what was being a Jewish dhimmi like?



Jews are an ethnoreligious group, nation, and tribe originating in the region that is today Israel-Palestine, with a history dating back 5000 years. As a result of conquest, ethnic cleansing, trade, war, genocide, and other factors, the Jewish diaspora spread throughout Southwest Asia, Central Asia, and North Africa as early as 2500 years ago.

During the life of Muhammad and in the 1400 years following his death, Islam spread throughout Asia, Africa, and even parts of Europe as the result of the conquests of various Arab and Islamic empires. As such, Islam became the dominant religion in these regions and Jews — as well as other religious and ethnic minorities — became “dhimmis,” or “protected citizens” of second class status.

Unfortunately, this dhimmi status has been widely glorified, when, in reality, it was highly oppressive to ethnic and religious minorities, often forcing them into poverty and restricting them to ghettos, among other things. The strict enforcement of dhimmi laws varied depending on the time period and region.


Jews were forbidden from building new synagogues. Synagogues could not be taller than mosques and the homes of Jews could not be taller than the homes of Muslims. Jews could not raise their voices during Muslim prayer times. Jewish children could not be taught the Quran. Jewish funerals had to be quiet and Jews could not be buried near Muslims. Jews had to show deference to Muslims; for example, if a Muslim wished to sit where a Jew was sitting, the Jewish person had to give up their seat. Muslims were prohibited from converting to Judaism. Jews had to dress differently than Muslims. Jews had to wear identifying yellow belts or turbans and had to cut off their sidelocks. Jews could not ride the same animals as Muslims and could not use a saddle. Jews were forbidden from taking Muslim titles. Jews could not own weapons. Jews had to host Muslim passerbys for 3 days. Jews could not govern, lead, or employ Muslims. Jews could not buy a Muslim prisoner or slaves who had been allotted to Muslims. Jews could not engrave Arabic inscriptions on signet seals. Jewish witnesses were not admissible in court. Jews were subject to a “jizya” tax. Jews could not join the military or work for the government. When harmed by a Muslim, Jews had to purchase Muslim witnesses, which left Jews with virtually no legal recourse. Jews could not marry a Muslim woman. Jews could not criticize Islam or the Quran on penalty of death.


The dhimmi laws originated with an agreement known as the Pact of Umar. The pact traditionally was attributed to Umar ibn Khattab; however, most historians today agree that the Pact of Umar was not a singular document but actually a set of laws, conditions, and prohibitions that evolved over time.

Let’s back up a little bit. Following Muhammad’s death, the Islamic empires conquered lands exponentially quickly (see second slide). As a result of this rapid colonization, the Muslim authorities were faced with the “problem” of how to handle the conquered Indigenous peoples that resisted conversion to Islam.

This “problem” was solved with a treaty between Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Muslims in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Jerusalem known as the Pact of Umar (this was later expanded to include other ethnoreligious minorities, such as Hindus). This so-called treaty allowed select religious and cultural minorities (known as “People of the Book”) to practice their beliefs so long as they paid the “jizya” tax and abided by a set of restrictive, second-class citizenship laws. In abiding by these laws, Jews and other minorities were ensured protection of their person, families, and possessions (in reality, this wasn’t always the case). In order to free themselves from this second-class status, minorities had to convert to Islam or fight alongside Muslims in battle.


While dhimmi laws affected Jews in all Muslim-controlled territories, the Arab conquest of Palestine (then known as Bilad al-Shaam) drastically changed the demographics of the region now known as Israel-Palestine.

In particular, the Hakim Edict, constructed by “the mad Caliph” Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1021) coerced Jews into either converting to Islam or exile from Israel-Palestine in 1012 in an act of ethnic cleansing.

Prior to this expulsion, Al-Hakim’s implementation of dhimmi laws was particularly oppressive. In addition to other differentiating garments, Jews were forced to wear heavy wooden calf necklaces. In public baths, Jews had to replace the calf with a bell. Alcohol was strictly forbidden, which proved difficult for both Christians and Jews, who used wine for their religious rites. Synagogues and churches were destroyed. Many Jews unwillingly converted to Islam but continued practicing Judaism in secret.


Just as in Palestine, dhimmi laws in Central Asia became particularly oppressive. Specifically, the Bukharan Jews of Uzbekistan (who called themselves “Isro’il” for centuries, meaning “Israelites”) were seriously isolated, humiliated, and disenfranchised.

Jews have lived in Central Asia since at least the fourth century. Bukharan Jews descend from Persian Jews exiled in the fifth century; Persian Jews are descended from the Jews that were exiled from the Kingdom of Judah (Israel-Palestine) during the period of the Babylonian exile (~2500 years ago).

In the 18th century, the persecution of Bukharan Jews drastically worsened. Many were forcibly converted to Islam; those that chose to remain Jewish were so isolated and disenfranchised that they lost much of the traditions and culture that they’d practiced for thousands of years.

In addition to this persecution, Bukharan Jews were humiliated in a number of ways. Many share anecdotes of being slapped in the face when they paid their jizya tax.


The Ottoman Empire officially gave up the dhimmi system in 1856. By that point, however, the damage had been done. 1200 years of systemic subjugation, oppressive policies, forced conversions, and humiliation could not be undone overnight. It’s impossible to quantify the effects.

For the Jews of Palestine, the consequences were especially catastrophic. Those who did not convert or flee were taxed into perpetual poverty, so much so that for centuries they depended on charity from Diaspora Jews to survive.

Notably, anti-Jewish massacres (pogroms) did not end with the dissolution of the dhimmi system. For instance, in Marrakesh, Morocco, 300 Jews were massacred between 1864-1880.

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