From the Greek and Syriac sources of the Church Elders
There are those who love and there are those who hate. Of which were our pious predecessors and of which are you?
When the Muslims surrounded Jerusalem, the inhabitants said they would surrender the city only if the Muslim ruler himself —Omar, the second successor or “Caliph,” of the Prophet Muhammad— came to them.1 So Omar sojourned by camel from Damascus, Syria to Jerusalem in the Holy Land. As Omar approached the city, his servant became weary, so he ordered his servant to ride the steed while he walked it by the reins.
When they entered Jerusalem —records indicate it very well could have been Easter— the people of the city mistook the servant for the Caliph. When corrected, they couldn’t believe that this man in tattered and dirty clothes, leading on foot his servant who rode his steed, was the ruler of this new people who were conquering the Persian and Roman Empires, the greatest empires the world had ever seen, with such speed that had never been seen before. St. Sophronius, Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem, greeted Omar with a set of fresh regal clothes and insisted he wear them instead of the dirty rags he was wearing. According to the Greek chronicler Theophilus of Edessa (695-785CE), Omar refused saying, “It is not right for a man to take from another what God has not decreed for him, for God has given to each and every one of humanity from His Divine knowledge, and he who desires to receive something from his companion exceeding that, does so against God.”2 Yet, the Christians of the city were outraged and Omar sensed that they found it humiliating to concede the city to someone who looked so base and common. So he compromised. Theophilus further records from Omar, “Because you request it of me, and have shown me such great honor, please lend me these clothes and I will wear them while you wash mine. When mine are returned, I will return these clothes to you.” Michael the Syrian, 12th Century Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, says about Omar, “He was certainly just and removed from greed, to the degree that from all the empire that the Arabs ruled, that is, from all the wealth and treasures of the Romans and Persians, he took nothing for himself. He did not change the simplicity of his habits, not even the piece of hide that was placed under him when he rode by camel and that he used for sitting on the ground or sleeping on.”3
As the time approached for the Muslim noon prayer, Sophronius invited Omar to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in all of Christianity that contains the Golgotha, the Hill of Calvary where Christ was to be crucified, as well as the tomb where Christ was to be interred. Omar refused saying that he feared future generations of Muslims might seek to make it a Muslim holy site. So he prayed opposite the southern courtyard of the Church where, sure enough, they eventually built the Mosque of Omar that stands there to this day facing the empty tomb of Jesus Christ.
Patriarch Eutychius of Alexandria of the Greek Orthodox Church (877-940CE) records:
“When the gate of the city was opened, Omar came in with his entourage and sat at the aetrion of the Church of the Resurrection. When the time of prayer approached, Omar said to Patriarch Sophronius: ‘I want to pray.’ And he responded: ‘Commander of the faithful, pray in the place where you are now.’ And Omar said: ‘I do not want to pray here.’ The patriarch and then led him to the Church of Constantine [the Church of the Resurrection] where he spread a mat made of straw on the floor of the church. But Omar said: ‘I do not want to pray here either.’ He went out to the steps, which are at the gate on the eastern side of the Church of St. Constantine, and he prayed alone on the steps. Then he sat down and said to Patriarch Sophronius: ‘Patriarch, do you know why I did not pray inside the church?’ He answered: ‘I do not know, Commander of the Faithful.’ And Omar said to him: ‘If I had prayed inside the Church, you would be losing it and it would have gone from your hands because after my death the Muslims would seize it saying: Omar has prayed here. Give me a piece of pergamene4 to write for you a document.’”5
Eutychius goes on to relate the terms written in that document protecting the Church and the churches surrounding it forbidding Muslims from congregating near its steps for their prayers.
While some Muslims bicker over whether they should bid their Christian fellows “Merry Christmas” or any other variety of holiday greetings throughout the year, I urge them to drop such vain harangues. Instead, reach into the psyche of Omar, inspired by the Prophet Muhammad whom he served and later succeeded, and how he treated the Christians who found themselves under his rule. Had he wished, he could have done away with the Christian and Jewish populations and history would have no less recorded him as yet another conqueror. When the Christian Crusaders invaded Jerusalem 400 years later, they did slaughter the Muslims, Jews and even those Christians of sects they deemed heretical in a stadium as if it were sport. No man, woman, child or even babe in arms was spared.6 The year prior to that, in 1098, the Crusaders had actually cooked and eaten the Muslims of Ma`rrat al-Nu`man in Syria. It is said that babies were skewered on spits, broiled and eaten.7
But that is not our way and any who adopt such ways in God’s name profane the very core of Islam. Omar chose the path of love, compassion, and mercy. He gave the Christians freedom and brought the Jews back to the Holy Land from whence they had been driven out just a decade before and successively in the centuries preceding that. The city’s Christians entrusted the keys to the Church of Holy Sepulchre into the hands of the Muslim family of Nusaybah. Today, a millennium and a half later, a member of that Muslim family unlocks the Church in the morning and locks it up at night. The Christians of Jerusalem would have it no other way.8
Will the Christians love you when you deal with them thus? Some will. Some won’t. In spite of acknowledging the magnanimity of Omar related above, Theophanes the Confessor (760-818CE) refers to him as a devilish beast and mocks him for entering the city in dirty clothes.9 God even tells us in the Qur’an, “The Jews and Christians will never be fully satisfied with you until you follow their respective religions.”10 It should matter to you naught! Be good and seek no reward. We do not let the pleasure of people guide our actions. We do not behave well towards goodness nor do we mete ill with evil. Jesus is recorded in Islamic sources as saying:
“Virtuous action does not consist in doing good to someone who has done good to you—that is merely returning a favor. Virtuous action consists in doing good [even] to those who have wronged you.”11
Thus, we behave as our beloved Prophet Muhammad, the servant and messenger of God, instructed and exemplified seeking only the pleasure of the very One Whom we —Jew, Christian and Muslim— worship as the One God who rules over all with Love and Mercy. Seek not the pleasure of mankind because they will never truly be pleased with you no matter what you do. Love and brotherhood in humanity are found in behaviors well beyond the realm of mere words. Ponder well. Let your attitude and behavior towards your Christian fellows speak louder than any bidding of “Merry Christmas” ever could.