Jihad, the Arab Conquests and the Position of Non-Muslim Subjects Part II

Nothing could be further from the truth than to imagine that the dhimmis enjoyed a secure and stable status permanently and definitively acquired -- that they were forever protected and lived happily ever after. Contrary to this picture perpetrated by Islamic apologists, the status of dhimmis was very fragile indeed, and was constantly under threat. The dhimmis were in constant danger of being made into slaves. For example, when in 643, Amr conquered Tripoli, he forced the Jews and Christians to handover their women and children as slaves to the Arab army, and they were told to deduct this "handover" from the poll-tax, the dreaded "jizya." Between 652 and 1276, Nubia was forced to send an annual contingent of slaves to Cairo.  The treaties concluded under the Umayyads and the Abbasids with the towns of Transoxiana, Sijistan, Armenia, and Fezzan (modern N.W.Africa) all stipulate an annual tribute of slaves of both sexes. The principal source of the reservoir of slaves was the constant raids on the villages in the"dar al harb"; and the more disciplined military expeditions which mopped up more thoroughly the cities of the unbelievers. All the captives were deported en masse. In 781, at the sack of Ephesus, 7000 Greeks were deported in captivity. After the capture of Amorium in 838, the Caliph Al Mutasim ordered the captives, as there were so many of them, to be auctioned in batches of five and ten. At the sack of Thssalonica in 903, 22000 Christians were divided among the Arab chieftains or sold into slavery. In 1064; the Seljuk Sultan, Alp Arslan devastated Georgia and Armenia. Those he did not take as prisoners, he executed. The literary sources for Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Armenia, and later Anatolia and Safavid Persia reveal that those families who could not pay the crushing Jizya or poll tax were obliged to hand over their children and to"deduct "it from the Jizya. Christians, for at least 300 years, suffered one other humiliation not often discussed: a process known as DEVSHIRME. It was introduced by the Ottoman Sultan Orkhan (1326 - 1359) and consisted of periodically taking a fifth of all Christian children in the conquered territories .Converted to Islam, these children aged between 14 and 20 were trained to be janissaries or infantry men. These periodic abductions eventually became annual. The Christian children were taken from among the Greek aristocracy, and from the Serbs, Bulgarians, Armenians and Albanians, and often from among the children of the priests. At a fixed date, all the fathers were ordered to appear with their children in the public square. The recruiting agents chose the most sturdy and handsome children in the presence of a Muslim judge. Any father who shirked his duty to provide children was severely punished. Needless to say this, this system was open to all kinds of abuse. The recruiting agents often took more than the prescribed number of children and sold the "surplus" children back to their parents. Those unable to buy back their children had to accept them being sold into slavery. This institution was abolished in 1656, though a parallel system where young children between six and ten were taken to be trained in the seraglio of the sultan continued until the 18th century.  The number of children taken each year seems to have varied - some scholars place it as high as 12000 a year, others at 8000; there was probably an average of at least 1000 a year. The devshirme is an obvious infringement of the rights of the dhimmis, a reminder that their rights were far from secure, once and for all.


(1) Places of Worship

In the late 19th century, Ash Sharani summed up the views of the four main sunni schools on the question of the building of new churches and synagogues: "All schools agree that it is not allowed to build new churches or synagogues in towns or cities of Islam. They differ whether this is permitted in the neighbourhood of towns. Malik, Shafe'i, and Ahmad do not permit it; Abu Hanifa says that if the place is a mile or less from a town, it is not permitted; if the distance is greater, it is.  Another question is, whether it is allowed to restore ruinous or rebuild ruined churches or synagogues in Islamic countries. Abu Hanifa, Malik,and Shafe'i permit it. Abu Hanifa adds the condition that the church is in a place that surrendered peaceably; if it was conquered by force, it is not allowed. Ahmad...says that the restoration of the ruinous and the rebuilding of the ruined is never permitted."

The fate of churches and synagogues, as of Christians and Jews, varied from country to country, ruler to ruler. Some Muslim rulers were very tolerant, others extremely intolerant. In 722 A.D., for example Usama b. Zaid, the surveyor of taxes in Egypt, attacked convents and destroyed churches.  But the caliph Hisham told him to leave the Christians in peace. Some caliphs not only respected the rights of non-Muslims, but very generously paid for the repairs of any churches destroyed by mob violence. Tritton also gives the example of Spain: "During the conquest of Spain the Muslims were much less tolerant.  On one of his expeditions Musa destroyed every church and broke every bell. When Marida surrendered the Muslims took the property of those killed in the ambush, of those who fled to Galicia, of the churches, and the church jewels." Similarly, the caliph Marwan (ruled 744-750) looted and destroyed many monasteries in Egypt while fleeing the Abbasid army.  He destroyed all the churches in Tana except one, and he asked three thousand dinars as the price for sparing that.  In 853 A.D. the caliph Mutawakkil ordered all new churches to be destroyed.  As Tritton says, from an early date churches were liable to be razed to the ground for some caprice of the ruler. Often the  Muslim mob took matters into its own hands. Tritton gives the following examples of riots in which religious buildings were destroyed.  In 884 the convent of Kalilshu in Baghdad was destroyed, the gold and silver vessels stolen, and all wood in the building sold. In 924 the church and convent of Mary, in Damascus were burnt and plundered, and other churches wrecked.  Further destruction occurred in Ramleh, Ascalon, Tinnis, and in Egypt during the invasion by Asad ud Din Shirkuh. "Al Hakim biamr illah gave orders that the churches in his dominions should be destroyed. Their contents were seized and the vessels of gold and silver sold in the markets... The church lands were confiscated and every one who asked for some got it. A Muslim historian reports that over thirty thousand churches which had been built by the Greeks were destroyed in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Bar Hebraeus is more modest, he only says thousands." The riot of 1321 in Cairo in which several churches were destroyed, in turn led to the destruction of churches throughout Egypt -- in all more than fifty churches suffered.


On the whole, Muslims disliked the public display of other forms of worship. Umar II and Mutawakkil tried, in vain, to suppress the commonest manifestations of Christianity. "The ringing of bells, the sounding of the ram's horn, and the public exhibition of crosses, icons, banners, and other religious objects were all prohibited."


We have already mentioned the forced conversions of Jews. Islamic history is also full of references to the forced conversion of Christians, Zoroastrians and pagans. For instance, under al Mamun in the 9th century the pagans of Harran had to choose between Islam and death.  Tavernier, the 17th century French traveler describes how in Anatolia," il y a quantit‚ de Grecs qu'on force tous les jours de se faire Turcs."

Armenian Christians seemed to have suffered particularly severely from Muslim persecution. In 704_705, the caliph Walid I gathered together the nobles of Armenia in the church of St. Gregory in Naxcawan and the church of Xram on the Araxis, and burned them to death. The rest were crucified and decapitated, while their women and children were taken as slaves. The Armenians suffered even more between 852 and 855.  Given the constant humiliation and degradation, fiscal and social oppression, it is not surprising that many dhimmis sought a way out of their impossible situation by converting But though technically not "forced" on pain of death or at the point of a sword, we can still consider these conversions as having been forced on the dhimmis. Surely, there is no moral difference between the two kinds of "forced conversions." Each century has its own, full account of the horrors. In the 8th century we had the massacres in the Sind. In the 9th century, there were the massacres of Spanish Christians in and around Seville. In the 10th, the persecutions of non-Muslims under the caliph al Hakim are well known.

In the 11th, the fate of the Jews of Grenada and Fez have already been alluded to; we might add the destruction of Hindus and their temples by Mahmud at the same period. In the 12th, the Almohads of North Africa spread terror wherever they went.

In the 13th; the Christians of Damascus were killed or sold into slavery, and their churches burnt to the ground.  The Sultan Baibars, whom Sir Steven Runciman calls "evil", not respecting his own guarantees of safety to the garrison of Safed if they surrendered to the Muslims, had all the population decapitated when they did surrender.  "From Toron he sent a troop to destroy the Christian village of Qara, between Homs and Damascus, which he suspected of being in touch with the Franks. The adult inhabitants were massacred and the children enslaved. When the Christians from Acre sent a deputation to ask to be allowed to bury the dead, he roughly refused, saying that if they wished for martyrs' corpses they would find them at home. To carry out his threat he marched down to the coast and slaughtered every Christian that fell into his hands.  "As for Baibar's and the Muslims' capture of Antioch in 1268, Runciman's says," Even the Moslem chroniclers were shocked by the carnage that followed." 

In the 14th and early 15th century, we have the terror spread by the infamous Timur the Lame, otherwise known as Tamerlane or the "bloody and insatiate Tamburlaine" of Marlowe's play.  Tamerlane constantly refers to the Koran, and tried to turn every one of his battles into a Holy War, even though in many instances he was fighting fellow Muslims At least in Georgia, he was able to give his campaign the colour of a Jihad. In 1400 Tamerlane devastated the country in and around Tifflis.  In 1403, he returned to ravage the country again, and destroying seven hundred large villages and minor towns, massacring the inhabitants, and razing to the ground all the Christian churches of Tifflis.  Rene Grousset summed up Tamerlane's peculiar character by saying that whereas the Mongols of the 13th century had killed simply because for centuries this had been the instinctive behaviour of nomad herdsmen toward sedentary farmers, Tamerlane killed out of Koranic piety. To the ferocity of the cruel Mongols, Tamerlane added a taste for religious murder. Tamerlane "represents a synthesis, historically lacking up to now, of Mongol barbarity and Muslim fanaticism, and symbolises that advanced form of primitive slaughter which is murder committed for the sake of an abstract ideology, as a duty and sacred mission."

Confining ourselves to non-Muslims, we note that he destroyed the town of Tana, at the mouth of the Don. All the Christians were enslaved; their shops and churches were destroyed.

According to the Zafer Nameh, our main source of information for Tamerlane's campaigns, written at the beginning of the 15th century, Tamerlane set forth to conquer India solely to make war on the enemies of the Muslim faith. He considered the Muslim rulers of north India far too lenient towards pagans, that is to say, the Hindus. The Zafer Nameh tells us that, "The Koran emphasizes that the highest dignity to which man may attain is to wage war in person upon the enemies of the Faith. This is why the great Tamerlane was always concerned to exterminate the infidels, as much to acquire merit as from love of glory."

At Delhi under the pretext that the hundred thousand Hindu prisoners presented a grave risk to his army, Tamerlane ordered their execution in cold blood. He killed thousands, and had victory pillars built of the severed heads.  On his way out of India, he sacked Miraj, pulled down the monuments and flayed the Hindu inhabitants alive, "an act by which he fulfilled his vow to wage the Holy War.  "This strange champion of Islam, as Grousset calls him, plundered and massacred "through blindness or close-mindedness to a certain set of cultural values."

Tamerlane systematically destroyed the Christians, and as a result the Nestorians and Jacobites of Mesopotamia have never recovered. At Sivas, 4000 Christians were buried alive; at Tus there were 10000 victims. Historians estimate the number of dead at Saray to be 100000; at Baghdad 90000; at Isfahan 70000.



According to the Tarikh-i Bukhara, a history of Bukhara written in about 944 A.D., Islam had to be enforced on the reluctant inhabitants of Bukhara.  The Bukharans reverted to their original beliefs no less than four times: "The residents of Bukhara became Muslims.  But they renounced [Islam] each time the Arabs turned back. Qutayba b. Muslim made them Muslim three times, [but] they renounced [Islam ] again and became nonbelievers. The fourth time, Qutayba waged war, seized the city, and established Islam after considerable strife....They espoused Islam overtly but practiced idolatry in secret."

Many Zoroastrians were induced to convert by bribes, and later, out of economic necessity. Many of these "economic converts" were later executed for having adopted Islam to avoid paying the poll tax and land tax. In Khurasan and Bukhara, Zoroastrian fire-temples were destroyed by the Muslims, and mosques constructed on these sites.  The Tarikh-i Bukhara records that there was considerable outrage at these acts of sacrilege, and there was a concerted resistance to the spread of Islam.  One scholar sums up the situation thus: "Indeed, coexistence between Muslims and Zoroastrians was rarely peaceful, cooperation was fleeting, and conflict remained the prime form of intercommunal contact from the initial Arab conquest of Transoxiana until the late thirteenth century A.D."A similar situation existed in Khurasan: "The violent military conflicts between the forces of the Arab commander Abd Allah b. Amir and the local Iranian lords, combined later with the destruction of Zoroastrian religious institutions, produced lasting enmity between Muslims and Zoroastrians in Khurasan. "The early conquests of Zoroastrian Iran were punctuated with the usual massacres, as in Raiy. If the town put up brave resistance to the Muslims, then very few men were spared, as for example, at Sarakh, only a hundred men were granted amnesty, the women were taken into captivity; the children taken into captivity were brought up as Muslims.  At Sus a similar situation emerged - about a hundred men were pardoned, the rest killed. At Manadhir, all the men were put to the sword, and the women and children enslaved.  At the conquest of Istakhr, more than 40000 Iranians were slaughtered. The Zoroastrians suffered sporadic persecution, as their fire-temples and priests were destroyed, as for example, at Kariyan, Kumm and at Idhaj. In a deliberate act of provocation the caliph al Mutawakkil had a tree putatively planted by Zoroaster himself cut down. Sometimes the fire temples were converted into mosques. The fiscal oppression of the Zoroastrians led to a series of uprisings against the Muslims in the 8th century. We might cite the revolts led by Bihafarid between 746 and 748; the rising of Sinbadh in 755.

Forced conversions were also frequent, and the pressures for conversion often led to conflict and riots as in Shiraz in 979.To escape persecution and the forced conversions many Zoroastrians emigrated to India, where, to this day, they form a much respected minority and are known as Parsis.  Conditions for the Zoroastrians became even worse from the 17th century onwards.  In the 18th century, their numbers, to quote the Encyclopaedia of Islam (2 ed),"declined disastrously due to the combined effects of massacre, forced conversion and emigration."  By the 19th century they were living in total insecurity and poverty, and suffered increasing discrimination.  Zoroastrian merchants were liable to extra taxes; houses were frequently looted; they had to wear distinctive clothing, and were forbidden to build new houses or repair old ones.


All scholars agree, and even apologists of Islam cannot deny, that the situation of the dhimmis got progressively worse.  Many scholars believe that as the Muslim world became weaker the position of dhimmis deteriorated correspondingly.  The same scholars would put the beginning of the decline at the time of the Crusades. This perception has had the unfortunate consequence of re-enforcing the myth of the Golden Age, when supposedly total harmony reigned between the different faiths, especially in Muslim Spain. It is a lovely image, but, as Fletcher put it, this won't do. "The witness of those who lived through the horrors of the Berber conquest, of the Almoravid invasion... must give it the lie. The simple and verifiable historical truth is that Moorish Spain was more often a land of turmoil than it was a land of tranquility.  "Was there ever tolerance? "Ask the Jews of Grenada who were massacred in 1066, or the Christians who were deported by the Almoravids to Morocco in 116 (like the Moriscos five centuries later)."  I have already alluded to the general causes of the rise of this myth of Islamic tolerance.  More specifically, the notion of the Golden Age of Moorish Spain was perpretated, in the 19th century by "newly and still imperfectly emancipated" Western European Jews, as a means to chastise Western failings.  Inevitably, there was a tendency to idealise Islam, to better contrast the situation of the Jews in Europe, and "to serve at once as a reproach and an encouragement to their somewhat dilatory Christian emancipators."

Richard Fletcher has his own analysis.  "So the nostalgia of Maghribi writers was reinforced by the romantic vision of the nineteenth century.  This could be flavoured with a dash of Protestant prejudice from the Anglo-Saxon world: it can be detected in Lane- Poole's reference to the Inquisition...In the second half of the twentieth century a new agent of obfuscation makes its appearance: the guilt of the liberal conscience, which sees the evils of colonialism -- assumed rather than demonstrated -- foreshadowed in the Christian conquest of Al Andalus and the persecution of the Moriscos (but not, oddly, in the Moorish conquest and colonisation). Stir the mix well together and issue it free to credulous academics and media persons throughout the western world .  Then pour it generously over the truth...BUT MOORISH SPAIN WAS NOT A TOLERANT AND ENLIGHTENED SOCIETY EVEN IN ITS MOST CULTIVATED EPOCH"[My emphases]


In general, as a logical consequence of centuries of contempt, humiliation and persecution, the position of the non-Muslims in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was very precarious indeed. As Lewis, talking of Jews, says, "From the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century, expulsion, outbreaks of mob violence, and even massacres became increasingly frequent. Between 1770 and 1786 Jews were expelled from Jedda, most of them fleeing to the Yemen. In 1790 Jews were massacred in Tetuan, in Morocco; in 1828, in Baghdad. In 1834 a cycle of violence and pillage began in Safed. In 1839 a massacre of Jews took place in Meshed in Iran followed by the forced conversion of the survivors, and a massacre of Jews occurred in Barfurush in 1867. In 1840 the Jews of Damascus were subject to the first of a long series of blood libels in many cities. Other outbreaks followed in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and the Arab countries of the Middle East."

Coming to the twentieth century, we may mention the virulent anti-Jewish literature that has been produced in the last forty years in the Islamic world. Much of this hate-filled literature is in the form of translations from European languages of such works as Hitler's Mein Kampf, and "the Protocols of the Elders of Zion." But as Wistrich says, Muslim writers, "even when they exploit Western anti-Semitic images and concepts, usually manage to link these imported notions in a natural, even an organic manner, with ideas from within their own cultural tradition."


Armenian Christians have been subject to persecution by the Muslims for centuries.  Here I want to allude to the massacres of 1894, 1895 and 1896. Against a background of hostilities between Russia and Turkey, Armenians looked to Russia for protection. But this did not prevent the massacre of more than 250 000 Armenians in Sasun, Trapezunt, Edessa, Biredjik, Kharput, Niksar and Wan. Many villages were burned down, and hundreds of churches plundered. Further massacres followed in 1904, and in 1909 when thirty thousand Armenians lost their lives at Adana.  According to an article which appeared in "Revue Encyclop‚dique "in 1896, the massacres of 1894-1896 were deliberately planned and executed -- it was no less than a methodical extermination of the Armenians.

Unable to support the idea of another nationality on Turkish soil, the Turks began the liquidation of Armenians, which ended in the infamous mass murders of 1915. These murders of 1915 have been described as the first case of genocide in the 20th century. Much polemic surrounds the events of 1915, with historians like Bernard Lewis denying that it was" genocide" or "planned."  Indeed, Lewis is standing trial in France for his position. While other historians and many Armenians insist that more than a million Armenians were systematically exterminated in cold blood -- thousands were shot, drowned (including children), thrown over cliffs; those who survived were deported or reduced to slavery.  This is surely nothing less than genocide, a genocide which seems to have deeply impressed Hitler, and which may well have served as a model for the genocide of the Jews carried out by him.

This genocide was but the natural culmination of a divinely sanctioned policy towards non-Muslims, it was nothing less than a jihad, perpetrated by Muslims, who alone benefited from the booty: the possessions and houses of the victims, the land, the women and children reduced to slavery. It was not an isolated incident, but a deliberate policy to eliminate any nationalism of the dhimmis, and to keep the conquered territory under Islamic jurisdiction.  As Bat Ye'or says, "the inner logic of the jihad could not tolerate religious emancipation. Permanent war, the wickedness of the dar al Harb, and the inferiority of the conquered harbis constituted the three interdependent and inseparable principles underlying the expansion and political domination of the umma [the Muslim community]."


We are now in a position to appreciate the conclusions of the three scholars quoted below.  A.S. Tritton in his "The Caliphs and their Non- Muslim Subjects..."concludes:

"[The Caliph] Mutasim bought the monastery at Samarra that stood where he wanted to build his palace. Other caliphs destroyed churches to obtain materials for their buildings, and the mob was always ready to pillage churches and monasteries. Though dhimmis might enjoy great prosperity, yet always they lived on sufferance, exposed to the caprices of the ruler and the passions of the mob.  The episode of al Hakim [an absolute religious fanatic] must be regarded as the freak of a mad man, not typical of Islam. But in later times the position of the dhimmis did change for the worse. They were much more liable to suffer from the violence of the crowd, and the popular fanaticism was accompanied by an increasing strictness among the educated.  The spiritual isolation of Islam was accomplished.  The world was divided into two classes, Muslims and others, and only Islam counted.  There were brilliant exceptions, but the general statement is true. If a Muslim gave any help to the religion of a dhimmi, he was to be summoned thrice to repentance, and then, if obdurate, he was to be put to death. Indeed, the general feeling was that the leavings of the Muslims were good enough for the dhimmis."

C.E.Bosworth, writing some fifty years later, summed up the status of the dhimmi:

"Although protected by the contract of dhimma, the dhimmis were never anything but second-class citizens in the Islamic social system, tolerated in large measure because they had special skills such as those of physicians, secretaries, financial experts, etc., or because they fulfilled functions which were necessary but obnoxious to Muslims, such as money-changing, tanning, wine-making, castrating slaves, etc. A Muslim might marry a dhimmi wife but not vice versa, for this would put a believing woman into the power of an unbeliever; for the same reason, a Muslim could own a dhimmi slave but not a dhimmi a Muslim one.  The legal testimony of a dhimmi was not admissible in a judicial suit where a Muslim was one of the parties, because it was felt that infidelity, the obstinate failure to recognize the true light of Islam, was proof of defective morality and a consequent incapability of bearing legal witness.  In the words of the Hanafi jurist Sarakhsi (d.483 / 1090),"the word of a dishonest Muslim is more valuable than that of an honest dhimmi." On the other hand, the deposition of a Muslim against a dhimmi was perfectly valid in law. It was further held by almost all schools of Islamic law (with the exception of the Hanafi one) that the diya or blood money payable on the killing of a dhimmi was only two-thirds or half of that of a free Muslim.

"It is surprising that, in the face of legal and financial disabilities such as these outlined above, and a relentless social and cultural Muslim pressure, if not sustained persecution, that the dhimmi communities survived as well as they did in mediaeval Islam"

The third scholar is Bat Ye'or:

"These examples are intended to indicate the general character of a system of oppression, sanctioned by contempt and justified by the principle of the inequality between Muslims and dhimmis...Singled out as objects of hatred and contempt by visible signs of discrimination, they were progressively decimated during periods of massacres, forced conversions, and banishments. Sometimes it was the prosperity they achieved through their labor or ability that aroused jealousy; oppressed and stripped of all their goods, the dhimmis often emigrated."

[1] E.W.Lane, Arabic –English Lexicon, Beirut (Lebanon, Reprint 1968)  Vol. 2 p.473

[2] R.Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam.A Reader. Princeton, 1996, p.2

[3] Bukhari, Sahih, Vol.IV  trans. Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi,1984; pp. 34.

[4] Ibid., p.38

[5] Ibid., p.42

[6] Ibid., p.55

[7] Bukhari, op.cit., p.60 

[8] ibid., pp.158-159.

[9] Abu Dawud, Sunan, trans. A.Hasan, Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi, 1997, p. 729

[10] Ibid.  p.739

[11] Muslim, Sahih, trans.A.H.Siddiqi, Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi,1997 pp. 942- 943

[12] Averroes al-Bidaya, trans. in R.Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, Princeton 1996,  pp.29-31

[13] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, trans. F.Rosenthal, Princeton, Abridged Edn.,  1967  p.183