Recently, an Islamist group in the Syrian opposition, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), captured the town of Raqqa and imposed on its Christian inhabitants the dhimma, the notional contract that governs relations with Christians in classical Islamic law. The dhimma allows Christian communities to reside in Muslim society in exchange for payment of a poll tax called the jizya and submission to social and legal restrictions. In Raqqa, for example, Christians have “agreed,” among other things, to pay ISIL a tax of $500 per person twice a year—poorer Christians can pay less—and to forgo public religious displays.

The dhimma has not been in operation in the Mideast for about 150 years. Even Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood did not reinstate it during the party’s brief period in power. Indeed, some progressive Islamic scholars argue that the dhimma is an anachronism that should no longer be part of Islamic law. So ISIL’s decision to impose it now has shocked Christians and many Muslims. The formal reestablishment of the dhimma in Raqqa reveals that some Islamists are prepared to cross a line many had thought inviolable.

The dhimma’s evolution is a matter of some mystery. Classical Islam considers Christians (and Jews) to be People of the Book—recipients of an earlier, though incomplete, revelation. The dhimma may derive from a Quranic verse commanding Muslims to fight the People of the Book “until they pay” the jizya and accept a humbled status; some also point to the Pact of Umar, a probably fictional agreement between an early caliph and Syrian Christians. Perhaps Muslims adapted existing Persian and Byzantine customs. Whatever the history, the dhimma’s terms were settled by the eighth or ninth centuries. Dhimmis—Christians subject to the dhimma—had rights to protection, property, worship, and some communal autonomy. They had their own courts and law. In return, dhimmis agreed to pay the jizya and accept a second-class status in Muslim society.

For example, dhimmis had to wear identifying clothing. They could not serve in the military or hold high office; they could not bear arms. They could not attract attention during worship or build new churches. They could not attempt to convert Muslims. In general, dhimmis had to adopt an attitude of quiescence and submission. Humiliation was the price for dhimmis’ stubborn refusal to accept Islam. In fact, the harshness of the restrictions served to create, from the Muslim perspective, a salutary incentive for dhimmis to convert. Many did, over the course of centuries.

Dhimmis could forfeit protection by disregarding the dhimma and affecting equality with Muslims. Conspicuous displays of wealth, for example, could be perceived as an insult; violent retribution and plunder could follow. Persecution could also occur during periods of political and economic crisis, or if dhimmis seemed to cooperate with Muslims’ enemies. This is not to say life involved constant strife. Some scholars argue the treatment of dhimmis compared favorably with the treatment of religious minorities in Europe. And restrictions were not always enforced; individual dhimmis could accumulate wealth and rise in Muslim society. A sense of insecurity and inferiority always existed, however, even in the best of times. Indeed, insecurity and inferiority were the essence of the arrangement.

Such was the situation for centuries in the Mideast, until Western influence led to the rise of secular nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Under pressure from Europe, the Ottomans abolished the dhimma in the Tanzimat reforms of the 1850s. Elsewhere, Western colonial powers introduced the concept of equal citizenship under law; Muslim countries continued to endorse this concept after decolonization. Old cultural patterns did not simply disappear, of course. Abolition of the dhimma in Turkey led to a fiercely violent anti-Christian backlash, and in many countries, Christians continued to face social discrimination, even persecution. But, as a formal matter, the dhimma mostly disappeared in favor of a new constitutional model.

The rise of political Islam in recent decades has reopened questions about the status of non-Muslims. As Ann Elizabeth Mayer, a human rights scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, has explained, Islamists often seem evasive on the subject. Typically, they are careful not to call for formal reinstatement of the dhimma, since to do so would offend many Muslims. Indeed, Islamists often say they support religious freedom for Christians. But Islamists also make clear that all rules, including rules about religious freedom, must be subject to the requirements of Islamic law—and the dhimma was very much a part of classical Islamic law. Islamists thus leave the door open for reinstatement of dhimmi restrictions, even as they avow a commitment to religious freedom.

In Raqqa, Islamists dropped all pretense. No temporizing here: ISIL clearly intends to reinstate the dhimma, with all its humiliations, wherever ISIL gains control. Perhaps the objections of other Islamist and secular elements in the Syrian opposition—those elusive pro-Western moderates the United States is always eager to identify—will cause ISIL to change its approach, though that doesn’t seem very likely. And if the Assad regime prevails, reestablishment of the dhimma in Raqqa may prove to have been merely a very unpleasant interlude. A psychological barrier has been crossed, though, and life has become even more precarious for the shrinking number of Christians in Syria and throughout the Mideast. 

Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be founhere.

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Articles by Mark Movsesian

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