Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, and the most honorable prayer and peace be upon the master of the first and the last, our master, Muhammad, the chosen, the trustworthy, and upon his pious and pure family, his faithful companions, and those who followed them in goodness until the Day of Judgment, may Allah Almighty be pleased with them all.
Many people ask about the Islamic regulations applied on non-Muslims, mainly Jews and Christians, if they were living in a Muslim country, such as paying Jizya (tax money paid by men so as not to fight in Muslims battles, but they would be protected by Muslim armies) and for wearing different clothing styles. Some claim that non-Muslims had no rights, or minor rights, compared to Muslims, and that is against justice, which Muslims allege that their religion calls for.
This issue is very important to discuss, as it is misunderstood or misinterpreted when reading the Islamic heritage. First of all, to understand a historical event or incident, we need to be aware of the differences in time and place. Things in the past were, in most cases, applied according to the norms, regulations and laws which were legislated then, and they are different from what we have now. Things change, this is a universal law. Norms and regulations are not exceptions from that change. So, let us examine the nature of the states, the rights of the people living in that state and the regulations applied to them.
States in the past were either nation-states, religious, or racial states. The norms were related to the nature of the state. A nation-state is a territorially bounded sovereign polity—i.e., a state—that is ruled in the name of a community of citizens who identify themselves as a nation. The legitimacy of a nation-state’s rule over a territory and over the population inhabiting it stems from the right of a core national group within the state (which may include all or only some of its citizens) to self-determination. Members of the core national group see the state as belonging to them and consider the approximate territory of the state to be their homeland. Accordingly, they demand that other groups, both within and outside the state, recognize and respect their control over the state. As the American sociologist Rogers Brubaker put it in Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (1996), nation-states are “states of and for particular nations.”
Islamic states existed within such environments, as there were nation-states around them, a thing which had huge impacts on the form of international relations. As for the internal policies, there were also many laws which were regulating the relations among people who lived in the state, even if they were groups of different religion, nationality or race. Islam was eradicating the social and political impacts of these differences, as Allah clearly declared, “People, We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might know one another. The noblest of you before Allah is the most righteous of you. Allah is the Knower, the Aware” (Surah 49, Ayah 13). The Islamic state in those times was like a utopia when compared to the injustices and tyranny of other states around it, that is why we saw in history that non-Muslim groups were welcoming the Islamic rule, as it was better than all of the states around it. Plus, it was normal for the people living under a nation state to convert and be part of the ruler’s cult, this was the default status then. But the Islamic state was something different, as it wasn’t coercing anyone under its rule to convert, on the contrary, it gave everyone the freedom of belief, as Allah says, “There is no compulsion in religion. Righteousness is now distinct from error. He who disbelieves in the idol and believes in Allah has grasped the firmest tie that will never break. Allah is Hearing, Knowing” (Surah 2, Ayah 256). Moreover, Islam urged Muslims to reveal good wills and intentions, as Allah says, “Allah does not forbid you to be kind and to act justly to those who have neither made war on your Religion nor expelled you from your homes. Allah loves the just” (Surah 60, Ayah 8).
There is another false allegation which I heard was made by a Christian called ‘Zakaria Butrus’, an Egyptian Coptic, in which he said that the Coptic Christians were converting to Islam so as not to pay the jizya, i.e. state tax on non-Muslims. This is an outrageous allegation, as it is directly insulting Coptic Christians, not the Muslims. If we just go back few decades before the Islamic conquest of Egypt, we shall read about ‘the era of martyrs’. History says that the Roman Catholics were torturing the Orthodox Christians to change their doctrine, which is still Christianity after all. The Orthodox Christians in Egypt are proud to say that ‘we endured and held out against this sectarian oppression, as we were thrown to hungry lions, thrown in boiling oil, and fried on fire chairs but we did not give up our belief. Can you imagine this exact same generation who endured such atrocities may change their belief and convert to another religion which in fact they do not conform [which is the exact meaning of hypocrisy] to avoid paying some tax money?! This allegation does not add up! As there are two options, either there was no ‘era of martyrs’ and it was all hoax, or the allegation that they changed their religion was a hoax, there is no third option.
Jizya [tax assessments] was not something invented by Islam. It was present before Islam came. History tells us that, before the conquest of Egypt, the Christian ruler collected 20 million golden dinars from the Coptic population of Egypt. When Amr Bin al A’as conquered Egypt, he collected 12 million golden dinars as a jizya, for it was obligatory on men who can fight. That was 40% less tax. But why, someone may ask, is there a discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims? Aren’t they living in the same land? Why do you take jizya from non-Muslims only? The answer is that this jizya, or tax, is equal to a military waiver nowadays, as non-Muslims were not obliged to fight under the Islamic rule. Moreover, Muslims have to pay Zakat, and non-Muslims do not have to pay it, does that make the Muslim say that this is a clear discrimination?
One last thing to say here, the concept of the state now is different from the state in those days. Now, all citizens, Muslim and Christian alike, are obliged to fight defending the country, and all are obliged to pay their taxes. This issue is a key point to consider when trying to understand the historical context of jizya.
Praise be to Allah the Lord of all creatures.