Previous Next Up  
SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities
Updated February 27, 1996


Aron Rodrigue

difference and tolerance in the ottoman empire

Nancy Reynolds

While it certainly changed over its five-hundred-year existence, the Ottoman Empire was one of the most remarkable historical examples of coexistence among different religious and social groups. It has become increasingly difficult, however, for late-twentieth-century scholars in the West to imagine the kind of political system that existed in the Ottoman Empire, which can be characterized as neither absolutist rule nor secular nation-state. Research in the last twenty years has brought into question many of the commonly accepted models used to describe the organization of religious communities in the Ottoman Empire. For example, the studies compiled by Braude and Lewis in Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire suggest that the juridical structure of communal organization in the Ottoman Empire was never historically stable and that the millet [an internal term of reference for the communities of Jews, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, etc.] in fact came into existence in the nineteenth century rather than, as many historians have believed, in the fifteenth. Likewise, political economists have criticized the "mosaic" model elaborated by Gibb and Bowen in Islamic Society and the West, which posits that the Ottoman Empire was composed of isolated, autonomous communities held together by the "cultural roofing" of Islam and, specifically, the shaykh al-islam. The mosaic approach has been criticized for being static and ahistorical, for not leaving any room for class or social conflict, and for not attending to the ways in which communities did, in fact, interact with each other. In the wake of these critiques, however, there has been little work that actually proposes new ways to describe Ottoman religious organization. How do you think we should conceptualize this relationship between the state, the majority, and minority communities in the Ottoman Empire before the nineteenth century?

Reconceptualizing this relationship requires moving away from both the nationalist historiography of the "Ottoman yoke," which considers the Ottoman state oppressive to non-Muslims, and the historiography of an almost idyllic, harmonious coexistence in the Ottoman Empire. Obviously, the Ottoman Empire spanned huge regions of the world and lasted for centuries and so encompassed tremendous change. It is important not to ascribe to the Ottoman case a static vision of an arrangement between "majority versus minority," or "ruler versus ruled," or "state versus society," but rather to unpack the situation over particular periods in history. In this respect, I believe that one has to make a distinction between the modern period where the West becomes a referent -- and "West" and "Westernization" are, of course, concepts with many meanings -- and the period prior to that, in which the empire was not subordinated to outside state and economic powers, although it always engaged in a certain interchange with surrounding, non-Ottoman lands. Perhaps this is old-fashioned, but I do believe that a very different set of circumstances began to emerge when the European powers became more directly dominant and threatening. A temporal distinction, then, is the first important marker we need to take into account in order to talk about this topic at all.

Secondly, analysis of the Ottoman treatment of non-Muslim groups requires simultaneous attention to two systems: a non-essentialized, but nevertheless significant, Ottoman version of the Islamic discursive framework -- a vocabulary, a language, an overall explaining structure for organizing social and political life -- that was in a dynamic relationship with the earlier Islamic textual religious tradition; and the interplay between that framework and the actual day-to-day reality in which this discursive paradigm was continuously molded and shaped. This means Ottomanists need to move away from the rather essentialist view of the dhimma [the "pact" of toleration of non-Muslims living under Islam] and the implicit assumption that because Islam treats non-Muslims according to the stipulations of the dhimma, then the Ottoman Empire, as an Islamic state, continued to follow these stipulations in exactly the same way. We must recognize that while this preceding political language and discursive framework of Islam remained relevant, it was never static. This framework of Islam was malleable, and its particular expression depended on differences in rule or regime.

In the period prior to the modern one (roughly the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries), a society existed within this framework where "difference" instead of "sameness" was paramount. The static "mosaic" view, which posits building blocks for Middle Eastern society, in which each group is defined and fixed permanently by its religion or ethnicity, is not particularly useful analytically. I think, however, that one can reinterpret the mosaic notion more dynamically, not stressing "minority/majority" or "ruler/ruled," but instead emphasizing the recognition of "difference" and, in fact, the near lack of any political will to transform the "difference" into "sameness." This is not the same as pluralism. The "difference" each group was ascribed, or ascribed to itself in its self-representation, was not articulated on the basis of rights. Rather, nothing in the political system of the Ottoman Empire called for different groups to merge into one. The difference was a given and accepted as such. That particular arrangement, therefore, renders invalid all our terms for debate about minority/majority, which are all extraordinarily Europe-centered -- and in many cases post-Enlightenment-Europe-centered. In the Ottoman situation, almost all aspects of social relationships and political power were organized in profoundly different ways. This was a world that recognized and accepted that groups did not necessarily have to share similarities to have a place in the overall arrangement. Instead, the minority/majority problem is one that is rooted in the appropriation of the public sphere by nation-states in Europe and the subsequent questioning of the institutionalization of that appropriation.

I want to explore some of the particulars of this social arrangement you have just described, where "difference," instead of "sameness," is normative and accepted. First, however, I'd like you to talk a little more generally about pluralism or what we call multiculturalism in this country. As an historical case, the Ottoman Empire perhaps could provide comparison in current discussions of multiculturalism. Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, has argued, for example, that in Britain today "[t]o the extent that the mutually dependent concepts of majority and minority belong to the liberal political system, they presuppose a constitutional device for resolving differences."[1]

I think actually that the liberal political system eventually invents the concepts "majority" and "minority."

Yes. The terms "majority" and "minority" are tied to a particular historical situation and a particular liberal political system. What is it about the nature of the Ottoman political system that makes this vocabulary not particularly useful, as you have suggested?

This socio-political system of the Ottoman Empire, as I am describing it, did not exist in the modern period. The Western Enlightenment public sphere calls for a value-neutral, universalist public sphere, at least in theory, and this universalism is based on the potential for ultimately eradicating difference, or at least nearly eradicating it. Moreover, this concept of the public sphere is articulated in opposition to difference. It is really only the universal that is, in some ways, privileged, not difference. When the public sphere finds itself incapable of dealing with difference, because, of course, difference does not disappear, then the system produces a discursive politics of majority/minority, about people who are not yet assimilated but are all potentially assimilable within the framework of a single nation-state. I would argue that the latest version of this, which is the multicultural debate, is ultimately about how to reconfigure the universal to allow space for different groups to enter the system, a recasting of the relationship between the universal and the particular. We should not lose sight of the fact that the issue is rooted in the problematics of the nation-state and the way it came to incarnate a public sphere that in fact constructs the "minority" as a problem requiring resolution.

It is fundamentally wrong to conceptualize the Ottoman Empire, and the Middle East more generally, before the modern period in terms of majorities and minorities. These terms might have a descriptive use for demographic, social, or cultural themes on one level, but I do not believe they carried the same weight that "majority/minority" has in political relations today. Certainly, particular groups or populations constituted the majority in large areas under Ottoman rule, and the Ottomans were very conscious of population distribution. For example, they used the system of surgun, in which they exiled groups from one place to another to provide support for the Ottoman state. In terms of political theory, however, "demographic" issues were not significant; Ottoman rulers did not justify their rule in terms of rootedness in a demographic majority.

Some historians have written about the Ottoman Empire as if it were a nation-state, with the Turks in control and administering minorities. This approach is flawed. The system encompassed multiple groups, all accepted as "different." Difference was not horizontally eradicated but vertically integrated into the political system. Certain groups, of course, had easier access to the top than others; nevertheless, all the different groups, on some level or another, did have links to the hierarchy of the political system, whether through intermediaries at the court or as an economically powerful class, such as the Greek Phanariots. I am not talking about "equality" here. In my opinion, even the term "equality" is an irrelevant concept in this arrangement. The particular -- the difference -- was the given; it was, indeed, normative.

Much pro-Ottoman literature emphasizes the ease with which, for example, a Christian from the Balkans could become a minister in the state, even though he did not have a Turkish identity.

With one proviso, of course, which was that the person convert to Islam. This is what I meant by the importance of the religious discursive framework. Islam acted as a kind of conveyor belt to the top, as one medium of solidifying power at the very top. Islam did not necessarily determine every aspect of life, but was a mediating force that did, nevertheless, create categories transcending ethnicity. It established the fundamental categories of the Muslim and non-Muslim. However, the Muslim/non-Muslim category was never formulated in terms of majority/minority.

I want to pick up on your point that "equality" is an irrelevant term in the pre-modern Ottoman context. Some theorists have argued that in contemporary society, issues of racial difference are linked to problems of "distributive justice."[2] How would you describe the relationship between difference and justice in the Ottoman system?

I don't think a system of distributive justice is possible in that arrangement. The terms "discrimination," "equality," and so forth are inappropriate in the Ottoman context. Discrimination implies unitary, universalist justice. There was no such justice in the Ottoman context. Instead, justice was distributed along many different levels. Between Muslims and non-Muslims there were fundamentally different kinds of judicial systems. Even though the existence of kanuns indicates that certain rules transcended religious boundaries, the adjudication of justice was not so much on the basis of equality/discrimination as on the basis of fairness within a society where difference was paramount.

In terms of a juridical system, how did power mediate difference to create and/or transcend certain hierarchies?

The difference between a Muslim and a non-Muslim in this particular state was fundamental, although other divides existed, and they intersected in different places. Whatever was public, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, had to be expressed in religious categories; this was the most important discourse. "Religion" did not function as a category -- with "non-religious" or "secular" as its binary opposite -- the way it does in the modern period. Religion supplied the vocabulary, yet at the same time fractured the public, because, in recognizing other religions, it broke its own universalism. It was later, with the emergence of the nation-state, that Islam adapted itself to the demands for the creation of a universal public and came to represent itself as the language of the public sphere. This is a fundamental contradiction that has not been resolved in any of the Middle Eastern states, perhaps with the exception of Turkey, which disestablished Islam, although its secular self-image is under some attack now. The universalism of the nation-state invests Islam with a whole set of demands that it did not have to face in the older arrangement. For example, as opposed to the divide between Muslim/non-Muslim, Islam now has to meet the challenges of "minorities" and individual rights, including women's rights, which come with the paradigm of the nation-state. Property rights, invested in the notion of the individual, were a model the Ottomans imported from the West, for example. The introduction of the individual as one of the premises of the system transformed the entire basis of the pre-existing system, because the concept of the juridical individual, in and of itself, did not exist before. Everyone was within a group that had its juridical place within the larger Ottoman arrangement.

I would like to relate what you are suggesting about differences in the organization of equality between the Ottoman Empire and the nation-state to historiographic debates over defining tolerance. Braude and Lewis, for example, define tolerance as either the lack of discrimination or the lack of persecution. They argue that tolerance in the Ottoman context was, generally speaking, discrimination without persecution.[3] But what you have said suggests that they have brought together two modern or Western definitions of tolerance, whereas you are maintaining that the Ottoman context was a completely different system in which to understand tolerance.

What I am saying complements their view. Sometimes we make the point in the West that tolerance does not imply acceptance. I would argue that, in the Ottoman Middle East, tolerance was predicated on the notion of the acceptance of difference, but it did not imply a lack of discrimination. People might have shrugged their shoulders and said, oh, this is the Greek way, the Armenian way, the Jewish way, etc. This could have existed in public life and still have been a part of a system of tolerance. This was not seen as a moral problem. "Tolerance" is very condescending as a concept in the West. Tolerance in the Middle Eastern context didn't have the same connotation because the majority/minority problem was not associated with it. In fact, persecution of difference was not really acceptable. Since Ottoman rulers did not like social disorder, they attempted to fix or freeze the particular, but they did not change it. If the Muslims or Ottomans had wanted to abolish difference, they would have done so. They did not, however, attempt to homogenize communities, as does the modern nation-state.

The major problem now is the incursion into the public arena of two different paradigms. The old arrangement that privileged difference has not disappeared in the Middle East as a way of interpreting reality. But a new model of the nation-state and its discourse of majority/minority has been grafted onto the old system. It is highly symptomatic that the "millet" was invented in the nineteenth century at precisely the moment the old system was disappearing and came to replace it juridically. In the end, it was doomed to failure, because with the importation of the Western model, the non-majority and /or the "others" had to be constituted as minorities, and knowledge had to be produced about them as minorities. The older problem of difference being immutable survives, however, which changes the capacity for minority assimilation.

I am not advocating the Ottoman case as a model because, as with all historical models, the historical context has disappeared. It had both positive and negative aspects and was the product of a specific time and place. But I do believe that it is extremely important for us to relativize our own debates and put them in comparative perspective with arrangements that other societies utilized for coping with difference, with the particular. In the Ottoman context, the radical affirmation of difference entailed acceptance and toleration but also discrimination. At the same time, the so-called "oriental despotic system" produced a level of freedom -- or, more accurately, levels of autonomy -- that would be undreamt of in a supposedly free and democratic society. To understand some of the problems going on right now in the Middle East, we have to be aware of the earlier paradigm, how it interacted with the Western paradigm of universalism versus particularism, and how the interaction between the two produced new developments.

Some feminist historians have argued that "public" and "private" are inappropriate categories to describe power relations in any society, including the Ottoman Empire. In her new book on the Ottoman Empire, Leslie Peirce, for example, draws on Weber's model of patriamonialism to argue that power and sovereignty -- both of which are now commonly associated with the "public" -- resided in the household, a space we would now call "private."[4] What models do you consider appropriate to describe power in the Ottoman context?

I would argue that the public-private distinction is something that was entirely alien to the system. In this respect, I agree with large parts of what Weber has to say about the power that patron-client relationships, households, and private arrangements exerted in the absence of a public space as we think of it today in the West. The kind of role or model the sultan represented on the top was reproduced on many micro-levels, all along the line. This does not imply a formal paradigm. Rather, the organization of power the sultan represented was inscribed into, for example, the region's governor, officials, and all the way down to the family structure. In a system where power and sovereignty were embodied in the sultan, issues of conflict and power were resolved in what we would fundamentally categorize as "private."

The Ottoman Empire had extraordinary elements of informal patron-client relationships, which in fact held society together. I think, actually, the main reason why the situation survived was due to the lack of demand emanating from the center for uniformization or homogenization, whether according to the French model of the absolutist state or, later, of the nation-state. The Ottoman Empire was a patchwork. Regions and social groups were governed according to different rules. There is a great paradox here, because this system, which in the West has been called "oriental despotism," is precisely the system where the particular was so privileged that there was no expectation on the part of the rulers to eradicate difference. The real problems in the Ottoman Empire emerged not on ethnic or religious issues, but were linked to economic issues, such as taxation. The sultan upheld the framework of "justice" in which conflict was meant to be resolved. This justice worked for non-Muslims as well as Muslims, and crisis ensued when this system was disrupted or could not function.

I think the point you raised about public/private intersects with what I am trying to say about the non-eradication, even the affirmation, of "difference" or of the "particular," because difference as well as power were vested in the private. I believe that even, for example, in many Balkan regions, the ethnic, and eventually what historians would grandiloquently call "nationalist," uprisings actually initially began with the breakdown of the arrangement of the realm of the private and personalized form of justice; new market forces, Western interests, and rapacious local overlords disrupted patron-client relationships. Eventually, a new Western political vocabulary was imported to legitimize the uprising.

Given that the Ottoman Empire was polyvocal, how did difference in the way you have talked about it play out in terms of language? How did language articulate with some of the other dynamics or structures you have discussed?

Language was not invested with identity in the same way that the modern nation-state invests it. Obviously, the language of all the religious and ethnic groups varied from place to place. There were Turkish-speaking Greeks, Arabic-speaking Jews, Ladino-speaking Jews, Armenians only fluent in Turkish and not in Armenian. The ability to speak a certain language did not in any shape or form alter their identity. In fact, there was only one dominant, bureaucratic, ruling language -- Ottoman. This was not a normal language but a mandarin language of a bureaucratic class. It was also not the language of the supposedly ruling group, the Turks. People shifted into a bewildering array of languages in the context of the bazaar. Distinctions of identity were not automatically coded by language. Language was for communication and for religion, and in fact, people often used the script associated with their religion (Greek, Hebrew, etc.), regardless of the language they were recording (i.e., Arabic or Turkish). Language was primarily for trade or for making a living, so most people had some knowledge of a multiplicity of languages, without full mastery of them. The discovery of Turkish by Ottoman nationalists, who became, of course, Turkish nationalists, is paradigmatic of how divorced the intellectuals in fact were from the Turkish spoken by the common people. The notion of one unitary language would have been absurd for that particular region because it ran against most everyday social realities. I think that the notion of going around counting up people by language, which many people did in the nineteenth century, was particularly absurd in the Ottoman context. This does not mean people were not fond of a certain language, did not have home languages, etc., but the notion that language somehow defined you was nonexistent. People were defined by religion, or by their place in the social order. I think that, in the West, language became the normative signifier when it was coupled with a normative universal public sphere and the nation-state. Without having to bear the burden of a national signifier, language in the Middle East used to be remarkably fluid in its social meaning. There would have been absolutely no expectation in the Ottoman context, for example, that a Greek appearing before a Muslim judge would have spoken Turkish. There would have been translators, and this would not have been a problem. There are no reported cases where people were sanctioned or blamed for not being able to speak the language of the hegemonic ruling class.

You have described a system of multiplicities, where difference or particulars were affirmed. In the post-colonial period, such cultural pluralism is often captured analytically by "hybridity," a term which has come under considerable attack recently for the existence of "bounded," "stable" cultures it implies. How would you describe the construction and function of identity for non-Muslim Ottoman subjects?

In the Ottoman period, groups and identities -- whether followers of a Sufi master, Armenians, Jews, or Greeks -- cut across territories, almost as if the totality were composed of multiple diasporas. The diasporic element was the dominant paradigm. On the one hand, of course, it was a profoundly static society; most peasants, for example, never moved. On the other hand, most other groups were connected not by geography but by religious, professional, or patronage ties.

This phenomenon renders the whole issue of "hybridity" problematic. Obviously, there are problems with the notion of hybridity because of what it implies in terms of a "pure," whole, or "authentic" culture on which hybridity draws. It does point, however, to some of the critical features of this diasporic situation, insomuch as people had different points of allegiance which constituted their identity. On this, however, I part company with some of the more extreme manifestations of the post-structural, post-modern views of identity which suggest that all aspects of identity are perpetually in flux and have been that way through all historical periods. I also think that hybridity, to be a coherent category, has to take into account the relationships and organization of power in society. The fact that, in the Ottoman context, people's lives incorporated a multiplicity of cultural influences does not necessarily imply that, in terms of self-representation, people did not look to one form of ascriptive and descriptive difference as ultimately definitive. Indeed, the Ottoman reality was multiple, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and people found themselves frequently in a syncretistic, hybrid sort of space -- for example, the Ottoman bazaar. Nothing was more hybrid than the bazaar. But when the bazaar closed, everyone went home to a place that was, in terms of self-representation, fairly fixed and definitive. One, over-determining, self-representational reality still defined them. The fact that they frequently shared foods, music, proverbs, and so forth points to the enormous cultural interchanges between groups. At the same time, none of this challenged or homogenized the difference among groups.

In this system, where interchange between groups did not really homogenize differences between them, how was law, for example, organized? Historians have argued that the pre-modern legal system of autonomous communities -- where communities were defined as autonomous because they had separate juridical status -- was replaced by a system of equality between Muslims and non-Muslims because of a variety of factors, including Western imperialism, and was formalized with the reforms of 1839 and 1856. In your opinion, was there interaction between the communities in the legal sphere before 1839?

There certainly was. First of all, there were the Muslim courts, the sijill courts, the ruling qadi, and so forth. But the problem here is that the religious system that we call Muslim was in fact a complex web of the shar`ia, its reinterpretation, and evolution. In other words, it was not a fixed system. Islam has had a very sophisticated, changing juridical tradition that evolved with the demands of the ruler, and systems of "secular" law were incorporated and domesticated into the Islamic framework. So there were Muslim courts where a Muslim would go, very frequently on issues of private litigation like divorce, commercial litigation, or generally for issues arising between two people. But these courts of law did not deal with what we would associate with a "constitution." In a system that proclaimed difference as normative, it was absolutely understandable that each group had its own separate system. Difference was also sanctioned in this way. Therefore, Christians and Jews would go to their own courts of law, and even though religion was the language of the court, it also incorporated many outside influences. There were all kinds of crossovers, and the system was not set in stone. Since people acted in different ways and often in self interest, Christians and Jews frequently went to Muslim law courts to be tried because this might have been more beneficial to them. There were thundering rabbinical responsa and church rulings against this, but non-Muslim religious leaders were never able to put a stop to this practice. Even the threat of excommunication, which was at times invoked, did not deter everyone from it.

How would a non-Muslim be tried in a Muslim court?

You could be tried in two ways: according to what was accepted as general law in Islam or according to the qadi's interpretation of what, for example, the Jewish religious law would say. You can imagine how threatening this was for the rabbi or for the particular Christian religious leader, since there was a lot left to interpretation. However, what reveals the fundamental paradigmatic divide is that the opposite could never have taken place. A Muslim could never have gone to a Jewish law court and have the decision of that court be valid. That would have been completely unacceptable, because ultimately power was unilateral, and, with certain qualifications, Islam was ultimately the hegemonic system. So hegemonic, in fact, that if litigation involved a Muslim and a non-Muslim, then they had to go to a Muslim court. The non-Muslim court was not accepted as having jurisdiction over Muslims.

So why, then, would the qadi have been interested in learning about, for example, Jewish law?

This was in part because difference was not threatening, and it was entirely proper that Christians or Jews be judged according to their own law. But the Muslim qadi, who was not entirely familiar with Jewish or Christian law, accepted Islam's superiority as a given and felt he had the right to judge them should he wish. If he were particularly benevolent, he could judge according to the practice of the appellant, but nothing prevented him from judging according to Muslim law. There were cases of Christians going to the Muslims courts, of Muslims and non-Muslims going to the Muslim courts, and people who would never go to the Muslim courts. There is, however, some research that suggests that a Muslim jurist had the power to render the rulings of a non-Muslim court of law null and void, if he wished to do so. This again points to the hegemony of Muslims in the pre-modern Ottoman period. Therefore, we can perhaps say that difference was recognized but not on the basis of equality. This was very much a hierarchical difference. This was not an issue of pluralism, rather it was about plurality. In other words, difference was one of the organizing principles of society and sustained a certain inequality. But it was not linked to the universalizing project of homogenizing differences and hence engendering intolerance.

Previous Next Up  


1. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993) 257.

2.For example, see Iris M. Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990). See also Asad 255.

3. Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis, eds., Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society (New York: Holmes, 1982) 3.

4. Leslie P. Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford UP, 1993).