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The Notion of Jizyah In The Light Of the Qur’an’s Holistic Message and Historical Context

By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam

 (Co-author (Jointly with AshfaqueUllah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.)

12 August 2015

As a first premise, it must be admitted that apart from expounding a comprehensive package definitive commandments, the Qur’an refers to, among other things, contemporary issues that were relevant only for its era, though some of them can be of general import.

Thus, the Qur’an defends the Prophet against a medley of charges that his Meccan enemies brought against him during the first twelve years (610--622 AD) of his mission, when he lived in his native town, Mecca. Likewise, as his Meccan enemies grew more hostile after his migration to Medina (622) and made full scale war on him on three occasions (624, 625 and 627), the Qur’an guided the Prophet with military commands to defending against the attacking army. The Qur’an also alludes to the political resistance and conspiracies of the native Jewish tribes and a faction of the Muslims (hypocrites) and the hostile relations with the Jews and Christians (5:51-58 for example) to leave a first-hand record of the travails and vicissitudes of his mission. Similarly, the Qur’an refers to some of the prevalent customs such as employing birds to hunt for food (5:4), travelling to Mecca on lean mounts (22:27), or military practices such as resisting an invasion by standing firm like a solid block in the battlefield (61:4) and having a cavalry division in the armed forces (8:60) which are no more relevant today as humans have evolved new methods of producing food, travelling, and waging war. All these verses, relating to the existential struggle and paradigms were obviously specific to the context of the revelation and as such do not form a part of its eternally binding definitive message that it commands the believers to follow (3:7) - though many of them may be of general import

With this we come to the setting of the Surah Tawbah which has the verse 9:29 on Jizyah.

This Surah was revealed during the last two years of the revelation. Mecca was already integrated without any military engagement (630 AD), but many old wounds remained unhealed. For the preceding twenty years, the Meccan leaders had regarded Muhammad as their archenemy and had done everything possible to destroy him and therefore could not be expected to reconcile with him overnight. Besides, the sudden integration also meant an abrupt change in the established norms, social order and inter-tribal political equation. This created a highly heterogeneous mix of people under the extended political domain of Islam - with each of these group having vestiges of pre-Islamic tribal ties but united under the Prophet as a single Ummah. The internal volatility apart, Islam had formidable foes:

The desert Arabs who had resisted the Prophet for well over two decades and had seen their number shrink, their strength wane and the Prophet advance in his mission against all odds, steadily gaining converts.

The hypocrites of Medina, who actively conspired against the Prophet, and even planned to expel him and his followers from Medina.

The neighbouring Christian Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) that was conceivably threatened by the newly unified Arab power that combined its military skills as fearless tribal warriors with courage, determination and new found religious zeal.

In the divine scheme, the Prophet had only two years left, and unless the hostile pagans and the hypocrites were integrated and the Byzantine threat diffused, Islam risked extinction soon after the Prophet’s death. The Qur’an, though, had to achieve the unachievable in just about two years. The Surah Tauba was revealed against this historical setting and had the almost impossible mission of neutralizing the above mentioned formidable foes of Islam.

With this we come to the verse 9:29 on Jizyah:

“Fight those from among the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) who do not have faith in God, nor in the Last Day, and do not consider forbidden what God and His messenger have forbidden, and do not acknowledge the religion of truth - until they pay tribute (Jizyah) willingly as subjects” (9:29).

This is the only verse in the Qur’an, which gives an unqualified instruction to fight (Qatilu) the People of the Book (Christians and Jews). Its directive, however, must be comprehended in the historical context of the revelation: the verse was revealed in the course of Tabuk expedition and enabled the Prophet to form peace alliances with the Christian and Jewish settlements of the southern regions of Byzantium without any military engagement. The question arises: does the verse constitute a Qur’anic injunction for all times? The Qur’an has the answer.

The inclusion of the Prophet in the verse lends it an existential character. If perpetual warfare was intended, fighting (Qatala) might have been a compulsory duty for all Muslims for all times. But neither the Prophet, nor his immediate successors imposed any such condition on the community. Thus, from early decades of Islam, the Muslim soldiers were paid for their services. Hence, the Qur’anic foregoing instruction to fight against the People of the Book must be context specific, and cannot therefore be regarded as a Qur’anic injunction for perpetual warfare.

The critics charge Islam of discriminating against the vanquished people by mandating the Jizyah. They, however, fail to realise the normative character and historical significance of Jizyah. Even before the advent of Islam, small states, weak kingdoms or vanquished people were required to pay a royalty or tax to their mighty neighbour to defending them against external aggression. Thus, all small Christian kingdoms beyond the borders of the Roman Empire paid a defence levy to the Roman Emperor. When these kingdoms merged with Islam, they paid the defence levy (Jizyah) to the Muslim Caliph based on their physically fit and combat capable adult population. Accordingly, women, under age and old men, sick or crippled men, and monks and priests were exempt from this tax. Those non-Muslims who volunteered military services were also exempt. This apart, Jizyah also served as a balancing tax - as a partial substitute for the Zakat that Muslims were required to pay towards public funds. Thus, in effect, Jizyah was a combination of welfare levy, and exemption tax.

The Historical Necessity of the Instrument of Jizyah during the Prophet’s Era

In historical perspective, the institutionalization of Jizyah may have been a boon to both Islam and the non-Muslims. But for the sole verse on Jizyah (9:29), the conquering Muslim army might have plundered, brutalized and enslaved the vanquished people in its early sweep and before long found it impossible to sustain its occupation of its expanding empire that included all the major neighbouring nations – Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Persia within thirty years of the Prophet’s death. Imposition of Jizyah as an alternative to war - an unavoidable reality of human history, also ensured security of life and property and full civil rights to the vanquished people. This consolidated Islam’s position in world history, for this new revolutionary religion that, among a plethora of other reforms, made everyone from the king to the beggar equally accountable to law, sought phased abolition of slavery, and turned gender equation upside down had no place in human history. It would have died prematurely without establishing itself as a political entity by way of Caliphate (632-661 CE), as part of natural course of history.

Fast forward to this era, with the emergence of multi-religious / secular states and separation of religion and politics and common taxation for all confessional groups in most countries of the world, Jizyah has lost its historical relevance. Today, the religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country is subject to the national drafting (whether by way of conscription or voluntary enrolment) and are thus intrinsically exempt from any additional taxation by way of Jizyah, as much as Muslim minorities do not bear any additional taxation in a predominantly non-Muslim/ secular country.

To wind up this essay, the author would like to quote the following verses from the Qur’an that captures the essence of its message on inter-faith relations:

“O People! We have created you as male and female, and made you into races and communities* for you to get to know each other. The noblest among you near God are those of you who are the most heedful (Atqakum). Indeed God is All-Knowing and Informed” (49:13).

“It may be that God will bring about love between you and those of them you (now) regard as your enemies. (Remember,) God is Able (to do anything) and God is Most Forgiving and Merciful (60:7). God does not forbid you to be virtuous and just to those who did not fight you over religion, nor drove you from your homelands. Indeed, God loves the just (60:8). God only forbids you to befriend those who fought against you over religion, and expelled you from your homelands, and backed (others) in your expulsion; and whoever befriends them – it is they who are unjust” (60:9).

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.