Reconsidering Dhimmah as a Model for a Modern Minority Rights Regime

18 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2006

See all articles by Timothy William Waters

Timothy William Waters

Indiana University - Maurer School of Law

Date Written: October 31, 2006


Within Islam there has long existed an institution regulating non-Muslims' rights of much greater conceptual sophistication than existed in the Christian West, which often accorded levels of protection, dignity, and socio-economic integration surpassing what many minorities experience today under modern rights regimes. The practice of dhimmah is almost entirely moribund, but Islamist activists are revisiting it, because the quasi-secular, multi-confessional UN model is obviously problematic for many believers. Any system that could claim a connection to classical Islam could claim a legitimacy international rights regimes lack.

What would the human rights perspective on such a system be? Drawing on the classical period and contemporary perspectives, this paper argues that dhimmah might provide a more robust framework for minority protection, but the limitations it places on non-Muslim political participation are difficult to square with modern conceptions - and equally difficult to remove. Yet why does this apparent tension incline us to say that dhimmah ought to be rejected? Do aspirations always trump results? Simply asking about the value of dhimmah raises important questions about the claims the human rights consensus makes in the face of alternate modes of legitimation and organization.

This is the real theoretical focus of this paper: preferring rights over a system legitimated by immanent, divine sanction is difficult to motivate. Rights thinking evinces a triumphalist universalism hostile to the (equally) universalizing claims of religious authority. Human rights' implicitly secular claim - that religion should withdraw from temporal political ordering - cannot be proven, only preferred, and if one believes in autonomy (for cultures as well as people), there may be grounds for conceding others' right to order their societies in a different way.

This paper is part of a larger project to look at the tensions between universalism and cultural particularism as alternative ordering structures. It proposes a model of legislative competence vested in cultural communities and commitment to systemic diversity - notions that may conflict with the universalizing individual commitments of orthodox human rights.

Keywords: Islam, Islamic law, religion, dhimmah (zimma, dimmah, dimma), Qur'an (Koran), Muslims, non-Muslims, minorities, minority rights, human rights, universalism, taxation, military service

JEL Classification: H00, H10, H89, J15, J70, K19, K33, N35, N45, P50

Suggested Citation

Waters, Timothy William, Reconsidering Dhimmah as a Model for a Modern Minority Rights Regime (October 31, 2006). Available at SSRN: or

Timothy William Waters (Contact Author)

Indiana University - Maurer School of Law ( email )

211 S. Indiana Ave.
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States

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