Monday, May 3, 2010

The Christian origins of dhimmitude

A dhimmi is a non-Muslim “person of the book” who is treated as a legal inferior under Shar’ia. In other words, a person denied equality before the law based on a categorisation derived from religious considerations.

So, what is a modern Christian term for a “dhimmi”?

Try ‘homosexual’.

In much of the Western world (though a shrinking proportion thereof), as a gay man, I am a person denied equality before the law based on a categorisation derived from religious considerations. I am the Christian (or, if you prefer, a Judaeo-Christian) version of a dhimmi [but see the clarification below] in the sense that it is perfectly obvious that the reasons for the denial of legal equality, and the opposition to the achievement of legal equality, for the same-sex oriented are derived from religion. From the notion that to give such people legal equality is offensive to God and against God’s purposes.

In the words of Baptist pastor Daniel Y. Yearey:
Homosexuality denies the sovereignty of God. Genesis 1:27 says God created man in His own image. In God there are no disorders or confusion. He created male and female for distinct purposes. Homosexuality says we can be independent of God's direction and design.
He could be Sayyid Qutb, discoursing on Western offenses against the trumping sovereignty of God.

This is not some cute rhetorical pairing.
It is clear, when you go into the history, that the Muslim concept of dhimmi is built from preceding Christian practice. But not against the same-sex active—there the traditional Christian position was extermination: the movement of the same-sex attracted towards [and now beyond] mere “dhimmitude” represents a major social advance—but against another “people of the book”.

For the traditional Christian word for “dhimmi” was ‘Jew’.

Dhimmitude in Islam
In an article at Pajamasmedia, Andrew Bostom describes the state of dhimmitude in Islam in the following terms:
The “contract of the jizya,” or “dhimma,” encompassed other obligatory and recommended obligations for the conquered non-Muslim “dhimmi” peoples. Collectively, these “obligations” formed the discriminatory system of dhimmitude imposed upon non-Muslims — Jews and Christians, as well as Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists — subjugated by jihad. Some of the more salient features of dhimmitude include:
– The prohibition of arms for the vanquished dhimmis
– The prohibition of church bells
– Restrictions concerning the building and restoration of churches, synagogues, and temples
– Inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims with regard to taxes and penal law
– The refusal of dhimmi testimony by Muslim courts
– A requirement that Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims, including Zoroastrians and Hindus, wear special clothes
– The overall humiliation and abasement of non-Muslims

It is important to note that these regulations and attitudes were institutionalized as permanent features of the sacred Islamic law, or Shari’a. The writings of the much lionized Sufi theologian and jurist al-Ghazali (d. 1111) highlight how the institution of dhimmitude was simply a normative and prominent feature of the Shari’a:
The dhimmi is obliged not to mention Allah or His Apostle. … Jews, Christians, and Majians must pay the jizya [poll tax on non-Muslims]. … On offering up the jizya, the dhimmi must hang his head while the official takes hold of his beard and hits [the dhimmi] on the protruberant bone beneath his ear [i.e., the mandible]. … They are not permitted to ostentatiously display their wine or church bells. … Their houses may not be higher than the Muslim’s, no matter how low that is. The dhimmi may not ride an elegant horse or mule; he may ride a donkey only if the saddle-work is of wood. He may not walk on the good part of the road. They [the dhimmis] have to wear [an identifying] patch [on their clothing], even women, and even in the [public] baths. … [Dhimmis] must hold their tongue.

The practical consequences of such a discriminatory system were summarized by S.D. Goitein in 1970 (emphasis mine):
Taxation [by the Muslim government] was merciless, and a very large section of the population must have lived permanently at the starvation level. From many Geniza letters one gets the impression that the poor were concerned more with getting money for the payment of their taxes than for food and clothing, for failure of payment usually induced cruel punishment. … The Muslim state was quite the opposite of the ideals … embedded in the constitution of the United States. An Islamic state was part of or coincided with dar al-Islam, the House of Islam. Its treasury was … the money of the Muslims. Christians and Jews were not citizens of the state, not even second class citizens. They were outsiders under the protection of the Muslim state, a status characterized by the term dhimma … They were also exposed to a great number of discriminatory and humiliating laws. … As it lies in the very nature of such restrictions, soon additional humiliations were added, and before the second century of Islam was out, a complete body of legislation in this matter was in existence. … In times and places in which they became too oppressive they lead to the dwindling or even complete extinction of the minorities.

There is some tendency in some circles to downplay the nature and role of dhimmi and dhimmitude. It is certainly true that the level of oppression of dhimmis varied from place to place and over time. Muslim rule, for example, tended to be more tolerant when Muslims were a thin ruling minority and become less tolerant the smaller proportion that non-Muslims were of the population. (In other words, there was some tendency for the level of intolerance to vary according to the costs of intolerance: a pattern one also sees in Latin Christendom.) Nevertheless, subordination of non-believers to believers is fundamental to the religious jurisprudence of Islam.

There is also some tendency for Christians to see dhimmitude as a mark of the inferiority of Islam to Christianity. Christians can cite texts such as love thy neighbour as they self, turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar and statements by Christian authorities such as Pope Paul III’s Sublimus Dei of 1537.

Christian practices of degradation
All very well, but, if one examines traditional Christian jurisprudence consigning Jews to a reviled, secondary legal status, it is clear that the same measures that Andrew Bostom lists above were applied against Jews by Christian polities. For the trouble with Christian self-congratulation is that the basic precepts of dhimmitude—apart from the requirement for distinguishing special clothing (which the Christian Church later adopted as a fine idea)—are extensions and regularisations of the laws and Church decrees of the Christian Roman Empire against Jews.
In Part Three (Constantine, Augustine and the Jews) of his Constantine’s Sword James Carroll examines what the Christianising of the Roman Empire meant for Jews and St Augustine of Hippo’s role in enunciating a theology that permitted the Jews to survive, but not to thrive with their conversion to Christianity being the ultimate aim. Which expresses quite well the aim of Islamic jurisprudence for Jews, Christians and other “peoples of the book”.

In his Anguish of the Jews, Flannery identifies the fourth century, the Constantinian century, as the crucial (and disastrous) century for Christian attitudes to the Jews. With the Christianizing of the empire, Judaism lost ground badly:
… its privileges were largely withdrawn, its proselytism was outlawed, and in 425 the patriarchate was abolished (p.47).
The centre of Jewish scholarship moved to Babylonia, in Rome’s great rival the Sassanid Empire. Within the Empire:
…the choice for Judaism was plain: either continue a losing and perilous competition or retire into the world of the Talmud. The rabbinate opted for the latter alternative, considering it the price of survival (p.48).
So, in considering Christian complaints about Muslim bars on conversion, it is well to remember that Christians did it to Jews first.

St Augustine’s notion of Jews as a “witness people”, witnesses “for the salvation of the nation but not their own” gave them a space within Christian framings of the human society, if a degraded one. St Augustine’s notion that obligation to love still applies to Jews was clearly more formal than substantive while his holding that Christians should still seek to lead them to Christ’s salvation just increases the similarity to the later Islamic notion of the dhimmi.

Various Christian Councils passed anti-Jewish decisions: forbidding Jewish-Christian marriage (unless preceded by conversion to Christianity); joint celebration of Passover; forbidding Christians to keep the Jewish Sabbath, receive gifts or bread from Jewish festivals (Anguish p.55). The Roman state was torn between its Christianisation and the previous precedent of tolerating Judaism. So it was legal in the Empire, with a range of legal consequences from that. But Christianity was clearly preferred: Jewish proselytising and conversion to Judaism was banned; converts to Judaism became intestate but Jewish parents could not disinherit their children who converted to Christianity; Jews were banned from circumcising slaves or buying Christian slaves, which had the effect of driving them out of various trades and occupations (since uncircumcised slaves brought with them the burden of ritual impurity). Construction and repair of synagogues was regulated. Jews were barred from public office. The Jewish patriarchate was abolished. The language of law often incorporated denigration of Jews and Judaism (Pp57-8).

This religious and legal tension was reflected in popular violence from both sides, with the 414 massacre and flight of the Jewish community in Alexandria after Jews had killed some Christians being the worst outbreak (Pp59ff). Attacks on synagogues were frequent.

Flannery identifies that:
… the principal source of Christian antisemitism was the Church’s theological anti-Judaism. It is apparent that there exists a certain level of theological negation or polemical intensity which, when reached, produces an effect that is no longer purely theological or polemical: ideological opposition has turned to hatred and stereotype—the life-blood of antisemitsm (Pp62-63)
Again, a point which is extendable. Though it was still better to be a Jew than a heretic (p.64). Flannery concludes that:
Christian antisemitism was rooted, finally, in the survival of a vibrant and often defiant Judaism. The refusal of the Synagogue to join the Church stood forth as a serious challenge to the Christian apologia, a scandal to the Christian faithful, and a source of worry to their pastors, alarmed by the Judaizing tendencies within their flock. Antisemitism thus was not rooted only in Christian doctrine but also in a pastoral zeal which resorted to every and any means to find … “a therapy for the Jewish disease” (p.65).
That both faiths claim exclusive election by the One True God gave them plenty to argue over: since monotheism encourages the view that not only is there a single truth, but that there is a single correct view of what is. But that Jews and Christians had a common history made Jews preferable to Christians than pagans (or heretics, since they were taken to be explicit, directly threatening, “deniers” of Christian truth).

With the collapse of the Western Empire, Jews entered a period of highly variable fortunes. In the Eastern Empire, the legal persecution of the Jews continued and tightened: they could not own a Christian slave, their property rights were narrowed, they were barred from public functions (except the decurionate) and practising law, they could not testify against Christians. Justinian’s laws even regulated the internal practices of the Jewish religion (p.68). Jewish resistance was at times violent and Jews became regular collaborators with the Empire’s enemies (Pp69-70).

In the West, Pope Leo III may have proclaimed Karl-lo-magne “Imperator”, “Commander of Romans”, but “Big Karl” ran a Germanic empire and Germanic law did not distinguish Jews from Christians. Affronted by this, the Catholic Church waged a relentless campaign against Jews having legal equality with Christians (i.e. the true believers, the true Israel) that was ultimately successful. Centuries of proselytising against Jews as “Christ-killers” and enemies of God’s purposes bore fruit, with increasing popular Jew-hatred. Over time, the laws against Jews became more and more restrictive. In 1215, the Lateran Council decreed that Jews (and Muslims) had to wear special clothing to distinguish them from Jews, bring Christian legal practise even more in line with the Muslim legal practice; the two religions learning from each other in their persecution of Jews (and each other).

As far as the Church was concerned, those who remained Jews were forever guilty of refusing to abandon their faith. Exactly the Muslim attitude to dhimmis

After their conquests, the Muslims, of course, also applied these rules against Christians. Since Christendom was generally in territorial retreat, the issue of Christian treatment of Muslim minorities rarely arose. Where it did, Christian treatment of Muslims mirrored Muslim treatment of Christians: if anything, it was worse, since the Muslim minorities of Sicily and Spain were harried into non-existence culminating in expulsion.

Treatment of pagans was comparable in the two dominant monotheisms. Islam’s single generation extirpation of paganism in Arabia was broadly matched by Karl-lo-magne’s brutal suppression of Saxon paganism. As Ramsay MacMullen sets out in his Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries the Christian Roman Empire squeezed paganism even more than it did the Jews: suffering similar bars on public office as Jews, pagans were also forbidden to teach, their public places of worship were banned and, from 472, even having a private place of pagan worship on your property made it liable to confiscation. Paganism was not to survive even as a degraded “witness people” that the Jews were permitted to be.

Reading Mark Durie on the psychological effects of dhimmitude on dhimmis, there is a strong overlap of the effects of the legal and social degradation of Jews in Christendom as described by Flannery, Trachtenberg and others. But, why would similar treatment on similar grounds not have similar effects?

The pattern in Christendom was for restrictions on Jews to tend to get worse. Showing one’s contempt for the “enemies of Christ” was a path to virtue, so laws tended to become more and more restrictive. Indeed, the legal restrictions on Jews prior to the Enlightenment were generally harsher than they had been in medieval times—that was particularly true for Jews in the Papal States which kept the ghetto laws going (reinstating them after Napoleon abolished them) until stripped of its territories by Garibaldi. But whether against pagans, Jews, Protestants, Orthodox or queers, the Catholic Church has been a firm opponent of equality before the law, wanting to legally rank people by their belief and/or deny them legal institutional recognition, on the grounds of fulfilling God’s purposes, yielding only when forced to and putting up bitter resistance all the way. As it continues to do in the case of homosexuals.

Since law in Christendom was man-made (even canon law) it could change over time. Islam had “God’s law”, so there was far less scope for evolution in law. Rather, there was a pattern of harsher enforcement over time as dhimmi communities shrank, and so became more vulnerable and the costs of intolerance fell.

Theological subversions
If history and practice fails to distinguish Islam and Christendom for legal degradation on the grounds of belief—indeed, it is clear Islam learnt from Christendom, who then returned the favour—there is clear difference in basic theology.

In the case of Christendom, the entire structure rested on subverting the second principle of Christianity. It has always been possible to appeal to the Gospels to argue against such treatment.

The situation is very different in Islam. There is no equivalent in Islam remotely similar to Sublimus Dei, for example. The subordination of non-believers is built into the structure of Islam in the way it is not for Christianity. Christian priests, seeking authority as “gatekeepers of righteousness” policing the moral community, saying who is in and who is out, have had to develop ways of subverting the second principle of Christianity. They have proved very adept at it (citing rebellion against God’s purposes, claiming betrayal of one’s humanity, or not being proper forms of the human—various ways of stripping people of the status of being moral neighbours): nevertheless, the subversion is required.

By contrast, the entire structure of Islam is set up to create “gatekeepers of righteousness”. Muhammad himself is the ultimate example of that. The violent subordination of dhimmis comes directly from the words and example of the Prophet himself. It is not inequality but equality before the law that requires subversion of the basic logic of Islam.

Dhimmitude is how one avoids the consequences of jihad: those consequences being the killing of men, the enslaving of women and children, the confiscation of property. The dhimma is a pactum subjectionis where one subordinates oneself and alienates oneself from honour, and any authority in the wider society, for as long as one fails to “revert” to Islam ('revert' rather than 'convert' since Islam claims to be—and to have always been—the one true religion of Allah). As the sovereignty of Allah is universal, the world belongs to Him and His people, the umma, the community of believers, the Muslims.

Brutality and subordination
To seek equality is to break the dhimma pact. It is quite clear that the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian genocide was in part motivated by the legal equality insisted on by the Western Powers being taken to have breached the dhimma pact and so deprived dhimmis of its protection. The jizya tax was a compensation for not taking the dhimmi’s head: no tax, no acceptance of subordination, no “right” to keep one’s unbelieving head.

That dhimmitude is intimately tied to jihad and built into the basic structure of Islam makes Islam rather different from Christianity. Even here, however, one must be careful at pushing the difference. The analogy between the legal treatment of the same-sex oriented in the modern West and the Islamic dhimmitude easily covers the connection to jihad, given the traditional Christian response to same-sex activity was homicidal anathematisation. The tradition of the legal and social degradation of the same-sex oriented was established by great brutality, maintained by brutality and is now collapsing precisely because the brutality is being withdrawn (indeed, actively anathematised by law). In defending the denial of legal equality to the same-sex oriented, people are defending a tradition of brutality. Yes, the brutality was erratic, but that was also a feature of Christian treatment of Jews and Muslim treatment of dhimmis—the Hamidian massacres of Armenians had their equivalents in the pogroms against the Jews in Romanov Russia, for example.

Let us leave aside the burnings alive and the throwing to the dogs to be eaten alive. Consider the case of Jans Jansz cited by Norton. In 1741, Jan Jansz aged 17, was convicted in Amsterdam of sodomy. As a result of the authorities performing their “Christian” duty he spent the rest of his life—fifty-seven years—in solitary confinement in his cell.

It is a great hypocrisy for Christians (and Jews) to beat their breasts about how awful the Islamic notion of dhimmitude is and then be outraged by homosexuals seeking equality before the law. Dhimmitude is every bit as based on longstanding tradition and scriptural basis as is the legal degradation of the same-sex attracted: whether that degradation is in the form of brutal, public judicial murder or, in the words of philosopher Richard Mohr:
… sodomy laws are the chief systematic way that society as a whole tells gays they are scum.
Or denial of legal standing for their relationships. It is every bit as much a denial of legal equality and demand for moral degradation on the grounds of fulfilling God’s purposes.

The famous comment by Jesus on motes and beams (or specks and planks) comes to mind.

The crushing burden of the divine
In the words of William Beckford (quoted by Norton) on a 1816 hanging of a “sodomite” (since Regency England hanged “sodomites” at about the same rate as contemporary Iran does):
I should like to know what kind of deity they fancy they are placating with these shocking human sacrifices.
What sort of deity? One whose moral authority is so transcendent that it is absolutely trumping.

So trumping, it licences contempt and repression—to the point of slaughter—against the vulnerable. For the reason why contempt for Jews and queers have been so vicious is that historically they each have been small minorities, hence religious “gatekeepers of righteousness” have been able to sell “effortless virtue” against them at very little risk to the overwhelming majority while the authority of God “took away” any moral cost—indeed, “reversed” the moral cost.

Which is why monotheism has such a vicious record of slaughter and repression: because the authority of the transcendent One God is so absolutely trumping.*

Just as slaughter and repression have flowed in our time from secular philosophies that have claimed equally totally trumping moral authority: the Aryan race, the completion of history. But to claim their problem was their Godlessness is to show a highly selective historical amnesia.

On the contrary, their problem was exactly the same—belief in an utterly trumping moral authority that permitted casting people out of the moral community by category, categories that did not flow from any actual trespass they had personally committed against their fellow humans or the content of their character. On the contrary, membership of the category was taken to be the most salient feature of their “moral character”, against which there was no appeal while they remained in that category.

Utterly trumping moral authorities that created a “right” to deny people protection of the web of morality. A denial not grounded in moral reciprocity, not grounded in respect for human agency, but due to morally trumping transcendent purposes that created, and put them into, categories of people who, it was deemed, should not exist. On grounds which fundamentally denied moral reciprocity and respect for human agency.

The most distinctive role for God in moral discourse is to justify stripping vulnerable categories of people of their moral protections. The second principle of Christianity is, and has always been, urgently required to protect from the misuse of the first. The problem with Islam is precisely that its conception of the authority of God is so overwhelming and unchecked.

And while “love God” is not the same commandment as “submit to Allah”, in practice submission to God and God’s purposes (and to clerical authority as speaking for God) is precisely what subverting the second principle of Christianity invokes.

It is not surprising, therefore, that subverting the second principle of Christianity creates outcomes that both resemble those in Islam and provided models that Islam could and did use.

CLARIFICATION On reflection, there is a problem with the dhimmi/homosexual analogy which also applies to the cases of Catholic opposition to confessional equality before the law [hence my striking through some sections above]. That problem is that—leaving aside the issue of treatment of Jews, where the dhimmitude analogy holds prior to Jewish emancipation—Western legal systems had a functional equality that did not apply in Islam. That is, witnesses were witnesses, ownership was ownership, crimes were crimes. In the basic functioning of the law, there was (and is) no differentiation. Unlike Shar'ia, where inequality pervades the most basic operation of law.

To take the example of the Habsburg monarchy (and Venetian Republic) treatment of their Orthodox subjects, the Catholic Church constantly put pressure on to undermine or deny any separate institutional existence to the Orthodox Church. In that sense, the treatment was worse than under Shar'ia, which permitted full corporate identity. But—and it is a big "but"—in other respects, Orthodox subjects of both polities had the same legal standing as any other subjects. In that respect, the treatment was much better than under Shar'ia and helped account for the loyalty of their Orthodox subjects to the Habsburg Monarchy and the Serene Republic.

So, homosexual relationships may be (depending on the polity) denied any legal standing or simple legal equality but, apart from that (which still can blight lives in all sorts of ways), homosexuals have equal standing in the law.

If one goes back to when homosexual acts were illegal, the matter becomes trickier because criminialising such a basic aspect of people's lives created a pervasive vulnerability that massively undermined their legal standing. The classic example was Alan Turing being robbed by a confederate of a "trick" and, when he complained to the police, being done for indecency rather than being treated as a victim of a crime. There was also such matters as censorhip of posted material, use of obscenity laws to block positive public representations of homosexuals, and so forth.

The point about Christian decrees and laws against Jews feeding into the dhimmitude system stands but the analogy with the contemporary situation of homosexuals in countries without full equality in family law is an extremely partial one. Which just shows how easy it can be to be tripped up by basic differences in presumptions.

ADDENDA This post has also been edited slightly in the main body to improve clarity.

* It is also why monotheism—particularly the more it stresses scriptural revelation hence attention to the direct voice of God—tends to be hostile to the pleasures, distractions and achievements of this world: they get in the way of connecting to, and “respecting”, the overwhelming authority of God’s transcendence.


  1. Now Lorenzo, on this homosexual = dhimmi, I would say you have definitely gilded the lily, in order to express your other wonderful command of 'otherness' in Xian theology and practice from late Antiquity to the Enlightenment and beyond.

    Sorry, on this one - quite rare I must add - you haven't sold ME! :)

  2. Peter: You will probably like the clarification I had added to the post which your comment reinforced my decision to add.