whether there are pictures and statues in the Church, whether it is treaty land or conquered land, and even then, what is the impact of turning a church into a masjid on the local people. Muhammad al Fatih, for example conquered Constantinople and turned Hagia Sophia in a Masjid, Sultan Babur turned the temple into a masjid, goodness even the Umayyah Masjid in Damascus was originally a Church.

    Umar bin khattab was a great Islamic figure, a scholar and student of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). But two points to consider are one, he is not a source of Islamic law. So his actions cannot be taken as a sacred divine authority like that of the Prophet PBUH.

    Secondly he did not conquer Jerusalem but was rather invited, hence the war politics does not apply of the above examples of taking over Churches.

    There is of course, in this example you’ve stated on Umar bin Khattab, the story of his servant, with whom he rode into Jerusalem. Sophronias was confused when he met the commander of the faithful. Umar and his servant had one donkey between them and took it in turns to ride from Medinah. It was the servants turn when they entered the gates of Jerusalem, so people thought the servant was the Khalif. Such was the justice of Umar.

    This story is relevant for us because one of Umars servants (possibly the same) was given the keys to said Church above. Keys which remain in the family to this day. A family who have always managed disputes between the nominal Christian factions throughout history between Greeks orthodox, Russian and Catholic as to who should pray at what time. A member of the family opens and closes the door to the Church of the holy Sepulchre every single day as mandated by Umar and Sophronias for the last 1400 years.

    Its a fascinating story, but does not set a precedent in whether Muslims can pray in other places of worship. I wish you all the best in your research.


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