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MINORITIES. [This entry comprises two articles. The first is a historical survey of the status and treatment of nonMuslim minorities (principally Jews and Christians) in Muslim societies; the second considers the position of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim societies.]

Minorities in Muslim Societies

The status and treatment of minorities in Muslim societies (or, more generally, under Islam) has always been of special concern to outside powers seeking to establish themselves as their protectors. It has also been a favorite subject of Western Orientalists. Non-Muslim neighbors and observers in the modern age no longer content themselves with traditional notions of tolerance and the absence of persecution, but expect full social, political, and legal equality of Muslims and non-Muslims. Their critical regard has not failed to call forth strong reactions from many Muslims who try to show that on this score, too, Islam has in fact a much better record than other civilizations, particularly the West. The subject therefore continues to be sensitive, raising considerable controversy.

Classical Legal Doctrines. The status and treatment of non-Muslims in Muslim societies (or in the dar al-Islam) have varied greatly over time and space. Legal theory has never been uniform throughout the Muslim world and has often been rather far removed from practice. Traditional rules and regulations clearly show the impact of history, particularly the experience of the Prophet and the conditions of Muslim conquest.

Whereas relations between Muhammad, his followers, and their pagan neighbors had almost from the outset been tense, if not openly hostile, relations with the Jews and Christians of the Arabian Peninsula passed through phases of understanding and cooperation to growing distrust, animosity, and finally confrontation.

Muhammad had originally hoped to be acknowledged as Prophet by the guardians of the monotheist traditions. After his move (the Hijrah) to Medina in 622, the Muslims entered into a formal alliance with the local Jewish and heathen tribes, which was documented in the so-called Constitution (sahifah) of Medina, granting all allies internal autonomy with Muhammad acting as supreme head and arbiter of the newly established community. When recognition of his prophethood was denied and when, under pressure, the political loyalty of the Jewish tribes appeared to be in doubt, Muhammad turned against them until they had been either expelled or killed. By the time of the Battle of Badr (624), the brief spell of political collaboration and unity had ended. Yet in spite of its limited historical relevance and validity, the Constitution of Medina has come to be widely regarded by contemporary Muslims as the blueprint or model of a political community (ummah) that is based on the Qur’an and includes as its citizens both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Mirroring the concerns of the young and vulnerable community, the Qur’an touches repeatedly on the question of whether it is lawful for Muslims to entertain friendly relations (muwalat) with unbelievers. The guiding principle (see surahs 3.28, 5.51, 29.46 and 6o.8-9) is that the believers should treat the unbelievers decently and equitably as long as the latter do not act aggressively toward them. A reactive principle linking the treatment of non-Muslims to their behavior toward the Muslims, this clearly reflects the conditions of the early period, when the Muslims were still a small minority facing large and partly hostile non-Muslim majorities.

The reactive principle appears less prominently in the provisions of Islamic law (fiqh). Underneath the rigid divide between dar al-Islam and dar al-harb (nonMuslim lands) concerning territory, and between Muslims and non-Muslims concerning people, one finds the fine distinctions characteristic of Islamic legal reasoning. The basic distinction was between the pagans, idolaters, or polytheists (sg., kafir) on the one hand, with whom there was to be no social intercourse, ranging from shared food to intermarriage, and who were to be fought until they either converted or were killed or enslaved; and the `people of the book’ (ahl al-kitab) on the other, whose faith was founded on revelation, who were to be granted protection, and with whom social intercourse was allowed. In the course of Muslim conquest and expansion, their numbers were enlarged beyond the Jews, Sabaeans, and Christians mentioned in the Qur’an to include the Zoroastrians (Majus) and eventually the Buddhists and others.

The Hanafi law school extended protection to nonArab pagans, and Malik ibn Anas (d. 796), founder of the Maliki school, even included Arab polytheists provided that they did not belong to the clan of the Prophet, the Quraysh. As a result, the category of polytheists was steadily reduced until, in the modern era, it had lost all practical relevance. At the same time, the state of those monotheist groups (e.g., the Baha’is in Iran or the Ahmadiyah/Qadianis in India and Pakistan) that developed after Islam and were regarded by the respective Muslim majorities as renegades or apostates (sg., murtadd) remained precarious. In legal theory, they had to be fought until they either repented and (re-) converted or were killed.

The status of the “people of the book” was secured by a contract of protection (dhimmah), which in principle was unlimited and which, in accordance with the Qur’anic injunction, “No compulsion in religion” (surah 2.256), guaranteed their life, body, property, freedom of movement, and religious practice (if carried on discreetly). Protection was granted against the payment of tribute, dues, and taxes of various kinds. Out of these dues and taxes two main categories evolved, without, however, being consistently defined: a land tax (kharaj) often to be paid in kind, which soon came to be imposed on all owners of land thus categorized irrespective of their religious affiliation; and a poll tax (jizyah) levied on all able-bodied free adult dhimmi males of sufficient means. The various law schools varied considerably as to the precise definition of the legal rights and obligations of the protected people (dhimmis). The most liberal among the Sunni schools was the Hanafi one (dominant in the Ottoman Empire among other places), which granted dhimmis equal rights with regard to property and parts of criminal law (notably diyah, or blood money), but not in the domains of family law, inheritance, or testimony.

The primary aim of all practical measures and legal provisions seems originally to have been to mark unmistakably the boundary between Muslims and non-Muslims. Basing themselves on the notoriously unclear text of surah 9.29 (“. . . and fight the infidels until they pay the jizyah out of their hands while they are small/ humble”), Muslim jurists tended to translate the submission of non-Muslims to Muslim rule into the requirement of humbleness and humiliation. Prevailing norms and expectations were mirrored in the so-called Pact of `Umar (al-shurut al-`umariyah), attributed to the second caliph, `Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634-644), but probably not formulated before the eighth century. This laid down a number of restrictions regarding dress and hairstyle, worship, the construction and repairing of churches and synagogues, the height of houses, the use of animals, and so forth, which served not only to identify the dhimmis, but also to discriminate against them. ShIN thought and law went further in that it considered non-Muslims to be ritually impure (najis), thereby banning (at least theoretically) social intercourse and intermarriage altogether.

Practice. Practice, however, frequently did not conform to the restrictive notions of the `ulama’ (religious scholars). The actual situation of the dhimmis was more closely conditioned by the economic and political circumstances prevailing within the various Islamic territories and by their relations with the major non-Muslim powers of the day, a correlation still largely valid in the modern age. Yet until well into the twentieth century, the legal norms essentially retained their normative force, and if at any specific moment the dhimmis or individual members of their elites did in fact enjoy better conditions than those prescribed by the jurists, it was condemned as a deviation from how things ought to be. Umayyad Spain and Fatimid Egypt are widely seen as the golden age of harmonious coexistence among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, which mutually enriched their cultures and heritage. If from the thirteenth century onward, intercommunal relations deteriorated, it has been attributed to the impact of the Mongol invasion rather than the Christian crusades. By that time, the gradual spread of Islam had reduced the dhimmi populations of the Middle East from majorities to minorities. Still, community structures were left basically intact.

In return for submission to Muslim rule, nonMuslims enjoyed considerable autonomy in the fields of personal-status law, worship, and education, forming largely self-contained units with their separate religious, legal, social, educational, and charitable institutions. Although there was in most parts no forced segregation in terms of residence or occupation (Morocco and Iran at certain periods excepted), there was often professional specialization, which has been characterized by modern scholars as “ethnoreligious division of labor.” NonMuslims fulfilled complementary economic roles and functions, some of which were regarded as undesirable, lowly, or unclean by Muslims. Most important, nonMuslims were incorporated into Muslim society not as individuals, but as members of their religious communities. The principle found its clearest expression in the Ottoman millet system (derived from the Turkish term for ethnoreligious group or community) as it had evolved by the nineteenth century. It exerted administrative control through a number of legally recognized religious communities (notably the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians as well as the Rabbanite Jews) headed by their clergy with autonomy compensating for the absence of equal status and the denial of political rights.

In the nineteenth century, European influence and expansion, internal migration, social differentiation, and cultural change began to affect the dhimmis’ legal status, communal organization, and place in society. The Ottoman reform edicts of the Tanzimat period (issued in 1839 and 1856) proclaimed the principle of legal equality between Muslims and non-Muslims and replaced the jizyah by general conscription or the payment of an exemption tax (bedel-i asker). Religious personal-status law as a powerful marker of communal separateness, however, was retained. Within the Ottoman and Persian empires, European powers assumed the role of protector of specific religious communities. Individual Christians and Jews managed to benefit from increased educational and economic opportunities, gaining access to legal protection (foreign passports) and privilege (under the system of capitulations). Within the various communities, a rising commercial and professional middle class began to challenge the rule of the clergy and notables. The communities as a whole broke out of the place assigned to them under the old order. But sociocultural change and closer contact also resulted in growing friction and competition, occasionally exploding in intercommunal violence. Even among the cosmopolitan elites, the vertical element of religious and ethnic identification became increasingly superseded but never fully supplanted by the horizontal element of social class.

The role of non-Muslims as intermediaries facilitated their economic advancement, but it also exposed them as dependents-not any longer on the Muslim ruler, but on the colonial system. The rise of nationalism made their position difficult, if not untenable. When religious and ethnic affiliation tended to merge, religious communities could be transformed into nations, and millets turned into minorities. Although certain nationalist movements, such as the Wafd in Egypt or Congress in India, attempted to overcome religious divisions and to unite Muslims, Christians, Jews, or Hindus under the banner of national unity, the tie between nationalism and religion was never entirely dissolved. It became more marked in the course of what has been widely termed the assertion, or surge, of political Islam that since the 1970s made itself felt in the entire Muslim world.

Most written constitutions of Muslim states now confirm the principle of equality of all citizens irrespective of religion, sex, and race. At the same time, however, they usually declare Islam to be the state religion and the shad `ah (the divine law) the principal (or even exclusive) source of legislation. In most cases, the head of state must be a (male) Muslim. In some countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, non-Muslim and other minority groups are guaranteed a fixed share of seats in representative political bodies.

Contemporary Debates. Given the fact that at least as far as constitutional theory is concerned, the principle of equality has been generally accepted, much of the contemporary debate about the status of non-Muslims in the ideal Islamic order has a certain ring of unreality. Individual thinkers, groups, and activists have adopted widely divergent views. Certain militant Islamic groups, such as al-Jihad in Egypt, advocate hostile suspicion toward non-Muslims and the reimposition of the dhimmah regulations. They refer themselves to the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328), who conditioned the toleration of non-Muslims on their utility to the Muslim community, and to the Indo-Pakistani activist Abu alA`la Mawdudi (1903-1979) and the Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb (1919-1966). They also engage in physical violence that is aimed at the regimes in power as much as at the minorities attacked.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are Muslim intellectuals seeking ways to legitimize full legal and political equality of Muslims and non-Muslims in Islamic terms. They clearly perceive the need for radical ijtihad (individual inquiry in legal matters) that takes into account the spirit or maqasid (intentions) of shari`ah rather than the details of fiqh, looking at the public good (almaslahah al-`ammah) rather than the letter of the law. Their primary concern is to preserve the unity of the national or territorial community and to avoid fitnah (disorder) in its modern guise of sectarian violence (fitnah ta’ifiyah). The dilemma rests in the fact that on this particular issue, shari `ah, in order to allow for equality, would have to be literally purged of the provisions of fiqh, whose primary function is to demarcate between Muslims and non-Muslims and to ensure the superiority of the former in this world as well as in the hereafter.

Between the two extremes there is what might be called a mainstream position that proclaims the principle of “same rights, same duties” (“lahum ma land wa`alayhim and `alayna”), but limits legal equality to the “non-religious domain.” The decisive questions are, of course, how the religious sphere proper is defined and whether non-Muslims can hold public office in an Islamic state, which has as its primary raison d’etre realization of the rule of Islam, particularly when the presidency (still frequently termed imamate), judicature, and military command are viewed as religious functions. Faced with the double challenge of traditional restrictive norms and modern egalitarian demands, Muslim reformists resort to a historical-functional approach: the jizyah is interpreted as the functional equivalent of a military tax (and here they have historical evidence on their side), and national liberation as the modern equivalent of jihad (war against nonbelievers). If and when non-Muslims participate in national defense or liberation, the jizyah is no longer incumbent on them; nor do they require any specific kind of protection. They can therefore be granted citizenship of the Islamic state (aljinsiyah al-islamiyah), including the right to vote and to participate in political decision making. But they continue to be debarred from the highest political, military, and judicial functions.

The commonly used term muwatin, therefore, is understood in its literal sense, describing non-Muslims as compatriots sharing the same watan (homeland), not as citizens sharing the same legal and political status. The emphasis is on justice that gives to everyone his or her due, rather than on equality which, so it is argued, attempts to make level or equal what should be kept apart.

[See also Christianity and Islam; Conversion; Dhimmi; Jizyah; Judaism and Islam; Millet; People of the Book.]


Betts, Robert B. Christians in the Arab East: A Political Study. Rev. ed. Atlanta, 1978. Still useful overview of the situation of Christians in the modern Arab world, who have been much less intensively studied than the Jewish communities of the Middle East, past and present.

Braude, Benjamin, and Bernard Lewis, eds. Christians and lews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society. 2 vols. New York, 1982. Collection of essays examining among other things the evolution of the Ottoman millet system.

Bulliet, Richard W. Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History. Cambridge, Mass., 1979. Detailed examination of the modalities and implications of conversion to Islam in the medieval period.

Esman, Milton J., and Itamar Rabinovich, eds. Ethnicity, Pluralism, and the State in the Middle East. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988. Collection of stimulating and in some cases controversial articles, covering the Ottoman legacy and the present situation in various Middle Eastern countries.

Fattal, Antoine. Le statut legal des non-musulmans en pays d’Islam. Beirut, 1958. Classic and detailed presentation of the classical legal doctrines, still useful as a general reference.

Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society. 5 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967-. Classic study of Muslim-Jewish relations in the “golden age” of Fdtimid Egypt.

Khoury, Adel Theodor. Toleranz im Islam. Munich, 198o. Excellent presentation of classical Sunni law and attitudes concerning the status of non-Muslims in Muslim societies as well as the doctrine of jihad.

Khuri, Fuad 1. Imams and Emirs: State, Religion, and Sects in Islam. London, 1990. Stimulating analysis of the position of religious minorities as compared to Islamic sects in the modern Middle East. Kramer, Gudrun. The Jews in Modern Egypt, 1914-1952. Seattle, 1989. Lewis, Bernard. The Jews of Islam. Princeton, 1984. Judiciously balanced study of the evolution, decline, and end of Muslim-Jewish symbiosis.

Noth, Albrecht. “Moglichkeiten and Grenzen islamischer Toleranz.” Saeculum 29 (1978): 190-204. Concise analysis of the concept of Islamic tolerance, emphasizing the relevance of historical reality rather than of legal theory.

Serjeant, R. B. “The `Constitution of Medina’ ” and “The Sunnah Jami’ah, Pacts with the Yathrib Jews, and the tahrim of Yathrib.” In Studies in Arabian History and Civilisation. Reprint, London, 1981. Very thorough, though not undisputed, examination of the so-called Constitution of Medina.

Stillman, Norman A. The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book. Philadelphia, 1979. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. Philadelphia, 1991. Exemplary and densely documented studies of one non-Muslim minority from the advent of Islam to the present day.

Tritton, A. S. The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of `Umar (1930). London, 1970. Detailed, though rather unsystematic presentation of classical legal doctrines and the so-called Pact of `Umar.


Muslim Minorities in Non-Muslim Societies

About one third of the estimated 1.2 billion Muslims in the world today are living as religious and political minorities in non-Muslim societies. A more-precise estimation of the size of Muslim populations in many countries is difficult because of the absence of reliable demographic statistics. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of ethnic or religious classifications in most national statistics. Estimates of even relatively small Muslim minority populations vary widely: for example, in Hungary one estimate claims 6,000 Muslims and another claims 105,000; in Poland, 15,000 against 333,000; and in Romania, 35,000 against an estimate of 346,000. Even in countries with large populations much controversy exists-for example, in China estimates range from 14.6 to 144 million. The number and proportion of Muslims in countries where they are in the majority is generally known and accepted. It is only when they are in a minority status that not only their numerical strength (as in China) but their very existence (as in Albania) is questioned. (See Saleha Abedin, “Muslim Minority and Majority Countries: A Comparative Study of Demographic, Social and Economic Data,” Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 10.2 [July 19891: 375424).

The etiology of Muslim minority communities is varied. Ali Kettani (Muslim Minorities in the World Today, London, 1986) has classified Muslim minority communities into three types based on their historical origins and current situation: they were once in the majority but later lost power and prestige and through attrition and absorption became a minority, as in Palestine, Ethiopia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina; they were in minority as rulers, but their rule ended, and they remained as religious minorities, as in India and the Balkans; they were non-Muslims who became converted to Islam in a nonMuslim environment, as in Sri Lanka.

Minorities are generally defined in terms of numbers, indicating that in their area of residence they are proportionately less than all the other groups combined, including the majority. However, Muslim minorities which constitute a small proportion of large populations, such as those of China, India, and the republics of the former Soviet Union, make up numerically significant communities and often exceed in population size many of the Muslim majority nations. Minority status, therefore, is not simply a game of numbers. Minorities can also be defined in terms of ideological affiliations. Thus, minorities are those whose system of ideas or values are distinct, to a greater or lesser degree, from that of the majority around them. We might have religious or political minorities who form a subculture (such as Protestants in Europe, Catholics in America, Muslims in Europe and North America) and sometimes a counterculture (such as Catholics in Northern Ireland, Palestinians in Israel, Moros in the Philippines). Minorities are also identified in racial and ethnic terms, such as the classification of nationalities in Central and Eastern Europe, or under the euphemism of “visible minorities,” as in Canada. Minorities are defined in terms of lesser degree of political participation or access to economic resources, as in the case of the colonies in Africa and Asia under British and French rule, or in South Africa, where until 1994 a disadvantaged majority remained subservient to a powerful political minority.

A particular minority might have one or a combination of the above characteristics and in varying degrees of intensity and relevance. Muslim minorities come in all of the above forms and in significant numbers and proportions that cannot be ignored in most countries of the world. The one common denominator that approximates a generic classification is their religious affiliation, professed or residual, current or historic, that gives them an identity with an onus of responsibility.

Besides having to contend with the hardships of minority living in the middle of an alien or alienated majority, Muslim minorities face the additional challenge of defining their own position in the context of the larger Muslim ummah (community). Ironically for them, the “in-group” is the physically distant ummah of which they consider themselves a part, and the “out-group” is seen as the majority non-Muslim community within which they reside.

The concept of ummah is very crucial to the understanding of the Muslim minority situation, contextually as well as topically. Muhammad Asad, in his wellknown translation and commentary on the Qur’an, explains, “the word ummah primarily denotes a group of living beings having certain characteristics or circumstances in common” (The Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar, 1980, p. 177). Thus, he points out, the term ummah is often used as synonymous with community, people, nation, genus, generation. In his brief but seminal article on the Qur’anic concept of ummah, `Abdullah alAhsan Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 7.2 [July 19861: 6o6-616) identifies a number of usages from the Qur’an and classifies them as follows: the exemplar of an ideological group of people such as Abraham (16.120); a particular period or span of time that applies to a particular community (7.34 and 11.8); a group of more committed people within the larger community (7.159); a circumstantially or professionally unified group of people (28.23); a community based on common beliefs, law, and custom (5.48). Thus, ummah as a community based on shared beliefs and experiences is found in as many variations and forms as there are differences among nations and peoples. The Muslim ummah, however, has no variants, for it is based on one set of beliefs, focusing on the oneness of Allah and the prophethood of Muhammad and one code of practice guided by shari`ah (the divine law) and shared experiences through common history of Islam and Muslimsthe early persecutions, the trials and triumphs, the flowering and denouement, all have come to characterize the common Muslim experience leading to the emergence of an “ummah consciousness.”

The Qur’an defines the Muslim ummah as those who surrender to Allah and follow his guidance as sent through the prophet Muhammad who was chosen to be a messenger to all humanity. Muslims, therefore, are a group of people committed to a set of beliefs and entertaining a sense of mission and a special role in history. Allah says in the Qur’an: “And thus we have willed you to be a community of the middle way [ummatan wasatan] so that you may be a witness to the truth before all mankind” (surah 2.143).

The constitution adopted by the first Islamic state established by the Prophet in Medina declares in its first article: “Believers and Muslims of Quraysh and Yathrib and those who follow and meet them, and strive with them, constitute one single community [ummatan wahidatan] to the exclusion of all others in mankind [min duni al-nds].” (For a concise discussion of the articles see W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh, 1968, especially pp. 130-134.)

In the Islamic tradition, then, all Muslims belong to the ummah. All non-Muslims, though living within the same territorial confines, are outside the ummah. However, when Muslims are the dominant community they are required to abide by the rules governing the rights and obligations of non-Muslim minorities, al-dhimmi (the protected ones), as specified in the Qur’an and the hadiths (traditions of the Prophet). Thus the dhimmi are those nonbelievers who reside within the Islamic political domain. They live in dar al-Islam under the protection of the Muslims, and in lieu of rendering military service they make payment of a nominal tax called jizyah which entitles them to protection. (See AbdulHameed AbuSulayman, “Al-Dhimmi and Related Concepts in Historical Perspective,” JIMMA 9.1 [January 1988]: 8-29). However, nonbelievers like believers are creatures of the One God, created to inherit the earth, khald’if al-ard (vicegerents) with honor and dignity in their human person and with equal claims to the rububiyah (sustainership) of God. They are entitled to the hiddyah (guidance) from God and, like all children of Adam, are exalted with the power of choice (the ability to say no), thereby attaining a status higher than that of the angels. Murad Hoffman refers the collection of these rules and injunctions as the Qur’anic Minority Statute (Islam: The Alternative, Reading, 1993, p. 168).

If Muslims are living as parts of non-Muslim communities, their treatment by the non-Muslim majority is subject to the varying conditions that are operational in that setting. There is an on-going debate, however, on what the ummah can expect from the Muslim minority and an equally strong debate on what can be expected from the ummah for the cause of those Muslims living under non-Muslim jurisdiction.

Since the Muslim minority community is often perceived by the majority of Muslims as an integral part of the larger Muslim community, albeit a part that is living outside its jurisdiction, minority status is often seen as a transitory phase, a redressable accident of history. Thus, as it was often done through history, the Muslim minorities might be encouraged or advised to pursue one of the following two courses: when subjected to the hardships of living in non-Muslim societies, Muslim minorities undertake hijrah (migration) to a Muslim or another more hospitable land or respond to repression and threats to their survival by jihad (taking up arms or undertaking extraordinary effort). The Qur’anic sanction for this line of argument is sought in the following verse from the Qur’an: “Those who believe and suffer exile and strive with might and main in God’s cause with their goods and their persons, have the highest rank in the sight of God: they are the people who will achieve salvation” (surah 9.20).

It is obvious that in the areas where Muslim minorities live Islam is not a dominant religion or culture, and there is no positive inducement for the growth and nurture of Islamic values. In many of these areas Muslim minorities encounter active hostility against anything Islamic and complain of calculated efforts by the majority to ensure that Islamic norms do not prosper, and that even in their individual lives Muslims cease to render allegiance to Islam or to pursue the Islamic way of life. Such is the situation, sometimes mild, sometimes aggravated, in which one out of every three Muslims is living today.

In the early history of Islam we have two models for minorities to follow. One is the Mecca model, where Muslims facing persecution opted for hijrah, and the other is the Abyssinia model, in which a state of tolerance and peaceful coexistence is achieved within a nonMuslim majority context through exerting extraordinary effort. For Muslim minorities today, the adoption of one of these two models is inevitable. Both are viable, yet one might be more workable than the other. The third alternative of doing nothing will maintain a state of continuous belligerence which is neither necessary nor desirable. Thus a minority Muslim is expected to become a muhdjir (migrant) or else become a mujdhid (one who strives for a cause). When Muslims are living in non-Muslim lands it is incumbent on them to organize with other Muslims to preserve and enhance their Islamic identity. Yet the isolationist approach to preservation is excluded on the basis of an equally important need and indeed duty of the Muslim to make da’wah (invite people to Islam). Thus, dialogue with the nonMuslims is encouraged both for the purpose of mission and for the objective of attaining peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims in their lands.

Historically, the ddr al-Islam has been confronted not only with the realm of the other, in principle hostile, not-yet Muslim world (ddr al-harb), but it has also been complimented by the realm of compromise (ddr al-sulh) beginning with the famous armistice agreement which the Prophet signed with the people of Mecca two years before returning to that city in 628. Thus the options available to Muslim minorities are varied, Islamically valid and practically viable. Problems remain as to the role of the larger Muslim ummah in the affairs of the Muslim minorities living “beyond their jurisdiction.” Should the ummah do something about this situation? Should the worldwide Muslim ummah be concerned about its constituents in diaspora?

Most Muslims would argue that the ummah has very little choice. If Muslims follow the spirit of their faith then they have obligations toward each other, wherever they reside, individually and collectively. These obligations derive from the Islamic concept of the brotherhood of the faithful. Although in doctrinal terms this concept is present in other faiths as well, in Islam it is spelled out in very clear terms: “And the believers, both men and women are the protectors of one another” (Qur’an 9.7). Elsewhere the Qur’an says, “All believers are but brethren” (10.49)

One of the most concise, yet regnant statements in the Qur’an with regard to the obligations that faith imposes on individuals as well as collectivities is to be found in surah 103.3, which prescribes four categories of obligations: faith (iman), action (a`mal), reinforcement in faith (tawdsi bi-al-haqq), and reinforcement in perseverance (tawdsi bi-al-sabr). Faith and action are individual obligations. Since faith is not an acquisition which once acquired can thereafter be taken for granted, it needs continuous nurturing through action (see Qur’an 2.214). This process of interaction of faith and action makes an individual into an Islamic “whole” and on him it becomes obligatory to reinforce others in preserving and enhancing their Islamic “wholeness.”

The last two categories of obligations (tawdsi bi-alhaqq and tawdsi bi-al-sabr) are social in nature, involving the individual within the larger Muslim community and requiring policies, plans of action, and methodology to implement them. In contemporary Muslim populations, majority as well as minority, many national and international organizations, formal associations, centers for learning and research, and even organized community groups have become active and outspoken in their efforts to serve Islam and Muslims. The crisis of minority living need no longer be embedded in a litany of woes; it can be confronted with the verve of the mujahid and the elan of the muhdjir. However, caution should be exercised in preserving the true nature of this resurgent “ummah consciousness” and preventing it from deteriorating into Pan-Islamic consciousness, the particular from determining the universal, the political from subverting the religious and social.

Most Muslims in Muslim majority countries postulate certain inescapable political obligations toward their coreligionists who reside as minorities in non-Muslim states. This impels them to energetic expressions of concern over the plight of these minority communities, generally in times of crisis. In some cases Muslim majority intervention antagonizes the perpetrators of the crisis who invariably resent this as interference from the outside.

Contemporary Muslim societies lack clear policies in respect to Muslim minority communities, and there is much confusion about the exact nature of the relationship that should obtain between the ummah and the Muslim minorities. From the point of view of the minorities themselves the issue is not very clear and adds to their minority predicament. The Muslim ummah can thus elect one of two options: adopt a patron-client relationship in regard to the Muslim minorities, treating them as spiritual and cultural (and even economic and political) colonies of the Muslim world on alien soil; or treat minorities as autonomous bodies, sharing the attribute of sovereignty with their non-Muslim compatriots and at par with Muslim majority communities.

The first option is more favored and most widely accepted among Muslim majority communities who find in the Qur’anic verse, “and the believers, both men and women, are the protectors of one another” (surah 9-70) an irrevocable obligation of the ummah toward the Muslim minorities. However, in terms of policy and action Muslim majorities are hedged in by the contemporary political and economic realities and are left with the second option.

What we euphemistically term as the Muslim world is actually a number (forty-six or thereabout) of national sovereign entities with independent political and economic structures, with policies and priorities defined by their national interests. These entities have no doubt formed several regional alliances or economic and trade agreements among themselves. But there is nothing particularly Islamic about them. They have their exact parallels, predating them, in the non-Muslim world. Even the largest of these, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), in its conception, structure, and functioning is not much different from the EEC, the OAS, or the UN with its various affiliates. They have no mandate for action even within their own member states. How can OIC then expect to be heard by sovereign entities outside the range of their membership? Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that there exists among all Muslims a sense of mutual belonging. It may not be institutionalized in form, but it can be invoked readily and forcefully whenever occasion arises, and it forms the characteristic feature of the Muslim community worldwide.

“Ummah consciousness” is an integral part of Muslim faith and belief and inheres in Islamic doctrine. It derives from the Qur’anically imposed duty incumbent on those “who have attained to faith, enjoining upon one another patience in adversity [sabr] and enjoin(ing) upon one another compassion [marhamah]” (surah 90.17). Ummah consciousness, then, is the epitome of that concern, that feeling of solidarity which Muslims every where feel for each other. Patience in Or is not an argument in favor of inaction. In the Qur’anic meaning sabr is a very positive concept which brings out the best in man, separating the weak from the strong (surah 2.45-46).

The exercise of marhamah as the twin attribute of sabr ensures an individual’s continued adherence to human values and acts as a brake against savage impulses. It reminds Muslims that whatever the provocation and however severe the crisis, they cannot adopt just any means to resolve their predicament. They have of necessity to be guided in their choices by sabr and marhamah, and in practicing these principles they will be preserving their own humanity. To formulate these into plans of action in contemporary societies is the challenge of great magnitude facing the Muslim ummah.

Is it, however, possible to lead an Islamic life under the rule and control of non-Muslims? Muslims have rarely had this experience before in their history. If they were in numerical minority in non-Muslim lands they have either lived as rulers (in India, for instance, despite the fact that their population never exceeded io percent, they ruled the country for close to a thousand years), or they enjoyed the protection of a powerful Muslim state. For centuries Muslims were such a dominant world power, that non-Muslim states could not conceive of mistreating Muslims living within their jurisdiction. All Muslims are familiar with the wa-i`tasimah syndrome in Islamic history. It signifies the ummah’s obligations toward Muslim minorities and is based on the historic launching of an army by Caliph Mutawakkil in the third/ninth century, in response to a lone woman in Sindh’s call for help.

At the close of the twentieth century the situation is different. Muslims currently living as minorities can hardly expect any immediate change in their minority status or expect instant help from their Muslim majority brethren. The most relevant question to consider now is: how should they learn to adjust themselves, emotionally and religiously, as well as economically and politically, to their minority status? Thus, any deliberations on the status of Muslim minorities should candidly discuss ways in which Muslims living in non-Muslim states can learn to lead useful, productive, and comfortable lives, without in any way compromising their Islamic identity.

A second related subject of discussion emanates from the fact that Muslims, wherever they live, regard themselves as constituting one ummah. Under the present circumstances, when approximately one-third of them (350 million) live as minorities in sovereign, non-Muslim states, what should be the proper relationship between the Muslim minorities and the Muslim majorities? Should Muslim governments or Muslim international organizations continue to forcefully support every cause of Muslim minorities and condemn all non-Muslim governments whenever and wherever a Muslim minority in these regions feels that any of its rights is being violated? Would this be in the long term interests of the minority itself? What kind of climate of peace and harmony would this create at the international level? How would it affect the relations of Muslim states with nonMuslim states? What about economic, trade, and other relations between them? Should the minority communities be encouraged to expect from the ummah support in all matters of dispute with their non-Muslim countrymen? How would this affect the minority’s day-today relationship with people with whom it is destined to live in perpetuity?

If any of these scenarios are not Islamically feasible, then what is the proper form of relationship between the ummah and the Muslim minority communities? A candid discussion of these and other related issues is necessary to understand the true nature of the Muslim minority problem in the contemporary world.

There are grounds to argue that no effort to uplift the condition, moral or material, of Muslim minorities anywhere is likely to bear fruit unless it also touches on and enriches the total life of their societies of residence. The minority problem is essentially a problem between the Muslim minority and the non-Muslim majority among whom it resides. Hence, there is a need for understanding and accommodation between these two parties. If the objective is to enhance and maintain the quality of Islamic life among Muslim minority communities and if these communities are to be strengthened in their steadfastness to Islamic practice as well as beliefs, the avenues of interaction and peaceful coexistence with the non-Muslim majorities must be explored.

It should be recognized that the problems of Muslim minorities are different in many ways from the problems of the Muslim world. To deal with their own particular situation Muslim minorities have to achieve a social and political identity that is distinct from the Muslim majority communities, and in this the Muslim majority communities should extend their assistance and support. This is ultimately in their best interests. The ummah deliberations should be future and solution oriented.

Concrete and specific proposals should be formulated. Practical and functional ideas should be presented and examined. Muslim minorities in any country should not be used as pawns in the game of power between Muslim states and non-Muslim states.

Furthermore, the Muslim world should not only encourage the Muslim minorities to pursue justice and truth (ta’maruna bi-al-ma’ruf), they should also caution and advise them when they appear to be taking the wrong path (tanhawna `an al-munkar). Islam, being a code of conduct covering all aspects of human life, provides clearcut rules on how a struggle for rights and redress of wrongs is to be conducted. Finally, efforts to achieve a life of security, equality, and dignity for minorities in their societies of residence would be effective only if both Muslim majorities and minorities are truly convinced that minority living is not a historical or even a moral aberration.

Considering the fact that more than one-third of the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world today are living in the minority situation from which there are no imminent chances of an exit, a sincere and honest effort to engage in leading, under non-Muslim aegis, a fully rewarding Islamic life should not just be aspired for, but also attempted. Islam, as Muslims believe, is a way of life which encapsulates all human situations and vouchsafes guidance for spatial and temporal infinity. “We”, God assures in the Qur’an, “have neglected nothing in (this) Book” (surah 6.38).

[See also Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs; Ummah; and entries on individual non-Muslim countries.]


Abedin, Saleha M. “Demographic Consequences of Muslim Minority Consciousness: An Analysis.” Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 1-2 (Winter 1979-Spring 198o): 97-114. Relates minority consciousness to demographic conditions, and discusses its relevance for religious fertility differentials.

Abedin, Syed Z. “A Word about Ourselves. ” Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 13.1 (January 1992): 1-25. Written in the spirit of a “state of the union message,” this article identifies problems faced by Muslim minorities and takes a long-term perspective, suggesting programs and policies for implementation.

Ahsan, `Abdullah al-. OIC: The Organization of the Islamic Conference. Herndon, Va., 1988. In this study of a modern-day Islamic political institution, the author provides an overview of Islamic political philosophy, with particular reference to the concept of ummah.

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. “The Meaning of Ummah in Qur’an.” History of Religions 15.1 (August 1975): 35-70. Excellent article on the subject of ummah and the Qur’an.

Faruqi, Isma’il R. al-, and Lois Lamya’ al-Faruqi. The Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York, 1986. Comprehensive coverage of the world of Islam and its legacy in art, science, law, and philosophy. A beautifully produced 512-page volume with three hundred photographs, drawings, and other illustrations, and seventy-five original maps. Gibb, H. A. R. “The Community in Islamic History.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107.2 (1963): 173-176. Succinct historical account of the emergence of Muslim ummah as a lawbased community.

Ibn Hisham, `Abd al-Malik. The Life of Muhammad. Translated by Alfred Guillaume. Oxford, 1935 Well-received translation of a popular biography of the life of the Prophet.

Irving, Thomas B. Islam Resurgent: The Islamic World Today. Lagos, 1979. Reprinted as The World of Islam. Brattleboro, Vt., 1984. Historical account of Muslim communities around the world, with particular emphasis on the contributions of Muslims to science and art. Also includes a useful classification of countries and areas by percentage of Muslims in the population, although population figures should be updated and sources identified.

Islamic Council of Europe. Muslim Communities in Non-Muslim States. London, 198o. One of the first among recent books on Muslim minorities, containing a collection of essays on minority problems, human and constitutional rights, and Muslim personal law. Some of the papers were presented at the first world conference on Muslim minorities, held in London, 1980.

Kettani, M. Ali. “Muslims in Non-Muslim Societies: Challenges and Opportunities.” ” Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 11.2 (July 1990): 226-233. Considers Muslim minority living as an opportunity for da’wah (Islamic call).

Khalidi, Omar. “Muslim Minorities: Theory and Experience of Muslim Interaction in Non-Muslim Societies.” journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 10.2 (July 1989): 425-437. Focuses on Muslim minority and non-Muslim majority relationships and provides recommendations for practical implementation.

Masud, Muhammad Khalid. “Being Muslim in a Non-Muslim Polity.” journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 1o.1 (1989): 118128. Explores Muslim minority options in the light of three historical models.

Serjeant, R. B. “The Constitution of Madinah.” Islamic Quarterly 8 (June 1964): 3-16. Interprets the nature of the document and the historical antecedents that influenced its formulation.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/minorities/

  • writerPosted On: August 13, 2014
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