Ever since Islam was founded in the seventh century, there have been Christian communities living as minorities in Muslim-majority contexts. Their circumstances have varied at different times and in different places, but almost always the Christians experience some degree of discrimination or hostility. This repeated pattern is not a coincidence – it arises from some of the teaching of Islam.
A basic precept of classical Islamic teaching divides the world into two kinds of territory – Dar al-Islamand Dar al-Harb. Dar al-Islamor ‘the house of Islam’ consists of those areas which are under Muslim control.
The rest of the world, which is under infidel (i.e. non-Muslim) control, is significantly known as Dar al-Harb, ‘the house of war’. This name is given to infidel-controlled areas because Muslims are obliged to subdue Dar al-Harband turn it into Dar al-Islam.
Often this process has been promoted by physical warfare, particularly in the early days of Islam. Today many Muslims interpret this obligation not in physical but in spiritual terms, and see it as the task of converting others to Islam by persuasion and argument.
For Muslim communities in the West this includes making the most of the freedoms and opportunities available in democratic societies to lobby peacefully and call for laws and institutions to be reformed to make them more Islamic.
The term jihad, often used in its narrowest sense of ‘holy war’, actually encompasses a wide range of meanings and has been the subject of a vast amount of Muslim literature. Its general meaning is ‘striving’ or ‘struggling’.
Traditionally, jihadhas meant physical aggression towards unbelievers – with the object of converting them to Islam and installing rule by Islamic law (shari’a). It is the means by which Dar al-Harbis turned into Dar al-Islam.
During the 21-year civil war in Sudan (which came to an end last year) the Sudanese Government repeatedly declared itself to be engaged in a jihadagainst the Christians and other non-Muslims of south Sudan. The point at issue in the war was the government’s desire to impose shari’aon the south.
Jihadis commanded in the Qur’an:
But when the forbidden months
Are past, then fight and slay
The Pagans wherever ye find them,
And seize them, beleaguer them,
And lie in wait for them
In every stratagem [of war];
But if they repent,
And establish regular prayers
And practise regular charity,
Then open the way for them:
For God is Oft-forgiving,
Conversion to Islam
In this context ‘repent’ means accepting and converting to Islam. A number of other Qur’anic verses take up the same theme. These verses, dating as they do from later in Muhammad’s life, are considered to abrogate (cancel out) earlier verses with a more peaceable attitude towards non-Muslims.
However, some contemporary Muslims understand jihadin other ways, for example, only to fight in self-defence, or as a struggle for justice, or simply the spiritual struggle against one’s own sinful inclinations.
Most Muslims see no contradiction in understanding jihadto signify, at the same time, a broad spiritual struggle, a social campaign and military action. Conflicts such as those in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir are considered to be jihadsby many Muslims around the world.
Classical Islam teaches that Christians, Jews, Sabeans and Zoroastrians who refuse to become Muslims when Dar al-Harbis being turned into Dar al-Islammust be subdued, compelled to pay a special poll tax (jizya), and forced to acknowledge the supremacy of Islam.
If any refuse to pay this tax, the men are to be killed and the women and children enslaved. Pagans are to be killed outright unless they convert to Islam.
Non-Muslims who have been subdued in this way are known as dhimmi(literally ‘protected’), and their Muslim conquerors guarantee their security. This system was exceptional for its time – normally a conquered people would be treated far less leniently by their conquerors.
Muslims often call this ‘tolerance’ of non-Muslims, meaning they are permitted to live, but this ‘tolerance’ does not imply equality. The details of the conditions imposed on dhimmiin return for their protection varied from place to place and from century to century. But an essential feature was always the humiliation of the dhimmiand their inferior position in Muslim society.
Rules and regulations
This is made clear in a key Qur’anic text:
Fight those who believe not
In God nor the Last Day,
Nor hold that forbidden
Which hath been forbidden
By God and His Apostle,
Nor acknowledge the Religion
Of Truth, [even if they are]
Of the People of the Book,
Until they pay the Jizya
With willing submission,
And feel themselves subdued.
Typically dhimmiwould be free to practise their own religion provided they did so discreetly, without causing any offence to Muslims. For example, Christian singing should not be audible to the Muslim population.
To build a new church or synagogue, permission had to be obtained from Muhammad himself (and after his death from the very highest authorities). Dhimmiwould not be allowed to propagate their religion, especially amongst Muslims.
Dhimmiscould not hold positions of authority over the Muslim community. Although a Muslim man was allowed to marry a dhimmiwoman, a dhimmi man could never marry a Muslim woman.
These and many other demeaning rules and regulations existed to indicate and reinforce the inferior position of the dhimmi.
Naturally, these restrictions tended to breed an attitude amongst Muslims that dhimmiwere ‘unclean’ – contemptible and not true citizens of the Muslim state. On the other hand, there were occasions when Muslim rulers did faithfully seek to protect and care for their non-Muslim peoples.
The dhimma(protection) concept evolved from customs existing in pre-Islamic Arabia, where a strong nomadic tribe would grant ‘protection’ to a weaker tribe, that is, would give it military support against an enemy.
On at least one occasion, Caliph Umar (634-644) returned the jizya which a group of Christians had paid when he found he could not at that time give them the protection from their enemies which he had promised.
However, our Qur’anic text indicates the way in which the practice of dhimmasoon developed. Islam would fight the non-Muslims in its territory unless they submitted to dhimmistatus. The non-Muslims had no choice about the terms and conditions. The term dhimmamight perhaps be better translated ‘protection racket’.
Still found today
Some of the dhimmapractices were officially abolished in 1856in the Ottoman empire. Yet the condition of ‘dhimmitude’ (as it has come to be known) continues. Many of the restrictions and conditions listed above, which were imposed on dhimmiin the early days of Islam, can still be found in a variety of Muslim countries today.
The jizya tax referred to in the Qur’anic quotation above has been revived in Iraq, as Islamic militants visit Christian homes demanding payments. In urban parts of Algeria, Christians must meet discreetly in basements and make sure that their singing is not loud enough for the neighbours to hear.
In Egypt, Christians must obtain presidential permission to build a new church – and the consent of local governors to carry out even minor repairs to an existing church building. In February 2002 a church in Upper Egypt was attacked by a Muslim mob throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Their rage was provoked by the ringing of church bells before a service to celebrate the completion of some renovation work.
In 1993 a Saudi newspaper published the opinion of learned Muslim scholars that Christians should never be in authority over Muslims, and that the Christian manager appointed at a certain company should therefore be sacked and replaced by a Muslim.
Christian officers are not allowed in the Iranian army for this reason. Hamid Pourmand, a convert from Islam to Christianity, is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for allegedly failing to inform his superiors in the army of his new faith and rising to the rank of colonel while a Christian.
In many Muslim countries, Christians may propagate their faith amongst non-Muslims but not amongst Muslims. In Iran, all Christian churches were ordered in June 1993 to sign a statement that they would not evangelise Muslims. This was followed up by a ban on holding church services in Farsi, the official language of Iran, and therefore the language spoken by all Iranian Muslims.
Most Muslims today would regard the detailed dhimmisystem as rather antiquated. Nevertheless the existence of this system for hundreds of years has left in place a widespread social prejudice against Christians.
Throughout much of the Muslim world there is, therefore, an attitude of disdain towards non-Muslims, which is often manifested through the media and in many forms of unofficial discrimination.
Many minority Christian communities today face prejudice which in modern Western terms might be described as marginalisation, social exclusion or institutional racism.