Early co-existence within the Caliphate

The theme of this series is the relationship between East and West through the Middle Ages, including attitudes and precedents. Although the Christians and Jews within the East were not, by definition, Westerners, their shared beliefs with the old Roman Empire makes them part of the relationship.

Much is made these days of tolerance within the Muslim Empire, as compared to the intolerance of Christian Europe (toward Jews). As with everything, it’s true and not true at the same time. It’s worth looking at the social and financial price paid to be a minority within the Umayyad dynasty’s Syria or Egypt.

The tax structure and legal standing of minorities was openly unfair, as previously addressed. Anyone who did not admit that Mohammed was God’s Prophet was already a liar. Minorities purchased justice with bribes that amounted to ransom when commercial injustice was used to seize people as slaves. Poor minority communities could only sometimes buy back their captives.

Slavery was endemic. Non-Muslim citizens were not automatically slaves, but they were legally unprotected and might become slaves. In general, any time a city was defeated by the Muslim forces, its surviving citizens were sold at the slave market, often very cheaply for the lowest kinds of labor. Cities were repopulated with Arabic-speakers. Many Christian and Jewish children were requisitioned, after the age of 6, for training in military or civil service. In early years, there was no pretense at law about the matter; the later Empire made it legal for the government to seize 1/5 of the children every few years. We are aware that “slave” comes from “Slav,” and it wasn’t only Muslims who enslaved the Yugoslav and Bulgarian people; Venetians traded them too. But they were the rural poor of the Byzantine region; the choice of Slavs as the default slaves was part of the original Islamic conquest attitude: “You had your good times, living in houses while we were in tents, now suck it up and deal with being slaves.”

For those who remained free, by law their houses and churches had to be smaller and poorer than Muslim houses. Remember that the Empire’s chief concern was not revolt by Christians and Jews, but revolt by Muslims. One way to buy their complacence cheaply was to make sure that in every town, Muslims could see that they were literally superior to others. It cost the Caliph or Emir nothing, and it worked.

It began simply as a prohibition against rebuilding any non-Muslim houses of worship. Whatever had not been constructed in Roman or Byzantine times was illegal. Every decade, the church or synagogue chipped and cracked a bit more. By later periods, laws made certain that residential houses were smaller, and eventually the law stipulated that doorways had to be very low, forcing non-Muslims to stoop in order to enter their houses. In some places, non-Muslim shops had to be sunk lower in the ground so that they always seemed smaller.

In the first century of the Muslim Empire, high taxes that transferred wealth systematically from non-Muslims to Muslims made sure that non-Muslims were dressed poorly. Eventually, the non-Muslim economies began to adapt and recover. By the 9th century, which is beyond the Umayyad period we’re currently wrapping up, distinctive clothing was required: certain color belts, hats or badges. Non-Muslims also carried on their persons at all times a proof that they had paid their taxes. It was a certificate or a metal tag worn on a string.

Intermarriage was forbidden, except that a Muslim man could marry a non-Muslim woman. Unfortunately, this encourages not freedom of association but predation on women and dilution of the minority community’s ethnic identity.

Last, one of the key features of local government was that tax collection was left to the minority community itself. It had a higher quality of life if its leadership was willing to overlook injustices and poverty and just keep the tax money flowing in. When their own Christian or Jewish communities enforced Muslim law, they might experience some benefits of state prosperity. Cooperation and submission might bring about a relative Golden Age when the minority community could flourish artistically or academically. Grumbling and failure to pay taxes brought the forces of the state down hard on all “extras”—and additionally, probably, another “quint” levy of children.

It was possible, but not easy, to live as a minority in the Muslim Empire. They were tolerated, in fact they were needed as farmers and garbage-collectors. But their legal rights were subject to whim and bribe. They never complained, but instead made the best of the situation in order to stay safer. Ironically, this makes it harder to see their segregation than in Europe, where some minorities could be safe for a long time before persecution came along.

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