The Tolerance of the Fâtimids toward “The People of the Book” (Ahl al-kitâb)

Diana Steigerwald

“With respect to relations between the Western and Islamic worlds, are we not seeing a conflict of stereotypes and prejudices, exacerbates by a good measure of ignorance about Islam? There are, of course, some differences, but if superficiality and trivialization can be set aside, and be replaced by the will to go deeper to seek a solid foundation for mutual understanding and respects, it can be found in the common heritage of the Abrahamic faiths and the ethical principles that they share.”

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 (mshrikûn) (XXVII: 62s.). The latter are invited to adopt Islâm wheres 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.

Tolerance invites people to reflect and to dialogue in order to raise their level of understanding themselves and their relations with peoples who profess a different faith, position, or outlook. 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 considered [p. 17] the religious writings compiled by some scribes corrupted and falsified, where they differed 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. The People of the Book could 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 religions. 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 were also significant numbers of Christians, called Melkites, who belonged to an Orthodox Greek denomination, as well as 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 al-Mu`izz hired 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. The following Caliph al-Zâhir (d. 427/1036) established a complete policy of religious freedom.

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 vizier. 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 tolerance 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 some in the community 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 emphasized that Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived peacefully and worked together for the well being of the Empire in all Ifrîqiya.

In the contemporary Islâmic world, the treatment of the Ahl al-Kitâb varies from one Muslim country to another. While most Muslim countries proclaim to be secular their understanding of the relations between Muslim and non-Muslim is still inspired by the perspectives which derive from pre-modern interpretations of juridical traditions. The constitutions of many countries stipulate that the Chief of State must be Muslim. However, in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, and in some other states, religious minorities are represented in the legislative bodies.


Madelung Wilferd, “Ismâ`îliyya”, EI2, vol. 6 (1978): 198-206. Steigerwald Diane, L’islâm: les valeurs communes au judéo-christianisme, Montréal-Paris: Médiaspaul, 1999. Vajda Georges, “Ahl al-kitâb”, EI2 , vol. 1 (1979): 264-266.

Diana Steigerwald

Religious Studies, California State University (Long Beach)

The Ismaili

United States of America

December 13 (2002): 16-17.

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