The Ottoman Empire recognized three groups of non-Muslim minorities: ahl al-kitab (People of the Book), ahl al-dhimma (protected minorities), and non-Muslims. They are not forced to follow Islamic law, have considerable freedom of choice, and have their own religious organizations. This system has been considered the Ottoman Empire’s greatest strength and weakness.
Dhimmi designates an indefinitely renewed contract through which non-Muslims have a specific status (but are not full citizens), have their property protected, and are ensured safe conduct in return for acknowledging Islam’s domination and paying the jizya (poll tax).
In early Islam, they were Christians, Jews, Magians, Samaritans, and Sabians. The Prophet and the early caliphs showed religious tolerance and caution toward religious minorities. The Ottoman sultans made slight changes, but basically followed the same attitude in a more structured fashion.
Dhimmis in the Ottoman State
Some assert that Ottoman society was divided into ruling (Muslim) and (non-Muslim) raaya classes. But it was more complicated than that, for Muslims and non-Muslims were referred to as raaya (followers, the ruled, or non-participants in government). As the Ottoman State was semi-theocratic, raaya should be understood in the biblical sense as the shepherd and the flock.
Government personnel worked in three areas: religion and law, war and statecraft, and the bureaucracy. The first branch was restricted to Muslim-born subjects. The ulema devoted long years to theological, scholastic, and legal studies in order to become judges and professors. The latter two branches were reserved mainly for non-Muslims. Neither group was inferior to the Muslims.
The Ottoman system was so complex that we cannot determine whether there was religious or racial discrimination. After reforms during the nineteenth century, many intellectuals and ecclesiastics argued that applying a unified law would deprive them of their privileges. The Ottoman system of government was holistic, considered all branches interwoven and interconnected, and was fairly well integrated, in socioeconomic matters but not in religious matters, at least in Turkish-majority areas.
The Millet System
Three days after Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror entered Constantinople (1453), he told everyone to go home and continue his or her occupation and religion. He supervised the election of a new Greek Patriarch, a monk named Genadius, who was elected by Synod and consecrated. He proclaimed the patriarch-elect in the most honorific terms, gave him the pastoral staff with his own hands, and said: Be patriarch, live with us in peace, and enjoy all the privileges of your predecessors. Though other communities later were recognized in the same terms, the Greek Orthodox Church always had more privileges and stronger ties with the central government.
Gradually, dealing with minorities engendered the millet system. Controlling the minority communities through their local bishops and rabbis stopped, and the whole Orthodox Church was organized as Rum Milleti (Roman people). The patriarch collected and allocated the poll tax and served as his community’s temporal leader. He was assigned a ceremonial rank with three tugs (horsetails), allowed his own court and prison in Istanbul’s Fener district, and had unlimited civil jurisdiction over and responsibility for his community. The State assigned him other duties and enforced the laws that he laid down for his community.
Since Islamic law is corporate (not territorial) and Ottoman society was corporate in nature, the Ottoman State dealt with dhimmis as members of a community and not as individuals. A community member was directly responsible for and accountable to the community. Thus the government protected the communities from internal and external aggression, while the community’s leaders managed its affairs. The Porte had to ratify the chosen leader, but this was a mere formality. Each millet’s leader represented his people, and these matters were dealt with through the Foreign Ministry. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch had the rank of vizier and was provided with a guard of Janissaries (soldiers).
The Christian Millet
Most Orthodox Christian Balkan territories had been included in the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s jurisdiction. But by the time of Ottoman conquest, the Slavonic branch in the Sultan’s dominion had split into three patriarchates: Ochrida, Trnovo, and Ipek. These divisions were racial, dynastic, and nationalistic, and not doctrinal. Thus the Conqueror placed all Orthodox Christians under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople and let him decide how to apportion the tax among them.
The sixteenth-century conquests in the Islamic lands and the capture of Cyprus and Crete brought many Orthodox Christians and the ancient patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria under Muslim control. As the patriarch was influential with the sultan, the Porte made arrangements through which the Greek elements became dominant.
The Jewish Millet
The Conqueror allowed the Jews, recognized as another millet, to settle in Istanbul. He appointed a haham basi (Chief Rabbi) with powers similar to those enjoyed by the patriarch. The haham basi was given precedence over the patriarch next to the head of ulema, and after the conquest, the Jews’ position improved. Although outcasts under the Byzantines, they now started holding various public offices. Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and elsewhere were welcomed into Ottoman lands.
Each minority community was treated according to how it had been incorporated into the Ottoman State. Under Bayezid II and Mehmed the Conqueror, Muslims seem to have favored Jews over Christians, since Christians were suspected of being too sympathetic to Christian Europe. The Jews had no central authority to follow and be instigated by, save that of the office of haham basi, which the Porte could check easily. Almost all Jews were immigrants and brought their distinctive rituals, habits, and customs with them. Therefore, different regions inhabited by homogeneous groups were represented by different synagogues.
The Armenian Millet
In 1462, the Armenians became the last community recognized as a separate millet until the period of decline. Whereas the Patriarch was the most prominent ecclesiastical figure in the Orthodox Church and the Jews had no spiritual universal director, the head of Armenian Church did not reside within the Empire.
The Orthodox Church considered the Armenian church (Gregorian) heretical. Earlier, it had been as powerful as Orthodoxy. When the Armenians became a separate millet, neither little Armenia nor the Armenian provinces of the East, two important seats, were ruled by the Ottomans. Therefore, Mehmed II chose Horaghim, Gregorian bishop of Bursa, as the Armenian patriarch of Istanbul and gave him powers similar to those of the Orthodox patriarch and the haham basi.
Also belonging to this millet were all unclassified subjects, such as the Bogomils and the Paulicans, two heretical sects that originated from the Armenian church. Most Balkan Armenians accepted Islam after the area was overrun by the Ottoman armies. Remaining subjects have retained their particular faith until today. Other members included various Catholic and other Christian groups that the Orthodox Church considered heretical.
The devshirme and ghulam systems
This devshirme system was based on traditional views of dealing with prisoners of war. In the classical Islamic period, jurists advised immediate execution, allowing some or all to be ransomed or freed, exchanges for Muslim prisoners, or enslavement.
Islam allowed slaves to be emancipated; the Ottomans did not. One-fifth of all captives entered the ghulam system (the sultan’s slave family), and were trained and allowed to rise within the system. Such slaves were recruited from Christians aged 10 to 20 years. The preferred ages were probably between 14 and 18, and boys younger than 12 or older than 20 were considered only in exceptional cases.
Recruits were obtained through capture, purchase, gift, or tribute. Slaves not bought for the sultan or given to him were usually either captives or levied with the tribute boys. There was hardly any other way, since slaves passed too rapidly into the Muslim fold to have their children available for the system. The sons of the recruits (though already themselves Muslim) were eligible, but not their grandsons, because by then the grandchildren would most likely be Muslims. Reliable statistical data is rare, but based on contemporary accounts, in the sixteenth century probably 3,000 children were recruited annually. Those within the system might have reached as high as 80,000, and the total number recruited throughout the centuries might have been close to 2 million.
This exclusion of all other Muslims’ children and grandchildren lasted until Suleyman the Magnificent broke them. He allowed the Janissaries’ children to join their ranks or other parts of the system. This proved to be a fatal move, for it became the only hereditary institution after the sultanate.
At first, parents were anxious to keep their children out of the system. But later on, even Muslim families tried to get their children into it because of the prestige it conferred. Originally restricted to the sons of villagers and poor families, it eventually spread to the townsmen’s children. The earlier practice resulted in great social upward mobility; the later practice opened up a new way of accumulating wealth and prestige, and thus undermined the State.
This tribute system brought children from Austria, the Caucasus, the Crimea, and the Balkans. Those captured by raiders and corsairs were presented to the sultan as gifts. Otherwise, recruiting officers visited some villages every 4 years to fill their quota. The officer summoned the priest and got a list of children, visited the houses, and took the most suitable children. If he received more than required, the surplus was sold elsewhere. Contemporary accounts say that it produced the ablest and most talented children.
These children became known as ghilman. The sultan had the absolute sovereignty over them. However, they felt honored by this title and tried to show their loyalty to him. The Ottoman system raised slaves to ministers of state, courtiers, husbands of princesses, rulers of the Islamic state, soldiers and generals, bureaucrats and prime ministers. Race was irrelevant, for only potential talent was considered.
They were taught Turkish, Arabic, Persian, physical training, war affairs, administration, the Ottoman governing institutions, and so on. The successful and meritorious could expect to serve in some of the Empire’s highest positions. Its graduates became fully Muslim, as did those who served in the Ottoman armed forces. However, many non-Muslims served in respectable positions during the reigns of Murad II, Mehmed the Conqueror, and Salim I. Muslims and non-Muslims held provincial administration positions and were members of court slave families (e.g., the grand vizier, governors, princes, military officers, and so on).
Dhimmis paid two special taxes: jizya (a tribute or a poll tax) and kharaj (land tax). Ottoman ulema ruled that this rule still was in use, but since all agricultural land belonged to the State, it applied to private holdings. Another tax was taken from all peasants. Many other dues levied on peasants and traders were heavier for dhimmis than for Muslims. Though the land tax was discontinued during the early days of Islam, the Ottomans continued to levy the poll tax in lieu of military service. Interestingly enough, it was confused with land tax and the dhimmis were confused with the masses. The masses’ payment of the land tax thus was actually the dhimmis’ payment of the poll tax.
Originally it was levied only on free men who could earn and afford to pay it. But later on, ministers, rabbinical representatives, the chief rabbi, teachers, slaughterers, and a few Jewish families in Istanbul were excluded. Many Christian families obtained a decree from the sultan that made them exempt. Gibb and Bowen estimate that probably only one-third of all eligible dhimmis paid this tax during the State’s later period.
During the nineteenth century, the land tax was abolished (in principle) and yet retained as a compensation for military duty. Shortly thereafter, Istanbul’s people were exempted from it in toto, although it was still collected in the provinces. Until the republican era, all non-Muslims (except for Istanbul residents) paid only a military and a road tax.
The Ottoman State acted according to Islam and its own interests. It recognized each community’s rights and frequently protected them at the expense of its own citizens. It opened up state offices to non-Muslims as an incentive to become Muslim. Such a policy was unknown to the Europe of that time. However, the Ottomans did not spread the Islamic educational system among the non-Muslims to encourage their conversion, which constituted the state’s very raison d’etre.
Written by: Dr. Bekir Aksoy