How did the Ottoman Empire treat non-Muslims?

Given that religious mistrust, discrimination, and persecution is as old as religion itself, one might be surprised at the level of fairness with which conquered cities of different faiths were treated within the Empire. Though these were conquered nations, they enjoyed a significant degree of religious freedom during Ottoman Empire, even governing their own legal systems when Muslim individuals were not involved.

If you want to find out more about the ways the Ottomans treated non-muslim people in their empire, go ahead and continue reading!

The Ottoman Empire: What Was It and What Areas Did it Include?

The Ottoman Empire was the primary power in the region from around 1300 to 1922. It encompassed over a dozen countries, including much of the area where Europe, Asia, and Africa meet. Different nations (and therefore non-Muslim communities) became part of the Ottoman Empire by conquest.

How Did the Ottomans Treat Non Muslims in Their Empire?

Undoubtedly, their subjugation included violence as well as religious and ethnic persecution. However, once the region was firmly established as part of the Ottoman Empire, the religious freedoms of these minorities were protected.

Though some non-Muslim communities certainly experienced periods of struggle or discrimination, ethnic and religious tolerance was common during the height of Ottoman power. Though not considered equal to Muslims, Christians and Jews were allowed to live much as they pleased, and that included governing their actions according to their own values.

The Ottomans created innovative systems to govern such a diverse region, enabling stability in the area for centuries.

Scholars’ Opinions on How the Ottomans Treated Non Muslims

Scholars have often disagreed about the Ottoman response to non-Muslims. Western researchers often exhibit their own anti-Arab prejudices, interpreting the Ottoman’s “dhimma” classification and “millet” legal systems as religious oppression.

Others consider the question in context with the treatment that Muslims and other minorities received in European countries and elsewhere during the same period. In actuality, the Ottoman Empire exhibited leniency and a generous measure of tolerance.

Ahl al-Dhimma in the Ottoman Empire: Protected But Not Equal

Throughout history, members of the majority religion in any area have considered themselves superior to those communities they conquered. Non-Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire were indeed regarded as inferior.

However, Muslim leaders recognized that Jews and Christians were also monotheists who shared much of Islam’s religious history. They called Christians and Jews “Ahl al-Kitab”, meaning “people of the book”.

Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire received state protections from property seizure and religious persecution. Protections for these non-Muslim citizens, collectively called Ahl al-Dhimma or abbreviated as dhimma, still exist in a few regions to this day. Those with protected status were not forced to convert to Islam, but they also agreed not to proselytize to Muslims about their own religions.

Though technically still considered inferior, these minority religions received better treatment in the Ottoman Empire than Muslims received in other countries across Europe. Still, Muslims were acutely aware that these Christians and Jews did not accept the Prophet Muhammad.

Social segregation often occurred despite dhimma, and Jews and Christians endured special taxes, dress codes, preventions on integration, or limitations in employment.

Ahl al-Dhimma and Taxation

For the Muslim leaders, the special jizya taxes imposed on the Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire were a tangible sign of the acceptance of Muslim rule. In practice, the taxes were nominal and comparable to the taxes citizens paid to their own governments before the Ottoman takeover.

Often the local community leaders collected the taxes, so for the average non-Muslim, there wasn’t much difference. Non-Muslims were also allowed to pay an exemption tax to avoid their required period of military service.

The Devshirme Tax and Its Slaves

One tax differed from an economic sign of loyalty: the “devshirme”, meaning “the gathering” or “the blood tax”. Under the devshirme, Muslim governments would confiscate and enslave 20 percent of the young Christian boys, mainly from Balkan communities.

These youths were forcibly converted to Islam and made into slaves, which was undoubtedly traumatic to the families, but this enslavement often came with significant privileges.

Many of these slaves were trained to serve in the elite military corps or in administrative roles within the government. A handful of conscripts who showed promise attended the Enderun School, where they trained to fill senior positions within the government.

Under the Dhimma system, their roles must have still supported higher-ranking Muslims. Still, that restriction left room for many significant roles, including that of the Grand Vizier.

The Millet System: Governance for Non-Muslims

After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman territories found themselves ruling over the center of the Orthodox Christian world. By 1530, 80 percent of the Empire’s citizens were non-Muslim. The Ottomans faced the dual challenge of managing such a large population and governing communities with highly different beliefs and ways of life.

To be recognized as citizens, non Muslims in Ottoman Empire were classified under the millet system, categorizing them according to their religious beliefs. The term “millet” can be translated as a religious community or sometimes a sovereign nation. The latter definition seems appropriate in Western interpretation, given that American Indian tribes are considered sovereign nations within the larger context of the United States.

The Orthodox Christians and the Greek communities were part of the Rum millet, while the Jews and the Armenians had their own millets. In the later stages of Ottoman rule, even the Muslim community was also classified as a millet. Since the Muslims referred to themselves as a millet as well, it seems that the classification itself was not considered to be discriminatory in nature.

Indeed, its purpose was quite the opposite. The Ottoman leaders recognized that the best way to maintain regional stability was to allow the regions to function independently whenever possible The jizya taxes and other requirements ensured the loyalty of these communities. Therefore, the millet system permitted minority communities to operate with a certain level of autonomy in matters that did not affect the Muslim citizenry.

The Millet System in the Courts: Fairness Under the Law

While the native Ottomans embraced Islamic Sharia law, they acknowledged that other religions embraced different values. When minor disputes arose between Christians, they could adjudicate the issue under Canon law rather than Sharia law.

Similarly, Jews ruled their own courts using Halakha. If the accuser and the accused came from different millets, the legal system of the injured party applied.

Of course, exceptions did exist. If a Muslim was involved in a legal case, as either the villain or the victim, Sharia law governed the outcome of the dispute. Also, the oath for truthfulness in a Muslim court involved swearing on the Koran, which a truthful Christian would never do. Therefore, the testimony of a Christian was considered untrustworthy.

The Tanzimat: Europe Intervenes Unsuccessfully and Disrupts the Peace

In the 18th Century, the Ottoman Empire began to weaken, and European ideas started to exert more influence in the region. To preserve the Empire, they abolished the millet system and instituted the Tanzimat reforms beginning in 1839. The purpose behind these reforms was to discourage divisive nationalist ideas and promote actual equality among the ethnicities and religious backgrounds in the Empire.

The Ottomans established secular schools and universities, developed new legal codes, and reorganized the tax system to abolish the jizya tax. They also reformed the military conscription system and lifted trade barriers with Europe. By adopting more Western models, the Ottomans hoped to bolster their failing economy and prove that they could remain a powerful nation on the world stage.

Unfortunately, these reforms had a detrimental effect on the minorities living in the Ottoman empire. By forcing the religious minorities to abandon their own governance and adopt the standardized, secular laws, they actually lost some significant freedoms.

The loss of religious superiority for the Muslim communities and the removal of independence within the other millets created more religious tension rather than less. Eventually, the Tanzimat reforms set the stage for the Crimean War in 1854, the Hamidian Massacres in the mid-1890s, and the Armenian genocide in World War One.


The fairness of Muslim rule during the Ottoman Empire is debated between scholars, and the scholar’s own background often influences the answer.

Below are some of the basic facts:

  • The Ottoman Empire was a significant world power for 600 years
  • By 1530, 80 percent of the Ottoman population were non-Muslims
  • The Ottomans created particular classes of citizenry and systems to govern large areas of subjugated peoples effectively
  • Christians and Jews were called “dhimma”, or “people of the book”, and were granted protection from religious persecution
  • The dhimma were required to pay special taxes to signal their loyalty and were subjected to dress codes or limitations in employment
  • The devshirme was a human tax that conscripted young non-Muslim boys into service with the military or the government
  • The millet system ensured legal fairness by allowing non-Muslims to operate using their own system of laws rather than sharia law
  • The abolition of the millet system created more religious tension in the dying Ottoman Empire and led to the Armenian Genocide during World War One

While still considered inferior, the Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed a surprisingly normal life, especially compared to the treatments received by minority ethnicities and religions in European countries.


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