Dhimmitude and Ibn Ajibah on the Death of the Non-Muslim Soul

Dhimmitude and Ibn Ajibah on the Death of the Non-Muslim Soul

I first became intrigued by the situation of non-Muslims under Islam while doing linguistic field work in Aceh, Indonesia in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

This interest was piqued in the 1990’s by reading Bat Ye’or’s The Decline of Christianity under Islam.  This led to research which culminated in The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom, published in 2010.

There are two stories about non-Muslims living under Islam, who Muslims call dhimmis.  To caricature somewhat, one story is that dhimmis were the fortunate recipients of Islamic benevolence.  The other story is that they had to buy their heads back each year in a legal system designed to degrade and belittle them, and ultimately to bring about their decline.

As I was doing the research for The Third Choice, I found plenty of primary sources which supported the second story.   I was troubled however by the possibility that the sources I had encountered might not be representative.  I mean no disrespect to Bat Ye’or or others, who had painstakingly collected many primary materials from Muslim and non-Muslim writers, but it is just common sense that when sources are selected, there is the possibility of selectivity, and if you must rely on the work of others who have searched out primary sources, you cannot know for yourself what they neglected to report among their findings.

As I was working on The Third Choice, and contemplating this problem of selectivity, a wonderful resource opened up before my eyes.  I discovered that the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute of Islamic Thought had gathered together a collection of classical commentaries on the Qur’an, which they had published on the internet. This is The Great Tafsirs Project of the Holy Qur’an, at www.altafsir.com.  On this site the Aal al-Bayt Institute has published 69 Arabic commentaries of the Qur’an.  These are dated from the earliest centuries of Islam right through to the present day.

I was, I must admit, pleased to note that Aal al-Bayt could not be accused of being a radical or extremist group.  After all this is the same organization which produced the Amman letter to Pope Benedict and the Common Word letter to the Christian world.  The Great Tafsirs Project was not produced by a hotbed of radicalism.  It is just about Islam, pure and simple.

The Great Tafsirs Project provided a wonderful research opportunity for me, as it enabled me to answer the question:  What have Muslim commentators said about the dhimma system down through the ages? This was as simple as working through what the 69 commentaries had to say on one verse, Sura 9:29, which is the Quranic authority for the whole dhimmi system.  Other verses in the Quran are revelant for the treatment of non-Muslims, but this is the key one, the lynchpin verse.  In the translation of Pickthall, the verse is:

Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.

What I found in these commentaries was deeply disturbing.  It was a full and complete endorsement of the ‘second story’ as described above, from the mouths of the most revered commentators of Islamic tradition.   Virtually without exception these scholars have regarded dhimmi status as a punitive measure.  Again and again they spoke of dhimmis owing a blood debt which had to be redeemed annually in a humiliating ritual involving a blow in the neck, and sometimes also a ritual strangling.  The theology and political ideology projected by these commentaries, from the distant past through to the present day, came through with startling consistency and force.

The commentaries completely vindicated – from a theological perspective – the analysis of Bat Ye’or, and also the sources she had collected.  It was all the more noteworthy that she had made comparatively little use of Quranic commentaries in her research.

A summary of what I found in these commentaries is reported in the sixth and seventh chapters of The Third Choice.  I also explain there how the ideology of the dhimma pact, as expressed by Islam’s greatest commentators, continues to exercise a powerful guiding ideological hand for the persecution of non-Muslims in Islamic societies today.

I am painfully aware that one can find unpleasant, indeed evil, statements in the writings of theologians regarded as great by Christian tradition.  One’s mind turns to Martin Luther or John Chrysostom on the Jews.  Their statements are utterly repugnant.  If you ‘cherry-picked’ your way through 2000 years of Christian theology, it would be possible to compile a house of horrors of objectionable statements by eminent Christians.  But what I submit is that it is not possible to find any verse or passage of the Bible which has given rise to such sustained and exceptionless contempt for a category of fellow human beings as has Sura 9:29 in the tradition of Islamic commentaries.

A well-intentioned Christian scholar who approaches Islam while looking at it through the frame of the Christian theological tradition would find it impossible to imagine the character and force of Islamic commentary on this verse.

Here I offer just one of the 69 commentaries on Sura 9:29, in translation.  This is the commentary Tafsir al-Bahr al-Madid fi Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Magid of Ibn Ajibah, who Wikipedia describes as an “18th-century Moroccan saint in the Darqawa Sufi Islamic lineage.”

Although this commentary is quite typical in its approach to explaining Sura 9:29, what is noteworthy is the psychological analysis it gives of the intended outcome of the dhimma system, namely the ‘death’ of the dhimmi‘s soul.

NB: the bold text in curly braces is translation from the Qur’an. Material in square brackets is my interpolations.  Indented material is my explanation.

Commentary of Ibn Ajibah on Sura 9:29. (The original Arabic can be found here.)

The truth [i.e. Allah] says to the believers:
{fight}: [i.e. to kill] the People of the Book from the Jews and Christians.

The Arabic word for ‘fight’ actually means ‘fight to kill’: see my post here

{who believe not in Allah}: for what is due to him [i.e. to Allah], for they associate him with Uzair and Isa [cf Sura 9:30] and they picture him as being incarnated,

I.e. Christians and Jews ‘associate’ others with Allah, and so cannot be considered to have true belief in him.

{nor in the last day}, because they deny the physical return, their faith in both respects is not a (true) faith,

It may seem strange to Christians to be told that they do not believe in ‘last day’ (i.e. in the physical resurrection of the dead).  But this text is not written for Christians to read.   Ibn Ajibah’s point here is that the non-Muslims’ beliefs are invalid.


{nor forbid which has been forbidden by Allah and his prophet} Muhammad, because they allow alcohol [as legal], eat the flesh of the dead animals [which had not been slaughtered correctly], blood, pork, and other things which the laws of Muhammad have not permitted,

 Christians and Jews do not follow Mudhammad’s guidance, of which Ibn Ajibah gives some examples such as eating pork and using alcohol.

{nor adopt the religion of truth} i.e. they do not embrace Islam, which is the [only] true religion, the religion which has abrogated and nullified all other religions.

 Thus Ibn Ajibah explains the justification for fighting (to kill) Christians and Jews:  it is because they reject Islam, which has abrogated their religions, making them invalid.

Then he exposes those he commanded to fight against by saying:
{of the People of the Book}:  these are the Jews and Christians.  When this [verse] was reveled, the prophet of Allah went out to fight [i.e to kill] Christians in the Tabuk raid.  He reached the borders of the enemies’ land, and then he made a treaty with the people of Adruh and Ayla and others for tribute [jizya].  Then he left [them alone] in obedience to the verse.

Here Ibn Ajibah references the example of Muhammad, who went to fight Christians at Tabuk.  This is regarded as the context in which Sura 9:29 was revealed.  The Christians accepted to pay tribute, and so were spared the sword.  Ibn Ajibah is pointing out that Muhammad’s actions agree with Sura 9:29.

Allah said:
{until they pay jizya} i.e. what has been determined for them to pay, according to Malik: four dinars for the wealthy, forty dirhams for the poor.  This is to be taken for each head. The scholars have agreed that jizya is to be accepted from the Jews and Christians, followed by the Zoroastrians, in accordance with the saying of Muhammad, “Apply to them the rules of the People of the Book”:  because they have [the benefit of] the doubt of having had a book, they are to be joined with them [Jews and Christians]. They [the scholars] have disagreed on accepting jizya from idol worshipers. Malik said it is to be taken from every infidel with the exception of the apostate, also it is not to be taken from women, young male children, and the insane.

Here Ibn Ajibah gives a neat summary of who is included in the phrase ‘people of the book’, noting disagreements between the schools.

Allah said:
{out of hand}  i. e. he proceeds to give it with his own hand; he does not send it with another person; and does not delay payment: as you might say “hand to hand”, or out of submission and subjugation; or as you might say, “X has given his hand”.
{and feel themselves subdued}: humiliated and despicable. Ibn Abbas said: jizya is to be taken from the dhimmi, he should be struck on the neck, i.e. struck with a hand on the neck.

Ibn Abbas was a cousin and companion of Muhammad: he is a significant early authority on Qur’anic interpretation.  Many commentaries cite Ibn Abbas in to justify striking the dhimmi on the neck in the tribute collection ritual

It is a standard feature of Qur’anic commentaries to describe the tax collection ritual for dhimmis in terms of a ritual beheading, in which the non-Muslim is struck on the side or the back of the neck.

The first verb for ‘strike’ (w.j.’) means to strike with a hand or a knife.  At this point the phrasing is ambiguous: it could mean ‘he should be beheaded’.  The ambiguity is cleared up with the second verb for strike (s.f.‘), which specifically refers to striking with the hand. (Arabic lexicographers have disagreed over whether this means with a fist or an open hand.)

This means: the insolent one [or audacious, rebellious – marid ]  [i.e. the dhimmi] …

Ibn Ajibah first characterizes the dhimmi as an arrogant upstart (marid), someone who has exalted himself from his proper position (by rejecting Allah). Lane defines this as: ‘he went to such an extreme as thereby to pass from out of the general state [or category] of that species [to which he belonged].’  The word marid thus implies that the dhimmi has audaciously and insolently exalted himself above his proper station in life, for which he is to be rightfully humbled under the dominance of Muslims.

[the dhimmi] is commanded to put his soul, good fortune and desires to death. Above all he should kill the love of life, leadership and honour… [He] is to invert the longings of his soul, he is to load it down more heavily than it can bear until it is completely submissive. Thereafter nothing will be unbearable for him. He will be indifferent to subjugation or might. Poverty and wealth will be the same to him; praise and insult will be the same; preventing and yielding will be the same; lost and found will be the same. Then, when all things are the same, it [the soul] will be submissive and yield willingly what it should give.

Ibn Ajibah is explaining the purpose and meaning of the jizya payment ritual, including the blow on the neck.  This ritual, he says, represents the death of the dhimmi‘s soul.

 [Only] then is it [the soul of the dhimmi] to be preserved and looked after.

The purpose of this soul suicide is to ensure that the dhimmi will give everything to the Muslims that he is supposed to as a grateful service.  Ibn Ajibah makes the point that protection of the dhimmi by Muslims (including from jihad attack) is only to be provided if the dhimmi has put his soul to death by this means (i.e. he is utterly submissive).

Then he [Allah] mentions the reason for jihad against the people of the Book [in the next verse Sura 9:30]: it is the corruption of their belief…

This is the reason for fighting Christians and Jews:  it is because their belief is corrupt.

Multiple by 69 times, and the reader will have quite a good idea of what Muslim commentators have to say about Islam’s policy on the treatment of non-believers in an Islamic state, at least according to the commentaries included in the Great Tafsirs Project of the Aal al-Bayt Institute.

It is of course possible for individual Muslims to take a different view about the dhimma system.  But my point is that the tradition of Qur’anic interpretation – which is tremendously important in stabilizing Islam and establishing its whole ideological framework – leaves little or no room for regarding the dhimma system as a blessing for non-Muslims.

This lack of a genuine tradition of benevolence or grace in dealing with non-Muslims is one of the key ideological problems confronting Islam – and non-Islam – today.  It will simply not do to sweep it under the carpet by a thousand sleights of hand which ignore or gloss over more than a thousand years of Qur’anic interpretation.  The issue is too deep-seated and enduring to be dealt with so dismissively.

Nor will it do to simply wave one’s hands and shout as loud as one can that anyone can find bad things in a religious tradition.  The problem of the dhimma system is of a completely different order of magnitude from anything inter-religious polemics could conjure up.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

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