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Suzy Ashraf



With reference to the Jews.


The political developments of recent times have placed Muslims and Islam into the spotlight of international attention. It is not surprising, therefore, that while contemplating the contemporary relationships with them, more attention is paid to the history of such relations, including the position of non-Muslims in the Muslim-ruled countries.  First of all, who are the dhimmis? The term means: "the protected people", it applies to adherents of those religions which were allowed to survive under Islamic rule. Originally it applied only to the Jews, Christians and mysterious Sabeans, but was extended to others later. They are called in the Quran "people of the book", because they are believed to have received the true scripture from the prophets before Muhammad, but have changed it later; therefore, they follow the same religion as Muslims, but in corrupt, unauthentic form.

Position of the Jews under Islam has long been the subject of politico-scholarly speculation. From the end of last century the myth about the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry under Cordoban Khalifate has been used to illustrate the guilt of the Christian West for their treatment of the Jews. Following the Arabo-Israeli wars and conflicts, this theory has been countered by the fully negative assessment of the Judeo-Muslim history (Cohen, p.9), but plenty of recent publications offer an unprejudiced balanced view. The most important pre-requisite of any work on history is detachment from one's own views and values. If one was to assess from the modern position the rule of any medieval western king, he would most definately appear as a stupid, immoral, ruthless tyrant. Looking from the same "heights" at the Islamic legal provision regarding non-Muslims, for example, the "Pact of 'Umar", the impression is devastating. But, like everything else, it should be put into context.

The most important starting point for a discussion of the Jews under Islam is their position under Christian Roman (Byzantine) and Persian empires. Official Byzantine attitude to them was hostile, therefore it is not surprising that initially favorable legislation shows a clear trend towards further restrictions and discrimination. Its individual provisions are best presented together with the points of the Pact of 'Umar. A great deal of suffering was caused by popular outbursts of violence against the community.

In Persia Jews enjoyed better political status, the legal toleration extended to allowing them to serve in the army, and even to avoidance of fighting on their holy days. However, there were frequent governmental persecutions in the 6-th century. When Jerusalem was captured from Byzantines, some of the Jews were crucified, the rest expelled from the city. (Sharf, p.50)

Under Islam the dhimmis suffered from political, social and economic disability. The economic burden is the only provision authorised by the Quran and the social inferiority is best illustrated by the Pact of 'Umar.

The Quranic rule concerning dhimmis is that they are required to pay a tribute to the Muslims, which was fixed as yearly poll-tax, jizya, plus another tax, kharaj, for the use of agricultural land. Rate of other taxes was higher for the dhimmis than for Muslims. For the Jews, it was the practice carried on from Persia and Byzantium. In the Roman Empire the Jews had to pay higher taxes as non-citizens, it caused a lot of discontent and many actively searched the ways to obtain the citizenship. The taxes were usually perceived as an unbearable burden (read today's newspapers), Cairo Geniza presents a large collection of complaints about it. As any fiscal institution, it was open to abuse by the authorities. Extortions of large sums were often suffered by the dhimmi communities. But extortions by the ruler and officials were common occurence, they did not apply to dhimmis only. The travel guide to Cairo states that caravan-serai of sultan al-Ghuri was built with the money he extorted by torture from his wealthy courtiers.

There was disagreement about the ways of collecting jizya. The jurists on one side prescribed compassion and leniency. The theologians saw tax collection as an opportunity for further display of dhimmi lowliness and Muslim superiority. In the later times the collections were sometimes surrounded by humiliating ceremonies and even beating. Abu Yusuf, the Chief Qadi of the caliph Harun ar-Rashid, stated: "No one of the people of the dhimma should be beaten in order to extract payment of the jizya, nor made to stand in the hot sun, nor should hateful things be inflicted upon their bodies, or anything of that sort. Rather, they should be treated with leniency....He [the Governor] may not reduce anyone's payment by allowing a portion to be left unpaid. It is not permissible for one person to be exempted and for another to have to pay. That cannot be done, because their lives and posessions are guaranteed safety only upon payment of the jizya, which is comparable to tribute money." (In Lewis, p.15-16)

Jizya was paid in exchange for personal and military protection by the state. Cohen presents evidence which shows, in his view, that payment of jizya sometimes gave greater feeling of security, as part of a transaction with obligations on the part of receipient (p.70-72). Even though his evidence is not fully convincing, the fact of regular tax collections usually implies effective government, and in the Middle Ages opressive order was still better than general disorder.

Most of the dhimmi social and religious matters were dealt with in the Pact of 'Umar. In the Islamic tradition it is attributed to the second caliph, 'Umar ibn Khattab, in whose time the major conquests had taken place. But it is more likely that restrictive measures as described in the Pact have not been undertaken until another caliph 'Umar, 'Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz (717-720). It had taken Muslims some time to establish themselves well in the countries with majority dhimmi populations, before they could start any oppressive actions. The Pact was written with the reference to Christians, but applied to all dhimmis.

Under Islamic rule the dhimmis were allowed to practice their religion. So the Jews were in Byzantium. There they were not allowed to build new synagogues. Neither were the dhimmis according to the Pact. Synagogues in Byzantium could be repaired, but extensive repairs could lead to the charge of creating a new building. Any synagogues which were proven to stand on the land belonging to an ecclesiastical institution were lost. The Pact forbade restoring the places of worship which had fallen into the ruin or are situated in a Muslim quarter. There was some limitation on the Jewish public religious displays in Byzantium. By the Pact, no religious outdoor processions or public ceremonies were allowed; even inside the Church or during a funeral all the sounds had to be kept low. No religious symbols or literature were to be displayed in the Muslim neighbourhoods, the funeral processions were not to near them.  Equally to the Byzantine Law, co-religionists were not to obstruct the one who chose to convert to the dominant religion. In Byzantium, the Jews were not allowed to circumcise anyone other than their own children, dhimmis were not allowed to proselytize at all. In fact, convertion to any other religion than Islam was prohibited.

Evidently, all measures were in place to ensure the slow death of the dhimmi religions. Only the Jews and Christans had enough past experience in keeping their religions despite the persecutions, to survive to this day.

Two measures in the Pact represent the lifelong Muslim paranoia. "Non-Muslims, it was believed, were inherently hostile toward Muslims and would unhesitatingly cheat them... Jurists found an abundance of statements in the Quran and hadith literature warning of dhimmi enmity and treachery." (Cohen, p.65-66). Because of that, it had to be spelled out that they were not to hide a spy from the Muslims. Partly for the same reason, they were not to carry any weapon: they were too likely to turn it against Muslims; notwithstanding the fact that they had fought alongside Muslims at the time of initial conquest (Sharf, p.52). Another reason for prohibiting weapons to the dhimmis was the social humiliation. For the militant Arabs unarmed man was worse than a woman, they were made effeminate, and, like women, they had to be protected. In line with this, they were not allowed to ride on the saddles, but could sit sideways, like women. The most humiliating and dangerous of all was prohibition to strike a Muslim, which made the dhimmis fully exposed to individual abuse. This was completely different from the Byzantine situation. Sharf cites an instant when the Jews had taken up weapon to defend their quarter from the mob.

The same rules applied, however, to the slave ownership. The Jews in Byzantium could not own Christian slaves, dhimmis could not own Muslim slaves. This, again, was extended. They could not buy the slaves which were captured or received as war booty by Muslims; they could not buy young pagan slaves, because they were likely to convert to Islam.

Equivalent prohibitions applied to holding public offices. Even the reasons were the same: a Jew can not have authority over Christian, a dhimmi - over a Muslim.

The Muslims were keen to underline their superiority, stiffen social boundaries. The dhimmis had to build their houses lower than Muslims'; stand up in their presence; don their own distinctive clothing; wear no signs of honour, whether in dress or in speech, and never attempt to resemble Musims in appearance.

One of the most serious dhimmi disabilities was that that their testimony was not accepted, in which he was equal to a slave. The cause was again the Muslim suspiciousness. All Muslim-dhimmi relations were subject to Islamic law, Islamic law was applied to any cases outside jurisdiction of the dhimmi authorities, and it could be used in cases of appeal to higher authorities. At the same time, the dhimmi communities received a great deal of independence in the internal religious and civil matters. For the Jews it meant less interference than previously and wider practical applications of the rabbinic laws.

In practice, in the first centuries of Islam especially, most of the oppressive and humiliating rules were hardly ever applied. The best example of non-application is the clause in the Pact of 'Umar forbidding the dhimmis to sell wine. From what is known from medieval literature, the wine was not only sold by the dhimmis, it was sold to the Muslims for their personal consumption. Rivers of wine were flowing at the 'Abbasid court, and at the others too. Who, if not the skilled dhimmis, had produced that wine?

Practical, rather than ideological considerations usually determined the choice of administrators, clerks and government officials. There were plenty of dhimmis in these posts at various times.

There was dualism, probably too inherited from Byzantium, between the rulers and the clerics. The ulema called for upholding the restrictive measures, and, just like in Byzantium, often incited mob violence on account of some allegations. Byzantine Emperors resisted the attempts by ecclesiastical authorities to introduce further anti-Jewish legislation, the Muslim rulers usually paid no more than lip-service to the religion anyway and "in the treatment of dhimmis as in many other matters, failed to meet the exacting demand of their religious advisers and critics." (Lewis, p.16) Occasionally, however, the theologians' concerns reached their attention and then it resulted in the dhimmis' persecutions. The extent of damage one "pious" caliph could do is well illustrated by the mad rule of al-Hakim in Fatimid Egypt. To assess the situation of the dhimmis in medieval Muslim states we must disregard the notion of tolerance, because it was alien to the medieval mind. If non-Muslims were tolerated, it does not mean they were treated with tolerance. But then, had they been the masters of the situation, they were unlikely to give Muslims a better deal. It is evident that hardly any regulations with regard to dhimmis were a complete innovation on the part of Muslims, many have precedents in the Byzantine legislation on the Jews. For the Jews themselves the situation changed little with the advent of Islam: they continued to be protected by law and suffer from discriminative measures and sporadic violence.

The change in fortunes came with beginning of the decline of Muslim world following the Crusades. Worsening general conditions led to increased frustration, often readily taken out on dhimmis. The restrictions, left on paper before, were applied. They were humiliated in all possible ways, subjected to abuse on all sides.

True is Lewis's analysis of the three inferior groups in Islamic society: dhimmis, slaves and women. Of them, only the dhimmi chose his status himself, always having the choice of conversion and subsequent relief.


1.) Bernard Lewis, "The Jews of Islam". Routlege & Kegan Paul, 1984

2.) Bat Ye'or, "The Dhimmi". AUP, 1985

3.) Norman Stillman, "The Jews of Arab Lands". Philadelphia, 1979

4.) Mark Cohen, "Under Crescent and Cross". Princeton, 1994

5.) Andrew Sharf, "Byzantine Jewry: from Justinian to the fourth Crusade", 1971

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