If you read many Western histories of the Ottoman Empire, you may not even learn that the Ottomans were a Muslim empire. They are often seen as a typical European multi-cultural empire whose only purpose in existence was to promote its own interests. The truth is far from this, however. Throughout its history from the 1300s to the early 1900s, the Ottoman Empire was a strongly Muslim state at its core. Islamic law and ideas formed the basis of society, law, and government. Ottoman sultans saw themselves as the protectors of the Muslim world. With this emphasis on Islam, however, protection for other religions in the empire was ensured in ways that would take Christian Europe centuries to match.
"Son! Be careful about the religious issues before all other duties. The religious precepts build a strong state. Do not give religious duties to careless, faithless and sinful men or to dissipated, indifferent or inexperienced people. And also do not leave the state administrations to such people. Because the one without fear of God the Creator, has no fear of the created…Depend on God’s help in the esteem of justice and fairness, to remove the cruelty, attempts in every duty. Protect your public from enemy’s invasion and from cruelty."
Clearly, the patron of the Ottoman Empire (Ottoman is a Latin corruption of Osmanli, the Turkish name for their empire) placed great emphasis on Islam as a pillar of his state. All subsequent sultans of the Ottoman Empire were coronated with Osman’s sword by a religious scholar. This symbolized the status of the sultans as the defenders of Islam.
Leaders of the Muslim World
In addition to protecting the holy sites, the Ottomans saw it as their duty to protect Muslims worldwide, whether or not they lived within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman naval fleets intermittently aided Muslim rebels fighting persecution in newly Catholic Spain in the 1500s. Also, in 1565, the Ottomans sent their fleet to distant Sumatra (present-day Indonesia) to protect the Sultanate of Aceh from Portuguese attacks. From these examples and others, it is clear the Ottomans were very willing to use their military power to protect Muslims everywhere, regardless of whether they were a prt of the Ottoman Empire or not.
Islam and Government
Unlike the modern secular ideas regarding government separation from religion, the Ottomans felt that Islam should play a vital role in the government. After 1517, the Ottoman sultan was also the caliph or khalifah of the Muslim world. The caliph ideally plays a role as a spiritual and political leader of all Muslims worldwide. With the sultan-caliph at the top of the government, a complex religious bureaucracy developed that ran the religious affairs of the empire.
According to Islamic law, the most important and basic duty of a Muslim ruler, particularly a caliph, was to maintain Islamic law throughout the empire – the shari’ah. Scholars of Islamic law, the ‘ulema, were organized in a heirarchical fashion. At the top were two top Islamic judges that were permanent members of the sultan’s group of advisors. Under them were the qadis, or judges, of the major cities of the empire, such as Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad. They oversaw all the laws of the Ottoman Empire, and presided over civil and criminal cases in their cities. For example, a qadi‘s job included diving up inheritance after someone’s death, finding solutions between two feuding parties, and prosecuting criminals. These qadis also oversaw lesser qadis that presided in smaller towns throughout the empire.
Before laws could be sent down to individual qadis throughout the empire, they had to pass through another Islamic branch of the government. Separate and independent from the sultan was the mufti of Istanbul – also known as the shaykh al-Islam. Mufti is an Arabic word meaning a scholar qualified to interpret religious laws, and shaykh al-Islam means “the scholar of Islam”. The shaykh al-Islam had the right to review any laws the sultan wanted to implement, and reject the ones that went against the shari’ah. In many cases, the sultans would work closely with him to ensure all of the empire’s laws conformed with Islam. For example, Sultan Suleyman was nicknamed Kanuni, meaning “the law giver” because he personally went through all the empire’s laws in the mid-1500s with the shaykh al-Islam to ensure none contradicted Islamic laws.
The Millet System
While analyzing the Ottoman Empire’s Islamic character, one must keep in mind that much of the empire’s population was not Muslim. Large communities of Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Catholics all lived in the empire. At some times, Muslims even formed a minority of the empire’s population. At no time in the empire’s history were non-Muslims forced to abide by any Muslim laws. Instead, a system of religious pluralism, known as the millet system, was implemented. In the millet system, each religious group was organized into a millet, or nation.
Each millet was allowed to run by its own rules, elect its own leaders, and enforce their own laws on their people. For example, after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II had the Orthodox Christian community of the city elect a new patriarch, who served as their leader. By not enforcing Islamic laws on non-Muslims, the Ottoman Empire ensured social and religious stability and harmony within its borders for much of its history.
Contrary to this, throughout the rest of Christian Europe, religious freedom only began to take root in the 1700s and 1800s. Denial of rights and persecution of non-Christians continued, however, as is seen in the Holocaust of the 1940s and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnians in the 1990s.