Life as a dhimmi in medieval Islamic Spain

Islam | And what it can teach modern day Christians in America
by Dario Fernandez-Morera
Posted 9/17/16, 11:49 am

Professors at U.S. colleges and universities teach some world history and a lot of mythology. Those who speak of a war against terrorism rather than a war against radical Islam put forward a myth of multicultural harmony in medieval Spain among Muslim overlords and Christian or Jewish subjects. Not so, asserts author Darío Fernández-Morera, who shows how Muslims ran a dhimmi system that was a gangster-like protection racket. Christians and Jews had to pay up and accept second-class citizenship. If they rebelled, Muslims could cut off their heads or make their children sexual slaves.

The following excerpts from The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (published here with the permission of ISI Books) give a taste of what life as a dhimmi was like. The book was on WORLD’s short list of History Book of the Year candidates because of its specific detail but also because we shouldn’t look at its findings just as a record of what was: The secular left in the United States views American Christians as dummies and wants to turn them into dhimmis. —Marvin Olasky

This book aims to demystify Islamic Spain by questioning the widespread belief that it was a wonderful place of tolerance and convivencia of three cultures under the benevolent supervision of enlightened Muslim rulers. As the epigraphs throughout this book illustrate, the nineteenth-century romantic vision of Islamic Spain has morphed into today’s “mainstream” academic and popular writings that celebrate “al-Andalus” for its “multiculturalism,” “unity of Muslims, Christians, and Jews,” “diversity,” and “pluralism,” regardless of how close such emphasis is to the facts. Some scholars of the Spanish Middle Ages have even openly declared an interest in promoting these ideas.1

Demythologizing this civilization requires focusing a searching light on medieval cultural features that may seem less than savory to modern readers and that perhaps for this reason are seldom discussed. The first two chapters of this book examine how Spain was conquered and colonized by the forces of the Islamic Caliphate. Some scholars have argued that the Muslim takeover was accomplished largely through “peaceful pacts”; some even refuse to call it a “conquest,” preferring to call it a “migratory wave.” Other scholars argue that the conquest was carried out by force.2 Neither side is entirely right. The Muslim conquerors used force to defeat the resistance of the Christian Visigoth kingdom, a nascent civilization. But they also granted pacts to those Visigoth lords and Christian leaders who saw it as advantageous to accept the offered “peace” and become dhimmis (those Christians and Jews living in sub­altern status in Islamic lands) rather than face the consequences of resisting. Behind the “peaceful pacts” was always the threat of brutal force. The remaining chapters of this book examine fundamental aspects of Islamic Spain that are rarely highlighted: religious and therefore cultural repression in all areas of life and the marginalization of certain groups—all this in the service of social control by autocratic rulers and a class of religious authorities. …

Muslims in medieval Spain considered Islam the final and most perfect form of divine revelation. They also believed that the “People of the Book”—Christians and Jews—had strayed from the teachings of their Bible in various ways that rendered them religiously inferior to Muslims, who had kept the true faith. Given this conviction of superiority, Islam in medieval Spain could hardly be said to be “tolerant” of other religions. To prevent other faiths from contesting the religious and therefore political, social, and cultural supremacy of Islam, rulers and clerics endeavored to keep every type of hegemony over the “People of the Book.”

Of course, in some circumstances Christian dhimmis assumed positions of varying authority even while remaining outsiders. The Muslim regime sometimes enlisted skilled Christians to serve as bureaucrats or soldiers for the same reason it enlisted skilled Jewish functionaries: they would be loyal to the Muslim ruler and to nobody else because they had no allegiance to potential Muslim rivals and in fact owed only to the ruler their improved condition; and a given ruler who lacked strong religious convictions might also turn to a Christian for whom he had personal sympathy. This “success” is often presented as evidence that Christian life under Islam was favorable. But as was the case with Jews who assumed positions of authority under Muslim rulers, such “success” involved only elites and did not extend to the masses. Moreover, it occurred in spite of—and in direct opposition to—Islamic injunctions, and it created resentment among the ulama and the Muslim population.

Those Islamic injunctions, and the assumption of Islamic superiority from which they followed, are the crucial matters to understand when considering the condition of Christians in Islamic Spain. To be sure, Islamic law was not enforced everywhere, every time; as in any other legal system, expediency, necessity, favoritism, bribery, inefficiency, politics, and other factors could alter an outcome. But the plain fact is that Islamic law in medieval Spain imposed humiliating conditions on Christian dhimmis to ensure that absolute power remained in the proper hands. Those restrictions were quite successful in their purpose, at least for several centuries.

Under the Islamic institution of the dhimma (writ or contract of “protection”), the Christian dhimmis of al-Andalus must pay a special tax, the jizya, for a “protection” intended, as Maliki legal texts make clear, to remind them of their submission. Malik’s Muwatta declares, “Zakat is imposed on the Muslims to purify them and to be given back to their poor, whereas jizya is imposed on the people of the Book to humble them.”10 Therefore the jizya ought to be paid in a humiliating manner:

The dhimmi, standing, would present the money to the Muslim collector who would be sitting higher up on a sort of throne; this Muslim bureaucrat would hold the dhimmi by the throat telling him “Oh dhimmi, enemy of Allah, pay the jizya that you owe us for the protection and tolerance we grant you”; the other Muslims present would imitate the collector, pushing around the dhimmi and whoever other dhimmis accompanied him. To this amusing spectacle should be admitted any Muslim who wanted to enjoy it.11

As part of the dhimma system, a Muslim “officer of protection” regulated all affairs related to Christians.

The dhimma system, then, was a gangster-like “protection racket” (pay “protection” or else) that was quite profitable for the Muslim rulers. Muhammad’s father-in-law, companion, and second caliph, Umar (a caliph so just and pious that he was known as al-Farooq, “one who distinguishes between right and wrong”), made clear that this was a profitable system of extortion: dhimmis were even more productive for Muslims than slaves and therefore should be kept “protected” as dhimmis rather than parceled out as slaves precisely because Muslims could live off them much better. After citing the verses from Quran 9:29 (“Fight against those who do not believe in God nor in the Last Day, who do not hold forbidden what God and His Apostle have forbidden, who do not practice the religion of truth but are of those to whom a Book has been given, until they pay the poll tax from their hand, they being humbled”), Umar admonished his followers (bracketed material is the translator’s):

Have you considered, if we take them [as slaves] and share them out, what will be left for Muslims who come after us? By God, the Muslims would not find a man to talk to and profit from his labors. The Muslims of our day will eat [from the work of] these people as long as they live, and when we and they die, our sons will eat their sons forever, as long as they remain, for they are slaves to the people of the religion of Islam as long as the religion of Islam shall prevail.12

It was a brilliant and pioneering triumph of medieval Islamic rhetoric that the word dhimmi, meaning “beneficiary of the contract of protection”13 (dhimma)—that is, a “protected” individual or “beneficiary”—was chosen to designate the helpless victim of a religiously based extortion system.

Besides the dhimma, the conquerors used other strategies, drawn from Islamic law, to ensure Islamic hegemony. Consider some injunctions from the legal manuals used in Islamic Spain. A Muslim who raped a free Christian woman must be lashed; a Christian who raped a free Muslim woman must be killed.14 Whoever calumniated a Muslim must be flogged, but whoever calumniated a Christian (or a slave, a small boy, one possessed by the devil, one whose penis had been cut off, or one who had been castrated) was not flogged.15 A Muslim was entitled to full “blood money” (compensation for injury and perhaps death), but a Christian was entitled to only half.16 Whereas a Christian was allowed to convert to Islam, a Muslim was forbidden, under punishment of death, to convert to a different faith.17 A Muslim must not be executed for the death of a Christian, unless the killing was treacherous,18 but a Christian could be executed for the death of a Muslim, even if the killing was not treacherous. The testimony of Christian men or women was not acceptable in any legal matter involving only Muslims.19 A Muslim could have a Christian slave, but a Christian could not have a Muslim slave; a Muslim could have sex with a Christian sexual slave, but a Christian could not have sex with a Muslim sexual slave.20 A Muslim could use for ablution the water previously used by a Muslim man in a state of impurity, or even by a menstruating Muslim woman, but not water previously used by a Christian, for that water would be polluted.21 A Christian woman was not recommended as wet nurse because she was polluted with pork and wine.22

Plenty of other examples can be recited. A Muslim must not initiate the greeting when meeting a Christian.23 A Muslim judge must not hire a Christian as secretary.24 A Muslim must feed a poor Muslim, but he must not feed a poor Christian.25 A Muslim had an obligation to free, at some point, Muslim slaves, but not an obligation to free Christian slaves.26 A Muslim man could marry a free Christian woman, although this was not advisable, but a Christian man could not marry or fornicate with a Muslim woman, free or not, under penalty of death. The children of Muslim men and Christian women had to be raised as Muslims—a not-too-subtle instrument to further the decline of the Christian population and the growth of the Muslim one.27 The Muslim master of a Christian slave man could marry him to a Christian slave woman owned by the Muslim master, but if the woman converted to Islam, the Christian slave man was forbidden to have sex with the now-Muslim slave woman.28 A Muslim man could not marry Christian slave women but could marry Muslim slave women.29

Muslims celebrated their religion publicly, but Christians could not hold processions on the streets and must discreetly celebrate their religion within their churches and neighborhoods.30 In Umayyad Córdoba, Christians must not walk through Muslim cemeteries because their presence would pollute the Muslim tombs. Water, food, garments, and utensils touched by a Christian became polluted. As late as the fifteenth century in Christian-held territory, Muslim law told the mudéjares (Muslims under Christian domination): “water touched by an infidel, a wine-drinker, a cat, or a dog cannot be used for ablution; do not adopt ways of speaking, manners or customs of the Christians, nor their clothing, nor those of sinners.”31 New mosques could be freely built and old ones repaired, but Christians could rarely build new churches or even repair old ones, and never without the Muslims’ authorization. Mosques could stand proudly in Islamic cities, but Christian churches must not challenge the mosques by opening to main thoroughfares. Mosques and other Muslim buildings could be as high as architecturally feasible, but no Catholic church or other Christian buildings could tower above Muslim buildings. Mosques could not be converted into churches, but churches could be, and often were, converted into mosques. Muslims could have the muezzin loudly proclaim the call to prayer, but Christians could not ring their church bells. Muslims could proselytize, but Christians could not. Christians could be placed under Muslim law if they wished, but Muslims were forbidden to do the opposite. Christians could not display crosses on themselves. Christians could not display crosses on the outside or on top of their churches. Christians could not display figurative art on the outside walls of their churches. Christians could not wear Muslim-like clothes. Christians must wear distinctive signs. Christians must stand up in the presence of Muslims.

Christians could not exercise political sovereignty in any form. They must not carry weapons. They must not ride horses in Muslim areas—a notable prohibition repeated by Muslim Turks during their occupation of Greece, when the Greek Orthodox raya (flock) could not ride horses, only donkeys, and had to ride sideways so they could readily dismount and genuflect before Muslims.32 Imam Malik, agreeing with the second caliph, Umar, observed: “I think that Christians should be compelled to wear belts, and that used to be required of them of old. I think that they should be compelled to be humble. Umar wrote that they should be mounted sideways [like women] on donkeys.”33 During a certain period of Umayyad rule in Spain, Muslim authorities even decreed the forced circumcision of male Christians.34

To these ways of oppressing and intentionally humiliating the dhimmi population, one must add the taxes that Muslim rulers could at any time arbitrarily pile up on top of the jizya, prompted by the rulers’ perennial need for cash to maintain their ostentatious lifestyle, poets, intellectuals, slaves, palaces, harems, and city-embellishment programs.35 Even Spanish Arabists sympathetic to Islamic Spain recognize that the harsh measures listed by jurist Ibn Abdun in eleventh- and twelfth-century Seville agreed with the teachings of medieval Maliki jurisprudence regarding the proper way to keep the dhimmis in a “condition of humiliation and subservience (sigar) or tolerated discrimination.”36

In short, contrary to what is commonly believed, the institution of the dhimma in Islamic Spain did not generously grant religious autonomy to Christians. It actually limited their religious practices in numerous ways, and it left the subject Christians without any possibility of attaining political power. Eventually reduced to minority status, Christian dhimmis saw their numbers slowly decline as a result of conversions that promised an escape from Islamic law’s humbling limitations and special taxation and also as a result of Islamic laws that, for example, forced the children of a Muslim man and a Christian woman to be raised as Muslims, and allowed a Muslim man to have children with up to four wives and as many sexual slaves as he could keep.37

The situation of Christians under Muslim rule in Spain was similar to the presumably “benign” condition of the Greek Orthodox raya under Turkish Muslim rule: in the words of the historians John S. Koliopoulos and Thanos M. Veremis, Greek Orthodox Christians “were tolerated as long as they accepted the inferior status of the raya (flock) and were prepared to obey the ruler who had imposed that inferior status on them.”38

The much-praised “tolerance” of al-Andalus was thus part of Islam’s imperialist system of separation from and subordination of Christians. Christians could practice their religion, but only on Islam’s terms. Islamic clerics and rulers remained effectively in control in matters of religion, and because religion informed everything, they remained effectively in control of everything.

From The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain. Copyright © 2016 by Darío Fernández-Morera. Published by ISI Books.


1 Middle Ages Colin Smith asked H. Salvador Martínez in the 1980s whether there was any text in which “se definiese y se promoviese el concepto de convivencia entre los varios grupos étnico-religiosos que poblaban la España medieval” (“in which the concept of convivencia among the various ethnic-religious groups that populated medieval Spain was defined and promoted”). Salvador Martínez thought there was none, so he proceeded to write one on a period particularly suited to promoting convivencia. Smith’s request is cited in H. Salvador Martínez, La Convivencia en la España del siglo XIII: Perspectivas alfonsíes (Madrid: Ediciones Polifemo, 2006), 12. An insightful account of the “romantic” vision of Islamic Spain can be found in an article by Pedro Marfil, professor of archaeology at the University of Córdoba, “La visión romántica de la Córdoba Omeya,” Ruta del Califato: Un recorrido histórico-monumental de Córdoba a Granada, ed. Julia Saiz-Pardo de Benito (Granada: Fundación El Legado Andalusí, 2005), 205–12.

2 For the “peaceful pacts” approach, see Alejandro García Sanjuán, La conquista islámica de la peninsula ibérica y la tergiversación del pasado: Del catastrofismo al negacionismo (Madrid: Pons, 2013), where he attacks the “catastrophism” of scholars like Luis A. García Moreno and Serafín Fanjul as well as the “negationism” of Ignacio Olagüe and Emilio González Ferrín. García Sanjuán accepts the idea of conquest, though says it was “largely peaceful.” The peaceful approach was earlier taken to its logical conclusion by Olagüe in his Les arabes n’ont jamais envahi l’Espagne (Paris: Flammarion, 1969), where he argued that there was no conquest but rather a cultural domination of one form of religion (Christian Trinitarianism) by another (Christian Unitarianism). The peaceful approach has been given a different version by the Marxist Arabist Emilio González Ferrín, who argues that there was no conquest but a steady “migration” of Muslims from North Africa, which finally became hegemonic. See his Historia general de Al-Andalus (Córdoba: Almuzara, 2006). Ferrín’s thesis (“negationism,” in the words of García Sanjuán) has been very successful in both Spain and the English-speaking academic world, where denying the idea that there was a conquest facilitates denying the abhorrent idea of a Christian Reconquest. For what García Sanjuán called the “catastrophism” approach, see Serafín Fanjul, Al-Andalus contra España: La forja del mito (Madrid: Siglo XXI, 2000). The more sensible approach is that of the Arabist Felipe Maíllo Salgado, Acerca de la conquista árabe de España: imprecisiones, equívocos y patrañas (Guijón: TREA, 2011).

11 Arabist Francisco Javier Simonet, Historia de los mozárabes de España (1897–1908; rpt. Madrid: Turner, 1983), 1:92. Simonet explains: “The jizya could be imposed two ways: individually and collectively. If individual, the obligation was inherent to the individual and ended with his conversion to Islam or his death. If collective, that is, if it had been imposed on the community of a town or region, the total value of the jizya could not diminish or increase regardless of the reduction or increase of the population subject to the collective jizya; the entire community was responsible for continuing to pay the jizya” (ibid.).

12 Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, ed. and trans. Bernard Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 2:224. The Islamic State has made use of Umar’s words to justify its exploitation of non-Muslims. See Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, “My provision was placed for me in the shade of my spear,” in Islamic State publication Dabiq 4 Issue (1435 Dhul-Hijjah), 10–13.

13 Brill Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, “dhimmi.”

14 Among other manuals cited throughout this book, see Soha Abboud-Haggar, El Tratado Jurídico de Al-Tafri de Ibn Al-Gallab: Manuscrito Aljamiado De Almonacid De La Sierra (Zaragoza): Edición, Estudio, Glosario y Confrontación Con El Original Árabe (Zaragoza: Institución Fernando el Católico, 1999), 2:564–65; al-Qayrawani, Risala, 37.27; Muhammad b. Iyad, Kitab Ibn al-Mawwaz, cit. Delfina Serrano, “Legal Practice in an Andalusi-Magrhibi Source from the Twelfth Century,” Islamic Law and Society 7, no. 2 (2000): 199–200.

15 Al-Tafri, 566.

16 Muwatta, 43.15.8b; Risala, 37.04.

17 Muwatta, 36.18; Al-Tafri, 572.

18 Al-Tafri, 557; Risala, 37.20.

19 María Arcas Campoy, “El testimonio de las mujeres en el derecho malikí,” in Homenaje al Prof. Jacinto Bosch Vilá, 76–77. For al-Qayrawani: “A hundred women are not worth more than two and these two equal one man” (474).

20 Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), chap. 1.

21 Al-Tafri, 44–45; Mudawwana, bk. 1.2, in “La Moudawwana (Recension de Sahnoun). Analyse par G. H. Bousquet,” Annales de l’Institut d’Études Orientales, (1958), 16:182; Maliki faqih Ibn Habib according to Janina M. Safran, “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth-Century al-Andalus,” Speculum 76, no. 3 (July 2001): 582.

22 Mudawwana, tome 5, vol. 3, no. 695.

23 Muwatta, 53.2.3; Risala, 43.01; Al-Tafri, 585; Leyes de moros CCCVI.

24 Mudawwana, tome 3, vol. 2, no. 1898.

25 Muwatta, 38.7.12; Risala, 31.3a1.

26 Muwatta, 38.7.

27 Mudawwana, tome 4, vol. 2, no. 652; al-Shafii, Kitab al-Umm, iv, 118–19, in Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, 2:220. The prohibition persisted even in the twentieth-century Maliki culture of Morocco in the more enlightened official version of the Maliki Mudawwana: see André Colomer, Droit Musulman: Les Personnes. La famille (Rabat: La Porte, 1962), 100. For the decline of Christianity under Islam in the East, see Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996). Christianity has lost ground to Islam everywhere Muslims have conquered Christian territory.

28 Mudawwana, tome 4, vol. 2, no. 657.

29 Muwatta, 28.16; Mudawwana, tome 4, vol. 3, no. 652.

30 A document from tenth-century Umayyad Córdoba forbids dhimmis from building temples (kanais): Christine Mazzoli-Guintard, Vivre à Cordue au Moyen Age: Solidarité citadines en terre d’Islam aux Xe–Xie siècles (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2003), 57. “After the Muslim conquest, the Christians were prohibited from building any new churches; all they could do was repair and restore existing buildings, which in theory they were permitted to keep. In fact, however, over the centuries numerous churches were confiscated and converted into mosques, or even destroyed (cf. A. Fattal, Le statut legal des non musulmanes en pays d’Islam, Beirut, 1958, 174–203)”: “Kanisa,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. On the prohibition to walk through cemeteries in Umayyad Córdoba, see Mazzoli-Guintard, Vivre à Cordue au Moyen Age, 207. On the Pact of Umar, of which there are a few extant copies with minor variations, including a copy found in Spain, see A. S. Tritton, The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of Umar (London: Frank Cass and Company, 1930; rpt. 1970). That the original document may date not from the time of Umar I, the second caliph, but possibly from the Umayyad eighth century is irrelevant for its effects, since medieval Muslims, including Malik, accepted it as normative and it guided their policy toward the dhimmis throughout the Islamic empire. Eva Lapiedra Gutiérrez offers a good study of the connection between persecutions in the Middle East and persecutions in Islamic Spain in “Los mártires de Córdoba y la política anticristiana contemporánea en oriente,” Al-Qantara 15, no. 2 (1994): 453–62. Some versions of the Pact of Umar can be accessed online; see, e.g., For more on these rules, see the Muwatta, the Mudawwana, al-Tafri, and various historical accounts of the Umayyad caliphate, including al-Maqqari.

31 Dos tratados de legislación musulmana. 1. Leyes de moros del siglo XIV 2. Suma de los principales mandamientos y devedamientos de la ley y çunna, por don Içe de Gebir, Alfaquí Mayor de la aljama de Segovia. Año de 1492, ed. Pascual de Gayangos (Madrid: Academia de la Historia. Memorial histórico español, 1853), vol. 5, chapters I and VI of the Suma.

32 C. M. Woodhouse, Modern Greece: A Short History (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), 101. I thank τήv γυvαίκα μoυ, Iωάvvα for this information.

33 A Madinan View on the Sunnah, Courtesy, Wisdom, Battles, and History by Abu Muhammad Abdullah Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani, trans. Abdassamad Clarke (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1999), 113.

34 Circumcision is one of the obligations for keeping fitra (the proper nature of the human body): Muwatta, 49.3.3. For the forced circumcision of Catholics under the Umayyads, see Eulogius, Epistola ad Wiliesindum, 330, cit. R. Dozy, Histoire des musulmanes d’Espagne (Leiden: Brill, 1932), 1.ii, 319.

35 Charles-Emanuel Doufourcq, La vie cotidienne dans l’Europe mediévale sous domination arabe (Paris: Hachette, 1978), 213–14.

36 Maribel Fierro, “Christian Success and Muslim Fear in Andalusi Writings during the Almoravid and Almohad Periods,” Israel Oriental Studies XVII. Dhimmis and Others: Jews and Christians and the World of Classical Islam, ed. Uri Rubin and David J. Wasserstein (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 157.

37 The same pattern had been evident in lands that Islam had previously conquered and colonized: see Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Chrsitianity under Islam. Recent efforts by pro-Islamic Arabists to deny that Muslim cities were de facto divided into Muslim, Jewish, and Christian neighborhoods does not withstand scrutiny: see chapter 3 of this book.

38 John S. Koliopoulos and Thanos M. Veremis, Greece: The Modern Sequel, from 1831 to the Present (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 266.

Dario Fernandez-Morera
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    Posted: Sat, 09/17/2016 08:51 pm

    The liberals have taken good notes.

  • Fani's picture
    Posted: Sun, 09/18/2016 08:33 pm

    I am going to have to read this book. I confess that I have taught this idea: that 3 religions co-existed in Spain PEACEFULLY for hundreds of years, until a radical extremist landed (near Valencia) and his fanaticism caused Spain to rise up under El Cid.

    Wow, was I ever misled. Thanks for the clarity.

  • jrmbasso's picture
    Posted: Mon, 09/19/2016 09:09 am

    A range of dates for these events in medieval Spain would be appreciated. I am historically illiterate. 

  • Janet B
    Posted: Mon, 09/19/2016 10:25 am

    A quick reference book for you might be one of the "Politicallly Incorrect" books on Islam.

  • TV guy's picture
    TV guy
    Posted: Mon, 09/19/2016 02:12 pm

    This time of Spanish history is roughly from about 800-1100 AD.  El Cid died in 1099.  This book challenges the theory that Islamic rulers in Spain at the time allowed a peaceful existence of Christians and Jews.  


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