Dhimma is the term used in Islamic law for the covenant of protection (also called aman) that exists between the Islamic state and the tolerated members of the Qur’anically recognized non-Muslim religious communities (Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sabaeans) who live permanently within its boundaries. The medieval Arab lexicographers explained the word as being derived from the root for ‘‘blame,’’ meaning that to violate the covenant was blameworthy. The proteges under this covenant were designated individually as dhimmis and collectively as ahl al-dhimma (people of the covenant). Although the specifics of dhimma came to be elaborated over the centuries, its essence goes back to two legal precedents: a Qur’anic verse and the theoretical treaty of surrender between the Christian communities of Syria and Palestine and the Muslim armies.
Sura IX, 29 enjoins Muslims: ‘‘Fight against those to whom the Scriptures were given...and follow not the true faith, until they pay tribute ( jizya) out of hand, and are humbled.’’ That is, after the scriptural peoples (ahl al-kitab) have surrendered, accepted the suzerainty of the Muslim community, and become humble tribute bearers, they are to be accorded permanent protection. The form of tribute paid for this protection was not regularized during Muhammad’s lifetime. The Jews of Khaybar and of the oases of northern Arabia paid half of their annual date harvest; the Christians and Jews of Yemen paid a poll tax of one dinar that fell upon all adults of both sexes, and they had to furnish certain services to the dominant community.
The second precedent was the so-called Pact of ‘Umar, which was supposedly a writ of protection (dhimma or aman) from the time of Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634-644). It was based on several capitulation agreements, most notably the agreement with Sophronios, the patriarch of Jerusalem. The text of the document was probably redacted during the caliphate of‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (717-720), when there was a hardening of attitudes toward dhimmis in Islamic public policy. The Pact of ‘Umar stipulates that, in exchange for the guarantee of life, property, and religious freedom, dhimmis accept a host of restrictions that reflect their subject status. Among these are the following: they may never strike a Muslim; they may not bear arms, ride horses, or use normal riding saddles on their mounts; they may not sell alcoholic beverages to Muslims; they may not proselytize, hold public religious processions, build new houses of worship, or repair old ones; and they may not teach the Qur’an (for polemical purposes), prevent kinsmen from embracing Islam, dress like Arabs, cut their hair like Arabs, or adopt Arabic honorific names (kunyas).
Many of the provisions of the pact established a social hierarchy, with Muslims being dominant and dhimmis subordinate. Certain provisions, such as the obligation to provide hospitality to the Arab troops, to supply military intelligence, and to not harbor spies, reflected the first century after the Islamic conquests, when the Arabs were a minority occupying a vast empire; these eventually fell into desuetude. Other provisions, such as the prohibition against dhimmis building their homes higher than those of Muslims, clearly reflected a much later period; during the early years of Islamic rule, Muslims tended to settle in their own fortified camp towns and not in close proximity to the subject population. Other provisions (e. g., prohibitions against building or repairing houses of worship) seem to have been observed only sporadically. Because many of the new cities founded by the Arab conquerors came eventually to have dhimmi inhabitants with their own churches and synagogues, it was clear to all that they were built after the Pact of ‘Umar had gone into effect. Sometimes a church or synagogue was found to be in violation of the pact, but usually the payment of a bribe or fine sufficed to avoid demolition or confiscation of the offending building. So, too, the many decrees throughout the Middle Ages renewing the stipulations that dhimmis wear dress that distinguished them from Muslims indicate that there was a lack of consistent enforcement. The fact that the Pact of ‘Umar mentions only Christians is immaterial, because the Shari‘a makes no juridical distinction among the ahl al-kitab. As a social reality, however, Christians and Zoroastrians were more highly regarded during the early Islamic centuries than were Jews, a fact that is noted by the essayist al-Jahiz (778-868/869) in his polemic against Christians, and that is also reflected in popular lore.
As Islamic law, institutions, and administrative practice evolved, the rules of dhimma became more highly defined and ramified. The tribute paid by the conquered peoples varied greatly from one province to another, depending on the terms of surrender made with the Arab commanders. Eventually, Islamic law required all adult dhimmi males to pay a graduated poll tax (jizya) of five dinars for the wealthy, three for the middle class, and one for the working poor (although not for the totally indigent), as well as a land tax (kharaj) for those who owned real estate. In his treatise on taxation written for Harun al-Rashid, the qadi Abu Yusuf (d. 798) discusses the proper administration of the jizya, kharaj, and percent ushur (literally tithes, but, in this case, tariffs). Dhimmis were required to pay a 5 percent tariff on their merchandise, as opposed to the Muslims, 2.5 percent. This still gave them a distinct advantage over foreign merchants, who paid a ten-percent rate. Abu Yusuf clearly states that dhimmis ‘‘are not to be oppressed, mistreated, or taxed beyond their means.’’ He specifically rules out torture as a means of extracting payment of taxes, although he does require imprisonment. Nevertheless, jurists came to view certain repressive and humiliating aspects of dhimma as de rigueur. Dhimmis were required to pay the jizya publicly, in broad daylight, with hands turned palm upward, and to receive a smart smack on the forehead or the nape of the neck from the collection officer.
Differentiation (ghiyar) in dress from Muslims, which was probably originally a security measure after the Islamic conquests, came to be interpreted as a mark of humiliation. The Pact of ‘Umar mentioned only that dhimmis should wear Arab headgear and that they should wear a distinctive belt (the zun-nar). Specially colored garments and patches on outer clothing were added to the distinguishing costume by a decree of Caliph al-Mutawakkil in 850. Although this imposition was probably short-lived, distinguishing garments became the norm for non-Muslims during the later Middle Ages, particularly during the Mamluk Empire (1250-1517) and in the Maghrebi states. The muhtasib (inspector of markets and censor of public morals) was in charge of seeing that dhim-mis complied with the dress code and the other restrictions on their mounts, saddles, and general comportment.
From the earliest days of the Islamic conquest, dhimmi officials had not only been left in charge of their own communities but were employed because of their administrative skills in the wider bureaucracy. The imposition of Arabic as the sole language of government records and correspondence under ‘Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) did not change this situation. In the eastern provinces, Nestorian Christians and Zoroastrians were particularly prominent in government offices; in Egypt, the same was true for the Copts, and, in North Africa and Spain, it was so for Jews. The only position not normally open to a dhimmi was that of vizier. Conversion to Islam, however, easily removed this obstacle to advancement, and, in a few instances, even this formality proved unnecessary. Muslim jurists and preachers decried dhimmis holding any positions of authority over Muslims, and pious edicts by rulers, such as the decree of al-Mutawakkil, occasionally purged nonMuslim officials. However, these bans proved only temporary. Islamic law finally came to justify the situation. The constitutional theorist of Islamic government, al-Mawardi (974-1058) ruled that a dhimmi could even hold the vizierate so long as it was a ministerial position of tanfidh (i. e., executing orders from the ruler) rather than one of tafwid (i. e., delegated with fully initiating powers). Public demonstrations of pomp and power by non-Muslim officials were viewed by the pious and by the Muslim masses as violations of the dhimma and at times led to violence not only against the offending official but against his entire community. The uprising and assassination of the Jewish vizier of Granada, Yehosef ibn Naghrela, in 1066, was accompanied by the wholesale destruction of the Jewish quarter of that city. The assassination of the Jewish vizier Aaron ibn Batash in Fez in 1465 not only entailed massacres of Jews throughout Morocco but brought down the Marinid ruler, ‘Abd al-Haqq, and his dynasty as well.
There was a marked rise in anti-dhimmi sentiment and increasingly restrictive implementation of the rules of dhimma throughout the Islamic world during the later Middle Ages as a result of profound changes in the spiritual, social, and economic climates. The Reconquista in Iberia, the Crusades, and the Mongol invasions heightened the antipathy toward non-Muslims. Islamic society became more institutionalized around religious brotherhoods, guilds, and state monopolies. Graduates of madrasas (Islamic schools of higher education) increasingly squeezed non-Muslims out of the bureaucracy. The secular and humanistic atmosphere of the Hellenistic renaissance of the ninth through twelfth centuries also waned.
However, the basic notion of the dhimma as a binding compact of protection for the ahl al-kitab was never rescinded, except under heterodox regimes such as that of the Almohads during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Norman A. Stillman
See also Almohads; Christians; Churches; Clothing and Costume; Copts; Diplomacy; Interfaith Relations; Al-Jahiz; Jews; Al-Mawardi; Synagogues; Zoroastrianism