When Islam arose and spread in the first half of the 600s B.C.E. it encountered a majority Christian population and also many Jews in the areas it conquered. Islam granted these people a special status called dhimmi, meaning protected.
Those neither Christian nor Jewish were at first given the option of conversion to Islam or the sword — forced conversion. But in the course of time, Islam treated all non-Muslims as dhimmis.
The main features of dhimmi status were a special tax imposed on all adult males and, in turn, exclusion from political office and exemption from military service (likely because of distrust of a dhimmi’s loyalty or patriotism). In its early years, Islam imposed other requirements upon dhimmis, including forbidding them to ride camels or horses, permitting them only donkeys. It also required distinctive clothing for public identification. Christians were allowed the use of things forbidden to Muslims — pork and alcoholic beverages, provided they didn’t flaunt such use.
Dhimmi law continued the pre-Islamic Arab treatment of slaves, who were protected by their superiors as long as they remained subservient and loyal to their clan or tribe. In that respect Muslims brought along a practice from their pagan past even though they stated that this pre-Islamic era had been a time of ignorance and barbarism.
Dhimmitude also, however, followed an arrangement existing in Byzantine law that formulators of shari’a law likely knew about.
Some discussions of dhimmitude (the status of dhimmis) suggest that it was an early form of minority rights, and Christians soon became a minority in territories ruled by Islam. Christians, like Jews, had the right to live according to their own laws — canon law for Christians and halakha law for Jews. Disputes in these communities usually got settled in Christian or Jewish courts.
The dhimmi system may seem to us harsh and unfair, but the truth is many Jewish and Christian subjects welcomed its tax rate because it was lower than what they had to pay under Byzantine rule. Jews especially found themselves with much more freedom under Islam than did Jews in Europe under Christianity.
During the Middle Ages — and later — Jews in Christian Europe were pushed into ghettos, even subjected to pogroms, as shown in one scene of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Islamic rulers in occasional situations ignored dhimmi law for pragmatic reasons. In their conquest of India, for example, Mogul rulers faced a huge Hindu population and found it useful, if not necessary, to employ Hindus in their army and Hindu treasury officials in their administration.
In modern times, dhimmi practice has by and large disappeared. European colonial powers introduced Western principles and laws concerning citizenship in Islamic countries, and these have continued after such countries’ independence, where all citizens now live under the same tax and law codes and all citizens are eligible for or subject to military service, although things such as marriage and inheritance practices may still follow historic religious or ethnic traditions.
Christian minorities in Muslim countries may still be subjected to discrimination, even persecution, as when Muslims attack a liquor store or church. Dhimmitude has too often meant second-class citizenship. In Islamic societies prejudices can persist for a long time, rooted as they are in religion. Americans might understand, given our history of racial discrimination, also sometimes rooted in religion.
One prominent modern Muslim, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, spoke of returning his society to the dhimmi system of classical Islam, requiring non-Muslims to pay the special tax, for which they would then receive the protection of the state but be excluded from its political process.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a Fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. His “The American Religious Landscape” broadcast can be heard every Sunday at noon on FM 91.1.