There shall be no compulsion in religion,” (al-Quran 2:256). From the inception of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the caliphs emphasized a profound tolerance for those of other faiths. On his deathbed, the second Caliph Umar declared, “Our covenant to [the dhimmis] must be fulfilled; we must fight to protect them, and they must not be burdened.” Caliph Umar was echoing the teachings of the Prophet, who is reported to have said, “Whoever oppresses a dhimmi, I shall be his prosecutor on the Day of Judgment.”
Bat Ye’or, who spoke at a Master’s Tea last week about dhimmitude (a term she coined for describing non-Muslims living under Muslim rule), draws on a complete misunderstanding of Islamic law. Recently, she spoke on dhimmitude at Georgetown University in an event later deemed by the organizers a “disaster.” The day after the event, presidents of the Georgetown Israel Alliance and Jewish Students Association, who invited Ye’or, recognized the “hateful, slanderous and crude” nature of her assertions and issued a public apology in Georgetown’s student newspaper for bringing such malicious material to an academic arena, denouncing the views presented by Ye’or.
Ye’or’s viewpoints, which served as the basis for an article by Zvika Krieger ’06 (“Locating intolerance in the Arab world,” 10/29), is hardly a source of objective knowledge on the status of minorities in Islam. Ignoring the majority of contemporary documentation, Ye’or relies heavily on two sources, Michael “the Syrian” and Pseudo-Dionysius. The latter is an anonymous source that was compiled over 200 years after the death of the writer and that often equates Muslims with the legions of Satan.
Interestingly, even some of Ye’or’s dubious sources attest to the fact that, under Islamic rule, the Jewish community was one of the most affluent in the empire. Jews occupied some of the most senior administrative positions and even acted as grand viziers in medieval Muslim states. Religious minorities, including Christians and Jews, were allowed by religious injunction to establish their own courts of law within the Islamic world.
Krieger seeks to indict Islamic law, Muslims and Arabs on charges of historic intolerance and injustice towards non-Muslims. Minimal research would have overturned many of these claims. Disregarding the piece’s numerous factual inaccuracies in geography, history, and Islamic law, two major points warrant clarification: the definition of dhimmi and the place of minorities in the Muslim world view.
Dhimmi derives from the Arabic word dhimmah, meaning “protection.” Under the shari’ah, or Islamic law, this implies a binding contract in which Muslims agree to protect non-Muslims from harm; treat them justly; and honor their lands, property and civil liberties. It allows minorities to function as respected members of society and practice their religion freely. In its legal sense, being a dhimmi does not place a set of restrictions on non-Muslims. On the contrary, jurists define this concept as the obligation of Muslims to embrace non-Muslims within their lands.
The implication that non-Muslims must pay the jizya tax in order to be tolerated is misled. In the seventh century Islamic empire, those beyond a certain threshold of earnings who continued to practice Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and other religions were required to pay the jizya. Muslims of the same income level are required, among other things, to pay zakat, a charity tax. The jizya tax stood in lieu of the zakat. In exchange for the jizya, non-Muslims received protection and exemption from certain community obligations. At the end of the seventh century during the rule of Caliph Umar, when the Muslim army was not able to defend one of the cities in the Islamic empire, the Caliphate decreed that the jizya paid by dhimmis be returned to them. And as dhimmis, non-Muslims were exempt from military service to avoid their being compelled to fight for causes in which they did not believe. If they did wish to serve, however, the jizya was waived.
The Quran does not claim superiority of one who proclaims Islam over followers of other faiths, of rich over poor, of males over females. Rather, it focuses intently on the humanity of each individual.
Today, one cannot point to Muslim states for examples of shari’ah implementation. Many of these states attempt to implement a corrupt and decontextualized version of Islamic law without regard for its actual tenets. Not a single Muslim state in the world upholds the true precepts of shari’ah relating to dhimmis. In attempts to retain political control on all fronts today, rulers distort the meaning of the dhimmi designation to oppress non-Muslim minorities, while simultaneously crushing Muslim theological or ideological opposition, both majority and minority. The point is not to target religion; it is to silence oppositional ideology that does not support the current regime. These distortions and the barbaric behavior of some in the Muslim world are categorically against the Quranic world view that define the Islamic legal code and should guide individual behavior.
Minority oppression today is not a Muslim or Arab phenomenon but is a globally pervasive injustice. Choosing to target the Muslim world continues the current trend of mistaking slander for responsible scholarship. To focus purely on the negative, to misrepresent facts, and to attribute isolated misdeeds of the past to the world view of an entire religious group is the essence of intolerance.
Sumeyya Ashraf is a junior in Branford College and Intisar Rabb is a second-year Law School student. Ashraf is president of the Muslim Students’ Association and Rabb is co-coordinator of the Yale Law School Islamic Legal Studies Project.