Religious Tolerance in Ottoman Empire Essay

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Updated: Sep 8th, 2021

In the Ottoman Empire, there was religious tolerance because religion played a critical role in enhancing peace and stability. Religious leaders were respected because they were depended upon during calamities and disasters. Moreover, religious leaders had a big role to play in ensuring that people lived in harmony.

Religious tolerance in the Ottoman Empire could not be compared to religious tolerance in the Roman Empire because diversity was not allowed in the Roman Empire. Non-Muslims, often referred to as dhimmis, were allowed to practice their forms of religions, but under close supervision.

Christians were allowed to exist freely, as long as they accepted the fact that Islam was the supreme religion in the empire. In matters related to religion, the Ottoman Empire formulated policies that favored freedom of religion. This was because the clergy had the role to play in the running and management of public affairs.

Religion was treated as an institution of government with powers to execute governmental policies. In this regard, the government formulated a number of policies aimed at regulating the performance of religious organizations. The empire had strong relationships with other empires that respected religious institutions, such as the Greek Orthodox Church (Karpat 78).

Religious tolerance in the Ottoman Empire was very important in two major ways. One is that the empire was surrounded by states that practiced Christianity. In fact, it was the only state, which practiced Islam as its major religion in Europe.

The neighboring states embraced Christianity meaning that it could have lost its status in case it proscribed other religions. For instance, the neighboring states, such as Greece, never tolerated Islam. It could be disastrous in case the state neglected the rights of other religious groups supported by major powers in Europe.

To avoid political inconsistencies, the state allowed other religious groups to exercise their rights. Moreover, the state had an ambition of expanding to other regions. This ambition could not have been achieved in case religious tolerance was not adopted.

It became easy to conquer other states because conquered states could be allowed to practice their cultural beliefs. Many kingdoms and chiefdoms resisted foreign powers because they interfere with their cultural rights and freedom. By embracing religious tolerance, the empire negotiated easily with other foreign powers on matters related to cooperation and security.

The millet system refers to the system of governance in which minorities are given powers to conduct their activities without interference from dominant groups. Arabs in the Ottoman Empire introduced the system after the adoption of Islamic religion.

Before the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, the millet system was used to cater for the needs of the poor in society. The government would provide basic needs such as food to the needy. In the Ottoman Empire, minor religious groups were given a set of norms that would control their behavior in the empire.

Their existence in society was recognized legally because they were allowed to worship their gods without interference. Under the millet system, the majority was viewed as the mainstream while the minority was expected to conform to the norms and regulations of the majority.

Christians and other minority groups were supposed to follow the Islamic laws, by appreciating the fact that Islam was the main religion in the Ottoman Empire. In this case, Christians and other minorities were not supposed to act in a way that would compromise the belief system of Muslims.

Individual millets in the Ottoman Empire were taken care of by their local leaders. The millets lived in groups and could form their own states within the larger empire. They could be allowed to establish their own taxation system.

However, their agencies could only be functional after receiving approval from the Ottoman Empire officials. Moreover, the millets could have their own set of laws, which could only apply within their boundaries. In case of an inconsistency with non-millets, Islamic laws could be invoked (Imber 12).

Millets were left to enjoy their rights, but they were supposed to show loyalty by paying taxes to the main government.

The millet system applied to the confessional communities only. Each community could come with its own laws, as long as the laws were not contradictory to the laws of the Ottoman Empire. In the current international system, the word nation is used to mean the same thing as the millet.

Each person was supposed to respect the laws of his community under the millet system. The system was very effective, though a number of European states opposed it.

Millet system is used by various countries, including Israel, to solve issues related to religion and culture. The millet system is used mainly because of cultural diversity among the Israeli populace. Israel is a state that was established in 1948 under the supervision of United Nations.

Its population has a diverse culture, which makes it difficult for the government to use a single set of rules. The application of the millet system is aimed at enhancing Jewish identify. Moreover, the country cannot afford to apply Jewish laws to all people because it would risk being isolated by other states.

Therefore, the state allows various groups to apply their private laws to resolve internal conflicts. Scholars observe that legal pluralism (millet system) in Israel has not been successful.

Under the millet system, the Israeli government gives various groups the power to establish courts that would resolve issues related to the family and marriage. Moreover, each group is given the power to establish its own religious court, which is charged with the responsibility of resolving issues related to faith.

In this case, groups can only endorse marriages that their cultures support. In the Islamic culture, Muslim men can marry Christian women, but a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man because it is against the Arabic culture. In matters related to divorce, each religion has its laws and regulations.

The millet system allows each group to apply the set of laws that are recognized culturally. In the Israeli society, a Muslim should not marry a Jewish because it is unconstitutional (Turchin 14). This rule is in the constitution implying that the millet system cannot be used in such cases.

In some parts of France, the millet system is applied effectively. For instance, women are expected to wear hijab while men are expected to keep long hair. In such regions, there are tight laws regarding the sale of certain commodities.

For instance, alcohol is not sold to certain age groups while pork is prohibited. Moreover, there is a public order regulating the licensing of clubs, cinemas, and theaters. Social places are termed places of sin because they do not conform to the provisions of the Islamic religion.

In the Ottoman Empire, the regime tolerated religious diversity because of the factors discussed in the previous sections. However, religious tolerance was weak because it favored one religious group. The political elites observed that Islam was the supreme religion and other religious groups had to obey it.

This was unacceptable because favoring one religious denomination amounted to discrimination. Religious toleration emerged from Islamic teachings, not the constitution. This meant that Islam would be applied in interpreting major religious issues.

For instance, it was against religious codes to practice homosexuality and abortion because Islam was against it. Moreover, Islam never allowed Muslims to interact with other groups socially. Religious tolerance in the empire was weak because Muslims were not allowed to convert to other religious denominations.

Moreover, leadership was supposed to be offered by religious leaders from Islamic religion only. In public places, all non- Muslims were expected to wear clothes that would distinguish them from Muslims.

In fact, no-Muslims were restricted from participating in key political processes such as voting and applying for senior positions in government.

Other religious groupings were supposed to pay a special tax referred to as jizya. This was a tax paid by all non-Muslims for them to be allowed to practice their cultures peacefully.

In other words, non-Muslims were allowed to buy their freedom, unlike Muslims who could be allowed to exercise their freedom without restriction. All adults living in the Islamic states were supposed to pay taxes as a sign of loyalty to the government.

Christians who never showed loyalty to Islam were often persecuted and oppressed. Ottoman tolerance was based on goodwill and cleverness because it only benefited Turkish Muslims.

Works Cited

Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print.

Karpat, Kemal. The Ottoman state and its place in world history. Leiden: Brill, 1974. Print.

Turchin, Thomas, and J. Adams. “East-West Orientation of Historical Empires”. Journal of World-Systems Research 12.2 (2006): 219–229. Print.

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