Jacques Ellul


This is a very important book, for it deals with one of the most sensitive problems of our time, sensitive owing to the difficulty of the subject - the reality of Islamic doctrine and practice with regard to non-Muslims, and sensitive owing to the topicality of the subject and the susceptibilities it now arouses throughout the world. Half a century ago the question of the condition of non-Muslims in the Islamic countries would not have excited anyone. It might have been the subject of a historical dissertation of interest to specialists, the subject of a juridical analysis (I am thinking of the work of Maurice Gaudefroy-Demombynes and of my old colleague G.-H. Bousquet, who wrote extensively on different aspects of Muslim law and history without their research giving rise to the smallest controversy), or the subject of a philosophical and theological discussion, but without passion. That which was related to Islam and the Muslim world was believed to belong to a past that, if not dead, was certainly no more alive than medieval Christianity. The Muslim peoples had no power; they were extraordinarily divided and many of them were subjected to European civilization. Those Europeans who were hostile to colonization showed some sympathy for the "Arabs", but that was as far as it went! And then, suddenly, since 1950, everything changed completely.

    I think that one can discern four stages in this development. The first was the attempt of the Islamic peoples to rid themselves of their conquerors. In this, the Muslims were by no means "original": the Algerian war and all that followed was only a consequence of the first war against the French in Vietnam. It was part of a general process of decolonization. This process, in turn, led the Islamic people to search for their own identity, to seek to be not only free of the Europeans but different, qualitatively different from them. This led to the second step: that which was specific to these peoples was not an ethnic or organizational peculiarity, but a religion. Accordingly, even in left-wing socialist or communist movements in the Muslim world there was a return to religion, so that the idea of a secular state such as Atatürk, for instance, had envisaged was completely rejected. The explosion of Islamic religiosity is frequently considered specific to the Ayatollah Khomeini, but that is not correct. One ought no to forget that the terrible war of 1947 in India between the Muslims and Hindus was fought on a purely religious basis. More than one million people died, and since massacres had not taken place when the Muslims had lived within the Hindu-Buddhist orbit, one may presume that the war was caused by the attempt to set up an independent Islamic republic. Pakistan officially proclaimed itself an Islamic Republic in 1953, precisely at the time when other Muslim peoples were making their great effort to regain their identity. This was the third stage in the Islamic revival. Of course, one ought not to overlook all the conflicts between Muslim states, their divergences of interests and even wars, but these differences should not blind us to a more fundamental reality: their religious unity in opposition to the non-Muslim world. And here we have an interesting phenomenon: I am tempted to say that it is the "others", the "communist" and "Christian" countries, that reinforce the unity of the Muslim world, playing, as it were, the role of a "compressor" to bring about its unification. Finally, and this is obviously the last stage, there was the discovery of Islam's oil resources and economic power, which hardly needs elaboration. Taken as a whole, this process follows a logical sequence: political independence, religious revival, and economic power. It has transformed the face of the world in less than half a century. And we are not witnessing a vast program to propagate Islam, involving the building of mosques everywhere, even in the USSR, the diffusion of Arab literature and culture, and the recovery of a history. Islam now boasts of having been the cradle of all civilizations at a time when Europe was sunk in barbarism and the Far East was torn asunder by divisions. Islam as the origin of all the sciences and arts is a theme that is constantly developed. This idea has perhaps been promoted more in France than in the English-speaking world (although one should not forget the Black Muslims in the United States). If I take the French situation as my yardstick, it is because I feel that it can serve as an example.

    The moment one broaches a problem related to Islam, one touches upon a subject where strong feelings are easily aroused. In France it is no longer acceptable to criticize Islam or the Arab countries. There are several reasons for this: the French have a guilty conscience on account of their invasion and colonization of North Africa, doubly so after the Algerian War (which, by a backlash, has brought about a climate of sympathy for the adversary), and then there has also been the discovery of the fact, true enough, that for centuries Western culture has underestimated the value of the Muslim contribution to civilization (and, as a result, now goes to the other extreme). The flow of immigrant workers of Arab origin into France has established an important group that is generally wretched and despised (with racial overtones). This had led many intellectuals, Christians and others, to be favorably and uncritically disposed toward them. A general rehabilitation of Islam has therefore taken place that has been expressed in two ways. On the intellectual level there is first of all an increasing number of works of an apparently scholarly nature whose declared purpose is to eradicate prejudices and false preconceptions about Islam, with regard to both its doctrines and its customs. Thus these works "demonstrate" that it is untrue that the Arabs were cruel conquerors and that they disseminated terror and massacred those peoples who would not submit to their rule. It is false that Islam is intolerant; on the contrary, it is held to be tolerance itself. It is false that women had an inferior status and that they were excluded from public life. It is false that the jihad (Holy War) was a war fought for material gain, and so on. In other words, everything that has been regarded as historically unquestionable about Islam has been implanted in the West, which, it is claimed, must be corrected by the truth. Reference is made to a very spiritual interpretation of the Koran, and the excellence of the manners and customs in Islamic countries is emphasized.

    But this is not all. In some Western European countries, Islam exerts a special spiritual fascination. Inasmuch as Christianity no longer possesses the religious influence it once had and is strongly criticized, and communism has lost its prestige and is no longer regarded as being the bearer of a message of hope, the religious needs of Europeans require another form in which to find expression, and Islam has been rediscovered. It is no longer a matter of an exchange of ideas between intellectuals, but rather of an authentic religious adherence. Several well-known French intellectuals have made a spectacular conversion to Islam. Islam is presented as a very great advance over Christianity, and reference is made to Muslim mystics. It is recalled that the three religions of the Book (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) are all related. All of them claim Abraham as their ancestor, and the last one, the most recent, must obviously be the most advanced of the three. I am not exaggerating. Among Jews in France there are even serious intellectuals who hope, if not for a fusion, at least for a coming together of the three religions. If I have described what may be observed in Europe, it is because - whether one likes it nor not - Islam regards itself as having a universal vocation and proclaims itself to be the only true religion to which everyone must adhere. We should have no illusions about the matter: no part of the world will be excluded. Now that Islam has national, military, and economic power, it will attempt to extend its religion everywhere, including the British Commonwealth and the United States. In the face of this expansion (for the third time), one should not react by racism, nor by an orthodox dogmatism, nor by persecution or war. The reaction should be of a spiritual and psychological nature (one must avoid being carried away by a guilty conscience), and on a scholarly level. What really happened? What was the reality: the cruelties of the Muslim conquest, or the magnanimity and the beneficence of the Koran? What is correct as regards doctrine and its application to daily life in the Muslim world? And the search that is done must be intellectually serious, relating to specific points. It is impossible to judge the Islamic world in a general way: a hundred different cultures have been absorbed by Islam. It is impossible to study all the doctrines, all the traditions, and all their applications together. Such a study can only be undertaken if one limits oneself to the study of specific questions, disentangling what is true from what is false.

    It is within this context that Bat Ye'or's book The Dhimmi should be placed: and it is an exemplary contribution to this crucial discussion that concerns us all. Here I shall neither give an account of the book nor praise its merits, but shall simply indicate its importance. The dhimmi is someone who lives in a Muslim society without being a Muslim (Jews, Christians, and occasionally "animists"). He has a particular social, political, and economic status, and it is essential for us to know how this "refractory" person has been treated. But first of all, one ought to realize the dimensions of this subject: it is much more than the study of one "social condition" among others. The reader will see that in many ways the dhimmi was comparable to the European serf of the Middle Ages. The condition of serfdom, however, was the result of certain historical changes such as the transformation of slavery, the end of the State, the emergence of the feudal system, and the like, and thus, when these historical conditions altered, the situation of the serf also evolved until his status finally dissapeared. The same, however, does not apply to the dhimmi: his status was not the product of historical accident but was that which ought to be from the religious point of view, and according to the Muslim conception of the world. In other words, it was the expression of the absolute, unchanging, theologically grounded Muslim conception of the relationship between Islam and non-Islam. It is not a historical accident of retrospective interest, but a necessary condition of existence. Consequently, it is both a subject for historical research (involving an examination of the historical sources and a study of their application in the past) and a contemporary subject, most topical in relation to the present-day expansion of Islam. Bat Ye'or's book ought to be read as a work of current interest. One must know as exactly as possible what the Muslims did with these unconverted peoples, because that is what they will do in the future (and are doing right now). It is possible that my opinion on this question will not entirely convince the reader.

    After all, ideas and concepts are known to change. The Christian concept of God or of Jesus Christ is no longer the same for the Christians today as it was in the Middle Ages, and one can multiply examples. But precisely what seems to me interesting and striking about Islam, one of its peculiarities, is the fixity of its concepts. It is clear enough that things change to a far greater extent when they are not set in a fixed ideological mold. The Roman imperial regime was far more susceptible to change than the Stalinist regime because there was no ideological framework to give it a continuity, a rigidity. Wherever the social organization is based upon a system, it tends to reproduce itself far more exactly. Islam, even more than Christianity, is a religion that claims to give a definitive form to the social order, to human relations, and claims to embrace each moment in the life of every person. Thus, it tends toward an inflexibility that most other forms of society have not had. Moreover, it is known that the whole of Islamic doctrine (including its religious thought) took on a juridical form. All the authoritative texts were subjected to a juridical type of interpretation and every application (even on spiritual matters) had a juridical imprint. One should not forget that his legalism has a very definite orientation: to fix - to fix relationships, halt time, fix meanings (to give a word one single and indisputable significance), to fix interpretations. Everything of a juridical nature evolves only very slowly and is not subject to any changes. Of course, there can be an evolution (in practical matters, in jurisprudence, etc.), but when there is a text, which is regarded in some way as an "authoritative" source, one has only to go back to that text and the recent innovations will collapse. And this is exactly what has happened in Islam. Legalism has everywhere produced a rigidity (not an absolute rigidity, which is impossible, but a maximal one) that makes historical investigation essential. One should be aware that when one is dealing with some Islamic term or institution of the past, as long as the basic text - in this case, the Koran - remains unchanged, one can always return to the original principles and ideas whatever apparent transformations or developments have taken place, especially because Islam has achieved something that has always been very unusual: an integration of the religious, the political, the moral, the social, the juridical, and intellectual, thus constituting a rigorous whole of which each element forms an integral part.

    However, the dhimmi itself is a controversial subject. This word actually means "protégé" or "protected person." This is one of the arguments of the modern defenders of Islam: the dhimmi has never been persecuted or maltreated (except accidentally); on the contrary, he was a protected person. What better example could illustrate Islam's liberalism. Here are people who do not accept Islam and, instead of being expelled, they are protected. I have read a great deal of literature attempting to prove that no society or religion has been so tolerant as Islam or has protected or has protected its minorities so well. Naturally, this argument has been used to condemn medieval Christianity (which I have no intention of defending), on the ground that Islam never knew an Inquisition or "witch hunts." Even if this dubious argument is accepted, let us confine ourselves to an examination of the meaning of the term protected person. One must ask: "protected against whom?" When this "stranger" lives in Islamic countries, the answer can only be: against the Muslims themselves. The point that must be clearly understood is that the very term protégé implies a latent hostility. A similar institution existed in early Rome, where the cliens, the stranger, was always the enemy. He had to be treated as an enemy even if there was no situation of war. But if this stranger obtained the favor of the head of some great family, he became his protégé (cliens) and was then able to reside in Rome: he was "protected" by his "patron" from the acts of aggression that any Roman citizen could commit against him. This also meant that in reality the protected person had no genuine rights.  The reader of this book will see that the dhimmi's condition was defined by a treaty (dhimma) between him (or his group) and a Muslim group. This treaty had a juridical aspect, but was what we would call an unequal contract: the dhimma was a "concessionary charter" (cf. C. Chehata on Muslim law), something that implies two consequences. The first is that the person who concedes the charter can equally well rescind it. It is not, in fact, a contract representing a "consensus" arrived at between the two sides. On the contrary, it is quite arbitrary. The person who grants the treaty is the only one who decides what he is prepared to concede (hence the great variety of conditions). The second is that the resulting situation is the opposite of the one envisaged in the theory of the "rights of man" whereby, by the mere fact of being a human being, one is endowed automatically with certain rights and those who fail to respect them are at fault. In the case of the "concessionary charter," on the contrary, one enjoys rights only to the extent that they are recognized in the charter and only for as long as it remains valid. As a person, by the mere fact of one's "existence," one has no claim to any rights. And this, indeed, is the dhimmi's condition. As I have explained above, this condition is unvarying throughout the course of history; it is not the result of social chance, but a rooted concept.

    For the conquering Islam of today, those who do not claim to be Muslims do not have any human rights recognized as such. In an Islamic society, the non-Muslims would return to their former dhimmi status, which is why the idea of solving the Middle East conflicts by the creation of a federation including Israel within a group of Muslim peoples or states, or in a "Judeo-Islamic" state, is a fantasy and an illusion. From the Muslim point of view, such a thing would be unthinkable. Thus the term protected can have two completely opposite meanings according to whether one takes it in its moral sense or in its juridical sense, and that is entirely characteristic of the controversies now taking place concerning the character of Islam. Unfortunately, this term has to be taken in its juridical sense. I am well aware that it will be objected that the dhimmi had his rights. Yes, indeed; but they were conceded rights. That is precisely the point. In the Versailles Treaty of 1918, for example, Germany was granted a number of "rights" by the victors, and that was called a Diktat. This shows how hard it is to evaluate a problem of this kind, for one's conclusions will vary according to whether one is favorably or unfavorably predisposed toward Islam, and a truly scholarly, "objective" study becomes extremely difficult (though personally, I do not believe in objectivity in the humanities; at best, the scholar can be honest and take his own prejudices into account). And yet, precisely because, as has been said, passion is involved, studies of this kind are nevertheless indispensable in all questions concerning Islam.

    So now it must be asked: is this book a serious, scholarly study? I reviewed Le Dhimmi, when it first appeared, in a major French newspaper* (the French edition was far less complete and rich than this one, especially with regard to the documents, notes, and appendixes, which are essential). In response to that review I received a very strong letter from a colleague, a well-known orientalist [Professor Claude Cahen], informing me that the book was purely polemical and could not be regarded seriously. His criticisms, however, betrayed the fact that he had not read the book, and the interesting thing about his arguments (based on what I had written) was that they demonstrated, on the contrary, the serious nature of this work. First of all, he began with an appeal to authority, referring me to certain works whose scholarship he regarded as unquestionable (those of Professors S.D. Goitein, B. Lewis, and N. Stillman), that in his opinion adopt a positive attitude toward Islam and its intolerance toward non-Muslims.

    I conveyed his opinion to Bat Ye'or, who assured me that she was personally acquainted with all three authors and had read their publications dealing with the subject. Given the scope of the author's researches, I would have been surprised if this was not the case. She maintained that an attentive reading of their writings would not justify such a restrictive interpretation. One may now ask: what were the principal arguments that our critic advanced against Bat Ye'or's analysis? He claimed, first, that one cannot generalize about the dhimmi's condition, which varied considerably. But this is precisely the point that Bat Ye'or makes in her very skillfuly constructed book: using common data, from an identical basis, the author has provided documents that permit us to gain an exact idea of these differences, in accordance with whether the dhimmi lived in the Maghreb, or in Persia, Arabia, and so on. And, although we perceive a very great diversity in the reality of the dhimmi's existence, this in no way changed the identical and profound reality of his condition. The second argument put forward by our critic was that the "persecutions" to which the dhimmi was subjected had been greatly exaggerated. He spoke of "a few outbursts of popular anger," but, on the one hand, that is not something that the book is particularly concerned with, and, on the other hand, it was here, precisely, that our critic's bias clearly revealed itself. The "few" outburst, in fact, were historically very numerous, and massacres of dhimmis were frequent. Nowadays we ought not to overlook the considerable evidence (which was formerly overstressed) of the slaughter of Jews and Christians in all the countries occupied by the Arabs and Turks, which recurred often, without the intervention of the forces of order. The dhimmi did, perhaps, have recognized rights, but when popular hatred was aroused, sometimes for incomprehensible reasons, he found himself defenseless and without protection. This was the equivalent of pogroms. On this point it was my correspondent who was not "scholarly." Third, he claimed that the dhimmis had personal and communal rights, but, not being a jurist, he failed to see the difference between personal rights and conceded rights. This aspect has been stressed above and the argument is unfounded, as Bat Ye'or demonstrates by a careful and convincing examination of the rights in question.

    Another point raised was that the Jews attained their highest level of culture in Muslim countries, and that they regarded the states in which they resided as their own. With regard to the first point, I would say that there was an enormous diversity. It is quite true that in certain Muslim countries at some periods, Jews - and Christians - did attain a high level of culture and affluence, but Bat Ye'or does not deny that. And, in any case, that was not anything extraordinary: in Rome, for instance, in the first century A.D. the slaves (who remained slaves) enjoyed a remarkable position, being active in nearly all the intellectual professions (as teachers, doctors, engineers, etc.), directed enterprises, and could even be slave-owners themselves. Nonetheless, they were slaves! The situation of the dhimmis was something comparable to this. They had an important economic role (as is clearly shown in this book) and could be "happy," but they were nevertheless inferiors whose very variable status rendered them narrowly dependent and bereft of "rights." As for the assertion that they considered as their own the stages which ruled them, that was never true of the Christians. And, with regard to the Jews, they had been dispersed throughout the workd for so long that they had no alternative. Yet we know that a real current of "assimilationism" came into existence only in the modern Western democracies. Finally, Bat Ye'or's critic states that "a degradation of the condition of the Jews has taken place in recent times in Islamic countries," but that the dhimmis' condition ought not to be evaluated by what happened to them in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I can only ask whether the author of these criticisms, like so many other historians, has not given way to the temptation to glamorize the past. It is enough to notice the remarkable concordance between the historical sources referring to events, and the basic, authoritative texts to realize that such an evolution was not so considerable.

    If I have dealt with the criticisms at some length, it is because I feel that is is important in order to establish the "scholarly" nature of this book. For my part, I consider this study to be very honest, hardly polemical at all, and as objective as possible (always bearing in mind the fact that I belong to the school of historians for whom pure objectivity, in the absolute sense, cannot exist). The Dhimmi contains a rich selection of source material, makes a correct use of documents, and displays a concern to place each situation in its proper historical context. Consequently, it satisfies a certain number of scholarly requirements for a work of this kind. And for that reason I regard it as exemplary and very significant. But also, within the "living context" of contemporary history, which I described earlier, this is a book that carries a clear warning. The Muslim world has not evolved in its manner of considering the non-Muslim, which is a reminder of the fate in store for those who may one day be submerged within it. It is a source of enlightenment for our time.

Bordeaux, May 1983

* Le Monde, 18 November 1980.

Jacques ELLUL died in 1994 at 82. A jurist, historian, theologian and sociologist, he published more than 600 articles and 48 books, many of which were translated into a dozen languages (more than 20 into English). From 1950-70 he was a member of the National Council of the Protestant Reformed Church of France. Professor at the University of Bordeaux, his oeuvre includes studies on medieval European institutions, the effect of modern technology on contemporary society, and moral theology. In American academic circles, he was widely known for "The Technological Society" written in the 1950's (English edition, 1964) and recognized as one of the most prominent of contemporary thinkers.

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