Were Christians and Jews persecuted under the Muslim rulership?
A Christian friend asked me: how come you say that Islam treated the people of dhimma in good manners whereas the Christians had suffered under the Muslims’ rulership as was mentioned by Bernard Louis. He mentioned that Christians were not allowed to build their churches or even restore them. They also had no right to file law suits in courts and thus were unable to defend themselves. Moreover, Christians were not permitted to raise their voices in conducting ritual service and were subjected to rape, robbery and massacres. The taxes that were paid by Christians were the double of what was prescribed on Muslims. So please clarify all these issues for me.
Linguistically the word (dhimma) in Arabic means safety and covenant so the people of dhimma are the people of covenant and the dhimmi is the one who is bounded with the covenant. This name was popular between non Muslims because they are guaranteed security and safety by the Muslims. Thus their lives, families and properties were totally secured and they paid jizyah which is a very small amount of money in exchange of their protection and for not being recruited in the Muslims’ army. The amount of jizyah was around four grams of gold and was prescribed on those who have high and moderate income but not on those who are poor.
God Almighty ordered Muslims to treat the people of dhimma with good manners. He says in the Quran, “Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes - from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.” 60:8 Imam al Tabari commented on this verse by saying that when God said, “God did not forbid us from those who do not fight you”, this verse applies on people from all different religions and creeds as we are asked to be kind, gentle and fair in our dealings with them. God asked us to practice “birr” which is the highest level of goodness that is used in dealing with one’s parents. Imam Muslim reported through the narration of An Nawas ibn Sam’an al Ansary that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) explained the word “birr” to mean good manners.
Imam al Qarafi listed the different forms of “birr” that Muslims are commanded to practice with the people of dhimma. He said that soft words should be used in addressing them to show mercy and kindness along with praying for their guidance. Muslims are also asked to preserve their reputation whenever someone tries to slander them as all this is part of perfection of ethics which was commanded by God and his Prophet.
Also the Islamic Shari’ah obligated Muslims to be kind to their parents even if they were from the people of dhimma. God says, But if they endeavor to make you associate with Me that of which you have no knowledge, do not obey them but accompany them in [this] world with appropriate kindness and follow the way of those who turn back to Me [in repentance]. Then to Me will be your return, and I will inform you about what you used to do. 31:15
Ibn Kathir in his Quranic exegesis explained that even if the non Muslim parents exerted their utmost efforts to convert their Muslim sons/daughters to their own religion, they should not follow them yet they are obliged to maintain goodness and excellence in dealing with them. Muhammad ibn al Hassan added that the Muslim son is obliged to spend on his non Muslim parents in response to God’s command of accompanying one’s parents with goodness and high ethics. He added that it is not part of goodness for someone to live lavishly whereas his non Muslim parents are starving to death. Same goes for one’s non Muslims’ grand parents, children and grand children.
Another important sign of goodness and high manners is praying for guidance for them as the Prophet prayed for the guidance of the tribe of Daws and this incident was narrated by Abu Huraira when he said, “al Tufail ibn ‘Amr al Dawsi and his companions came over to the Prophet saying, “O Prophet of God, Daws fell into disbelief and refused the call to Islam so pray God for a calamity to befell them” so the Prophet replied “O God I implore you to guide Daws and bring them to us”. (Muslim)
The Islamic Shari’ah emphatically warned against harming the people of dhimma. It was reported through Abu Hurairah that the Prophet said, “Whoever kills someone who is bounded with the covenant of God and his Prophet, will not smell the scent of heaven …” (Ibn Majah)
If we traced the Islamic history, we would find numerous examples of practicing excellence and good manners with the people of dhimma. For example, the covenant which ‘Umar ibn al Khattab wrote for the people of dhimma and asked his caliphs to keep it intact. The covenant ensures the security of their lives, money, children, dignity and possessions along with defending them from internal and external aggression. During the reign of the Ummayyads, the people of dhimma were appointed in leading positions in the caliphate for example the Akhtal, a Chrisitan, was the leading poet in the Ummayad royal family and Sarjon ibn Mansour al Rumi was the writer of Mu’awiyyah ibn Abi Sufyan and Ibn Athal was his appointed doctor.
A lot of Western writers who were honest readers of history such as William James Durant mentioned in his book “The Story of Civilization” that the people of Dihmma who consisted of Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews enjoyed a level of tolerance during the Ummayyad Caliphate which was hard to find in Christian lands at that time. They were free to practice their religious rituals and they kept their churches and temples intact. He added that the Jews in the lands of the Far East welcomed the advent of the Muslim Arabs who liberated them from the oppression of the former rulers and they enjoyed full freedom in practicing their religious rituals. Christians as well were free to celebrate their religious festivals publicly and the Christians pilgrims were flocking to visit the Christian monuments safely in Palestine. Also the persecuted Christians who suffered the brunt of religious sectarianism under the auspices of the Byzantine Empire and with the supervision of the patriarchs in UrShalim, Antakya, and Alexandria due to their theological differences with the Byzantine church, they now became free under the Muslims’ rulership.
The British historian, Thomas Arnold, said in this regard, “we have not heard of any deliberate attempt to force non Muslims to embrace Islam or any organized persecution aiming at eradicating the Christian religion”. He continued saying that the victorious Arab Muslims treated Christians with great tolerance since the first Hijri century and this religious tolerance continued in the following centuries. Therefore we can judge that the Christian tribes which embraced Islam did so with a conviction that resulted from a free will and educated choice. The Christian Arabs who live in our time among Muslim communities are eye witnesses of this religious tolerance.
Blasco Ibanez, a Spanish writer, wrote about the Islamic conquest in Andalusia emphasizing that Spain welcomed the advent of those men coming from the African continent and the villages surrendered willingly to the Muslims without resistance or animosity. Whenever the villagers see from a close distance the advent of Muslim knights, they would open up the gates of their village and welcome them with delight. It was a conquest of civilization and not a conquest of oppression. The builders of the Islamic civilization did not give up in any certain period of time on the value of freedom of conscience as it is the bedrock on which great nations are built. The Muslims accepted the existence of Christian churches and Jewish temples and were not eager to build mosques on the debris of people’s religious temples. Muslims rather guaranteed others the freedom of worship and built mosques right next to other religious establishment without holding any grudges or any desire to rule over them.
Therefore what you have mentioned in your question has a lot of historical fallacies because the people of Dhimma along the Islamic history had full religious freedom to practice their rituals according to the Islamic system which obliges Muslims to accept others and to deal kindly with the people of the Book. It is utterly not true that they were deprived of practicing their rituals or file law suits in the court of law. It is important for the one who seeks the truth about this matter to read objective books and not hostile ones. Also there is a big difference between the Islamic teachings over a certain matter and between the random practices of some Muslims which Islam does not approve of and should not bear its brunt.