Monday, June 30, 2008

All That Glitters Is Not a Golden Age

Someone invariably proposes that the jizya tax on conquered non-Muslims shows the generosity and genius of Muslim conquerors who, rather than slaying all non-believers, magnanimously allowed a captive workforce to remain alive as laborers enriching the caliphate. The sufferance of dhimmis to remain on their land or act as government functionaries is also held out as an indicator of Islamic tolerance.

It is closer to the truth to say that the numerous taxes levied on the conquered peoples, including the kharaj (land tax), and the jizya (poll tax), were emblematic of the rapacious governing theory of Islam militarily triumphant: the financing of the caliphate by expropriation of conquered wealth as booty, by taxation, and by forcing peasants to work the land to enrich Arab usurpers. Then, when resources were depleted, and a peasantry exhausted by taxation and abuse fled the land, violence and cruelty were brought to bear to squeeze the remainder until only a wasteland remains.

Moreover, the use of dhimmi administrators and functionaries was purely pragmatic, as counting, tracking, and extorting money from vast conquered populations of different tongues, religions, and social structures, was best accomplished by cooperative leaders close to and familiar with the defeated peoples.

Nor, as both Koran and hadith make clear, is dhimmi status any guarantee of protection against arbitrary violence, murder, robbery, or reduction of one's family to slavery, as non-Muslims have no rights recognized under Islamic jurisprudence.

Bat Ye’or describes the some historical realities of the “Golden Age” of Islamic tolerance as follows:

. . . The famous qaid of Baghdad, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub (731-98), wrote a basic work on this subject [of the kharaj land tax] of the caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809) during what is generally called the classical period of Islam, considered the most prestigious in Arab-Muslim civilization both because of its cultural influence and the opulence of a court endowed with fabulous wealth. Invoking the authority of hadith, the author recommends tax collectors to treat the tributaries with clemency and justice. Notwithstanding a chapter devoted to restrictive provisions concerning Jews and Christians, this work of theoretical law nonetheless confirms the traditional image of a government inspired by tolerance and equity, a genuine “Golden Age” for the Jews and Christians subjected to Islamic justice.

Yet, a remarkable chronicle written by a Monophysite monk, the pseudo-Patriarch Dionysius--a native of Tell-Marhe, a village in Mesopotamia--gives a precise description of the fiscal situation of non-Muslims. The chronicle, completed in 774, provides almost photographic detail of one of the turning-points in history. The description covers Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in the eight century. At that time, the dhimmis formed the majority of the rural population: small landowners, artisans, or share-croppers farming the fiefs allotted to Arabs; a numerous Jewish peasantry lived alongside Christian villagers: Copts, Syrians, and Nestorians. Ths chronicle reveals the mechanisms which destroyed the social structure of a flourishing dhimmi peasantry in the whole Islamized Orient. The continuous process of the confiscation of lands by the infiltration of Bedouin tribes with their flocks or by Arabs who settled at the time of the first wave of Islamization was aggravated by the government’s damaging fiscal oppression . . . .

. . . . The peasantry was not alone in suffering from the tax authority. The chronicle mentions extortions from notables and the execution of “free men.” This drive to track down dhimmi peasants, organized throughout the Abbasid Empire, required a considerable number of participants, who were joined by brigands greedy for plunder and pillage. The accommodation and maintenance of the tithe owners and tax collectors and the gifts they demanded from their hosts completed the ruin of the villages.

The chronicler provides information on the situation in Palestine:

The caliph moved into the western region in order to go to Jerusalem. He wreaked havoc, turned everything topsy turvy, terrorizing and devastating, to a degree worse than in Mesopotamia. He acted as Daniel had prophesied of the Antichrist himself. He turned the temple into a mosque, because the little that remained of Solomon’s [Temple] became a mosque for the Arabs [. . .]. He repaired the ruins of Jerusalem. He attacked men, took their property and livestock, particularly buffalos. He did not willingly leave anything to anyone whomsoever he was. When he had perpetrated every sort of evil there, as he had done in Mesopotamia, he returned in early winter to Mesopotamia to reside there and to continue his destruction.

In Egypt at the same period, the dhimmis, ruined by taxation, abandoned their lands and villages. Pursued by the tax collectors, they were brought back by force. Taking advantage of the right of conquest over non-Muslims, the state recouped its losses from the insolvent Coptic peasantry by enslaving their children. The contemporary chronicle of pseudo-Dionysius describes in realistic detail a situation totally contrary to the one conveyed in the above mentioned theoretical and abstract treatise written later by Abu Yusuf. This is a picture of peasants and artisans stripped of everything, forced to hide and flee from place to place--a hunted population, on whose exploitation was built the ostentations of the Abbasid court and the wealth of the umma.

Some centuries later, as a consequence of subsequent emigration by nomadic Turks and jihad, there developed a similar situation in Anatolia, in the Turkish emirates, and in the Balkans. The allocation of fiefs and the oppression of the Christian peasantry caused a similar evolution, with exodus to the towns. Like the Arab conquerors of earlier times, the Turkish sultans Osman and Orkhan also adopted measures for their new European possessions which immobilized the Christian peasants on their fiefs and forbade them to flee or to emigrate. Anxious to preserve productivity from the land and the volume of taxation, the Ottomans protected the peasants. Some Christian regions, the island of Chios, for example, even benefited from a semi-autochthonous administration which guaranteed a better economic yield and a higher tax. In remote and inaccessible regions of Serbia, the Turkish administration left a large degree of autonomy to the villages, where mayors, elected by the population, allocated taxes and served as intermediaries to the Turks. In this way, the Serbian national language and traditions were preserved.

This relatively tolerant and enlightened policy toward their Christian raya subjects on the part of the Ottomans explains the survival of an indigenous peasantry in European Turkey after centuries of Muslim domination, while in the Arabized regions, with the exception of Egypt, the Christian and Jewish peasantries had been almost totally eliminated.

SOURCE: Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (1996). Pp 73-77

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