Life Under Islamic Values

In light of recent events, it is important to shed some light on what life under Islamic governance should look like as witnessed by over a thousand years of history.

Islamic Values in Practice

Islamic governance is fundamentally based on justice and compassion. These are the central values of Islam that are expressed through a sincere belief in the existence of one God and by seeking to act in a way that is pleasing to Him. By singling Him out for worship and being conscious of one’s accountability, a Muslim is encouraged to act fairly and justly. The Qur'an clearly states in this regard:

O you who believe, be steadfast in your devotion to God and bear witness impartially: do not let the hatred of others lead you away from justice, but adhere to justice, for that is closer to being God conscious. Be mindful of God: God is well acquainted with all that you do.[1]

O you who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly – if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.[2]

Mass murder, ethnic cleansing, sectarianism, intolerance, killing journalists, kidnapping and other evils are the very opposite of the compassionate and merciful behaviour that is the hallmark of a true Islamic state.  As the Qur’an states:

What will explain to you what the steep path is? It is to free a slave, to feed at a time of hunger an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those who believe and urge one another to steadfastness and compassion.[3]

Minorities Under Islamic Governance

In the past, when these values were practiced and internalised, the Muslims who had political authority created a society that was unmatched in history. Consider the treatment of minorities such as the Jews and the Christians. The prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the treaty of Medina said:

It is incumbent on all the Muslims to help and extend sympathetic treatment to the Jews who have entered into an agreement with us. Neither an oppression of any type should be perpetrated on them nor their enemy be helped against them.[4]

The popular historian Karen Armstrong points out how these values established an unprecedented coexistence:

The Muslims had established a system that enabled Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live in Jerusalem together for the first time.[5]

The Jewish academic Historian Amnon Cohen illustrates the practical application of Islamic values, and how the Jews of Ottoman Jerusalem were free and contributed to society:

No one interfered with their internal organisation or their external cultural and economic activities…The Jews of Ottoman Jerusalem enjoyed religious and administrative autonomy within an Islamic state, and as a constructive, dynamic element of the local economy and society they could – and actually did – contribute to its functioning.[6]   

‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab, the companion of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the second Caliph of Islam, granted the Christians of Palestine religious freedom, security and peace. His treaty with the Palestinian Christians stated:

This is the protection which the servant of Allah, Amir al-Mumineen (Leader of the faithful), grants to the people of Palestine. Thus, protection is for their lives, property, church, cross, for the healthy and sick and for all their co-religionists. In this way that their churches shall not be turned into dwelling houses, nor will they be pulled down, nor any injury will be done to them or to their enclosures, nor to their cross, and nor will anything be deducted from their wealth. No restrictions shall be made regarding their religious ceremonies.[7]

In 869 CE, patriarch Theodosius of Jerusalem confirmed the Muslims’ adherence to the treaty of Umar:

The Saracens [i.e. the Muslims] show us great goodwill. They allow us to build our churches and to observe our own customs without hindrance.[8]

These historical narratives are not historical accidents but are grounded in the timeless Islamic values of tolerance and mercy.

Forced Conversion

Forced conversion is utterly forbidden in Islam and the Muslims are not allowed, under any circumstances, to forcefully convert anyone. This is due to the following Quranic verse:

There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error...[9]

Michael Bonner, an authority on the history of early Islam, explains the historical manifestation of  the verse above:

To begin with, there was no forced conversion, no choice between “Islam and the Sword”. Islamic law, following a clear Quranic principle (2:256), prohibited any such things: dhimmis [non-Muslim under Islamic rule] must be allowed to practice their religion.[10]

One of the leading historians of Islam, De Lacy O’ Leary, exposes the myths attributed to Islamic teachings:

History makes it clear, however, that the legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of the sword upon conquered races is one of the most fantastically absurd myths that historians have ever repeated.[11]

Non-Muslim Tax: Jizya

The Islamic governing authority, based on various scriptural injunctions, would levy the non-Muslims a type of citizen tax. This tax - known as jizya - was not a burden, and it was usually less than what the Muslims had to pay as tax. The tax was incumbent upon all adult males, however, women, children, the ill and poor were exempt. It was payable at the end of each year and the wealthy non-Muslims would have to give 48 dirhams (which equates to around £500 per year), and the moderately wealthy non-Muslims would pay much less.[12] If anyone could not afford this tax, they would not have to pay anything.[13]

In actual fact, it was incumbent on the authorities to ensure that the non-Muslim citizen had enough to feed their families and maintain a decent standard of living. For example, ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-’Aziz, one of the Caliphs of Islam, wrote to his agent in Iraq:

Search for the people of the covenant in your area who may have grown old, and are unable to earn, and provide them with regular stipends from the treasury to take care of their needs.[14]

A practical manifestation of the non-Muslim tax can be found in the following letter written by a Rabbi in 1453. He was urging his co-religionists to travel to Muslim lands after Europe’s persecution of the Jews, and that they were economically emancipated:

Here in the land of the Turks we have nothing to complain of. We possess great fortunes; much gold and silver are in our hands. We are not oppressed with heavy taxes and our commerce is free and unhindered. Rich are the fruits of the earth. Everything is cheap and everyone of us lives in peace and freedom…[15]

Safety and Protection

The prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in authentic narrations attributed to him said:

He who harms a person under covenant, or charged him more than he can, I will argue against him on the Day of Judgement.[16]

He who hurts a dhimmi [a non-Muslim under Muslim protection] hurts me.[17]

The thirteenth-century jurist, al-Qarafi practically explains the above Prophetic teachings:

The covenant of protection imposes upon us certain obligations toward the ahl al-dhimmah [non-Muslims under Muslim protection]. They are our neighbours, under our shelter and protection upon the guarantee of Allah, His Messenger, and the religion of Islam. Whoever violates these obligations against any one of them by so much as an abusive word, by slandering his reputation, or by doing him some injury or assisting in it, has breached the guarantee of Allah, His Messenger (peace be upon him), and the religion of Islam.[18]

In light of the above, it is no wonder the Qur'an describes the Prophet (peace be upon him) as "a mercy for the worlds" [19], and that God’s mercy "encompasses all things"[20].

When these values were realised in history, minorities were protected, experienced peace and would praise the Muslim authorities. For example, Bernard the Wise, a pilgrim monk, visited Egypt and Palestine in the reign of al-Mu’tazz (866-9 CE), and he had the following to say:

…the Christians and the Pagans [i.e. Muslims] have this kind of peace between them there that if I was going on a journey, and on the way the camel or donkey which bore my poor luggage were to die, and I was to abandon all my goods without any guardian, and go to the city for another pack animal, when I came back, I would find all my property uninjured: such is the peace there.[21]

The unprecedented impact and effect of Islamic values made people prefer the mercy and tolerance of Islam. Reinhart Dozy, an authority on early Islamic Spain, explains:

…the unbounded tolerance of the Arabs must also be taken into account. In religious matters they put pressure on no man…Christians preferred their rule to that of the Franks.[22]

Professor Thomas Arnold, the British historian and orientalist, commenting on an Islamic source, states that Christians were happy and at peace with Islam to the point where they "called down blessings on the heads of the Muslims." [23]

Islam and Inter-Racial Co-operation

Far from being a source of racial conflict, Islam offered a viable model of inter-racial co-operation based on Islamic teachings. The Qur’an eloquently states:

People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another. In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware.[24]

The prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) made it clear that racism has no place in Islam:

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.[25]

As Hamilton A. R. Gibb, the historian on Orientalism, stated:

But Islam has a still further service to render to the cause of humanity. It stands after all nearer to the real East than Europe does, and it possesses a magnificent tradition of inter-racial understanding and cooperation.  No other society has such a record of success uniting in an equality of status, of opportunity, and of endeavours so many and so various races of mankind...Islam has still the power to reconcile apparently irreconcilable elements of race and tradition. If ever the opposition of the great societies of East and West is to be replaced by cooperation, the mediation of Islam is an indispensable condition.  In its hands lies very largely the solution of the problem with which Europe is faced in its relation with East. If they unite, the hope of a peaceful issue is immeasurably enhanced.  But if Europe, by rejecting the cooperation of Islam, throws it into the arms of its rivals, the issue can only be disastrous for both.[26]

The respected historian A.J. Toynbee also confirms:

The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue...[27]

Perhaps one of the most poignant summaries of the greatness of Islamic civilisation was in a speech by the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, Carli Fiorina:

There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world. It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of different creeds and ethnic origins. One of its languages became the universal language of much of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. Its armies were made up of people of many nationalities, and its military protection allowed a degree of peace and prosperity that had never been known.

And this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention. Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers, and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body, and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into the heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and exploration. Its writers created thousands of stories. Stories of courage, romance and magic.

When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others. While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, the civilization I'm talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent.

Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians. Leaders like Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership. And perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example: It was leadership based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population that included Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish traditions. This kind of enlightened leadership - leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage - led to 800 years of invention and prosperity.[28]


The key reason Muslims were able to achieve such tolerant and compassionate societies was because affirming the Oneness of God and pleasing and worshipping Him was the spiritual and moral basis of their lives. This provided timeless, universal and objective moral grounding to achieve, what the eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith claimed, "the first state under which the world enjoyed that degree of tranquillity which the cultivation of the sciences requires..."[29]

It is hoped that this brief insight into the values that underpin Islamic political activity show how the actions attributed to some Muslim groups are not in line with normative Islam. Significantly we hope this short introduction will help foster a more balanced perspective on what is Islamic and what is not.


[1] Qur'an 5:8

[2] Qur'an 4:135

[3] Qur'an 90:12-18

[4] Ibn Hisham, as-Sira an-Nabawiyya, Cairo, 1955, v 1, pp. 501-4

[5] Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem: One City Three Faiths. London. 1997, p. 245

[6] Amnon Cohen, A World Within: Jewish Life as Reflected in Muslim Court Documents from the Sijill of Jerusalem (XVIth Century). Part One. Pennsylvania. 1994, pp. 22-23

[7] Tabari, Tarikh ar-Rusul wal- Muluk, Leiden, 1879-1901, v I, pp. 2405-6

[8] Cited by Christopher J. Walker, Islam and the West. Gloucester. 2005, p. 17

[9] Qur'an 2: 256

[10] Michael Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History. Princeton. 2006, pp. 89-90

[11] De Lacy O’ Leary, Islam at the Crossroads. London. 1923, p. 8

[12] Wael B. Hallaq. Shariah: Theory, Practice and Transformations. Cambridge University Press. 2009, p. 332.

[13] Ibid

[14] Abu Ubayd, al-Amwaal, p. 805

[15] Philip Mansel. Constantinople : City of the World’s desire, 1453-1924. Penguin Books. 1995, p. 15

[16] Narrated by Yahya b. Adam in the book of Al-Kharaaj

[17] Reported by al-Tabarani in Al-awsat

[18] Shaha al-Deen al-Qarafi, Al-furuq

[19] Qur'an 21:107

[20] Qur'an 7:156

[21] Christopher J. Walker, Islam and the West. Gloucester. 2005, p. 17

[22] Reinhart Dozy, A History of Muslims in Spain. Delhi. 1861 (reprinted 1913, 2002), p.235

[23] T. W. Arnold , Preaching of Islam. London. 1913, p. 61

[24] Qur’an 49:13

[25] Hafiz Ibn Hibban reported in al-Sahih, via his isnad, from Fadalah ibn Ubayd & Baihaqi

[26] Hamilton A. R. Gibb. Whither Islam. London, 1932, p. 379

[27] A. J. Toynbee. Civilisation on Trial. New York. 1948, p. 205

[28] Read a transcript of the speech here

[29] Adam Smith. The Essays of Adam Smith. London. 1869, p. 353