The Nag Hammadi massacre and the Collective Character of the dhimma

The Nag Hammadi massacre and the Collective Character of the dhimma

The recent shooting of Copts as they filed out from Church on January 6th in Nag Hammadi was allegedly triggered by accusations that a Coptic youth had violated a Muslim girl.  What is striking about the circumstances of this attack and the allegation associated with it, is the mismatch between the collective character and the individual nature of the alleged transgression.  An individual is said to have crossed the line, but the whole community was attacked.

The line alleged to have been crossed in this case is of the many boundary markers which constitute an age-old institution in Sharia law, the dhimma pact: Christian males are not supposed to have any relations – let alone criminal ones – with Muslim women.

The concept of collective guilt, and retribution upon a whole community for the sins of the individual is also one of the principles of the dhimma.  This is explained in my book The Third Choice: Islam, dhimmitude and freedom.  Here is an extract from the book (pp.160-162):

“Such events need to be understood in the context of the communal or collective nature of the dhimma pact. As it was the whole community which made the pact, it is the whole community which must pay the price if the pact is broken. Even a breach by a single individual dhimmi could result in jihad being enacted against the whole community. Muslim jurists have made this principle explicit, for example, the Yemeni jurist al-Murtada wrote that ‘The agreement will be cancelled if all or some of them break it …’ and the Moroccan al-Maghili taught ‘The fact that one individual (or one group) among them has broken the statute is enough to invalidate it for all of them.’”

As a result dhimmis have always lived in a state of perpetual concern for the potential impact of their personal actions on their whole community. Individuals would be very reluctant to take any prominent position in the society. Historical accounts tell of how well-off dhimmi families could allow their children to go about in rags, and wealthy merchants would do service sweeping the streets, to avoid attracting hostility from Muslim neighbors.

It must be emphasized that there need not be actual dhimmi laws in place for reprisals to be enacted which accord with the pattern of the dhimma pact. The dhimma is not merely a legal contract: it is a religious institution which informs and influences the culture and behavior of whole societies, whether the political authorities uphold the dhimma or not. This was repeatedly demonstrated throughout the Muslim world after the Ottomans officially revoked the dhimma, and the principle continues to be shown today in the enforcement of many dhimma conditions against non-Muslims in Islamic nations.

The sense that individual ‘transgressions’ of non-Muslims legitimates a communal reprisal remains an enduring issue in Muslim communities. In September of 2005, a reprisal was directed against the Christian Palestinian village community of Taiba on the basis of the actions of an individual man who had a romance with a Muslim woman. A report entitled ‘Muslims ransack Christian village’, published in the Jerusalem Post of September 5, 2005 described the events:

“Efforts were under way on Sunday to calm the situation in this Christian village east of Ramallah after an attack by hundreds of Muslim men from nearby villages left many houses and vehicles torched. The incident began on Saturday night and lasted until early Sunday, when Palestinian Authority security forces interfered to disperse the attackers. Residents said several houses were looted and many families were forced to flee to Ramallah and other Christian villages, although no one was injured.
… ‘More than 500 Muslim men, chanting Allahu akbar [Allah is greater], attacked us at night’, said a Taiba resident. ‘They poured kerosene on many buildings and set them on fire. Many of the attackers broke into houses and stole furniture, jewelry and electrical appliances.’ … ‘It was like a war, they arrived in groups, and many of them were holding clubs’, said another resident.”

Several aspects of this attack points to its character as a jihad reprisal under dhimma conditions:

– the impression that the attack was ‘like a war’: it was in fact a manifestation of jihad;

– the traditional war cry Allahu Akbar ‘Allah is greater’, uttered by the attackers, showed that they regarded their deeds as having a religious motivation;

– the looting of non-Muslim homes; and

– the communal character of the reprisals, for the transgression of an individual.”


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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