Dhimma, Dhimmi

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DHIMMA, DHIMMI , Arabic term referring to the status of Jews and Christians living in Islamic countries as protected people. This status does not apply to other peoples or religious groups, such as Hindus, for whom a strict policy of "conversion or death" is in force. The dhimmi must be humiliated, belittled, distinguished by his appearance: his distinctive dress indicates to the Muslim that the dhimmi is to be treated as an inferior.

Jewish and Christian religious leaders in Muslim lands may only serve with the permission of the Muslim authorities. The Muslim Arabs allowed the Babylonian Jews to keep an official head of the community and head of the yeshivot for several hundred years, but then abolished this office. The Turks continue to choose the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch and the Egyptian president chooses the head of the Coptic church.

It is a religious obligation of Muslims to degrade non-Muslims. When Jews used to live in Muslim lands, they could not own property. If they lived in cities, they had to pay a special tax to demonstrate their subservience. They could not serve in the army, nor carry weapons. Marrying a Muslim woman was punishable by death.

Dhimmitude is the Islamic system of governing populations conquered by holy (jihād) wars, encompassing all of the demographic, ethnic, and religious aspects of the political system. The word "dhimmitude" as a historical concept describes the legal and social conditions of Jews and Christians subjected to Islamic rule. Dhimmi was the name applied by the Arab-Muslim conquerors to indigenous non-Muslim populations who surrendered by a treaty (dhimma) to Muslim domination.

The Muslim empire incorporated numerous peoples which had their own religion, culture, land, and civilization. For centuries, these indigenous peoples constituted the great majority of the population in the Islamic lands. Although these populations differed, they were ruled by the same type of laws, based on the Shari'a.

This similarity, with its regional variations, created a uniform civilization developed through the centuries by all non-Muslim indigenous peoples who were vanquished by jihād wars and governed by Shari'a law. It is this civilization which is called Dhimmitude. It is characterized by the different strategies developed by each dhimmi group to survive as a non-Muslim entity in its Islamized country. Dhimmitude is not exclusively concerned with Muslim history and civilization. Rather, it investigates the history of those non-Muslim peoples conquered and colonized by jihād. It encompasses the relationship of Muslims and non-Muslims at the theological, social, political, and economic levels. It also encompasses the relationships among the numerous ethno-religious dhimmi groups and the type of mentality they have developed out of their particular historical condition, which lasted for centuries (in some Muslim countries, until today).

Dhimmitude is a complete, integrated system, based on Islamic theology. It cannot be judged from the circumstantial position of any one community, at a given time or in a given place. Dhimmitude must be appraised according to its laws and customs, irrespective of circumstances and political contingencies.


S.D. Goitein, Jews and Arabs (1955); "Dhimma," in: eis2 2 (1965), 227–31 (includes bibliography); B. Ye'or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam (1985); Y. Courbage and P. Fargues, Christians and Jews under Islam (1988).

[Shlomo Alon (2nd ed.)]