The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A Dhimmi, or Zimmi (Arabic ذمّي), as defined in classical Islamic legal and political literature, is a person living in a Muslim state who is a member of an officially tolerated non-Muslim religion. The term literally means "protected person."



The root of "dhimmi" comes from the Arabic root "dh-m-m", where "dhimma" means "being in the care of".


The term initially applied to "People of the Book" living in lands under Muslim rule, namely Jews and Christian, and was extended to Zoroastrians, Mandeans, Sikhs, and even Hindus.

In the Middle Ages, the dhimmi concept was comparatively tolerant by the standards of the time. Christians and Jews were allowed to live in peace within the Muslim society, on the condition (also required of Muslim subjects) of submission to their rulers. An example is the Muslim state of Cordoba in Southern Spain where Christians and Jews prospered. Maimonides, by some considered the greatest Jewish philosopher and Talmudic sage, lived in Muslim Spain, North Africa and Egypt. As late as the 16th century, religious tolerance in Europe was greatest within the Ottoman Empire.

Modern vs. customary practice

The attitude towards dhimmis varies from Muslim to Muslim; for most, it is a purely theoretical issue, as very few Islamic nations (Iran and Saudi Arabia being notable exceptions) actually have any legally defined special status for dhimmis at the present.

Muslims living in less conservative or more multiconfessional nations typically present the dhimmi as being equal to Muslims. For example, one book published in Pakistan claims:

Islam does not permit discrimination in the treatment of other human beings on the basis of religion or any other criteria... it emphasises neighborliness and respect for the ties of relationship with non-Muslims ...within this human family, Jews and Christians, who share many beliefs and values with Muslims, constitute what Islam terms Ahl al-Kitab, that is, People of the Scripture, and hence Muslim have a special relationship to them as fellow "Scriptuaries". (Suzanne Haneef, What everyone should know about Islam and Muslims, Kazi Publications, Lahore, 1979, p. 173.)

In contrast, Muslims living in more traditionalist or monocultural nations, particularly those that practice Sharia, usually present the dhimmi as being a second to Muslims. For example, one book published in Saudi Arabia argues:

In a country ruled by Muslim authorities, a non-Muslim is guaranteed his freedom of faith.... Muslims are forbidden from obliging a non-Muslim to embrace Islam, but he should pay the tribute to Muslims readily and submissively, surrender to Islamic laws, and should not practice his polytheistic rituals openly. (Abdul Rahman Ben Hammad Al-Omar, The Religion of Truth, Riyadh, General Presidency of Islamic Researches, 1991, p. 86.)

Status of Dhimmis

For several centuries following the codification of the Quran, the Islamic Caliphate expanded its political control rapidly through warfare. Conquered peoples - including Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sabian s, and Hindus - became dhimmis: protected citizens under Islamic law, allowed the rights listed below on condition of loyalty or acquiescence to the government and paying the taxes mentioned below:


  • Protection of life, wealth and honor by the Muslim state (even against other co-religionist states)
  • Right to reside in Muslim lands
  • Right of worship according to their own religion
  • Right to work and trade


  • Exemption from paying zakah "alms to the poor"
  • Exemption from being drafted in military service
  • Exemptions from religious duties specific to Muslims
  • Exemptions from personal Muslim laws (e.g. marriage, divorce)


  • Paying jizyah (Poll tax)
  • Paying land tax

Other points: Later legislation in the Sharia codified the rule that Jews and Christians were forbidden to blaspheme the Quran, the religion of Islam, or their prophet Muhammad. Jews and Christians were also forbidden to ask Muslims to join their faith, but Muslims were allowed to ask Jews and Christians to convert to Islam (see proselytization). Violation of these rules could invoke the death sentence.

Dhimmis were sometimes subject to other restrictions. Each of the following were forbidden to dhimmis at some point somewhere in the world:

  • Holding public office. This was very rarely enforced: in reality, many non-Muslims held high positions in Muslim states, including Samuel Ha-Nagid in Spain, as well as others in Egypt and Iraq.
  • Bearing weapons
  • Riding camels or horses. Also rarely enforced.
  • Building houses of worship higher than mosques
  • Mourning loudly
  • Dressing in the same way that Arabs dressed. Dress codes, such as forcing all Jews to wear a yellow badge, were sometimes -- but not always -- enforced, so that dhimmis would be visibly distinct from Muslims. The practice is not found in the Quran or hadith.

Dhimmis in Islam vs. minorities in non-Muslim societies

It is interesting to compare dhimmi status in Muslim societies with other laws and restrictions imposed on minorities in non-Muslim societies in the medieval period.

Severe and harsh restrictions were imposed on Jews in Europe before Islam came to Spain. The Visigothic Code (or Forum Judicum), has an entire book dedicated to laws concerning Jews, with severe restrictions, and often one-sided laws. King Ervigius additions to the code are even more restrictive. It forced Jews not to prevent their children from baptism, prohibited them from celebrating Passover, undergoing circumcision, marriage of relatives, observing dietary laws , reading books that the Christian faith rejects, testifying against Christians, as well as forbidding Christians from defending or protecting Jews, and forcing Jews to abstain from labor on Sundays and Christian holidays.

Dress code and other restrictions were forced by Christians on Jews, as well as Muslims in Europe. In Spain it was enforced, and penalties were levied if mudejars did not observe it. As early as 1215 the Fourth Council of the Lateran under Pope Innocent III issued a decree that Muslims and Jews shall wear a special dress to distinguish them from Christians. This concept is thus common to medieval Christendom and Islam.

It is even more interesting to compare dhimmis status in Muslim societies with other laws and restrictions imposed on minorities in non-Muslim societies in the modern period. While Europe has repealed all of the restrictive religious-based measures mentioned herein, and repealed them without exception, not a few Muslim countries still impose dhimmi restrictions up to the present day.

Additional background information

Some have claimed that under Sharia, if a Jew or Christian is convicted of killing a Muslim, the sentence is death. If a Muslim is convicted of killing a Jew or Christian, there is no death sentence. They often quote the following from Sahih Al-Bukhari Hadith 9.50; Narrated by Abu Juhaifa, states:

I asked 'Ali "Do you have anything Divine literature besides what is in the Qur'an?" Or, as Uyaina once said, "Apart from what the people have?" 'Ali said, "By Him Who made the grain split (germinate) and created the soul, we have nothing except what is in the Qur'an and the ability (gift) of understanding Allah's Book which He may endow a man with, and what is written in this sheet of paper." I asked, "What is on this paper?" He replied, "The legal regulations of Diya (Blood-money) and the (ransom for) releasing of the captives, and the judgment that no Muslim should be killed in Qisas (equality in punishment) for killing a Kafir (disbeliever)."

And this from Sunan of Abu-Dawood Hadith 2745; Narrated by Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-'As, states:

The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) said: ... A believer shall not be killed for an unbeliever, nor a confederate within the term of confederation with him.

While this point of view is indeed present in Sharia law, it is not the final say, nor the practice over most of Muslim history. There is a hadith that prophet Muhammad indeed did order the execution of a Muslim because he killed a dhimmi, as narrated in Abdul Razzaq and Al Baihaqi . This hadith's authenticity is disputed. Moreover, Ali almost ordered the execution in a similar case had it not been for the dhimmi victim's brother asking for the Muslim not to be executed. Ali said : "Those who have our dhimma have their blood equal to ours ... [they paid the jizyah so that their life and our lives are equal]". Moreover, Omar Ibn Abdul Aziz ordered his regional governors to execute those who kill any dhimmis.

This view is adopted by the Maliki and Hanafi schools, as well as many other jurists, such as Al Laith Ibn Saad, Al Sha'bi, Ibn Abi Laila, and Al Nakh'i.

Most Islamic states followed this view, as it is evident above during Ali's and Omar II's reigns. It should be noted that the Ottoman Empire also followed this view until its end in 1924.

See also

External links

  • Yusuf al-Qaradawi "Non Muslims in Islamic societies" (Arabic)
  • Islamic and Christian Spain in the early Middle Ages. Thomas F. Glick: Chapter 5: Ethnic relations Has a good comparison on how minorities in Muslim lands compared to minorities in Christian ones, and how the dhimmi status guaranteed some degree of protection, while in Castille, it was subject to the ruler's whim.
  • The Ahl al-Kitab in Early Fatimid Times

Last updated: 02-08-2005 14:59:19
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01