Ottoman Dhimmitude

Turkey is once again storming the gates of Europe. Not the gates of Vienna, as in 1683, but the political portal at the entrance to the European Union, a borderless economic and political entity which wants to become a superstate counterbalance to America. European opponents of Turkey's membership are soothed with reassurances that the Ottomans were at heart a tolerant lot, so there is no reason to fear a rapidly growing Islamic population added to Europe's declining headcountof citizens. Part 1  in this series examined jihad in Ottoman Turkey's history. Part 2 today examines dhimmitude, the lowly status accorded non—Muslims in Ottoman (and other Islamic) history. Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

In examining how the non—Muslim populations vanquished by the Ottoman jihad campaigns fared, it is useful to begin with the Jews, the least numerous population, who are also generally believed to have had quite a positive experience. Joseph Hacker studied the fate of Jews during their initial absorption into the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. His research questions the uncritical view that from its outset the, '..Jewish experience' in the Ottoman Empire '..was a calm, peaceful, and fruitful one..'.Hacker notes: [17]

...It would seem to me that this accepted view of consistently good relations between the Ottomans and the Jews during the 15th century should be modified in light of new research and manuscript resources.

The Jews, like other inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire, suffered heavily from the Ottoman jihad conquests and policies of colonization and population transfer (i.e., the surgun system).  This explains the disappearance of several Jewish communities, including Salonica, and their founding anew by Spanish Jewish immigrants. Hacker observes, specifically: [18]

...We possess letters written about the fate of Jews who underwent one or another of the Ottoman conquests.  In one of the letters which was written before 1470, there is a description of the fate of such a Jew and his community, according to which description, written in Rhodes and sent to Crete, the fate of the Jews was not different from that of Christians.  Many were killed; others were taken captive, and children were [enslaved, forcibly converted to Islam, and] brought to devshirme...Some letters describe the carrying of the captive Jews to Istanbul and are filled with anti—Ottoman sentiments.  Moreover, we have a description of the fate of a Jewish doctor and homilist from Veroia (Kara—Ferya) who fled to Negroponte when his community was driven into exile in 1455.  He furnished us with a description of the exiles and their forced passage to Istanbul.  Later on we find him at Istanbul itself, and in a homily delivered there in 1468 he expressed his anti—Ottoman feelings openly.  We also have some evidence that the Jews of Constantinople suffered from the conquest of the city and that several were sold into slavery. 

Three summary conclusions are drawn by Hacker: (i) Strong anti—Ottoman feelings prevailed in some Byzantine Jewish circles in the first decades after the fall of Constantinople.  These feelings were openly expressed by people living under Latin rule and to some extent even in Istanbul.; (ii) Mehmed II's policies toward non—Muslims made possible the substantial economic and social development of the Jewish communities in the empire, and especially in the capital — Istanbul.  These communities were protected by him against popular hatred, and especially from blood libels. However, this policy was not continued by Bayezid II and there is evidence that under his rule the Jews suffered severe restrictions in their religious life.; (iii) The friendly policies of Mehmed on the one hand, and the good reception by Bayezid II of Spanish Jewry on the other, cause the Jewish writers of the sixteenth century to overlook both the destruction which Byzantine Jewry suffered during the Ottoman conquests and the later outbursts of oppression under both Bayezid II and Selim I.  

Ivo Andric analyzed [19] the 'rayah' (meaning 'herd', and 'to graze a herd') or dhimmi condition imposed upon the indigenous Christian population of Bosnia, for four centuries. Those native Christian inhabitants who refused to apostasize to Islam lived under the Ottoman Kanun—i—Rayah, which merely reiterated [20] the essential regulations of dhimmitude originally formulated by Muslim jurists and theologians in the 7th and 8th centuries C.E.  Andric's presentation musters, [21]

...a wealth of irrefutable evidence that the main points of the Kanun, just those that cut the deepest into the moral and economic life of Christians, remained in full force right up to the end of Turkish rule and as long as the Turks had the power to apply them...[thus] it was inevitable that the rayah decline to a status that was economically inferior and dependent

Andric cites  a Bosnian Muslim proverb, and a song honoring Sultan Bayezid II, whose shared perspectives reflect Muslim attitudes toward the Christian rayahs: [22]

[proverb] 'The rayah is like the grass,/Mow it as much as you will, still it springs up anew'

[song] 'Once you'd broken Bosnia's horns/You mowed down what would not be pruned/Leaving only the riffraff behind/So there'd be someone left to serve us and grieve before the cross'

These prevailing discriminatory conditions were exacerbated by Bosnia's serving as either a battlefield or staging ground during two centuries of Ottoman razzias and formal jihad campaigns against Hungary. Overcome by excessive taxation and conscript labor,

Christians therefore began to abandon their houses and plots of land situated in level country and along the roads and to retreat back into the mountains. And as they did so, moving ever higher into inaccessible regions, Muslims took over their former sites. [23]

Moreover, those Christians living in towns suffered from the rayah system's mandated impediments to commercial advancement by non—Muslims: [24]

Islam from the very outset, excluded such activities as making wine, breeding pigs, and selling pork products from commercial production and trade. But additionally Bosnian Christians were forbidden to be saddlers, tanners, or candlemakers or to trade in honey, butter, and certain other items. Countrywide, the only legal market day was Sunday. Christians were thus deliberately faced with the choice between ignoring the precepts of their religion, keeping their shops open and working on Sundays, or alternatively, forgoing participation in the market and suffering material loss thereby. Even in 1850, in Jukic's 'Wishes and Entreaties' we find him beseeching 'his Imperial grace' to put an end to the regulation that Sunday be market day.

Christians were also forced to pay disproportionately higher taxes than Muslims, including the intentionally degrading non—Muslim poll—tax.

This tax was paid by every non—Muslim male who had passed his fourteenth year, at the rate of a ducat per annum. But since Turkey had never known birth registers, the functionary whose job it was to exact the tax measured the head and neck of each boy with a piece of string and judged from that whether a person had arrived at a taxable age or not. Starting as an abuse that soon turned into an ingrained habit, then finally established custom, by the last century of Turkish rule every boy without distinction found himself summoned to pay the head tax. And it would seem this was not the only abuse...Of Ali—Pasa Stocevic, who during the first half of the nineteenth century was vizier and all but unlimited ruler of Herzegovina, his contemporary, the monk Prokopije Cokorilo, wrote that he 'taxed the dead for six years after their demise' and that his tax collectors 'ran their fingers over the bellies of pregnant women, saying 'you will probably have a boy, so you have to pay the poll tax right away...The following folk saying from Bosnia reveals how taxes were exacted: 'He's as fat as if he'd been tax collecting in Bosnia' [25]

The specific Kanun—i—Rayah stipulations which prohibited the rayahs from riding a saddled horse, carrying a saber or any other weapon in or out of doors, selling wine, letting their hair grow, or wearing wide sashes, were strictly enforced until the mid—19th century. Hussamudin—Pasa, in 1794 issued an ordinance which prescribed the exact color and type of clothing the Bosnian rayah had to wear. Barbers were prohibited from shaving Muslims with the same razors used for Christians. Even in bathhouses, Christians were required to have specifically marked towels and aprons to avoid confusing their laundry with laundry designated for Muslims. Until at least 1850, and in some parts of Bosnia, well into the 1860s, a Christian upon encountering a Muslim, was required to jump down from his (unsaddled) horse, move to the side of the road, and wait for the latter to pass. [26]

Christianity's loud and most arresting symbol, church bells, Andric notes [27], always drew close, disapproving Turkish scrutiny, and, 'Wherever there invasions would go, down came the bells, to be destroyed or melted into cannon'. Predictably,

Until the second half of the nineteenth century, 'nobody in Bosnia could even think of bells or bell towers.' Only in 1860 did the Sarajevo priest Fra Grgo Martic manage to get permission from Topal Osman—Pasa to hang a bell at the church in Kresevo. Permission was granted, thought, only on condition that 'at first the bell be rung softly to let the Turks get accustomed to it little by little'. And still the Muslim of Kresevo were complaining, even in 1875, to Sarajevo that 'the Turkish ear and ringing bells cannot coexist in the same place at the same time'; and Muslim women would beat on their copper pots to drown out the noise...on 30 April 1872, the new Serbian Orthodox church also got a bell. But since the...Muslims had threatened to riot, the military had to be called in to ensure that the ceremony might proceed undisturbed. [28]

The imposition of such disabilities, Andric observes, [29] extended beyond church ceremonies, as reflected by a 1794 proclamation of the Serbian Orthodox church in Sarajevo warning Christians not to

...sing during ...outings, nor in their houses, nor in other places. The saying 'Don't sing too loud, this village is Turk' testifies eloquently to the fact that this item of the Kanun [— i—Rayah] was applied outside church life as well as within.

Andric concludes, [30]

...for their Christian subjects, their [Ottoman Turkish] hegemony brutalized custom and meant a step to the rear in every respect.

Finally, Jovan Cvijic, the Serbian sociologist and geographer, observed,

There are regions where the [Serb] Christian population...lived under the regime of fear from birth to death

Despite the liberation of the Balkans in 1912, Cvijic further noted that the Serbs were not fully cognizant of their new status, and this fear could still be read, remaining etched on their faces. [31]

Paul Ricaut, the British consul in Smyrna, journeyed extensively within the Ottoman Empire during the mid—17th century, becoming a keen observer of its sociopolitical milieu. In 1679 (i.e., prior to the Ottomans being repulsed at Vienna in September, 1683; see later discussion of Ottoman 'tolerance'), Ricaut published these important findings [32]: (i) many Christians were expelled from their churches, which the Ottoman Turks converted into mosques; (ii) the 'Mysteries of the Altar' were hidden in subterranean vaults and sepulchers whose roofs were barely above the surface of the ground; (iii) fearing Turkish hostility and oppression, Christian priests, particularly in eastern Asia Minor, were compelled to live with great caution and officiate in private obscurity; (iv) not surprisingly, to escape these prevailing conditions, many Christians apostacized to Islam. Moreover, as Vryonis demonstrated convincingly for the earlier period between the 11th and 15th centuries [33], the existence of cryto—Christianity and neomartyrs were not uncommon phenomena in the Christian territories of Asia Minor conquered by the waves of Seljuk and Ottoman jihad. He cites, for example, a pastoral letter from 1338 addressed to the residents of Nicaea indicating widespread, forcible conversion by the Turks: [34]

And they [Turks] having captured and enslaved many of our own and violently forced them and dragging them along alas! So that they took up their evil and godlessness.

The phenomenon of forcible conversion, including coercive en masse conversions, persisted throughout the 16th century, as discussed by Constantelos in his analysis of neomartyrdom in the Ottoman Empire: [35]

...mass forced conversions were recorded during the caliphates of Selim I (1512—1520),...Selim II (1566—1574), and Murat III (1574—1595). On the occasion of some anniversary, such as the capture of a city, or a national holiday, many rayahs were forced to apostacize. On the day of the circumcision of Mohammed III great numbers of Christians (Albanians, Greeks, Slavs) were forced to convert to Islam.

Reviewing the martyrology of Christians victimized by the Ottomans from the conquest of Constantinople (1453), through the final phases of the Greek War of Independence (1828), Constantelos indicates: [36]

...the Ottoman Turks condemned to death eleven Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople, nearly one hundred bishops, and several thousand priests, deacons, and minks. It is impossible to say with certainty how many men of the cloth were forced to apostasize.

However, the more mundane cases illustrated by Constantelos are of equal significance in revealing the plight of Christians under Ottoman rule, through at least 1867: [37]

Some were accused of insulting the Muslim faith or of throwing something against the wall of a mosque. Others were accused of sexual advances toward a Turk; still others of making a public confession such as 'I will become a Turk' without meaning it.

Constantelos concludes: [38]

The story of the neomartyrs indicates that there was no liberty of conscience in the Ottoman Empire and that religious persecution was never absent from the state. Justice was subject to the passions of judges as well as of the crowds, and it was applied with a double standard, lenient for Muslims and harsh for Christians and others. The view that the Ottoman Turks pursued a policy of religious toleration in order to promote a fusion of the Turks with the conquered populations is not sustained by the facts.

Even the Turcophilic 19th century travel writer Ubicini acknowledged the oppressive burden of Ottoman dhimmitude in this moving depiction: [39]

The history of enslaved peoples is the same everywhere, or rather, they have no history. The years, the centuries pass without bringing any change to their situation. Generations come and go in silence. One might think they are afraid to awaken their masters, asleep alongside them. However, if you examine them closely you discover that this immobility is only superficial. A silent and constant agitation grips them. Life has entirely withdrawn into the heart. They resemble those rivers which have disappeared underground; if you put your ear to the earth, you can hear the muffled sound of their waters; then they re—emerge intact a few leagues away. Such is the state of the Christian populations of Turkey under Ottoman rule.

Vacalopoulos describes how jihad imposed dhimmitude under Ottoman rule provided critical motivation for the Greek Revolution: [40]

The Revolution of 1821 is no more than the last great phase of the resistance of the Greeks to Ottoman domination; it was a relentless, undeclared war, which had begun already in the first years of servitude.  The brutality of an autocratic regime, which was characterized by economic spoliation, intellectual decay and cultural retrogression, was sure to provoke opposition.  Restrictions of all kinds, unlawful taxation, forced labor, persecutions, violence, imprisonment, death, abductions of girls and boys and their confinement to Turkish harems, and various deeds of wantonness and lust, along with numerous less offensive excesses — all these were a constant challenge to the instinct of survival and they defied every sense of human decency.  The Greeks bitterly resented all insults and humiliations, and their anguish and frustration pushed them into the arms of rebellion.  There was no exaggeration in the statement made by one of the beys if Arta, when he sought to explain the ferocity of the struggle.  He said:  'We have wronged the rayas [dhimmis] (i.e. our Christian subjects) and destroyed both their wealth and honor; they became desperate and took up arms.  This is just the beginning and will finally lead to the destruction of our empire.' The sufferings of the Greeks under Ottoman rule were therefore the basic cause of the insurrection; a psychological incentive was provided by the very nature of the circumstances.

The Devshirme and Harem Slavery

Those scholars [41] who continue to adhere to the roseate narrative of Ottoman 'tolerance', the notion that an '...easy—going tolerance, resting on an assumption not only of superior religion, but also of superior power', which it is claimed, persisted in the Ottoman Empire until the end of the 17th century [42],  must address certain basic questions. Why has the quite brutal Ottoman devshirme—janissary system, which, from the mid to late 14th, through early 18th centuries, enslaved and forcibly converted to Islam an estimated 500,000 to one million [43] non—Muslim (primarily Balkan Christian) adolescent males, been characterized, reductio ad absurdum, as a benign form of social advancement, jealously pined for by 'ineligible' Ottoman Muslim families? For example,

The role played by the Balkan Christian boys recruited into the Ottoman service through the devshirme is well known. Great numbers of them entered the Ottoman military and bureaucratic apparatus, which for a while came to be dominated by these new recruits to the Ottoman state and the Muslim faith. This ascendancy of Balkan Europeans into the Ottoman power structure did not pass unnoticed, and there are many complaints from other elements, sometimes from the Caucasian slaves who were their main competitors, and more vocally from the old and free Muslims, who felt slighted by the preference given to the newly converted slaves. [44]

Scholars who have conducted serious, detailed studies of the devshirme—janissary system, do not share such hagiographic views of this Ottoman institution.  Speros Vryonis, Jr. for example, makes these deliberately understated, but cogent observations, [45] discussing the devshirme we are dealing with the large numbers of Christians who, in spite of the material advantages offered by conversion to Islam, chose to remain members of a religious society which was denied first class citizenship. Therefore the proposition advanced by some historians, that the Christians welcomed the devshirme as it opened up wonderful opportunities for their children, is inconsistent with the fact that these Christians had not chosen to become Muslims in the first instance but had remained Christians...there is abundant testimony to the very active dislike with which they viewed the taking of their children. One would expect such sentiments given the strong nature of the family bond and given also the strong attachment to Christianity of those who had not apostacized to Islam...First of all the Ottomans capitalized on the general Christian fear of losing their children and used offers of devshirme exemption in negotiations for surrender of Christian lands. Such exemptions were included in the surrender terms granted to Jannina, Galata, the Morea, Chios, etc...Christians who engaged in specialized activities which were important to the Ottoman state were likewise exempt from the tax on their children by way of recognition of the importance of their labors for the empire...Exemption from this tribute was considered a privilege and not a penalty...

...there are other documents wherein their [i.e., the Christians] dislike is much more explicitly apparent. These include a series of Ottoman documents dealing with the specific situations wherein the devshirmes themselves have escaped from the officials responsible for collecting them...A 1601 [regarding the devshirme] provided  the [Ottoman] officials with stern measures of enforcement,  a fact which would seem to suggest that parents were not always disposed to part with their sons.

' enforce the command of the known and holy fetva [fatwa] of Seyhul [Shaikh]— Islam. In accordance with this whenever some one of the infidel parents or some other should oppose the giving up of his son for the Janissaries, he is immediately hanged from his door—sill, his blood being deemed unworthy.'

Vasiliki Papoulia highlights the continuous desperate, often violent struggle of the Christian populations against this forcefully imposed Ottoman levy: [46]

It is obvious that the population strongly resented...this measure [and the levy] could be carried out only by force. Those who refused to surrender their sons— the healthiest, the handsomest and the most intelligent— were on the spot put to death by hanging. Nevertheless we have examples of armed resistance. In 1565 a revolt took place in Epirus and Albania. The inhabitants killed the recruiting officers and the revolt was put down only after the sultan sent five hundred janissaries in support of the local sanjak—bey. We are better informed, thanks to the historic archives of Yerroia, about the uprising in Naousa in 1705 where the inhabitants killed the Silahdar Ahmed Celebi and his assistants and fled to the mountains as rebels. Some of them were later arrested and put to death..

Since there was no possibility of escaping [the levy] the population resorted to several subterfuges. Some left their villages and fled to certain cities which enjoyed exemption from the child levy or migrated to Venetian—held territories. The result was a depopulation of the countryside. Others had their children marry at an early age...Nicephorus Angelus...states that at times the children ran away on their own initiative, but when they heard that the authorities had arrested their parents and were torturing them to death, returned and gave themselves up. La Giulletiere cites the case of a young Athenian who returned from hiding in order to save his father's life and then chose to die himself rather than abjure his faith. According to the evidence in Turkish sources, some parents even succeeded in abducting their children after they had been recruited. The most successful way of escaping recruitment was through bribery. That the latter was very widespread is evident from the large amounts of money confiscated by the sultan from corrupt...officials. Finally, in their desperation the parents even appealed to the Pope and the Western powers for help.

Papoulia concludes: [47]

...there is no doubt that this heavy burden was one of the hardest tribulations of the Christian population.

Why was there never a significant 'Shari'a—inspired' slavery abolition movement within the Ottoman states, comparable to the courageous and successful campaigns lead by Western Christian statesmen (such as the Evangelical Parliamentarian,William Wilberforce [48] ) in Europe and America, throughout the 19th century? Deliberately limited and ineffectual firmans issued by the Ottoman Porte failed to discourage East African slave trading [49], and even British naval power, so successful in the Atlantic and Indian oceans [50], was unable to suppress the Red Sea slave trade to the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century. [51] Regardless, as Reuben Levy notes: [52]

At Constantinople, the sale of women slaves, both negresses and Circassians [likely for harem slavery and/or concubinage], continued to be openly practiced until...1908.


[17] Joseph Hacker,  'Ottoman Policy Toward the Jews and Jewish Attitudes toward the Ottomans during the Fifteenth Century',  pp. 117—126,  in, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman empire : the functioning of a plural society / edited by Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (New York : Holmes & Meier Publishers), 1982, p. 117.
[18] Hacker, 'Ottoman Policy', p. 120.
[19] Ivo Andric, The Development of Spiritual Life in Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, (1924 doctoral dissertation), English translation, Durham, North Carolina, 1990, Chaps. 2 and 3, pp. 16—38.
[20] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, pp. 23—24
[21] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, pp. 24—25
[22] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, p.78 note 2
[23] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, p. 25
[24] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, pp. 25—26
[25] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, pp. 26, 80 note 11
[26] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, pp. 26—27
[27] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, p. 30
[28] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, p.30
[29] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, pp. 30—31.
[30] Andric, Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule, p.38.
[31] Jovan Cvijic, La Peninsule Balkanique, Paris, 1918, p. 389; Translated excerpt in Bat Ye'or, Islam and Dhimmitude—Where Civilzations Collide, Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 2001, p. 108.
[32] Paul Ricaut. The Present State of the Greek and Armenian Churches, Anno Christi 1678, London, 1679 (reprinted, New York, 1970), pp. 1—30.
[33] Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor, pp. 340—43, 351—402.
[34] Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor, p. 342.
[35] Demetrios Constantelos. 'The 'Neomartyrs' as Evidence for Methods and Motives Leading to Conversion and Martyrdom in the Ottoman Empire' The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 1978, Vol. 23, p. 228.
[36] Constantelos. 'The 'Neomartyrs' ', pp. 217—218.
[37] Constantelos. 'The 'Neomartyrs' ', p. 226.
[38] Constantelos. 'The 'Neomartyrs' ', p. 227.
[39] Abdolonyme Ubicini, Lettres Sur La Turque, Vol. 2, Paris, 1854, p. 32; English translation in Bat Ye'or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity, p. 181
[40] A.E. Vacalopoulos. 'Background and Causes of the Greek Revolution', Neo—Hellenika, 1975, pp.54—55.
[41] Stanford Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, 2 Vols, Cambridge, 1976. See for example, Vol.1, pp. 19, 24.
[42] Bernard Lewis. What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 114—115.
[43] A.E. Vacalopoulos. The Greek Nation, 1453—1669, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1976, p.41; Vasiliki Papoulia, 'The Impact of Devshirme on Greek Society', in War and Society in East Central Europe, Editor—in—Chief, Bela K. Kiraly, 1982, Vol. II, pp. 561—562.
[44] Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, pp.190—191. Lewis also describes the devshirme solely as a form of social advancement for Balkan Christians in both the 1968 (p.5) and 2002 (also p. 5) editions of The Emergence of Modern Turkey (Oxford University Press):
...the Balkan peoples had an enormous influence on the Ottoman ruling class. One of the most important channels was the devshirme, the levy of boys, by means of which countless Balkan Christians entered the military and political elites of the Empire.
[45] Speros Vryonis, Jr. 'Seljuk Gulams and Ottoman Devshirmes', Der Islam Vol. 41, 1965, pp. 245—247.
[46] Vasiliki Papoulia, 'The Impact of Devshirme on Greek Society', pp. 554—555.
[47] Vasiliki Papoulia, 'The Impact of Devshirme on Greek Society', p. 557.
[48] Oliver Warner, William Wilberforce and His Times, London, 1962.
[49] J.B. Kelly, Britain and the Persian Gulf, Oxford, 1968, pp. 588—589.
[50] Christopher Lloyd, The Navy and The Slave Trade, London, 1949.

[51] Ehud Toledano, The Ottoman Slave Trade and Its Suppression, Princeton, New Jersey, 1982, p. 260.

[52] Reuben Levy, The Social Structure of Islam, Cambridge, 1957, p. 88

Dr. Bostom is an Associate Professor of Medicine, and the author of the forthcoming The Legacy of Jihad, on Prometheus Books (2005)