By Nushin Arbabzadah
This reopening is painful to some but an opportunity to many others. It allows us to expand the borders of discussion – geographical, historical and psychological - by looking beyond contemporary Europe and acknowledging that multiculturalism is neither a new phenomenon nor unique to the west. Plural societies have always existed in history and there are many examples of non-western multicultural societies that are worthy of further exploration for what they might teach.
Given recent world history it is particularly important to explore how Muslim societies have dealt with multiculturalism. For contrary to common perceptions, living in multiethnic, multifaith and multilingual societies has always been part of the experience of Muslims.
Dealing with the Dhimmis
Seen from a contemporary western perspective, medieval Muslim (no less than Christian) societies can easily appear intolerant because they enshrined basic forms of discrimination in law. Those discriminated against - as in medieval Christian Europe - included women, slaves and non-believers. It is these non-believers (non-Muslims, from an Islamic perspective) that I focus on here.
Non-believers were generally referred in to in Arabic as the ahl al-dhimma, the “people of the pact”, and ahl al-kitab, the “people of the book”. Strictly speaking the terms should only refer to the monotheists mentioned in the Qur’an, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and a group called the Sabeans, whose identity is unknown. In practice, however, the legal interpretation allowed other religious groups the Muslims encountered, such as Hindus, to be counted as legitimate members of the dhimmi community.
The earliest usage of the term dhimma is in the Constitution of Medina. Dating from around 622 CE, it regulates the status of the Jewish clans of Medina (in modern Saudi Arabia) after its conquest by the Prophet Muhammad and states that “The dhimma [the pact guaranteeing security and protection] of God is one”. This implies that all the people of Medina - Jews and Muslims alike - were protected by the new Muslim rulers of the city. The document also acknowledges that Jews and Muslims each have their own religion.
On the whole, the document regulates the status of non-Muslims quite vaguely but in a spirit of equality. As such, it echoes the sura (chapters) in the Qur’an in which reference is made to the status of non-Muslims. These sura are also imprecise and general in formulation, though there is one sura which later became the basis for the legal regulation of the status of non-Muslims. According to sura 9:29, Muslims should fight the People of the Book until they willingly pay a special tax (jizya).
These early regulations paved the way for the later legalisation of non-Muslims’ status in the sharia (holy law), a process that reached its peak during the Abbasid period (750-1258 CE). The results for those affected can best be described as irritating and sometimes unpleasant but basically bearable.
Indeed, the jizya was the only law that had a practical impact on the lives of dhimmi. From the perspective of medieval Muslim rulers, the dhimmi paid this tax out of choice, because the option to convert to Islam, and so avoid the tax, remained open to them. Medieval Islamic court documents indicate that the jizya was the only dhimmi-specific law that Muslim rulers truly cared for.
In addition to the jizya, dhimmi had to obey a number of additional rules that were supposed to govern their public conduct. The rules were often suspended in practice but in theory they included regulations such as “showing a respectful attitude towards Muslims” or “when celebrating religious ceremonies, keeping the level of noise low”. Dhimmi were also required to build houses lower than those of their Muslim neighbours, to avoid dressing like Muslims and to ride on ‘inferior’ animals like mules and donkeys rather than horses. In court, the word of a dhimmi witness counted less than a Muslim male, putting dhimmi on an equal footing with Muslim women.
However, when the rules were enforced they took on different shapes. According to the Mamluk period (1250-1517 CE) historian Ibn Taghribirdi, for example, since the Muslims’ favourite colours were black, white and green, for their turbans the dhimmi of Egypt were allocated a less solemn range of colours to choose from, including yellow, red and blue. Yellow leather boots with one red and one black garter were another item mentioned in the sources describing the medieval dhimmi dress-code.
The tolerable but unpleasant restrictions imposed on dhimmi revealed Muslim rulers’ ambivalent attitude towards the “people of the book”. Despite the restrictions, dhimmi retained considerable freedom and autonomy in administrating their own communal affairs. They were free to practice their religion, own property and manage personal status issues like marriage, death and inheritance. This relative tolerance towards religious minorities in medieval Islamic societies was in marked contrast to the fate of the Jews in medieval Christendom.
Even the rather petty Islamic rule prohibiting the dhimmifrom building houses taller than those of Muslims proves that religious minorities and Muslims lived on the same streets. In practice, wealthy middle-eastern Christian merchants and courtiers often lived in palaces which towered above the houses of poor Muslims. There were no ghettoes or laws prohibiting the dhimmis from sharing urban space with Muslims. Neither were there laws excluding dhimmis from pursuing certain careers. Certainly, unpleasant jobs, such as the castration of eunuchs, were often performed by the dhimmi, but generally all careers seem to have been open to everyone.
The Ottoman mosaic
As for other members of medieval Muslim societies, the situation of dhimmi depended on the political and economic circumstances of the time. So, for example, in the early Ottoman empire, a multi-religious society was divided into two sections, the askeri (army and state officials) and raya (tax-paying population). The former group was considered superior to the latter, but the distinction had nothing to do with religion.
Indeed, the Ottomans designed institutions specifically aimed at incorporating members of the dhimmi community into the prestigious military and state system. One such institution, the devshirme, recruited Christian boys for service in the court and army after they converted to Islam. Historical evidence suggests that dhimmi boys were quite keen on devshirme service and once inside the palace tried to help their own friends and family members to join. The popularity and opportunities offered by devshirme eventually brought about its downfall.
Being innovative and pragmatic, the early Ottoman rulers also directly recruited non-Muslims into the army without the requirement of religious conversion. During the conquest of the Balkans, for example, non-Muslims were in charge of guarding fortresses. These practices reveal that Muslim rulers could and did introduce institutions that went against the restrictive dhimmirules of the sharia.
In this way, political and economic circumstances as much as religious law shaped the situation of non-Muslims in Muslim societies. But from the 16th century onwards, the Ottoman empire underwent changes which affected the situation of the dhimmi, coming under pressure from two rival states, the Shi’a Safavids to the east and the Habsburgs to the west. At the same time, the Ottoman rulers conquered Mecca and Medina. The new circumstances changed the character of their empire, which became a conservative Sunni state. The sultans began to call themselves Padishahi Islam, the ‘Kings of Islam’ and the army received the new designation of askeri Islam, the ‘Army of Islam’. Subsequently, there were few new Christian soldiers in the army.
Medieval equal opportunities
Nonetheless, outside of these vacillating periods of orthodoxy, historical evidence reveals that there was something like equal opportunity in medieval middle-eastern societies. Records reveal that members of religious minority communities were engaged in diplomacy, trading in rice and sugar or working as carpenters, for example.
Jewish and Christian physicians were respected and often served in the Ottoman sultan’s court, their most prominent patient being the sultan himself. One such physician was Hekim Yakub. His reputation was such that a whole quarter of Istanbul was named after him. Another Jewish high achiever was Yakub Mahallesi, who rose up to become vizir (prime minister). The list of high flyers from the religious minorities includes Rabbi Moses Capsali, the spiritual and political head of the Jewish community of Istanbul; Rabbi Salto, a Sephardic Jewish fiscal administrator; Don Joseph Nasi, banker, advisor and tax farmer who was given the title of Duke of Naxos by the sultan; and his equally famous wife, Dona Reyna. These high achievers were refugees, Sephardic Jews expelled from Europe by the Catholic Kings of Spain after 1492.
A letter believed to have been written in the early 15th century indicates that the Ottoman rulers encouraged the migration of Jewish refugees to their realms. The letter was written by a Rabbi Isaac Tsarfati and was addressed to the Jews of Europe, encouraging them to move to the Ottoman domains.
Religious minority groups of the Ottoman empire were given considerable freedom in administrating their communal affairs. Each community had its own spiritual/political leaders who mediated between the community and the state. In addition to their communal loyalties, all members of society, regardless of their religion, owed allegiance to two Ottoman officials, the head of their profession and the head of their residential quarter. Religion was only one factor at work.
Historical evidence also shows that sharia courts were used by both Muslims and Christians. In a clever legal ploy, Christians in trouble tended to undergo a timely conversion to Islam in order to escape the punishment of their own community. Evidence also reveals that economic transactions were regularly carried out between Muslims and Christians; sometimes Muslims and Christians jointly owned property or traded together.
Of course, these facts do not mean that Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peace and harmony all the time. The reality of dhimmi existence under Muslim rule was much more complex. It was not a state of perfect harmony, but neither was it one typified by the absolute intolerance of which Muslims are so often accused. It was, like modern western multicultural cities, something between the two.