Many people have a misunderstanding about the concept of “dhimmi” in Islam. Some take it as intimidating label for the minorities under the Islamic rule. This certainly is not the case.
The word actually means, “One whose responsibility has been taken” i.e. someone responsibility of the protection of whose life and property is taken by the Islamic government.
Following is what Edward William Lane writes about the “Ahl Dhimma”;
In Islamic literature they are also referred to as “Mu’ahid.” Dr. James Robson in an explanatory note to a Hadith says, “This is used of a member of protected communities, but it is also used of anyone who belongs to a non-Muslim community with whom a treaty of peace has been made.”(Mishkat al-Masabih vol.1p.735)
So in short, the “Dhimmis” are the People of Covenant whom the Islamic rule pledges every kind of security and toleration.
Prophetic narrations about “Dhmmis”:
Allah’s Messenger, may Allah bless him, said: “If anyone wrongs a man with whom a covenant has been made, or curtails any right of his, or imposes on him more than he can bear, or takes anything from him without his ready agreement, I shall be his adversary on the day of resurrection.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, Hadith 3052. Classified as Sahih by Albani)
The Prophet, may Allah bless him, said, "Whoever killed a Mu'ahid (a person who is granted the pledge of protection by the Muslims) shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise though its fragrance can be smelt at a distance of forty years (of traveling)." (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 2930)
Covenant of ‘Umar to the people of Jerusalem:
The covenant of ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, is a wonderful document showing Islam’s approach to non-Muslims living in peace within Islamic rule. Following is recorded by al-Tabari;
“In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, most Beneficent. This is covenant of peace granted by the slave of Allah, the commander of the faithful ‘Umar to the people of Jerusalem. They are granted protection for their lives, their property, their churches, and their Crosses, in whatever condition they are. All of them are granted the same protection. No one will dwell in their churches, nor will they be destroyed and nothing will be reduced of their belongings. Nothing shall be taken from their Crosses or their property. There will be no compulsion on them regarding their religion, nor will any one of them be troubled.” (Tarikh al-Tabari 2/308)
Also it is recorded in Sahih Bukhari;
Umar (after he was stabbed), instructed (his would-be-successor) saying, "I urge him (i.e. the new Caliph) to take care of those non-Muslims who are under the protection of Allah and His Messenger in that he should observe the convention agreed upon with them, and fight on their behalf (to secure their safety) and he should not over-tax them beyond their capability." (Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 2824)
Khalid bin Walid, may Allah be pleased with him, is reported to have said, “Do not harm one given protection for a needle or anything less than that.” (Abu ‘Ubaid’s Kitabul Amwal, Narration 12)
Sa’sah said, I asked Ibn Abbas; “We travel in the lands of the people of protection (non-Muslims living under Muslim rule) and so we take something from them.” He asked, “Without payment?” I said, “Yes without any payment.” He asked, “So what do think of it?” I said, “[With think it is] legal and there is no problem in it.” He said, “Do you argue like the people of Book who said, ‘There is no way we can be blamed in the matter of the unlettered’?” (Abu ‘Ubaid’s Kitabul Amwal, Narration 370)
Sayings of Muslim jurists:
Muhammad bin Hassan al-Shaybani said:
“When Muslims took their responsibility they accepted the obligation to ward off oppression from them and they became citizens of Darul Islam.” (Sharah Sayr al-Kabir 1/69)
Another well known manual of Islamic jurisprudence reads;
“It will be a sin to call a Jew or a Magian, ‘O Infidel!’ if he disliked it.” (Fatawa Hindiya 43/382)
Acknowledgment of Orientalists:
It is an established fact that Muslims generally treated their non-Muslim subjects very well. This is particularly true for the times of the Righteous Caliphs who are the beacon of light for Muslims.
Even jaundiced-eye orientalists had no choice but to accept this reality. For instance, William Montgomery Watt writes;
"In the early days of Islamic empire the Christian inhabitants of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent were probably better off as dhimmis under Muslim Arab rulers than they had been under Byzantine Greeks.” (Islamic Political Thought, The basic Concepts p. 51)
He also said, "On the whole there was more genuine toleration of non-Muslims under Islam than there was of non-Christians in medieval Christian states" (Ibid.)
Infact toleration of minorities during prime Muslim rule is unparalleled even to this day. In the Christian West, who claims to have championed the cause of religious and personal freedom, Muslims are subject to much prejudice. In many Western countries Muslim women are not allowed to dress the way Islam prescribes and the way they so yearn to. In many others Islamic ideals and personalities are ridiculed in the name of ‘freedom of expression.’ And we also have an example where Muslims are not allowed to build their mosques in the traditional harmless way. And all this happens in states who claim to have divorced with religious ‘prejudices.’
The fact of the matter remains that Islam alone is the way forward for humanity and the only system that ensures freedom and tolerance of the minorities is the one that springs from the fountains of Holy Qur’an and the blessed Sunnah of the Holy Prophet on whom be the peace and blessings of the Almighty.
Note: More on the rights of the minorities under the Islamic rule to be found in the article about Jizya that follows soon insha’Allah!
Indeed Allah knows the best!