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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century


    Relations between Muslims and non-Muslims have historically taken shape according to the status and size of each group. The Qur'an accepts the legitimacy of multiple religions, dealing most specifically with Judaism and Christianity. Members of these faiths are accepted as People of the Book, those who have received true revelation. The Qur'an discusses the treatment of these and other non-Muslim peoples under Islamic rule.

    Minorities in Muslim Societies

    Treatment of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim societies and the nature of their relations with the Muslim majority have changed considerably since the early days of Islam. Minority groups have generally gained more rights over time, and the constitutions of many Islamic countries recognize the legal equality of people of all religions. Muslim scholars, however, continue to debate the degree of authority that non-Muslims should have in Islamic societies.

    Muhammad and the Qur'an.

    Muhammad preached a message of monotheism and social equality in Mecca. But he had limited success in converting people to his beliefs and faced fierce persecution. Muhammad and a small group of followers eventually settled in Medina, where he established the first Islamic community. He dictated a document commonly referred to as the Constitution of Medina (about 622 – 624 ), which established standards for the treatment of Jews and other religious groups living in the ummah (community of faithful Muslims). Under the constitution, these groups had autonomy and full religious freedom, but Muhammad was the supreme arbiter and leader. The situation changed when many of the Jews did not recognize Muhammad as a prophet of God and when some of the Jewish clans allied themselves with his Meccan enemies. Muhammad reacted by killing these Jews or expelling them from Medina.

    The Qur'an commands Muslims to treat unbelievers fairly and decently, as long as the unbelievers do not attack them. It does, however, draw distinctions between different classes of unbelievers. Members of religions that received knowledge of God through scripture are classified as ahl al-kitab (People of the Book). This category originally included only Christians, Jews, and Sabaeans, but later covered people of other faiths as well, such as Zoroastrians and Buddhists. The Qur'an directs Muslims to have polite relations with ahl al-kitab. It does not, however, extend this courtesy to polytheists. According to tradition, Muslims may not even share food with people in this group. Furthermore, under certain circumstances, Muslims are instructed to fight hostile unbelievers until they either convert or submit to Islamic rule.

    A contract of protection established the legal status of ahl al-kitab. These protected minorities, called dhimmi, enjoyed security from harassment by the state, freedom of movement, the right to own property, and the right to worship freely, as long as they practiced their religion discreetly. Muslims levied a jizyah (tax) on the dhimmi for the privilege of their protection. In the 700s, a document called the Pact of Umar set out additional restrictions on dress and hairstyle, worship, the construction and repairing of churches and synagogues, the height of houses, the use of animals, and other aspects of life to further distinguish between dhimmis and Muslims.

    Variations in Practice.

    The actual degree of protection and legal rights enjoyed by dhimmis varied from one Islamic land to the next. Economic and political conditions often played a greater role than the letter of the law in determining how Muslims treated minorities. For example, Muslims enjoyed close relations with Christians and Jews in Islamic Spain and in Egypt under the Fatimid dynasty ( 909 – 1171 ). Instances in which dhimmis enjoyed greater rights, however, were still seen by some Muslims as a violation of accepted standards.

    Non-Muslims enjoyed a good deal of autonomy under Muslim rule, often forming separate societies within the larger culture. The Ottoman millet system, for example, ensured that each group existed in its own self-governing community with a leader who served as a representative to Muslim authorities. Non-Muslims frequently had their own religious, legal, social, and educational institutions that functioned alongside those of the state. Although most Muslim states did not have an official policy of segregation, non-Muslims tended to fill jobs that were considered undesirable or unclean for Muslims.

    As European influence in the Islamic world increased, the status of minorities in Muslim lands began to change. European powers acted as protectors of certain religious communities and put pressure on Islamic governments to grant greater rights to non-Muslims. In the mid-1800s, for example, the Ottoman Empire passed the Tanzimat laws that granted non-Muslims full legal equality. It also replaced the jizyah with the duty to perform military service or to pay a tax to avoid conscription. Following World War I ( 1914 – 1918 ), Britain and France assumed direct control over much of the Islamic world, often resulting in greater privileges for non-Muslims than for Muslims.

    An increased number of rights and privileges provided non-Muslims with greater economic opportunity. At the same time, non-Muslims came into closer contact with Muslims in social, business, and political situations. Social class became almost as important as religious and ethnic background as a way to identify oneself. Outside pressure made these new opportunities possible and also meant that minorities were particularly vulnerable without that pressure. As Muslim states demanded and won their independence, minorities in those countries lost the protection of the former colonial rulers.

    Both Sides of the Issue.

    The current constitutions of most Muslim states grant legal equality to Muslims and non-Muslims. Most of these countries, however, base their legal systems on the principles of Islamic law, which applies to all citizens regardless of their faith. In many countries, the head of state must by law be Muslim, but some states guarantee minority groups a fixed share of the seats in their parliaments and assemblies.

    Not all Muslims are satisfied with the current status of non-Muslim minorities. Some conservative groups wish to bring back the rules relating to dhimmi and other restrictions. They believe that the rights non-Muslims have in any country should reflect their usefulness to the larger Muslim community. There are also more liberal Muslim thinkers who seek full political and legal equality for non-Muslims. They would like to see Islamic law modified to eliminate distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims.

    Between these two positions is the view that those who perform the same duties in society should have the same rights, regardless of faith. Legal equality in this case is limited to the “non-religious domain.” The problem is defining what is included in the religious domain, and what is not. For example, holding high government office in Muslim lands is seen by some as a religious function, which complicates the process of separating political equality from religious belief. In general, those holding this middle view argue that non-Muslims should be allowed to vote and to participate in politics if they also help to defend the state. However, the eligibility of non-Muslims to high political, military, or judicial positions should still be restricted.

    Muslim Minorities in Non-Muslim Lands

    About one-third of the world's Muslims live as minorities in non-Muslim lands. In some places, such as Palestine, Muslims were once in the majority, but eventually lost that position. In other places, such as Bosnia, Muslims once ruled as minorities and many remained there after that rule ended. Communities exist in non-Muslim lands, such as India, in which many people converted to Islam. Still others resulted from Islamic migration to non-Muslim regions, such as Europe and North America. Two key questions face these minority Muslim communities. The first concerns their duty to Islam and to each other in a non-Muslim land. The second deals with the relationship that exists between minority Muslim communities and the worldwide Muslim community, or ummah.

    Relations With Non-Muslim Majorities.

    In some countries where Muslims live as minorities, the majority population is generally hostile to Islamic culture and there is little encouragement for tolerance. As a result, some Muslims give up some of their religious practices in order to assimilate into the mainstream culture. For those who do not wish to give up aspects of their faith, the history of Islam offers two choices of action. The first is migration to an Islamic land. The second is striving to preserve one's Islamic identity within the larger non-Muslim culture. The second option does not mean a complete separation from non-Muslims. The Qur'an commands Muslims to bring the word of God to all people. Thus, Islam encourages its followers to interact with non-Muslims, even as minorities in non-Muslim societies.

    Members of Muslim minority communities have obligations to one another as well as to their faith. They are expected to support other Muslims in their beliefs and practices and to help one another cope with the pressures of living in a non-Muslim culture. These obligations have resulted in the creation of formal and informal organizations to serve the Muslim community and to promote traditional Islamic lifestyles and practices. Such groups have sometimes created suspicion among the non-Muslim majority, especially when they express radical or militant views.

    Relations With the Ummah.

    Most Muslims in Islamic lands feel political and social obligations toward Muslim minorities abroad. They do not agree, however, on the nature of these obligations or on the best way to meet them. One model assumes that the ummah should treat such communities as Muslim colonies in the non-Muslim world. This view suggests that the ummah should take active steps to protect these communities. Yet modern political reality limits what the ummah can actually do for Islamic communities abroad. Governments in non-Muslim countries would probably view any significant efforts on behalf of Muslim minorities as interference with their internal political affairs.

    A second model suggests that Muslim minorities in non-Muslim lands should be autonomous and treated as sovereign bodies equivalent to independent Muslim states. Many international Islamic organizations, such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, exist to promote unity among Muslims regardless of where they live. But some of these organizations lack the power to act within their Muslim states, much less in the non-Muslim world. Still, the Qur'an requires that all Muslims have a duty to encourage one another to withstand pressure to abandon their faith, as well as to adopt the means to defend and spread the faith.

    It is generally accepted that the ummah provide support that is relevant to the spiritual and cultural life of minority Muslim communities. But it is important that it does do so in a way that will not threaten the security or livelihood of Muslims in minority situations. The ummah should advise those minorities about how to advocate for their rights in a way that reflects the spirit and principles of their faith. This includes seeking methods that increase understanding and cooperation between Muslims and the majority cultures in which they exist. See also Christianity and Islam; Colonialism; International Meetings and Organizations; Judaism and Islam; Refugees; Ummah.

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