Chapter 16: What is Islam by Dr. Muhammad Sharif Chaudhry



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What is Islam

By Dr. Muhammad Sharif Chaudhry


Rights of Minorities

The non-Muslims living in the Islamic state are called Zimmis and understanding or contract governing relationship between the Islamic state and such non-Muslims is called Aqd-ul-Zimmah. The Zimmis mean protected people and they are so called because the Islamic state becomes duty-bound to protect their lives, honour and properties and also their religious freedom the very moment they submit to Islamic rule. Following rights have been granted by Islam to the Zimmis (the non-Muslim citizens) living in the Islamic state:-

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Religious Freedom

Islam guarantees religious freedom to everyone. In an Islamic state, every citizen, may he or she be a Muslim or a non-Muslim, is at liberty to profess and practice his or her own religion. Thus the non-Muslim minorities enjoy complete religious freedom in an Islamic state as the state does not interfere in their religious matters and shows full tolerance to them. The Qur’an, the revealed book of Islam, says:

  • There is no compulsion in religion…….. (2:256)

  • Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; Nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion and unto me my religion (109:1-6)

The above mentioned verses show that there is no compulsion in the matters of religion in an Islamic state. Everybody is free to follow and practice his religion on the basis of the Qur’anic principle: “Unto you your religion and unto me my religion.” The Qur’an teaches tolerance and forbids its followers to ridicule the religion of non-Muslims and their deities. It says: “Don’t abuse those whom they invoke besides Allah, lest they should, in their ignorance, abuse Allah….” (6:108) The Prophet of Islam enforced these principles and gave religious freedom to all of his non-Muslim subjects. In Charter of Madinah, Prophet granted full religious freedom and protection to the Jews; while in his letter addressed to the Christians of Najran, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) gave protection to religion, life and property of the Christians. Extracts from these documents would be produced at proper place in this chapter.

Religious freedom not only means to profess one’s religion but it also includes liberty to perform religious rites and practices. It also includes right to maintain one’s places of worship. All these rights have been bestowed by Islam on the non-Muslims living within its lands.

The non-Muslims have been given full liberty to arrange for religious education of their children, to establish schools and to propagate their religion among themselves. They will be free to propagate the virtues of their religion, but would not be permitted to criticize or slander Islam. In purely Muslim habitations, places of worship of the non-Muslims built in the past are not demolished. If such places are damaged or destroyed, the non-Muslims are allowed to repair or rebuild them. But they are not permitted to build new places of worship in these areas. However, in the townships which are not purely Muslim habitations, there are no such restrictions. Similarly, in those cities and towns which have ceased to be purely Muslim areas, the Zimmis can build new places of worship and are entitled to publicly perform their religious rites.

Syed Ameer Ali, a great Muslims scholar, writes: The non-Muslim subjects were not precluded from building new churches or temples. Only in places exclusively inhabited by Muslims a rule of this kind existed in theory. “No new Church or temple,” said Abdullah bin Abbas, “can be erected in a town solely inhabited by Muslims; but in other places where there are already Zimmis inhabiting from before, we must abide by our contract with them.” In practice, however, the prohibition was totally disregarded. In the reign of Mamun, we hear of eleven thousand Christian churches, besides hundreds of synagogues and fire-temples within the empire. This enlightened monarch, who has been represented as “a bitter enemy” of the Christians, included in his Council the representatives of all the communities under his sway – Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sabaeans and Zoroastrians; whilst the rights and privileges of the Christian hierarchy were carefully regulated and guaranteed.”

The best testimony of the freedom of faith enjoyed by the Christians in the days of the earlier Muslims is furnished by the Christians themselves. In the reign of “Uthman (the third Caliph), the Christian patriarch of Merv addressed the Bishop of Fars, named Simeon, in the following terms: “The Arabs, who have been given by God the Kingdom (of the earth), do not attack the Christian faith: on the contrary, help us in our religion; they respect our God and our saints, and bestow gifts on our churches and monasteries”.      

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Protection of Life

Islam holds human life a trust of Allah and hence it attaches a great sanctity to its preservation. Al-Qur’an says”……. Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind…..” (5:32)

Islam grants, therefore, right to protection of life to all of its citizens without any discrimination.

The blood of a Zimmi is considered as much sacrosanct and sacred as that of a Muslim. In the days of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), a Muslim killed a Zimmi. When the case was brought before the Prophet (PBUH), he ordered the execution of the murderer and remarked: “I am responsible for obtaining redress for the weak”. During the reign of Caliph Ali, a Muslim was accused of murdering a Zimmi. When the charge was proved, Ali issued order for the execution of the accused. It was only when the brother of the deceased received blood money and pardoned the murderer that the caliph agreed to release him. Ali said at that time: “Whoever is our Zimmi, his blood is as sacred as our blood and his property is as inviolable as our own property”. At another occasion, Caliph Ali declared: “They have accepted the position of Zimmis on the explicit understanding that their properties and their lives will remain sacred like those of ours (i.e. of the Muslims)”. That is why the Muslim jurists hold that if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim, he will have to pay the same amount of compensation or blood money which is prescribed for the murder of a Muslim.

   Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is reported to have enjoined his followers on his death bed: “observe scrupulously the protection accorded by me to the Zimmis”.

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Protection of Property

Islam grants protection not only to the life of the Zimmis but it also grants protection to the property and assets of such people. Prophet of Islam is reported to have declared: “If you fight against a people and overpower them, and they agree to pay a fixed indemnity of annual revenue (Jizyah) to you in order to save their lives and those of their progenies, then do not take a penny more than the fixed amount, because that will not be valid”. He also declared. “Beware! Whosoever is cruel and hard on such people i.e., (“Contractees”) or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can endure, or realizes anything from them against their free-will, I shall myself be a complainant against him on the Day of Judgment”.

According to above mentioned Traditions of the Prophet, followers of Islam have been strictly prohibited to violate the protection granted to the property of non-Muslims. They cannot get more than the agreed sum or tax from the non-Muslims. Even the Islamic state cannot deprive a non-Muslim of his property and if it needs land or property of a non-Muslim in public interest it can acquire it only after providing the owner reasonable compensation.

A great Muslim writer Dr. Hamidullah says: “In the time of the caliph Umar, certain Muslims had usurped a piece of land belonging to a Jew, and had constructed a mosque on the site. Learning the news, the caliph ordered the demolition of the mosque and the restoration of the land to the Jew. Prof. Cardahi (a Christian of Lebanon, in his series of lectures on private International Law of Islam, delivered at the Hague, 1933) writes: “This house of the Jew Bait al-Yahudi, still exists and is well known”. Another classical example, cited by Ibn kathir and others, is that of the Grand Mosque of Damascus. An Ummayyid caliph had occupied a church to enlarge the Mosque. Later, when the complaint was brought before caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al- ‘Aziz, he ordered to demolish part of the mosque and restore the church. But the Christians themselves preferred a monetary compensation, and the matter was, thus, amicably settled”.

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Protection of Honour

The honour and respect of a Zimmi is also held as sacred as that of a Muslim. The author of Durr al-Mukhtar writes: “It is imperative for Muslims to refrain from causing inconvenience to a Zimmi and to backbite him, for backbiting a Zimmi is as much prohibited as is to backbite a Muslim.”

Regarding protection of honour of non-Muslim citizen in an Islamic state, Dr. Hamidullah writes: “The person, property and honour of every individual; whether indigenous or heterogeneous, are fully protected in the Islamic territory. The Sharh-al-Hidayah, which is a legal manual of current use, employs, for instance, the characteristic expression: “Defamation is prohibited, be it concerning a Muslim or a Protected (non-Muslim)”. Another jurist of great authority, the author of al-Bahr-ar-Ra’iq says: “Even the bones of the dead among the Protected (non-Muslims) have the right to be respected, even as the bones of Muslims; it is not allowed to profane them, because if the ill treatment of a Protected (non-Muslim) is forbidden in his lifetime on account of the protection which he enjoys, the protection of his bones against every profanation is equally obligatory after his death.” The jurists are unanimous in declaring that, if a Muslim violates a non-Muslim woman, he will receive the same punishment as is prescribed against the violation of Muslim woman.”

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Judicial Autonomy

Non-Muslim minorities in the Islamic State enjoy judicial autonomy in respect of disputes among themselves on the authority of al-Qur’an.

While permitting the Jews to settle their disputes in accordance with Torah (their revealed book), the Qur’an addresses the Prophet of Islam in these words: “How come they unto thee for judgment when they have the Torah, wherein Allah hath delivered judgement (for them)? … (5:43). In another verse, the revealed book of Islam grants the Christians freedom of resolving their disputes in accordance with their own law as contained in Gospel. It states: ‘Let the People of the Gospel judge by that which Allah hath revealed therein. Whoso judge not by that which Allah hath revealed; such are evil livers” (5:47).

Thus, Islamic law is not applicable in case of purely personal matters of the non-Muslims. Such matters of the non-Muslims would be decided according to their personal law. It means that if anything is unlawful under Shariah for the Muslims but the same is not forbidden to the non-Muslims by their religion, the non-Muslims will be allowed to use it and the courts will decide their cases according to their personal law. For instance, marriage without witnesses or between the prohibited degrees, if allowed by their religion, will be allowed to stand.

However, the non-Muslim can also opt for settlement of their mutual disputes under Islamic law. The Qur’an says: “if   then, they have recourse unto thee (Muhammad), judge between them or disclaim jurisdiction. If thou disclaimest jurisdiction, then they cannot harm thee at all. But if thou judgest, judge between them with equity, Lo! Allah loveth the equitable” (5:42).

Umar-bin-Abdul Aziz once asked for fatwa (verdict) in this respect from the famous saint Hassan al-Basri saying: “How it is that the Caliphs left the Zimmis free in the matters of marriages regardless of consanguinity and in the matters of drinking wine and eating pork?” Hassan replied: “The Zimmis accepted to pay Jizyah only because they wanted to be free to live in accordance with their own personal law. You have only to follow what your predecessors did. You are not to deviate or to innovate”.

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Social Autonomy

In addition to the judicial autonomy, the non-Muslims also enjoy social autonomy in an Islamic state. The state protects their language, culture, religious practices, their places of worship, their mode of dress, etc. and permits them to follow their customs and social traditions. However, they were not allowed to imitate military uniform and dress of the Muslims in the Ummayyid and Abbasid periods, as this imitation was discouraged not on any religious grounds but in order to protect their modes of dress, their social manners and their distinctive individualities. About social autonomy given by the Islamic state, Dr. Hamidullah writes, “In the time of the Prophet, the Jews of Madinah had their Bait al-Midras (both a synagogue and educational institute). In the treaty with the Christians of Najran (Yaman), the Prophet gave a guarantee not only for the security of the person and property of the inhabitants, but had also expressly left the nomination of bishops and priests to the Christian community itself”.

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Political Rights and Entitlement to Government Jobs

The non-Muslims living in an Islamic state generally enjoy all the socio-economic and political rights which are available to the Muslims. They enjoy right to vote and to elect their representatives and they can also contest elections for the offices of public representatives. They can form political parties and they can get the membership or offices in political parties. And so on. Similarly, they have right to participate in social activities, national festivals, social gatherings, etc. Their right of vote in the choice of the head of Islamic state has been recognized by Dr. Hamidullah, a great Muslim scholar.

The non-Muslims can adopt any business or profession or employment to earn their livelihood provided such business, profession or employment is not unlawful or immoral or against the explicit injunctions of Islam such as sale of wine or pork to Muslims, business involving usury with a Muslim or prostitution, etc. They are entitled to government jobs except for few posts like head of state, head of government, head of judiciary, head of the armed forces, head of parliament and some other key offices. The Prophet of Islam himself appointed Amr bin Umaiyah-ad-Damri a non-Muslim as an ambassador to Abyssinia for interceding with the Negus in favour of the Muslim refugees. Umar, the second caliph, appointed a Greek Christian as the head of his accounts department to put in order the accounts of state revenues.

The Christians, the Jews and other non-Muslims had been enjoying prosperous positions and fabulous incomes in business and trade in the Islamic State. Most of the bankers and money changers in Syria during the reign of the Abbasid Caliphs were Jews. Most of the personal physicians of the Caliphs were the Nestorian Christians. The Jews are also reported to have maintained a colony of considerable size in Baghdad in the Abbasid period. In Muslim Spain, the non-Muslims, particularly the Jews, held positions of eminence in the government jobs, in the business and trade, etc.

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Entitlement for Financial Assistance

Disabled or poor Zimmis who have been forced to begging or the Zimmis who have been overtaken by a calamity are eligible for support from the Bait-ul-Mal of the Islamic state as are the poor and disabled among the Muslims. This rule was established as early as the times of Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam. During his reign, when the famous Muslim general Khalid bin Walid conquered Hira, he specially wrote in the treaty of peace the following terms:-

“I have stipulated that if any one of them becomes unfit to work on account of old age or some other cause, or if anyone who was formerly rich becomes so poor that his coreligionists have to support him by giving him alms, such persons will be exempt from paying the Jizyah and they, together with their dependents, will be helped from the Islamic Treasury (Bait-ul-Mal)”.

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Kind Treatment

Islam enjoins the Muslims to treat the non-Muslims kindly and justly. The Qur’an says, “God forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: For God loveth those who are just” (60:8). The Qur’an also permits the Muslims to marry chaste women from the people of the scripture (Christians and Jews). It says: “….. The food of those who have received the scripture is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them. And so are the virtuous women of the believers and the virtuous women of those who received the scripture before you (lawful for you)……” (5:5). Thus, Islam promotes social bonds between Muslims and non Muslims by allowing them to eat each other’s food and to handle inter-marriages, which is the custom of close friends and relatives.

Regarding the kind treatment accorded to the non-Muslims by the followers of Islam, Syed Ameer Ali writes:

“It must be added, however, that the bigoted views of the later canonists were never carried into practice; and the toleration and generosity with which the non-Muslims were treated are evidenced by the fact that Zimmis could be nominated as executors to the wills  of Muslims; that they often filled the office of rectors of Muslim universities and educational institutions, and of curators of Muslim endowments so long as they did not perform any religious functions. And when a non-Muslim of worth and merit died, the Muslims attended his funeral in a body”.

No better evidence can be produced in proof of kind treatment accorded to the conquered non-Muslims by the Muslim armies than the evidence of the non-Muslims themselves. When the Muslim army reached the valley of Jordan and Abu Ubaydah pitched his camp at Fihl, the Christian inhabitants of the country wrote to the Arabs, saying: “O Muslims, we prefer you to the Byzantines, though they are of our own faith because you keep better faith with us and are more merciful to us and refrain from doing us injustice and your rule over us is better than theirs, for they have robbed us of our goods and our homes”.

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Forced Conversion of non-Muslims not Permitted

Religious freedom also means that the minority community or the conquered people are not forced to accept faith of the conqueror. Islam provides security against forced conversion to the non-Muslims living in the Islamic territory. According to al-Qur’an, there is no compulsion in religion, and Muhammad (PBUH) was sent by God as messenger and mercy to mankind and his mission was to convey the message of God and not to force the people to accept his faith. In other words, he was a messenger and a warner and not a warder over men. Therefore, no non-Muslim living in Islamic state can be forced to embrace Islam. We have already observed in chapter one that Islam spread through preaching and not through sword.

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Jizyah: Is it a discriminatory tax?

Mention may be made of Jizyah or Poll Tax which was levied by Prophet Muhammad on non-Muslims on the authority of verse 29 of chapter 9 of the Qur’an which reads: “Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low”. It was collected at nominal rate of one dinar per person. Women, old persons, children, sick and disabled, slaves, priests, monks, poor persons were declared exempt from this tax. Practically the tax was collected only from able bodied young men, but if they joined Muslim armies the tax was dropped even in their case. This tax has been unfortunately subjected to bitter criticism by the Western scholars who call it a discriminatory and humiliating tax levied for sparing of non-Muslim’s life. Nothing can be farther from truth than this allegation. Imposition of Jizyah is justified because Muslim citizens of Islamic state pay Zakat as well as serve in defence forces. So in all fairness the non-Muslim citizens are expected to pay at least a nominal contribution in the defence budget if they opt not to join defence forces. In the modern Muslim States, this tax has, however, been dropped as the socio-economic scenario has entirely changed and so has the system of taxation. Now the non-Muslim citizens pay modern taxes like Incometax and Wealth tax just as the Muslim citizens pay these taxes.

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Historical Documents

The following documents and treaties executed by the Prophet (PBUH) himself and his successors (the right-guided caliphs) with the non-Muslims establish, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the most respectable status was granted to them by Islam:

(i)    Soon after his migration from Makkah to Madinah in the year 1 A.H. (622 A.D.), the Prophet of Islam issued a document which is known in history as the Charter of Madinah. The portion of this charter concerning the Jews of Madinah reads as under:

“Whoever among the Jews follows us shall have help and equality; they shall not be injured nor shall any enemy be aided against them. The Jews maintained their religion and the Muslims theirs’. Among the Jews (belonging to different tribes), so with their adherents: those who transgress and behave unjustly and sinfully hurt but themselves and their families. Loyalty is a protection against treachery. The close friends of Jews are as themselves. Each, if attacked, shall come to the help of the other. The valley of Yathrib (Madinah) shall be sacred and inviolable for all who join this Treaty. Strangers under protection shall be treated on the same grounds as heir protectors.”

(ii)   Relevant portion of Prophet’s letter to the Christians of Njran which spells their rights in detail is as under:

“To (the Christians of) Najran and the neighbouring territories, the Security of Allah and the Pledge of His Prophet are extended for their lives, their religion and their property …. To those present as well as the absent ones and others besides: there shall be no interference with (the practice of) their faith or their observances, nor any change in their rights or privileges; no bishop shall be removed from his bishopric, nor any monk from his priesthood, and they shall continue to enjoy everything great and small as heretofore; no image or cross shall be destroyed; they shall not be oppressed or suppressed; they shall not practise the rights of blood – vengeance as in the Days of ignorance; no tithes shall be levied on them nor shall they be required to furnish provisions for the troops, nor shall troops be quartered on them.”

(iii)  Following is the text of the treaty whereby Jerusalem surrendered to the Muslims during the caliphate of Omar (638 A.D.):

“This is the charter which the servant of God, the Commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Aelia. He gives them the assurance of the preservation of their lives and properties, their churches and crosses, of those who set up, who display and who honour those crosses. Your churches will not be transformed into dwellings nor destroyed nor will any one confiscate anything belonging to them, nor the crosses or belongings of the inhabitants. There will be no constraint in the matter of religion, nor the least annoyance. The Jews will inhabit Aelia conjointly with the Christians, and those who live there will be required to pay the poll-tax, like the inhabitants of other towns. Greeks and robbers are to leave the town, but will have a safe conduct until they reach a place of security. Still, those who prefer to remain may do on condition of paying the same poll-tax as the rest. If any of the people of Aelia desires to leave with the Greeks, talking their goods, but abandoning their chapels and crosses, they will be granted personal safety, until they arrive at a secure place. The strangers in the town may remain on the same condition of paying the tax, or, if they wish, they may also leave with Greeks, and return to their land. …. All that this treaty contains is placed under the alliance and protection of God and of His Apostle.” (Sir William Muir. The Caliphate, Its Rise, Decline and Fall.)

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