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Ismaili History 555 - The problems of Ahl Dhimma

According to Islamic law, the non-Muslims inhabited in the Islamic state were called ahlu dh-dhimmati (people of protection) or simply al-Dhimma or dhimmis. They included the Christian, Jewish, Magian, Samaritan and Sabian. Ahl Dhimma were prohibited in the Muslim state from holding public religious ceremonies, from raising their voices loudly when praying and even from ringing their church bells aloud. All schools agree that it is not allowed to build new churches, synagogues, convent, hermitage or cell in towns or cities of Dar al- Islam (Muslim lands). When these injunctions were disobeyed, the Muslim leaders were authorized to treat the offenders as dwellers in Dar al-Harb (non-Muslim lands) and not as Ahl Dhimma in Dar al-Islam (Muslim lands), vide 'Subh al-A'asha fi Sina'at at al-Insha' (Cairo, 1922, 13th vol., p. 356) by Qalaqashandi (d. 821/1418).

When the Fatimids arrived in Egypt, the need for a stable financial administration provided an opportunity to the talented minorities of Ahl Dhimma (Christians and Jews) to find employment in state offices. They were massively employed from low to high ranking posts in the state. In return, the policy of the Fatimid Caliphs towards them was of great toleration. The Fatimids granted land to churches. The Jewish religious institutions, such as the Jerusalem Yeshiva was also financially supported by the Fatimid authorities. As time passed their influences grew so rapidly through out the state that they became almost a threat to the Fatimids. Most of the high officials of finance departments, the deputies and staffs were remarkably non-Muslims, who also became a source of tension for the Muslims. When Imam al-Aziz dismissed and arrested his vizir Yaqub bin Killis in 373/983, the functioning of the administration became almost frozen, impelling al-Aziz to release and restore Yaqub bin Killis to his former office. Al-Aziz is also reported to have reappointed few other dismissed officials, confirming the foothold of the non-Muslims in the Fatimid dominion.

Wustenfeld writes in 'Geschichte der Fatimiden Chalifen' (Gottingen, 1881, 2nd vol., p. 64) about Isa bin Nestorius, a Christian vizir of the Fatimids that, 'He was hard-hearted and an usurer who grasped for himself every lucrative business, and agumented very much the taxes. He favoured his co-religionists and placed them in the important offices of state, while removing the former Muslims secretaries and tax-collectors. As his chief deputy in Syria he chose a Jew, Menasse bin Ibrahim, who showed there the same regard for the Jews as Isa did for the Christians in Egypt, by reducing their taxes and appointing them as officials. Thus the followers of these two religions ruled the state. This caused great indignation amongst the Muslims.'

The Ahl Dhimma, mainly the Christians, were thickly populated in Egypt. They were rich, powerful, influential and dominated in the political and social orbits. Ibn Athir (9th vol., p. 48) quotes Hasan bin Bishar of Damascus, who made mention of the growing influences of the Christians in the Fatimid empire in his poetry that:-

Be Christian (as) today is the time of Christianity. Believe in nothing, but in the holy trinity. Yaqub is the father, Aziz is the son. And for the holy ghost, Fazal is the one.

The people roused to anger against the poet and situation gradually exploded in civil disturbances. When the people clamoured for the punishment of the poet, al-Aziz demonstrated a big heart and told to Yaqub bin Killis and Fazal bin Saleh to expel the poet from the city as soon as possible.

Towards the end of al-Aziz's reign, the antagonism had reached its climax. The policy of assigning high administrative offices to Christians and Jews was basically in the line with the religious toleration adopted by the Fatimids. It however appears that al-Aziz went further than his predecessors, and the non-Muslims exceeded to take its unnecessaary advantage. In a letter purported to have been delivered to al-Aziz, the writer accused him as saying, 'By the Lord who honoured the Christians through Isa bin Nestorius, and the Jews through Menasse bin Ibrahim al-Kazzaz and humiliated the Muslims through you.' (vide 'Khitat', 2nd vol., p. 195). On that juncture, the Fatimid Imam kept patience and did not take any action against the non-Muslims.

The fast growth of the influences of the Christianity and Judaism began to menace the Islamic interest in the Fatimid state. Even the continued hatred and rivalry between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Fatimid dominion also necessiated that the Imam should find a solution, and thus al-Hakim was destined to come into the actions.

According to al-Musabbihi (cf. 'Khitat', 2nd vol., p. 195), about five naval ships together with their equipment were burnt in 386/995. The Christians, who lived near the port, were accused of purposely causing the fire. Thus, the Muslims sailors attacked them and killed 107 persons and threw their dead bodies into the streets, and pillaged their houses. The vizir Isa bin Nestorius, representing al-Aziz in his absence, brought a police force to the area. He investigated the incident and arrested large number of the Muslims. He crucified 20 Muslims and severely punished the other. The death toll of this riot indicates a large number of the people, and the reason however given to this effect was the fire caught accidently in the ships. But, the manner in which the Muslims behaved, according to the description of al-Musabbihi, confirms that the hatred and animosity was at the very root of the riot.

Like the Christians, the Jews had also wielded their influence in Egypt with the help of Menassee bin Ibrahim. Jacob Mann writes in 'The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fatimid Caliphs' (London, 1919, 1st vol., pp. 20-21) that, 'Menasse was a general like Joab bin Seruyah and his banner shone with royal splendour. His name was `healing and life' to his people (i.e., the Jews), who greatly rejoiced at his dignity....A number of Arab tribes were humiliated by him. But he looked after the interests of his co-religionists....Menasse's brief management of affairs in Syria and Palestine must have been beneficial to the Jews.'

The foothold of the Jews can be gauged from the fact that Suyuti (d. 911/1505) writes in 'Husn al-Muhadara fi Akhbar Misr wa al-Qahira'(Cairo, 1909, 2nd vol., p. 129) that a poet said of them during the Fatimid Caliphate that:-

The Jews of our times reached the summit of their goal and have become aristocrates. Theirs is the dignity, theirs the money! Councillors of the state and princes chosen among them O'People of Egypt! I give you advice: Become Jews for the heaven has become Jewish.

Under these curious circumstances in the Islamic state, al-Hakim had no alternative but to take drastic actions against Ahl Dhimmas. The prime reason to impose certain restrictions upon the Ahl Dhimma was to curtail their growing influence and distinguish them from Muslims as well. The policy of al-Hakim appears to have been an attempt to solve a problem which has menaced his rule. On one hand was Ahl Dhimma being a large minority with their vital importance to the progress of the financial administration of the state, and on the other was the Muslim population which resented their pressure and the policy that prolonged their influence in the state affairs or social life. If al-Hakim dismissed all non-Muslims from the offices of state, his financial administration would have suffered a severe blow and weakening the treaury. If he had adopted tolerance, he would have endangered his popularity amongst the Muslims. Ahl Dhimma were rich, powerful and influential, therefore, the Muslim community was unwilling to further tolerate them. Thus, al-Hakim found the solution to his dilemma in the subjugation of Ahl Dhimma to Muslim law. 'In general' writes M. Canard in 'The Encyclopaedia of Islam'(Leiden, 1971, 3rd vol., p. 78), 'this policy had the approval of the Muslims, who hated the Christians because of acts of misappropriation and of favourism by the Christian financial officials.'

During the first ten years of al-Hakim's reign (386-395/995-1004), the Jews and Christians enjoyed the immunity and even the privileges which they had obtained during the tolerant rule of Imam al-Aziz. When the wheel turned to reverse side, menacing his empire, al-Hakim had to curtail a part of the freedom of Ahl Dhimma with drastic hands.

The first decree of al-Hakim in this context issued in 395/1004, ordering the Jews and Christians to wear the ghiyar (garment) only when they appeared in public. When this order was disobeyed, the punishment was followed. Wearing the ghiyar was soon found as not enough, therefore, a distinctive religious symbol was ordered. He made Christians wear a distinctive badge hung round their necks - a cross for the Christians and the wooden images of a calf for the Jews.

The non-Muslims however resented any kind of restriction affecting their prestige. The ensuing enforcement of the new laws was a grave challenge to their position. It abolished their towering fame and even curtailed a part of their freedom. The information in the extant sources appears to indicate that these incidents resulted from circumstances and not from a planned policy to attack the religious communities.

The Christians and Jews began to wear the prescribed religious symbols made of gold or silver and used the saddles with richly coloured trappings while riding on horses. Then al-Hakim ordered the cross to be of wood, five rotls in weight, and made the Jews wear billets of wood of the same weight, shaped like the clapper of a bell.

In addition, the Christians and Jews alike were prohibited from riding horses and only allowed donkeys or mules for their transport. Their saddles had to be plain, with stirrups of sycamore wood and reins of black leather. If they transgressed any of these rules they were punished with banishment. He also forbade Jewesses and the Christian women to wear Arabian shoes, and made them wear footwears with legs (sarmuz), one red and one black. This was also ignored, therefore, next strict order came into force in 398/1007, ordering the Jews to wear a bell and Christians a cross when in public baths. Boats manned by Muslim crews were also prohibited for them. He also forfade slaves to be sold to them, and to employ Muslim servants and to take Muslim girls as concubines.

The repetition of the orders sharply indicates that they were not properly obeyed. M. Canard writes in 'The Encyclopaedia of Islam'(Leiden, 1971, 3rd vol., p. 78) that, 'It should be mentioned that these measures were perhaps not always strictly enforced, otherwise it would not have been necessary to repeated them.' When continued disobedience was reported, al-Hakim permitted the Muslims in 403/1012 to spy upon Ahl Dhimma and report offenders to the police. At length, the Ahl Dhimma began to obey the orders of al-Hakim. Later, the severity of the measures was lifted. It is striking feature worthy of noting that there is no indication which suggesting that a group of Ahl Dhimma, was punished for transgressing these orders when it however was confirmed that such violation had actually occurred.

The historians have advanced different reasons motivated in al-Hakim's measures. Uthman al-Nabulsi (d. 632/1235) in his 'Tajrid Sayf al- Himma Lima fir Dhimmati Ahl al-Dhimma' (p. 139) suggests they were political, that al-Hakim feared the prosperity of Ahl Dhimma, their growing influence both in state affairs and in the society, might encourage them to overthrow his empire. Antaki (d. 458/1066) in 'Tarikh-i Antaki' (Paris, 1909, p. 207), Ibn al-Muqaffiq in 'Tarikh-i Batarikat al-Kanisa al-Misriyya' (Cairo, 1948, 2nd vol., p. 124) and Bar Hebraeus (d. 684/1286) in 'Chronographia' (London, 1932, p. 184) suggest the reasons for al-Hakim's policy was to force the Christians and Jews to accept Islam, which seems extremly doubtful. It must be known that during the years of al-Hakim's greatest pressure upon the Ahl Dhimma, the majority of officials in his services were non-Muslims and that he never dismissed any of them on religious ground. The Dhimmis or Muslims received equal titles (alqab) and grants. Antaki (p. 207) further writes that the majority of his staff were Ahl Dhimma and too numerous to be replaced by Muslims. He made his measures so severe that he could force them to accept Islam.

The historians concur that al-Hakim respected the personal beliefs of his subjects and did never force them to subscribe to a particular religion. Musabbihi, the contemporary historian quotes al-Hakim as saying, 'When I appointed Salih bin Ali as Qa'id al-Quwad, I asked Ibn Surin to write a decree and make him sworn on the Bible not to tell anyone before the time was due.' (cf. 'Itti'az', p. 398). Thus, force does not seem to have been al-Hakim's method of conversion, rather he preferred arguments and discussions and his famous decree of 399/1008 begins with the Koranic verse: 'la ikraha fi al-din' (no compulsion in religion) is an ample evidence in this context. O'Leary writes in 'A Short History of the Fatimid Khalifate' (London, 1923, p. 133) that, 'In his conduct generally al-Hakim was tolerant, as his predecessors had been, towards the Christians and Jews as well as towards the Muslims who did not embrace the peculiar tenets of the Shia sect.' The reports of many historians make it obvious that the obedience to Islamic law, not the adoption of Islam, was al-Hakim's prime purpose, vide Ibn al-Zafir, p. 63, Ibn Athir, 9th vol., p. 131, etc.

The first edict of al-Hakim, ordering all Jews and Christians not to appear in public unless they wore a black ghiyar (garment) with black belts, however, was not new to Ahl Dhimma in Islamic state. It dates back to the time of Caliph Umar, who had made certain conditions for them, and one of them was that non-Muslims were to wear a distinctive over-coat (al-ghiyar), vide Qalqashandi's 'Subh al A'asha fi Sina'at at al-Insha' (13th vol., p. 356), Nabulsi's 'Tajrid Sayf al-Himma' (BIFAO, 1958-60, p. 139). It is to be noted that the Abbasid caliph Harun ar-Rashid, according to Tabari (3rd vol., p. 712) had issued an ordinance in 191/807 for Ahl Dhimma living in Baghdad to the effect that they should distinguish themselves from the Muslims in their dresses and mounts. Tabari (3rd vol., p. 1419) writes that in 235/850, the Abbasid caliph Mutawakkil issued a decree, ordering the Christians to wear honey-coloured hoods (taylasan), and the Jews the black-belts (zunnar) and also two buttons on their caps. In 239/854, another ordinance was imposed, ordering the Christians to wear durra'a and qaba (tunics) with two yellow dhira (sleeves) and forbidding them to ride horses.

The distinctive garments which the Ahl Dhimma had to wear during the period of al-Hakim was the ghiyar means 'distinction', which was a piece of cloth having a patch of stipulated colour placed on the shoulder.

It must be however known that the destruction of the churches in 392/1002 in Cairo was not by the order of the Imam. It was the result of an attack by a group of anguished Muslims. Antaki (p. 186) writes that, 'The Christian Jacobites began rebuilding a ruined church in the area of Rashida, where a group of Muslims attacked them and destroyed the building and two other churches which were nearby.'

Ibn Abi Tayy, who is quoted by Makrizi, suggests that, 'Since Muslim laws does not allow Ahl Dhimma to build new churches in Dar al- Islam, therefore, the Muslims were angered by the rebuilding of the church, an act they interpreted as a challenge to their law.' Ibn Abi Tayy further states that both Christians and Muslims complained to al-Hakim. The former said that the church existed before the Muslim conquest, and the latter argued that it was newly built. (cf. 'Khitat', 2nd vol., p. 283)

As a matter of reconciliation, al-Hakim at legnth ordered his mosque to be built in the area and gave permission for the Christians to build their new churches in another area which was known as al-Hamra. This, as Antaki (p. 186) and Ibn Abi Tayy (cf. 'Khitat', 2nd vol., p. 283) state, 'was a compensation for the three churches destroyed in Rashida.'

It is to be noted that such actions were never directed against the Jews, and the revenues of their synagogues were not confiscated nor were they ever destroyed by official order. Jacob Mann, a harsh Jewish critic writes in 'The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fatimid Caliphs' (London, 1920, 1st vol., p. 33) that, 'No details are given either by Lane Poole or by Wustenfeld about the destruction of the Jewish synagogues.' Qalqashandi (25th vol., p. 73) however writes that, 'In Cairo the district of Jaudarriya was thickly inhabited by Jews till al-Hakim was informed that they oppressed the Muslims, reviled the Islam and sang defamatory verses. In 403/1012, al-Hakim ordered one night to close their gates and had them burnt in the quarter. The Jews afterwards inhabited the street of al- Zuwaila in Cairo.'

The sequestration of church revenues however had been directed against the widespread corruption which was gaining increasing momentum even among high officials. Ibn al-Muqaffa himself a bishop, affirms that, 'The corruption had reached to its extreme among the Christian officials and the Patriach Inba Zakharin sold bishops and priesthoods to anyone rich capable to pay the price thereof. Yunis, a certain priest intended to become a bishop, but the Patriach refused him, because he was not so rich. Yunis therefore submitted a petition to al-Hakim against the then prevalent practice of bribery rife in ecclesiastic orbits. Al-Hakim arrested the Patriarch and gave the supervision of the revenues of the church to the state diwan. (op. cit., 2nd vol., p. 127)

Antaki (p. 194) writes that the confiscation included only the revenues of the churches in Egypt. He also adds (p. 219) that the church revenues were not included in the state treasury, but put under al-Hakim's name in the state diwan, which were later restored without any loss to the church officials.

In 398/1007, the Christians further dared to violate the orders when their multitude flocked in Jerusalem to celebrate Easter in public. Antaki (p. 194) however provides some curious informations about the manner in which the Christians celebrated their annual festivals. 'They continually ingnored prescribed rules for Ahl Dhimma and opposed a number of al-Hakim's orders regarding their rituals. He thus prohibited their public parade during Easter and Epiphany.'

Hatred between Muslims and non-Muslims became strong to its extreme and reacted in public, and at last a riot took place which resulted in the destruction of the Qiyamah, a famous church of the Christians in Jerusalam in 400/1015.

Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) in 'al-Bidaya wa al-Nihaya' (11th vol., p. 339) and Dhahabi (d. 748/1348) in 'Kitab al-Ibar' (3rd vol., p. 67) concur that the practices of the monks and a disgrace to Islam were the root causes of the destruction of Qiyama. Antaki (p. 195) writes that, 'The Muslims stirred hootest agitation and expressed their hatred of Christians by pulling down their churches and pillaged their property.' Makrizi also writes in 'Khitat' (2nd vol., p. 512) that al-Hakim warned the Muslims to refrain from such indecent actions. Salahuddin Khuda Bakhsha writes in 'The Renaissance of Islam' (Patna, 1937, p. 56) that, 'This Hakim never intended or wished to be done and he stopped it as soon as he heard of it.'

In conclusion, P.J. Vatikiotis writes in 'The Fatimid Theory of State' (Lahore, 1957, p. 153) that, 'His (al-Hakim) persecution of Christians and Jews and the legislation enacted for that purpose between 395/1004 and 411/1020 seem to have been a policy with a justifiable purpose.'

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