The news this week of Iraqi Christians fleeing the city of Mosul under threats from radical Islamic militants has rightly attracted considerable media attention. Yet another tragic episode of sectarian conflict in the Middle East, the story is perhaps the most jarring recent example of the way Christians are being forced from their ancestral homes in the region. According to reports published by the BBC, Reuters, the New York Times and other media outlets, militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) demanded that Christians living in Mosul either convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax, flee the city, or face ‘the sword.’ Led by the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (b.1971), ISIS promotes itself in Iraq and globally as a purified expression of original Islam. Media reports about these events have been filled with Arabic terms like jizya, dhimmi, nas}ara (the Qur’anic term for Christians), and caliph, words that have a long, sometimes complicated history in the Islamic tradition.
To take just one of these terms, the word jizya, usually translated as poll tax or head tax, appears only once in the Qur’an itself (9:29). Early Muslim jurists nevertheless utilized the verse in constructing an elaborate system of taxation to be levied on Christians, Jews, and eventually adherents of other religions, in exchange for basic protections offered by an Islamic state. Modern scholars like M.A.S. Abdel-Haleem at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, have challenged the classical interpretation of this verse, but even if the traditional understanding is prioritized, this does not justify the brutal actions of ISIS inflicted on the Christians of Mosul. Addressed to the ‘Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid (d.809), Abu Yusuf’s (d.798) Kitab al-Kharaj, an influential treatise on the early Islamic tax system, already reflects a somewhat more humane approach:
“It is appropriate, O Commander of the Faithful, that you should treat with leniency those under the protection of our Prophet Muhammad, and not allow that more than what is due be taken from them or more than they are able to pay, and that nothing should be confiscated from their properties without legal justification. It was transmitted that the Prophet said: ‘He who robs a dhimmi or imposes on him more than he can bear will have me as his opponent.’ ‘Umar b. al-Khattab before his death said: ‘I recommend to my successor to comply with the covenants made with those under the protection of the Prophet, to protect them from those who persecute them and abstain from charging them with more than they can bear.’ (...) Some of our old masters told me a tradition about the Prophet appointing ‘Abd Allah b. Arqam as collector of the jizya and warning him: ‘He who robs a dhimmi or charges him with more than he can bear or deprives him of his rights or takes away from him anything against his will, will find me as his opponent on the Day of Resurrection.’ (B. Shemesh, trans. Kita>b al-Khara>j [Brill, 1969], 85-86)”
The point here is not that the classical Islamic conceptions of jizya or dhimmi are easily compatible with modern standards of religious and civil liberty. The system proposed by a scholar like Abu Yusuf contained certain elements that in retrospect appear progressive for that era, along with others that must now be deemed clearly repressive.
Still, the above excerpt suggests that even in the earliest periods of Islam, Muslims were not bound to approach Christians with the heartless cruelty displayed by a group like ISIS. Indeed, the continued presence of Christians in Mosul for the last 1,400 years bears witness to this fact, as do the vigorous protests of many Muslims today against ISIS. In the contemporary period, many Muslims have been engaged in reinterpreting their scriptural sources. It is well known, for example, that the Ottoman Empire, the last great representative of the Islamic imperial project, abolished the jizya tax in 1856. In view of these developments, and because of the polyvalence of the classical Islamic tradition itself, we should be very hesitant about somehow promoting ISIS’s self-designation as ‘purified’ or ‘authentic’ Islam.
Most importantly at this time, we should do all that we possibly can to prevent the further suffering of both Christians and Muslims at the hands of ISIS.