Saturday, June 17, 2006

Is Bernard Lewis right about 'dhimmitude'?

Amid the tributes to Bernard Lewis on the eminent Islamic scholar's 90th birthday recently, comes this more ambivalent contribution from Dr Andrew Bostom. Writing in Front Page magazine Bostom takes issue with Lewis's approach to 'dhimmitude' (the institutionalised subordination of non-Muslims):

".... Lewis’ views have remained unchanged on the subject of the plight of those non-Muslims living under Islamic rule—what Bat Ye’or’s own remarkable scholarship has characterized with painstaking elegance as the civilization of dhimmitude (here, and here ). Writing in 1974 (vol. 2, p.217) Lewis maintained,

The dhimma on the whole worked well. The non-Muslims managed to thrive under Muslim rule, and even to make significant contributions to Islamic civilization. The restrictions were not onerous, and were usually less severe in practice than in theory. As long as the non-Muslim communities accepted and conformed to the status of tolerated subordination assigned to them, they were not troubled. The rare outbreaks of repression or violence directed against them are almost always the consequence of a feeling that they have failed to keep their place and honor their part of the covenant. The usual cause was the undue success of Christians or Jews in penetrating to positions of power and influence which Muslims regarded as rightly theirs. The position of the non-Muslims deteriorated during and after the Crusades and the Mongol invasions, partly because of the general heightening of religious loyalties and rivalries, partly because of the well-grounded suspicion that they were collaborating with the enemies of Islam.

"More recently, Lewis in a rather flippant pronouncement (included here), characterized the conception of “dhimmi-tude” (derisively hyphenated, as he wrote it), “…subservience and persecution and ill treatment” of Jews, specifically, under Islamic rule, as a 'myth'."

Could it be that Lewis and Bostom are both right? There is a marked discrepancy between the treatment of Jews at the centre of the Ottoman Empire, where Jews could and did rise to wealth and prominence under benign rulers, and conditions on the fringes. In Morocco, Persia and Yemen, the Jews lived in ghettoised degradation and isolation, did all the menial jobs, and were subject to a much stricter application of the rules of dhimmitude. Whereas in 1860 the Sultan declared all his subjects equal under the law, dhimmitude survived in North Africa into the early 20th century and in Yemen until 1950.

It is perhaps no accident that all the Christians had been 'ethnically cleansed' from these regions. Where Christians existed they, rather than the Jews, were more likely to bear the brunt of humiliation, and persecution, in the Ottoman centre.

In his memoir, The last Jews in Baghdad,
Nissim Rejwan remarks (page 6) that while he was growing up in ('emancipated') Baghdad in the 1920s and 30s the work of clearing the drains and toilets, the most menial of jobs, was undertaken almost exclusively by Christians from a town in northern Iraq called Talkeif. Jews also engaged in the work - but never, never a Muslim. 'Yet for some reason', Rejwan observes, the nightwatchmen were invariably Muslims.

What strikes Rejwan as a curiosity was in fact a vestige of dhimmitude. Nightwatchmen could not be anything other than Muslim because non-Muslims could not bear arms.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I seem to remember Lewis mentioning that the newest states to be conquered/converted often lacked the tolerance of the established powers.