Christians in Islamic Lands (Part 1)


"Embrace Islam and you will be safe," wrote Mohammed in a letter to the "Kings of the Infidels"—the leaders of the surrounding empires of Byzantium, Persia, and Abyssinia. Mohammed’s seventh-century Arabia neighbored lands that were chiefly Christian and primarily under the governance of the Byzantine Empire: Palestine, Egypt, and Syria. The Persian Empire also contained a very large Christian population. Mohammed’s letter was the Muslim community’s proclamation of the faith (termed the da’wah, or proclamation of Islam) to the rest of the world.

The first Arab conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries soon followed. Since that time, large numbers of Jews and Christians have been forced to live under the direct control of Islamic governments. While their treatment has varied greatly in different eras and regions, the general atmosphere that has long pervaded in Muslim countries was expressed by the 14th-century Islamic historian and writer, Ibn Khaldun, who observed that non-Muslims could choose "conversion to Islam, payment of the poll tax, or death."

Historically, non-Muslims have been designated dhimmis (meaning essentially "free" or a people under a "treaty of protection") and denied the status of full citizenship. They were permitted to practice their faith privately, but the right to do so was purchased by the payment of a special tax, the jizya, and a willingness to live under the dictates and provisions of shari’a, Islamic law.

Some 40 million Christians currently reside under Islamic governments. Their conditions differ considerably across the globe, but millions face legal disabilities, social and economic discrimination, and even the chronic threat of violence and martyrdom. Catholics engaged in apologetics must be informed about how these circumstances developed. They should also appreciate that any meaningful dialogue with Islam must include consideration of the fate and the basic human rights of all non-Muslims, not just Christians but also Jews, Hindus, and other religious minorities.

The Debate over Jihad

The status of the dhimmis is tied inextricably to jihad. One of the most commonly heard terms with regard to Islam, " jihad" is customarily translated as "holy war." Jihad actually means "to struggle, to fight, or to strive." Muslims point out that jihad refers to an inner struggle, a personal fight against sin. On the other side of the spectrum, some Muslims view jihad as the "Sixth Pillar of the Faith" and call upon all who profess the faith to wage war on unbelievers, the infidels.

The difficulty in assessing jihad begins with the two types of teaching found in the Qur’an regarding how Muslims are expected to deal with other faiths. The various suras (divisions) fall into two periods: those revealed in Mecca and those revealed in Medina in Mohammed’s later years. The Meccan verses, written at a time when Mohammed hoped for mass conversions among the Christians and Jews, generally urge peace and toleration. Sura 2:256 (cf. 3:20; 6:107; 16:125) asserts, for example, "Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error," and sura 18:29 declares that there should be no forced conversion of people of any religion. Sura 29:46 teaches, "Only argue with the People of the Book in the kindest way—except in the case of those of them who do wrong—saying, ‘We have Faith in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and we submit to Him.’"

The suras dating from the Medina period contrast sharply in tone. There is a much harder line toward the Christians and Jews who rebuff the call to convert. As a result, in traditional Islamic theology the world has been divided into two houses, the House of Islam and the House of War (i.e., the non-Muslim world), and it is the obligation of all Muslims to work toward the conversion of the latter.

As Islam lacks a central authority or magisterium, it is left to individual imams and mullahs to decide the meaning of the suras and to apply them. (See "‘Allah Does Not Love the Aggressors,’" below)

Sword and Conquest

Following the revelations of the Medina suras, in the seventh and eighth centuries Islamic armies unleashed jihad upon the world and transformed the social, political, and religious landscape across the Middle East, the Levant, and Africa. From an obscure faith in the Arabian Peninsula, Islam became a world religion in barely a century.

For the Catholic Church, the Arab invasions were a true historical disaster. The loss to the Christian Church is virtually incalculable. Lost to fire and the sword was nearly the whole of the East, the very cradle of the Church’s early life, and home to most of the Church Fathers. Three of the most venerable and important Christian sees—Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria—were captured. Countless dioceses ceased to exist, withering under the new Islamic governments. The Christian communities of Egypt and North Africa, the home of such saints as Antony of the Desert, Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, Augustine, and Cyprian of Carthage, were also overrun.

Throughout the campaigns of conquest, Christian populations were massacred if they resisted the new religion. Those who remained Christians were frequently sent into slavery. The surviving Christian populations—majorities for centuries to come—found themselves suddenly living under Islamic rule and subject to social and legal discrimination.

Historians point to the first appearance of the dhimma under Mohammed and the agreement he reached with the Jewish population of Khaybar, an oasis near Medina, in modern Saudi Arabia. Rather than fight and be slaughtered, the Jews of Khaybar surrendered to Mohammed after a brief siege. In return, Mohammed granted them the right to remain in Khaybar provided they pay to the Muslims one half of their annual produce. The Jews were later expelled from Khaybar by the second caliph, Umar I, but the treaty was used as a kind of legal precedent.

Further support for the imposition of dhimma status was claimed in the Qur’an, specifically sura 9:29 and its mandates that non-believers should pay the jizya and be subdued. (See " Sura 9:29," right)

Dhimmi Life under Shari’a

Law plays a major role in the life of Muslims and in the historical development of the Islamic faith. The term for law, shari’a, means literally, "the path leading to the watering place." Islamic law was developed as a means of actualizing submission to the divine will in daily life and jurisprudence. As such, it is required of Muslims that they submit to the shari’a that governs every facet of life, from the great affairs of state and diplomacy to the smallest concerns of the average person, and that makes no distinction between the affairs of church and those of state. (See "Bernard Lewis on Islam," page 10)

In some periods, non-Muslims were treated with tolerance; in others, persecutions, pogroms, and oppression were commonplace. There were forced conversions in some places, such as under the Almohad Dynasty of Spain and North Africa in the 12th century. The worst persecutions were in the Maghreb (comprised of modern Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco), Persia (where Zoroastrianism and Nestorian Christianity once flourished), and Arabia (the birth place of Islam). In these regions, Christianity was all but exterminated.

Custom distinguished between the "People of the Book" (Jews and Christians who are monotheists) and other religions, such as Hindus and Zoroastrians. The "People of the Book" are granted a level of toleration not accorded to polytheists. For example, Muslims are permitted to dine with the "People of the Book" and even marry their chaste women (sura 5:5). Moreover, Muslim legal authorities disagree whether pagans, communists, or atheists should ever be offered the status of dhimma as they do not believe in God. Some, in fact, propose that they should be given only two choices: embrace Islam or die.

As is evident, the very nature of the dhimma status was complex and open to extreme interpretations. At its heart, however, the idea of the dhimma was to certify by law, custom, and practice that non-Muslims were second-class in the eyes of Islamic law.

Living under the dhimma is an all-encompassing way of life in which shari’a is an omnipresent reminder of a diminished legal status.

The chief symbol of this position is the jizya, the tax that means literally "punishment." So crucial was it historically that in many Islamic lands, such as the once vast Ottoman Empire, dhimmis were required always to carry a receipt certifying that they had paid the jizya or face imprisonment.

In return, non-Muslims are supposed to receive security, assistance from the government when needed, and supposed legal equality with Muslims. This is not a uniformly recognized practice, of course. The collection of the jizya was also often accompanied by public spectacles of humiliation (on the basis of some interpretations of sura 9:29). In some places, such as in Armenia, those unable to pay the jizya were condemned to slavery, including their wives and children, against Islamic law. In many Islamic states, such as the early Ottoman Empire, conversion of the dhimmis was discouraged because of the potential loss of revenue to the government.

Aside from the jizya, the dhimmis faced a host of legal disabilities and limitations on life and practice. (See "Restrictions on Dhimmis," right)

Separate and Unequal

In matters of civil law, both Muslims and dhimmiswere subject essentially to the same requirements and penalties for murder, adultery, theft, and damage. However, some legal schools argue that a Muslim who kills a dhimmi should not be put to death, as that would suggest a legal equality between the Muslim and non-Muslim. Rather, a blood price is to be paid.

Equally, a dhimmi was forbidden from testifying against a Muslim in court as his testimony was deemed unreliable, even in cases where a dhimmi is the only witness in a case involving two Muslims. The dhimmi were permitted their own courts for such matters as marriage and divorce, and appeal to a Muslim court was generally not permissible. When a Muslim judge agreed to hear an appeal, Islamic law and not the religious law of the dhimmi was then applied.

As for marriage, Muslim males were permitted to marry a dhimmi girl, although a dhimmi male was not allowed to marry a Muslim girl. Any children produced from the union were to be raised as Muslims. This rule extends as well to conversion. If the wife of a dhimmi became a Muslim, she received automatic custody and could divorce her husband. Equally, a Muslim male had the right in some legal traditions to keep his dhimmi wife locked at home and also to restrain her from going to her place of worship.

Finally, there were the perpetual dangers of having the "safety" of dhimmi status stripped away, along with all of the thin protections that it offered. Failure to pay the jizya abrogated the status, as did a number of other "crimes": encouraging a Muslim to convert to Christianity, taking up arms against a Muslim government, or committing blasphemy. What constitutes blasphemy was (and still is) open to wide interpretation—including the simple proclamation that Jesus Christ is the Son of God as this was denied in the Qur’an. Penalties ranged from fines and loss of property to slavery, torture, and death. All sentences, of course, were set aside if the condemned converted.

Forward into the Past

The perpetuation of the dhimmi in Islamic lands endured for centuries, especially in the Ottoman Empire and Yemen. In the Ottoman Empire, however, Western powers such as England, France, and Austria pushed for social reforms in return for trade, and in 1839 the Ottoman Sultan Abd-ul-Mejid I (r. 1839-1861) issued the Hatt-i Serif of Gülhane, the "Noble Edict of the Rose Chamber," that granted political and religious rights to Christians. This was followed in 1856 by the Hatt-i Hümayun ("Imperial Edict") that abolished the jizya, permitted non-Muslims to join the army, and reiterated a basic religious equality. The reforms did not last, however, and during World War I, severe persecutions erupted in Ottoman territories of Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian Christian minorities. Especially severe were the now infamous genocidal massacres of hundreds of thousands of Armenians.

With the ending of the colonial system after World War II, the governments that emerged as successors suffered from instability and soon gravitated toward autocracies and dictatorships with varying levels of tolerance toward non-Muslims. This tendency remains even today.

This background of the dhimma is an essential context for appreciating the difficult situation facing Christians in Islamic lands today. The dhimmitude is the chief reason why the once-majority Christian populations in North Africa, Anatolia, and the Middle East are now mere tiny minorities in overwhelmingly Muslim countries. By persecution, legal handicaps, social and economic pressure, and the grinding life of the dhimmis, Christian families died out, watched loved ones convert to avoid execution and to put food on the table, or stood by helplessly as some Islamic governments claimed orphaned Christian relatives to raise them as Muslims.

The dhimma is not a mere tradition of the past: Radical Muslims openly call today for a pan-Islamic embrace of shari’a and the return to the dhimma and the jizya. History is poised to repeat itself, and the very survival of Christianity in Muslim lands may be at stake.

A future article will focus on the enormous challenges facing today’s Christians living in Islamic countries.

SIDEBARS

"Allah Does Not Love the Aggressors"

Muslim apologists stress that jihad has long been misunderstood and misrepresented. First, they argue that jihad means chiefly the inner struggle, an ascetical undertaking advocated by the Prophet Mohammed. This, they term the Greater Jihad. Second, they argue that jihad is used only defensively, to protect Islam, safeguard the da’wah (following Mohammed’s own example in the proclamation of the faith), or to resist attacks by unbelievers and infidels. This Lesser Jihad is cited as defensive on the basis of sura 2:190-191: "Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight you, but do not attack them first. Allah does not love the aggressors. Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you."

The major Sunni legal schools of Hanafi, Malaki, and Hanbali all decree that such a jihad should be waged only in defense and to prevent an attack. However, the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence disagrees and calls for an offensive jihad that must continue until there are no more unbelievers. Equally, there is the.aspect of interpreting what constitutes a defensive war.

Sura 9:29

Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth [even if they are] of the People of the Book [i.e., Jews and Christians], until they pay the jizya [tax] with willing submission and accept that they are subdued.

This call has been interpreted in very different ways by Islamic legal experts. Not surprisingly, an attempt at some form of codification was made as well. Aside from sura 9:29, the primary source was the so-called Treaty (or Pact) of Umar, a supposed agreement reached between Caliph Umar I (r. 634-644) and the Christians of Syria. The authenticity of the Pact is doubted by many modern scholars who see it as a likely product of later legal experts who attached Umar’s name to provide an air of authority. The influence of the earlier Byzantine Theodosian Code of 438 and Justinian’s Code of 529 is apparent, and some experts even suggest that another source of inspiration could be the laws of the Sassanid Persian Empire which had extensive minority populations, including Nestorian and Monophysite Christians and Jews.

Comparisons have been made between the establishment of the dhimma and the conditions under which Jews lived in Christendom or those of the non-Christian minorities under the Byzantines. The famed Orientalist Bernard Lewis and others have contended that conditions were in some ways better for Jews and Christians in Islamic countries compared to those for similar minorities in Christian lands. Such a claim, however, is offset by two historical realities. First, the Christian populations remained the majority religious group for centuries after the Arab conquests. The situation was thus not directly parallel to Europe where heretical groups and the Jewish communities were longstanding minorities. Second, the steady decline in the Christian populations in the Islamic world testifies to the harsh social, economic, political, and religious pressures under which they lived. The Jewish minorities, meanwhile, remained remarkably resilient, having endured a minority status with legal disabilities under the Romans and then the Byzantines for many centuries even before the Islamic armies gained supremacy in the East.

In Islam, No Distinction between Church and State

The notion of church and state as distinct institutions, each with its own laws, hierarchy, and jurisdiction, is characteristically Christian, with its origins in Scripture and history. It is alien to Islam . . . One consequence is that in Islam religion is not, as it is in Christendom, one sector or segment of life regulating some matters and excluding others; it is concerned with the whole life, not a limited but a total jurisdiction. In such a society, the very idea of separating church and state is meaningless, since there are no two entities to be separated. Church and state, religious and political authority, are one and the same. Different agencies, different individuals, may deal with the affairs of this world and those of the next, but in principle they derive their authority from the same source and administer the same law. In classical Arabic and in the other classical languages of Islam, there are no pairs of terms corresponding to "lay" and "ecclesiastical," "spiritual" and temporal," "secular" and "religious," because these pairs of words express a Christian dichotomy that has no equivalent in the world of Islam.

(Source: Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West, 135-136)

Restrictions on Dhimmis in Islamic Countries

  • They were not permitted to build new churches, temples, or synagogues; they were allowed to renovate old churches and synagogues (those prior to the Islamic conquests) so long as there are no new additions. No churches or synagogues are accepted in the Arab Peninsula.
  • They were not allowed to sell or distribute sacred texts in public places.
  • They were not allowed to read their sacred texts out loud, even in their homes.
  • Crosses could not be displayed in houses or places of worship.
  • Religious activities could not be broadcast or discussed in published magazines or newspapers, nor were public religious gatherings allowed.
  • They also had to wear distinctive clothing and badges; Muslims were also forbidden from wearing the clothes of the dhimmis.

Further Reading

The Decline of Eastern Christianity: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (1996) by Bat Ye’or

The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam (1985) by Bat Ye’or and David Maisel

Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (2005) by Bat Ye’or

Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide (2001) by Bat Ye’or, Miriam Kochan, and David Littman

The Pact of Umar (available at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/pact-umar.html)

 


Matthew E. Bunson is a former contributing editor to This Rock and the author of more than 30 books. He is a consultant for USA Today on Catholic matters, a moderator of EWTN’s online Church history forum, and the editor of The Catholic Answer.

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 4.