People of Dhimmah: Conceptual and Objective Vision

By Dr. Muhammad Kamal Imam
Friday, 14 November 2014 00:00

Within our attempt for a contemporary study of the concept of Ahl-udh-Dhimmah (protected non-Muslims living under Islamic rule), two basic principles should be reconsidered:

First; religion is a source for diversity and plurality, and in this sense it represents a call for rapprochement and harmony, not a reason for discord and conflict. For, difference in terms of people's faith is a reality based on a Divine enactment. So, adopting the principle of tolerance among people is a juristic ruling that inspires a set of human rights and duties that should not be forgotten or neglected.

Second; coexistence among humans is one of the objectives of religion,

{O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another} (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

Knowing one another is a positive act, that necessitates developing a maqasid (objectives)-based methodology in understanding the Shari`ah texts. Such methodology should be adopted in a highly flexible manner dictated by the nature of vigorous life and the vitality of the society producing the details of the lived human experience.

To achieve harmony between the above two principles, our course of understanding should be cleared of the weights of "historical constructs" that imposed temporal relations[1] relevant only to their geographical and historical contexts. Such relations should not limit the activity of contemporary mind when dealing with contemporary reality and its jurisprudence.

This should be coupled with awareness that as the maqasid (objectives)-based approach should not break away with the established principles, it is also meant to deal with countless occurrences that must be handled in a way that ensures warding off evils and bringing about benefits.

The term of Ahl-udh-Dhimmah has been successively passed to us over history. Despite the importance of the term in the earlier Islamic centuries, the mentalities living at the consequent eras of imitation (taqleed), excessively closed to new readings of texts and new experiences, have dissociated the term's denotation of legal and creedal protection of followers of other religions.

Instead, they turned it into a discriminating "label", imposing a specific costume on them and subtracting their rights. We then received the term "Ahl-udh-Dhimmah" devoid of its shining religious essence, and charged with radical sentiments that necessitate eliminating it from the lexicon of juristic terms.

This paper is divided into two sections:

First: On the concept of Ahl-udh-Dhimmah

Second: On coexistence with Ahl-udh-Dhimmah

Section One

On the concept of Ahl-udh-Dhimmah

The concept of Ahl-udh-Dhimmah is still addressed in Arabic language - according to many jurists - from the perspective of difference between believers and disbelievers, though lexicons mention it within the context of protection, covenanting and guarantee, i.e. within the context of coexistence and establishment of rights rather than dispute and creedal privileges. For, a "Dhimmi" literally means a covenanted person who is granted a pledge of security, for their faith, lives, properties and honor. Such is a neutral definition that introduces a ruling, without adopting a specific attitude.

Technical Definition

Although many jurists views Dhimmah (covenant of protection) as a sort of acknowledging the disbeliever's disbelief, all these definitions require scrutiny and investigation.

A better definition is that given by Imam al-Ghazzali in his Al-Wajiz, through which he directly touched on the aspect of rights and duties, defining a Dhimmi as "Anyone of Ahl-ul-Kitab (People of the Book), and the like, who is an adult, free and sane male that is prepared to (engage in a) fight and who is capable of giving out the Jizyah (tax collected from a Dhimmi)".

This means that Dhimmah is a covenant of citizenship and that Jizyah is paid in return for protection. For, subjects/citizens  are, according to `Ali ibn Abi Talib in his message to Al-Ashtar an-Nakh`i, "of two types; either your fellows in faith, or your equals in creation". So, they have equal rights as due on the state.

Giving advice to Al-Ashtar and to the rest of his governors, Imam `Ali said:

"And maintain mercy, love and lenience in your heart towards the subjects, and do not be a predator that consumes their provision. For, they are either your fellows in faith or equals in creation. Both may fall in mistakes and have problems (that human beings are prone to,) either intentionally or unintentionally. So, treat them with mercy and forgiveness".

This is a discourse on coexistence, established on the basis of citizenship; citizens have the same rights and duties. They are either brothers in faith or equals in humanity. And human rights are the same for all people given their humanity, not their faiths.

 Ahl-udh-Dhimmah and Ahl-ul-Kitab

A number of researchers - Muslims and non-Muslims - considered the terms "Ahl-udh-Dhimmah" and "Ahl-ul-Kitab (the People of the Book)" as synonymous, and deemed that legislations and rulings applicable to either of them are binding for both categories, though legal principles and rules are decisive in differentiating between the two terms.

a. Ahl-ul-Kitab

"Ahl-ul-Kitab" is a general term that covers under its umbrella the Dhimmi, the Musta'man (non-Muslim with a peace agreement permitting them to enter and stay temporarily in a Muslim country), the Muharib (non-Muslim engaged in combat against the Muslims), from among the followers of Heavenly Messages other than Islam. They are all addressed by the Qur'anic verse that reads,

{O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you - that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah." But if they turn away, then say, "Bear witness that we are Muslims [submitting to Him]} (Aal-`Imran 3:64)

This is a general creedal discourse that covers all the People of the Book, with its fundamental basis in terms of creed being the principle: {There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion} (Al-Baqarah 2:256)

It is a discourse based on coexistence: {And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best} (Al-`Ankbut 29:46).

As for Ahl-udh-Dhimmah, they are non-Muslim followers of other Heavenly religions living in the Muslim political community, i.e. non-Muslim citizens. Those are subject to the generic rule {There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion}, and the specific rule, "They have the same rights and duties as we (Muslims) do".

Islam has been careful, regarding the relationship between the Muslims and Ahl-ul-Kitab, to affirm concord first. For, Allah's Religion - at all times and through the words of all prophets - is one and the same. The Almighty (Exalted is He) says,

{He has ordained for you of religion what He enjoined upon Noah and that which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and what We enjoined upon Abraham and Moses and Jesus - to establish the religion and not be divided therein} (Ash-Shura 42: 13)

The indication of the above text is clear-cut: Allah's Religion at all times is  one and the same, that is, acknowledgement of His Divinity, and submission and obedience to Him. As for the aspects of difference among the followers of different Heavenly religions, regarding the forms of worship acts, it is all based on Allah's Mercy and Lenience towards His Slaves, as He (Exalted is He) has assigned to every nation and every generation that which is good for them and which is fit for their times.

Second, Islam has also been careful, regarding the relation with Ahl-ul-Kitab, to maintain social coexistence, allowing the Muslim man to marry from among the women of Ahl-ul-Kitab and to eat of their food. It also commanded that argument with them be in a way which is best.

Admitting these facts, Zachary Karabell states in his book The People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West, that since the early stages of Islam, Muslim would consider Jews and Christians as far relatives to them, who deviated, to some extent, from the right path. In respect for the fact that they worship Allah and that they have receive similar revelation to that received by Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the Qur'an has called them Ahl-ul-Kitab and commanded Muslims to treat them well.

b. Ahl-udh-Dhimmah

The concept of the Ahl-ul-Kitab differs from that of Ahl-udh-Dhimmah, as the first determines the relationship on a humanity level, while the second determines the relationship on a citizenship level. Hence springs the characteristics of the Dhimmah contract, which run as follows:

1. It is a permanent contract, and in case it is timed, the contract turns invalid, since citizenship in the Muslim political community has two sources: Islam, which is valid only when it is permanent, and Dhimmah, which is also valid only when permanent. And when the Dhimmi embraces Islam, their Islam is sufficient for them to maintain their citizenship.

2. It is a contract that entails permanent inviolability of one's faith, life, property and honor. In other words, it is a contract that embodies the collective objectives of the Shari`ah in concrete legislations.

Besides, inviolability entailed by the Dhimmah contract is a conclusive one, since - as stated in Al-Kasani's Bada'i` As-Sana'i` - "they have indeed accepted the Dhimmah contract so that their property would be (treated) as our property is treated, and their lives would be (treated) as our lives are ".

Such is the Dhimmah contract and its main concepts in Islamic fundamental principles. At present, the chapters of rights and duties in the constitutions of Arab and Islamic countries sufficiently substitute it. It is now prime time for such term to disappear as it became charged with negative historical associations that distance it from its sources and isolate it from its original purposes and objectives.

Section Two

On coexistence with Ahl-udh-Dhimmah

The Dhimmah contract, in its Islamic juristic formula, entails full citizenship, within the context of which Jizyah rulings are perceived. Within such context, the obligation to pay Jizyah can be dropped upon the disappearance of its causes, i.e. under a modern state where there is no difference in military recruitment between a Muslim and a non-Muslim. The payment of Jizyah is a substitute to joining the Muslim army and, therefore, it is due only on those who can bear arms. It is dropped from children, women, the sick and the poor. It is also dropped from monks living in monasteries, churches and synagogues.

It is inconceivable that a Jizyah could be the price for approving a non-Muslim's maintenance of their faith. In his Al-Mabsut, As-Sarakhasi states:

"If this were permissible, it would then have been permissible to acknowledge a fornicator's indulgence in adultery in return for money that is levied on him.

So, it is not money that is intended. Rather, the purpose is to invite those peoples to the religion in a way that is best. For, concluding the Dhimmah contract implies that the Dhimmis should cease fighting Muslims who, in return, shall not fight against them.

Consequently, Dhimmis (will have the chance) to settle peacefully among the Muslims, witness their merits. They may then receive preaching by some Muslims and, thus, they may embrace Islam".

Finally, the Dhimmah contract entails substantial coexistence where freedom of faith is guaranteed by law and religious coercion is removed. It is reported by Hassan az-Zayn in his Ahl-ul-Kitab Fi al-Mujtama` Al-Islami that:

"Just before his departure from his homeland, Andalusia, Musa ibn Maymun - the well-known Jewish philosopher - had to pretend that he had embraced Islam. After he settled in Egypt and became the chief of the Jews there, he was harassed by a Muslim jurist of Andalusian origins, called Abu al-`Arab ibn Mu`ishah. This Jurist - upon reaching Egypt- met with Musa ibn Maymun and argued with him that he had embraced Islam in Andalusia, vituperated him and sought to hurt him.

Thereupon, `Abdur-Rahim ibn `Ali al-Bisani, known as Judge al-Fadil, protected ibn Maymun saying, ‘A compelled man's conversion to Islam is legally invalid". Hence, it was not possible then to accuse ibn Maymun of apostasy."

The Mufti of Constantinople also issued the same ruling around the end of the seventh century A.C. regarding the case of the Maronite prince, Jonah, who was forced by the governor of Tripoli to embrace Islam, and later he proclaimed his reversion to his Christian creed. Then, the Mufti brought forth the opinion maintaining that embracement of Islam - when based on violence and coercion - is invalid and non-binding. This fatwa was then approved by the Sultan.

History bears witness to coexistence among mankind on the lands of Islam as testified by historians like Reinhart Dozy, S. D. Goitien, Bernard Lewis and others. Bernard Lewis said that unlike the Jews and heretics in Europe, Jews and Christians in Muslim lands rarely faced martyrdom or exile, and they were not isolated within the borders of a ghetto, whether geographical or professional. No profession was banned for them. They were not forbidden to frequent any geographical space with the exception of sacred sites in Makkah and Madinah.

To put it in a nutshell, we can refer here to a statement by a Hanafi jurist called az-Zawzani, quoted by the late Grand Imam Mahmoud Shaltut in his book Al-Islam `Aqidah Wa Shari`ah:

"Indeed, the Dhimmis' life is permanently inviolable just as the Muslim's life is, and both are dwellers of the abode of Islam".

It is full citizenship in a nation where the people's religion commands them to administer universal justice.

[1] See Khamis ibn Sa`id ash-Shaqasi's Manhaj At-Talibin, p. 107, vol. 5, 1st ed., 2006, At-Tawbah Bookshop, Masqat, Oman.

Dr. Muhammad Kamal Imam is an Egyptian professor of Islamic law. He is the head of the Department of Shari`ah at the Faculty of Law, Alexandria University.


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