JEZYA, the poll or capitation tax levied on members of non-Muslim monotheistic faith communities (Jews, Christians, and, eventually, Zoroastrians), who fell under the protection (ḏemma) of Muslim Arab conquerors. It was retained and implemented in most of the Muslim world in a wide variety of ways, was strongly influenced by local economic conditions prevailing before and during the conquest, and varied considerably both over time and geographically. Although early texts tend to use the terms jezya and ḵarāj interchangeably, or as denoting a general tribute, these terms came to denote two different forms of taxation with the latter levied exclusively on land owners, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
Muslim Arab conquerors largely retained the taxation systems of the Sasanian and Byzantine empires they had conquered. The word jezya itself is most likely a loanword in Arabic and probably derives from the Pahlavi gazītak, which denoted a tax levied on the lower classes of society in Sasanian Persia, from which the nobles, clergy, landowners (dehqāns), and scribes (or civil servants, dabirān) were exempted (Widengren, pp. 123, 149 ff.). The Muslim justification for jezya is found in the Qurʾān 9:29, where rejection of Islam is made conditional on the payment of a poll tax—a type of communal taxation to be levied both as a discriminatory tax and as a fee for the protection afforded by the Muslim majority. The Qurʾānic phrase ḥattā yoʿṭu al-jezyata ʿan yaden wa hom ṣāḡerun (“till they pay the poll tax out of hand and submissively”; Fakhry, p. 188) was often interpreted literally, with the tax payers subjected to various forms of humiliation, such as bending the back and even being struck. Among Shiʿites, the proper implementation of the jezya required the presence of the Imam, but in his prolonged absence, an appropriate jurist, acting as his deputy, could carry out this duty (Tsadik, pp. 62-65).
Much detailed information about the exaction of the jezya has survived among the documents of the Cairo Genizah found in Fustat, Egypt. These documents mainly date from 950-1250 C.E. and focus primarily, but not exclusively, on the Mediterranean basin. They also yield data about economic issues affecting Jewish life in the Omayyad and Abbasid caliphates, and thus about specific issues of taxation as well. Information about the far-flung activities of merchants such as the Tustari family, originally from Ḵuzestān, also contributes to our understanding of numerous economic issues, including taxation. In the absence of well-stocked archives or Genizah repositories, it is not possible to arrive at a continuous evaluation of jezya and its enforcement in Persia beginning with the Buyid dynasty (10th century, see BUYIDS).
In theory, the jezya was supposed to be levied on adult, free, capable males, while children, old people, women, slaves, beggars, and the infirm were supposed to be exempt. The payers of the jezya were exempt from military service and the Muslim tax of zakāt. Converts to Islam were supposed to have been released from this obligation, but not from land taxes (Gil, pp. 287-91), and this undoubtedly contributed to conversion to Islam in the first two centuries of its advent. But mass conversions that would curtail this revenue caused problems; in the late 7th and early 8th century even the mawāli (plur. of mawlā, ‘client,’ ‘non-Arab Muslim’) were forced to pay jezya (Zarrīnkūb, pp. 33-43). Judging by the documents of the Cairo Genizah, the exemptions mentioned above were far from being always implemented.
A uniform rate of taxation or revenue collection never existed throughout the Muslim world. Rates varied on the basis of local economic conditions and taxpayers’ wealth, but under the Abbasids they ranged between 1, 2, and 4 dinārs (that is, 12, 24, and 48 dirhams accordingly; see Cahen, p. 560; Ben Shemesh, II, pp. 42-44; III, pp. 84 ff.), although payment in kind was often accepted as well. This general lack of uniformity led to both commendable flexibility in stressful times and abuse by individual tax collectors and their masters. An instance of the former can be found in Ḥasan b. Moḥammad b. Ḥasan Qomi’s (d. 1015) Tāriḵ-e Qom (translated into Persian by Ḥasan b. ʿAli b. Ḥasan b. ʿAbd-al-Malek Qomi in the 15th century; see Storey-Bregel, II, no. 869, pp. 1008-9), which shows that a variety of physical conditions was taken into account in Qom in the 9th-10th centuries through the enactment of different tax-paying schedules according to the harvesting of crops (Lambton, 1953, p. 34). According to this source, ḏemmis (see PEOPLE OF THE BOOK) paid the jezya on the basis of two different schedules, either 24 or 12 dirhams (Lambton, 1953, p. 34). Instances of abuse grew with the growth of the eqṭāʿ (q.v.) system under the Saljuqs and Il-khanids (qq.v.), when the military castes, awarded various revenues, were far less scrupulous about the welfare of their subjects. Unlike in Egypt, where the jezya was collected from individuals and, as the Genizah documents testify, caused great hardships to impoverished Jews (better off individuals were under constant pressure to help their more indigent brethren), the non-Muslim communities throughout Persia and Central Asia were assigned communal tributes of a fixed sum. Since most people, for example in the Saljuq era, were subject also to “uncanonical taxes” (mokus; Lambton, 1968, pp. 249-50), the financial burden in medieval Persia must have been considerable. A broad but only periodic reprieve occurred under the early Mongol rulers, when a general poll tax (saršomāra, sarāna, Mong. qubchur) was introduced, only for the jezya to be finally reintroduced under Uljāytu (Öljeytü, r. 1304-16). During the reign of the Jalayerid (see JALAYERIDS) ruler Šayḵ Ovays I b. Ḥasan-e Bozorg (r. 1356-74), it is known to have been 8 dinārs for the wealthy, 6 for the middle classes, and 4 for the poor (Petrushevsky, p. 533).
For the Safavid period, the scant economic information on this subject is supplemented by the observations of travelers and Judeo-Persian chronicles. Whereas originally Shah ʿAbbās I (r. 1588-1629, q.v.) taxed the Armenians fairly lightly, their jezya kept increasing throughout the 17th century in tandem with their wealth. At the same time, the Hindu moneychangers working in Persia were subjected to a special poll tax (Fragner, pp. 548-49). During the reign of Shah ʿAbbās II (r. 1642-66, q.v.), many Jewish communities were forced to convert to Islam for almost seven years from 1656 to 1651-52. During that interim, they apparently did not pay the jezya. However, not only was it demanded from them retroactively, when they were allowed to return to their faith, but additional sums were also demanded at that time (Moreen, 1986, pp. 68, 100, 106). Raphaël du Mans (1613-96) notes that in the middle of the 17th century Armenians and Jews had to pay annually one meṯqāl of gold (Fragner, p. 548). In 1729-30, in an effort to stave off Ṭahmāsbqoli Khan’s (the future Nāder Shah, r. 1736-47) rapacious taxes, the Jewish community of Kāšān converted to Islam and was temporarily exempted from the jezya, but only to have it reinstated with a heavy additional fine some six months later (Moreen, 1990, pp. 37-43, 51-56). Evidence of Jews paying the jezya in Persia can be found even after 1783; for Zoroastrians, in theory, it was abolished in 1882 (Tsadik, pp. 335-48).
The jezya, like other forms of taxation, was supposed to have been used for the common good in the form of salaries and charities, but it was often appropriated by various rulers, local and otherwise. While remission of taxes for Muslims did occur on rare occasions and in order to recover from natural disasters, the ḏemmis of Persia and Central Asia were seldom exempted from the payment of the jezya.
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C. Cahen, “Djizya,” EI2 II, 1965, pp. 559-62.
M. R. Cohen, Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt, Princeton, 2005a.
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G. Widengren, “The Status of the Jews in the Sassanian Empire,” Iranica antiqua 1, 1961, pp. 117-62.
ʿAbd al-Ḥusain Zarrīnkūb, “The Arab Conquest of Iran and Its Aftermath,” Camb. Hist. Iran IV, Cambridge, 1975, pp. 1-56.
(Vera B. Moreen)
Originally Published: December 15, 2008
Last Updated: April 17, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. XIV, Fasc. 6, pp. 643-645
Vera B. Moreen, “JEZYA,” Encyclopædia Iranica, XIV/6, pp. 643-645, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/jezya (accessed on 30 December 2012).