The plight of non-Muslims (chiefly Eastern Christians and Jews) under Islam continues today often to be both ignored and manipulated for political reasons. It is therefore a happy and welcome development to have serious scholarly attention paid to this question of religious minorities under Islamic domination in a new book: Milka Levy-Rubin, Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire: From Surrender to Coexistence (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization, 2011), 288pp.
I asked the author for an interview, and here are her thoughts.
AD: Tell us a bit about your own background
I studied history and received all my degrees from the Hebrew University. During my MA studies I specialized in the history department in medieval studies. My MA thesis was on the medieval maps of Jerusalem (published in Hebrew in Sefer Yerusalayim, eds. J. Prawer and H. Ben-Shammai, Jerusalem 1991; short version in English in N. Rosovsky, ed., City of the Great King). I also worked on travelers to the Holy Land in the Byzantine and medieval periods. My attraction to the history of the Near East stood at the basis of my decision to write my PhD on The Patriarchate of Jerusalem after the Arab Conquest (in Hebrew). This was possible because besides the knowledge of Greek and Latin which I acquired during my studies at the Hebrew University, I had already had good command of the Arabic language and some acquaintance with the history of Islam, which I studied in high school. I have since then been writing mostly on issues related to the transition from Byzantine to Arab rule including issues of language, culture, conversion to Islam, changes in settlement pattern in Palestine, and relations between Christians and Muslims.
AD: What led you to focus on the Islamic rules governing the treatment of non-Muslim minorities?
My special interest in the legal status of the non-Muslims originated in the first chapter of my PhD, which dealt with the treatment of the non-Muslims (dhimmis) by the central as well as the local authorities. In this chapter I reported about new findings regarding the legal status of the dhimmis in Palestine upon which I came in an unpublished manuscript of a Samaritan chronicle from the Early Muslim period. After receiving my PhD I published an annotated translation with an introduction of this text (M. Levy-Rubin, Continuatio of the Samaritan Chronicle of Abu L'Fath Al Samiri Al Danafi (Darwin Press 2002).
AD: The so-called Pact of 'Umar is important in your narrative. Briefly tell us what that was and its significance.
The Pact of 'Umar is the canonic text defining the status of non-Muslims under Muslim rule throughout the Middle Ages and afterwards. This is why understanding the circumstances and process of its formation as well as its sources is essential for the understanding of the question of the status of the non-Muslims under Muslim rule.
AD: You begin by noting that a "key working assumption" is that Muslims did not derive ex nihilo the rules for Jews, Christians, and other minorities. Where, then, did those rules originate? What are some of the main pre-Islamic sources for them?
It is agreed by scholars that the text of Shurut 'Umar as we know it developed quite some time after the Muslim conquest, probably c. 800 CE. In the first chapter of my book I strive to demonstrate that the initial conquest agreements signed between the Muslim conquerors and the conquered population, which are preserved in the Muslim sources, reflect in general authentic agreements. These were based, in my opinion, on an ancient and longstanding tradition which existed throughout the Ancient Near East from antiquity. Following this tradition, it was, in my view, the conquered population which asked to have these agreements signed. This was done in order to secure in writing the rights promised them by the conquerors before they actually surrender. These agreements bear no hint of the rules which will appear later in Shurut 'Umar. About a century later, after Muslims and non-Muslims began to have more intensive daily contact as well as friction, the Muslim rulers felt a need to set down a new set of rules, which suited the changing circumstances.
Regarding the pre-Islamic sources: Shurut 'Umar are very specific regarding the status of prayer-houses of non-Muslims, as well as issues of dress, appearance, and public behaviour. It is quite obvious that the rule allowing the continuing existence and repair of prayer houses, yet prohibiting the building of new ones and the enlargement of existing ones, relies on an identical law regarding Jewish prayer houses under Byzantine rule; likewise the rules regarding the prohibition on owning Muslim slaves, and the rules regarding the preference given to Muslims in inheritance.
AD: How widely and consistently were the rules enforced, and by whom?
Chapter 4 discusses this question. To judge by some of the evidence found in the Samaritan chronicle as well as in several other sources, by the ninth century Shurut 'Umar was conceived as the rule to be enforced on non-Muslims, and was indeed enforced quite effectively not only in Baghdad but in the rural areas of Palestine. There are also mentions of such enforcement in the tenth century. However, this does not mean that this was consistent, and there is no doubt that there were times and places in which these rules were conveniently ignored, and then again times in which the rulers insisted on strict enforcement of the Shurut. The latter became more common during the Mameluk period when the Shurut were strictly and consistently enforced.
AD: What are some of the most outstanding features of the Islamic treatment of minorities? Were there any surprises as you were undertaking your research?
The outstanding features include the authenticity of the surrender agreements which are characterized most of the time by freedom of religion and preservation of both private and communal property in return for the acceptance of Muslim rule and payment of the jizya; another surprising discovery was the finding that Iranian social concepts were adopted by the Muslims and were applied now on a religious basis, meaning that the upper strata of Iranian, as well as Christian and Jewish society which was until then privileged, was to lose its higher social standing and status symbols if it did not convert to Islam. I was also surprised by the evidence of the wide enforcement of the Shurut already during the second half of the ninth century.
AD: As you are no doubt aware, much of the recent discourse surrounding the treatment of Jews and Eastern Christians in the early Islamic empire has been heavily politicized, indeed polarized: often this treatment is either glorified as evidence of pre-modern "tolerance" or condemned as "dhimmitude." What, in your estimation, is the best way to characterize the treatment of minorities in the early Islamic imperial period covered by your book--or is such treatment too broad and too varied, across time and the region, to permit generalizations?
No doubt the last statement is true, and such generalizations are bound, at the least, to be inaccurate. However, I must add a word of warning. I believe that trying to apply the values of modern Western society is bound to fail. Societies in antiquity in the East, and in fact Western society up until the 18th century, were hierarchichal. Formal social hierarchy represented the right social order. Equality and tolerance are modern values. The Muslims, as ruling conquerors, naturally saw themselves as the ruling class who set the rules for the conquered lower classes. The latter were therefore naturally humiliated, yet they had certain rights and were officialy protected by the Muslim ruler. The rest depended on the specific circumstances. In comparison to the West, the non-Muslims were much better off, as Mark Cohen has shown in his well-known book Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages.
AD: If we were to move from the early imperial period to the later Ottoman period and its so-called millet system, would we see any continuities in the treatment of Jews and Christians under the Ottomans?
Shrut 'Umar continue to be the binding rules regarding the non-Muslims.
The Muslim conquest of the East in the seventh century entailed the subjugation of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and others. Although much has been written about the status of non-Muslims in the Islamic empire, no previous works have examined how the rules applying to minorities were formulated. Milka Levy-Rubin's remarkable book traces the emergence of these regulations from the first surrender agreements in the immediate aftermath of conquest to the formation of the canonic document called the Pact of 'Umar, which was formalized under the early 'Abbasids, in the first half of the ninth century. What the study reveals is that the conquered peoples themselves played a major role in the creation of these policies, and that these were based on long-standing traditions, customs, and institutions from earlier pre-Islamic cultures that originated in the worlds of both the conquerors and the conquered. In its connections to Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian traditions, the book will appeal to historians of Europe as well as Arabia and Persia.