In the past year, the Middle East has undergone massive changes that include the removal of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and protests that have rocked Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The world watched as the power of decades-long dictators was challenged. While the future is still unknown for these countries, it is clear that the fear of Islam, Islamic law, and an Islamically run government is widespread. As these leaders fell, fear of emerging Islamist governments and a new caliphate, an Islamic government led by a caliph, was repeatedly brought into the discussions. Terms like caliphate, sharia, jizya, and dhimmi continue to be utilized in many contexts to reflect this uneasiness with Islamic rule.
This fear of Islamic law and the Muslim presence extends beyond the Middle East where the Muslim Brotherhood continues to be a concern in Egypt, for example. In several European countries, laws have been passed to prohibit face veils and minarets–both visual expressions of Islam. And in the United States, many states are proposing bans on sharia. Moreover, in the blogosphere, many Islamophobic sites have propagated the idea that Muslims are trying to resurrect the caliphate, through numbers and ideology and that when Muslims are in power non-Muslims are in danger. This stems from a misunderstanding of the history of Islam and the caliphate itself.
Many times it is said that Islam was spread by the sword; that as the Islamic Empire spread, non-Muslims were given the choice to convert or die. This idea is fundamentally challenged by one verse in the Qur’an:
Let there be no compulsion in religion.
Anti-Muslim sentiment is also fueled by those who argue that under the caliphate, non-Muslims, called dhimmis, were humiliated by being forced to pay a tax called jizya. It is important to understand the meanings of these terms. Dhimmi derives from the Arabic dhimmah, which means “pledge or covenant.” In other words, Ahl ad-dhimmah, the people of Dhimmah were non-Muslim citizens of the caliphate who had the pledge of the Islamic government to protection from external threats as well as internal tyranny. Dhimmis had the right to practice their religion peacefully and to be protected by the state. They were required to pay a tax called jizya which comes from the Arabic jaza “to compensate,” while Muslims had to pay their own tax: zakat. This was a tax paid to the state for protection and exemption from military service. Only able-bodied men were required to pay the jizya and it was forbidden to overburden anyone with too much tax, according to a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad:
He who harms a person under covenant, or charged him more than he can, I will argue against him on the Day of Judgement.
Furthermore, if the Islamic state was unable to protect the dhimmis, the jizya was returned to them, as was done during the time of Umar, the second caliph.
In regards to punishments, some have maintained that under the caliphate, distinctions were made between Muslims and dhimmis. What we know is that punishments were applied equally and that the only difference was in things that were permitted for non-Muslims and forbidden for Muslims. For example, non-Muslims would not be punished for drinking. Thus, this idea that sharia was applied indiscriminately without regard for the person’s faith is not accurate.
In the current context, the emergence of another caliphate is unlikely. Muslims are much more widespread and invested in the countries in which they live. Even in majority Muslim countries, many times there is a distrust of Islamist groups and their ability to create an Islamic government that embodies the tolerance and flexibility of the early Islamic empire. So, the fear of a caliphate and dhimmi status is both unfounded and unrealistic.
What is your reaction to the terms caliphate, sharia, jizya, and dhimmi? Is the history of the Islamic Empire relevant today? Why do you think there is a fear of an Islamic government? Is there the same fear of any other kind religious government? Please share your comments below.