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Rights of Non-Muslims in a Muslim Society

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Rights of


in a Muslim Society

Deciding as to what are the rights of non-Muslims living in a Muslim state has been a practical problem in Muslim societies throughout their history because there was never a Muslim state that comprised purely of Muslim believers. Even the first state established by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Madina included Muslims as well as Jews, Christians and Arab pagans. The Ottoman Caliphate that lasted for six centuries, till the first quarter of the twentieth century, included many non-Muslim communities in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Even today, there is no Muslim state that does not have indigenous non-Muslim citizens. However, the mere fact of the continuous presence, for many centuries, of non-Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries, reflects the practical possibility of coexistence and accommodation.
General Policy
The general policy in Islam is to guarantee full rights to non-Muslim populations and, therefore, people subscribing to other religions were granted full civic rights by the virtue of the Quran and through the application of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Non-Muslims living within Muslim communities were granted peaceful and prosperous life through guaranteeing security for both their lives and properties and were given the appellation of “ahl al-Dhimma” which denotes those people with whom Muslims have an agreement that the responsibility of their personal safety and security of their property is to be undertaken by the Muslim state.
A cursory glance at the verses of the holy Quran and Hadith literature reveals the fact that Islam stands for universal peace and prosperity. It aims at the betterment of humanity at large. It strives to create those conditions of social life without which no man can seek, in general, to be himself at his best. Liberty, according to Islam, therefore, means the absence of restraint upon the existence of those conditions which are the essential guarantees of individual happiness both in this world and the world to come.
Classification of Non-Muslims
A. Permanent Residents
Muslim jurists use the term ‘dhimmi’ or ‘Ahl al-Dhimma’ to refer to non-Muslim residents. In Arabic, the word ‘dhimma’ means a treaty of protection for non-Muslims living in Muslim territory. A similar term, ‘Ahl ul-Dhimma’, means ‘People of the Covenant’, because they are protected under the covenant extended to them by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Muslims. Non-Muslims are guaranteed protection in the Muslim society as long as they pay a head tax and abide by the specific legislations mentioned in Islamic Law. This covenant of protection is not limited to a specific duration; rather, stays in effect as long as those with whom the covenant is made abide by its conditions.
The good intent behind the term ‘dhimmi’ can be seen in the letter written by the Caliph Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (RA) to the non-Muslims of Najran:
“In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful. This is the written statement of God’s slave Abu Bakr, the successor of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the Prophet and Messenger of God. He affirms for you the rights of a protected neighbour, in yourselves, your lands, your religious community, your wealth, retainers and servants, those of you who are present or abroad, your bishops and monks and monasteries, and all that you own, be it great or small. You shall not be deprived of any of it, and shall have full control over it…”
B. Temporary Residents
This category includes two types:
i. The residents of non-Muslim countries who are at peace with Muslims through specific peace agreements, international treaties or other mechanisms, who temporarily come to Muslim countries for work, education, business, diplomatic missions and so forth. Muslim jurists refer to them in Arabic as mu’aahadoon, which means, “those with whom there is a pact”.
ii. The residents of non-Muslim countries with whom Muslims do not have a pact of peace, or who may be at war with Muslims, who temporarily come to Muslim countries for work, education, business, diplomatic missions and so forth. Muslim jurists refer to them in Arabic as musta’minoon, which means, “seekers of protection”.
All classes have general rights common to them, and exclusive rights specific to each group. We will limit our discussion mostly to the most general, common rights to avoid excessive details.
Rights of Non-Muslims
Most Muslim states of the present time have no working model on which to base the study of the rights of non-Muslims. However, we can form an idea of the rights and obligations of non-Muslim groups in an Islamic state of the modern age by going back to the Quran, Hadith and early history of Islam to discover what rights, in principle, are granted to those in an Islamic state who do not subscribe to the ideology of the state and what humanistic values an Islamic society are under absolute obligation to uphold.
The guidelines for treating non-Muslims are clearly mentioned in the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH); they constitute the bases of shariah rulings on the subject. Some of the references in these two divine sources are mentioned below:
a. General Status
The general rule is that when a non-Muslim enters into the contract of dhimmah with Muslims, he becomes their equal, enjoying the same rights and fulfilling the same obligations. Imam al-Kasani narrated a hadith of the Prophet (PBUH): “If they accept the contract of dhimmah, tell them that for dhimmi is what is for the Muslims and upon them is what is upon the Muslims.”
Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA) said, “They have accepted the contract of dhimmah, so their property shall be like our property and their blood shall be like our blood.”
b. Protection of the Self
This right is of two kinds:
1. Their protection from all external threats;
2. Their protection from all internal tyranny of persecution.
The first kind of protection is the same as in the case of Muslims. The head of a Muslim country and those in authority are bound to look after the interests of all citizens using all the force at their command.
The following ahadith of the Prophet (PBUH) warn the Muslims against any high-handedness towards the non-Muslim citizens.
“Whosoever persecuted a Dhimmi or surplus right or took work from him beyond his capacity, or took something from him with evil intentions. I shall be a complainant against him on the Day of Resurrection”. (Abu Daud and Baihaqi)
The Prophet (PBUH) also said, “One who hurts a Dhimmi, he hurts me; and one who hurts me, hurts Allah.” (Al-Sunan al-Kubra, Vol. 5, p.205)
Imam Ibn Taimiyyah says, “Treat non-Muslims in the same way as Muslims.” He further insisted that Muslim citizens are duty-bound to spare their hands and tongue from hurting the non-Muslim citizens.
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal wrote: “The ruler of the Muslim community is bound to protect non-Muslims and to save them from aggression. Should they fall into captivity, the imam must marshal all the resources to secure their release and punish the transgressors against their lives and properties, even if they were the sole (inhabitants) living in a remote village.”
c. Religious Freedom
The non-Muslim minorities of any Muslim country are entitled to enjoy the same right and privileges as Muslims in expressing their views and opinion in any public affair. The jurists unanimously uphold the view that religious freedom is guaranteed by the Quran, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” This means that no one is to be coerced to convert to Islam and that freedom of worship and places of worship of non-Muslims is to be protected.
In the matters of religion, non-Muslims will have full freedom to run their mission organizations and evangelist activities. They will be free to propagate their religious thoughts to their peoples, but not to the Muslims. Every non-Muslim has a right to change from one religion to another. If they have any problem, or they feel any difficulty, they will submit their objections or suggestions. The Muslim country will have to consider them justly and sympathetically.
Hazrat Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA) upheld this principle strictly and vigorously in the case of the Christians of Jerusalem in a famous agreement that says, “Their churches are not to be occupied, demolished or damaged, nor are their crosses and belongings to be touched.”
Most Muslim jurists, however, hold the view that non-Muslims should not hold their ceremonies or expose their crosses in Muslim quarters, nor should they erect a church in a town where there had not been one before, as such an action may provoke anger and sedition in society.
d. Right to Property and Earning (Work)
There is no disagreement among the jurists on the principle of protecting non-Muslims’ property. Abu Yusuf, in his book al-Kharaj, quoted the Prophet’s (PBUH) agreement with the Christians of Najran as follows:
“Najran and its neighbouring areas are in the security of Almighty Allah and His Messenger. The property, religions and churches of the inhabitants, as well as all their possessions, whether much or little, are under the protection of the Prophet.”
From this principle, the jurists infer that a person who steals from a non-Muslim has his hand cut off, and he who takes his property by violence is punished, and he who borrows money from a non-Muslim is obliged to repay him.
Non-Muslims can carry on all kinds of trade, industry and agriculture, and adopt any profession of their choice. There is no distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims in this regard. The jurists have ruled that non-Muslims should be treated in the same manner as Muslims in the matters of trade, commerce and other financial dealings, except for riba (interest), which is forbidden for them as well as for Muslims. They are also forbidden to sell wine and pork in Muslim areas, because it may lead to misbehaviour or disturbance among the Muslims.
e. Right to Hold Government Positions
Non-Muslims have the right to serve in any governmental position that does not have a direct bearing on the religious life of Muslims. The jurists excluded the offices of the caliph, the head of the army, a judge of a shariah court and the zakat collector, from being held by a non-Muslims.
The Prophet (PBUH) himself appointed a non-Muslim envoy to plead the case of Muslim immigrants before the king of Abyssinia. Al-Biladhuri reported that caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA) wrote to his governor in Syria asking him to “send us a Greek, who could put in order the accounts of revenues.”
Al-Mawardi maintained that a non-Muslim can hold the office of an executive minister who enforces the caliph’s orders.
f. Right to Social Security
The shariah is the pioneer in human history in making it obligatory on the state and rich people to look after the poor and weak members of society. That responsibility is not towards Muslims alone, but includes also the non-Muslims who permanently reside in a Muslim country. The Prophet (PBUH) said, “All of you are shepherds and all of you will be responsible for people placed under your authority.” Hazrat Abu ‘Ubayd (RA) reported that the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) gave charity to a Jewish family on a regular basis. He also sent property to the tribes of Makkah, when they suffered famine, to be distributed among the poor people.
During the caliphate of Abu Bakr (RA), the military commander Khalid ibn al-Walid (RA) included in his treaty with the people of al-Hirah that “if an old man is incapable of doing any work, or is struck by some calamity, or he was rich and has become a pauper, so that the people of his religion give him charity, such a person is to be exempted from the payment of jizyah and is to be maintained from the public treasury of the Muslims (Bayt al-mal).”
This article concludes that an Islamic teaching of tolerance, towards non-Muslim is an established fact. This aspect of tolerance of persons is unique to Islam and perhaps has not been obtained by any other religion of the world.
The writer is pursuing his MPhil in Islamic History.

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