The Concept of Dhimma and Religious Pluralism

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Table of Contents

  • Dhimma
  • The Regulations
  • The Limitations
  • The Role of the Dhimma Concept
  • Jizya


Dhimma is an Arabic word which means "treaty" or "obligation." In the Prophetic tradition and Islamic legal literature, the term was used to mean "the obligation of Muslims in general and of Muslim rulers in particular to grant protection to non-Muslims living under their rule." The people who were granted this protection were called ahl al-dhimma, or dhimmis meaning protected people. According to Moussali, "dhimma means simply security, and a dhimma contract means that non-Muslims became members of the Islamic state and enjoyed equal rights and incurred equal duties." This contract meant that the Muslim state would provide security to its non-Muslim subject and also preserve their social, economic and religious rights and in return, non-Muslims would pay a poll tax (jizya). Non-Muslims, continues Moussali, "non-Muslims were like naturalized citizens or permanent residents who had certain rights and duties depending on the level of their naturalization." The term was originally designated only to people of the book (Jews, Christians and Sabaeans) but with the expansion of Muslim conquests and rule, it was extended to all other religions including Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and others.

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The Regulations

The history of the regulations pertaining ahl al-dhimma is not agreed upon among scholars. Lewis asserts that these regulations were first introduced during the period of the second Caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb in form of the treaty he gave to the conquered Christians of Syria in what is known as the "pact of ʿUmar." The Muslim state would, first and foremost, provide security for the dhimmis for their lives, properties and possessions. They would be allowed to keep and practice their religion; they would have the freedom to administer their own courts and laws in their personal and family affairs and their places of worship would not be touched or destroyed. They had full economic freedom as they were free to participate in any profession; they were not, as Lewis notes, "confined to ghettos either in the geographical or in the occupational sense." He notes further that:

"A few dhimmis, in both earlier and later times, managed to reach positions of great power and influence under Muslim sovereigns. Much greater numbers served in the middle and lower ranks of the state bureaucracy. This was of special importance in a society where access to the economic activities of the state was the surest— at times the only—road to riches"

In return, dhimmis were expected to give their full allegiance to the state and pay a poll tax.

The Limitations

There were, however, some limitations which were imposed on the dhimmis like the restrictions on riding certain beasts and also wearing certain clothes, there were also restrictions on building new places of worship. There are some reports that they were not allowed to build their houses near Muslim houses or building them higher than Muslims' and that they were required to wear a certain symbol distinguishing them from Muslims. Nevertheless, they generally had almost the same rights and obligations as Muslims. It is argued that those limitations were, at that time and in that context, necessary. It is also important to note that most of those limitations were not systematically applied. They were applied at times by rulers who lacked legitimacy and tried to present themselves in the garb of piety.

The Role of the Dhimma Concept

The dhimma concept contributed greatly to organizing relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and provided a peaceful environment for interaction between diverse members of the state. Moussali states that "the dhimma contract was effectively a system of social welfare, whereby rich non-Muslims could determine their level of involvement in the community, and poor non-Muslims were not financially burdened." He mentioned a story of an elderly Jewish beggar, whom ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb made sure that he was, and all others like him, well looked after by the state fund. His religion did not matter to the Caliph, all he wanted was to make sure that all members of the community were well looked after by the state, irrespective of their religious affiliations.


The dhimma contract was always connected with jizya where non-Muslims had to pay a special tax in return for enjoying the protection of the state. The meaning and implications of jizya have been perceived differently from many, classical and modern, writers. Ibn al-Qayyim (691-751) in his book Aḥkām ahl al-Dhimma mentions that the word jizya is derived for the word Jazāʾ which means punishment. Unbelievers pay it as a punishment for their disbelief or because of the agreement of protection they signed with the Muslim state. He states that it was imposed on them as a way to humiliate them. Bat Ye'Or states that it is a tax "which should be levied on the head of each subject and Allah has imposed it on the polytheists for the benefit of the believers" Considering these definitions, jizya is presented as though it was a way to suppress those who had to pay it. Lewis notes that the dhimmi paying the jizya had to appear in a certain humiliating way with his back bent and his head bowed and that "tax collector must treat him with disdain and even with violence, seizing his chin and slapping his cheeks and the like"

On close examination, however, we find that the situation was different. We have to remember, first of all, that Muslims were required to pay zakat and also encouraged to pay charity (ṣadaqa), it was, therefore, only fair that non-Muslims, who were enjoying the same protection and almost all the rights of the state as Muslims, also contributed to the social and economic wellbeing of the community. Bowker notes that it was "roughly the equivalent of zakat that Muslims have to pay." Furthermore, non-Muslims were not obliged to participate in military service while they enjoyed full protection of the state. They therefore had to contribute by paying a small tax in return for that protection. The example we gave earlier of the second Caliph ensuring that the state took care of all its residents – Muslims and non-Muslims – also shows that the money collected was not only for the benefit of believers, as Ye'or laments, but for the benefit of all. Another important point to note is that its payment was only liable to adult males who were not poor or vulnerable. Abdel Haleem gives it another dimension and argues that its implementation shows Islam's acceptance and practice of religious pluralism. He states that it is an example of Islam's acceptance of multiplicity of cultures, which allows people of different faiths to live together, all contributing to the wellbeing of the state: Muslims through zakāt, and ahl al dhimma through jizya.

On jizya being a punishment and humiliation, as many scholars argue referring to verse (9:29), it can be argued that neither the Prophet nor his Companions imposed this tax as a way to humiliate or punish non-Muslims. It is also clear that the tax was not imposed on every non-Muslim, the poor, women and children and all the vulnerable were exempted from its payment, had it been a punishment, they all would have been obliged to pay it. The act of the second Caliph also clearly shows that it could not have been a punishment for those paying it because the money was, indeed, used to help all member of the community. On the humiliation mentioned in the verse, Abdel Haleem notes that it meant enforcing its payment on those who could afford but refused to pay it , just like Muslims who refused to pay zakat were condemned and fought by the state. It is also important to consider the historical context of this tax. It was a common practice among nations, even before Islam, to collect taxes from their citizens. The tax is, therefore, not an Islamic invention but a common practice of that time. It is also noteworthy that although there were theologians and commentary opinions urging for jizya to be collected as a punishment and with humiliation, and although there are some Muslim rulers who implemented such opinions, they were not systematically applied across all periods of Islamic history. Jurists also took a more practical and humane attitude towards its payment and as Lewis notes that "there can be no doubt that it is the attitudes of the jurists, rather than of the commentators and other theologians, that more accurately reflect the practice of Muslim rulers and administrators."

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