Christians in an Islamic  Society : A historical overview


First century contradictory attitudes to the Christian Community

In the decades following the death of Muhammad we find a contradictory attitude to the conquered Christian communities emerging due to the caprice of individuals. Churches were built in Arab towns and the caliph helped to restore the church at Edessa but many were destroyed cathedrals, like that of Damascus, were turned into mosques.

Christians continued to hold high positions in the state; Muawiyya (died 680) had a Christian secretary, the state accounts were kept in Greek in Syria and Egypt till the reign of ‘Abd Malik and local accounts were kept in Greek for much longer. Christians served in the Muslim army, some giving military service instead of tribute; yet there was also persecution and forced conversions.  Jews were settled in some of the hostile towns because they were hostile to Christians. The caliph sometimes interfered with the election of  the patriarch. Muslims were often friendly with Christians and the caliph employed the nominal Christian poet Al-Akhtal (640-710) who was one of the most famous Arab poets of the Umayyad period.

A change for the worst came when ‘Abd al-Malik (died 684) changed the system of taxation in Egypt, Syria and Iraq introducing the personal tax on the dhimmis. The receipt was often given in the form of leaden seal tied to the neck or wrist. ‘Umar 2 (died 717) tried to dismiss all dhimmis from government service but the order was largely ignored. He was also responsible for what is called “the ordinances” (later ascribed to ‘Umar 1) which required dhimmis to wear the zunnar – a wide belt of bias folded cloth.

Second century contradictory attitudes to the Christian Community

By the second century of Islam the laws covering dhimmis were fixed  in their main outline but not always enforced. So it was generally accepted that no new church could be built though an old one might be repaired; even if a church was destroyed in a riot there was no redress. At least six rebellions by the Egyptian Copts occurred during this century. Harun al-Rashid (died 809) re-enacted “the ordinances” forbidding Christians to dress like Muslims and in the reign of Ma’mun (died 833) a Christian headman, dressed in black, rode in state on Fridays to the mosque and then left his deputy to attend the prayers so men began to object to them riding horses and restrictions were placed on religious processions. Taxation became heavier and often the caliph had to bribe the patriarch to get elected. Christian doctors became prominent at court but did not always use their position wisely. Many Christians were placed in places of trust and al-Mutawakkil (died 861) had a Christian personal secretary yet he intensified the repressive laws as Christian men had to wear a yellow tailasan and the zunnar (sash) and the women a yellow wrap when they went out of doors.


Sixth century Polemics against Christians

In the sixth century there were several polemic works written against the Christians such as the Persian ‘Ali b. Sahl Rabban al-Tabari  (838-870 CE), an Islamic scholar and physician, a pioneer of paediatrics and child development. He was  a converted Jew under the Abbassid caliph Al-Mu’tasim (833-842)  and was fluent in Syriac and Greek.  He said: “When I was a Christian I used to say, as did an uncle of mine who was one of the learned and eloquent men, that eloquence is not one of the signs of prophethood because it is common to all the peoples; but when I discarded (blind) imitation and (old) customs and gave up adhering to (mere) habit and training and reflected upon the meanings of the Quran I came to know that what the followers of the Quran claimed for it was true. The fact is that I have not found any book, be it by an Arab or a Persian, an Indian or a Greek, right from the beginning of the world up to now, which contains at the same time praises of God, belief in the prophets and apostles, exhortations to good, everlasting deeds, command to do good and prohibition against doing evil, inspiration to the desire of paradise and to avoidance of hell-fire as this Quran does. So when a person brings to us a book of such qualities, which inspires such reverence and sweetness in the hearts and which has achieved such an everlasting success and he is (at the same time) an illiterate person who did never learnt the art of writing or rhetoric, that book is without any doubt one of the signs of his Prophethood.”

Then, there was also Abu Isa Muhammad al-Warraq. The response of the Jacobite (West Syrian) Christian theologian Yahya b. ‘Adi (d. 362/972) to the polemic of the heterodox Mu’tazili Abu ‘Isa al-Warraq (d. 247/861) has long been recognized as an exceptionally important example of Muslim-Christian theological interaction.


The status of dhimmis

  • dhimmis  on the pain of death, were forbidden to mock or criticize the Quran, Islam or Muhammad, to proselytize among Muslims or to touch a Muslim woman (though a Muslim man could take a non-Muslim woman to become his wife).
  • dhimmis were excluded from public office and armed service, and were forbidden to bear arms. They were not allowed to ride horses or camels, to build synagogues or churches taller than mosques, to construct houses higher than those of Muslims or to drink wine in public. They were not allowed to pray or mourn in loud voices as that might offend the Muslims.
  • dhimmis had to show public deference toward Muslims, always yielding them the centre of the road.
  • The dhimmi was not allowed to give evidence in court against a Muslim, and his oath was unacceptable in an Islamic court. To defend himself the dhimmi would have to purchase Muslim witnesses at great expense. This left the dhimmi with little legal recourse when harmed by a Muslim.
  • Dhimmis were also forced to wear distinctive clothing. In the ninth century, for example, Baghdad’s Caliph Al-Mutawakkil designated a yellow badge for Jews, setting a precedent that would be followed centuries later.

By the twentieth century, the status of the dhimmi in Muslim lands had not significantly improved. H.E.W. Young, British Vice-Consul in Mosul, wrote in 1909: “The attitude of the Muslims toward the Christians and the Jews is that of a master towards slaves, whom he treats with a certain lordly tolerance so long as they keep their place. Any sign of pretension to equality is promptly repressed.”

The Buyids (934-1055) and the Fatamids (909-1171) were the first to appoint Christians as wazirs (minister of state) but this was exceptional.


Legal status

The law puts the dhimmi below the Muslim in every way; it will protect his life and property but will not accept his evidence. One authority says that eight acts put a dhimmi outside the law: an agreement to fight the Muslims, fornication with a Muslim woman, an attempt to marry a Muslim woman, an attempt to turn a Muslim from his religion, robbery of a Muslim on a highway, acting as a spy or guide to unbelievers or the killing of a Muslim.


Social Status

Because Christians were second-class citizens, this was reflected in their social position. This was mitigated to some degree by their sheer volume and that they were influential in administration posts and some professions like medicine, in many towns the only doctor was a dhimmi. In fact the prohibition of usury on Muslims worked in favour of the Christians as merchants and money-changers it gave them the monopoly of the trades of goldsmith and jewellers so some became rich.

Apart from friendships some Christian festivals were universally recognised. Christians acted for Muslims in business and kept Muslim slaves but still the stigma of inferiority remained. The humiliating regulations, the need for constant watchfulness, the constant recourse to intrigue and the segrement of many dhimmis in towns inevitably sapped their morale. The legal disability of having his evidence excluded was a bar to personal justice in the Muslim courts, even though the judges were encouraged not to discriminate and with intermarriage impossible they remained separate from the Muslim community. The Christians therefore, dwindled, not only in numbers, but in vitality and morale.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire gradually abandoned the governmental traditions of Muslim states and this fundamentally affected the treatment of its Christian subjects.  Up to the 19th century the treatment of Christians had been in accordance with the Sharia law and the madhab of the Hanafi school as to the treatment of dhimmis, this gave Christians only minor rights as compared with Muslims.

In time the Ottoman Empire began to incorporate into it’s dominions more European territories exclusively inhabited by Christians and they were not heavily Islamised. While the government was strong it did not affect the running of the empire but gradually these Europeans began to be included in the ruling classes and the powerful military control came from the Janissaries who were recruited largely from the Greek and Slavonic population. Within the kingdom the Christian influence increased and toleration extended within and outside the Empire despite being condoned by the Islamic laws.

Fundamentalism raised its head from time to time. When Constantinople was taken by Muhammad 2 (1453) some said the churches should be destroyed because it was taken by force but eventually it was treated as a city that had capitulated. Allegedly Selim 1 (1512-1520) sought to convert all Christians to Islam; Murad 3 (1574-1595) wanted to turn all churches into mosques; Murad 4 (1623-1640) is said to have made an oath to exterminate all Christians – yet on the whole tolerance prevailed.

Christians outside Turkey began to express their solidarity towards those in the Ottoman Empire: The Vatican, the King of France and the Greek Orthodox Church, represented through the Russian Czar all ensured a measure of ‘religious protection.’ In 1855 an important landmark arrived in the history of the Ottoman’s policy towards Christian subjects when they abolished the capitation tax for non-Muslims and envisioned Christians playing a part in the army.  In the constitution of Mihat Pasha (1876) Islam was proclaimed as the state religion but it the freedom of religion was also recognised and by 1878 all non-Muslim subjects be admitted as a witness in the law courts, irrespective of religion.

Because Christians belonged to certain nationalities within the empire the issue turned not to religious freedom but to problems of nationality and race. A sense of being an Ottoman subject was attempted and then came the 1914 War when for the first time non-Muslims were incorporated into the Muslim army, albeit for service not on the front line. National Turkish feeling turned against non-Muslims and those, like the Armenians, who were inhabitants on the frontier zone were charged with disloyalty towards Turkey and they suffered intensely, notably from the Kurds.

The 1923 Lausanne Treaty allows minorities to be treated on an equal basis with other subjects, although by this time the only Christians of considerable number lived around Constantinople. In the constitution of 1928 the state became completely secularised by declaring that the state religion was no longer Islam.

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