In discussions about the status of non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries one issue that has been hotly debated is that of the jizyah tax. Much has been written, by both Muslim as well as non-Muslim scholars, on jizyah. Most non-Muslim scholars see jizyah as a symbol of what they regard as the degradation and subordination of non-Muslims under Islamic or Muslim rule. On the other hand, Muslim scholars argue that jizyah is a blessing for non-Muslim minorities, on the payment of which they are excused from military service and are also provided protection (zimma) by the Islamic state. They also claim that, in the past, in many cases the amount levied as jizyah was considerably less than the zakat tax that was obligatory on all eligible Muslim subjects.
In my view, those who invoke jizyah to argue that Islam seeks the subjugation of non-Muslim minorities are incorrect. In fact, several non-Muslim scholars have admitted that in the medieval age in many places, jizyah was not regarded as a symbol or badge of non-Muslim degradation. They also admit that, especially when compared to the Christian kings of Europe, medieval Muslim rulers generally adopted a far more enlightened and tolerant policy towards minority groups living in their domains.
Be that is it may, one question that is yet to be satisfactorily discussed is: In a modern Islamic or Muslim-majority state, are non-Muslims still to be treated as zimmis or ‘protected subjects’ who are obliged to pay jizyah to the state in return for protection? The fact of the matter is, as the noted Indian Islamic scholar Dr. Nejatullah Siddiqui convincingly argues in his recent book Maqasid-e Shariah (‘The Aims of the Shariah’), that, ‘[Muslim scholars] have focused on trying to argue that zimmis are given many rights in an Islamic state, but, despite these claims, the reality cannot be concealed that the status of a zimmi would be different from that of a citizen. Obviously, this different status cannot be higher than that of a citizen.’
In today’s world, which has witnessed massive social and political transformations, many fiqh prescriptions, including those related to jizyah, desperately need to be re-visited and reformulated in a contextually-appropriate manner. This has been attempted to some extent alreaddy, because of which, for instance, no present-day Islamic or Muslim government imposes jizyah on its non-Muslim citizens. Nor, it must be added, does it appear possible today to revive jizyah. That is why there is now no need to retain jizyah even at the conceptual level. In today’s context, the notions of dar ul-islam (‘abode of Islam’) and dar ul-harb (‘abode of war’) have become totally meaningless, because all the communities of the world have been linked at the global level through international treaties. Accordingly, practices such as slavery (that was sanctioned in medieval fiqh) or waging war against a community on the basis of religion no longer remain.
With regard to jizyah it must be kept in mind that it was not an institution invented by Islam. Levies similar to jizyah were a phenomenon in several societies and cultures even before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad. Naushirwan, a Sassanian ruler of pre-Islamic Iran, enforced jizyah on his non-Zoroastrian subjects. The noted Indian Islamic scholar Shibli Numani argues that the word jizyah is itself of Persian, and not Arabic origin. The original Persian term was gazit, which was later rendered into Arabic as jizyah. When the practice was incorporated into Islam, it was refined in order to protect some of the basic rights of the zimmis or those who paid jizyah. Thus, for instance, the treaty that involved the payment of jizyah by non-Muslim subjects in return for protection by the Islamic state was made permanent and no individual or group could, on his or its own, dissolve or modify it. Rather, it was considered to be the responsibility of God and the Prophet.
At the same time, the payment of jizyah was not a necessary condition for protection by the state. In other words, it was not that no matter what the circumstances, the zimmis simply had to pay jizyah. Rather, under some circumstances they could be excused from paying the tax, as was done under the orders of none other than some companions of the Prophet and some among the generation that followed them. Thus, in the mid-seventh century, Suraqa Ibn Umar excused the non-Muslim inhabitants of Armenia from paying jizyah, and the same policy was adopted by Habib IBn Muslim in Anatakya, a town in modern-day Turkey. Likewise, the representative of Abu ‘Ubaidah, a noted companion of the Prophet, entered into a pact with the Christians of the Jarajmah tribe, according to which the latter agreed assist the Muslims and, in turn, were exempted from jizyah. On the request of the Christian Banu Taghlib tribe, who considered the jizyah a sign of disgrace, the second Caliph of the Sunnis, Umar, levied zakat on them instead.
Likewise, there have been cases in the past where, when the Muslim state was unable to provide protection to its non-Muslim subjects, it did not levied jizyah on them or returned to them the money that it had acquired from them as jizyah. Thus, for instance, Abu Ubaidah Ibn al-Jarrah, a well-known companion of the Prophet, returned to the Christians of Syria the money that had been collected from them as jizyah because the Muslim army was unable to protect them from the Romans.
It is important to note that according to most ulema, jizyah is levied on non-Muslims in return for the protection they enjoy from the Islamic state and in lieu of the exemption they enjoy from compulsory military service. Accordingly, there have been instances in the past when non-Muslims performed military service and were hence exempted from jizyah. In today’s age of nation-states, all countries of the world have accepted the nation-state system, and the vast majority of the ulema have consented to it. Indeed, there exists a ‘silent consensus’ (ijma’-e sukuti) among them on this system. In such a context, every non-Muslim citizen of a Muslim-majority state has the right to perform military service in the same way as a Muslim fellow citizen. These non-Muslim minorities have played a crucial role in the struggle for freedom of their countries and for protecting them against external enemies. This is why, even from the point of view of traditional fiqh, it is not proper to levy jizyah on them. Further, in today’s age it is inconceivable that minorities would accept to be treated as ‘protected subjects’ rather than as equal citizens. This holds as true for non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries as it does for Muslims in non-Muslim-majority countries. Naturally, then, in today’s world jizyah cannot be imposed on non-Muslim minorities. Accordingly, a noted Arab Islamic scholar, Zafir al-Qasmi, writes in his book Al-Jihadu wa al-Huququ ad-Dauwaliyah al-Ammah fi al-Islam (‘The Concept of Jihad and General International Rights’):
‘If the zimmis agree to participate in the jihad of protection of their common homeland, jizyah will not be levied on them. This principle applies fully and unambiguously on non-Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries today.’
In a similar vein, the noted Egyptian Islamic scholar Allama Yusuf al-Qaradawi has issued a fatwa in which he declares that non-Muslim citizens of modern Muslim-majority countries must have the same status as that of their Muslim fellow citizens. They must not be delegated to second-class citizen status, he argues. They must enjoy the same rights and concessions as Muslim citizens of the same state enjoy. Elsewhere, Allama Qaradawi writes, ‘All the fuqaha include the zimmis among the people of the abode of Islam (ahl-e dar ul-Islam). This, in today’s language, means that they are citizens.’ Further, he elaborates, ‘We need to rethink various issues related to [the status and rights] of non-Muslims, and, bearing in mind the changed conditions, should adopt a wise path [in this regard].’
From this discussion, it is obvious that the traditional notion of zimmi needs to be reviewed in the light of the vast differences between the present-day global context and that of the past. This is also necessitated by the fact that the entire world is now tied together in a practical covenant and also because in most contemporary non-Muslim-majority countries Muslim citizens enjoy the same rights as their non-Muslim compatriots. In today’s context, the traditional understanding of zimmi cannot be said to be in consonance with Islamic social ethics. It must be acknowledged that in traditional fiqh zimmis were granted second-grade status, something which is not acceptable today.
In discussing and seeking to understand the status and rights of non-Muslim citizens of Islamic or Muslim-majority states, it is crucial to bear in mind that Islam exhorts us to behave with goodness and kindness towards others and to wish for others what we wish for ourselves. Today, four-tenths of the world’s Muslim population live in countries where they are minorities. Most of them enjoy equal citizenship rights and status. In fact, in many such countries Muslims enjoy greater peace and freedom and are more prosperous than their co-religionists in most Muslim-majority countries. Given this, is it all justifiable that non-Muslim citizens of Muslim-majority countries be deprived of the same rights that Muslim citizens of non-Muslim-majority countries enjoy? Obviously, the answer is in the negative.
Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.