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Ottoman Empire, religion and the state ideology: Secularism, Sharia, Non-Sunni Muslims and Non-Muslims
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Ottoman Empire, religion and the state ideology: Secularism, Sharia, Non-Sunni Muslims and Non-Muslims

Religion, Ottoman Empire, Secularism, Sharia, Non-Sunni Muslims and Non-Muslims... Ottoman Empire is accepted as an Islamic state by many. However, when we analyze the state and state ideology in details, we can easily come up with the conclusion that Ottoman Empire cannot be simply described as an Islamic state.

10 Mayıs 2022 18:40
Ottoman Empire, religion and the state ideology: Secularism, Sharia, Non-Sunni Muslims and Non-Muslims



The founder dynasty of Ottoman Empire is Sunni-Muslim and Turkish. However, this does not necessarily mean that Ottoman Empire is either a Sharia state or a Turkish state.

Just like the term “Turk” was used to define low class, unqualified and disliked kind of people during the time period when the Ottomans were in their peak, Islamic law or sharia had never been completely synchronized with the state policy in Ottoman Empire. That is to say, the fact that the Ottoman dynasty was descended from Turkic people does not mean that Ottoman Empire was a Turkish state, and similarly, the fact that the dynasty was descended from Islamic roots does not make the Empire a Islamic state.

It is well after the abolition of devshirme system that Turkish people started to take role in the state affairs as the state officials, and thereby Turkish identity started to be endorsed as the founder and main identity of the state. And this kind of policy change can be observed obviously only when many nations across the empire start to exalt their own national identities against the imperial state policy.

ottoman empire and religion

For a long time, Ottoman Empire had located itself as the successor of Roman Empire. Therefore, it had implemented a very tolerant policy toward its non-Muslim citizens. 

Right after the conquest of Constantinople, Gennadius Scholarius was granted the title of patriarch of the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror who honored the patriarch in an unprecedented way which was even not observed during the Byzantine period. Likewise, the patriarch of Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople and the chief rabbi of Jewish people had an honorable place in Ottoman Empire. Needless to say, this kind of policy had some political objectives. For instance, controlling and dividing the source of potential threats to the empire. Nonetheless, this does not change the fact that Ottomans had tolerated and embraced different religions at the same time. 

What does this mean? Was the Ottomans not affected by the Islamic ideology?

Of course no!

From its very first years to its collapse, Islamic ideology was behind many state policies in Ottoman Empire. However, Islamic law/sharia was not the only constituent of the state ideology. There were many examples and practices which are not compatible with sharia. The summary of the state and sharia relation can be understood in imperial interests. The empire had utilized the Islamic law when it was beneficial for its imperial interests, and abolished it when it was not useful for the state interests. 

What are the examples which demonstrate that Ottomans didn’t abide by Quran?

(Sharia is sum of rules some of which aren’t directly Quranic. This is another topic that must be dealt with separately and in details.) 

ottoman empire pilgrimage

Duty of pilgrimage

The Ottoman sultans didn’t make pilgrimage. However, pilgrimage is a must for every Muslim who can afford. The sultans were asserting that they couldn’t leave the capital of the empire, Constantinople, because of the possible instabilities and uprisings in the absence of the sultan. That is to say, they were claiming that guaranteeing the survival of the state is much more necessary than duty of pilgrimage.

Despite the fact that sheik al-Islams were approving such an excuse based on their own inference which is imposed as a religious rule and therefore as the part of sharia, the holy book of Muslims, Quran, doesn’t approve such an excuse. When there is a new problem that Quran doesn’t deal with and offer a solution, Muslims are allowed to make inferences from previous acts and sayings of Prophet Mohammad and his friends. However, the abolition of duty of pilgrimage is not one of these, because Quran has a very obvious and clear rule when it comes to pilgrimage.

This issue is very controversial, and many people will support the view that the abolition of the duty of pilgrimage is excusable. These people also do not accept Quran as the only source for Islam, but also some rumors and sayings which are being attributed to Prophet Mohammad. However, those rumors and sayings are mostly unreliable, because there is no any clear evidence to prove that those rumors and sayings belong to Prophet Mohammad.

As I said, this issue is quite controversial! What you should know is that Ottoman sultans didn’t make the duty of pilgrimage which is binding for every healthy and wealthy Muslim.

ottoman empire and fratricide

Fratricide (The murder of the Ottoman princes)

According to Quran, killing one person without any justifiable reason is equal to killing all people. Mehmed the Conqueror adopted a new rule which says to protect the state against civil war and thereby to protect the lives of the citizens the sultan has right to kill all his brothers who could pose threats to the survival, welfare, peace and the security of the state. It may ring true, but this is another controversial issue which was abandoned later by the Sultan Ahmed I.  

To me, I definitely believe that fratricide is a crime. Killing princes was not the only and most importantly the best choice to protect the state. Consequently, we can easily say that fratricide is a definite breach of the order in Quran.

These both examples demonstrate that sometimes the Ottoman sultans didn’t abide by Quranic law. 

The empire was ruled according religious, traditional and cultural customs as well as rules put in effect in accordance with changing needs overtime. Non-religious rules were not always synchronized with religious rules. The extent of breach of religious rules was determined by the needs of the time.

Moreover, non-Muslim society had it own courts and rules, and sharia was not binding for them. Nonetheless, there were some exceptions that can be regarded to claim that Ottoman Empire was an Islamic state. For instance, non-Muslims were not accepted to military service; therefore, they were subjected to different kind of taxes.

The security of non-Muslim citizens and their holy places were given a very high importance.  Furthermore, the monasteries were exempted from taxes and sometimes some of them were given special presents. For example, Rila Monastery in Bulgaria was allowed to exercise its previous rights gained before the Ottoman conquest.

Another important detail in state policy is that Islamic sects other than Sunni Islam were oppressed and they couldn’t enjoy the same tolerance granted to non-Muslim citizens. Thus, the empire has adopted the Sunni Islam and was strictly against other sects of Islam. In other words, religious tolerance was reaching its limit when there was a potential threat to the state ideology. 

When it comes to the influence of religion on the state government, we should state that religious influence had gradually increased on the government policy. What does this mean?

Sheik al-Islams were the head of Sunni Islam. They were responsible only for the religious issues during the first centuries of the empire (14th-15th centuries). However, after the 16th century Sheik al-Islams gained more influence on society. It is again in this century that religious extremism and bigotry start to increase in the society. This extremism developed overtime, and in the 17th century, sculptures and even miniatures were rejected due to religious ‘concerns’! The decline of the empire during the 18th and 19th centuries was attributed to abdication of religious duties. Therefore, adopting Islam as the state ideology was seen as the best solution to the decline.

In addition to all these, we should also know that Ottoman sultans did not use the religious power of caliph up until late 18th century. It was only after this time that religion started to become dominant in state ideology. Ottoman sultans was already caliph before the 18th century, and they were acting like the protector of Islam and all Muslims in the world, but the religious influence and power of the caliph used in Aynalıkavak Truce (1779) for the first time.

According to Aynalıkavak Truce, on the one hand, Ottoman Empire accepted the annexation of Crimea to Russia. On the other hand, Russia accepted the Ottoman caliph’s rights as the religious leader of Muslims. As a result, Crimea became a part of Russia, while Ottomans symbolically continued to be responsible for the Muslims there. Consequently, the title of caliph became a international actor, and it was started to be used as a official title from Selim III (1789) onward.

The official use of caliph title doesn’t mean that the state ideology embraced a more conservative policy. In 1858, homosexuality decriminalized in Ottoman Empire as a part reforms. Therefore, religion and religious issues in Ottoman Empire need to be examined in many different aspects. 

One of the references in this article: İlber Ortaylıİmparatorluğun En Uzun Yüzyılı

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