Ahl Al-Dhimma

“According to Islamic law, the non-Muslims inhabited in the Islamic state were called ahlu dh-dhimmati (people of protection) or simply al-dhimma or dhimmis. They included the Christian, Jewish, Magian, Samaritan and Sabian. Ahl al-dhimma were prohibited in the Muslim state from holding public religious ceremonies, from raising their voices loudly when praying and even from ringing their church bells aloud. All schools agree that it is not allowed to build new churches, synagogues, convent, hermitage or cell in towns or cities of Dar al-Islam (Muslim lands). When these injunctions were disobeyed, the Muslim leaders were authorized to treat the offenders as dwellers in Dar al-Harb (non-Muslim lands) and not as ahl al-dhimma in Dar al-Islam (Muslim lands), vide Subh al-A’asha fi Sina’at at al-Insha (Cairo, 1922, 13: 356) by Qalaqashandi (d. 821/1418).

When the Fatimids arrived in Egypt, the need for a stable financial administration provided an opportunity to the talented minorities of ahl al-dhimma (Christians and Jews) to find employment in state offices. They were massively employed from low to high posts in the state. In return, the policy of the Fatimid Caliphs towards them was of great toleration. The Fatimids granted land to churches. The Fatimid authorities also financially supported the Jewish religious institutions, such as the Jerusalem Yeshiva. As time passed their influences grew so rapidly through out the state that they became almost a threat to the Fatimids. Most of the high officials of finance departments, the deputies and staffs were remarkably non-Muslims, who also became a source of tension for the Muslims. When Imam al-Aziz dismissed and arrested his vizir Yaqub bin Killis in 373/983, the functioning of the administration became almost frozen, impelling Imam al-Aziz to release and restore Yaqub bin Killis to his former office. Imam al-Aziz is also reported to have reappointed few other dismissed officials, confirming the foothold of the non-Muslims in the Fatimid dominion.

Wustenfeld writes in Geschichte der Fatimiden Chalifen (Gottingen, 1881, 2:64) about Isa bin Nestorius, a Christian vizir of the Fatimids that, “He was hard-hearted and an usurer who grasped for himself every lucrative business, and augmented very much the taxes. He favoured his co-religionists and placed them in the important offices of state, while removing the former Muslims secretaries and tax collectors. As his chief deputy in Syria he chose a Jew, Menasse bin Ibrahim, who showed there the same regard for the Jews as Isa did for the Christians in Egypt, by reducing their taxes and appointing them as officials. Thus the followers of these two religions ruled the state. This caused great indignation amongst the Muslims.”

The ahl al-dhimma, mainly the Christians, were thickly populated in Egypt. They were rich, powerful, influential and dominated in the political and social orbits. Ibn Athir (9:48) quotes Hasan bin Bishar of Damascus, who made mention of the growing influences of the Christians in the Fatimid empire in his poetry that:-

Be Christian (as) today is the time of Christianity.

Believe in nothing, but in the holy trinity.

Yaqub is the father, Aziz is the son.

And for the holy ghost, Fazal is the one.

The people roused to anger against the poet and situation gradually exploded in civil disturbances. When the people clamoured for the punishment of the poet, Imam al-Aziz demonstrated a big heart and told to Yaqub bin Killis and Fazal bin Saleh to expel the poet from the city as soon as possible.

Towards the end of Imam al-Aziz’s reign, the antagonism had reached its climax. The Fatimids basically in the line with the religious toleration adopted the policy of assigning high administrative offices to Christians and Jews. It however appears that Imam al-Aziz went further than his predecessors, and the non-Muslims exceeded to take its unnecessary advantage. In a letter purported to have been delivered to Imam al-Aziz, the writer accused him as saying, “By the Lord who honoured the Christians through Isa bin Nestorius, and the Jews through Menasse bin Ibrahim al-Kazzaz and humiliated the Muslims through you.” (vide al-Khitat, 2: 195). On that juncture, the Fatimid Imam kept patience and did not take any action against the non-Muslims.

The fast growth of the influences of the Christianity and Judaism began to menace the Islamic interest in the Fatimid state. Even the continued hatred and rivalry between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Fatimid dominion also necessitated that the Imam should find a solution, and thus Imam al-Hakim was destined to come into the actions.

According to al-Musabbihi (cf. al-Khitat, 2:195), about five naval ships together with their equipment were burnt in 386/995. The Christians, who lived near the port, were accused of purposely causing the fire. Thus, the Muslims sailors attacked them and killed 107 persons and threw their dead bodies into the streets, and pillaged their houses. The vizir Isa bin Nestorius, representing Imam al-Aziz in his absence, brought a police force to the area. He investigated the incident and arrested large number of the Muslims. He crucified 20 Muslims and severely punished the other. The death toll of this riot indicates a large number of the people, and the reason however given to this effect was the fire caught accidentally in the ships. But, the manner in which the Muslims behaved, according to the description of al-Musabbihi, confirms that the hatred and animosity was at the very root of the riot.

Like the Christians, the Jews had also wielded their influence in Egypt with the help of Menassee bin Ibrahim. Jacob Mann writes in The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fatimid Caliphs (London, 1919, 1:20-21) that, “Menasse was a general like Joab bin Seruyah and his banner shone with royal splendour. His name was