[Editor’s Note: This is the third entry in a three-part series on the Swiss minaret ban. Read the first entry here and the second here .]

The Qur’an includes Jews and Christians among the “People of the Book,” among those to whom God has revealed something of divine truth in past times. Yet Islamic tradition insists that the Jews and Christians corrupted that revelation, and laments their failure to recognize the final revelation given to Muhammad. Therefore in the ideal vision for society articulated by Islamic jurisprudence Jews and Christians are to be tolerated only by virtue of a certain contract (or dhimma ) that makes them subject to a set of conditions (for which reason they are often called dhimmis ). These conditions were often attributed to the caliph Umar II, who ruled the Umayyad Empire from Damascus in the early eighth century, and hence called the “Conditions of Umar.”

According to the “Conditions of Umar” Jews and Christians are to wear a distinguishing item of clothing (in a color identifying their particular religious denomination); they are forbidden to wear fine clothing, ride horses, bear arms, own a Qur’an, insult Islam, construct new churches, or build houses higher than those of Muslims. These conditions, it might be noted, address largely symbolic matters. They are not meant to annihilate Jews and Christians, as is sometimes suggested. Instead the conditions of Umar are meant to insure that Jews and Christians in no way interrupt the dominant order of Islamic society, an order shaped by the divinely reveal edicts of Islamic law.

By the new law in Switzerland Muslims can still build new mosques and they can still build tall houses, but they cannot put tall minarets, or any minaret at all, on their mosques. Now the minarets that already exist in Switzerland no longer perform the function for which they were designed. There is no broadcast of the call to prayer in Switzerland, and even if there were, a minaret would hardly be necessary. These days the call to prayer is broadcast by loudspeakers, not by a muezzin who climbs to the top of the minaret. So the issue is largely symbolic.

In recent years the Vatican has raised the question of Muslim-Christian relations in terms of reciprocity. It has demanded that Christians in the Islamic world enjoy the same liberties already enjoyed by Muslims in Europe. The legal prohibition of minarets in Switzerland might be thought of as an example of reciprocity in light of the “Conditions of Umar,” but this is certainly not the sort of reciprocity the Vatican has in mind. Not surprisingly, the Swiss bishops are opposed to this law. But both supporters and opponents of the law might be surprised to discover that it has a precedent in, of all places, Islamic tradition.

Gabriel Said Reynolds is the Tisch Family Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Articles by Gabriel Said Reynolds

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