November 12, 2006 at 4:42 pm (Interfaith)

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.”

His Highness the Âghâ Khân, speaking at the presentation ceremony
for The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, November 6th, 2001, Aleppo,

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

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.

Continuing the Ismaili tradition, even today, His Highness the Âghâ
Khân, while not a head of a state, represents an international
community and one of the world’s largest philanthropic
organizations, employing many skillful people who are not Muslims.
His institutions benefit from the competence of people coming from
different cultures and religions. In many of his speeches, he also
recognizes that Western ethical principles of faith are essentially
the same as those of Islâm.

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)



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  2. salim j kanji said,

    Most interesting article by Diana Steigerwald! Thank you for the research and than giving us that information on Tolerance.

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