The Arabic term ahl al-Dhimma refers to the “People of the Pact” in the Muslim lands, after an edict allegedly made by the Caliph ‘Umar (634-644). It applied to Christians, Jews, Samaritans, and, rather grudgingly, Sabaeans, or star worshippers, and guaranteed tolerance of their faiths under certain conditions.
In theory, death or enslavement were the only alternatives available to conquered peoples who were neither Muslims nor members of one of the dhimmi communities. Dhimmis were granted freedom of worship and were allowed to work and own property. However, there was discrimination in the form of a dress code. Christians, for example, were supposed to wear a blue belt, and so Eastern Christians are sometimes referred to in older literature as “Christians of the Girdle.” Jews and Christians were also banned from carrying weapons or riding horses. Their testimony in a court of law did not have the same weight as that of a Muslim.
Dhimmis might maintain and repair existing churches or synagogues, but they were debarred (in theory at least) from building new ones. The ringing of church bells was banned. Dhimmis had to pay a special poll tax (Arab. jizya). However, as non-Muslims they were not subject to the zakāt (charitable levy) and were exempt from the duty of jihād (holy war).