Bat Ye’or

This is not a book about Islam;  it examines neither its expansion nor its civilization.  Its object is to study the large number of peoples subjugated by Islam and to determine, as far as possible, the complex processes – both endogenous and exogenous – that brought about their gradual extinction. A phenomenon of dissolution, when all is said and done, which is hardly exceptional and part and parcel of the evolutionary cycles of human societies.

These dhimmi peoples – that is to say, "protected peoples" – represent those populations, custodians of scriptural revelations, who were conquered by Islam.  In Iran and the Mediterranean basin, these populations englobed Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews.

For guidance, I used a wide range of sources which emanate from these peoples and often had the additional advantage of being contemporary with the events described.  As these testimonials are confined to certain regions and periods, the dearth of material has, of necessity, determined the areas both of clarity and of silence in this study.

This work was originally conceived as a new French edition of Le Dhimmi, based on the revised and considerably expanded English edition.  It is therefore hardly surprising that a resemblance still remains, particularly in chapter 3 (chapter 2 of Le Dhimmi).  However, the abundance of new material gave rise to further analyses.  Determined to keep the book to a manageable size, I was prompted to reduce considerably the section concerning the Jews of Islam, which had been widely covered in my earlier publications.  Essential documents appear in both books.

Whereas there are innumerable studies and specialized works on the history of Islamic civilization, publications on the vanquished peoples remain fragmentary and limited.  This makes all the more valuable those books which examine the organization and history of ethnoreligious groups according to geographic boundaries and religious affiliation.  The present work is not a chronological recapitulation of the history of the various peoples who were subjugated by the Arabs, Turks, and Persians.  That task should be undertaken by a group of historians who would not only be able to master Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, but also Spanish, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, the Slavonic languages and the dialects spoken by all those populations who, over the centuries, constituted the subjected dhimmis.  These peoples have left plentiful evidence of their past:  chronicles, narratives, poems and other documents.  In other words, it would be impossible for any one person to encompass, in its effervescence and its contradictions, the entirety of a history which spans three continents.

My research follows a thematic structure dictated by the broad extent of the subject and its extreme difficulty. In spite of its disadvantages, this method does permit a synthesis of the themes within a long-term perspective.  The idea of a general treatment of the history of the dhimmis was inspired by the research of the Serbian geographer and ethnologist Jovan Cvijic.  In his essay on "human geography" (1918), the author defines the area of Islamic influence in the Balkans with the help of numerous maps and examines its variations in relation to demography, the nature of the soil, climates and urban or rural environment.  My own study attempts to uncover the legal, sociological and historical framework which determined the evolution of the dhimmi peoples, yet far from exhausting the material, it barely sketches a rough outline.

I am indebted to Bechir Gemayel for the term "dhimmitude", which he mentioned on two occasions.  This word could not better express the actual subject of my research (begun in 1971), on the manifold and contradictory aspects of a human experience which millions of individuals endured over the centuries, sometimes for more than a millennium.

The specific world of dhimmitude emerged from the documents, and the book itself – with its thematic reflections, landmarks and stages – was constructed in relation to, and with the aid of, the sources.  If they differ somewhat on the chronology of dates – often dubious – they nevertheless agree on essential points.  If witnesses, in different contexts and at different periods, describe certain facts based on the special provisions of jurist-theologians, such as the regulations concerning dress, these data can be regarded as a constant element in the status of the dhimmi.

I have approached this theme as an object of historical research and I have not considered it necessary to resort to apologetic formulas or historical embellishments which, under cover of objectivity, have unfortunately become the norm in this field. Evidently, such a study can only project a negative picture of the history of the Muslim peoples, since it is integrated – sometimes by chance circumstances, sometimes by political design – within the actual process of the disintegration experienced by the conquered peoples.  Despite this important disadvantage, I did not feel it expedient to abandon this research, thinking that the prestige of a civilization, which has made such eminent contributions at both the cultural and scientific level would hardly suffer if, alongside its splendid and triumphant epic, a very small place in history was set aside for these forgotten peoples.  I hope that I shall not be unduly criticized for offering them a tribute of well-deserved sympathy and respect.

The dhimmi status examined in this study only concerns Christians and Jews in the Mediterranean basin, Anatolia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Iran.  The Zoroastrians, whose influence was preponderant on Islamic civilization, are only mentioned incidentally.

Having already published a considerable number of documents on the Middle Ages and the first half of the nineteenth century, I have limited myself here to little-known pre-medieval sources, particularly on the status of the peasantry, and to certain unpublished nineteenth century documents.  The reader interested in the intervening period may consult the documentary section in the 1985 English edition of The Dhimmi, Jews and Christians under Islam (4th printing, 1996).

For this English edition of Les Chrétientés d'Orient entre Jihad et Dhimmitude, several nineteenth-century documents from the British Public Record Office have been enlarged and also from the Chronography of Bar Hebraeus.  A document on Sudan from the late nineteenth century was added, as were several illustrations, others having been omitted.

© Bat Ye'or 2001