Ludwig Deutsch - The Offering

Multi-Culturalism in the Ottoman Empire and its Effects on the Ottoman Social and Intellectual Life

The Ottoman Empire can be associated with many charateristics normally attributed to human civilization. Its origin in Asia and penetration into Europe lands added further merits to that tricontinental empire, the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans’ Turkic heritage and their interaction with Persian and Arabs strengthened the fabric of tolerance, accommodation and understanding. As a result, the Ottomans negated the practice of ‘elimintaion’ and ‘exclusion’, in the context of “us and them”. On one hand, they used swords and artillery against their rival powers to broaden their realm of influence. On the other hand, the central power in the Ottoman Empire used high moral codes and ethics vis-a-vis its subjects and their traditional socio-cultural institutions.

No wonder the early Ottomans saw, proclaimed, and titled themselves as the successors of Rome. They also crafted a uniquely hybrid civilization. Civilizations are hybrid when they contain elements of different traditions that are brought together by force of circumstance, exigencies of climate, environment, and territory. The Ottomans constructed an uneasy, distinctly productive, and purposefully diverse culture.

Most of the Ottoman sultans were perceived as the protectors and saviors by people who had experienced subjugation under other regimes. This positive image of the Ottoman Empire can be traced to the Ghazi spirit and Islamic principles of humanism and tolerance. Their immense capacity for tolerance and humanism strengthened the forces of sociocultural pluralism and multiculturalism. Though these terms are of recent origin, their features can be seen in the Ottoman policies towards their subjects.

I. Multiculturalism And Islam

One of the basic principles of multiculturalism is that it is opposed to homogenity, uniformity, and the standardization of cultural forms. It is diametrically opposed to monocultural construction of identity and its subscribed forms of expession and articulation. It is essentially critical of, and resistant to, the reductive imperatives of monocultural assimilation. It therefore, neither approves the thesis of the melting polt, nor is subjected to the homogenizing format of a nation state. Multiculturalism is committed to the protection, promotion and maintenance of ethnocultural diversity, which in turn, provides opportunities to the minorities to preserve maintain and express their distinctive cultural form, life styles and rights. As a matter of principle, multiculturalism stands for heterogenity, diversity and multiplicity of forms and structure as well as plurality of ways and means. In its basic spirit, it not only ensures the prevelance of different and multiple forms of culture, but it also liberates the minority groups from homegenizing logic of a majority identity. Thus, multiculturalism guarantees social and cultural rights to diverse groups and recognizes minority groups (Khan 2000:399).

Ottomans followed the principle of pluralism, allowing other religious groups or entities to be guided by their respective laws and codes. One of the basic factors which enabled Ottomans to do so was the Islamic principle of humanism, which discourages dehumanization and brutal exploitation. There were very detailed judgements about the non-muslims in the Islamic law system. This was mainly because of the fact that there were lots of Christians, Jews and pagan Arabs during the first year of Islam. When the prophet had migrated to Madina and had established the Islamic state there, the main principals had begun to emerge about the status of non-muslims according to the Islamic law system. In that frame, the treaties which were made by the prophet constructed the part of “non-muslims law” in the Islamic system.

According to Islamic law, people are categorized into two groups. Those are Muslims and non-muslims. Although Muslims are divided into different groups, the Islamic law accepts Muslims as a single unity. Non-muslims are categorized into two groups within itself. Those are pagans and people of book. People of books live under the Islamic rules, they are called “ehl-i zimmet” or in short “Zımmi”. Although the religious authorities have different opinions, the believers of four religions are generally accepted as the people of book. Those are Christians, Jews, Zoroastrain, and Sabii[1]. Non-muslims who had lived under the Otoman Empire were in the status of Zımmi. According to Islamic law, the properties and life securities of Zımmı’s under the responsibility of the Islamic state. Under the Ottoman Empire there were no Zoroastrains, but there were very few member of Sabii’s. Between the other two gruoups, the Christians were more densely populated under the Ottoman Empire. Although the Jews were fewer than the Christians in terms of number, they had great influence in the economic activities.

There are also certain important Quranic verses which advocate tolerance, humanism and multiculturalism:

“For every one of you we appointed a law and a way. And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So live with one another in virtous deeds.”(5:48)

“There is no compulsion in religion” (2:148)

“And if Allah had not repelled some people by others, temples and other churches and synagogues and mosques in which Allah’s name are much remembered, would have been pulled down. (22:40)[2]

These teachings certainly argue for tolerance, equality and pluralism vis a vis mankind. The Ottomans had no racial arrogance or exclusive national identity. They established their empire by uniting Balkan Christians, Anatolian Muslims, Jews and Arabs under their rule and by sharing power with them. It is rightly said that “ the Ottoman Empire was tolerant of other religious and its Christian and Jews subjects lived, on the whole, in peace and security” (Lewis 1961: 14)

“Islam guaranteed the lives and property of Christians and Jews, on the condition of obedience and payment of a poll tax. It allowed them to exercise their own religions freely and granted them the right to live according to their own religious laws. Living in a frontier society and mixing freely with Christians, the Ottomans applied these principles of Islam with the greatest liberality and tolerance (İnalcık 1973: 7). The Ottoman Empire was a “cosmopolitan state, treating all creeds and races as one, which was to unite the Orthodox Christian Balkans and Muslim Anatolia in a single state.

II. The Millet System: [3]

One of the distinctive attributes of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the context of multiculturalism, was the Millet system which was strengthened under Mehmed II. He acknowledged the practice already well established in the Ottoman states of permitting Christians to retain the independence of their religious community. Likewise, he recognized Jewish and Armanian Gregorian communities. These groups were called Millets, which meant a community or a nation of people with a socio-cultural identity within the Ottoman Empire (Ortaylı 2006:117).

As one of the earliest acts, Fatih Sultan Mehmed placed his confidence in the Greek clergyman, Gennadius, who had long been popular with the Greeks of the city. Mehmed recognised him as a patriarch and a leader of the Christians in Istanbul, and ordered the vizier and officers to accord him proper respect. Gennadius was also charged with the responsibility fort he obedience, conduct and life of the Greek people and their relationship with the Ottoman state. Thus, in many different ways, Greek Christians were encouraged to reside in Istanbul and were allowed to live according to their own ways and laws, as long as they did not infringe upon or come into conflict with the administration of the government and the lives of Muslim subjects.

It is important to quote an interesting event, “when the prince of Serbia asked Hunyadi, the Hungarian patriot, what he would do with the Orthodox Greek Church if he made himself master of the province. The reply was, ‘I will establish everywhere Catholic Churches’ (Khan 2000:403). The reply of Mehmed II to a similar question was ‘By the side of every mosque a church shall be erected in which your people will be able to pray’ (Eversley 1959: 95). This act of tolerance was far ahead of political ethics of the Christian powers of Europe at that time. The Spaniards drove from their their country the Muslim Moors, who had refused to adopt the religion of their Christian victors. Thus sought to make his capital a microcosm of all the races and religious elements. Many Jews were welcomed while they were facing a new wave of prosecution in other countries. Turks and other communities were encouraged to participate in trade and industry. In the Balkans, the Christian peasants were left on their lands (Shaw 1976: 61).

Each Millet had the legal right to use its own language, develop its own religious, cultural and educational institutions, collect taxes and maintain courts for trying members of the community in all cases, except those involving public security and crime. The Millet system was specifically created for non-Muslim communities such as the Armanian, Syrian, Greek or Serbian Orthodox, or Jewish. This had two effects. One was that the religious communities under this system were freer than those under most Christian rulers as ecclesiatical bodies they became prosperous and powerful. Secondly, members of the top echelons of the Millets became as reactionary as the ulema and they too were against change in the Ottoman Empire.

III. Multiculturalism And Its Effects On The Ottoman Social And Intellectual Life

a) Social Life

The Ottoman Empire made it possible for the coexistence of people of different religions, cultures and ethnicities while such coexistence was not seen anywhere else in Europe, because under the Sultan’s rule people were not identified and separated as belonging to different ethnicities (Mazower 2000: 16-17). As we mentioned in second part, religion was a more salient category. The population was separated as Muslims and non-Muslims.

The binary between Muslims and non-Muslims existed; and religious difference was recognised. Nonetheless, people belonging to different ethnic, religious and cultural background co-existed because these differences did not cause problems in daily life. People were respected to follow their beliefs. Moreover, Christians, Jews and Muslims would use each other’s amulets when theirs did not work (Mazower 2000: 86).

Although Turkish was used as a court language, Ottoman Empire did not restrict the use of language. The empire was multilingual which is a consequence of multiculturalism. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for instance, remarked that in Constantinople Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Russian, Sclavonian, Wallachian, German, Dutch, French, English, Italian, Hungarian were spoken (Mazower 2000: 56-57).

As mentioned above, there are lots of cosmopolitan cities in the Empire. An important example of them is Bursa. After the conquest of Bursa in 1326 by Orhan Gazi, thousands of Muslims settled there, and they established a multicultural society with nonmuslim inhabitants of Bursa. Muslim Sultans welcomed the newer non-muslims; even they made a special effort to make diverse population higher. For instance, the chronicler, İlyas Bey, in his records, writes that Orhan Gazi had invited Jews to Bursa in order to make the make the city of Bursa richer in terms of different ethnic cultures. The Jews who had suffered under the Byzantium Empire had voluntarily accepted Orhan Bey’s offer. They came to Bursa and settled outside of city walls around the Altınpark District. And they had established a Jewish Quarter there (Ilyas Bey 1338: 21). Moreover the Jewish population had increased much in 16th century which was mainly because that in 1492 the Jews were driven away from Spain. When they were accepted by the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, they were mainly settled in Bursa.

The Kadı records show that these people who had the different belief system and practices most commonly had an economic relationship by selling and buying different goods. They also borrowed and lent to each other. Another important type of relationship was that they became witnesses for or against each other. Supposedly, there were more different kinds of relationships which were not reflected in official records. These relations which could be in a manner of friendship as well as enmity which were unavoidable in the daily life of people. For example a Christian man so-called Constantine who was from Büyük Susığırlığı Village applied to court to complain about a Muslim so-called Hasan Piri who had attempted to rape his wife. The three Muslims and the three non-Muslims had witnessed against to Hasan Piri who was found guilty and was punished. Even the brother of Hasan Piri had witnessed against him. (Çetin 2000: 396)

Another example, according to a historical record which is dated 2 June 1575, Huma bint Ali who used to live in Bursa Eşrefliler quarter had decided to go to the celebration which was held by Jews for the memory of the return of the Prophet Mosah from the Tur Mountain. She left house when there were some workers who had dealt with the local textile in the house. When she returned home, she realised that some of her valuable objects were stolen. Then she applied to the court to complain about the workers.

This historical record may be important because it shows about the history of robberies for social historians. But more importantly, it shows that a Muslim lady also was interested in even the religious celebration of Jews. This gives an idea about the relationships of Muslims and non-Muslims. Also non-Muslims were not irreverent to the Islamic activities of Muslims (Çetin 2000: 397). In addition, this event also shows us the statute of women before jurisdiction. Women, in the Ottoman Empire, had the right to apply the courts.

However, it should be also noted that these relations were not always perfect. There were some cases in which Muslims and non-Muslims had problems. But even this can be considired as normal when it is thought that there were also problems among Muslim themselves and non-Muslim themselves.

b) Intellectual Life

The Ottomans’ intellectual mind was based on the the rich heritage of previous Islamic tradition. A Muslim Ottoman scholar felt himself as a member of the vast Islamic society. After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 by Mehmed II (Fatih) and the conquest of Arab lands in Middle Eastern in the time period of Selim I (1512-20) the Ottoman borders expanded through three continents. In this vast multicultural empire, Muslim scholar interacted with both Muslims and non-Muslims to get the true knowledge.

It’s quite important to note that, the first Madrasa established in Iznik in 1331 by Orhan Gazi. Iznik was the prominent city of Byzantium for theological and intellectual discussions. The intellectual heritage of Byzance also affected the Muslim scholars, such as Muslim and non-Muslim scholars debated over the true religion.

In addition to the interaction of distinct scholars, many of sultans also tried to benefit from the multicultural diversity and induced the non-Muslim scholars to recide in the Ottoman cosmopolitan cities. One of the striking examples of these kinds of sultans was Mehmed II, because, after the conquest of Constantinapol, Fatih tried to make Istanbul a cultural and intellectual center. Fatih proclaimed himself as the Kaiser and the successor of Roman Empire, Fatih’s this personal character made him ambitious about the ancient history.  To learn more about history and philosophy of ancient people, he settled lots of theological and philosophical discussions in his own palace among Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. As various historians propounded, Fatih learned Latin and Greek to read ancient philosophy.

As mentioned above, Fatih benefited from non-Muslim intellectuals, for example after the conquest of Trabzon Rum Empire in 1461, he invited the most and last important scholar of Byzance: Gorgios Amirutzes, to Istanbul. Amirutzes welcomed the invitation of almighty Sultan Fatih, and serviced for him in the intellectual matters. For instance, he translated lots of ancient books from Greek for Fatih’s intellectual ambitions. Moreover, he made a very important world map, because Amuritzes was a polygraphic scholar, in other words, he was both a scholar and a geographer. It is obvious that Amuritzes only one example of the non-Muslim scholars from whom Fatih and other Sultans benefited.

The other crucial components of the Ottoman intellectual life were the Arabian and Persian heritage. Many of the Ottoman scholars traveled and were educated in the Arab and Persian madrasas and turned back the their own places or soma Arab ulema, even in few number, came to Istanbul and Bursa madrasas to give various lectures. As a result, the mobility and circulation of ulema throughout the vast empire lands made the Ottoman intellectual life richer and fruitful.


Through the article, multi-culturalism in the Ottoman Empire was discussed. The examples that show Ottoman’s multi-cultural society were given. The concept of multiculturalism was evaluated in the frame of Millet system in the Empire. The effects of Islam and Islamic law system on the relationships between Muslim and non-muslims were also mentioned to understand the basis of Ottoman multiculturalism.

In mediaeval ages while western people were killing each other because of the religious reasons, Ottomans established a society that encompassed the all religions. While the western catholics were discriminating and killing Jewish people, for instance Spanish Jews, Ottoman Empire welcomed those Jews and settled them in Istanbul. The Europe experienced lots of religious war, because European people were not accustomed to live together in heterogeneous society. This historical fact gives us an idea abot why the European Union does not accept a Muslim country, Turkey, to the Union.


  1. ÇETİN, Osman (2000), “Bursa (Its Conquest, Ethnic Structure and the Relationship between Muslims ans Non-Muslims)” The Great Ottomans edited by Kemal Çiçek, Yeni Türkiye Yayıncılık, Ankara
  2. EVERSLEY, Lord (1959), The Turkish Empir: Its Growth and Decay, Premier Book House, Lahore
  3. INALCIK, Halil (1973), The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-600, Weidenfield and Nicolson, London
  4. KHAN, Arshi (2000), “The Ottoman Empire: An Oriental Architect of Multiculturalism”, The Great Ottomans edited by Kemal Çiçek, Yeni Türkiye Yayıncılık, Ankara
  5. LEWIS, Bernard (1961), The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Oxford Unv. Press, London
  6. ORTAYLI, İlber, (2003), Osmanlı Barışı, Uçar Matbaası, İstanbul
  7. SHAW, Stanford (1976), History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Cambridge Unv. Press, Cambridge

[1] Sabiis means people who believe in stars. Actually they are not recognized as the people of book in Islamic jurisprudence, but sometimes the concept of “people of book” expanded in the favor of multi-culturalism

[2] The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an, translated by Muhammad Pickthall, Araştırma Yayınları, Ankara, 2005

[3] The word of Millet comes from Arabic and means the religion. (millet = religion in the Ottoman period)

Yusuf Ünal