Renaissance travelers on tolerance in the Ottoman Empire

Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew leads a group of believers, nuns, and priests into the St. George patriarchal cathedral for the Epiphany day mass in Istanbul January 6, 2007. REUTERS/Fatih Saribas

Islam … tolerated Christians and Jews as constituting religious communities “of the Book”: the Qur’an did not allow forced conversion and ordained protection of these comunities as long as they paid the special Jizya (tax). In 1:256, the Qur’an proscribed religious coercion, and in 28:56 and 109:5,6 it extended God’s mercy to believers in other religions.

In this respect, Ottoman policy was consistent with this theology and followed Islamic Shari’a (law) closely: only in the western Balkans and in Bosnia and Albania did extensive conversion to Islam occur. (…) In 1600, George Manwaring confirmed that “There doth inhabit amongst the Turks many Christians”, a view that was repeated at the end of the century by the physician Ellis Veryard about Christians being “very numerous throughout all Turky”. In Smyrna in the second half of the second century, there were mosques, synagogues, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches, along with protestant chapels – demonstrating a religious tolerance that was unparallelled in the cities of western Christendom. Even today after four hundred years of Ottoman rule of the Middle East, many parts of the former Empire (particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean) have maintained sizeable minorities of Christians.

Renaissance travelers in the Levant confirmed this toleration and reported on the amicable interaction of religious communities and on how Muslims, Jews and Christians shared their festivities with each other. Thomas Coryat observed how often “Spectators were as well Christians as Turkes”, and so did Rycaut who could not but praise Muslim toleration of Christians, including Muslim respect for the Christian clergy. Many accounts by captives in North Africa speak of the respect which priests received from their captors, the permission they were granted to celebrate their religious feasts and the presents they were given to decorate their churches.

In Smyrna, Turks “often dropped in at Christian churches” while others enjoyed listening to children reciting their catechism. At the end of the seventeenth century, the French traveler Jean Dumont, the Sieur du Mont (1667-1727), noted that Muslims venerated certain Christian saints, and that on a few occasions, “Turks and Christians [joined] together in some Rites of Devotion”. At a Law Court which he visited in Egypt, Veryard saw copies of the “Old and New Testament and an Alcoran” that were used “to swear Jews, Christians, and Mahometans, each according to his Religion”.

Nabil Matar, Islam in Britain 1558-1685, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; p. 28-29

The tolerance of the Ottoman Empire influenced the development of religious toleration in Europe

Categories: Muslim Heritage

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2 replies

  1. Turks knew how to rule according to Islamic tenets and Pakistanis know how to coerce the religion to allow them to hate. (By coercion of religion I mean giving meanings to Islamic teachings by using “consensus” of the ignorant masses.) Sadly, this disease is spreading to other Islamic countries.

  2. Of course it is obvious that Muslim rulers in the past were very tolerant, otherwise there would not be sizeable Christian communities in all the Ottoman Empire after centuries of Ottoman rule.

    By the way Albanian history shows that Albanians converted to Islam even before the arrival of the Ottomans.

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