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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 12   01 - 15 November 2010


The word dhimmi has been derived from the Arabic dhimma, which connotes promise or undertaking, protection, and obligation. In Islamic legal terminology, a dhimmi or ahl al-dhimma refers to the non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state whose lives, religious beliefs and practices, properties and honour are protected under the provisions of Islamic Shariah. The Prophet exhorted his followers to scrupulously protect the legitimate rights and privileges of the dhimmis. Islamic law grants non-Muslims living in the Islamic state unfettered freedom to profess any religion of their choice, without any let or hindrance and without any interference or compulsion from the state authorities.

They enjoy the freedom to perform their religious rituals, to take out their religious processions, to have their disputes adjudicated through their own legal institutions, and to construct their places of worship. The Islamic state takes upon itself the responsibility of protecting its non-Muslim subjects from external aggression and safeguarding their places of worship as well as the endowments attached to them. Islamic law also prevents the state from interfering in the functioning of their religious institutions and in the appointment of priests and custodians of temples. The protection of minority rights under the Islamic dispensation has no parallel in the annals of history. 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 deputations 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 Christians will not be obliged to pay the
    tithe-tax (obligatory on Muslims) nor will the Muslim army enter their areas.

Thus the Pax Islamica included not only Muslims but also Jews, Christians and the pagan Arabs, and guaranteed to them religious, cultural, and judicial autonomy. In fact the Islamic state assumed responsibility for the maintenance and even defence of Jewish, Christian and pagan identities. During the conquest of Khaybar, Muslim soldiers found some copies of the Bible captured in booty. The Prophet ordered that they should be returned to the city’s vanquished Jewish population.

Non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state are exempt from the payment of the surplus property tax (zakah) as well as the tithe-tax, which are obligatory on Muslims. They are also exempt from military service. In lieu of these exemptions, they are required to pay an annual tax, known as jizya, ranging from 12 to 48 drachmas (dirhams), depending on their capacity. During the time of the Prophet, the quantum of jizya was 10 dirhams in a year, which amounted to the household expenses of an average family for about 10 days. The rich were required to pay 48 drachmas, people with average means 24, and those who earned their livelihood by means of handicraft 12 drachmas. Women and minors were exempted from the payment of this tax. Similarly, the tax was not collected from the indigent, the blind who had no source of income, the disabled, the very old, slaves and from monks. In some instances, the tax was waived in recognition of public service rendered by a non-Muslim. In the battle of Yarmuk, when Muslim forces were unable to defend the non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state, they returned to them the entire amount of jizya. Jizya was not invented by Muslims; it existed in Iran in earlier times, where those who did not discharge military duty were required to pay a tax.

Caliph Umar once spotted an old and blind man begging on the streets of Madina. He asked him, “Which community do you belong to?” He replied, “I am a Jew”. Umar then asked him, “And what has constrained you in this condition?” He replied, “I am poor and old, but I have to pay the jizya”. Moved by his pitiable state, Umar took him by his hand and brought him to his house and gave him some money. He then sent instructions to the cashier of the state treasury that he and others like him from amongst non-Muslims who are poor and destitute should be exempted from the payment of jizya. Caliph Umar once came across some Christians who were suffering from leprosy. He gave orders that they should receive stipends for life from the state treasury.

When the Muslim general Khalid ibn Walid conquered the city of Hira during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, he found that nearly one-seventh of the city’s Christian population to be sick and disabled. He exempted them from the payment of jizya and sent instructions that old persons from amongst non-Muslims who are unable to earn a livelihood due to old age or frail health and those who are afflicted with a calamity should be exempted from the payment of jizya. Furthermore, such persons should receive financial support from the state treasury.

The 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 not as invaders but as liberators. 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 all 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 the matter of their faith. During his caliphate, 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. While on his deathbed, Caliph Umar is reported to have said, “I exhort my successor regarding the treatment to be meted out to the people protected by the Messenger of God non-Muslims). They should receive the fullest execution of their covenant, and their life and property should be defended even by going to war, and they should not be taxed beyond their capacity”. 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.’ 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, did not attack Christianity. On the contrary, they helped our religion, respected our priests and shrines, and offered donations to our churches and convents.

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. When Amr ibn al-A’s, 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 the Christian custodians. When Khalid ibn Walid signed a treaty with the Christian population of Hirah following the city’s conquest by the Muslim army, he gave a written assurance to them that their churches would not be destroyed or desecrated and that they would not be prevented from ringing their bells or from carrying crosses in their religious processions.

Islamic law guarantees religious and cultural protection not only to the Jews and Christians but also to the followers of other religions, including Zoroastrians, Sabaeans and worshippers of idols. After the conquest of Persia, the fire temples of the Zoroastrians were left untouched by the Muslims. In the 10th century, 300 years after the Islamic conquest of Persia, fire temples were to be found in every province of the country. 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 continued to have a majestic Buddhist temple perched on a hillock while Hindu worshippers continued to throng Multan’s magnificent temple.

Related entries: Islamic state, jizya, minority rights in Islam, Jews, Christians


Ibn al-Qayyim: Ahkal ahl al-dhimma (Damascus, 1961)
Abu Yusuf: Kitab al-kharaj (Cairo, 1965)
Yahya ibn Adam: Kitab al-kharaj (Cairo, 1347 AH)
Al-Baldhuri: Futuh al-buldan (Leiden, 1866)
Muhammad Hamidullah: Muslim Conduct of State (Lahore, 1979)
A. S. Tritton: The Caliphs and their non-Muslim Subjects (London, 1930)

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