"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Fate of Dhimmis

Milka Levy-Rubin, whom I interviewed here about her recent book on the legal status of Jews and Christians under medieval Islam, has an article in a collection of essays just published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in their Jewish Culture and Contexts series. David M. Freidenreich and Miriam Goldstein, eds., Beyond Religious Borders: Interaction and Intellectual Exchange in the Medieval Islamic World (2012, 221+pp.). One other article in this collection will be of special interest to Eastern Christians, and biblical scholars: Sagit Butbul's "Translations in Contact: Early Judeo-Arabic and Syriac Biblical Translations").

About this book the publisher tells us:
The medieval Islamic world comprised a wide variety of religions. While individuals and communities in this world identified themselves with particular faiths, boundaries between these groups were vague and in some cases nonexistent. Rather than simply borrowing or lending customs, goods, and notions to one another, the peoples of the Mediterranean region interacted within a common culture. Beyond Religious Borders presents sophisticated and often revolutionary studies of the ways Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers drew ideas and inspiration from outside the bounds of their own religious communities.

Each essay in this collection covers a key aspect of interreligious relationships in Mediterranean lands during the first six centuries of Islam. These studies focus on the cultural context of exchange, the impact of exchange, and the factors motivating exchange between adherents of different religions. Essays address the influence of the shared Arabic language on the transfer of knowledge, reconsider the restrictions imposed by Muslim rulers on Christian and Jewish subjects, and demonstrate the need to consider both Jewish and Muslim works in the study of Andalusian philosophy. Case studies on the impact of exchange examine specific literary, religious, and philosophical concepts that crossed religious borders. In each case, elements native to one religious group and originally foreign to another became fully at home in both. The volume concludes by considering why certain ideas crossed religious lines while others did not, and how specific figures involved in such processes understood their own roles in the transfer of ideas.
Levy-Rubin's article is entitled "Shurūt 'Umar: From Early Harbingers to Systematic Enforcement." Shurūt 'Umar refers to the various sets of restrictions placed upon dhimmi peoples under early Islam--chiefly Eastern Christians and Jews, the so-called peoples of the book (or, sometimes, "protected" peoples). Levy-Rubin notes that it has been common among historians to speak of these restrictions as being haphazard, idiosyncratic, and varying greatly from region and place, with strict enforcement in only a few places, and lax enforcement in many. She, however, stakes out a different claim: "While during the first century of Islam one cannot speak of a consistent policy adopted by Muslim authorities toward the dhimmis and enforced upon them, this situation changed considerably starting in the second century and especially from the third century of Islam onward" (31). Unlike other scholars, she claims that an "established set of accepted regulations" existed. While noting that in some instances "information concerning the enforcement" of regulations is "partial and insufficient," nevertheless the content of those regulations is not. What were some of those restrictions she notes?
  • the destruction of all crosses, especially those on churches, and the refusal to allow them to be carried in religious processions, which were themselves severely curtailed
  • the prohibition on raised voices in prayer or loud celebrations
  • prohibition on the building of new churches, and sometimes the destruction of existing ones
  • special markings on the houses of dhimmis (which Jews especially objected to, fearing they were "idols")
  • the forced leveling of dhimmi graves so that they were equal to, or lower in height than, Muslim ones 
  • the slaughter of all pigs
  • an attempt to curtail the employment of non-Muslims, especially in imperial positions (this regulation is one of the ones that was not, in fact, widely or successfully enforced in many places for the simple reason that Jews and Christians were much better educated and much more reliable, and thus Muslim rulers could scarcely do without them). 
  • the refusal of the use of pack-saddles instead of side-saddles, and only on donkeys, never horses
  • the learning and use of Arabic by dhimmis was forbidden
  • sartorial restrictions:
    • obligation to cut the forelocks
    • obligation to wear a leather girdle (zunnar)
    • prohibition on wearing a turban
  •  and, of course, the obligatory jizya or hated poll tax heavily levied against all dhimmis.

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