Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III
The Tolerance of the Fatimids toward “The People of the Book” (Ahl Al-Kitab)
The Tolerance of the Fâtimids toward “The People of the Book” (Ahl Al-Kitâb)
By Diana Steigerwald
“The first principle is to comprehend, to be convinced of, to uphold the fact
that there is no conflict between Islam and Christianity. There may be
conflict on political issues, there may be conflict on economic issues, there
may be conflict on social issues but the faith of Islam is not in conflict with
the faith of Christianity and that is so clearly specified in Islam and all I need
to do this morning is to mention the words to you Ahl al-Kitâb, the People of
Book. The Book is Allah’s revelation to man, revealed to man through
Allâh’s Prophets of which Prophet Muhammad was the last Prophet.” (Karîm
Âghâ Khân, Los Angeles, June 15, 1983)
In the Qur’ân, Jews and Christians are designated as Ahl al-Kitâb (People of the
Book). The Book (Kitâb) refers to previous revelation such as the Torah (Tawrât), the
Psalms (Zabûr), and the Gospels (Injîl). The status of Ahl al-Kitâb is distinguished from
the one of idolaters (mushrikûn) (XXVII: 62s.). The latter are invited to adopt Islâm
whereas Jews and Christians may keep their religion. The Qur’ân (III: 110, 199)
recommends Muslims to be respectful toward Ahl al-Kitâb since there are sincere
believers among them.
Islâm is a tolerant religion. Tolerance does not mean a passive adherence to all
opinions, but an affirmation of our own faith while respecting other religions. Tolerance
means to accept other people with their own differences, hence the Qur’ân recognizes the
right of People of the Book to practice their religion. It is clearly indicated in the Qur’ân
(II: 256) that Islâm may not be imposed by force because it is essentially tolerant.
Tolerance invites people to reflect and to dialogue in order to raise their level of
consciousness. Prophet Muhammad used to explain that the People of the Book received
only a part of the truth (III: 23; IV: 44). Hence certain Jews and Christians forgot the
original principles of the Abrahamic faith. Muhammad considers the religious writings
compiled by some scribes corrupted and falsified, each time that they do not agree with
the Qur’ânic truth (cf. XX: 133; IX: 30-31). Thus he invited the Jews and the Christians
to accept the Qur’ân which completes former revelations. People of the Book should find
the confirmation of the Qur’ânic revelation by carefully examining the Bible (cf. II: 89,
101; III: 7, 64; IV: 47). Even if the Judeo-Christian scriptures were altered, there still
remain some elements of truth within them. The Qur’ân even recognizes that certain Jews
and Christians are saved in the hereafter (II: 62).
The Constitution of Medina protected Jews and Christians. They were called
dhimmiyyûn (protected subjects) who were not subject to the religious tax (zakât) but
were required to pay another tax (jiziya). Their goods were protected and they were given
the right to practice their religion. In exchange for upholding certain obligations, they
were given these rights. The Constitution stipulated that the Jews would form one
composite nation with the Muslims; they could practice their religion as freely as the
Muslims; they had to join the Muslims in defending Medina against all enemies.
After the death of the Prophet, his direct descendants through his daughter Fâtima
and his cousin ‘Alî, had to wait many centuries before creating in 567/909 the Fâtimid
Empire, which extended from actual Palestine to Tunisia. In this Empire, the majority of
Muslims were Sunnî and Coptic Christians constituted a very significant portion of the
population. There also were some Orthodox Greeks called Melkites and Jews especially
in Syria. Nâsir-i Khusraw (d. circa 470/1077), the famous Ismâ‘îlî thinker, who visited
Egypt, noticed that nowhere in the Muslim world had he seen Christians enjoy as much
peace and material wealth as did the Copts. The Caliph Mu‘izz was the first to hire a
large number of Ahl al-Kitâb as administrators of the state. The Caliph al-‘Azîz continued
his father’s policy of religious tolerance and married a Melkite Christian. Al-‘Azîz’s two
brothers-in-law, Orestes and Arsenius, were nominated Patriarch of Jerusalem and
Metropolitan of Cairo, respectively. In spite of Muslim discontent and jealousy, al-‘Azîz
permitted the Coptic Patriarch Ephraim to restore the Church of St. Mercurius near
Fustât. Moreover, he protected the Patriarch against Muslim attacks.
The Caliph al-Hâkim (d. 411/1021) experienced many difficulties internally as well
as externally during his reign. He temporarily adopted some antagonistic measures
against Christians. Christians and Jews were forced to follow the Islâmic law. However,
toward the end of his reign al-Hâkim changed his policy. Thus he restored some of the
churches and became more tolerant toward the Christians and their religious practices.
Then Caliph al-Zâhir (d. 427/1036) who followed him, established a complete policy of
During the Fâtimid period, Christians and Jews had full liberty to celebrate their
festivals. Muslims took part in these celebrations and the state participated as well. The
government also used some Christian festivals as an occasion for the distribution of
garments and money among the people. Christians and Jews were employed in the
Fâtimid administration. They were able to reach very important ranks, even to go as high
as the position of vizirate. It is worth mentioning that no similar examples of employment
of non-Muslim viziers are known among other Muslim contemporary dynasties. Nowhere
in the Muslim world during that time could non-Muslims accede to such a rank.
The only exception to this policy of religious freedom was under al-Hâkim’s reign.
According to the historian al-Maqrîzî (d. 846/1442), economic and social life deteriorated
during this era. The Ismâ‘îlî dâ‘î Hamîd al-dîn Kirmânî (d. 412/1021), in his treatise Al-
risâlat al-wâ‘iza, described this critical period in which there was a great famine. Several
of the hostile but temporary measures taken by al-Hâkim can be explained by the existing
situation, in which Sunnî Muslims were extremely perturbed by the growing prosperity of
Ahl al-Kitâb and their increasing power in the state. Al-Hâkim perhaps also wanted to
thwart the Byzantine Empire, which threatened Northern Syria. Broadly speaking, it must
be emphasised that Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived peacefully and worked together
for the well being of the Empire in all Ifrîqiya.
Even if today the actual Imâm Karîm Âghâ Khân is not the head of a state in
Aiglemont, he still employs in his service skillful people who are not Muslims. He
benefits from the competence of people coming from different cultures and religions. In
many of his speeches, he recognizes that the Western ethical principles of faith are
essentially the same as those found in Islâm.
In the rest of the Islâmic world, the treatment of the Ahl al-Kitâb varies from one
Muslim country to another. Most of the Muslim States are proclaimed secular, their
understanding of the relations between Muslim and non-Muslim is still inspired by the
previous juridical tradition, and their constitutions stipulate that the Chief of the state
must be Muslim. Today in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, and in some other states, religious
minorities are represented in Parliament.
Madelung Wilferd, “Ismâ‘îliyya”, EI2, vol. 6 (1978): 198-206.
Steigerwald Diana, L’islâm: les valeurs communes au judéo-christianisme, Montréal-
Paris: Médiaspaul, 1999.
Vajda Georges, “Ahl al-kitâb”, EI2 , vol. 1 (1979): 264-266.
Religious Studies, California State University (Long Beach)
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