Wednesday, 23 January 2008


I learnt a new word today: ‘dhimmi’. It is the Arabic term for vanquished people, primarily the Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule after their lands were conquered in the jihad or war of conquest by Islamic armies beginning in the 8th and 9th century. The dhimma or pact was essentially a contract that stipulated the rules and status of non-Muslims subjects under Islamic control. In exchange for security of life and property, the dhimmis had to pay a poll tax or jizya and were subject to a condition of inferiority, humiliation and servility.

Accounts of the golden age of Islam described it as an empire that was admired for its justice, respect, tolerance and compassion for its subjects; however, accounts of the life of dhimmis under Islamic rule have revealed that in practice, it was further from the truth. What was life like for a dhimmi under Islamic rule?

  • In North Africa and Yemen, they were forced to become executioners, grave­diggers, and cleaners of public latrines. They were not allowed to build, repair or renovate their synagogues and churches. They were required to conduct their religious rites in humility, silence, and secrecy. Destruction, confiscation or Islamization of synagogues and churches were common.
  • Their lives had less value than Muslims’. The penalty for murder was much lighter if the dhimmi was the victim. Likewise, penalties for offences were unequal between Muslims and non-Muslims. A dhimmi could not defend himself if he was physically harmed by a Muslim; he could only beg for mercy. He had no right to defend himself against physical aggression, nor the right to defend himself in an Islamic law court as his testimony was unacceptable. Dhimmis could be judged under their own laws but their legal system was not recognized by a Muslim court whose judgments overrode dhimmi legal decisions.

  • Dhimmis were not allowed to have authority over Muslims, to possess or buy land, to marry Muslim women, to have Muslim slaves or servants, or to use the Arabic alphabet.

  • In the social domain a dhimmi had to adhere to a strict dress code to distinguish him from a Muslim. His house was differentiated by size and colour. He could not ride on a horse or camel; only a donkey was allowed him and even how he rode his donkey was prescribed. He had to dismount on seeing a Muslim. In the streets, he had to pass on the left (impure) side of a Muslim, walking humbly with lowered eyes. He had to tolerate insults without responding, to remain standing in a meek and respectful manner in the presence of a Muslim. If he was admitted to a public bath, he had to wear bells to make known his presence. Violating these rules could lead to a severe beating. Stoning Jews and Christians ‑ especially in Arab‑populated regions ‑ was common. Insults and contempt toward a dhimmi were customary. In Morocco and Yemen, Jews were forbidden any footwear outside their segregated quarter.

The dhimmi was a second class non-Muslim subject and his presence was tolerated as long as he paid his tax and behaved with servility.

The fact is that Muslims have always perceived the world as divided into 2 blocks: the community of Islam and the infidels. Jihad is the ideological tool with which to carry out conquest and convert infidels into Muslims. For Muslims, the jihad or holy war is a religious duty, because it is the Muslims’ mission to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. The position of Muslims has been that Islam is the ultimate truth, and Prophet Muhammad is the one who brought the final and perfect revelation to all humankind.

From this exalted position, all other religions and ways of life can only be tolerated. It is not tolerance, but toleration, for tolerance would have implied mutual respect for each other’s religion and acceptance of the religious and cultural diversity that exists in the world.

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