The Ottoman Government & Religious Beliefs

by Sara Powell

The Ottoman Empire is an interesting case study in religious tolerance, particularly for the times. Although the government was definitively biased toward Islam, other religions were not only tolerated but had distinct rights under Ottoman rule. The Ottoman government practiced a system of religious pluralism known as the Millet system, wherein each particular religious group, or dhimmi, was allowed both freedom of religious practice and a significant amount of autonomy, particularly within the court system and regarding taxation.

The Millet System in Court

Although Islam was the dominant religion of the Ottoman Empire, there were significant numbers of various other religions including Greek Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox and Judaism. Ottomans of other faiths were allowed to use their own courts to settle disputes according to their own beliefs. The one exception to this practice was a dispute involving a Muslim, in which instance, the court case fell under Islamic Sharia law. Millet courts were also used for such routine cases as divorce and inheritance questions. It is noteworthy that non-Muslims had the choice of which court they wanted to have their cases heard in -- their own or the Islamic court. Petitioners usually chose the court most likely to favor them on a given issue.

The Millet System and Taxation

Taxation was a mixed bag under the Millet system. Whereas each Millet was able to collect internal taxes, allowing them a good deal of fiscal autonomy, their minority status meant that the Millet had to pay special taxes to the state. The special taxes took several forms. A poll tax, called a cizye, was a 10-percent tax on non-Muslims, in lieu of military service and as payment for the protection of the state. Practitioners of other faiths also had to pay special licensing fees to build a new church or temple.

Discrimination

Despite having certain rights under the Ottoman Empire, non-Muslim religious groups also had certain restrictions imposed upon them. One very obvious form of discrimination was a dress code imposed on non-Muslims. Each Millet had a different dress code, which would mark him or her as belonging to a specific religion. However, dress codes were not just required of the Millets, but also signified class and guild differences. Another systematic form of discrimination on the Millets was that non-Muslims had to reside in neighborhoods specific to their religious group.

The Devsirme System

One of the more complex systems of the Ottoman treatment of non-Islamic religions was the Devsirme system. In this system, young Christian boys, mostly from the Balkans, were taken from their homes and converted to Islam. They were given excellent schooling and reared for service to the state. Most became Janissaries, the military elite of the Ottoman Empire. Although they were technically slaves, they received pay and had certain freedoms. Some of the particularly talented and intelligent boys were selected for palace duty and could, and did, rise as high as Vizier. Although still considered slaves, this class wielded considerable power in the Empire, which influenced many parents to willingly cede their children to the system in the hope of great advancement.

About the Author

Sara Powell began her writing career at the "Washington Report for Middle East Affairs" in 2000 while working on a Ph.D. in Middle East History at Georgetown University. She has also written and edited for San Francisco based bilingual newspaper "El Tecolote" and various online sites.

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