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The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has defined it as "a person living in a region overrun by Muslim conquest who was accorded a protected status and allowed to retain his original faith".. The dhimma is the "pact of protection" entailing the social rights, responsibilities, and restrictions entailed by the status of being a dhimmi. According to orthodox Islamic law (Shari'ah), those who are qualified for Dhimmi status within the Muslim society are the free (i.e non-slave) Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. Adherents of other religions, as well as those without religion, are asked to convert to Islam; if they refuse, they are to be forced to convert (or face execution, en masse).  However, historically, adherents of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and other religions, have lived as Dhimmis within Muslim states.
The dhimma as a whole is conceived of in the Islamic tradition as "protection" of the non-Muslim from the endless state of jihad. As such the Muslim jurists and scholars see it as a form of mercy; in reality, though, the legal discriminations and legal limitations on religious minorities constitute a form of religious apartheid and second class citizenship. The limitations extend to but are not limited to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to marry the partner of one's choosing, freedom of movement, taxation without representation, the right to own and bear arms, and freedom from slavery and unpaid servitude. The implementation of these rules have varied over time, but Islamic scholars to this day continue to advocate for the implementation of the dhimma, and Islamist regimes such as the Islamic State, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan continue to attempt to implement elements of the dhimma.
According to the Qur'an and hadith, the centerpiece of the dhimma contract is that the Jizyah tax must be paid by the dhimmis as a sign of submission. Legally, the payment of this tax grants the dhimmis some legal protection in return. As established by the Pact of Omar, dhimmis usually are not allowed to carry arms to protect themselves, serve in the army or government, display symbols of their faith, build or repair places of worship, they must wear distinctive clothing which includes the Zunar (a kind of belt) wherever they go (which parallels the Nazi practice of making Jews wear yellow badges), etc. Many of these laws are still enforced today in Muslim countries, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which enforce various aspects of Shari'ah. If the conquered do not wish to pay or convert, their fate may very well be slavery (under which, rape is permitted) or death. The pact also declares that dhimmis are forbidden to ride horses and camels, and may only ride donkeys, and only on packsaddles.
The Pact Of Umar
The Pact of Umar is a historical document preserved by Islamic historians such as Al-Tabari which lays out the rights and responsibilities of the non-Muslims living under the Islamic rule of the 2nd Rashidun Caliph Umar. It is a document which was utilized frequently by later jurists dealing with the subject of the dhimma .
The law professor Antoine Fattal offered the following analysis of dhimmitude after close study of Islamic law:
Scriptural Basis in the Qur'an and Sunnah
Legal Theory and Framework
The main operative theory of the dhimma derives from the concept of jihad. Until the entire world is conquered for the religion of Allah, the blood and treasury of every infidel on earth is lawful to be taken by the Muslim ummah. The dhimma is a pact of "protection" between the Muslim state and the non-Muslim. In return for fay, jizya and kharaaj the Muslim state ceases the state of jihad upon the dhimmi and allows him to keep his family, safety and some of his property. The pact comes with many strings attached though: the stipulations of the dhimma entail many restrictions upon the life and freedoms of the dhimmi which are designed to protect and promote the Islamic religion.
Jizya, Kharaj and Fay
Rights and Role of the Dhimmi Clergy
- A Collection of Articles about Dhimmis and the Institution of the Dhimma
- Dhimmitude.org-- A Collection of Articles about the idea of Dhimmitude