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Non-Muslims in the Islamic state

The attitude and behaviour of Prophet Muhammad towards the beliefs and traditions of the followers of other religions exhibited exemplary tolerance, understanding and magnanimity. He allowed a delegation of polytheists and idolators from Taif to stay in his mosque at Madina. Some Christians from Najran, who visited the Prophet, sought his permission to say their prayers in the mosque, which was granted.

When he set up a city-state at Madina, he drew up its constitution, which was committed to writing at his instance. This constitution included two significant passages: first, Muslims and Jews will be entitled to the preservation and protection of their respective religious traditions; second, Muslims and Jews will together constitute a (political) community. This covenant was extended, at a later date, to the Christians of Najran and pagan Arabs. The Pax Islamica included not only Muslims but also Jews, Christians and pagan Arabs, and guaranteed to them religious, cultural, and judicial autonomy.


Thus the city-state of Madina provided the first model of democratic pluralism. The charter of rights and assurances issued to the Christian population of Najran by the Prophet included the following passage:

An assurance is hereby extended, on behalf of God and the Prophet, to the people of Najran, that their lives, religion, lands and wealth will be protected. No change in their existing conditions will be effected. Their rights will not be violated. Their commercial caravans and delegations will be protected. No cardinal will be dismissed from his position, nor will an ascetic be denied the right to his way of life. The custodians of churches will face no interference in respect of their functions.


The protection of minority rights under Islamic dispensation has no parallel in the annals of history. The Prophet exhorted his followers to scrupulously protect the legitimate rights and privileges of the dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state). He issued strict instructions to the effect that, in the event of a war, women, children and religious functionaries belonging to other religions should not be harmed.

This attitude of tolerance and sympathy was continued by the four caliphs and the companions. It is remarkable that the occupation of Syria by the Muslim army during the caliphate of Abu Bakr met with no resistance from the local Christian population who welcomed the Muslim soldiers who, in their eyes, liberated them from the oppression of their own coreligionists. When Khalid ibn Walid concluded a treaty with the Christian population after the conquest of Hira during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, he gave a written assurance to them that their churches would not be destroyed or desecrated by Muslims and that they would not be prevented from ringing their bells or from carrying crosses in their religious processions, During the caliphate of Umar, some Muslims usurped a piece of land belonging to a Jew and constructed a mosque on the site. When the Caliph got to know about it he ordered the demolition of the mosque and the restoration of the land to the Jew. During the caliphate of Ali, the Muslim-occupied territories of the Byzantine Empire faced internal strife. Emperor Constantine II sent a secret message to the Christian population in the Islamic state, urging them to rise in revolt against Islamic rule and assuring them of his military support. The Christians, however, spurned the offer, saying, "These enemies of our religion are preferable to you."

The Islamic state guaranteed not only the protection of the lives and honour of the dhimmis but also of their religious beliefs and rituals, personal laws and endowments. When Amr ibn al-As, a distinguished companion of the Prophet, conquered Egypt in. 640 AD, he left the Christian population in undisturbed possession of their churches and guaranteed to them independence and autonomy in all ecclesiastical matters. He allowed the properties and endowments attached to Christian churches to remain with their traditional Christian custodians.

After the conquest of Jerusalem, Caliph Umar gave the following assurance, in writing, to the Christian population of the town:

"This is the assurance which Umar, the servant of God, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Aelia. He grants to them security for their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses, and for all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be converted into dwelling places, nor destroyed, nor shall any constraint be put upon them in respect of their faith."


Under the Islamic dispensation, non-Muslims were entitled to preserve and maintain their places of worship and to construct new ones. In some cases, the expenses for the maintenance and repair of their places of worship were met from the state treasury. Similarly, the salaries of Jewish rabbis and Christian priests were often paid from the state treasury. Non-Muslims who had no source of income received stipends from the state treasury. During the caliphate of Uthman, Jeserjah, the bishop of Merv, wrote a letter to the Patriarch of Persia, saying that the Arabs, whom God has given dominion over the world, do not attack Christianity. On the contrary, they help our religion, respect our priests and shrines, and offer donations to our churches and monasteries.

Islamic law guarantees religious and cultural protection not only to the Jews and Christians but also to Zoroastrians, Sabaeans and worshippers of idols. After the conquest of Persia, the fire temples of Zoroastrians were left untouched by the Muslims. In the tenth century, three centuries after the Islamic conquest of Persia, fire temples were to be found in every province of Persia. Following the conquest of Sind, Muhammad ibn Qasim gave a written assurance to the local Hindu population to the effect that their temples would not be harmed or destroyed. Daibul had a majestic Buddhist temple perched on a hillock. Multan had a magnificent Hindu temple. All such places of worship were left untouched by Muhammad ibn Qasim.

Since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Christian rulers had prohibited the Jews from entering or living in the city. It was only after the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem that Jews came to live in the city. When Muslims conquered Spain, they left the Christians in the exercise of their religion. They allowed them to be tried by their own judges in accordance with their own religious laws. The ritual of the mass was observed with all solemnity, the psalms were chanted in the choir, and the church festivals were celebrated with customary enthusiasm. When the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453, they proclaimed themselves the protectors of the Greek Church. The control of spiritual and ecclesiastical matters was left entirely to the Christian clergy, with no interference from the state.

When the Jews were evicted from Spain in 1492, they took shelter in Muslim lands. In Turkey, they were welcomed by the Muslim mayor of Istanbul. It is significant to note that Jewish communities who speak Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish survived only in the eastern Mediterranean lands which were part of the Ottoman Empire.


Under Ottoman rule, the cherished principle of tolerance was institutionalised through the Millet system in which administrative control was exercised through legally constituted religious communities, notably the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians and the Rabbanite Jews. The state did not demand conversion or cultural conformity from the ethnic and religious minorities.

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