Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Dhimmi - Dhimmi and Dhimmitude in the Ottoman Empire

Robin presented his paper to the Theology Group on  Tuesday 14th January, 2014. The paper and the ensuing discussion were both challenging and excellent contributions to our understanding of the status of a non muslim within the long heritage of the Ottoman Empire. The sweep of the Ottoman empire is from the beginning of the 14th Century through to the foundation of Modern Turkey in 1922. England, Scotland and Wales in the 14th Century were much preoccupied with the struggle for power and control among themselves.

The legacy of the Ottoman Empire is alive and well in the 21st Century and still colours and, in many places, controls the relationship between Muslim, Christian and Jew in muslim majority lands in the Middle East. There is a contemporary tendency to see the three faith relationship within the Ottoman Empire through rose tinted spectacles both in academic circles and in popular culture and the time has come for a more factual and less romantic view of the realities of these relationships. There has been a tendency too to censure the record of Christian Europe with regard to Christian- Jewish relationships and to make a negative comparison with the the Muslim - Jewish relationship within the Ottoman empire. Robin's paper served to challenge these broadly based assumptions and to introduce a more nuanced and critical analysis. Robin has the intention of developing this paper and the Theology Group hopes to see such a paper published in the Living Stones Yearbook in autumn 2014.

Robin discussed the dhimmi and dhimmitude. Words are used differently in different contexts but the focus here is of a dhimmi people and an attitude to the experience of being a dhimmi people as 'dhimmitude'. The dhimmi are those peoples that were subject to a particular legal construct that defined the relationship between the Dhimmi and the muslim majority. The relationship should be understood in the context of jihad as the intention of an  imposition of Islam on a subject people either by assent or by conquest.The rapid conquest of the peoples of the Middle East through relationships with people of other faiths into a sharp focus in the light of jihad. The Dhimmi relationship was a structured response to a recognition of other faiths as a subject people, a lesser people in that they had not yet recognised Mohammad as the last and final Prophet of their God. A Dhimmi people did not enjoy the rights of full citizens, had to acknowledge Islam's domination and pay a poll tax unique to the Dhimmi people. Certain aspects of government were denied access to a Dhimmi people in this theocratic state i.e. religion and the law. Access to employment in stagecraft and bureaucracy was possible and sometimes welcomed.

Robin also discussed Millet system which identified particular faiths as belonging to self governing groups within limits. For example the Greek Orthodox community were granted millet status which meant that the community would be allowed to practice its religion in peace but the election of the Patriarch was supervised by the Sultan. The Patriarch would then be responsible 'for collecting the poll tax, for hearing court cases, imprisoning criminals and other legal activities'. The Patriarch became an instrument of the State. The Jewish community in Istanbul formed another millet and a third broader cluster of faith communities under the Armenian millett.

Another aspect of being a Dhimmi people was the Devshirme and Ghulam systems. In the divershirme system, there was a levy of Christian boys who were enslaved into the Sultan's service Such boys were taken between the ages of 14 and 18, forced to convert to Islam and then used for a variety of purposes at the Sultan's pleasure. Some were made eunuchs protecting the Sultan's harem; some drafted as soldiers, some children treated as prostitutes. The Janissary were an elite group which were given hereditary rights. This system eventually collapsed before the Ottoman Empire itself collapsed.

The evidence contradicts statements that the Christian community were complicit or agreed with devshirme being seen as a way of social advancement for their children. This is denied and there is documentary evidence to demonstrate the resentment and opposition to this practice.

There is much work to be done but essentially the difference between Christian understandings of evangelism as support in recognition of the Kingdom of God present within you as well as among you compared with jihad as political conquest and submission to the Prophet is seminal to the discussion.

Dhimmitude as an attitude of mind born of years of discrimination is intriguing and is seen too in the rose tinted perspectives of some Westermn politicians and theologians on Ottoman relationships to their non muslim communities.

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