Verse 29 of chapter 9 of the Qur’an is the one place where Muslims are directed explicitly to make war against and subjugate Jews and Christians – the “People of the Book,” who once subjugated enter the dhimma, the protection of the Muslims, and become dhimmis, protected (or guilty) people. As such, the way this verse is understood by Muslim interpreters is of cardinal importance for Jews, Christians, and – not least because in the Islamic world one’s religion tends to be considered as part of one’s ethnic identity, not as a matter of personal conviction, so that even Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would be considered Christians — non-Muslims in general.
According to As-Sawi, Ibn Juzayy, and many others, “this ayat was revealed when the Messenger of Allah was commanded to fight the Byzantines. When it was sent down, the Messenger of Allah prepared for the expedition to Tabuk.” Ibn Kathir agrees: “Allah commanded His Messenger to fight the People of the Scriptures, Jews and Christians, on the ninth year of Hijrah, and he prepared his army to fight the Romans and called the people to Jihad announcing his intent and destination.” This was a raid Muhammad attempted against the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) garrison at Tabuk in northern Arabia in 631, but the Byzantine force moved away before Muhammad got there, and did not engage the Muslims in battle. Still, it was his first attempt to take on the great Christian empire that the Muslims would chip away at for centuries and ultimately destroy.
Ibn Juzayy says that this verse is “a command to fight the People of the Book” and, in a reference to v. 30, “denying their belief in Allah because of the words of the Jews, ‘Uzayr [Ezra] is the son of Allah’ and the words of the Christians, ‘The Messiah is the son of Allah.’” Muslims must also fight them “because they consider as lawful carrion, blood, pork, etc.” and because “they do not enter Islam.” He says that “scholars agree about accepting jizya [a religious-based poll tax] from the Jews and Christians,” and adds that “the Magians/Zoroasterians have been added to them going by the words of the Prophet, ‘Treat them as People of the Book,’” although “there is disagreement about accepting it from idolaters and Sabians.” He specifies that “it is not collected from women, children or the insane,” and that it signifies “submission and obedience.”
While Islamic law does stipulate that the jizya is not to be collected from women and children, reality in many cases has been different. According to the pioneering historian of dhimmitude, Bat Ye’or:
The poll tax was extorted by torture. The tax inspectors demanded gifts for themselves; widows and orphans were pillaged and despoiled. In theory, women, paupers, the sick, and the infirm were exempt from the poll tax; nevertheless, Armenian, Syriac, and Jewish sources provide abundant proof that the jizya was exacted from children, widows, orphans, and even the dead. A considerable number of extant documents, preserved over the centuries, testify to the persistence and endurance of these measures. In Aleppo in 1683, French Consul Chevalier Laurent d’Arvieux noted that ten-year-old Christian children paid the jizya. Here again, one finds the disparity and contradiction between the ideal in the theory and the reality of the facts. (The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, pp. 78-9).
The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this when v. 29 specifies that Muslims must fight against those who “follow not the Religion of Truth,” it means those who do not follow Islam, “which is firm and abrogates other deens [religions].” Ibn Kathir gives a hint as to why this is so when he explains that the People of the Book were in bad faith when they rejected Muhammad, and that they are not true believers even in their own religions:
Therefore, when People of the Scriptures disbelieved in Muhammad, they had no beneficial faith in any Messenger or what the Messengers brought. Rather, they followed their religions because this conformed with their ideas, lusts and the ways of their forefathers, not because they are Allah’s Law and religion. Had they been true believers in their religions, that faith would have directed them to believe in Muhammad, because all Prophets gave the good news of Muhammad’s advent and commanded them to obey and follow him. Yet when he was sent, they disbelieved in him, even though he is the mightiest of all Messengers. Therefore, they do not follow the religion of earlier Prophets because these religions came from Allah, but because these suit their desires and lusts. Therefore, their claimed faith in an earlier Prophet will not benefit them because they disbelieved in the master, the mightiest, the last and most perfect of all Prophets.
As-Sawi specifies that the payment of the jizya signifies that the non-Muslims are “humble and obedient to the judgements of Islam.” As-Suyuti notes that the jizya is “not taken from someone in a state of hardship,” although that was a stipulation at times honored in the breach. For example, a contemporary account of the Muslims’ conquest of Nikiou, an Egyptian town, in the 640’s, says that “it is impossible to describe the lamentable position of the inhabitants of this town, who came to the point of offering their children in exchange for the enormous sums that they had to pay each month…”
This was a manifestation of the “state of abasement” specified by this verse and spelled out by the Bedouin commander al-Mughira bin Sa’d when he met the Persian Rustam. Said al-Mughira: “I call you to Islam or else you must pay the jizya while you are in a state of abasement.”
Rustam replied, “I know what jizya means, but what does ‘a state of abasement’ mean?”
Al-Mughira explained: “You pay it while you are standing and I am sitting and the whip hanging is over your head.”
Similarly, Ibn Kathir says that the dhimmis must be “disgraced, humiliated and belittled. Therefore, Muslims are not allowed to honor the people of Dhimmah or elevate them above Muslims, for they are miserable, disgraced and humiliated.” The seventh-century jurist Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab stated: “I prefer that the people of the dhimma become tired by paying the jizya since He says, ‘until they pay the jizya with their own hands in a state of complete abasement.’” As-Suyuti elaborates that this verse “is used as a proof by those who say that it is taken in a humiliating way, and so the taker sits and the dhimmi stands with his head bowed and his back bent. The jizya is placed in the balance and the taker seizes his beard and hits his chin.” He adds, however, that “this is rejected according to an-Nawawi who said, ‘This manner is invalid.’” Zamakhshari, however, agreed that the jizya should be collected “with belittlement and humiliation.”
Next week: How the Jews and Christians must be made to feel their humiliation every day.
(Here you can find links to all the earlier "Blogging the Qur'an" segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)