Minorities: Dhimmis

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From the beginning of Islam up to present day, many Islamic societies have been characterized by the presence of more or less numerous non-Muslim minorities. Whereas in practice the status and treatment of these minorities have varied greatly over time and space, Islamic law provides a certain theoretical framework that has remained quite constant throughout the time: According to this all non-Muslim people are considered infidels (kuffar, sing. kafir). However there is a basic distinction between the polytheists (mushrikun, sing. mushrik) on the one hand, with whom social intercourse is forbidden, and who were to be fought until they either converted or were killed or enslaved and the "people of the book" (ahl al-kitab) on the other, whose faith was founded on revelation, who were to be granted protection, and with whom social intercourse was allowed. Originally only Jews and Christians were conceived as ahl al-kitab; later, however, this term was extended to a sect known as the Sabeans, the Zoroastrians, and, in India, even to Hindus. Concerning the legal status of these "people of the book," Islamic law makes another distinction between the dhimmi living as a protected person in Islamic territory, the harbi who lives in non-Muslim lands (dar al-harb), and the musta˒min who as a foreigner is granted the temporary right of residence in an Islamic territory. The status of the dhimmis was secured by a legal institution called dhimma ("protection"), which guaranteed safety for their life, body, and property, as well as freedom of movement and religious practice on condition of their acknowledging the domination of Islam. This included the payment of various taxes, the most important being the socalled jizya, a poll-tax levied on all able-bodied free adult dhimmi males of sufficient means.

It is the attitude of the prophet Muhammad who, after the expansion of his authority across Arabia, concluded agreements of submission and protection with Jews and Christians of other localities which serves as precedent for the dhimma institution. In the course of the Arab conquests under the "rightly guided" caliphs similar agreements were reached with the non-Muslims of Mesopotamia, Syria, Persia, and North Africa who surrendered their cities to the Arab armies. Muslim jurists later compiled these individual treaties into a coherent, sophisticated legal system conceding to the dhimmi communities almost complete autonomy under their respective religious leaders. It has to be pointed out, however, that the doctors of Islamic law tended to draw rather distinct boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims, and to interpret the subjection of dhimmis to Islamic authority as a justification for discriminating and humiliating measures imposed upon them. Thus, according to Islamic law, a Muslim could marry a dhimmi woman, but a dhimmi could not marry a Muslim woman; a Muslim could own a dhimmi slave, although the reverse was not allowed; at the frontier the dhimmi merchant would pay double the tariff rate paid by the Muslim (10% and 5%, respectively) and in criminal law it was commonly considered that the blood-wit (diya) for a dhimmi was less (one-half or two-thirds) than that for a Muslim; finally, the dhimmi had to wear distinguishing clothing, in particular the zunnar belt, and there were various limitations on the outward expressions of worship such as processions, the use of bells, and the construction and repair of religious buildings. A famous document authorizing many of these restrictions is the so-called "Covenant of ˓Umar," a list of pledges allegedly given to the second "rightly-guided caliph," ˓Umar ibn al-Khattab (634–644), by the Christians of the cities conquered by him.

In the classical centuries of Islam persecution of dhimmis was very rare: One single case has been recorded, that of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim (r. 996–1021) who in 1009 ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. In the late Middle Ages, however, there was a general hardening of attitudes against dhimmis in Muslim countries. In the West, the Almohads adopted an intolerant policy, while in the East the government of the Mamluk state could not resist the pressure of jurists, such as Ibn Taymiyya, who insisted on an increasingly vexatious interpretation of the law regarding dhimmis. It was the legal system of the expanding Ottoman Empire that in the sixteenth century restored the classical Islamo-dhimmi symbiosis. This lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century, when under strong European pressure the provisions of Islamic law were increasingly replaced by new legislations that were intended to free the non-Muslims from their inferior status of "protected people" and to make them full citizens. Today most written constitutions of Muslim states confirm the principle of equality of all citizens irrespective of religion, sex, and race. Certain militant Islamic groups, however, advocate the reimposition of the jizya and the dhimma regulations.

See alsoMinorities: Offshoots of Islam .


Braude, Benjamin, and Lewis, Bernard. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982.

Krämer, Gudrun. "Dhimmi or Citizen? Muslim-Christian Relations in Egypt." In The Christian-Muslim Frontier. Chaos Clash or Dialogue? Edited by Jorgen S. Nielsen. London and New York: Tauris, 1998.

Tritton, A. S. The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of ˓Umar. London: Oxford University Press, 1930.

Patrick Franke

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