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Islam in the Ottoman Empire

Info: 2323 words (9 pages) Essay
Published: 17th Aug 2018 in History

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“In what ways was the Ottoman Empire Islamic?”



Part I:

Introduction: This paper seeks to make an analysis of the ways in which the Ottoman Empire was Islamic. It seeks to establish the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and Islam, the religion on which it was founded.

Part II:

Summary: At the core of this narration is the fact that the nature of enforcement of Islamic tenets in the length and breadth of the Empire kept shifting with time. Although Islam and the Ottoman Empire were inseparable, since the very foundation of the Empire was Islamic, the actual manner in which Islam was enforced in the Empire varied in relation to time and geographical space. The pattern in which Islam was enforced altered from that of a brutal version at the beginning of the Empire to one that moderated greatly as the decades and centuries progressed. In other words, the dispensation shifted from Jihad to Dhimma. [1] The nature and reasons for this metamorphosis forms the heart of the paper. Moreover, Islam in its unadulterated form could not be enforced in a monolithic, homogeneous fashion in all the centuries of Ottoman rule, because the territories they governed were vast and disparate. In view of this complex scenario, this paper, due to the severe constraint of space, takes up only two important aspects of Islam that were more or less a constant in the Empire as it grew –the treatment of non-Muslim subjects, and of women. In these, an overwhelmingly large part is devoted to the former, because administration enjoyed greater primacy, while the latter is referred to in passing. On account of this dearth of space, a unique element of the Ottoman Islamic military, the Janissaries, is left out.

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Part III:

Discussion: The ascendancy to power of the Ottomans took place in the backdrop of the waning of authority of the Seljuk dynasty, the dominant power of Asia Minor until then.[2] In the given situation, since the political situation was very volatile, and opportunity was afforded to building an empire to one who succeeded in this unstable milieu, what was needed was brute force to achieve these ends. The period saw a novelty –the formation of a band of savage and predatory men calling themselves the Ghazis. Fanatically dedicated to Islam, these warriors derived their authority from the Islamic notion of Jihad –Holy War. The earliest Ottomans were typical examples of Ghazis. This concept enabled the Ottomans, who till then had been an insignificant vassal of the Seljuk dynasty, to now establish their authority in the region. This is how the establishment of the Ottoman Empire was based entirely on a primitive interpretation of and resort to militant Islam. (Turnbull, 2003, p. 10)

From these beginnings, over the years, the Ottomans displayed towards non-Muslim subjects a sense of tolerance that would put Europe to shame. During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, when events such as the Inquisitions were becoming milestones in Europe’s history[3], the Jews found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. This was the predominant destination to which the persecuted Jews milled, and were able to practice their way of life without any hindrance. A Hapsburg ambassador in the court of Suleiman the Magnificent had this to say about the Ottoman Sultan’s attitude towards his empire’s non-Muslim subjects:

It is by merit that men rise in the service, a system which insures that posts should be assigned to the competent . . . . They do not believe that high qualities are either natural or hereditary . . . , but that they are partly the gift of God, and partly the result of good training, great industry, and . . . zeal . . . . Honors, high posts and judgeships are the rewards of great ability and good service. This is the reason that they are successful in their undertakings. (Levy, 1992, p. 15)

Reasons for the change in attitude: Some major reasons can be attributed for this benign treatment of these subjects. As inheritors of the pristine tenets of Islam, these rulers considered Christian and Jewish people their theological predecessors; on account of this, although the Koran was considered the final and purest revelation, the same Koran, the ultimate fountainhead of wisdom to the Muslims, also placed upon Muslim rulers an obligation to protect their non-Muslim subjects, under the covenant of the Dhimma. (Levy, 1992, pp. 15, 16) For this protection, these subjects had to pay a tax, and were required to live under some restrictions, such as acceptance of Muslim superiority, being banned from riding animals that Muslims rode, and being made to wear distinguishing dresses or badges. (Lewis, 1982, p. 5) Other restrictions included being obliged to build houses lower than those of Muslims, being proscribed from residing in the neighbourhood of a mosque, and allocation of the place of dispute resolution between minorities.[4] (Göçek , 1996, p. 35)

However, essentially, as pointed out by Lewis (1982), during the course of their history, the Ottoman Turks outgrew their initial tendency to maraud and slaughter at will, and were predisposed towards building an empire through a well-knit system of administration that derived from the Koran; over the years, they graduated to retaining their warm relationship with non-Muslims out of practical considerations. (Lewis, 1982, p. 5) For example, in most of the lands the Ottomans ruled, Christians and Jews had lived for centuries. Where conversion of these people, especially the numerically superior Christians was impossible, forcing conversion would almost certainly have invited revolt; because of this, most Ottoman rulers decided that it was wiser to leave these minorities to their own religion. In addition, allowing them to practise their own religion also gave the administration much needed taxes. In this sense, the presence of the minorities was actually an advantage to some Ottoman sultans. These minority religious groups usually were classified under a system of local administration called the millet. Literally translating to nation, these units were helpful in keeping the Sultan informed about the state of affairs of the minorities. (McCarthy, 1997, pp. 127, 128) As a result, although there were some infrequent tensions in the form of humiliation and derision, by and large, the relationship between the Muslims and non-Muslims in the entire length and breadth of the Ottoman Empire, almost throughout the six centuries of its existence, was characterised mostly by goodwill, making the Empire a medley of various religions and cultures. This contrasted starkly with the ghettos and exile of the Jews in Europe. The occasional strains that arose were more for economic and social reasons rather than purely religious. (Lewis, 1982, pp. 5-7)

Women in the Ottoman Empire: When it came to their treatment of women, the Ottomans derived from the various traditions they inherited, and Islam was one of them. While the lineage was patriarchal, their regional and tribal inheritance showed up in various aspects of their relationship with women, as precisely described here: “the Ottomans did make rational choices and draw upon a number of traditions in establishing the imperial household. The legacy of acquiring women through “raids” most likely came directly from a central Asian tradition; the employment of polygyny, that is multiple wives, probably derived from Islamic sources; the Ottomans may have learned of concubinage from the Persians; and they may have adapted from the Byzantines the idea of securing alliance and treaty through marriages.” (Goffman, 2002, p. 40)

Part IV:

Conclusion: Islam was the soul of the Ottoman system of governance; yet, this was by no means a repressive regime. Contrary to the treatment of non-Muslims in most parts of the world that came under Muslim rule[5], the Ottoman Empire, the largest Islamic empire in history, (Karsh, 2003, p. 25) displayed a fair degree of tolerance towards its non- Muslim subjects. Whatever may have motivated this, the fact is that this speaks of the completeness of their evolution from the days of the Ghazi to that of a rule that had a generally salutary effect on the minorities of the empire. Overall, the Ottomans turned out to be a relatively far more tolerant empire than the Christian regimes of Europe of the same period. This perhaps was to lay the foundations of the modern Turkey as we know it today.


Goffman, D., (2002), The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

Göçek , F. M., (1996), Rise of the Bourgeoisie, Demise of Empire: Ottoman Westernization and Social Change, Oxford University Press, New York.

Karsh, E., (2003), Rethinking the Middle East, Frank Cass, London.

Levy, A., (1992), The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire, Darwin Press, Princeton, NJ.

Lewis, B., (1982), Introduction, in Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, Braude, B. & Lewis, B. (Eds.) (pp. 1-32), Homes & Meier Publishers, New York.

McCarthy, J., (1997), The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923, Longman, London.

Turnbull, S., (2003), The Ottoman Empire, 1326-1699, Routledge, New York.

Ze’Evi, D., (1994), “The Sufi Connection: Jerusalem Notables in the Seventeenth Century” in Papers from CIEPO IX, Jerusalem Papers from CIEPO IX, Jerusalem, Singer, A. & Cohen, A. (Eds.) (pp. 126-142), Hebrew University, Jerusalem.


[1] This blend of militarism and religious doctrines is best illustrated by Marshal Hodgson, in whose words the basic feature of the Ottoman Empire was that it was “a military- sharÄ«’a alliance” (Ze’Evi, 1994, p. 136)

[2] Information on the early history and the structure of governance of the Ottoman Empire is neatly summed up in the following link: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/OTTOMAN/ORIGIN.HTM

Although this site cannot be treated as a great scholarly work, it is a good account that can be used as a kind of concise guide to this aspect of the power vacuum in the founding of the Empire, and the relationship of the state and its structure with Islam.

[3] The following link is an excellent source for a detailed account of the blood-soaked history of the Inquisitions: http://www.sundayschoolcourses.com/inq/inqcont.htm

[4] On the subject of jurisdiction of dispute settlement between members of the minority communities, this author offers an interesting recorded instance, in which there is no contradiction about a situation such as this: “if Zeyd the Jew goes from Istanbul-proper to Galata to conduct business and if Amr the Christian, claiming (Zeyd the Jew) needs to settle a transaction, takes him to the Islamic court of Galata, would Zeyd the Jew have the right to state that he wants the case heard instead by the Islamic court in the neighborhood of Galata-proper.”(Göçek, 1996, p.35)

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[5] An interesting case for the study of treatment of non-Muslim subjects in a state ruled by Muslims is that of India. The Muslims were the dominant ruling class for about 10 centuries, but this reign was far from even. Islamic kings’ treatment of the majority Hindus saw no uniformity, and is a matter of heated and emotive debate to this day in the country.


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