The Position of Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire

By Yevgeniya Baraz
2010, Vol. 2 No. 05 | pg. 1/1

The position of Jewish and Christian peoples under the Ottoman Empire is an issue that continues to be disputed today, almost a century after the official end of the Empire itself. Religious association typically determined status in the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire. According to Moshe Ma’oz, Christians and Jews were seen as “inferior subjects or as illegitimate denominations.”1 As a result, they were often discriminated against by the state entity. In contrast, other scholars may argue that the position of minorities under the Ottomans was lenient compared to minority treatment elsewhere in the world, such as in certain parts of Europe. According to Edward Said, abuses of “Orientalism,” which he described as a Western way of “dominating” or “restructuring” the history of the because of prejudice against Arab-Islamic peoples, has caused a misconstruction of the historical narrative.2 According to Bruce Masters, Westerners were typically biased against Muslims, and often distorted realities in the relationships between Christians, Muslims and Jews under the Ottoman Empire.3 As such, it must be noted that historical interpretations, or misinterpretations, must be intensely scrutinized when discussing the position of Jews and Arabs under the Ottoman Empire.

In order to understand the position of Jews and Christians during the era, their official statuses must be described. They were considered Ahl al-Kitab, or “people of the book” (i.e. those who held monotheistic beliefs).4 As such, their treatment may have differed from that of polytheistic believers under Ottoman rule, since Muslims accepted the “prophets” of and Judaism. As a result, they were given state protection, or Ahl al-Dhimma. This tradition of protection for minorities can still be seen today in modern day Tehran. Many Christian communities still remain in Iran. Since officially recognized religions still enjoy dhimma, the Christian communities are guaranteed protection from the state. An example of this protection is the symbolic painting of a stern looking Ayatollah Khomeini on the outside of an Armenian church in Tehran.5 The painting symbolizes the Ayatollah’s protection over the church—that he sees to their security “personally.” They enjoyed autonomy in religious affairs and also area such as .6 In this sense, Jews and Christians enjoyed certain privileges under Ottoman Rule that was not granted to minorities in Europe, where Jews and Muslims were often persecuted or held back due to religious prejudice.

That is not to say, however, that Jews and Christians enjoyed complete freedom under Islamic rule. They were seen as inferior by both the government and by many people. Put in simplistic terms, the superiority complex held by Muslims in the Ottoman Empire can likely be attributed to their acceptance of the Prophet Muhammad as the final prophet, a belief that Christians and Jews did not aspire to. Their failure to do so may have caused Muslim rulers to view them in a substandard capacity. As such, they were required to pay a special poll tax, a jiyzya.7 While they were allowed to hold certain senior-level positions, such as financial advisers or physicians, they were always required to hold only those positions subordinate to their Muslim counterparts. They were even sometimes subjected to restrictions in dress, or were harassed by certain officials and neighbors. This shows that despite the granting of dhimma to the Christians and Jews, unofficial acts of prejudice were sometimes condoned.8  There was a certain sense of social segregation between Muslims and non-Muslims. Stereotypes categorizing Christians and Jews were often utilized in proliferating the gap between them. Even in areas of close proximity between the groups, where they lived and worked as neighbors, they were rarely included in the communal “we” of the neighborhoods.9

Jews and Christians were very rarely dealt with on an individual basis; instead they were clumped into a millet system, which dealt with them as a community. For example, the Rabbi, in a millet-bashi, acted as the administrative officer responsible for acting as representative for his community to the state. Rather than collecting the jiyzya individually, they paid the state collectively, with a Chief Rabbi administrating. This was the case for all recognized Christian and Jewish communities.10 The millet system allowed the respective communities to enjoy a certain level of administrative autonomy under their representative. The millet leader may have held certain powers to enforce and legislate laws. He also served to plead the causes of his community to the Ottoman government.11

According to Roderic H. Davison, millets served to some extent as “agents of change,” who helped bring about certain modernization and reformation in the Ottoman Empire. He attributes this to the contact individuals within the non-Muslim millets had with Europe.12 Armenians, Greeks and Jews helped to import the printing press into the Ottoman Empire.13 The government also enforced changes in order to revive the Ottoman Empire, such as improving the army and opening embassies in Europe. A 1956 decree from the Sultan Abdülmecid established communal autonomy on the basis of equality, but left administrative aspects of personal status, such as marriage and education, to the millets. This also enforced a system of tax collection from all citizens, not just Christians and Jews, as well as a mandatory army service for all. However, what happened in practice was a bit different; most Christians and Jews response to army reforms was to pay a special tax exempting them from army duty, rather than fulfilling the mandatory service.14As such, in some cases, the millets were agents of change in modernizing the Ottoman Empire; they acted as the “channels” or “filters” of change.15 In others, they acted as opponents to reform to protect their own interests, such as in the case of military service. According to Davison, acceptance of certain modernization by non-Muslim millets also caused non-acceptance by Muslims on religious and anti-Western grounds. Although, it is important to remember Said’s orientalist reconstructing of history on the basis of anti-Muslim prejudice when considering Davison’s claim.

The position of Christians and Jews under Ottoman rule can be debated in historical constructs. While religious association often determined the social status of citizens, religious minorities were usually treated with a level of tolerance that was not often enjoyed by minorities under Christian rule.  However, it is important to remember that we may never truly understand the position of minorities under Ottoman rule because historical interpretations often lead scholars astray.


Braude, Benjamin. “Foundation Myths of the Millet System.” In Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, edited by Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis, 69-88. Teaneck: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982.

Davison, Roderic H. “The Millets as Agents of Change in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire,” In Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, edited by Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis, 319-337. Teaneck: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982.

Ma’oz, Moshe. “Middle Eastern Minorities: Between Integration and .” Policy Papers 50 (1999): 5-9.

Masters, Bruce. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

The Armenians in Tehran. Video.


1.) Moshe Ma’oz, “Middle Eastern Minorities: Between Integration and Conflict,” Policy Papers 50 (1999): 5.

2.) Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 3.

3.) Bruce Masters, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001), 2.

4.) Ma’oz, “Middle Eastern Minorities,” 6.

5.) The Armenians in Tehran, Video.

6.) Ma’oz, “Middle Eastern Minorities,” 6.

7.) Ibid.

8.) Ibid.

9.) Masters, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism, 16.

10.) Benjamin Braude, “Foundation Myths of the Millet System,” in Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, ed. Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (Teaneck: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982), 69.

11.) Ibid., 81.

12.) Roderic H. Davison, “The Millets as Agents of Change in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire,” in Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society, ed. Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (Teaneck: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982), 319.

13.) Daphne Tsimhoni, “The Tanzimat: Ottoman Reforms and the Millets,” February 11, 2010.

14.) Ibid.

15.) Davison, “The Millets,” 331.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Perhaps for no group of people were ‘the dark ages’ so aptly named as for the Jews. Over the span of one thousand years life changed wildly for the Jewish people and not in a positive way. At the start of the 5th Century the future looked bright but by the 15th century life was engulfed in darkness. This essay investigates... MORE»
Advertisement
Ibn Khaldun highlighted that societies in their natural state exist in the rural countryside, where the struggle of daily life binds kinsmen together (Abdullah, 2012a). Defining this strong familial bond as “asabiyya... MORE»
Under the rule of the Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the late nineteenth century the concept of Pan-Islamism, the concept that all Islamic peoples should unite under the Caliphate, was used as a means of supporting the declining power of the Ottoman ruler. This was done for three distinct reasons that will be argued in this article. The first reason was to counteract the growing power of European powers in the area; the second to undo the secularization... MORE»
These four nations showcase the state of Islamism as a political force in the Middle East. Because of differing political circumstances in each state, the impact and viability of following Muslim law varies. In order to... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP

Latest in History

2017, Vol. 9 No. 06
Basque nationalism is a movement that has encompassed myth, mystery, violence, and compromise, all of which have found their justification from the unique language, Euskera. The source of Euskera is uncertain due to its non-Indo-European origin,... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 10 No. 2
For three decades prior to 9/11, West Germany fought its own war on terror. For 28 years, it faced off against the Red Army Faction (RAF), a small yet highly adaptable terrorist organization that constantly evolved to meet the countermeasures deployed... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 04
Since the end of the Second World War, scholars of British military history have busied themselves with attempts to explain the British defeat at Singapore to Japan in February 1942. Research reveals that there existed what Peden has called an &... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 03
In October of 1962, the United States and Soviet Union’s arms race in ballistic missiles escalated to an unnerving confrontation that lasted thirteen days, while both world leaders waited on opposite sides of the world for the other to say... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 7 No. 1
Published by Clocks and Clouds
This paper investigates the influence of U.S. foreign policymakers' perceptions towards China on policy formulation during the Cold War. The influence of perceptions, especially perceptions surrounding the ideology of combatant states, is especially... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 03
World War II ranks among the deadliest military conflicts in history. From 1939-1945, the estimated number of casualties worldwide exceeded 60 million.[1] The United States suffered military fatalities in excess of four hundred thousand, and the... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 02
The ancient civilization of Ethiopia has captivated the West and served, across centuries, as an inspiration for much of Africa. As a regional power in Eastern Africa, the nation is a strategic pathway into the Horn of Africa and guiding force in... Read Article »

What are you looking for?

FROM OUR BLOG

Finding Balance in Graduate School
5 Tips for Publishing Your First Academic Article
Presentation Tips 101 (Video)