djebel druze

Millet (Ottoman Empire)

Millet is an Ottoman Turkish term for a confessional community in the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, with the Tanzimat reforms, the term started to refer to legally protected religious minority groups, other than the ruling Sunni. Millet comes from the Arabic word millah (ملة). The Millet system of Ottoman Islamic law is considered an early example of pre-modern democratic religious pluralism.


The millet concept has a similarity to autonomous territories that has long been the European norm for dealing with minority groups. The millet system has a long history in the Middle East, and is closely linked to Islamic rules on the treatment of non−Muslim minorities (dhimmi). The Ottoman term specifically refers to the separate legal courts pertaining to personal law under which minorities were allowed to rule themselves (in cases not involving any Muslim) with fairly little interference from the Ottoman government.

People were bound to their millets by their religious affiliations (or their confessional communities), rather than their ethnic origins, according to the millet concept. The head of a millet, most often a religious hierarch such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, reported directly to the Ottoman Sultan. The millets had a great deal of power — they set their own laws and collected and distributed their own taxes. All that was insisted was loyalty to the Empire. When a member of one millet committed a crime against a member of another, the law of the injured party applied, but the ruling Islamic majority being paramount, any dispute involving a Muslim fell under their sharia−based law.

Later, the perception of the millet concept was altered in the 19th century by the rise of nationalism within the Ottoman Empire.

Millets (until Reformation Era)

Until the 19th century (Reformation Era) beside the Muslim millet, the main millets were the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. Armenians formed more than one (actually three) millets under the Ottoman rule. A wide array of other groups such as Catholics, Karaites and Samaritans were also represented.


Muslim communities prospered under the Ottoman Empire, as the Sultan was also the Caliph. Ottoman law did not recognize such notions as ethnicity or citizenship, thus, a Muslim of any ethnic background enjoyed precisely the same rights and privileges. It was claimed that under such conditions, Muslim Arabs came to view the empire as a revived Islamic empire. However, even if Caliphate played a significant role, the real existence of these feelings is questionable long before the Arab Revolt and the subsequent dissolution of the empire in 20th century. By the 17th century, the Maghreb regencies were only nominally under the Ottoman control and Egypt was almost independent by the beginning of the 19th century.

Creeds which were seen as deviant forms of the Caliphal dynasty's Sunni Islam, such as Shi'as, Alawis, Alevis and Yezidis, had no official status and were considered to be part of the Muslim millet—only the syncretic Druze of the Djebel Druze and Mount Lebanon enjoyed feudal−type autonomy. These groups were spread across the empire with significant minorities in most of the major cities. Autonomy for these groups was thus impossible to base on a territorial region.


Orthodox Christians

Even though it was named after Greek subjects of the Ottoman Empire, all Orthodox Christians were included in the millet-i Rûm. Therefore, Orthodox Greeks, Bulgarians, Arabs, Albanians, Vlachs, Romanians and Serbs were all considered part of the same millet despite their differences in ethnicity and language and despite the fact that the religious hierarchy was Greek dominated.


Until the nineteenth century, there was a single Armenian millet which served all ethnic Armenians irrespective of whether they belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church or the Armenian Protestant Church (which was formed in the 19th century). Only later did a separate Catholic millet emerge. Non-Armenians from churches which were theologically linked to the Armenian Church (by virtue of being non-Chalcedonians) were under the authority of the Armenian Patriarchate, although they maintained a separate hierarchy with their own Patriarchs. These groups included the Syriac Orthodox and the Copts.

Syriac Orthodox

The Syriac Orthodox started out under the Armenian patriarchate but petitioned the Sublime Porte for separate status, mainly as western contacts allowed them a voice of their own. Thus the Syriac Apostolic Church of Antioch and all the East (Jacobite, later changed to Syrian) received recognition as a separate community "millet" as did the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic and the Church of the East (referred to, often erroneously, as Nestorian). The last was the most remote of the Churches in distance from the Porte (in Istanbul).


The Ottoman Jews enjoyed similar privileges to those of the Orthodox, and came to enjoy some of the most extensive freedoms in Jewish history. The city of Thessaloniki, for instance, received a great influx of Jews in the 15th century and soon flourished economically to such an extent that, during the 18th century, it was the largest and possibly the most prosperous Jewish city in the world. By the early 20th century, Ottoman Jews —together with Armenian and Greeks— dominated commerce within the Empire.



19th Century (Reformation Era)

New millets were created in the 19th century for several uniate and protestant Christian communities, then for the separate Eastern Orthodox Bulgarian Church, recognized as a millet by an Ottoman firman in 1870 and excommunicated two years later by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate as adherents of phyletism (national or ethnic principle in church organization). In the period before World War I there were seventeen millets within the Empire.

Reformulation into Ottomanism

Before the turn of the 19th century, the millets had a great deal of power — they set their own laws and collected and distributed their own taxes. Tanzimat reforms aimed to encourage Ottomanism among the secessionist subject nations and stop the rise of nationalist movements within the Ottoman Empire, but failed to succeed despite trying to integrate non−Muslims and non−Turks more thoroughly into the Ottoman society with new laws and regulations. With the Tanzimat era the regulation called "Regulation of the Armenian Nation" (Turkish:"Nizâmnâme−i Millet−i Ermeniyân") was introduced on March 29 1863 over the Millet organization, which granted extensive privileges and autonomy concerning self−governance. The Armenian Nation, "Millet−i Ermeniyân", which is considered here, is the Armenian Orthodox Gregorian nation (millet) of that time. In a very short time, Ottoman Empire passed another regulation over "Nizâmnâme−i Millet−i Ermeniyân" developed by the Patriarchate Assemblies of Armenians, which was named as the Islahat Fermâni (Firman of the Reforms). "Firman of the Reforms" gave immense privileges to the Armenians, which formed a "governance in governance" to eliminate the aristocratic dominance of the Armenian nobles by development of the political strata in the society. These two reforms, which were theoretically perfect examples of social change by law, brought serious stress over Ottoman political and administrative structure.

Effect of Protectorate of missions

The Ottoman System lost the mechanisms of its existence from the assignment of protection of citizen rights of their subjects to other states. People were not citizens of the Ottoman Empire anymore but of other states, due to the Capitulations of the Ottoman Empire to European powers, protecting the rights of their citizens within the Empire. The Russians became formal Protectors of Eastern Orthodox groups, the French of Roman Catholics and the British of Jews and other groups.

Russia and England competed for the Armenians; the Eastern Orthodox perceived American Protestants, who had over 100 missionaries established in Anatolia by World War I, as weakening their own teaching.

These religious activities, subsidized by the governments of western nations, were not devoid of political goals, such in the case of candlestick wars of 1847. Tension began among the Catholic and Orthodox monks in Palestine with France channeling resources to increase its influence in the region from 1840. Repairs to shrines were important for the sects as they were linked to the possession of keys to the temples. Notes were given by the protectorates, including the French, to the Ottoman capital about the governor; he was condemned as he had to defend the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by placing soldiers inside the temple because of the candlestick wars, eliminating the change of keys. Successive Ottoman governments had issued edicts granting primacy of access to different Christian groups which vied for control of Jerusalem's holy sites.

Effect of nationalism

Under the original design, the multi faced structure of the millet system was unified under the house of Osman. The rise of nationalism in Europe under the influence of the French revolution had extended to the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. Each millet became increasingly independent with the establishment of their own schools, churches, hospitals and other facilities. These activities effectively moved the Christian population outside the framework of the Ottoman political system.

The Ottoman millet system (citizenship) began to degrade with the continuous identification of the religious creed with ethnic nationality. The interaction of ideas of French revolution with the Ottoman Millet system created a breed of thought (a new form of personal identification) which turned the concept of nationalism synonymous with religion under the Ottoman flag. It was impossible to hold the system or prevent Clash of Civilizations) when the Armenian national liberation movement expressed itself within the Armenian church. Patriarch Nerses Varjabedyan expresses his position on Ottoman Armenians to British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lord Salisbury on April 13 1878.

Modern Use

Today the millet system is still used at varying degrees in some post−Ottoman countries like Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. It is also in use in states like Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh which observe the principle of separate personal courts and/or laws for every recognized religious community and reserved seats in the parliament.

In Egypt for instance the application of family law, including marriage, divorce, alimony, child custody, inheritance and burial, is based on an individual's reiligous beliefs. In the practice of family law, the State recognizes only the three "heavenly religions": Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Muslim families are subject to the Personal Status Law, which draws on Sharia. Christian families are subject to canon law, and Jewish families are subject to Jewish law. In cases of family law disputes involving a marriage between a Christian woman and a Muslim man, the courts apply the Personal Status Law (see: Egypt — International Religious Freedom Report Released by the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2001).

Israel, too, keeps a system based on the Ottoman-derived Millet, in which personal status is based on a person belonging to a religious community. The Israeli state - on the basis of laws inherited from Ototman times and retained both under British rule and by indpendent Israel - reserves the right to recognise some communities but not others. Thus, only Orthodox Judaism is officially recognised in Israel, while Reform Rabbis and Conservative Rabbis are not recognised and cannot perform marriages. Israel recognised the Druze as a separate community, which the Ottomans and British had not - due mainly to political considerations. Also, the Israeli state reserves the right to determine to which community a person belongs, and officially register him or her accordingly - even when the person concerned objects to being part of a religious community (i.e., also staunch Atheists of Jewish origin are registered as members of the Jewish religious community, a practice derived ultimately from the fact that the Ottoman Millet ultimately designated a person's ethnicity more than a person's beliefs).

Israeli secularists such as Shulamit Aloni and Uri Avnery often protested and called for abolition of this Ototman remnant, and its replacement by a system modled on the of the United States where religious affilaition is consdered a person's private business in which the state should not interfere. However, though Israel has tried to emulate the US on many other issues, all such proposals have been defeated.

Current meaning of the word

Today, the term "millet" means the word "nation" in Turkish. It also retains its use as a religious and ethnic classification; it can also be used as a slang to classify people belonging to a particular group (not necessarily religious or ethnic), such as dolmuşçu milleti ("those who belong to the commercial minivan drivers group") or kadın milleti ("all the women").

See also



Further reading

  • Josef Matuz, Das Osmanische Reich. Grundlinien seiner Geschichte, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1985.
  • Bernard Lewis, Die Juden in der islamischen Welt. Vom frühen Mittelalter bis ins 20. Jahrhundert, München: Beck, 1987, passim.
  • Henry Blount, A Voyage into the Levant (1636), Amsterdam 1977. Originally titled: A Voyage into the Levant. A Briefe Relation of a Journey. Lately performed by Master H.B. Gentleman, from England by the way of Venice, into Dalmatia, Sclavonia, Bosnah, Hungary, Macedonia, Thessaly, Thrace, Rhodes and Egypt, unto Gran Cairo: With particular observations concerning the moderne condition of the Turkes, and other people under that Empire. London, 1636.
  • Michael Ursinus, Zur Diskussion um „millet“ im Osmanischen Reich, in: Südost−Forschungen 48 (1989), pp. 195–207
  • Benjamin Braude und Bernard Lewis (ed.), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. The Functioning of a Plural Society, 2 vol., New York und London 1982.
  • Irwin Cemil Schick, Osmanlılar, Azınlıklar ve Yahudiler [Osmanen, Minoritäten und Juden], in: Tarih ve Toplum 29 (Mayıs 1986), 34–42.
  • Elizabeth A. Zachariadou, Co−Existence and Religion, in: Archivum Ottomanicum 15 (1997), 119–29.
  • Bat Yeór, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam, Cranbury, NJ, 1985.
  • Youssef Courbage and Philippe Fargues, Christians and Jews under Islam, translated by Judy Mabro, London−New York 1997.
  • Karl Binswanger, Untersuchungen zum Status der Nichtmuslime im Osmanischen Reich des 16. Jahrhunderts mit einer Neudefinition des Begriffes "Dhimma", München 1977.
  • Yavuz Ercan, Osmanlı Yönetiminde Gayrimüslimler. Kuruluştan Tanzimat´a kadar Sosyal, Ekonomik ve Hukuki Durumları [Die Nichtmuslime in der osmanischen Verwaltung. Soziale, wirtschaftliche und rechtliche Lage von der Gründung bis zur Tanzimat], Ankara 2001.
  • Paret, Rudi: Toleranz und Intoleranz im Islam, in: Saeculum 21 (1970), 344–65.
  • Bilal Eryılmaz, Osmanlı Devletinde Gayrimüslim Teb´anın Yönetimi [Die Verwaltung der nichtmuslimischen Untertanen im Osmanischen Reich], İstanbul 1990, pp. 215–18.
  • Fikret Adanır, Der Zerfall des Osmanischen Reiches, in: Das Ende der Weltreiche: von den Persern bis zur Sowjetunion, hrsg. von Alexander Demant, München 1997, S. 108–28.
  • Ramsaur, Ernest Edmondson Jr., The Young Turks. Prelude to the Revolution of 1908, 2. ed., İstanbul 1982, pp. 40–1, Anm. 30: ”Meşveret”, Paris, 3. Dezember 1895.
  • Fikret Adanır, Die Makedonische Frage, ihre Entstehung und Entwicklung bis 1908, Wiesbaden 1979, p. 93.
  • Johannes Lepsius, & others (ed.), Die Große Politik der europäischen Kabinette 1871–1914. Sammlung der diplomatischen Akten des Auswärtigen Amtes, Berlin 1923–29, vol. 18, Teil I, p. 169.
  • Fatma Müge Göçek, Burjuvazinin Yükselişi, İmparatorluğun Çöküşü. Osmanlı Batılılaşması ve Toplumsal Değişme [Rise of the Bourgeoisie, decline of the empires. Ottoman westernisation and social change], Ankara 1999, pp. 307–09
  • Çağlar Keyder, Bureaucracy and Bourgeoisie: Reform and Revolution in the Age of Imperialism, in: Review, XI, 2, Spring 1988, pp. 151–65.
  • Roderic H. Davison, Turkish Attitudes Concerning Christian−Muslim Equality in the Nineteenth Century, in: American Historical Review 59 (1953−54), pp. 844–864.
  • Bernard Lewis, Der Untergang des Morgenlandes. Warum die islamische Welt ihre Vormacht verlor, Bonn 2002, p. 99.
  • Bernard Lewis, Stern, Kreuz und Halbmond. 2000 Jahre Geschichte des Nahen Ostens, München, Zürich 1995, p. 302.
  • Ortaylı, İlber. Son İmparatorluk Osmanlı (The Last Empire: Ottoman Empire), İstanbul, Timaş Yayınları (Timaş Press), 2006. ISBN 975-263-490-7
  • Ortaylı, İlber. Osmanlı Barışı (Ottoman Peace), İstanbul, Timaş Yayınları (Timaş Press), 2007. ISBN 978-975-263-516-6

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