Are you a Dhimmi? Who is a Dhimmi? Has there been anything remotely resembling a Dhimmi or Zimmi anytime or in any place in world history before the arrival of Islam?
Dhimmi Identity and Historical Context
The concept of the Dhimmi, or ahl aḏ-ḏimmah/dhimmah, referred to as “the people of the covenant,” constitutes a noteworthy historical term characterizing non-Muslim individuals residing within Islamic states while enjoying legal safeguards.
A Dhimmi, within an Islamic societal framework, represents a religious minority whose defining criterion lies in their adherence to the teachings of the “people of the book,” constricting the classification to those who follow a monotheistic faith. It is fundamental to acknowledge that Islam posits a belief that over the course of history, divine revelation was conferred to humanity through 124,000 prophets, but it contends that these sacred texts, preserved in the Qitab, were subsequently distorted by human intervention, rendering adherents of these religions inferior to true believers, or momins, in Islamic doctrine.
Ahl al-Qitab, or Ahl e Qitab, were thus granted reluctant permission to continue residing within Islamic societies. Historically, the Dhimmi status originally applied exclusively to Jews, Sabians (specifically Mandaeans, who are now extinct), and Christians. Nonetheless, as the domain of Islamic conquests expanded, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists were subsequently encompassed within this classification.
Origin and Historical Progression
In 624 CE, the leader of the newly formed religious movement initiated territorial expansion and conversions. This messianic figure requested the Qainuqā’, a Jewish community in Medina, to acknowledge his prophetic claims. Upon their refusal, he undertook military action and vanquished them. Subsequently, due to the intercession of a recent convert, he opted to spare the Jews but expelled them from the city, confiscating their property and assets, thereby depriving them of means for subsistence.
In 625 CE, a comparable fate befell the Jewish Nad.īr tribe, where the messianic leader incinerated their palm groves and allocated their fields and residences among his adherents.
This leader, asserting divine endorsement, later launched an offensive against the Jewish Quraiza tribe. He extended an offer of safety to them, contingent upon their renunciation of their faith and conversion to his newly established religious movement. Upon the Jews’ refusal, the infuriated leader initiated an attack, emerging triumphant. Subsequently, he compelled approximately 600-900 Jews, led forth in groups, to endure beheadings, sparing those who embraced his faith. The victorious leader then distributed the women, children, residences, and wealth among his followers.
By the year 628 CE, a Treaty of Hudaibiya (Non-belligerence) with the Quraysh put an end to hostilities with the aforementioned leader, who also belonged to the Quraysh tribe. This accord facilitated his assault on the Khaibar oasis, inhabited by another Jewish community. His army launched a surprise offensive against the unsuspecting tribe in the early morning, resulting in the conflagration of their palm groves and fields. In contrast to prior encounters, the Khaibar tribe demonstrated resilience, holding out for a month and a half. Besieged on all sides, they eventually conceded to a peace treaty, surrendering under the terms of a novel agreement, often referred to as the Treaty of Dhimma. This accord permitted the Khaibar Jews to continue cultivating their fields, on the condition of surrendering half of their produce to the victorious leader, who retained the prerogative to unilaterally abrogate the agreement and expel them at his discretion.
It is noteworthy that subsequently, all Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Zoroastrian communities, both within and beyond the Arabian Peninsula, acquiesced to the conditions of Dhimma imposed by the conquering Islamic forces, similar to those stipulated in the Treaty of Khaibar.
Dhimmi Status and Its Implications
A) Kharāj – The concept of kharāj, a tax imposed on the dhimmi population as a result of the rights of conquest established at Khaibar, signified the transfer of their lands to the Islamic community. The dhimmi, although retaining the right to cultivate their land, did so in exchange for the payment of this tax to the ruling momin authorities. This tax, kharāj, transformed the previous land-owning farmers into sharecroppers who tilled their land as tenants. The ‘leader’ strictly prohibited land ownership by the dhimmi religious minority. In specific rural regions, the subservient condition of the dhimmi populace further deteriorated over time.
In 1884, Charles de Foucauld documented regions in southern Morocco where non-Muslim religious minorities and their families found themselves entirely subjugated to their Muslim masters.
B) Jizya – Adult male dhimmis were additionally required to pay the jizya, a tax declared by the ‘leader’ to possess divine sanction, thus rendering it applicable in perpetuity (Quran 9:29). According to certain jurists, this poll tax demanded that each individual dhimmi pay it individually during a humiliating public ceremony, often involving physical strikes on the head or neck.
Possession of a jizya receipt, originally in the form of a document worn around the neck or a seal affixed to the wrist or chest, granted dhimmis the ability to traverse various locales.
C) Other Taxes – In addition to these primary levies, dhimmis faced augmented commercial rates and travel taxes compared to their momin counterparts. Apart from formal taxation, substantial sums were frequently extorted from dhimmi communities at the ruler’s discretion. The recourse to imprisonment and torture for the purpose of extracting this “tax” represented a common practice.
Dhimmis remained categorically excluded from assuming any public office, restricted to the most menial and degrading positions that devout believers would not undertake. The Hadiths pronounced that “an infidel/kafir (non-believer in Islam) ought never be able to assert authority over a Muslim.”
(Note – On occasion, dhimmis did manage to secure employment within Islamic governance, albeit often to the chagrin of the populace and religious authorities. Such dhimmis frequently converted to safeguard their social status and security.)
Inequality Before the Law
Invalidity of the Dhimmi’s Oath – A dhimmi was legally proscribed from providing testimony against a Muslim, rendering the dhimmi forced to procure Muslim witnesses, incurring significant expenses to mount a defense. The rejection of dhimmi testimony in Muslim courts was grounded in Hadiths, which posited that non-believers were innately deceitful and mendacious as they willfully persisted in denying the supremacy of Islam.
The refusal to admit a dhimmi’s testimony bore particular gravity, given the frequent allegations leveled against dhimmis for blasphemy against the leader, the faith, or even the angels, a crime punishable by death. In such circumstances, the dhimmi found himself incapable of refuting the accusation in a court of law, thus only preserving his life through conversion to the faith of his oppressor.
Islamic jurisprudence applied the law of retaliation only between parties considered equal. Consequently, if a dhimmi were found guilty of a crime against a momin, his punishment would be far more severe than that imposed if the victim were also a dhimmi. In practice, if not in law, a dhimmi frequently faced a death sentence even when acting in legitimate self-defense against a momin.
Occasionally, collective punishments were enacted, with entire dhimmi communities held collectively responsible for real or perceived transgressions against the faithful. An illustrative example transpired in 1866 in Fez, where a Jewish individual wounded a momin who had attempted to harm him, resulting in immediate reprisals against thirty Jews who were also wounded.
A) Places of Worship – Regulations governing places of worship were contingent upon the circumstances of conquest and the stipulations of treaties. The construction of new temples, churches, or monasteries was categorically prohibited by law.
Dhimmi places of worship did not enjoy inviolability; they could be subjected to looting, arson, or demolition as acts of retribution against the community, often on spurious grounds.
The places of worship for momins were strictly off-limits to dhimmis and non-believers, transgressions of which carried the penalty of death for the violator, and at times, the entire dhimmi community. In certain instances, passing in front of a mosque could lead to a dhimmi’s execution.
B) Liturgy – The ringing of bells, sounding of the ram’s horn (shofar), and public display of crosses, icons, banners, and other religious symbols were all proscribed. Certain theologians permitted religious processions by dhimmis, but only in locales where they constituted the majority.
C) Persecutions and Forced Conversions – While the Qur’an prohibited forced conversions, instances of such coercion did, nevertheless, transpire. For instance, in 704–5, Caliph Walīd I convened the nobles of Armenia in the churches of St. Gregory in Naxcawan and Xram on the Araxis, immolating them. Others met crucifixion and decapitation, with their wives and children taken into captivity.
The abduction of dhimmi children for conversion to the Islamic faith became prevalent from the sixteenth century onward. Even into the early twentieth century, during numerous episodes of massacres and riots, significant numbers of children were forcibly converted to Islam.
Segregation and Humiliation of Dhimmis
Dhimmis were barred from acquiring land or property outside their segregated enclaves, where they were typically confined.
The size and appearance of dhimmi residences, temples, and buildings were mandated to be inferior to those of Muslim dwellings. In fact, dhimmi houses were required to be less ostentatious and smaller.
Dhimmis were prohibited from owning slaves who had converted to Islam.
They were forbidden from possessing weapons.
The use of Arab honorific titles and the Arabic alphabet was proscribed for dhimmis.
Seeking medical treatment from dhimmi physicians and pharmacists was discouraged due to suspicions of poisoning the faithful.
Dhimmis were often relegated to the most degrading tasks, including the disposal of deceased animals and cleaning public latrines, even on their religious holidays, as observed in Pakistan.
Riding a horse or camel was considered a grave offense for dhimmis, and this prohibition is still evident in tribal areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria.
Dhimmis were compelled to appear before Muslims in a demeaning posture.
They were disallowed from congregating in public spaces for conversation.
Dhimmi attire, including color, shape, dimensions, turbans, footwear, saddles, and the clothing of their family members and servants, were subject to stringent regulations.
These examples illustrate the systemic oppression endured by the dhimmi populace, endorsed through contempt and justified through the principle of inequality between believers and dhimmis. Dhimmis were singled out as objects of disdain and contempt, marked by overt discriminatory measures, and they often faced decimation during periods characterized by massacres, forced conversions, and exile. These historical circumstances compelled dhimmi communities to live in a state of perpetual insecurity and disdainful tolerance, particularly as unarmed non-believers who had achieved prosperity through their labor or skills frequently incurred jealousy, leading to oppression, dispossession, and emigration. Many dhimmi communities met annihilation due to their religious beliefs, thereby exemplifying the enduring legacy of a system of subjugation marred by inequality and discrimination.
Image sourced from internet.
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