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[This entry contains two subentries:

Minorities in Muslim Societies

The status and treatment of minorities in Muslim societies (or, more generally, under Islamic law) has always been of special concern to outside powers seeking to establish themselves as their protectors. It has also been a favorite subject of Western Orientalists who perceived it as a major source of internal schism. Non-Muslim neighbors and observers in the modern age no longer content themselves with traditional notions of tolerance and the absence of persecution, but expect full social, political, and legal equality of Muslims and non-Muslims. Their critical regard has called forth strong reactions from many Muslims who try to show that Islam has in fact a much better record of protecting minority rights than have other civilizations, particularly the West. The subject therefore continues to be sensitive, raising considerable controversy.

Classical Legal Doctrines.

The status and treatment of non-Muslims in Muslim societies (dār al-islām) have varied greatly over time and space. Legal theory has never been uniform throughout the Muslim world and has often been far removed from practice. Traditional rules and regulations clearly show the impact of history, particularly the experience of Prophet Muḥammad and the conditions of Muslim conquest. Whereas relations between Muḥammad and his followers and their polytheist neighbors had almost from the outset been tense, if not openly hostile, relations with the Jews and Christians of the Arabian Peninsula passed through phases of understanding and cooperation to growing distrust, animosity, and in some cases confrontation.

Muḥammad had originally hoped to be acknowledged as Prophet by the guardians of all the monotheist traditions. After his move (the Hijrah) to Medina in 622, Muslims entered into a formal alliance with the local Jewish and polytheist tribes, which was documented in the so-called Constitution (sahīfah) of Medina, granting all allies internal autonomy with Muḥammad acting as supreme head and arbiter of the newly established community. When recognition of his prophethood was denied and when the political loyalty of some Jewish tribes appeared to be in doubt, Muḥammad turned against them until they had been expelled or killed. The Constitution of Medina has come to be widely regarded by contemporary Muslims as the blueprint for a political community (ummah) that is based on the Qurʿan and includes as its citizens both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Mirroring the concerns of the young and vulnerable community, the Qurʿan touches repeatedly on the question of whether it is lawful for Muslims to entertain friendly relations (muwālāh) with unbelievers. The guiding principle (see sūrahs 3:28, 5:51, 29:46 and 60:8–9) is that the believers should treat the unbelievers decently and equitably as long as the latter do not act aggressively toward them. A reactive principle linking the treatment of non-Muslims to their behavior toward the Muslims, this clearly reflects the conditions of the early period, when Muslims were still a small minority facing large and partly hostile non-Muslim majorities.

The reactive principle appears less prominently in the provisions of Islamic law (fiqh). Beneath the apparently rigid division between dār al-islām and dār al-harb (non-Muslim lands) concerning territory, and between Muslims and non-Muslims concerning people, one finds the fine distinctions characteristic of Islamic legal reasoning. The basic distinction was between polytheists or nonbelievers on the one hand—with whom there was to be no social interaction (e.g., shared food, intermarriage) and who were to be fought until they either converted, entered into a treaty agreeing to protect the rights of Muslims and their clients within their realms, or were killed or enslaved—and the “People of the Book” (ahl al-kitāb) on the other, whose faith was founded on revelation, who were to be granted protection, and with whom social intercourse was allowed. In the course of Muslim conquest and expansion, the people counted as “People of the Book” increased beyond the Jews, Sabaeans, and Christians mentioned in the Qurʿan to include Zoroastrians (Majus) and eventually Buddhists and others.

The Hanafī law school extended protection to non-Arab pagans, and Mālik ibn Anas (d. 796), founder of the Mālikī school, even included Arab polytheists provided that they did not belong to the clan of the Prophet, the Quraysh. As a result, the category of polytheists was steadily reduced until, in the modern era, it had lost all practical relevance. At the same time, the state of those monotheist groups (e.g., the Bahāʿīs in Iran or the Ahmadīyah-Qādiānīs in India and Pakistan) that developed after Islam and were regarded by the respective Muslim majorities as renegades or apostates remained precarious. In legal theory, they had to be fought until they repented and (re-)converted or were killed.

The status of the “people of the book” was secured by a contract of protection (dhimmah), which in principle was unlimited and which, in accordance with the Qurʿanic injunction (sūrah 2:256), “No compulsion in religion,” guaranteed their life, body, property, freedom of movement, and religious practice (if carried on discreetly). Protection was granted against the exaction of tribute, dues, and taxes of various kinds. Out of these dues and taxes two main inconsistently defined categories evolved: a land tax (kharāj) often to be paid in kind, which soon came to be imposed on all owners of land thus categorized irrespective of their religious affiliation; and a poll tax (jizyah) levied on all able-bodied free adult dhimmī males of sufficient means. The various law schools varied considerably as to the definition of the legal rights and obligations of the protected people (dhimmīs). The most liberal among the Sunnī schools was the Hanafī (dominant in the Ottoman Empire among other places), which granted dhimmīs equal rights with regard to property and parts of criminal law (notably diyah, or blood money), but not in the domains of family law, inheritance, or testimony.

The primary purpose of all practical measures and legal provisions seems originally to have been to mark unmistakably the boundary between Muslims and non-Muslims. Basing themselves on the notoriously unclear text of sūrah 9:29 (“fight the infidels until they pay the jizyah out of their hands while they are small/humble”), Muslim jurists tended to translate the submission of non-Muslims to Muslim rule into the requirement of humility and humiliation. Prevailing norms and expectations were mirrored in the so-called Pact of ʿUmar (al-shurūt al-ʿUmarīyah), attributed to the second caliph, ʿUmar ibn al-Khattāb (r. 634–644), but probably not formulated before the eighth century. This laid down a number of restrictions regarding dress and hairstyle, worship, the construction and repairing of churches and synagogues, the height of houses, the use of animals, and so forth, which served not only to identify the dhimmīs, but also to discriminate against them. Shīʿī thought and law went further in that it considered non-Muslims to be ritually impure (najis), thereby banning (at least theoretically) social interchange and intermarriage altogether.


Practice, however, frequently did not conform to the restrictive notions of the ʿulamaʿ (religious scholars). The actual situation of the dhimmis was more closely conditioned by the economic and political circumstances prevailing within various Islamic territories and by their relations with the major non-Muslim powers of the day, a correlation still largely valid in the modern age. Yet the legal norms retained their normative force well into the twentieth century, and if at any time the dhimmis or individual members of their elites did in fact enjoy better conditions than those prescribed by the jurists, it was condemned as a deviation from the way things ought to be. Umayyad Spain and Fātimid Egypt are widely seen as the golden age of harmonious coexistence among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, whose cultures and heritage were mutually enriched. The putative deterioration of intercommunal relations beginning in the thirteenth century has been attributed to the impact of the Mongol invasion rather than the Christian crusades. By that time, the gradual spread of Islam had reduced the dhimmī populations of the Middle East from majorities to minorities. Still, community structures were left essentially intact.

In return for submission to Muslim rule, non-Muslims enjoyed considerable autonomy in personal-status law, worship, and education; they formed largely self-contained units with separate religious, legal, social, educational, and charitable institutions. Although there was in most areas no forced segregation in terms of residence or occupation (Morocco and Iran at certain periods excepted), there was often professional specialization, which has been characterized by modern scholars as “ethnoreligious division of labor.” Non-Muslims fulfilled complementary economic roles and functions, some of which were regarded as undesirable, lowly, or unclean by Muslims. Most importantly, non-Muslims were incorporated into Muslim society not as individuals but as members of their religious communities. The principle found its clearest expression in the Ottoman millet system (derived from the Turkish term for an ethnoreligious group or community) as it had evolved by the nineteenth century. It exerted administrative control through a number of legally recognized religious communities—notably the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians as well as the Rabbanite Jews—headed by their clergy with autonomy compensating for the absence of equal status and the denial of political rights.

In the nineteenth century, European influence and expansion, internal migration, social differentiation, and cultural change began to affect the dhimmīs’ legal status, communal organization, and place in society. The Ottoman reform edicts of the Tanzimat period (issued in 1839 and 1856) proclaimed the principle of legal equality between Muslims and non-Muslims and replaced the jizyah with general conscription or with the payment of an exemption tax (bedel-e asker). Religious personal-status law as a powerful marker of communal separateness, however, was retained. Within the Ottoman and Persian empires, European powers assumed the role of protector of specific religious communities. Individual Christians and Jews managed to benefit from increased educational and economic opportunities, gaining access to legal protection (foreign passports) and privilege (under the system of capitulations). Within the various communities, a rising commercial and professional middle class began to challenge the rule of the clergy and notables. The communities as a whole broke out of the place assigned to them under the old order, but sociocultural change and closer contact also resulted in growing friction and competition, occasionally exploding into intercommunal violence. Even among the cosmopolitan elites, the vertical element of religious and ethnic identification became increasingly superseded but never fully supplanted by the horizontal element of social class.

With the rise of European colonial activity in the Muslim world, the role of non-Muslims as intermediaries facilitated their economic advancement but also exposed them as dependents—now on the colonial system rather than on the Muslim ruler. The rise of nationalism and independence movements made the non-Muslims’ position difficult, if not untenable. When religious and ethnic affiliation tended to merge, religious communities could be transformed into nations, and millets turned into minorities. Although certain nationalist movements, such as the Wafd Party in Egypt or the Congress Party in India, attempted to overcome religious divisions and to unite Muslims, Christians, Jews, or Hindus under the banner of national unity, the tie between nationalism and religion was never entirely dissolved. It became more marked in the course of what has been widely termed the assertion, or surge, of political Islam that since the 1970s has made itself felt in the entire Muslim world.

Most written constitutions of Muslim states now confirm the principle of equality of all citizens irrespective of religion, sex, and race. At the same time, however, they usually declare Islam to be the state religion and the shariʿah (the divine law) the principal (or even exclusive) source of legislation. The exception to this rule is Lebanon, where the constitution allocates the presidency to a Maronite Catholic, and after the 1989 Taʿif Accord, divides parliament into sixty-four Christian and sixty-four Muslim seats. In all other Arab and Muslim countries, the head of state must be a Muslim, although in Jordan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, non-Muslim and other minority groups are guaranteed a fixed share of seats in representative political bodies.

Contemporary Debates.

Under the impact of political Islam, suspicion of non-Muslims has reemerged, although individual thinkers, groups, and activists have adopted widely divergent views. Certain militant Islamic groups, such as al-Jihād in Egypt, are hostile toward non-Muslims and advocate the reimposition of the dhimmah regulations. They refer themselves to the medieval scholar Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), who conditioned the toleration of non-Muslims on their utility to the Muslim community, and to the Indo-Pakistani activist Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (1903–1979) and the Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966). Some also engage in physical violence aimed at the regimes in power as much as at the minorities attacked. During World War I, Christian minorities (Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian) were persecuted in some parts of the Ottoman Empire. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a campaign which the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge as genocidal, and the Young Turk Gov-ernment expelled most American Christian missionaries from the country. In Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq, Christian and Jewish minorities were often singled out for harsh treatment, many being forced to pay jizyah.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are Muslim intellectuals seeking ways to legitimize full legal and political equality of Muslims and non-Muslims in Islamic terms. They clearly perceive the need for radical ijtihād (individual inquiry into legal issues) that takes into account the spirit or maqāsid (intentions) of shariʿah rather than the details of fiqh, looking at the public good (al-maslahah al-ʿāmmah) rather than the letter of the law. Their primary concern is to preserve the unity of the national or territorial community and to avoid fitnah (disorder) in its modern guise of sectarian violence. The dilemma rests in the fact that on this particular issue, shariʿah would, in order to allow for equality, have to be purged of the provisions of fiqh, whose primary function is to fix a boundary between Muslims and non-Muslims and to ensure the superiority of the former.

Between the two extremes there is what might be called a mainstream position that proclaims the principle of “same rights, same duties” (lahum mā lanā wa ʿalayhim mā ʿalaynā), but limits legal equality to the “non-religious domain.” The decisive questions are how the religious sphere is defined and whether non-Muslims can hold public office in an Islamic state which has as its primary raison d’être the realization of the rule of Islam. Faced with the double challenge of traditional restrictive norms and modern egalitarian demands, some Muslim reformists resort to a historical-functional approach: the jizyah is interpreted as the functional equivalent of a military tax—here they have historical evidence on their side—and national liberation as the modern equivalent of jihād (war against nonbelievers). If and when non-Muslims participate in national defense or liberation, the jizyah is no longer incumbent on them, nor do they require any specific kind of protection. They can therefore be granted citizenship in the Islamic state, including the right to vote and to participate in political decision-making, but they continue to be debarred from the highest political, military, and judicial functions.

The commonly used term muwātin, therefore, is understood in its literal sense of non-Muslims as compatriots sharing the same watan (homeland) as Muslims, not as citizens sharing the same legal and political status. The emphasis is on justice that gives to everyone his or her due, rather than on equality which, so it is argued, attempts to make equal what should be kept apart.



  • Braude, Benjamin, and Bernard Lewis, eds.Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society. 2 vols. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982. Collection of essays examining among other things the evolution of the Ottoman millet system.
  • Bulliet, Richard W.Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. Detailed examination of the modalities and implications of conversion to Islam in the medieval period.
  • Esman, Milton J., and Itamar Rabinovich, eds.Ethnicity, Pluralism, and the State in the Middle East. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Collection of stimulating and in some cases controversial articles, covering the Ottoman legacy and the present situation in various Middle Eastern countries.
  • Gaunt, David. Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia During World War I. New York: Gorgias Press, 2007. Investigation of genocide of Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syrian Christians of Upper Mesopotamia during World War I.
  • Goitein, S.  D.  A Mediterranean Society. 5 vols.Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967–. Classic study of Muslim-Jewish relations in the “golden age” of Fātimid Egypt.
  • Khuri, Fuad I.Imams and Emirs: State, Religion, and Sects in Islam. London: Saqi Essentials, 1990. Stimulating analysis of the position of religious minorities as compared to Islamic sects in the modern Middle East.
  • Krämer, Gudrun. The Jews in Modern Egypt, 1914–1952. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Jews of Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. Balanced study of the evolution, decline, and end of Muslim-Jewish symbiosis.
  • Sennott, Charles M.The Body and the Blood: The Middle East's Vanishing Christians and the Possibility for Peace. New York Public Affairs, 2002. Analyses the siege at the Church of the Nativity as an example of Muslim-Jewish battle for control with severe consequences for Christians in the Holy Land.
  • Sonn, Tamara. Islam and the Question of Minorities. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996. Assesses Muslim minority communities in Europe, Africa, and Turkey.
  • Stillman, Norman A.The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991. Exemplary and densely documented studies of one non-Muslim minority from the advent of Islam to the present day.

Gudrun Krämer

Updated by Joseph A. Kéchichian

Muslim Minorities in Non-Muslim Societies

About one-fifth of the estimated 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today are religious and political minorities in non-Muslim societies. A more precise estimation of the size of Muslim populations in many countries is difficult because of the absence of reliable demographic statistics. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of ethnic or religious classifications in most national statistics. Estimates of even relatively small Muslim minority populations vary widely: for example, in Hungary one estimate claims 6,000 Muslims and another claims the Muslim minority population to be 105,000; in Poland one estimate is 15,000, another 333,000; and in Romania, 35,000 against an estimate of 346,000. Even in countries with large populations, much controversy exists—for example, in China estimates range from 14.6 to 144 million Muslims in the country. The number and proportion of Muslims in countries where they are in the majority is generally known and accepted. It is only when they are in a minority status that not only their numerical strength but their very existence is questioned.

Estimates of Muslim Minority Communities.

Through the 1990s, the generally accepted estimation of Muslim minority communities was that they form approximately one-third of the world Muslim population. Hence, of the 1.2 billion estimated total Muslim population in 1994, about 33 percent were estimated to be living as minorities in non-Muslim societies.As the total population of Muslims continued to grow, the percentage of Muslims living as minorities has shifted from 33 percent in 1994 to 20 percent of world Muslim population in 2006; this is a result of a combination of factors such as the emergence of newly independent states that reclassified Muslim communities into Muslim majority nations (see Table 1). It is also interesting to note that among the minority communities, close to one-half of the world's Muslim minorities (47.5 percent) are in India alone, followed by China, Russia, Kenya, and Kazakhastan (see Table 2).

Minorities are generally defined in terms of numbers, indicating that in their area of residence, they are proportionately less than all the other groups combined, including the majority. However, Muslim minorities that constitute a small proportion of large populations make up numerically significant communities and often exceed in population size many of the Muslim majority countries.

Table 3 presents countries with the ten largest Muslim populations in the world, distributed not only among countries in which Muslims enjoy an absolute majority, but also found in countries where Muslim communities constitute a relatively small minority in percentage terms, such as those in India and China. These communities are numerically large and represent a sizeable percent of the global Muslim population, as evident in Table 4. Indeed, a review of the ten largest Muslim populations reveals that at least two of these are in minority countries. Minority status, therefore, is not simply a game of numbers.

A review of the ten largest Muslim populations in the world reveals that at least two of these are in non-Muslim countries, i.e., India and China. While the Muslims in the world now form 20 percent of the population, Muslim minority communities constitute 20 percent of the worldwide Muslim population. Among the 350 million Muslims currently living in minority communities 149 million (or 47.5 percent) are in one country, India, which now has the largest Muslim minority community in the world.

Etiology of Muslim Minority Communities.

The etiology of Muslim minority communities is varied. Ali Kettani has classified Muslim minority communities into three types based on their historical origins and varying situations as per his analysis in the late 1980s: 1.  they were once in the majority but later lost power and through attrition and absorption became a minority, as in Palestine, Ethiopia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina; 2.  they were in a minority as rulers, but their rule ended, and they remained as religious minorities, as in India and the Balkans; and 3.  they were non-Muslims who converted to Islam in a non-Muslim environment, as in Sri Lanka.To this a fourth category may be added: those who came as immigrants and made their homes in non-Muslim lands.

In addition to size, minorities can also be defined in terms of ideological affiliations, where minorities may constitute people whose ideas or values are distinct, to a greater or lesser degree, from those of the majority around them. We might have religious or political minorities who form a subculture (such as Protestants in Europe, Catholics in America, Muslims in Europe and North America) and sometimes a counterculture (such as Catholics in Northern Ireland, Basques in Spain, Palestinians in Israel). Minorities have also been identified in racial and ethnic terms, such as the classification of nationalities in central and eastern Europe, or under the euphemism of “visible minorities,” as in Canada. Alternatively, minorities have also been defined in terms of a lesser degree of political participation or access to economic resources, as in the case of the colonies in Africa and Asia under the former British, French, and Dutch rule, or in South Africa, where until 1994, a powerful political minority dominated a disadvantaged majority.

A particular minority might have one or a combination of the above characteristics based on culture, race, ethnicity, or religion, and in varying degrees of intensity and relevance. Muslim minorities come in all of the above forms and in significant numbers and proportions that cannot be ignored in most countries of the world. The one common denominator that approximates a generic classification is their religious affiliation—professed or ascribed, current or historic—that gives them an identity with an onus of responsibility.

Definition in Relation to the Ummah.

Besides having to contend with the hardships of minority living in the middle of an alien or alienated majority, Muslim minorities face the additional challenge of defining their own position in the context of the larger Muslim ummah (community). Ironically for them, the “in-group” is the physically distant ummah of which they consider themselves a part, and the “out-group” is seen as the majority non-Muslim community within which they reside.

The concept of ummah is crucial to the understanding of the Muslim minority situation, contextually as well as topically. Muhammad Asad, in his well-known translation and commentary on the Qurʿān, explains that “the word ummah primarily denotes a group of living beings having certain characteristics or circumstances in common” (The Message of the Qurʿān, Gibraltar, 1980, p. 177). Thus, he points out, the term ummah is often used as synonymous with community, people, nation, genus, generation. In his brief but seminal article on the Qurʿānic concept of ummah, Abdullāh al-Ahsan identifies a number of usages from the Qurʿān and classifies them as follows:

  • 1.  the exemplar of an ideological group of people such as Abraham (16:120);
  • 2.  a particular period or span of time that applies to a particular community (7:34 and 11:8);
  • 3.  a group of more committed people within the larger community (7:159);
  • 4.  a circumstantially or professionally unified group of people (28:23); and
  • 5.  a community based on common beliefs, law, and custom (5:48). Thus ummah, as a community based on shared beliefs and experiences, is found in as many variations and forms as there are differences among nations and peoples.

The Muslim ummah, however, has no variants, for it is based on one set of beliefs, focusing on the oneness of God, the prophethood of Muḥammad, one code of practice guided by sharīʿah (Islamic law) and shared experiences through common history of Islam and Muslims—the early persecutions; the trials, tribulations, and triumphs, all have come to characterize the common Muslim experience leading to the emergence of an “ummah consciousness.”

The Qurʿān defines the Muslim ummah as those people who surrender to God and follow His guidance as sent through Prophet Muḥammad who was sent as a messenger to all humanity. Muslims, therefore, are a group of people committed to a set of beliefs and entertaining a sense of mission and a special role in human history. God says in the Qurʿān: “And thus we have willed you to be a community of the middle way [ummatan wasaṭan] so that you may be a witness to the truth before all mankind” (2:143).

The constitution adopted by the first Islamic state established by Prophet Muḥammad in Medina declares in its first article: “Believers and Muslims of Quraysh and Yathrib and those who follow and meet them and strive with them constitute one single community [ummatan waḥīdatan] to the exclusion of all others in mankind [min dūn al-nās].” (For a concise discussion of the articles see W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought [Edinburgh, 1968], especially pp. 130–134.)

In the Islamic tradition, then, all Muslims belong to the ummah. All non-Muslims, though living within the same territorial confines, are outside the ummah. However, when Muslims are the dominant community they are required to abide by the rules governing the rights and obligations of non-Muslim minorities, dhimmī (the protected ones), as specified in the Qurʿān and the ḥadīth (traditions of the Prophet). Thus the dhimmī are those non-believers who reside within the Islamic political domain. They live in dār al-islām under the protection of the Muslims, and in lieu of obligation to render military service they make payment of a nominal tax called jizyah which entitles them to protection. However, nonbelievers, like believers, are created by God to inherit the earth, khalāʿif al-arḍ (vicegerents) with honor and dignity in their human person and with equal claims to the rubūbīyah (sustainership) of God. They are entitled to the hidāyah (guidance) from God and, like all children of Adam, are exalted with the power of choice (the ability to say no), thereby attaining a status higher than that of the angels. Murad Hoffman refers to the collection of these rules and injunctions as the Qurʿānic Minority Statute (Islam, p. 168).

If Muslims are living as part of non-Muslim communities, their treatment by the non-Muslim majority is subject to the varying conditions that are prevalent in that setting. There is an on-going debate, however, on what the ummah can expect from the Muslim minority and an equally strong debate on what can be expected from the ummah for the cause of those Muslims living under non-Muslim jurisdiction.

Since the Muslim minority community is often perceived by Muslims in majority situations as an integral part of the larger Muslim community, albeit a part that is living outside its jurisdiction, minority status is often seen as a transitory phase, a redressable accident of history. Thus, as was often done through history, the Muslim minorities might be encouraged or advised to pursue one of the following two courses: when subjected to the hardships of living in non-Muslim societies, Muslim minorities undertake hijrah (migration) to a Muslim or another more hospitable land or they may respond to repression and threats to their survival by jihād (taking up arms or undertaking extraordinary effort). The Qurʿānic sanction for this line of argument is sought in the following verse: “Those who believe and suffer exile and strive with might and main in God's cause with their goods and their persons, have the highest rank in the sight of God: they are the people who will achieve salvation” (9:20).

It is obvious that in the areas where Muslim minorities reside, Islam is not the dominant religion or culture, and there is no positive inducement for the growth and nurture of Islamic values and practices. In many of these areas, Muslim minorities encounter active hostility and complain of calculated efforts by the majority to ensure that Islamic norms do not prosper even in their individual lives, Muslims cease to render allegiance to Islam or to pursue the Islamic way of life. Such is the situation, sometimes mild, sometimes aggravated, in which one out of every five Muslims is living today. After the events of September 11, 2001, which included the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and with the subsequent train bombings in London and Madrid, the situation for Muslim minorities in Western societies became more challenging. Entire minority communities were blamed for the acts of the few and the burden of responsibility and guilt derived from persecution and discrimination against possibly innocent people was lifted with the call for “justice.” The subsequent decision of the United States and its “coalition of the willing” to declare war in Afghanistan and then on Iraq created much resentment in the Muslim world and further aggravated the situation for Muslim minority communities worldwide.

Qurʿānic View of Minorities.

In the early history of Islam we have two models for minorities to follow. One is the Meccan model, in which Muslims facing persecution opted for hijrah, and the other is the Abyssinian model, in which a state of tolerance and peaceful coexistence was achieved within a non-Muslim majority context through exerting extraordinary effort. For Muslim minorities today, the adoption of one of these two models is inevitable. Both are viable, yet one might be more workable than the other. The third alternative, of doing nothing, will maintain a state of continuous belligerence which is neither necessary nor desirable. Thus a minority Muslim is expected to become a muhājir (migrant) or a mujāhid (one who strives for a cause). When Muslims are living in non-Muslim lands it is incumbent on them to organize with other Muslims to preserve and enhance their Islamic identity. The isolationist approach to preservation is excluded on the basis of an equally important need and indeed duty of the Muslim to do daʿwah (invite people to Islam). Thus, dialogue with non-Muslims is encouraged both for the purpose of mission and for the objective of attaining peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims in their lands.

Historically, the dār al-islām has been confronted not only with the realm of the other, in principle hostile, not-yet Muslim world (dār al-ḥarb), but it has also been complemented by the realm of compromise (dār al-ṣulḥ), beginning with the famous armistice agreement that Prophet Muḥammad signed with the people of Mecca in 628 CE, two years before returning to that city in 630 CE Thus the options available to Muslim minorities are varied, Islamically valid, and practically viable. Problems remain as to the role of the larger Muslim ummah in the affairs of the Muslim minorities living “beyond their jurisdiction.” Should the ummah do something about this situation? Should the worldwide Muslim ummah be concerned about its constituents in diaspora?

Many Muslims would argue that the ummah has very little choice. If Muslims follow the spirit of their faith, then they have obligations toward each other, wherever they reside, individually and collectively. These obligations derive from the Islamic concept of the brotherhood of the faithful. Although in doctrinal terms this concept is present in other faiths as well, in Islam it is spelled out in very clear terms: “And the believers, both men and women are the protectors of one another” (Qurʿān 9:7). Elsewhere the Qurʿān says, “All believers are but brethren” (10:49).

One of the most concise, yet regnant statements in the Qurʿān with regard to the obligations that faith imposes on individuals as well as collectivities is to be found in the verse (103:3) that prescribes four categories of obligations: faith (īmān), action (aʿmāl), exhortation to truth (tawāṣū bi al-ḥaqq), and exhortation to perseverance (tawāṣū bi al-ṣabr). Faith and action are individual obligations. Since faith is not an acquisition which once acquired can thereafter be taken for granted, it needs continuous nurturing through action (Qurʿān 2:214). This interaction of faith and action makes an individual into an Islamic “whole” and it becomes obligatory for him/her to reinforce others in preserving and enhancing their Islamic “wholeness.”

The last two categories of obligations (tawāṣū bi al-ḥaqq and tawāṣū bi al-ṣabr) are social in nature, involving the individual within the larger Muslim community and requiring policies, plans of action, and methodologies to implement them. In contemporary Muslim populations, whether as majorities or as minority communities, many national and international organizations, formal associations, centers for learning and research, and even organized community groups have become active and outspoken in their efforts to serve Islam and Muslims worldwide. The crisis of minority living need no longer be embedded in a litany of woes; it can be confronted with the verve of the mujāhid and the élan of the muhājir. However, caution should be exercised in preserving the true nature of this resurgent “ummah consciousness” and preventing it from deteriorating into Pan-Islamic consciousness, the particular from determining the universal, the political from subverting the religious and social.

Relations between the Ummah and Muslim Minorities.

By definition the “ummah of Islam” includes all those who profess to be Muslim. In practice today, the “Muslim world” is oftentimes defined as one comprising the fifty-six member states with Muslim majority populations that came together in Morocco on September 25, 1969, to establish the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), with headquarters in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia and regional offices in Geneva and New York.

However, a quick review of the demographics reveals that not all of the world's Muslims live in Islamic states and fully one-fifth, approximately 350 million of the total 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today, live as minorities in non-Muslim societies. These are the frontline communities that pay the price for their identity as Muslims, which is often seen through the same lenses that are applied to their “home” countries. These minority communities routinely suffer from marginalization and discrimination in the host country and are often made to settle the “debts” incurred by the Muslim majority countries from their political, economic, and social engagements and entanglements.

Often Muslims in Muslim majority countries postulate certain political obligations toward their coreligionists who reside as minorities in non-Muslim states. This impels them to energetic expressions of concern over the plight of these minority communities, generally in times of crisis. In some cases Muslim majority intervention antagonizes the perpetrators of the crisis who invariably resent this as interference from the outside.

Contemporary Muslim societies lack clear policies in respect to Muslim minority communities, and there is much confusion about the exact nature of the relationship that should obtain between the ummah and the Muslim minorities. From the point of view of the minorities themselves, the issue is not very clear and adds to their minority predicament. The Muslim ummah can thus elect one of two options: adopt a patron-client relationship in regard to the Muslim minorities, treating them as spiritual and cultural (and even economic and political) colonies of the Muslim world on alien soil; or treat minorities as autonomous bodies, sharing the attribute of sovereignty with their non-Muslim compatriots and at par with Muslim majority communities.

The first option is more favored and most widely accepted among Muslim majority communities who find in the Qurʿānic verse, “and the believers, both men and women, are the protectors of one another” (9:71), an irrevocable obligation of the ummah toward the Muslim minorities. However, in terms of policy and action, Muslim majorities are hedged in by contemporary political and economic realities and are left with the second option.

Thus, what we euphemistically term the Muslim world today are several national sovereign entities (members of the OIC) each with independent political and economic structures, and with policies and priorities defined by their national interests. These entities have formed several regional alliances or economic and trade agreements among themselves, however, there is nothing particularly Islamic about them. They have their exact parallels, pre-dating them, in the non-Muslim world. Even the largest of these, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), in its conception, structure, and functioning is not much different from the European Economic Community (EEC), the Organization of American States (OAS), or the United Nations (UN) with its various affiliates. They have no mandate for action even within their own member states. How can the OIC then expect to be heard by sovereign entities outside the range of its membership? Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that there exists among all Muslims a sense of mutual belonging. It may not be institutionalized in form, but it can be invoked readily and forcefully whenever occasion arises, and it constitutes the characteristic feature of the Muslim community worldwide.

Ummah consciousness” is an integral part of Muslim faith and belief and inherent in Islamic doctrine. It derives from the Qurʿānically-imposed duty incumbent on those “who have attained to faith, enjoining upon one another patience in adversity (ṣabr) and enjoin[ing] upon one another compassion (marḥamah)” (Qurʿān 90:17). Ummah consciousness, then, is the epitome of that concern; that feeling of solidarity that Muslims everywhere feel for each other. Patience, or ṣabr is not an argument in favor of inaction. In the Qurʿānic meaning, ṣabr is a positive concept that brings out the best in man, separating the weak from the strong (2:45–46).

The exercise of marḥamah as the twin attribute of ṣabr ensures an individual's continued adherence to human values and acts as a brake against savage impulses. It reminds Muslims that whatever the provocation and however severe the crisis, they cannot adopt just any means to resolve their predicament. They have of necessity to be guided in their choices by ṣabr and marḥamah, and in practicing these principles they will preserve their own humanity. To formulate these into plans of action in contemporary societies is the challenge of great magnitude facing the Muslim ummah.

Issues and Assessments.

Is it, however, possible to lead an Islamic life under the rule and control of non-Muslims? Muslims have rarely had this experience before in their history. If they were in a numerical minority in non-Muslim lands, they either lived as rulers (in India, for instance, despite the fact that their population never exceeded 10 percent, they ruled the country for close to a thousand years), or they enjoyed the protection of a powerful Muslim state. For centuries Muslims were such a dominant world power that non-Muslim states could not conceive of mistreating Muslims living within their jurisdiction. All Muslims are familiar with the wa mʿatiṣmā syndrome in Islamic history. It signifies the ummah's obligations toward Muslim minorities and is based on the historic launching of an army by the Caliph Mutawakkil in the third/ninth century, in response to the call for help from a lone woman in Sindh.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the situation is quite different. Muslims currently living as minorities can hardly expect any immediate change in their minority status, not can they expect instant help from their Muslim majority brethren. The most relevant question to consider is how should they learn to adjust themselves, emotionally and religiously, as well as economically and politically, to their minority status. Thus, any deliberations on the status of Muslim minorities should candidly discuss ways in which Muslims living in non-Muslim states can learn to lead useful, productive and comfortable lives, without in any way compromising their Islamic identity.

A second related subject of discussion emanates from the fact that Muslims, wherever they live, regard themselves as constituting one ummah. Under the present circumstances, when approximately one-fifth of them (350 million) live as minorities in sovereign, non-Muslim states, what should be the proper relationship between the Muslim minorities and the Muslim majority countries? Should Muslim governments or Muslim international organizations continue to forcefully support every cause of Muslim minorities and condemn all non-Muslim governments whenever and wherever a Muslim minority in these regions feels that any of its rights are being violated? Is this in the long term interests of the minority itself? What kind of climate of peace and harmony does this create at the international level? How does it affect the relations of Muslim states with non-Muslim states? What about economic, trade, and other relations between them? Should the minority communities be encouraged to expect support from the ummah in all matters of dispute with their non-Muslim countrymen? How does this affect the day-to-day relationship between minorities and the people with whom they are destined to live in perpetuity?

If any of these scenarios is not Islamically feasible, then what is the proper form of relationship between the ummah and the Muslim minority communities? A candid discussion of these and other related issues is necessary to understand the true nature of the Muslim minority problem in the contemporary world.

There are grounds to argue that no effort to uplift the condition, moral or material, of Muslim minorities anywhere is likely to bear fruit unless it also touches on and enriches the quality of life of others in the societies of their residence. The minority problem is essentially a problem between the Muslim minority and the non-Muslim majority among whom it resides. Hence, there is a need for understanding and accommodation between these two parties. If the objective is to enhance and maintain the quality of Islamic life among Muslim minority communities and if these communities are to be strengthened in their steadfastness to Islamic practice as well as beliefs, the avenues of interaction and peaceful coexistence with the non-Muslim majorities must be explored.

It should be recognized that the problems of Muslim minorities are different in many ways from the problems of the Muslim world. To deal with their own particular situation, Muslim minorities have to achieve a social and political identity that is distinct from the Muslim majority communities, and in this the Muslim majority communities should extend their assistance and support. This is ultimately in their best interests. The ummah deliberations should be inclusive, future and solution-oriented, and result in the formulation of concrete and specific proposals, the presentation and examination of practical and functional ideas. Muslim minorities in any country should not be used as pawns in the game of power between Muslim states and non-Muslim states.

Furthermore, the Muslim world should not only encourage the Muslim minorities to pursue justice and truth (taʿmarūna bi al-maʿrūf), they should also caution and advise them when they appear to be taking the wrong path (tanhawnā ʿan al-munkar). Islam, being a code of conduct covering all aspects of human life, provides clear cut rules on how a struggle for rights and redress of wrongs is to be conducted. Finally, efforts to achieve a life of security, equality, and dignity for minorities in their societies of residence can be effective only if both Muslim majorities and minorities are truly convinced that minority living is not a historical or even a moral aberration.

Considering the fact that more than one-fifth of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today are living in the minority situation that cannot be expected to change, a sincere and honest effort to engage in leading, under non-Muslim aegis, a fully rewarding Islamic life should not just be aspired for, but also attempted. Islam, as Muslims believe, is a way of life which encapsulates all human situations and vouchsafes guidance for spatial and temporal infinity. “We,” God assures in the Qurʿān, “have neglected nothing in (this) Book” (6:38).



  • Abedin, Saleha M.“Demographic Consequences of Muslim Minority Consciousness: An Analysis.”Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs1–2 (Winter 1979–Spring 1980): 97–114. Relates minority consciousness to demographic conditions, and discusses its relevance for religious fertility differentials.
  • Abedin, Saleha M.“Muslim Minority and Majority Countries: A Comparative Study of Demographic, Social and Economic Data.”Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs10, no. 2 (July 1989): 375–424.
  • Abedin, Syed Z.“A Word about Ourselves.”Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs13, no. 1 (January 1992): 1–25. Written in the spirit of a “state of the union message,” this article identifies problems faced by Muslim minorities and takes a long-term perspective, suggesting programs and policies for implementation.
  • Abu Sulayman, Abdul Hameed. “Al-Dhimmi and Related Concepts in Historical Perspective.”Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs9, no. 1 (January 1988): 8–29.
  • Ahsan, Abdullāh al-. “The Quranic Concept of Ummah.”Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs7, no. 2 (July 1986): 606–616.
  • Ahsan, Abdullāh al-. OIC: The Organization of the Islamic Conference. Herndon, Va., 1988. In this study of a modern-day Islamic political institution, the author provides an overview of Islamic political philosophy, with particular reference to the concept of ummah.
  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. “The Meaning of ‘Ummah’ in Qurʿān.”History of Religions15, no. 1 (August 1975): 35–70. Excellent article on the subject of ummah and the Qurʿān.
  • Fārūqī, Ismāʿīl R. al- and Lois Lamyāʿ al-Fārūqī. The Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York, 1986. Comprehensive coverage of the world of Islam and its legacy in art, science, law, and philosophy. A beautifully produced 512-page volume with three hundred photographs, drawings, and other illustrations, and seventy-five original maps.
  • Gibb, H. A. R.“The Community in Islamic History.”Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society107, no. 2 (1963): 173–176. Succinct historical account of the emergence of Muslim ummah as a law-based community.
  • Hoffman, Murad. Islam: The Alternative. Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1997
  • Ibn Hishām, ʿAbd al-Mālik. The Life of Muḥammad. Translated by Alfred Guillaume. Oxford, 1935. Well-received translation of a popular biography of the life of the Prophet.
  • Irving, Thomas B.Islam Resurgent: The Islamic World Today. Lagos, 1979. Reprinted as The World of Islam. Brattleboro, Vt., 1984. Historical account of Muslim communities around the world, with particular emphasis on the contributions of Muslims to science and art. Also includes a useful classification of countries and areas by percentage of Muslims in the population, although population figures should be updated and sources identified.
  • Islamic Council of Europe. Muslim Communities in Non-Muslim States. London, 1980. One of the first among recent books on Muslim minorities; it contains a collection of essays on minority problems, human and constitutional rights, and Muslim personal law. Some of the papers were presented at the first world conference on Muslim minorities, held in London, 1980.
  • Kettani, M. Ali. Muslim Minorities in the World Today. London, 1986.
  • Kettani, M. Ali. “Muslims in Non-Muslim Societies: Challenges and Opportunities.”Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs11, no. 2 (July 1990): 226–233. Considers Muslim minority living as an opportunity for daʿwah (Islamic call).
  • Khalidi, Omar. “Muslim Minorities: Theory and Experience of Muslim Interaction in Non-Muslim Societies.”Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs10, no. 2 (July 1989): 425–437. Focuses on Muslim minority and non-Muslim majority relationships and provides recommendations for practical implementation.
  • Masud, Muhammad Khalid. “Being Muslim in a Non-Muslim Polity.”Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs10, no. 1 (1989): 118–128. Explores Muslim minority options in the light of three historical models.
  • “Muslim Population.”2006. Available online at: www.islamicpopulation.com/index.html. (accessed April 10, 2008).
  • Serjeant, R. B.“The Constitution of Madinah.”Islamic Quarterly8 (June 1964): 3–16. Interprets the nature of the document and the historical antecedents that influenced its formulation.

Syed Z. Abedin and Saleha M. Abedin Updated by Saleha Mahmood Abedin

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