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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Islamic Period:  The Concept of Ethnicity

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What Is the Relationship Between Ethnicity and Religion?

Important social distinctions, some of which take ‘ethnic’ form today, took shape in the early years of Islam. The Qur’an enjoined respect and protection of the ‘People of the Book’, mainly Jews and Christians. Hadith, fiqh and treatises from the time of the Prophet to the fifteenth century debated the status of non-Muslims under Muslim rule in the Arabian peninsula and conquered territories. Sura 9:29 of the Qur’an has been the central point of reference, instructing Muslims not to fight People of the Book, but to demand, instead, a head-tax (the jizya). Someone who paid jizya was known as dhimmi (collectively, ahl al-dhimma, ‘the people of the dhimma’, or ‘pact of protection’). The terms of this pact differed from place to place; it could enforce socially humbling behavior on dhimmis; it could forbid the display of religious symbols; it could prohibit riding horses (a sign of rank) and so forth. Conversion to Islam was very rapid; the speed of this process of conversion has been much debated. Yet dhimmi status was often tolerable: many Jewish and Christian communities flourished more under dhimmi status in the Muslim world than they would have done in Western Europe. The Geniza documents, discovered in the 1890s and currently held in the library of Cambridge University, attest to the vibrant cultural, intellectual and religious life of the Jewish community in Fatamid Cairo in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. In important areas of life, this community administered itself, supervised by a nagid, who mediated between the Jewish community and the Fatamid state. In the Ottoman Empire, religious minorities were given significant rights to conduct their own affairs under the terms of the millet system, which evolved in the nineteenth century during a period of administrative reforms known as the tanzimat. Millets had legal authority, imposing and collecting taxes. The millet system grouped together, in separate administrative units, orthodox Christians, Armenians, Syrian Orthodox Christians, the Druze, and Jews. Such groupings had no territorial significance, and extended across the empire. However, early in the twentieth century, they were to become the vehicle for claims for autonomy or national independence, often heavily supported by the Western imperial powers. The legacy of the millet system persists in Egypt, for example, where the Coptic church continues to play an important judicial role in administering family matters for the large Christian minority. Former Yugoslavia created official ethnic groups (with a measure of administrative authority) in today’s Bosnia on the basis of religious identity. Bosnian Muslims were given status as an ethnic ‘nationality’ (nacija) in 1963. In Lebanon, the system of government and administration revolves around a division of political offices between representatives of the three major religious communities. The Lebanese President continues to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Deputy Prime Minister a Shia Muslim. Religious, or ‘confessional,’ identities in many modern Middle Eastern societies are legacies of the Ottoman millet system. They continue to be important politically and administratively, and define senses of difference that often have an ethnic character.

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