Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: dhimmi from The Chambers Dictionary

a non-Muslim subject of a state ruled by Islamic law. [Ar]

■ dhimm'itude
n.


Summary Article: Dhimmi and Minority Religions from Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa

Dhimmi is a legal qualification of Christians and Jews living under Muslim rule in medieval Islam. The contract of “protection” dhimma, under which an individual becomes dhimmi, ensures the preservation of persons, property, an autonomous community life, and private law. In exchange, dhimmis should pay taxes, accept subordination to the Muslim rule, and maintain several restrictions on religious practice and visibility. Historically, the status of dhimmis varied considerably between rulers and empires. In the formative period of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad contracted the first dhimma agreement with the Christians of Najran, where the terms used were more tolerant, speaking of the protection of property, persons and religion, and a commitment to justice toward the Christians. Subsequently, the dhimma policy of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750) was inconsistent, unsystematic, or even loose. The Umayyads were acting as confident conquerors of the Christian lands in the Levant, ruling over a majority of Christians whom they needed to pay taxes and provide skillful administrators. Conversely, the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258), a stagnating, then decadent, empire, adopted a tougher policy of isolating the people of dhimma, excluding them from administration, and imposing restrictions on clothes and religious signs. Abbasids relied on Sunni Arabs, Muslim Persians, and Turks to maintain their rule.

The Koran

In the Koran, it is possible to identify three types of minorities: monotheistic minorities, religious minorities, and ethnic minorities. In general, the Koran distinguishes between human groups according to religious criteria, even when it comes to ethnic or social denominations. It also intervenes in regulating the relationships that the Muslim community should maintain with the different groups. The Koran requires that these relationships be based on justice and the call to Islam. This attitude comes from the Koran's principle of difference (ikhtilaf) as a sign of God. However, recognition of difference does not imply equality of human groups. Thus, the Koran reminds Muslims of their superiority as the incarnation of pure monotheism. Understood in the context of revelation, the minority Muslims were mistreated by the polytheistic Arab majority. Under these circumstances, the Koran rejects the opinion of the majority and clearly indicates that it tends to stray from the path of monotheism. Conversely, believers are few and are persecuted by the pagan majority. However, the Koran turns the believers from a numerical minority to a qualitative majority, for believers have faith that makes them a majority in the eyes of God. Therefore, they should not feel weak and dominated.

Jews and Christians are the religious minorities that the Koran often cites. It calls them ahl al-kitab, “people of the book,” to distinguish them from other non-Muslims, thereby highlighting the common origin of the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Since the “spiritual” status of the People of the Book is closer to Muslims, claiming a revelation of one God, Muslims are recommended to treat them in the best way. Moreover, the Koran reflects the tension between the principles of justice in the treatment of non-Muslims and the Muslim will to spread over territories inhabited by Jewish and Christian populations. The hierarchy established by the Koran between religions according to the monotheist criterion also distinguishes between Christians and Jews. It draws clear lines of separation between them and indicates to Muslims that Christians are the closest to them. By contrast, Jews and polytheists are the furthest.

Among Muslims, there is also a numerical minority: the muhajirun, those who migrated with the Prophet from Mecca to Medina and are favored over the ansar, supporters of Muhammad in Medina, who constitute the majority. Moreover, the Koran shows some signs of dissatisfaction vis-à-vis certain ethnic or religious groups. This is the case of a'rab, Arab Bedouins described in negative terms because they are superficially Muslim. Additionally, the Koran condemns the munafiqun (“hypocrites”), a group of nominal Muslims who accepted Islam in Medina without conviction; they are condemned to the worst of judgments both in the herein and in the hereafter. In sum, the Koran has a strong classificatory sense of groups sharing the same territory with Muslims.

Early Islam

The attitude of the Prophet Muhammad toward minorities is described in a document that generated much apologetic or critical interest: the Charter of Medina (sahifat al-madina). Muslims see it as evidence of pluralism in the first Muslim community that could be revived in modern times. Yet the charter, read in its historical context, is a tribal-religious alliance between Muslim and Jewish tribes. Certainly, the clauses of the charter establish the basis for peaceful coexistence between opposing communities, but the charter remains dominated by the concerns of defense. To name a few, the Jews are called to show solidarity with the Muslim community and to cooperate with it for their own well-being and protection. On the other hand, freedom of worship is guaranteed. The document identifies the three signatory groups as follows: Muslim immigrants of Mecca, the supporters of Muhammad in Medina, and the Jews of Medina. It begins by stating that Muslims (both factions) are one community separated from others (umma wahida min dun al-nas). Here, the criteria of identity is tribal-religious. Thus, the Muslim immigrants from Mecca belong to the tribe of Quraysh, while the Muslims of Medina are divided among nine tribes mentioned by name. The same applies to Jewish signatories, who are classified according to their tribes. The Jews who signed the treaty with Muslims enjoyed support and equity. In addition, Jews had to share in the costs of the war as long as they took part alongside the Muslims. The clause states that Jews “constitute a single community with Muslims. The Jews have their religion (Muslims have theirs), their freedom and safety.” The document revolutionized the relationship between Muslims and Jews.

Islamic Law and Society

The sociopolitical organization of the Muslim community, being based on religion and Arab tribal kinship, largely influenced the first juridical schools in Islam with regard to minorities. On the one hand, Islamic law discriminated against slaves ('abid), assigning to them an incomplete juridical status. This is probably due to the non-Islamic and non-Arab origin of slaves. Despite the fact that many of them became Muslim, the distinction between Arabs and 'ajam (non-Arabs) remained and produced a “large minority” of dominated Muslim clients of Arab tribes (mawali) subjugated to the Arab minority. Ethnic tensions between Arabs and mawali (mainly Persians, Turks, and Berbers) intensified and led to riots that sometimes gave rise to political independence in certain regions.

Religious minorities were regulated, in theory, according to the pact of Umar (Umar b. al-Khattab). Its clauses establish the status of dhimmi, meaning a person of Christian or Jewish faith (extended to Zoroastrian and Mandaeist religions) having a permanent contract with the Muslim authorities. The dhimmi should pay taxes (jizya) and limit his rights to religious and commercial liberties. On the other hand, he is exempted from military service and enjoys the protection of the Muslim caliphate. Nevertheless, in the Umayyad caliphate, religious minorities also had access to intellectual and political life at high levels, transmitting Hellenistic civilization to the world of Islam. Conversely, the Abbasid caliphate gradually excluded these religious minorities from political life, forcing them, sometimes, to wear distinctive clothing. The periods of such discriminatory policies were often the consequences of serious internal or external threats to the caliphate.

In general, peripheral Muslim states (north Africa, India, Spain) tended to carry on, as did the Fatimids (909-1171), a relatively tolerant policy toward dhimmis, allowing them access to high administration, limitless trade, and mobility. On the other hand, governorates under control of later Sunni orthodox Abbasid caliphs were particularly restrictive, discriminatory, and persecuting. Gradually, in the Mamluk sultanate (1250-1517) and the Seljuk dynasty (1071-1325), the dhimmis lost their numerical majority in the axis Egypt-Levant-Iraq. The status of dhimmis worsened socially and economically, though persecution became less frequent. The Ottomans (1299-1923) inherited the dhimma legal status from the Seljuks and established the Millet system, a confession-based legal organization of religious communities. As such, decentralized authority over dhimmis benefited local religious and national leaders.

See Also:

Abbasids , Christianity , Judaism , Koran , Umar , Umayyads

Further Readings
  • Afsaruddin, Asma. The First Muslims: History and Memory. Oxford, UK: Oneworld, 2007.
  • Aruci, Muhammed. Islamic Authority and Its Attitude Towards Non-Muslim Groups and Minorities in Muslim Society. In Authority, Privacy and Public Order in Islam: Proceedings of the 22nd Congress of L'Union européenne des arabisants et islamisants, Michalak-Pikulska, Barbara and Pikulski, Andrzej, eds. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishing, 2006.
  • Lewis, Bernard. “L'islam et les non-musulmans.” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, v.35/3-4.
  • Sachedina, Abdulaziz. “The Qur'an and Other Religions.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Qur'an, Dammen McAuliffe, Jane, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Yildirim, Yetkin. “The Medina Charter: A Historical Case of Conflict Resolution.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, v.20/4.
  • Belhaj, Abdessamad
    Pázmány Péter Catholic University Pázmány Péter Catholic University
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article
    Dhimma
    Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World

    The Arabic term dhimma in Muslim law and tradition describes the legal status of certain categories of non-Muslims in Muslim society. Dhimma may be

    Full text Article
    Dhimmī
    Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World

    A dhimmī is a non-Muslim living in Islamic lands who has been granted special status as a member of a religious community. Beginning in early...

    Full text Article
    DHIMMI LAWS
    The New Encyclopedia of Judaism

    Laws fixing the status of Jews and other religious minorities in Muslim lands. In principle, Jews and Christians were accorded the status of...

    See more from Credo