History and Historiography

How Just Was The Ottoman Millet System?

Achieving semi-autonomy even within the context of a theocratic imperium.

At times the borders of the Ottoman empire almost reached Vienna inthe north, Yemen in the south, Algeria in the west and today’s Iran in the east.The Ottoman state was a form of theocracy, based on strict notions of hierarchyand order, with the sultan on the top exercising absolute, divine right at its pinnacle. To what extent the Ottoman elite believed that their sultan was thesupreme ruler of the Islamic world, to whom all others were expected to defer,is still in need of further investigation and here we will not attempt to deal withthis matter. But we have to admit that according to Islam governors andstatesmen are simultaneously judges and supervisors. Their power could beexecutive, administrative and judicial, but cannot be legislative. Legislator (lawmaker) is only Allah and he has given already his norms and rules for governing through the revelation of Mohammed. According to the Islamicteaching supreme governor and ruler is Allah himself, people are his subjects,slaves. Allah is the only monadic source of power. In the Islamic “umma” everyMuslim is not conditional, but imperatively believer. All that is leading tofusion of religious and civil community and suspension of political freedom of individual on behalf of the state. That is why state in Islam is the only real political subject and not the individual as it is in Christian tradition. Institutionof caliphate represents legitimate Islamic state after the death of her creator. Inthe same time, despite of its enormous success Arabic aristocracy could notkeep infinit control over the entire “umma”, because Islam itself underminesuch an Arabic superiority. Everyone who adopts Islam become equal despitehis ethnic origin or communal position. Islam widely opens gate for all giftedand ambitious non-Arabs. With the adoption of Islam Syrians, Persians, Turks,etc. are becoming pillars of Islamic civilization. Therefore, despite of the factthat Islam and caliphate political tradition become the base on which Ottoman empire built its society. It rest on balance and synthesis, a new society neither

pure Muslim, nor Christian, for which the exact word is — Ottoman. For almost600 years within the frontiers of the Ottoman empire three main religiousgroups: Christians, Jews and Muslims used to live together. No one of thesereligious groups were ethnically pure, they were divided even amongthemselves in to a variety of religious shades. The Ottoman system first dividedall these people into the domain of faithful, the Muslims, and the domain of war, the non-Muslims.

In Islamic religious law (sharia) and quite often inOttoman official writings, it was customary to describe the world as beingmade up of the Dar al Islam (‘the house of Islam’) and the Dar al harb (‘thehouse of war’). It is interesting that to the first category belonged not only thedomains of the Ottoman sultans themselves, but also those of other SunniMuslims, such as the Uzbek khans or the Moguls of India. In the same timeagain in conformity with religious law, non-Muslim rulers who had accepted to pay tribute to the Ottoman sultan were considered part of the Islamic world.One such polity was Dubrovnik, a city-state that due to its size and locationwas able to avoid most of the conflicts in which the Empire was involved.Other dependencies of the Empire governed by non-Muslim rulers, and byvirtue of this relationship part of the Islamic world, that one mightmention were the principalities of Moldavia, Transylvania, Walachia, etc.

Therights and obligations of each individual in the Ottoman empire weredetermined by the position they had in one of these two groups — the group(house) of Islam and group (house) of war. “The Turks were by no means in thesituation of a dominating majority opposed to oppressed minorities every wherein the Empire. In many regions they themselves were in the position of minorities, at least in respect of their numbers.”

The non-Muslims community was divided into millets, administrativeunits organized on the basis of religious affiliation rather than ethnic origin.

The principal duties of the subjects organized in their millets were to pay their taxes, to keep the order and to observe their respective religious and culturalfreedom, under their own religious and lay leaders. The term “millet” originallymeant religion and religious community.

In the end of the 17th century whilestill keeping its original meaning, it also began to denote such modern conceptsas nation and nationality.

The Qur’an and Islam recognized Jews and Christians as “people of theBook” who worshipped the same God as Muslims. Islam penalized only partially Jews and Christians for failing to accept God’s most recent revelationthrough the prophet Mohammed. Prophet Mohammed himself was the one whoestablished “a binding precedent for his successors when dealing with non-Muslims through his agreement with the Jewish tribes of Medina”.

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