Although the Ottoman Empire was predominantly Muslim, it allowed non-Muslims to practice their religion and conduct their community affairs provided that they would exhibit loyalty to the Ottoman rulers and pay their taxes. The Ottomans allowed the "religions of the book" to be organized in millets: the Orthodox Christians or Rums, the Armenians and the Jews. Non-Muslims had to be part of a millet in order to be considered as citizens of the Ottoman Empire. The millet system was based on the religion and was a vehicle for administrative purposes. The leader of each millet was in charge for collecting the taxes.
The millet system was a unique and creative solution to running a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire. The rights and freedoms it gave to religious minorities were far ahead of their time. While Europe struggled with religious persecution into the 1900s, the Ottomans created a harmonious and stable religious pluralistic system that guaranteed religious freedom for hundreds of years.
Much like previous Muslim Empires, the Ottomans showed great toleration and acceptance of non-Muslim communities in their empire. This was based on existing Muslim laws regarding the status of non-Muslims ensuring 5hey were protected, given religious freedoms and free from persecution.
One of the early precedents of this was the Treaty of Umar ibn al-Khattab, in which he guaranteed the Christians of Jerusalem total religious freedom and safety.
The first instance of the Ottomans having to rule a large number of Christians was after the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. Constantinople had historically been the center of the Orthodox Christian world, and still had a large Christian population. As the empire grew into Europe, more and more non-Muslims came under Ottoman authority. For example, in the 1530s, over 80% of the population in Ottoman Europe was not Muslim. In order to deal with these new Ottoman subjects, Mehmed instituted a new system, later called the millet system.
Under this system, each religious group was organized into a millet. Millet comes from the Arabic word for “nation”, indicating that the Ottomans considered themselves the protectors of multiple nations. Each religious group was considered its own millet, with multiple millets existing in the empire. For example, all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire were considered as constituting a millet, while all Jews constituted another millet.
Each millet was allowed to elect its own religious figure to lead them. In the case of the Orthodox Church (the biggest Church in the Ottoman Empire), the Orthodox Patriarch (the Archbishop of Constantinople) was the elected leader of the millet. The leaders of the millets were allowed to enforce their own religion’s rules on their people. Islamic law had no jurisdiction over non-Muslims in the empire.
In cases of crime, people would be punished according to the rules of their own religion, not Islamic rules or rules of other religions. For example, if a Christian were to steal, he would be punished according to the Christian laws regarding theft. If a Jew were to steal, he were to be punished according to Jewish laws, etc. The only time Islamic law would come into account was if the criminal was a Muslim, or when there was a case involving two people from different millets. In that case, a Muslim judge was to preside over the case and judge according to his best judgement and common law.
In addition to religious law, millets were given freedom to use their own language, develop their own institutions (churches, schools, etc), and collect taxes.
The Sultan exercised control over the millets through their leaders. The millet leaders ultimately reported to the sultan, and if there was a problem with a millet, the sultan would consult that millet leader.
Theoretically, the Muslim population of the Ottoman Empire also constituted a millet, with the Sultan as the millet leader.
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