Dismantling the myths of Ahlul Dhimma

Narratives purporting the brutality of Islam have been peddled by many groups throughout history. This discourse, often steered by anti-Islamic critics, denotes images of bloodthirsty, power-hungry Muslims mercilessly invading peaceful lands, enforcing onerous taxes to oppress the disbelievers into submission, and eventually eliminating them with the ultimate goal of establishing a homogeneous caliphate. 

This vilification of Islam allows for opposing movements to garner support from non-Muslims by asserting their own neutrality against the supposed barbarity of the religion. By making Muslims the archetype of intolerance, they are able to omit their own sins from the record by controlling the dominant historical perspective.

There is no doubt that Muslims expanded their empires to spread Islam and remove other systems of authority, just as other religions and empires did before them. When Muslims conquered new lands, the inhabitants were given the call to Islam followed by three options: conversion to Islam, accepting dhimmi status, or trying their luck with their swords. One-dimensional translations of cherry-picked verses from the Qur’an devoid of historical context allow orientalist conclusions regarding the dhimma to dominate mainstream discourse. These conclusions have been internalised and accepted apologetically by some Muslims who regard this history as a shameful feature of Islam’s imperial past.

Whilst there certainly have been instances of oppression against the dhimmi under Muslim rule, these should be investigated as events that oppose the principles of Islam, contravene evidence derived from the Qur’an and hadith, and are inconsistent with early Islamic implementation of the relevant teachings. For this reason, in looking at some of the many myths surrounding the dhimmi status, the main focus of this article will be the teachings and practices of Prophet Muhammad and the Rightly Guided Caliphs, may Allah be pleased with them, whose examples are most important for us to comprehend. 

Conceptions of the Jizya

Dhimmi means ‘protected person’. Non-Muslims residing in lands under Muslim rule paid a tax called the jizya; in return, they were exempt from military service and promised protection by the Muslims on behalf of God.  This was a heavy responsibility on the Muslims, and to do right by Allah meant doing right by the dhimmis. Somehow, this divine concept has been stripped of its transcendental values and discussed primarily in the context of power. 

Jizya today is often seen as a form of unjust coercion, with some claiming that it led to scores of people converting to Islam to avoid paying it. Yet, the jizya was not an Islamic innovation; once new lands were conquered, it was the norm for the pre-modern conquerors to implement some form of taxation. The jizya rate during the early years of Islam was negotiable and generally too low to be a burden since it also promised exemption from military service. Conversion to Islam, on the other hand, would require participation in the military and payment of a different fixed rate tax zakah  undermining the claim that mass conversions to Islam took place by people aiming to evade taxation. 

Oppression in the name of Islam is used as a tool to amplify the benevolence of the non-Muslims, asserting that civilians were content under non-Muslim rule and lived in favourable conditions, whereas the shari’ah was oppressive. Yet, such narratives omit the fact that Jews had also lived as minorities under Christian rule; under Byzantine legislation, they paid distinctive taxes and were prohibited from any military involvement and religious intermarriage. Levy-Rubin states that agreements contracted by early Muslim rulers with minorities under their jurisdiction were far more progressive than those set by their neighbours.[1]  

When Syria was threatened by Roman troops, Abu Ubaydah b. Al-Jarrah (ra) believed the Muslims were not in a position to ensure the protection of the dhimmis and decided to return the jizya to honour their pact. The Christians praised the Muslims, stating that the “Romans would have stolen their wealth.” [2] 

The jizya was only required from able-bodied men – women, children, and monks were exempt. There was no set amount, but it was not supposed to be burdensome on the dhimmi. Before his passing, the second caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab (ra) instructed his successor to abide by the rules concerning the dhimmis of Allah, fulfil their contracts, fight for them, and not overburden them.[3] Under his leadership, he once saw an old Jewish man begging on the street and ordered the state authorities to pay for his livelihood, stating: “It is unjust if we collect the jizya tax from him in his youth and abandon him in his old age.” [4] 

Khalid Bin Walid’s treaty with the Christian members of Himyar during the first caliphate of Abu Bakr, may Allah be pleased with them both, also suspended the jizya of the sick, the old, and the poor. For these individuals, provisions were made from bayt-al-mal. [5] 

From such evidence, one can conclude that in the early years of Islam, there was a heavy focus on the ease of jizya payment; if it was burdensome, it was either reduced or suspended altogether.

There were even some dhimmis who favoured Islamic rule as it allowed them to retain their wealth and limited autonomy; there are numerous cases of non-Muslims choosing to settle legal disputes regarding inheritance and divorce in shari’ah courts, as opposed to their own religious courts, since the Islamic ruling was more favourable to them.

Investigating social and legal customs allows one to determine whether Muslims were in fact employing an original system or if they were simply complying with the norms of the time. Holding Islam’s regulations to one standard whilst holding their non-Muslim contemporaries to another is not only inconsistent, but a disingenuous tool repeatedly used to demonise Muslims. 

Protecting religious pluralism

In newly conquered lands, Muslims were a ruling minority and to implement the shari’ah and make Islam the religion of that land required limiting the religious freedom of the non-believers. This did not equate to a complete elimination of other faiths: to better understand the status of the dhimmi, focus should be reoriented towards their God-given rights and the responsibility of the Muslims to ensure these rights. It was a right of the dhimmis to practice and live under the laws of their own religion without interference from the Muslims, as long as they did not obstruct Islamic practices. This is reinforced in the infamous treaty Umar (ra) made with the people of Jerusalem:

This is the security given by the slave of God, Umar. They are guaranteed the security of their persons, possessions, churches, crucifixes, and everyone within. Their churches will not be occupied or demolished, nor will anything be taken from them, neither furnishings nor crucifixes or money. [6] 

These guarantees meant that “for at least two centuries the majority of the inhabitants of the Islamic empire were non-Muslims”. [7]

Protecting the religious freedoms of minorities is a position supported by the major scholars of Islam: Imam an-Nawawi has further stated that the two main rights of a dhimmi are that the Muslims do not harm them and that they ensure their protection by fighting for them. The dominant position in the Hanbali school of jurisprudence claims all measures should be taken to free a dhimmi in captivity, even if it is one man. When the Tatars conquered Damascus and took its inhabitants as prisoners, the Mongol emperor Ghazan would only release the Muslim captives. Despite this, Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah fought relentlessly for the release of the non-Muslims as well since they were dhimmis under Muslim protection.

The enforcement of specific dress codes has raised controversy amid claims that it reduces individuals to second class citizens. However, several scholars have explained that the rationale behind the dhimmi wearing specific clothing was to differentiate them, with some historians stating it allowed them to retain their own identity rather than having to assimilate into a homogeneous society. A civilisation in which different groups adhered to different systems of law meant clear boundaries were needed to facilitate religious practice. Distinction in clothing allowed for this: dhimmis could live amongst Muslims, be active participants in society, and still carry out certain practices that Muslims would be prosecuted for under the shari’ah

In the early years of Islam, the Prophet commanded Muslims to differentiate themselves from the non-Muslims and refrain from imitating their traditions. This initially posed little problem, as the general cultural differences provided a distinct boundary in clothing: the Christians appeared more refined whilst Arab Muslims were poorer and simple ‘desert dwellers’, so there were no initial stipulations regarding the dress of the dhimmis. As time passed and cultural exchange increased, the need to draw distinctions emerged. [8]

Some dhimmis were required to wear the zunnar, or a belt. This was foreign to the Arabs and introduced to them through their conquests of new lands.  Albrecht Noth claims this was part of the normal clothing of a Christian which the Arabs insisted they retain as a distinctive identifying mark. Tritton also notes that it was worn by Byzantine Christians before the advent of Islam and worn proudly as an insignia of high status; those who rebelled would have their girdle removed to signify their degraded status. This challenges the notion that the zunnar was forced upon them and used to degrade them; the dhimmis were required to continue wearing something that was customary for them and foreign to the Arabs to sharpen the boundaries necessary for administrative and legal purposes, such as tax collection. [9]

The concept of reducing non-Muslims to second class citizens through clothing and seeing it as an infringement of their rights is interesting to ponder upon when we observe how under secular law, the banning of hijab in Quebec and Denmark, the burkini ban in France, and the entire erasure of Islamic identity in China is forced upon Muslims whilst still claiming they are ‘equal citizens’ of the state. Some of these very states are lauded for championing liberal values and human rights.

A spiritual obligation

The Prophet said:

Whoever kills a person with whom we have a treaty will not come close enough to Paradise to smell its scent, and its scent can be found as far as forty years of travel [away]. [10]

In Islam, the sanctity of a dhimmi’s life constituted a grave responsibility. Muslims were ordered to risk their lives to ensure their protection, and injustice towards a dhimmi could threaten the afterlife of a believer. 

Whilst critics of the jizya have also claimed that Muslims could fight the dhimmi if they did not pay their taxes, considering that secular legal systems also stipulate punishments for tax evasion, it is hardly surprising that the shari’ah does the same. These critics also omit the fact that Muslims faced the same fate if they did not pay zakah, evident from the numerous battles conducted for this reason during the caliphate of Abu Bakr (ra).

Abu Bakr said: By Allah, I would definitely fight against him who severed prayer from zakat, for it is an obligation upon the rich. I would fight against them even to secure the cord which they used to give to the Messenger of Allah (as zakat) but now they have withheld it.[11]

There is no debating that the early Islamic empires sought to rule over non-Muslims and set specific rules for the non-believers. However, the responsibility of the dhimmi weighed heavily on them and they knew that committing an injustice would be a sin before Allah. 

Even when some of the dhimmis did feel humiliated by their differentiated status, there was room for adjustment. During the caliphate of Umar (ra), an influential Arab tribe known as Banu Taghlib refused to pay jizya. Instead, they offered to pay sadaqah (charity) at double the rate to which Umar accepted in order to maintain their dignity. [12] If the primary aim of the jizya was to humiliate non-Muslims for their disbelief, the Muslims would have been exempt from taxation and the rules for non-Muslims would not have been so flexible. 

The majority of scholars emphasise that jizya is to be taken with gentleness. The fourth caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra) specifically mentioned this in a memo to his tax collectors: 

Don’t whip any of them for a dirham, and do not oblige them to stand on one leg for a dirham. Do not sell any of their household goods for the payment of tax, because we accept from them what they have. If you do not comply with my orders, Allah will punish you in my absence. And if I receive any complaints against you in this concern, your services will be terminated.[13] 

The evidence provided above is not meant to disregard any oppression dhimmis have faced in the past; Islamic history is vast, and this evidence should emphasize that those instances of oppression took place in contradiction to Islamic law and principles. Dhimma is a divine concept, and allowing the orientalist narrative to dominate and misconstrue this concept is an injustice upon ourselves. There is wisdom behind every command of Allah .

 

Sources

 [1] Milka Levy-Rubin, Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire: From Surrender to Coexistence (2011)

[2] Thomas Arnold, Preaching of Islam: a history of propagation (1913)

[3] Sahih Al-Bukhari, http://sunnah.com/bukhari/23/147

[4]Aḥkām Ahl al-Dhimmah 1/137, translation from https://abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2015/10/25/umar-jizyah-dhimmi-sadaqah/

[5] Abu Yusuf, Kitab Al Kharaj

[6] Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, Hachette UK (2010)

[7] William Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East. (1994)

[8] A. S. Tritton, The Caliphs and their non-Muslim subjects: A critical study of the covenant of Umar [1930]

[9] Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages [1994]

[10] Sahih Al-Bukhari, http://sunnah.com/bukhari/58/8

[11] Sahih Muslim, http://sunnah.com/muslim/1/32

[12] Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Zad Al Ma’aad,

[13] Abu Yusuf, Kitab Al-Kharaj

 

Aaminah is a student with an interest in history and politics. She is currently studying Islam and war, minorities under Shar’iah, and the Ayyubids of Damascus. You can follow her on Twitter @yucipaloosi.

 

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