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.