Bat Ye’or


Over the last forty years the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have undergone radical transformations which, among other things, have brought about the near-extinction of Jewish communities after two to three thousand years of existence. Today the descendants of the Jews of the Islamic world, scattered in the Diaspora or settled in Israel, do not know what to make of their past. Yet any quest for identity implies a return to one’s roots. I have therefore searched among the remnants of more than a thousand years of history without having any idea of the direction in which my inquiries would lead. The material gradually fell into place, clarifying the mysteries and contradictions of history. A portrait emerged out of the mists of time, imprisoned in the silence of its centuries-old shrine.

    That silence, however, appeared increasingly artificial as my researches progressed, for only forgetfulness had disconnected the circuit. A multitude of voices spoke out from the documents accumulated over the ages, and the picture that emerged, overflowing into present reality, revealed the various aspects of human hope and suffering.

    This preamble indicates the framework and prescribes the limits of my research.

    This study does not seek to investigate the legal status of the dhimmi peoples – that is, the non-Arab and non-Muslim nations and communities that were subjected to Muslim domination after the conquest of their territories by the Arabs. That has already been done by Antoine Fattal (Le Statut legal des non-musulmans en pays d’Islam), who has analysed its theoretical and legal aspects, as well as its practical applications. Nor is this book concerned with a straight chronological description of the course of events that made up the history of each of the dhimmi peoples, for that falls within the province of the specialized historian.

    Its aim is much more modest. It has grown out of an independent reflection on the relationship between conqueror and conquered, established as a result of a special code of warfare, the jihad, for in the “drama” acted out by humanity on the stage of history, it is clear that the dhimmi peoples bore the role of victim, vanquished by force; and indeed, it is after a war, a jihad, and after a defeat, that a nation becomes a dhimmi people. “Tolerated” in its homeland, from which it has been dispossessed, this people lives thereafter as if it were merely suspended in time, throughout history. For the pragmatic political factor that decides the fate of a dhimmi people is essentially a territorial dispossession.

    Obviously, one cannot ignore the religious elements of this specific condition, but I have refrained from examining it from a religious viewpoint, being unsure to what extent the persecution of the dhimmi in the Middle Ages was in contradiction with the principles of Islam itself. Could not the oppression of the dhimmi be the Islamic reflection of the fanaticism of Byzantine pre-Islamic institutions? Did not Muslim domination, on the contrary, mitigate an intolerance whose sanguinary excesses endangered the very survival of all “dissidents”?

    Moreover, it is well known that political power inevitably betrays the spiritual terms tenets of a religion: history abounds in examples. The Bible reveals a respect for humanity by confronting it plainly and uncompromisingly with its own tragedy – that of a conscience torn by the contradiction between its weaknesses and its ethical ideals. Did not the Almohad and Catholic Inquisitions of Spain betray the spiritual values of both the Koran and the Gospels? And, with regard to modern “religions,” what connections are there between socialist ideals and the Soviet gulags?

    For such reasons, I have refrained from suggesting that Islamic religious doctrine was responsible for the status of the dhimmi as it developed through the centuries. The complexity of the problems concerning the relationship of power and religion caused me to locate the dhimmi condition – as revealed by the facts – within the victor-vanquished relationship, especially since this condition was first and foremost the result of a conquest. An examination of this relationship as it was experienced by its victims led me to present the account from the viewpoint of those who endured it and lived it daily, generation after generation, century after century.

    The other version of the facts, that of the conqueror, is of course quite different, and there is no lack of books by Muslim and non-Muslim writers to expound it. This is why, in these pages, the dhimmi will speak for himself and will tell his own story, even if it is through the mediation of others, for the silence that follows in his wake confirms his bondage.
 The first part of this study outlines the historical currents that gave rise to the general elements of the dhimmi condition in its diversity. It is for the specialists to distinguish the variations in this condition according to periods and regions. Here, only the different facets have been indicated: political, social, religious. As the work advanced, the typological character of the dhimmi condition, both in its legal structure and its human context, seemed to exceed the bounds of history, overflowing into the philosophical area that treats of man’s oppression.

    I have endeavored to distinguish between the people, instruments of an oppressive power, and that power itself as the practical realization of a system of values. This is a very ambiguous point in Islam, for politics and religion are intimately interconnected within the dogma itself. Notwithstanding this, a deliberate attempt has been made here to disassociate the religious sphere – a system of moral values and the relationship of man to God – from the political, that is, the relationship of man to his neighbor, even if political institutions seek to justify themselves by religious dogmas.

    It is possible that a confusion between the two spheres has nonetheless remained. The reader is asked to impute this failure to the complexity of the subject, which does not always allow a clear distinction between the religious and the political, rather than to a deliberate partiality.

    The Western reader may be bewildered by a subject concerned exclusively with religious groups, but in their historical and geographical birthplace in the Orient religions assumed very complex and varied territorial and national forms deriving from historico-cultural institutions and traditions. The expansion of Islam having transferred the exercise of power exclusively to the Islamic community, the collective historical consciousness of the conquered peoples was reduced to a religious dimension, which was the only one tolerated in their Islamized territory. Resistance to the Arabian conquerors took various forms: religious for the Jews and Christians, cultural for the pagans – Persians, Berbers, Kurds, and so forth – who adopted Islam but endeavoured to resist Arabization.

    No society, however liberal, can escape the burden of history. The group’s social heredity is transmitted from age to age, from generation to generation, by laws, traditions, customs, and social behavior-patterns fixed in ancient institutions. Unchanging stereotypes, the product of archaic ways of thinking, persist throughout the centuries and survive in modern prejudices and ideologies. The persistence of these social behavior-patterns and collective myths that are here described, both in contemporary Arab political ideologies and among the descendants of the dhimmi groups themselves, forms the subject of the conclusion of this session.

    The second part of the book consists of documents selected in accordance with their relevance to the plan of this work. Legal texts reveal the socio-political world of the dhimmis, whereas the documentary material of various origins illustrates, by events, attitudes, or observations, the diverse aspects of their condition in different countries. As far as possible, they have been classified in chronological order, according to regions and subjects. The abundance of the documents and the fear of tiring the reader influenced me to reduce the number of documents from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, many of which have been published in other works.

    I have, however, included some texts representative of behavior-patterns and ways of thinking, despite their partiality and the obvious prejudices that they reflect. The reader may perhaps be surprised by the broad areas of time and space covered, but throughout this diversity will appear the persistence of one and the same condition. This apparently ambitious method of approach seemed the most appropriate way to understand the objective condition of the dhimmi. A study of a single minority arbitrarily detached from the whole picture might produce a distorted image, particularly in the case of the Arabo-Islamic empire created out of a mosaic of different ethnic groups. Some documents may seem repetitive, but each one provides, by a fact or a nuance, a new insight into the subject.

    It might be objected that European and dhimmi sources – from which the majority of the documents are drawn – provide only a partial image of the reality. The argument is valid enough, but would not the conqueror’s version be even more partial? It was in his interest to denigrate the defeated, to exaggerate their economic power or their insolence in order to justify his reprisals. Would a historian, one thousand years hence, judge Western values exclusively from the description left by the Ayatollah Khomeini or Colonel Qaddhafi, or the history of the Arab-Israel wars simply from Arab accounts? Convinced that in history there is not one single truth, but a multiplication of constantly changing and contradictory situations, interdependent one with another, I have drawn on versions other than those of the conquerors in order to investigate this subject more deeply. The reader thus forewarned may be better equipped to discern between prejudice and facts. Moreover, this study does not even pretend to be an outline, however vague, of a historical presentation of the subject. At most, it claims to put the questions: what was the human reality of the dhimmi as he saw himself – not as his master saw him – and how did he manage to bear his condition?

    Beyond the religious relationship of Muslim, Christian, and Jew, which is beyond my competence, I have attempted to define the human aspects of a historical situation. And, because this particular situation is my own cultural heritage, I have dared, despite my limitations, to delve into this past. May the specialist not judge too harshly such a rash intrusion into his field, and may better equipped historians correct and improve this picture revealed by the long-neglected testimonies of centuries.


    This study, begun in 1974, was completed in 1976. Many of the themes developed there on Jews and Christians under Islam were already sketched in the first edition of my Les Juifs en Egypte (Geneva, 1971; enlarged Hebrew edition, January, 1974) and in numerous articles published in French and English from 1973 to 1979.

    Working alone, independently of academic circles (any advice received from scholars was either cursory of restricted to facts), the results of my research led me toward an innovative historical analysis that freed the remnants of dhimmi peoples from the rhetoric of “toleration,” and at the same time restored them to the heart of the jihad-strategy, that had determined their destiny since the seventh century.

    In the early 1970s such a historical interpretation went against commonly accepted ideas and the writings of most contemporary scholars. The affirmation that dhimmi peoples had been reduced to religious minorities and were despised and persecuted over the centuries was not well received. To state that European colonization had emancipated these subjected peoples was taboo – at a time of Western culpableness over the issue of colonization. The pro-Arab policies of many states encouraged by Arab financial power, the appeasement of PLO terrorism, as well as left-wing and Third-World trends did not facilitate a new approach, free from general clichés.

  Le Dhimmi was finally published in 1980. Throughout the 1970s, its themes were exposed not only in articles, but also in lectures and in correspondence.

    Today, fifteen years after my initial research on this vast and complex subject, the recent trends in some Islamic countries and the tragic Lebanese conflict give a pale reflection of Islamic societies in which the dhimmis lived, where the shari’a was the only recognized jurisdiction. These contemporary events confirm, actualise and integrate the themes analysed in The Dhimmi, within the dynamics of a history that was often avoided or was obfuscated.

July 1984

Notes to Introduction (see book)

© Bat Ye'or 2001