By Mark R. Cohen
The proposed Ground Zero mosque in New York (like a similar mosque opened recently in Roxbury, Mass.) has triggered a fierce controversy, with advocates and opponents engaged in a vigorous war of words. Some of that debate has taken place recently in the pages of the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section.
In a thoughtful On Faith post, John Kiser weighed in in favor of the construction of the mosque and emphasized the need for better understanding of Islam. Several of the many negative reader-responses to his article mentioned the concept of “dhimmitude” as ostensible proof of Islam’s inherent intolerance. Reflected in these responses is a common misconception about Islam’s treatment of its religious minorities.
The term “dhimmitude” was coined in 1982 by the Maronite-Christian President of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel, referring to the state of subordination to Muslims that Christian Lebanese would not tolerate. It was made famous in western discourse by Bat Ye’or, the pseudonym of an Egyptian Jewish émigré of the 1950s who writes about the status of Jews and Christians from the rise of Islam in the seventh century to modern times. She portrays a demeaning Islamic policy towards these non-Muslims, a policy aimed at humiliating and even persecuting them, and, by extension, a foundation of modern Muslim anti-Semitism.
As an historian of Jewish-Muslim relations, I feel that a clarification is necessary. The dhimma status conferred upon non-Muslims has its skeletal origins in the Qur’an and its characteristic elaboration in the so-called Pact of ‘Umar, ascribed to the second Caliph after Muhammad’s death, who ruled 634-644. The term “dhimma” actually means “protection,” specifically the protection granted to non-Muslim People of the Book, mainly Jews and Christians. This included protection of property, freedom of religion, and the right of communal autonomy. This “policy” of Islam, in its classical, authentic form, reflects a certain kind of tolerance–but not the kind of tolerance we think of today. Protection didn’t come without a price: payment of an annual head tax (usually limited to adult males) and maintenance of a “low profile,” acknowledging the superiority of Islam.
In the Middle Ages, tolerance as we know it was not a virtue, not for Judaism, not for Christianity and not for Islam. Each saw itself as the recipient of a new, divine election, replacing its predecessors and charged with the responsibility of asserting its superiority, of keeping others in a lowly position, of proselytizing, even to the point of forcing others to convert. This hierarchical relationship determined interreligious relations throughout the Middle Ages. In the Islamic world, other monotheists occupied a low rank in this hierarchy, but it was a rank nonetheless. The dhimmis were never excluded from the social order of the Islamic polity, nor were they expelled from majority society, as they were in medieval Christendom. They were second-class subjects, to be sure, but they benefitted from the protection conferred by their dhimma status. Moreover, the strictures of the Pact of ‘Umar were frequently ignored, by dhimmis and rulers alike.
During roughly the first half of Islamic history, from the seventh through the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, Muslims and dhimmis lived, not in an interfaith utopia, but in a live-and-let-live situation, each recognizing its assigned place in the hierarchical order of things. Within this hierarchy many different religions and ethnic groups lived side-by-side, occupying the same physical space, creating a pluralistic mosaic of cultures and religions. But tolerance, if by “tolerance” we mean the equality of all peoples, did not exist. Nor should we expect it to have existed. What is important is that, despite, or perhaps by virtue of the dhimma system, non-Muslims and Muslims interacted rather comfortably in day-to-day affairs, shared fully in economic life, and practiced medicine in the same hospitals. Episodes of persecution–and they periodically occurred–were almost always triggered when dhimmis were perceived to be violating the low rank to which they were assigned by Islamic law. Yet some dhimmis occupied important positions in Islamic government, with the tacit consent of Muslim rulers and in violation of the code of the dhimma. Finally, non-Muslim intellectuals studied, often in interdenominational settings, the same scientific, philosophical, and medical texts as did Muslims–Arabic translations of works originally written in Greek. They argued about religion and philosophy in sessions that were governed by rules of gentlemanly conduct. These were intellectual exchanges, not polemical “trials” in which the minority was guaranteed to lose out to the majority. The deep immersion of non-Muslims in Arabic-Islamic culture is the basis of the “Golden Age” conception of harmony. There was harmony, though it had its limits.
Applying contemporary standards of tolerance to medieval Muslim history and policy does a disservice to the prospects of reconciliation in our times. The assumption by some that an inherent medieval Islamic intolerance prevailed and that it underlies present-day Muslim terrorism is a distortion of reality. On the other side, the self-ascribed mission of the small minority of “card-carrying” Islamist fundamentalists to revive the pristine Islam of the Qur’an is itself a distortion that conveniently overlooks the pluralism of medieval Islam and the promise of freedom of religion embedded in the Qur’an and in other foundational Islamic texts. Until non-Muslims begin to understand Islam in all its facets, we will be destined to live in ignorance of the “real” Islam and to act out of fear. The presence of Muslims in our midst, and of mosques like the one planned near Ground Zero, which will be an educational center as well as a place of prayer, is one good way of transcending this ignorance.
Mark R. Cohen is The Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and a Rabbinical graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary). He is the author, among many books, of Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages, and is the first recipient of the Goldziher Prize for scholarship promoting better understanding between Jews and Muslims, awarded by Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College.