views updated


A relative noun from the Arabic dhimma, which is a contraction of Ahl al-dhimma, the people with whom a compact or covenant has been made. Dhimma is the status conferred by Islamic law on the "people of the (revealed) scripture" (Ahl al-kitāb ); and dhimmī refers to a person who possesses that status. Through payment of a poll tax (jizya ), the Jews, Christians, and Sabaeans were promised security of life, liberty, and property. The levy of the jizya is mandated by the Qurān : "Fight against those who have been given the Scriptures (but) believe not in Allāh and the Last Day and follow not the Religion of the Truth (i.e., Islām ), until they pay the jizya." Unlike the pagans (mushrikūn ) who were prohibited from practicing their religion, dhimmīs were generally permitted to practice their religions, subject to strict legal and socio-economic restrictions. Under Islamic (Sharia ) law, dhimmīs are not citizens of an Islamic state, but remained under the jurisdiction of their respective religious leaders. Because of their talents and skills, many dhimmīs were employed as court officials, city administrators, teachers or physicians. Nevertheless, numerous restrictions reinforced the second-class status of dhimmī communities and forced them into ghettos. For instance, they must distinguish themselves from their Muslim neighbors by their dress. They were not permitted to build new churches or synagogues, but only to repair old ones. A Muslim man may marry a dhimmī woman of the ahl al-kitāb, who may keep her own religion, but a Muslim woman cannot marry a dhimmī man unless he embraces the Islamic faith. Dhimmīs are prohibited from converting Muslims under severe penalties, while Muslims are encouraged to convert dhimmīs. The historical "millet" system that governed the Jewish and Christian communities in the Ottoman empire is an example of the ahl al-Dhimma.

Bibliography: a. s. tritton, The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of 'Umar (New York 1930). a. r. i. doi, Non-Muslims Under Shariah (London 1983).

[g. makdisi/eds.]