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The Benevolent Impact Of Jizyah On The Vanquished In Early Islam: A Review Of Observations By Some Of The Greatest Scholars Of Enlightenment And This Era

By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam

[Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.]

12 August 2015

[This is a follow up on my just posted article on Jizyah, which apart from expounding its roots, claims it to be a boon rather than a bane for the vanquished communities in early Islam.}

Thomas Arnold (1864-1930) a distinguished scholar and historian of Islam, knighted for academic excellence, carried out an extensive research to investigate the spread of Islam at the expense of Christianity into different countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa. He went through thousands of Church chronicles and official reports sent by the then active Christian Church of those countries to their headquarters in Rome to have totally unbiased materials for his work. Commenting on the conquest of Roman cities by Caliph Umar (633-644), he records that after the initial terror and chaos of battle was over, the people of the conquered provinces “found themselves in the enjoyment of a toleration such as, on account of their Monophysite and Nestorian opinions, had been unknown to them for many centuries.” In the same breath, he quotes the terms of surrender of Jerusalem in these words:

 “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate! This is the security which Umar, the servant of God, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Elia. He grants to all, whether sick or sound, security for their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses, and for all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be changed into dwelling places, nor destroyed, neither shall they nor their appurtenances be in any way diminished nor the crosses of the inhabitants nor aught of their possessions, nor shall any constraint be put upon them in the matter of their faith, nor shall any one ofthem be harmed.” [Preaching of Islam, 2nd revised edition, 1913, reprinted Delhi 1990, p. 56.]

 To illustrate the protective notion of Jizyah and its just and welcome application, he cites the proclamation, issued by Caliph Umar’s general Abu Ubaidah to the Christian subjects of the conquered cities of Syria, in the face of an imminent aggression from Emperor Heraclius:

“We give you back the money that we took from you, as we have received news that a strong force is advancing against us. The agreement between us was that we should protect you, and as this is not now in our power, we return you all that we took. But if we are victorious we shall consider ourselves bound to you by the old terms of our agreement.” [Ibid. p. 61]

 The order was put into effect and enormous sums were paid back to the people out of the state treasury, so much so that the Christians called down blessings upon the Muslims, saying: ‘May God give you rule over us again, and make you victorious over the Romans; had it been they, they would not have given us back anything, but would have taken all that remained with us.’ [Ibid. p.61]

 Caliph Umar’s concern for the dhimmi’s, is also well reflected in his last testament, addressed to his successor:

 I commend to his care the dhimmis, who enjoy the protection of God, and of the Prophet; let him see to it that the covenant with them is kept, and that no greater burden than they can bear are laid upon them.” [Ibid. p.57]

After covering practically all the countries of the region that came under Islam in its early sweep, as well as those that saw massive conversions in later centuries, he makes the following observation (abridged) in the concluding chapter of his book that speaks for itself:

"In the preceding pages it has been shown that the theory of the Muslim faith enjoins toleration and freedom of religious life for all those followers of other faiths who pay tribute in return for protection …, The very existence of so many Christian sects and communities in countries that have been for centuries under Mohammadan rule is an abiding testimony to the toleration they have enjoyed, and shows that the persecutions, they have from time to time been called upon to endure at the hands of bigots and fanatics, have been excited by some special and local circumstances, rather than inspired by a settled principal of intolerance." [Ibid. p. 419/420]

It is notable that this great icon of Enlightenment does not even mention the Qur’anic term jizyah which he simply conflates with ‘tribute’ or defence levy that was normative for the era – and, come this day, tacitly incorporated in all bilateral defence treaties between the strong and the weak nations. There is no mention of any coercion or humiliation of the vanquished people and express mention of “toleration and “freedom of religious life.”

Philip K. Hitti (1886-1978), world renowned scholar, and internationally recognized authority on Middle Eastern history, Islam, and Semitic languages, records the following self-explanatory terms of surrender of Damascus (AH 13/ 635) to Khalid ibn al Walid, which corroborates Thomas Arnold’s observations:

“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful! This is what Khalid ibn al Walid will offer to the inhabitants of Damascus if he enters therein: he promises to give them the security for their lives, property and churches. Their city wall will not be demolished, neither shall any Moslem be quartered in their houses. Thereunto we give to them the pact of God and the protection of the Prophet, the caliphs and the believers. So long as they pay the poll tax, nothing shall befall them." [Philip K.Hitti, History of the Arabs, 1937, 10th edition;  London 1993, p. 150]

Commenting on the advance of Khalid's army, the historian further states [Ibid. 152]: "The people of Shayzar (Larissa) went out to meet him accompanied by players on the tambourines and singers and bowed down before him." [Ibid. 152]

It is evident from the original historical records dating from early years of Islam that the conquered people were treated with all fairness, and that, Jizyah was charged primarily as a levy for exemption from military services, which was compulsory for Muslims on demand. Jizyah also served as a contribution towards social welfare, for which Muslims were required to pay the Zakat. Thus, Jizyah was not meant to be a punitive tax, but a just and fair levy.

Let us now quote two the most distinguished scholars of modern times whose works are based on intensive research of original sources and not influenced by later era revisionist scholarship.  

Malise Ruthven (born 1942), a consultant on Middle Eastern affairs, PhD in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University, credited with the authorship of ten books, many translated in several languages states while commenting on the verse 5:48 of the Qur’an:

"This is the clearest of many statements implicitly commanding tolerance towards the Jews and Christians and other people of the book, and by extension, towards Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhist and adherents of other scriptural religion... This clear recognition of a plurality of religious faiths, accounts, no doubt in part for the relative tolerance accorded to other religious communities (or ‘millets'), with some exception, under Islamic governments.” [Islam in the World, London 1984, p. 119]

Karen Armstrong (born 1944), an illustrious scholar, an internationally acclaimed voice of peace, compassion and religious commonality, and a prolific writer with some 25 publications to her credit, including a biography of Prophet Muhammad says:

 "After Muhammad's death, Jews and Christians were never required to convert to Islam but were allowed to practice their religion freely in the Islamic empire. Later Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs were also counted among the ‘People of the Book'. It has never been a problem for the Muslims to coexist with people of other religions.” [Muhammad, London 1991, p. 87.]

We would like to keep out of any discussion on how the concept of jizyah was used in the later centuries in Islam – with the forging of a document in the fifth century committing the vanquished Christians to a whole range of restrictions [Thomas W. Arnold, Preaching of Islam, 2nd revised edition, 1913, reprinted Delhi 1990, p. 56-58]. This work is neither an apology nor a defence. It is no more than a passing glance at hard historical facts concerning the fundamentals of Qur’anic principles as they were applied in the early years of Islam, and clarification of the notion of Jizyah that is either misunderstood or projected out of historical context or relativism.

Finally, the readers must be warned of ‘revisionist’ scholarship touched in the passing in this essay. Throughout history, beginning with Ibn Ishaq in Islam, there have been people who pen their views on crucial themes, at times with an air of authority, without any intensive research into their subjects or with the deliberate intention of demonizing their perceived enemies or civilizational rivals. The trait can be found among the conceited and popularity seeking writers of this era – especially when they write about Islam or the theme of Jizyah, supposedly its Achilles heel - who wear the cloak of a scholar but are intellectually stinted like a quack, or a charlatan, who talks big but knows little, and like a tangled reed that can only produce a cacophony – but no music. God alone is their judge and mine as well if I have gone overboard in phrasing this concluding remark. 

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.