The dhimmis in medieval Islam (2/2)

The Koranic and legal bases of the dhimma laid down, we must now insist on the context of its application. Indeed, it is the latter which most conditioned the relations between Muslims and People of the Book, in particular in periods of persecution, often appearing during times when Islam felt in danger. We may thus be able, after having approached both the bases and the application of the dhimma, to get out of the “positive” or “negative” clichés on this original status in more than one way.

Dhimmis and Muslims: from the time of the Prophet to conquests

We have already spoken of the Prophet's relations with Jews and Christians, and seen that they had become more and more confrontational as Muhammad extended his influence and tried to convert those he encountered. It is different with his successors, with the exception of Umar who would have liked to apply the Sunna : The Prophet had thus, according to her, declare on his deathbed: "Two religions must not coexist in the Arabian Peninsula". Umar then decides to expel Jews and Christians from the Hejaz. But, in fact, there will still be a presence of these two denominations in the peninsula: thus, it is a Christian who assassinates Umar; the police of Mu’awiya (founder of the Umayyad dynasty) are made up of Christians; and there will still be a long time for Jews to reach Yemen ... On the other hand, their presence (Jews as well as Christians) will be strictly prohibited in the Holy Places of Arabia.

The conquest is relatively easy; in fact, the conquered peoples, in particular Christians, do not see Muslims as a threat and sometimes find themselves freed from the Byzantine yoke! We are even witnessing waves of conversion. But the conquerors are still very much in the minority, and the need arises for an occupation and a flexible attitude towards the conquered peoples. This is where the contract of the dhimma. Helped by the favorable prejudice of the natives, it was initially linked to obligations of accommodation, supplies, sometimes espionage; this is one of the main reasons for the ban on dhimmis to dress like the Arabs. Muslims also have a difficulty to overcome: the management of the immense conquered territory.

That’s why they don’t hesitate to keep their jobs or to employ dhimmis in administration, including at high levels (although this is relatively rare); we can see a vizier dhimmi, although it should be up to execution tasks and not decision. But the fact of using dhimmis provokes a debate among Muslims, and this from Umar, at least according to tradition. He is said to have declared: "Be careful not to appoint a Jew or a Christian to public office because, by their religion, they are people of corruption." ". But the debate shows precisely the importance and the necessity of these dhimmis, with an anecdote still linked to Umar: the latter visits the governor of Kufa, Abu Musa who tells his caliph that his secretary is a Christian; Umar is then offended by quoting the Koran (V, 51): "O you who believe! Do not take Jews and Christians for friends ”, to which Abu Musa replies:“ His religion is his, his secretariat is mine ”. On the other hand, the dhimmis are not prohibited from practicing other trades. They are thus found en masse in commerce, finance and in trades poorly regarded by Muslims, such as tannery, butchery, the trade of executioner ... They are also present in areas that require contact with foreigners: diplomacy, brokerage, banking.

However, the first real tensions and discrimination will begin in the 8th century. At this time, Islam saw its conquest halted. It was undoubtedly the failure of his predecessor before Constantinople in 717 that led Umar II (717-720) to adopt the first real discriminatory measures against dhimmis. Indeed, and it will be even more the case thereafter, the situation of dhimmis will be difficult whenever Islam is in trouble and there is a need to "purify" the Muslim Empire. While jurists and general practice will be rather "lax," the more pietistic theologians and caliphs will always be more violent towards their non-Muslim subjects, and always because of the context.

Many and varied disparities

The 8th century is already a turning point, especially in the East. Umar II imposes different clothes on dhimmis, the ban on riding and carrying a weapon. It also requires the wearing of distinctive signs such as the belt zunnâr, and the ban on wearing beautiful fabrics. To the need to distinguish Muslims and dhimmis for security reasons, there is also the desire to humiliate non-Muslims. It also strengthens fiscal constraints. This hardening continued under some of his successors and in the following centuries: under Yazid II (720-724), then Harûn al-Rashid (786-809) who also insisted on different clothes, for fear of an attempt to influence of the Empire of Charlemagne… Al Mutawakkil (847-861) excludes Christians from the administration, and obliges them to wear hoods and honey-colored belts; he also razes the newly built churches. The climax is the persecution by al-Hakim (996-1021), which goes so far as to destroy the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

In the West, we are witnessing a period of tolerance, in particular in Al Andalus where the so-called “Mozarabic” Christians cohabit with the Muslims for a period of real cultural exchange, especially under the reign of Abd al-Rahman III (912-961 ). But the persecution of the Jews of Granada in 1066 here also heralds a hardening of relations between dhimmis and Muslims.

In fact, we note that the persecutions of dhimmis intervene in specific contexts (and especially in urban areas): as has been said for Umar II (failure before Constantinople) and this is the case for some of his successors, but it is both the danger on Islam and the demographic shift that explains it. In danger, Muslims return to the basics of their religion and "purify" dar al-Islam ; so it makes sense that these are the dhimmis who suffer first. Then, from the 9th and 10th centuries, through conversions or demography, Muslims find themselves in the majority and therefore have less need and less fear vis-à-vis non-Muslims.

Finally, to make matters worse, there are the relations with the external enemies of Islam: it is in the West the Reconquista Spanish, and in the East the Crusades; There is also an economic crisis which must not be overlooked. This is when, on the whole, the attitude of Muslims towards Jews and Christians is reversed. While in the Koran, the Jews - as we have seen - are less considered than the Christians, the events from the 11th (taking of Toledo in 1085, and the First Crusade in 1095) will make them the potential enemies of the Muslims, including in the dar al-Islam. In the East, Christians of the non-Latin rite remain relatively tolerated, with the exception of Copts and Armenians who are beginning to suffer persecution.

In the West, the Mozarabs are suspected of complicity with the northern Spanish kingdoms. It was under the Almoravid dynasties (1031-1147) and especially the Almohads (1147-1226) that the dhimmis suffer the most in the Maghreb: Christians are disappearing from North Africa, Jews are confined to special quarters (mellah, hara), which was not the case before (they did not have to regroup, but did so most of the time for economic reasons). In the East, the situation changes depending on the period: the arrival of the Seldjukids in the 11th century is a relatively calm moment, but the Turks employ less dhimmis in administration; during the Crusades, as we have seen, the situation is complicated and dhimmisChristians in particular are in the crossfire; the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, on the other hand, is temporarily beneficial to the Christians ... undoubtedly they abuse it because under the Mameluks, the repression of the Maronite and Coptic Christians is fierce. Appears at the time the figure of Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), who will influence Wahhabism in the 19th century, and who insists on the vexatious and humiliating character of the dhimmi.

During all this period, obligations and discriminations come back: distinctive signs even in the baths; size of different houses; a ban on building or renovating places of worship and sometimes even destruction of these places; women's obligation dhimmies not to be veiled, ...

In fact, it was not until the 15th-16th century and the consolidation of the Ottoman Empire to see the situation stabilize, or even improve. The Jews expelled from Spain by Isabella of Castile are welcomed in Turkey, and especially in Morocco. Eastern Christians resisted, especially in Egypt, and the new conquerors of Greece and the Balkans do not suffer the same persecutions ...

The situation of dhimmis in the Muslim Empire has therefore evolved greatly, and has been riddled with crises and more tolerant periods. But, each time, the difficult periods resulted from a particular context: external attacks, pietist revival, economic crisis, demographic evolution.

Non-exhaustive bibliography

- D. SOURDEL, The civilization of classical Islam, Arthaud, 1991.

- H. KENNEDY, The Prophet and The Age of The Caliphates, Longman, 1986.

- B. LEWIS, Islam, Gallimard, 2005.

- Encyclopedia of Islam, Brill, new edition.

Video: Subjugated under Sharia - Dhimmis and the Jizya, pt1 (January 2022).