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The Relationship of Islam to Its "Dhimmi" Minorities

Muhammad first codified the treatment of minority religions (the "People of the Book") in Islamic territories with the institution of special taxes on unbelievers. The relevant passage in the Qur'an (IX, 29) states: "Fight against those who do not believe in God or in the Last Day, who do not forbid what God and his Prophet have forbidden or practice the true religion, among those who have been given the Book, until they pay the jizya [poll tax] from their hand, they being humbled." This passage has traditionally been interpreted to indicate that the jizya was intended as a symbolic expression of humiliation and subordination of those who rejected Muhammad (Lewis, 1984).

Over the seventh and eighth centuries, the Caliphs Umar I and Umar II elaborated this idea further, and it came to be called the "Pact of Umar":

The Pact of Umar was a writ of protection (dhimma) extended by Allah's community to their protégés (dhimmis). In return for the safeguarding of life and property and the right to worship unmolested according to their conscience, the dhimmis had to pay the jizya [poll tax] and the kharaj [land tax]. They were to conduct themselves with the demeanor and comportment befitting a subject population. They were never to strike a Muslim. They were not to carry arms, ride horses, or use normal riding saddles on their mounts. They were not to build new houses of worship nor repair old ones. They were not to hold public religious processions (including funeral processions), nor pray too loudly. Naturally, they were not to proselytize. They had to wear clothing that distinguished them from the Arabs Furthermore, dhimmis were to be restricted from government service. In other words, at least in theory, dhimmis were to be permanent outsiders with no real part in the Muslim Arab civitas Dei (Stillman, 1979, pp. 25-26).

The dhimma set a contractual relationship between Muslims and their non-Muslim minorities. While dhimmis were relegated to an inferior status, they were also afforded some protection as long as they accepted that status. There were rulings at various times throughout the Muslim world stating that Jews and Christians should not be mistreated without justification. In better times, Jews were able to appeal to the authorities for protection against mob violence, and there was an attitude of live and let live toward them. But in worse times, persecution was justified on the argument that Jews or Christians had violated the pact by overstepping their place. Since the minorities had, in effect, broken the contract, Muslims were no longer bound by it. As noted above, in Granada in 1066 the poet Abu Ishaq wrote that since Jews had violated the contract, Muslims were free to attack them without sin, instigating an anti-Jewish riot ("Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them.... They have violated our covenant with them.... Do not tolerate their misdeeds against us"). However, such justification of violence was unusual until the changes in the role of Jews and Christians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Lewis, 1984, p. 45). More commonly, the effect was not pogroms so much as constant harassment and humiliation.

Iraqi Jew Mordechai Ben-Porat described the everyday experience of being a Jew in an Arab land: "I must make it clear that only a minority of Jews had good relations with the Moslems. Most of our people were not involved in the society around them. A Moslem's right to harass a Jew was taken for granted; it would not have occurred to the victim to react or to report the matter to the police" (Ben-Porat, 1998, p. 25).

The idea of a social contract, in which members kept their proper place, is related to the Muslim idea of justice. Justice came to mean a balance or equilibrium in the social order. Non-Muslims had their place, and if they stepped out of it, they created both a breach in God's law and a danger to the social and political balance. In contrast to Christian rulers' treatment of Jews, Muslims were not concerned with religious belief so much as conformity to the social hierarchy. The problem was if the non-Muslim minorities - Christian or Jewish - seemed to be acquiring more wealth or power than they were supposed to have. Ottoman documents after the French Revolution frequently criticized as "absurd and preposterous" the idea of equality among different peoples (Lewis, 1984, p. 65).

Thus, Muslims saw the ascendancy of Europe and colonialism of the nineteenth century as further breaches of God's law of the social order. Muslims increasingly resented the growing number of dhimmis who served the European powers and who prospered by commercial activities with them. This began as resentment toward Christians but extended toward Jews as the latter began to benefit as well, aided by the fact that Jews were less well protected by the foreign powers than the Christians were. Western influence also brought in the anti-Semitic ideology of Christian Europe. Old themes such as the blood libel began to spread in the Muslim world. European anti-Semitic tracts began to be translated into Arabic by Arab Christians, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was introduced in 1927. These documents are still widely distributed in the Arab world, and Protocols is required reading in a number of Arab universities. A 1969 UNESCO report on children's textbooks used in schools in the Palestinian refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank criticized the heavy use of anti-Semitic imagery and recommended that most of the books currently in use be withdrawn, but the report was never implemented (Lewis, 1984).

A magazine interview with Saudi Arabia's late King Faysal, published in Egypt in 1972, illustrates the official sanction given these anti-Semitic images:

Israel has had malicious intentions since ancient times. Its objective is the destruction of all other religions. It is proven from history that they are the ones who ignited the Crusades at the time of Saladin the Ayyubid so that the war would lead to the weakening of both Muslims and Christians. They regard the other religions as lower than their own and other peoples as inferior to their level. And on the subject of vengeance - they have a certain day on which they mix the blood of non-Jews into their bread and eat it. It happened that two years ago, while I was in Paris on a visit, that the police discovered five murdered children. Their blood had been drained, and it turned out that some Jews had murdered them in order to take their blood and mix it with the bread that they eat on this day. This shows you what is the extent of their hatred and malice toward non-Jewish peoples. (Lewis, 1984, p. 187)

As recently as 2002, Saudi Arabia's government-controlled newspaper Al-Riyadh published a detailed account alleging Jewish use of Muslim and Christian blood in preparing pastries for the holiday of Purim, and similar stories have been published in Egypt and Syria (Middle East Media Research Institute, 2002). The Saudi story appeared just at the time that Crown Prince Abdullah claimed to be offering a peace plan that would provide "normal relations" to Israel in exchange for Israel's full withdrawal to the 1967 borders.

A major contributor to Arab anti-Semitism was the growing Jewish presence in Palestine and the eventual establishment of the Jewish state. However, while not underestimating this contribution, it was part of a larger change in the status of Muslim nations in relation to the West. The Jews in Arab lands, with their own Western economic and nationalistic ties, provided an easy target for Muslim resentment, and the rhetoric of anti-Semitism a convenient tool with which to express it. Ironically, most Jews in Arab lands were not particularly pro-Zionist early in the twentieth century, seeing Zionism as a predominantly European movement. The conversion of Jews in Arab lands to Zionism was a direct result of Arab persecution, including the active involvement with the Nazis of the Mufti of Jerusalem. The numerous anti-Jewish riots of the 1940's made the Jews' position in the Arab countries so precarious that it virtually guaranteed their mass migration to the State of Israel after 1948 (Lewis, 1984). Arab anti-Zionism, originally an outlet for resentment and eventually an attempt to cripple the Jewish state by overwhelming it with more immigrants than it could absorb (Ben-Porat, 1998), actually ended up strengthening it. To this day Arabs regard the State of Israel as a foreign presence forced on them, a remnant of Western colonialism (Kershner, 2003). But as a result of Arab actions, the majority of Israelis are themselves or their descendants former Jewish citizens of those same Arab countries and longtime natives of the Middle East. (go back)(continue)

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism