Misinterpreting Islamic history

Special Issue | The Greatest Spin Ever Sold

Issue: "Osama bin Ashcroft?," April 27, 2002

The concept of inalienable rights is a starting point for understanding one more key difference between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. Note what John Ashcroft said in his celebrated and maligned speech at Bob Jones University: "We knew that we were endowed not by the king, but by the Creator, with certain inalienable rights. If America is to be great in the future, it will be if we understand that our source is not civic and temporal, but our source is godly and eternal: endowed by the Creator with rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Such talk of "inalienable rights" may sound like boilerplate rhetoric, but it is crucial in differentiating Christian and Islamic "fundamentalism." As the pioneering historian Bat Ye'Or has pointed out in The Dhimmi and her other remarkable books over the past two decades, Islam has no belief in "inalienable rights." Instead, Islam establishes rights for Muslims but gives Jews and Christians living in Muslim-ruled lands a special status as dhimmis (Arabic for "protected people").

The word dhimmi became historically significant in a.d. 628 when Muhammad's forces defeated a Jewish tribe that lived at the oasis of Khaybar and made with them a treaty known as the dhimma. The treaty allowed Jews to continue cultivating their oasis, as long as they gave Muhammad half of their produce. Crucially, Muhammad reserved the right to break the deal and expel the Jews whenever he wished. That agreement has served as a model for Muslims over the centuries.

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Dhimmis typically had to pay discriminatory taxes acknowledging publicly their status as second-class citizens. They were on the hook for additional sums payable on Islamic demand. They had to supply forced labor on demand. They were ineligible for any public office and without the right even to testify in legal battles. They were not allowed to construct new places of worship, but sometimes received permission to worship in buildings that predate Muslim conquest. (The buildings had to be dilapidated, with no crosses or bell-ringing allowed, and Muslims able to ransack them at will.)

Dhimmis were not allowed to possess weapons, marry Muslim women, meet with others on the streets, or ride horses or camels (the two "noble animals"). Dhimmis had to wear special clothes, walk with eyes lowered, and accept being pushed aside by Muslims. Dhimmis had to have low doors on their houses; they could have no lights on the doors. Some particular aspects varied from age to age and region to region. In the 9th century, Jews in some Muslim areas had to wear on their shoulders a patch of white cloth that bore the image of an ape; Christians, since they ate pork, wore a pig image. In 11th-century Seville Jews could not be met with the greeting, "Peace be unto you," because they were not supposed to have any peace.

The Muslim goal in collecting taxes from dhimmis was to maximize not only revenue but abuse. North African 19th-century theologian al-Maghali advised that dhimmis be assembled on tax day "in the lowest and dirtiest place," with threatening officials placed above the dhimmis "so that it seems to them, as well as to the others, that our object is to degrade them." With the stage set, al-Maghali advised, officials could play out a little drama of dragging dhimmis "one by one [to the official responsible] for the exacting of payment." They would knock him around, then thrust him aside, and make sure he realized that his position would never improve. As al-Maghali put it, "This is the way that the friends of the Lord, of the first and last generations will act toward their infidel enemies, for might belongs to Allah, to His Prophet, and to the Believers."

Other edicts affected not just finances but self-respect. A Cairo rule in 1761 was that "no Jew or Christian may appear on horseback. They ride only asses, and must alight upon meeting even [a minor Egyptian official].... If the infidel fails to give instant obedience, he is beaten." In Persia in 1890, Jewish women had to "expose their faces in public [like prostitutes].... The men must not wear fine clothes, the only material permitted them being a blue cotton fabric. They are forbidden to wear matching shoes. Every Jew is obliged to wear a piece of red cloth on his chest. A Jew must never overtake a Muslim on a public street.... If a Muslim insults a Jew, the latter must drop his head and remain silent.... The Jew cannot put on his coat; he must be satisfied to carry it rolled under his arm.... It is forbidden for Jews to leave the town or enjoy the fresh air of the countryside.... Jews must not consume good fruit."


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