Islam and Christianity: Why Muslims Dominate and Christians Suffer

Ever since Islam began in the seventh century, there have been Christian communities living as minorities in Muslim-majority contexts. Their circumstances have varied at different times and in different places, but almost always Christians experience some degree of discrimination or hostility. This repeated pattern is not a coincidence – it arises from some of the teachings of Islam.

Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb
A basic precept of classical Islamic teaching divides the world into two kinds of territory, Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Dar al-Islam or “the house of Islam” consists of those areas under Muslim control. The rest of the world, which is under infidel (non-Muslim) control, is significantly known as Dar al-Harb, “the house of war.” This name is given to infidel-controlled areas because Muslims are obliged to subdue Dar al-Harb and turn it into Dar al-Islam.

This process has often been done through physical warfare, particularly in the early days of Islam. Today many Muslims interpret this obligation not in physical but in spiritual terms, and see it as the task of converting others to Islam by persuasion and argument. For Muslim communities in the West, this includes making the most of the freedoms and opportunities available in democratic societies. This is done by peacefully lobbying and calling for laws and institutions to be reformed to make them more Islamic.

The term jihad, often translated in its narrowest sense “holy war,” encompasses a wide range of meanings and has been the subject of a vast amount of Muslim literature. Its general meaning is “striving” or “struggling.”

Traditionally, jihad has meant physical aggression towards unbelievers with the object of converting them to Islam and installing rule by Islamic law (shari’a). It is the means by which Dar al-Harb is turned into Dar al-Islam. During the twenty-one-year civil war in Sudan which ended earlier this year, the Sudanese government repeatedly declared itself to be engaged in a jihad against the Christians and other non-Muslims of South Sudan. The point at issue was the government’s desire to impose shari’a on the South.

Jihad is commanded in the Qur’an:

But when the forbidden months
Are past, then fight and slay
The Pagans wherever ye find them,
And seize them, beleaguer them,
And lie in wait for them
In every stratagem (of war);
But if they repent,
And establish regular prayers
And practice regular charity,
Then open the way for them:
For God is Oft-forgiving,
Most Merciful.1

In this context “repent” means accepting and converting to Islam. A number of other similar Qur’anic verses take up the same theme. These verses, dating as they do from later in Muhammad’s life, are considered to abrogate or cancel out earlier verses with a more peaceable attitude towards non-Muslims.

However, some contemporary Muslims understand jihad in other ways (i.e. only to fight in self-defense, as a struggle for justice or simply the spiritual struggle against one’s own sinful inclinations). Most Muslims see no contradiction in holding together the concept of a broad spiritual, social and military struggle in their understanding of jihad. Conflicts such as those in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir are considered to be jihads by many Muslims around the world.

Classical Islam teaches that Christians, Jews, Sabeans and Zoroastrians who refuse to become Muslims when Dar al-Harb is being turned into Dar al-Islam must be subdued and forced to pay jizya, a special poll tax, and acknowledge the supremacy of Islam. If any refuse to pay this tax, the men are to be killed, the women and children enslaved. It is understood that pagans are to be killed outright unless they convert to Islam.

Non-Muslims who have been subdued in this way are known as dhimmi (literally “protected”), and their Muslim conquerors guarantee their security. This system was exceptional for its time, in that normally a conquered people would be treated far less leniently by their conquerors. Muslims often call this “tolerance” of non-Muslims, meaning they are permitted to live. This “tolerance,” however, does not imply equality.

The details of the conditions imposed on dhimmi in return for their protection has varied from place to place and from century to century. But an essential feature was always the humiliation of the dhimmi and their inferior position in Muslim society. This is made clear in a key Qur’anic text:

Fight those who believe not
In God nor the Last Day,
Nor hold that forbidden
Which hath been forbidden
By God and His Apostle,
Nor acknowledge the Religion
Of Truth, (even if they are)
Of the People of the Book,
Until they pay the Jizya
With willing submission,
And feel themselves subdued.2

Typically dhimmi would be free to practice their own religion provided they did so discreetly, without causing offense to Muslims. For example, Christian singing should not be audible to the Muslim population. To build a new church or synagogue, permission had to be obtained from Muhammad himself (and after his death from the very highest authorities). Dhimmi would not be allowed to propagate their religion, especially amongst Muslims. Dhimmis could not hold a position of authority over the Muslim community. Although a Muslim man was allowed to marry a dhimmi woman, a dhimmi man could never marry a Muslim woman. These and many other rules and regulations existed to indicate and reinforce the inferior position of the dhimmi.

Naturally these restrictions tended to breed an attitude amongst Muslims that dhimmi were “unclean,” contemptible and not true citizens of the Muslim state. On the other hand, there were occasions when Muslim rulers did faithfully seek to protect and care for their non-Muslim peoples.

The dhimma (protection) concept evolved from customs existing in pre-Islamic Arabia, where a strong nomadic tribe would grant protection to a weaker tribe (i.e. would give it military support against an enemy). On at least one occasion Caliph Umar (634-644) returned the jizya which a group of Christians had paid when he found he could not give them the protection from their enemies which he had promised.

However, our Qur’anic text indicates the way in which the practice of dhimma soon developed. Islam would fight the non-Muslims in its territory unless they submitted to dhimmi status. The non-Muslims had no choice about terms and conditions. Dhimma, normally translated “protection,” might perhaps be better translated “protection racket.”

Some of the dhimma practices were officially abolished in 1856 during the Ottoman Empire. Yet the condition of “dhimmitude” (as it has come to be known) continues. Many of the restrictions and conditions imposed on dhimmi in the early days can still be found in a variety of Muslim countries.

The jizya tax referred to in the Qur’anic quotation above has been revived in Iraq, as Islamic militants visit Christian homes demanding payments. In urban parts of Algeria, Christians must meet discreetly in basements and make sure neighbors cannot hear their singing. In Egypt, Christians must obtain presidential permission to build a new church. They must also get the consent of local governors to effect even minor repairs to an existing church building. In February 2002 a church in Upper Egypt was attacked by a Muslim mob throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Their rage was provoked by the ringing of church bells before a service to celebrate the completion of some renovation work.

In 1993 a Saudi newspaper published the opinion of learned Muslim scholars that Christians should never be in authority over Muslims, and that the Christian manager appointed at a company should be fired and replaced by a Muslim. Christian officers are not allowed in the Iranian army for this reason. Hamid Pourmand, a convert from Islam to Christianity is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for allegedly failing to inform his army superiors of his new faith and rising to the rank of Colonel while a Christian. In many Muslim countries Christians may propagate their faith amongst non-Muslims but not amongst Muslims. In June 1993 all Christian churches in Iran were ordered to sign a statement saying they would not evangelize Muslims. This was followed by a ban on holding church services in Farsi, the official language of Iran (and the language spoken by all Iranian Muslims).

Most Muslims today would regard the detailed dhimmi system as rather antiquated. Nevertheless the existence of the dhimmi system for hundreds of years has left widespread social prejudice against Christians in place in many parts of the Islamic world. Throughout much of the Muslim world there is an attitude of disdain towards non-Muslims, which is often manifested through the media and through forms of unofficial discrimination. Many minority Christian communities today face prejudice and unofficial discrimination. In modern Western terms, this might be called marginalization, social exclusion or institutional racism.

Not all non-Muslims under Islam can be accorded dhimmi status. Those who have left Islam to embrace another faith are not entitled to any protection. The shari’a specifies that adult male Muslims who embrace another faith must be killed.

There are several references to apostasy from Islam in the Qur’an. The three main ones can be found in Sura 3:86-91, Sura 16:106-109 and Sura 88:23-24. All three references indicate that converts will be punished. Sura 16:106 says:

– but such as
Open their breast to Unbelief, –
On them is Wrath from Allah,
And theirs will be
A dreadful penalty.3

However no Qur’anic verse specifies whether this punishment will occur in the afterlife, or whether it is to be carried out by the Muslim faithful before death. Neither does any specify exactly what the punishment will be.

Yet, it is a different matter in the hadith, the secondary source for shari’a after the Qur’an, which includes traditions recording the words and deeds of Muhammad and his first followers. The hadith contains many references to apostasy from Islam, all of which agree that converts from Islam should be put to death. This makes the death sentence for apostasy a very well attested part of orthodox Islamic law and teaching, not a distortion or later addition by extremists. Death for apostasy is still practiced today.

Dr Y. Zaki, a leading British Muslim and a Scotsman who converted to Islam, has succinctly explained the reason: “Islam is not just a religion, it’s a state, and Islam does not distinguish between sacred and secular authority … apostasy and treason are one and the same thing.” Since treason is punishable by death, he argued, so too is apostasy.

There is some disagreement amongst the various schools of law concerning the treatment of a female apostate (typically she should be imprisoned until she returns to Islam) and also lesser punishments concerning issues such as property and inheritance which presuppose that the apostate has been permitted to live. Capital punishment for apostasy from Islam is the law in some Islamic countries today. In Saudi Arabia Sadiq ‘Abdul-Karim Malallah was publicly beheaded in September 1992 after being convicted of apostasy and blasphemy for converting from Sunni to Shi‘a Islam. It is reported that a Saudi convert to Christianity was executed earlier this year (2005). In Iran Hussein Soodmand was hanged for apostasy in 1990. In 1993 Mehdi Dibaj was sentenced to death for apostasy, but was released a few weeks later due to international publicity of his case. He was abducted and killed under mysterious circumstances the following summer. Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was a renowned Islamic scholar, moderate and reformer who was executed in Sudan in January 1985 because he published a leaflet calling for the reform of Islamic law. Qatar also has the death penalty for apostasy, but it is not known to have been enforced.

Even where the death sentence for apostasy is not the law of the land, converts from Islam are in danger of being murdered by zealous Muslims who believe they are pleasing God and fulfilling his law. In recent years this has increasingly been by beheading (as in the 2004 death of Abdul Gani, a medical doctor in Bangladesh who had converted from Islam nine years earlier).

Closely related to the Islamic understanding of apostasy is Pakistan’s modern blasphemy law. This law has been made increasingly severe. The crime of defiling, damaging or desecrating a copy of the Qur’an is punished with life imprisonment, while “defiling the name” of Muhammad carries a mandatory death sentence (Sections 295-B & C of the Pakistan Penal Code).

Since such defilement is not defined in the law, Christians (and others) are very vulnerable to malicious accusations. Dozens of Christians have been accused of this crime. Although no one has yet been officially executed for blasphemy, several Christians have been murdered before or during the legal process by zealous extremists who took the law into their own hands. Those who survive the legal process must go into hiding permanently. In October 1997 a Lahore High Court judge was killed by Islamic gunmen for acquitting two Christians on blasphemy charges. Often the family of the accused, or even the whole local Christian community, also receive threats and are forced to leave their village or town and move in secret to a new area.

Voices in Bangladesh are calling for a similar blasphemy law to be introduced in that community. Even in the United Kingdom, some Muslim leaders have made it clear they hope the proposed new law which bans incitement to religious hatred will be in effect a blasphemy law to protect Muhammad from criticism.

Shari’a (Islamic law)
The regulations laid down in the shari’a cover political, military, social, economic and family matters, indeed every aspect of life. The cornerstone of conservative Islamic belief is a desire to return to the early days of Islam, with shari’a as the basis of all legislation. This is the goal for which Islamic militants are fighting, and which many other Muslims are also working for by peaceable means. Countries where extremists or conservative Muslims are either in power or are very influential, such as Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have introduced laws which by modern Western standards are illiberal and harsh.

Introducing such legislation affects the general attitude of the Muslim majority in that the former tend to become less tolerant and the latter more contemptuous and hostile. Difficulties of the Christians increase not only in official and legal ways but also in terms of unofficial discrimination, which leads to violence.

Even countries not ruled by extremists, such as Malaysia or Pakistan, have moved towards stricter legislation in line with shari’a in attempts to placate conservative Muslims. In lawless regions such as Somalia (and Chechnya during its de facto independence from Russia in the 1990s), Islamic militias and warlords imposed shari’a law which brought some order to regions in chaos, but also brought serious human rights problems.

In places such as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, this trend towards increasing strictness goes beyond what shari’a requires. In Muslim-majority Northern Nigeria, twelve states have moved from partial shari’a (i.e. covering family and inheritance matters for Muslims only) to full shari’a in the last six years. Christians in the region find themselves obliged to conform to regulations which should only apply to Muslims, affecting for example, what they wear and how they travel on public transport. In Iraq many Islamic militants have the avowed aim of cleansing the country of Christians altogether; this is contrary to shari’a, which does permit Christians to live in Islamic societies. Similarly the Laskar Jihad’s genocidal campaign in Indonesia in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries sought to cleanse certain areas of Christians by killing them, expelling them or forcing them to convert to Islam. Laskar Jihad did not offer Christians the shari’a-sanctioned option of submitting to Islam and living as dhimmi. The same now seems to be happening in Indonesia’s Aceh Province, which is ruled by shari’a. Many Muslims are attempting to prevent Christians who fled the December 2004 tsunami from returning to the province.

The subjugation of Christians by Muslims is a phenomenon repeated around the world from the seventh century to the twenty-first century. Effectively, there is a cycle in which discriminatory laws reinforce discriminatory attitudes, which in turn leads to calls for more discriminatory laws. Unlike Christianity, Islam has no teaching about loving your enemy, nor that all human beings are of equal worth. There is nothing to break this cycle–unless Islam itself can be reformed in line with modern concepts of human rights and religious liberty. Although such a reformation is unthinkable to Islamic radicals, there is a small but growing body of Muslims calling for reform. They need the prayers of Christians as their task is dangerous and lonely. They could pay for it with their lives, whether by execution by a radical state (as for Taha) or murder by a radical individual. But without their lead, it is unlikely that the plight of Christians under Islam will ever really improve.

Such a reformation should introduce to Islam the concept of genuine tolerance of non-Muslim minorities, as understood to include equal status with the Muslim majority. The oft-repeated myth of Islam being already a religion of peace and tolerance must be exposed as wishful thinking, for the more it is repeated, the more the lines between truth and fiction become blurred. Where Islam is a minority, it favors tolerance (in the Western sense) and peace, but whenever it becomes a majority, it moves into a position of domination, power and inequality.

No doubt there are those who will take issue with Barnabas Fund on this point. But what we are trying to do is reflect the reality of daily experience for millions of Christians living in the Muslim world.

1. Sura 9:5 (A. Yusuf Ali’s translation)
2. Sura 9:29 (A. Yusuf Ali’s translation)
3. A. Yusuf Ali’s translation

Editors Note: The Persecuted Church was one of the Issue Groups at the Lausanne 2004 Forum for World Evangelization. The paper produced by this group, led by Patrick Sookhdeo, may be read here.

Patrick Sookhdeo is international director of Barnabas Fund. Born in Guyana, Sookhdeo holds a doctorate from London University and doctorates from Baptist and Episcopal seminaries in the US. He is an author and lecturer.