Dhimmi are non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state who are allowed to remain in exchange for paying the jizyah, a tax imposed on non-Muslims. As the Prophet Muhammad conquered a new empire, large numbers of Christians, Jews, and others found themselves living under the Islamic Empire’s rule, subject to the jizyah and the limitations of dhimmi status.
Fast forward almost 1,400 years: Academics today who cover Islamic civilizations and history almost uniformly teach that early Islamic rule was enlightened. If they cover the jizyah and “dhimmitude” at all, they are soft-pedaled. Rather than conquer by the sword, most residents of those areas brought into the Islamic Empire joined voluntarily, it is said.
Certainly, a few authors have taken on the notion of dhimmitude and the whitewashed narrative peddled in Islamic studies courses and texts. Egyptian-born British writer Gisèle Littman, for example, writing under the pseudonym Bat Ye’or, penned Islam and Dhimmitude back in 2001, providing a precise and critically acclaimed study of the subjugation of Jews and Christians in Islamic lands. Likewise, Andrew Bostom’s The Legacy of Jihad provides crucial context and fills out the historical record by including non-Arabic sources which describe subjugation from the point of view of those suffering under Islamic domination. Nevertheless, Bat Ye’or and Bostom remain rare on university syllabuses in courses taught by professors who prefer not to challenge the dominant narrative. Others prefer to seize upon controversial or careless remarks by those focused on the treatment of religious minorities in Islamic history to disqualify the author’s entire body of work. Critics do this deliberately when they cannot counter effectively the historical facts cited or sources revealed.
Perhaps if there’s any silver lining to events in Mosul, where the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State, Abubakr al-Baghdadi, has demanded Christians pay the jizyah, convert, or die, it will be to force scholars to rethink the benevolent narrative which they often embrace of early Islamic conversions and successive caliphates and Islamic empires’ treatment of minorities. There is nothing benevolent, enlightened, or non-violent about denial of religious freedom or liberty, nor is forcing religious minorities into second-class status on the basis of their faith ever anything other than oppression, plain and simple.
It would be wrong to castigate the Islamic empire and reign of Muhammad, his successor rashidun caliphs, or the Umayyad and early Abbasid dynasties completely. But it is as wrong to whitewash them. Perhaps it is time for a little less hagiography toward Islamic history in American and European institutions, and a little more common sense.