Ottoman Pathways to Tolerance

Marc David Baer

Marc David Baer demonstrates how the Ottomans established tolerance in Europe hundreds of years before the Enlightenment.
Ottoman Sultans
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Viewing the history of the Ottomans as part and parcel of European history allows us to understand the origins and meaning of concepts and practices such as religious tolerance, secularism, modernity, and even genocide in a different light. We recognise that they began with Muslim Europeans. The conventional claim of European history that Europeans first had to figure out how to live with people of different religions only in the 16th century, due exclusively to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, begins to seem improbable. In that story, only then was the concept of tolerance first debated and became a reality of daily life. Tolerance, modernity, and secularism emerged for the first time, we are told, in Western Europe only after the ‘wars of religion’ that raged roughly from 1550 to 1650. The first concrete steps were supposedly taken with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, a series of treaties that instituted the principle of tolerance of religious minorities. From 1650 to 1700, Europe entered what is celebrated as the Enlightenment, symbolised by John Locke’s seminal essay of 1689, ‘A Letter Concerning Toleration’, which opened the way towards a live and let live approach to religious difference and the secular, modern age. With more and more intellectuals promoting tolerance, some enlightened European rulers began to institute it in the 18th century.

But the historical record demonstrates that the principles and practices of toleration had already been established at the onset of Ottoman rule in Southeastern Europe in the 14th century, a fact made especially visible in Constantinople after the Ottoman conquest of that Byzantine city in 1453. Ottoman religious tolerance was based upon Islamic precedent already introduced to Europe in 8th century Muslim Spain, and upon nomadic, pre-Islamic Mongol antecedents from the Eurasian steppe—that crossroads of Europe and Asia out of which the Ottomans grew. While full toleration did not exist in medieval Christian Europe, it did exist in medieval Islamic Europe, including in Ottoman domains. Ottoman tolerance is European tolerance.

Why, then, aren’t the Ottomans conventionally included in the history of religious tolerance in Europe? By the time Western Europeans first encountered questions about how to live together, the Ottomans had already figured out the answers to them. These included what rights and privileges each religious group would have, where different groups would worship, how they would pay for the upkeep of their religious community (including its houses of worship and schools), how charity would be raised and distributed, whether people from different groups could intermarry, where they could live, how they could interact socially and economically, how holidays would be celebrated in public, and how each religious group would be governed and its relation to the government. In the view of one mid-17th century English writer, Ottoman toleration of many religions was preferable to the violent enforcing of one, as occurred in Christian Europe. Religious civil wars and persecution of those with dissenting beliefs actually continued in Catholic- and Protestant-majority areas of Europe into the 18th century.

While Christian Europeans have laid claim to originating the institutions of secularism in the 17th century, the Ottomans had for centuries been subordinating religious authority to imperial authority and had made secular law equivalent in force to religious law, surpassing any other European or Islamic polity in this regard. They even institutionalised practices that clearly violated Islamic law and custom in favour of secular law. Why is this not part of the story we tell about when modernity and secularism began?

Although the Ottoman Empire embraced tolerance, religious conversion was vital to its success. The Ottoman dynasty emphasised religious change beginning at the top. In Ottoman Turkish, the only terms for ‘conversion’ denote conversion to Islam. Conversion can only go in one direction; there is no term other than ‘apostasy’ for when a Muslim becomes a Christian or a Jew. One cannot say, ‘A Muslim converted to Christianity’. Accordingly, apostates were executed. Tolerance is not the same as celebrating diversity, coexistence, equality, multiculturalism, or mutual acceptance. To tolerate means ‘to suffer, endure, or put up with something objectionable’. The tolerating party considers its own religion to be true and the tolerated groups’ religious claims to be false. John Locke famously refused to include Catholics in his conception of tolerance. Tolerance is in fact the expression of a power relationship. Its presence or absence can be wielded as a warning or a threat against a vulnerable group. Tolerance is a state of inequality where the powerful party, such as the ruler, determines whether a less powerful group may exist and to what extent members of that group may be allowed to express their difference. A ruler or regime may discriminate against a group while at the same time tolerating its members being different than the members of the ruling elite. This was how Ottoman tolerance functioned in terms of class, gender, and religious difference.

In the Ottoman Empire, certain groups—women, Christians and Jews, slaves—were legally subordinate to others—men, Muslims, the free. All religions were not deemed equally valid. Some groups were proscribed, such as Shi’is (Muslims who believe their leader must be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and his family), dissident Muslim groups, and Buddhists. Ottoman society was plural, and individuals could at times change groups or positions of power, yet each group had a fixed place within the hierarchy based on class, gender, and religion.

In practice, tolerance of diversity meant creating an empire that was built on the maintenance of difference. The Ottomans did not seek to make all subjects into Muslims or even into Ottomans, the members of the ruling elite. Rather, they fostered institutions—such as the patriarchates, the spiritual offices and jurisdictions of the Armenian and Greek church leaders—that allowed Christians and Jews to go about their personal lives, enjoying cultural, religious, and linguistic rights without much interference or limitation.

Yet at the same time, religious conversion was used as a means of integration into the Ottoman Empire’s highly stratified social fabric. The empire recruited its elite from the cream of the crop of conquered peoples, especially their youth and women, thereby ensuring the dynasty’s greatness and the subject peoples’ subordination. Conquered Christian and Muslim royalty, military and religious leaders, and commoners were all incorporated into the imperial project from the beginning. The Ottoman dynasty intermarried with European royal houses, including the Byzantine and Serbian—yet another reason to include this Muslim imperial family within European history. As cruel, unjust, and violent as it was, especially for women, slavery allowed individuals to be incorporated into the elite levels of society when women joined the harem and boys were inducted into the administration and military. Christians were made into members of the Ottoman ruling elite through cooperation, subordination, or conversion. Like other empires in history, the Ottomans oversaw large-scale demographic change through conversion of the ruled population. What are today the countries of Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Serbia, and Turkey underwent massive religious conversion in the Ottoman centuries. Christians, and to a lesser extent, Jews became Muslims, and the landscape was Islamised to a great extent, the most important churches replaced by mosques, seminaries by madrasas (Islamic colleges), convents by Sufi (mystic) lodges.

Although such regimes as the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt (1250–1517) relied on converted slave soldiers, from whose ranks arose the sultan, the Ottoman Empire relied mainly on converts to make up key elements of its ruling family dynasty, administration, and military, converting massive numbers of people in the process over its first three centuries. It defined membership in essential ranks of the elite class by religious conversion and continually changed its interpretation of its religion. As the astute 17th century English resident of the Ottoman Empire Sir Paul Rycaut observed, ‘No people in the World have ever been more open to receive all sorts of Nations to them, than they’, and ‘the English call it Naturalisation, the French Enfranchisement, and the Turks [Ottomans] call it Becoming a Believer’. It truly was an empire of conversion, fostering extensive population change while tolerating the existence of religious groups at variance with the ruler’s religion—nearly until its tragic end.

Tolerance and intolerance were not opposites. Tolerance, discrimination, and persecution always went together. At the same time that social and legal hierarchies preserved the peace for centuries, discrimination and division were a fact of daily life and opportunities. For centuries, the Ottomans were open to receiving every type of person as a Muslim, whatever his or her language or background, whether a slave, a commoner, or a member of the elite. But then, in later years, the Ottomans turned away from incorporating diversity and tried to save the empire by remaking it first into an Ottoman Muslim polity and later a more Turkish one. The consequence was that tolerance—such as it was—was replaced by ethnic cleansing and genocide, leading ultimately to the dynasty’s demise.

In the late 19th century, a group of intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire merged European Enlightenment thought and Islam, resulting in compelling experiments with constitutionalism and parliamentary democracy. These efforts failed, however, leading to mass bloodshed, including massacres of tens of thousands of Armenians in the 1890s and in 1909, and the Armenian genocide of 1915. Along with earlier Ottoman religious toleration, why isn’t this genocide considered a part of European history? The fact that German generals and soldiers assisted the Ottomans in committing mass murder during the First World War does make it part of European history. But more importantly, accepting the Ottomans as a European empire allows us to recognise the Armenian genocide as the first genocide committed by a European empire in Europe, one that began in Istanbul. Viewing the Ottomans as part of European history does not mean the Ottoman contribution was always positive. The story of the Ottoman dynasty and its empire that is told in these pages seeks neither to glorify the house of Osman nor to condemn it, but to present all that makes it both different and surprisingly familiar for the general reader.

Marc David Baer is the author of The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars & Caliphs.

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