The Mufti of Egypt Stands up for Christians – Or Does He?

The Mufti of Egypt Stands up for Christians – Or Does He?

In the context of the recent outpouring of hatred and violence against the Copts, and specifically the destruction of the ancient church in Soul, the Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa (or Jum’a) has issued a fatwa condemning violence against Christians and their places of worship.   A report on this fatwa was published by, a popular Egyptian news site, on March 12, 2011.

Fatwas are opinions issued by someone with a recognized authority in Islam. They are not binding, but may be used to guide Muslims.  The Mufti of Egypt heads the Dar al-Ifta or ‘Fatwa Institute’ in Egypt, which regularly issues thousands of rulings on a myriad of topics.  This particular fatwa was issued by this same office (see here).

In the context of discussing his fatwas on the status of Christians, it is important to note that Ali Gomaa is regarded as a moderate cleric.  He was appointed by Hosni Mubarak and is reportedly strongly opposed by some radical Muslims.  An example of one of Gomaa’s moderate positions is his opposition to female circumcision (see here).   (Gomaa’s contribution to the female circumcision debate is analysed on pp. 75-76 of The Third Choice).  Gomaa was a signatory to the Common Word letter from Muslim scholars to the Christians of the world.

Typical of Gomaa’s approach to modern conditions is that he affirms the validity of traditional jurisprudence on the one hand, while allowing that changed conditions permit a different interpretation of Islamic law, subject to the application of reason.  He believes that female circumcision was valid in the past, given the knowledge Muslims had then, but is invalid today, because of changed understandings.  He places great importance on the contributions of reason and context to interpreting Islam.

Concerning wife-beating, Gomaa has argued that for a Muslim to beat his wife in Canada could be against Islam, because it is reasonable to take into account the culture of the surrounding society, whilst it would at the same time be a legitimate practice in a Muslim state, because of different understandings about domestic violence in the two contexts.  Gomaa claims, for example, that in Muslim Arab societies women welcome and even desire beatings by their husbands, so the practice is not inconsistent with Islam (see here) but serves to safeguard the family.

My assessment of Gomaa is that he is an intellectual who straddles the traditional world of Islamic jurisprudence and the modern world of technological advance and changing social conditions.

In the rapidly changing political context in Egypt, a more radical Islamic government in Egypt would almost certainly appoint a more conservative Mufti than Ali Gomaa, with potentially significant consequences for the daily lives of Egyptian citizens.

Fatwas are typically issued as an answer in response to a specific question or set of questions.  In this case the questions were: what is the legitimate Islamic ruling concerning attacks on churches and Christian places or worship, attacking them by arson or bombs; what is the legal ruling if there are people praying inside the church at the time; and is the claim valid which denies that a dhimmah (pact of surrender or protection) exists between Copts and Muslims at the present time?

Why would Muslims be asking about the dhimmah pact in the very period when Copts are being persecuted and killed, and their places of worship burnt and bombed?  For understanding this, it is important to grasp the function of the dhimma pact.  (The detailed functioning of the dhimma is described in detail in my book  The Third Choice.)

Non-Muslims living under Islamic law are traditionally considered as dhimmis, or people of the dhimma pact of surrender.  Islamic laws understands dhimmis, who include Christians, to be people who have surrendered to the forces of Islam under certain specific conditions.

These conditions include payment of the annual jizya heand tax, and acceptance of being made ‘small’ as Sura 9:29 of the Qur’an puts it. See for example, the explanation by Ibn Kathir of what being made ‘small’ means, which is laid out in a section of his commentary entitled Paying Jizyah is a sign of Kufr (infidelity) and Disgrace.  Ibn Kathir states that non-Muslims living under Islamic rule are to be ‘subdued’, ‘miserable’, ‘humiliated’, ‘disgraced’, and ‘belittled’.

Classical Islamic law included many debilitating restrictions on Christians living in an Islamic state, including, for example, prohibitions on building new churches or repairing old ones, restrictions on bearing arms, limitations on the height of houses, and legal disabilities in sharia courts.

Islamic jurists considered that dhimmis who paid the annual jizya tax were purchasing their life back for the year ahead.  In effect, the non-Muslim who agreed to submit to these principles of Islamic law was allowed to live by virtue of paying his head tax.  If the non-Muslim failed to observe the conditions of the dhimma, his head was forfeit, and his possessions (including wife, children, house and place of worship) could lawfully be confiscated by Muslims.

The eminent nineteenth Algerian Qur’anic commentator Muhammad ibn Yusuf at-Fayyish (d. 1914) explained the meaning of the jizya tax in his commentary of Sura 9:29.

It was said: it [jizya] is a satisfaction for their blood.  It is said ‘X’ has sufficed … to compensate for their not being slain. Its purpose is to substitute for the duties (wajib) of killing and of slavery … It is for the benefit of Muslims.

Or as William Eton wrote in his compendious Survey of the Turkish Empire  in 1799:  ‘the sum of money received [from non-Muslims] is taken as compensation for being permitted to wear their heads that year.’

The system of jizya payments was mainly dismantled in the 19th and 20th centuries across the Islamic world, under pressure from European powers.

Now here comes the point about the Mufti’s fatwa.

Since it is the dhimma pact and observance of its conditions which is supposed, according to Islamic law, to guarantee the safety of non-Muslims living in the Islamic state, the contention is being mooted among radically minded Muslims, influenced by the worldwide sharia revival, that today’s Christians, living in Muslim lands, are not protected by a dhimma pact, because they do not pay the jizya, and are not submissive to classical sharia conditions for dhimmis.

The inescapable logic of this line of argument is that Christians living in Egypt – and elsewhere in the Middle East – have no right to life: the men can lawfully be killed by Muslims, and their possessions, including women and children – can be confiscated.  That is, as long as they are not under a full dhimma pact.

This perspective, which will seem outlandish and utterly pernicious to non-Muslims’ minds, is precisely the issue which Egypt’s Mufti is intending to address with his fatwa.  In the context of attacks on Christian churches and homes, and repeated killings of Copts, the Mufti is rejecting the reasoning which says that the dhimma no longer applies to protect the Christians of Egypt.

The very existence of this fatwa is an important admission of the existence of the way of thinking, because the Mufti is trying to root it out.  All the recent attacks on Copts – a list of which is given in my previous blog post, might be claimed to be justified by radically minded Muslims, on the basis of the contention that Christians without a pact are fair game.

So, for example, we could assume that the off-duty policeman who shot and killed a 71 year old Christian man on a train in January believed he had a right to kill Christians because the  jizya as ‘satisfaction for their blood’, as At-Fayyish described it, is not being paid by them.  Also the Coptic demonstrators who have been attacked and killed have presumably been considered to be acting arrogantly, and not ‘submissively’ as the dhimma demands of non-Muslims, for one of the conditions of the dhimma is that non-Muslims must not criticize Islam or Muslims.  Likewise monks who have been attacked for building security fences were regarded as pact breakers because they were making modifications to a place of worship, which is forbidden by dhimma laws.

There are many references being made to jizya payments and the dhimma among radical Muslims in the Middle East today.  The argument being put is that Christians will not be safe until they pay the jizya and submit to dhimma conditions, because then and only then will a religious obligation exist for Muslims to respect the right to life of Christians.  Gradually, year by year, calls to bring back the jizya are emerging from the shadows into the light of day.

In the worldview of dhimmitude, non-Muslims have no inherent right to life.  Muslims do have this right under sharia law, as it is a capital offence to kill a Muslim.  However non-Muslims only have a conceded right to life, if they agree to redeem their life each year with jizya payments, and submit to the rules of the dhimma. (And even then, killing a dhimmi is not  the capital offense that killing a Muslim is.)  This is the worldview to which radicals like the Islamic Brotherhood wish Egypt to return.

Back to the Mufti of Egypt

How then can the Mufti address this pressing challenge, that some Muslims in Egypt think it acceptable to bomb and burn churches and Christian homes, and to kill Christians, because they no longer have a dhimma to protect them?

It seems to me that he could oppose this on two grounds.  He could argue the universal brotherhood of all people,  that all people have a right to life and liberty granted by their creator.  He does not do this, perhaps because it is so far from mainsteam Islamic attitudes to non-Muslims.  Normative Islam is based on lack of reciprocity and lack of equality between Muslims and non-Muslims.

What Sheikh Gomaa does instead is argue that being a citizen of a modern state gives an equivalent level of protection to the dhimma pact. The fatwa states:

… assaults on Christians living in Egypt are a breach to the citizenship contract, for [Christians] are citizens who have the rights to citizenship. They made a contract with Muslims, and have subjected themselves to a covenant to live together [with Muslims] in the land in peace and security. Assaulting them, or causing them harm, or terrorising them – in addition to killing them and destroying their churches – is a breach of this contract, and of the covenant that we [Muslims] have the duty to fulfil.

What Ali Gomaa is saying, quite explicitly, is that being an Egyptian citizen gives Christians the same protection which the dhimma gave.  The fatwa states:

The state Mufi pointed out that the saying of some people that

“the covenant between us and them is the dhimmah pact, which lapsed in this [modern] era, therefore we are not bound (to them) by a covenant”

is a false saying, and lacks much understanding. Citizenship, in its agreed understanding,  has been established within the Islamic world’s constitutions and laws, including the Egyptian constitution, which … in its second article on the authority of the Islamic sharia … acknowledges [the rights for] citizenship – as Muhammad did in the Medina Constitution.  This has provided for the coexistence and cooperation between the children of the one homeland [i.e. Muslims and Christians] even if they differ in religion, and if there is no dhimma contract or jizya. Therefore, the [citizenship] contract is one of the legal contracts must must be fulfilled, exactly like the dhimma contract.


[The Mufti] has made it clear that claiming the dhimma era has lapsed, and denying them [Christians] a covenant with Muslims is false talk.

The Mufti also cites some hadiths (traditions) which point to the special status of the Copts in Islam’s destiny, and emphasizes that those who do violence against  Copts only empower the enemies of Islam:

 … acts of destruction distort the image of Islam in the West and the East, and they support the false image that Islam is bloodthirsty.  This gives license to lurking enemies to interfere in our internal affairs…

Ali Goma also cites various Islamic canonical sources which address the issue of mistreating dhimmis, and argues that attacking them or their buildings is a terrible offense against Allah’s laws, which will lead to a very bad outcome on judgement day.  He considers attacks on churches accompanied by killing to be ‘worse than murder, theft or adultery’, which are already very serious crimes in Islam.

In comparison to the religious leaders who are baying for Christian blood in Egypt today, Ali Gomaa is acting like a decent man.  He is trying to do what he can to avert a catastrophe.  Nevertheless, his whole worldview presupposes the need for a ‘covenant’ to apply between Muslims and Christians if Christian blood is to be protected.  He does not stand up for an inalienable right to life for all, irrespective of creed.

Gomaa is seeking, within the limited parameters of Islamic understandings of the rights of non-Muslims to propose a compelling argument to pious Muslims that they should not attack and kill Christians.  Yet in order to do this he gives away the fundamental human rights of non-Muslims.

There is another problem with Gomaa’s fatwa.  In the dhimma pact system, there are multiple possibilities of pact violations.   If a dhimmi steps out of line, their protection lapses.  Gomaa appears to avoid this issue altogether.  This is problematic, because some of those who have attacked Christians verbally have used arguments to show that Copts’ actions have abrogated the protection which would have applied under dhimmi conditions.  By this way of thinking, there could be no protection, even if the dhimma did apply.  People whose thinking goes in this direction will not be convinced by Ali Gomaa’s arguments, because he ommitted to address the issue of pact violations in his citizen pact model.

Hopefully I will be able, in another post, to explain how verbal attacks on Copts have invoked the concept of the dhimma pact.  They have done this by making allegations which are obviously intended to be regarded as violations of dhimma conditions.  Radical Muslims in Egypt have been accusing Christians of being pact breakers, and by this means putting pressure upon them to accept again the age-old form of servitude known as the dhimma.  Up until now the Copts have been resisting this pressure, and continue to protest.

What the outside world needs to do is grasp these dynamics, so that it can make an fair and accurate assessment of what is going on in Egypt.  It is necessary to grasp why the concept of the dhimma is  central to understanding what is happening with the Copts of Egypt at this time.  They are between a rock (violence) and a hard place (the return of the dhimma and fearful subservience to Islam).

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 the Melbourne School of Theology.

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