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One of the most noteworthy attributes of Ottoman Turkish rule was Ottoman toleration of different religious beliefs. The Turks of the Ottoman Empire were Muslims, but they did not force their religions on others. Christians and Jews in the Empire prayed in their own churches or synagogues, taught their religion in their own schools and seminaries, and went about their business, sometimes amassing great fortunes. At that time, Ottoman toleration was unique.
The tradition of Turkish tolerance came from both religious belief and practicality.
Turks were Muslims and were tolerant of other religions because of that. From its beginnings Islam had accepted the existence of other monotheistic religions. Jews and Christians had lived in -lands ruled by Islam since the time of the prophet Muhammad. Certain rules had evolved to order the relations between Muslim and non-Muslim: Islam was to be dominant; rulers were to be Muslim. Muslims were not allowed to convert to other religions, nor could non-Muslims attempt to convert Muslims. Non-Muslims were to wear distinctive clothing. In various places at various times non-Muslims were also restricted in certain ways. Perhaps the most important of the special regulations was the demand that Christians and Jews pay a special tax, the jizya, that was not paid by Muslims. This tax was paid by adult Christians and Jews who lived in Islamic states. By common belief, it was based on -an agreement forged between Christians and Muslims in the first days of Muslim conquest. In return for tolerance of religious practice and the protection of the Islamic state, the non-muslims agreed to pay the tax and to accept the restrictions on their clothing, etc.
For those Christians who believed, as did the Muslims, that their own religious group should always be in control, the pact of toleration between Muslims and Christians was a disaster. However, for many Christians and for the Jews, the acceptance of Muslim rule was a real benefit. The Byzantine leaders who had ruled much of the Middle East before the Arab conquest often persecuted those Christians they considered not to be Orthodox in belief. To the Muslims, all the sects were simply Christians, all bound by the same laws, and none subject to persecution. Jewish life was to flourish in many lands.
In practical terms, the extra tax paid by non-Muslims can be viewed as a military exemption tax. Non Muslim males did not pay an extra tax, but they also remained on their farms or at businesses when the Muslims went off to war. For many, this would not have been a disadvantage.
As Muslims, the Ottoman sultans and Turkish generals kept to the laws of Islam regarding non Muslims. When the Ottoman Empire was founded in the early fourteenth century Islamic tolerance had already lived for six hundred years. The Ottomans continued and built upon that tradition.
Ottoman tolerance was based on cleverness as well as on good will. It was in the interest of the Turkish Muslims to be tolerant of other religions. The Ottoman conquerors came upon a vast area where the population was primarily Christian, especially in the Balkans. To these people, religion was the most important element of personal identification. Kings and emperors came and went, borders changed, but Christianity remained. The government was the property of rulers, often leaders who taxed the villagers into poverty and whom the people did not particularly like. But religion was the property of the people and of God. By allowing Christians and Jews to practice their religions, the Ottoman Turks defended against the most likely case of revolt. Farmers were unlikely to revolt in favor of a king they did not care about, but they would readily revolt in defense of their religion. On the other hand, the Ottomans rightly assumed, if religion were secure and taxes were not too high, people would be satisfied with their situations.
For the Ottomans, religious tolerance became a sound basis for government. In almost all Christian states until modem times only one form of religion was accepted. This was obviously not true in the Ottoman domains. There are many forms of Christianity that flourished. By the nineteenth century, when Christian sects had proliferated, Istanbul held churches for Bulgarian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic Assyrian Chaldean, Anglican, Congregational, and other Christians, as well as synagogues for both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. In earlier times there were three dominant non-Muslim religious groups -- Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Sephardic Jews.
The members of each of the religious preferred to associate with members of their own group. The Ottomans organized governmental life around divisions. Each religious community (millet) kept its own courts, schools, and welfare system. Members of the millet even built roads, water fountains, and communal buildings for their own neighborhoods. The members of millets were pleased to have these functions in their own hands and the Ottoman government was relieved of the necessity of providing them themselves. Had the central government provided for these schools, welfare establishments, courts, etc. of the millets, taxes would have had to be raised and the members of the millets would have been restive at the costs and at the loss of communal control over their own lives. It was a good system for all.
Ottoman religious toleration was not perfect. The Ottoman Empire was definitely a Muslim state and gave preference to Muslims in many parts of government. Only in the last decades of the Empire were non Muslims allowed to gain high office. Muslims undoubtedly felt more a part of the state than did Christians. Just as the king of England had to be an Anglican Christian or the king of Germany a Lutheran.Christian, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire had to be a Sunni Muslim. Official toleration did not mean that prejudices disappeared among Ottoman Muslims, Jews , or Christians. Muslims were undoubtedly the first subjects in the Empire, with greater rights and responsibilities than non-Muslims. Ottoman toleration was not Ottoman equality.
Why, if it was imperfect, was Ottoman religious toleration so noteworthy? Historical comparisons can be made to ideals. Compared to an ideal of a democratic government of complete equality for all citizens, the Ottoman Empire was deficient. Comparisons can also be made to modern times. Compared to today's governments in Western Europe or North America, religious, toleration in the Ottoman Empire was also deficient. Such comparisons help us evaluate history, but they are surely not fair criteria to use to praise or damn peoples of other times. To truly evaluate the Ottomans they must be compared to others who lived in their own time. It is in that comparison that Ottoman toleration is shown to be exceptional and laudable as it was. Ottoman toleration was not so notable because it was perfect. It was notable because it was so much better than what existed elsewhere.
The benefits of Ottoman rule are seen when one compares Ottoman practice with what was occurring in Europe at the time. In Europe only one religion was tolerated and conversion, exile or death was the rule for those who dissented. An example was Spain which, when conquered by Christian rulers, expelled the Muslims and Jews who had lived there for centuries. The Ottomans took them in. While Jews lived through ages of pogroms in Europe they lived in peace among the Turkish Muslims. In their time, the tolerance of the Ottomans was remarkable.
The practicality of Ottoman toleration was also remarkable. The system of the millets was pragmatic and useful, as well as moral. Yet it was exceptional that any government of the time would so set aside its prejudices to benefit the country. No Western government would have accepted the millet system and left so many ordinary functions of government out of its own control. Imagine a Western government in, for example, the fifteenth century that allowed non-Christians to run their own schools, to leave money to their children according to their own laws (not those of the state), to collect taxes to support welfare for its own group, to organize and police its own neighborhoods, to punish transgressors according to its own laws in its own courts. In fact, imagine a European government that allowed non-Christians to live in peace at all. The reality is reflected in the well known fate of the Jews in Europe. One cannot speak of the status of Muslims in much of Europe, because they were expelled when Christians took power. The ultimate intolerance for Muslims of Sicily, Spain or Portugal was exile from their homes and confiscation of their lands. The Ottomans were exceptional in realizing that a diverse group of peoples could actually assist their Empire. Upon hearing that the Spanish king was forcing out Jews, Sultan Beyazid.II, who welcomed the Jews to the Ottoman Empire, is reported to have said that if the Spanish king was mad enough to exile the most industrious of his subjects, the Ottomans would be glad to take advantage of his madness.
The success of Ottoman tolerance can most easily be seen in the fact that large Christian and Jewish communities existed in the Ottoman lands until the end of the Empire. Then it was European intervention and European-style nationalism, not internal failure of the system, that destroyed the centuries-long peace between religions that had characterized the Ottoman system.