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The Status of Non-Muslims in Islamic History – Professor Hussein Solomon

July 4, 2019


The Status of Non-Muslims in Islamic History

By Hussein Solomon

Volume 7 (2019), Number 10 (July 2019)

In recent years, the African continent has witnessed a resurgence of religious hatred from the discrimination Coptic Christians experience in Egypt to the genocidal violence in the Central African Republic and to the burning of churches and murder of Christians in Nigeria. Muslim voices often explain that this does not represent true Islam and that militant Islamists like Boko Haram do not represent the authentic tradition of peace in the Islamic faith. This begs the question of the status of non-Muslims in Islamic history.

The historical record pertaining to the treatment of non-Muslims in Islamic states is mixed. Islamically, Christians and Jews are fellow People of the Book and may not be forced to convert. As people who worshipped earlier revelations from the same God, Jews and Christians had to be protected by Muslim rulers, who also allowed them to be governed by their own rules and by their own leadership. This was one of the major reasons for the spread of Islam. Jews, for instance, rejoiced and welcomed Muslims when they wrested control of Jerusalem from the Byzantines. Byzantine Christians had desecrated Jewish religious sites, using Jewish places of worship as garbage dumps. With the capture of the City of David in 638 CE, Muslim conquerors welcomed Jews back and restored religious places of worship. In Christian Spain, meanwhile, Jews experiencing persecution called on the Muslims of Morocco to alleviate their yoke of suffering. An alliance was then entered into in which Jews and Muslims militarily wrested control of Spain in 711 CE. Recognizing that governance of their vast empire needed talented bureaucrats, irrespective of their faith, early Muslim rulers also appointed Christians and Jews into senior diplomatic and military posts, as court physicians and bankers.

This, however, is not the whole story. As Yahya Cholil Staquf, the Secretary-General of the 50 million strong Indonesian NadhlatulUlama has asserted within the classical tradition, there is also a relationship of segregation and enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims. For instance, Christians and Jews have to pay a poll tax, which Muslims were exempt from paying. This poll tax was institutionalized in the shari’a. Interestingly Abdullah and Keshavjee believe this practice was borrowed from the pagan Romans. Historical evidence also strongly supports the view that such discrimination against Christians and Jews was institutionalized. Irshad Manji reminds us that under the reign of Caliph Umar, a document entitled the “Pact of Umar” appeared which decreed that:

  • Non-Muslims stand when any Muslim wishes to be seated
  • Non-Muslims must watch their houses of worship deteriorate without being allowed to renovate them, and that a
  • Muslim’s testimony in court is superior to that offered by a non-Muslim. Implicit here is the assumption that Muslims are truthful, non-Muslims are not.

This system of discrimination was further developed by ninth century Islamic legal scholars who advised Muslim governors that their Christian and Jewish subjects should not occupy the middle of a road or seats at a market; that they wear a girdle over their clothes and that they should distinguish themselves from Muslims.The implications of this apartheid system was felt across Africa and the Middle East as Irshad Manji makes clear:

In North Africa, Jews and Christians wore shoulder patches with pictures of pigs and monkeys, respectively. They had to slap these symbols on the doors of their homes, too. In Baghdad, seat of Islamic enlightenment, the dhimmi peoples dressed in clothes bearing yellow symbols – a marker resuscitated by the Nazis”.

More recently, following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, an anti-Semitic backlash against Jews in Muslim countries resulting in 900,000 Jews being forced to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. The majority of these fled to Israel. Between 1948 and 2012 the number of Jews in these countries plummeted: in Algeria from 140,000 to 0; in Egypt from 75,000 to 5; in Iraq from 135,000 to less than 10; in Libya from 38,000 to 0; in Morocco from 265,000 to 3,000; in Syria from 30,000 to 22; in Tunisia from 105,000 to 1,500; and from Yemen from 63,000 to less than 200.

Throughout the Muslim world, non-Muslims live a precarious existence. In Egypt, Coptic Christians are periodically attacked and their places of worship set ablaze. Fundamentalist Muslims have also attacked churches in Pakistan and Indonesia and Christians have been killed in both countries. In northern Nigeria, too, Christians and their places of worship have been repeatedly targeted by the Islamist militant of Boko Haram. Indeed, between March 2018 and March 2019, at least 500 Christians were killed in Nigeria’s Middle Belt not only by Boko Haram but also by Muslims Fulani herdsmen. Meanwhile, in the birthplace of Islam, in Saudi Arabia, no churches or synagogues are allowed and Christians and Jews are not allowed to celebrate their religious holidays. All this suggests that the Islamist juggernaut represented by the likes of Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, Boko Haram and Islamic State are not aberrations. They have their origins in Islamic history and Muslims need to engage in some critical introspection.

This, however, does not have to be the norm.  There is a more tolerant strand of Islam which Muslims need to fiercely is co-existence is the goal we seek. In Islam, non-Muslims are expected to practice their own faiths freely and to apply their own laws in civil matters. Moreover, Muslim husbands are expected to allow their Christian and Jewish spouses to practice their respective faiths freely. The Qur’an is quite explicit in urging Muslims to enter into contracts with non-Muslim thereby allowing each to obey the other’s religious beliefs. In another verse, still, the holy book urges Muslims not to argue with non-Muslims, but rather to state, “We believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you; for our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto him that we [all] surrender ourselves”.As Islamists claim to revere the traditions of the Prophet and seek to emulate him, it would be perhaps useful to note that he married a Jewish woman, that he attended the funeral of a Jewish man and that he left his armour with his Jewish neighbour for safe-keeping – the latter being symbolic of the utmost trust he had in his neighbour.

Moreover, in keeping with the verses from the Qur’an mentioned earlier to make formal treaties with non-Muslims, the Prophet made several of these with non-Muslim tribes in Tabale, Jarash, Adhruh, Maqna, Khaybar, Najran and Ayla. Given the ongoing tensions between Muslims and people of other faiths, it is imperative for Muslims to restore the essential humanity of the Qur’an. Implicit in the verses of the Qur’an and the examples in the Prophet’s life is that there is one God, despite the fact that the paths to the Divine are many. In the early 1990s, Fethullah Gulen recognized this and wrote of the importance of interfaith dialogues:

The goal of dialogue among world religions is not simply to destroy scientific materialism and the destructive materialistic worldview; the very nature of religion demands this dialogue. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and even Hinduism and other world religions accept the same source for themselves, and, including Buddhism share the same goal. As a Muslim, I accept all Prophets and Books sent to different peoples and throughout history, and regard belief in them as an essential principle of being Muslim. A Muslim is a true follower of Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and other Prophets. Not believing in one Prophet or Book means that one is not a Muslim. Thus we acknowledge the oneness and basic unity of religion, which is a symphony of God’s blessings and mercy, and the universality of belief in religion. So, religion is a system of belief embracing all races and all beliefs, a road bringing everyone together in brotherhood …. Regardless of how their adherents implement their faith in their daily lives, such generally accepted values as love, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, human rights, peace, brotherhood and freedom, by religion. Most of them are accorded the highest precedence in the messages brought by Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, as well as in the messages of Buddha and even Zarathustra, Lao-Tzu, Confucius, and the Hindu prophets…”

From this perspective, there can be no “othering” and no discrimination against non-Muslim citizens in a Muslim-majority polity. Gulen’s approach rejects exclusivist interpretations of faith and embraces pluralism, diversity and tolerance. In the process, inclusive governance is practiced and leads to a more stable polity.

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