Under Muslim Rule: Coexistence or Coercion?

What does Islamic law really say about the status of non-Muslims under Muslim rule? Watch Andrew March—specialist on Islam and political science at University of Massachusetts, Amherst—answer this question and more, as he explains the controversial Dhimma model and the evolution of universal citizenship in Muslim lands.


[I. Intro to Dhimmitude trope]

You may have heard the term “dhimmitude” as a catch-all explanation for any perceived Muslim supremacy and the expectation that non-Muslims must be submissive to Muslims.

The word dhimma is indeed based on an actual Islamic legal and historical practice. But what is the truth about it and what does it tell us about relations between Muslims and non-Muslims today? 

[II. Broader context of ancient tribute systems]

Islam emerged in 7th century Arabia. At that time, there were no “states” with equal citizenship on an individual basis. Rather, political authority was organized strictly on the basis of kinship, or ties of blood. Outside of Arabia, Christian Byzantium did inherit the Roman concept of citizenship but regarded religious faith as paramount. The Byzantines gave legal citizenship to Jews, and granted them the freedom to practice their religion, but imposed certain restrictions. At various times, Jews paid a special tax known as the fiscus Iudaicus. Legal codes excluded Jews from certain government offices, the civil service, and military posts. The same was true later in Catholic Europe.

[III. Origins of Dhimma contract]

Muslim political tradition begins with the covenant established by the Prophet with the peoples of Medina, who included Jews as well as Muslims. This covenant extends the “security of God” over all non-Muslims who lived within Medina and recognized the prophet’s authority. The word for security is dhimma. Moreover, the covenant declared “to the Jews their religion and to the Muslims their religion,” establishing a precedent for communal religious freedom. 

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