from "Why I am Not a Muslim"
By Permission from the Author, Ben-El-Warrak
The Arab Conquest and the Position of Non-Muslims Subjects
Kharaj was a kind of land tax that had both a fiscal and symbolic role.
Under kharaj, the peasant no longer owned the land but worked it as a
tenant. The kharaj also symbolized the God-conferred rights of the
conquerors over the land of conquered and the infidels. The
peasants were theoretically protected, but, in periods of instability,
they suffered the most.
The jizya was a poll-tax that, in accordance with the Koran 9.29
("until they pay the jizya from their hand, being brought
low"), had to be paid individually at a humiliating public ceremony
to remind the dhimmis that they were inferior to the believers, that is,
The commentator on the Koran, al-Zamakhshari (1075-1144), interpreted
sura 9.29 to mean "the jizya shall be taken from them with
belittlement and humiliation [The dhimmi] shall come in person, walking
not riding. When he pays, he shall stand, while the tax collector
The collector shall seize him by the scruff of the neck, shake him, and
say: 'Pay the jizya!' and when he pays it he shall be slapped on the
nape of his neck."
Apart from paying higher commercial and travel taxes than Muslims, the
dhimmis were subject to other forms of fiscal oppression. In
periods of economic hardship, the Muslim rulers often had recourse to
arbitrary taxes on dhimmis. Church leaders were imprisoned and
tortured until ransoms were paid for them.
These taxes proved such a crushing burden that many villages were
abandoned as the villagers fled to the hills or tried to lose themselves
in the anonymity of large towns to escape the tax collector. In
Lower Egypt, for example, the Copts, utterly ruined by the taxes,
revolted in 832.
The Arab governor ruthlessly suppressed the insurrection - burning their
villages, their vineyards, gardens, and churches. Those not
massacred were deported.
Various hadith forbid a dhimmi to exercise any authority over a Muslim.
Various Koranic verses such as 3.28 were used to bar dhimmis from
public office. Despite this, we find that dhimmis held high
office. However, in the Middle Ages, any appointment of a dhimmi
to a high post often resulted in public outcries, fanaticism, and
violence, as for example, in Granada in 1066, Fez, in 1275 and 1465,
Iraq in 1291, and frequently in Egypt between 1250 and 1517.
Many dhimmis accepted conversion to Islam in order to keep their posts.
Inequality before the Law
In all litigation between a Muslim and a dhimmi, the validity of the
oath or testimony of the dhimmi was not recognized. In other
words, since a dhimmi was not allowed to give evidence against a Muslim,
his Muslim opponent always got off scot-free. The dhimmi was
forced to bribe his way out of the accusations.
Muslims were convinced of their own superiority over all non-Muslims,
and this was enshired in law. For example, any fine imposed on a
Muslim for a crime was automatically halved if the victim was dhimmi.
Accusations of blasphemy against dhimmis were quite frequent and the
penalty was capital punishment. Since his testimony was not
accepted in court, the dhimmi was forced to convert to save his life.
Conversely, "in practice if not in law, a dhimmi would often be
sentenced to death if he dared raise his hand against a Muslim, even in
legitimate self-defence."471 Even the accidental killing of a
Muslim could condemn the whole non-Muslim community to death or exile.
Though a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman, a non-Muslim
may not marry a Muslim woman. The penalty for such a marriage, or
any such sexual relationship, was death.
THE PACT OF UMAR
Some of the disabilities of the dhimmis are summarized in the "Pact
of Umar," which was probably drawn up in the eighth century under
Umar b. Abd al-Aziz (ruled 717-20):
We shall not build in our cities or in their vicinity any new
monasteries, churches, hermitages, or monks' cells. We shall not
restore, by night or by day, any of them that have fallen into ruin or
which are located in the Muslims' quarters.
We shall keep our gates wide open for the passerby and travelers.
We shall provide three days' food
and lodging to any Muslims who pass our way.
We shall not shelter any spy in our churches or in our homes, nor shall
we hide him from the Muslims.
We shall not teach our children the Koran.
We shall not hold public religious ceremonies. We shall rise from
our seats when they wish to sit down.
We shall not attempt to resemble the Muslims in any way….
We shall not ride on saddles.
We shall not wear swords or bear weapons of any kind, or ever carry them
We shall not sell wines.
We shall clip the forelocks of our head.
We shall not display our crosses or our books anywhere in the Muslims'
thoroughfares or in their marketplaces.
We shall only beat our clappers in
our churches very quietly.
We shall not raise our voices when
reciting the service in our churches, nor when in the presence of
Muslims. Neither shall we raise our voices in our funeral
We shall not build our homes higher than theirs.
To which was added, "anyone who deliberately strikes a Muslim will
forfeit the protection of this pact."
Even in their religious affairs, dhimmis were not entirely free.
Muslims often blocked the appointment of religious leaders.
Nothing could be further from the truth than to imagine that the dhimmis
enjoyed a secure and stable status permanently and definitely acquired -
that they were forever protected and lived happily ever after.
Contrary to this picture
perpetrated by Islamic apologists, the status of dhimmis was very
fragile indeed and was constantly under threat. The dhimmis were
in constant danger of being enslaved.
For example, when Amur conquered
Tripoli in 643, he forced the Jews and Christians to hand over their
women and children as slaves to the Arab army, and they were told to
deduct this "handover" from the poll-tax, the dreaded "jizya."
Between 652 and 1276, Nubia was forced to send an annual contingent of
slaves to Cairo.
The treaties concluded under the
Umayyads and the Abbasids with the towns of Transoxiana, Sijstan,
Armenia, and Fezzan (modern northwest Africa) all stipulated an annual
tribute of slaves of both sexes. The principle source of the
reservoir of slaves was the constant raids on the villages in the city
"dar al-harb," and the more disciplined military expeditions
that more thoroughly mopped up the cities of the unbelievers. All
the captives were deported en masse. In 781, at the sack of
Ephesus, 7,000 Greeks were deported in captivity.
After the capture of Amorium in
838, there were so many captives that the Caliph al-Mutasim ordered them
to be auctioned in batches of five and ten. At the sack of
Thessalonica in 903, 22,000 Christians were divided among Arab
chieftains or sold into slavery. In 1064, the Seljuk Sultan, Alp
Arslan, devastated Georgia and Armenia. Those he did not take as
prisoners, he executed.
The literary sources for Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Armenia, and
later Anatolia and Safavid Perdia reveal that those families who could
not pay the crushing jizya or poll-tax were obliged to hand over their
children and to "deduct" it from the jizya.
For at least three hundred years, Christians suffered one other
humiliation not often discussed: a process known as "devshirme."
It was introduced by the Ottoman Sultan Orkhan (1326-1359) and consisted
of the periodic taking of a fifth of all Christian children in the
Converted to Islam, these children,
between the ages of fourteen and twenty, were trained to be janissaries
or infantry men. These periodic abductions eventually became
annual. The Christian children were taken from among the Greek
aristocracy and from the Sebs, Bulgarians, Armenians, and Albanians, and
often from among the children of the priests.
On a fixed date, all the fathers were ordered to appear with their
children in the public square. The recruiting agents chose the
most sturdy and handsome children in the presence of a Muslim judge.
Any father who shirked his duty to provide children was severely
This system was open to all kinds of abuse. The recruiting agents
often took more than the prescribed number of children and sold the
"surplus" children back to their parents. Those unable
to buy back their children had to accept their being sold into slavery.
This institution was abolished in 1656; however, a parallel system, in
which young children, between the ages of six and ten, were taken to be
trained in the seraglio of the sultan, continued until the eighteenth
The number of children taken each year seems to have varied. Some
scholars place it as high as 12,000 a year, others at 8,000, but there
was probably an average of at least 1,000 a year. The devshrime is
an obvious infringement of the rights of the dhimmis - a reminder that
their rights were far from secure, once and for all.