How Did Religion Influence Law in the Ottoman Empire?

Law and religion in the Ottoman Empire were tightly linked for over six hundred years.

Feb 16, 2024By Greg Pasciuto, BA History
how religion influenced law ottoman empire


The Ottoman Empire arose in modern Turkey at the turn of the 14th century. It emerged from the unification of the old Seljuk Turkic states under the House of Osman (its namesake). Its Islamic faith and expansionist goals made it the boogeyman of Christian Europe for hundreds of years.


Much like its contemporaries in both Asia and Europe, the Ottoman Empire’s legal system overlapped with religion and religious identity. The state officially observed Islam, but other religious groups did exist within its domains. Ottoman rulers simultaneously sought to maintain Muslim supremacy and appease non-Islamic religions.


Islam Was the Official Religion of the Ottoman Empire

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Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, May 2021, Source: The Review of Religions


As stated previously, the Ottoman Empire was officially an Islamic state. It claimed control of all three of Islam’s holiest cities — Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Much as early Muslim dynasties had done, the Ottoman sultans styled themselves as leaders of a global Islamic caliphate. In fact, the Ottoman Empire was the final pre-modern state to make this claim.


Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula during the 7th century. A staunchly monotheistic religion, its core prophet is Muhammad, who believers held to be the last prophet of God. Through a combination of missionary work, trade, and warfare, Islam eventually spread across all of Arabia. It would spread across the Mediterranean region and into Africa and Asia as well.


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Sharia, the Islamic legal code based on the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad), fundamentally guided the Ottoman Empire’s legal system.


Both the Sultan and ordinary citizens were subject to Sharia precepts (although, as always, the powerful found ways to aggrandize their own status). Ottoman authorities and religious scholars upheld the Sharia — specifically the Hanafi school of thought — as the word of God. To violate Sharia was seen as both a sinful and a criminal act.


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Inside the Ottoman-era Bursa Grand Mosque, Turkey, photograph by Karelj, August 2013, Source: Wikimedia Commons


No scholarly consensus exists regarding the role of Islam in the Ottoman Empire’s foundation. Older scholarship claims that Islamic jihad (holy war, in this context) against non-Muslims fueled Ottoman expansionism. More recent works have countered this thesis, calling it incomplete. Regardless, by the time its rulers had firmly established their control in Turkey and the Mediterranean, the Ottoman Empire was inseparable from Sunni Islam.


Islamic Law Coexisted with Other Legal Systems

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Portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent, Source: The Guardian


Islamic Sharia may have been the bedrock of Ottoman law, but it was not the only source. A more secular code of regulations, known as kanun, supplemented Sharia in the Ottoman Empire, especially with regard to administrative practices. It was the role of the Sultan to uphold and implement kanun regulations, so long as they complied with Sharia.


The Ottoman Empire’s most enduring kanun codes were already compiled by the end of the 16th century. Sultans Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481) and Suleiman I (r. 1520-1566) were particularly important in solidifying kanun. Suleiman, who was called “the Magnificent” in Europe, was specifically known as “The Lawgiver” in Ottoman lands.


Non-Muslims Were Treated as Second-Class Citizens…

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Liturgical Procession, by Lambert de Vos, c. 1574, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Despite its monopoly on political power, Sunni Islam was not the only religion practiced in the Ottoman Empire. Islamic mysticism, known as Sufism, was widely popular over the course of the empire’s existence. Non-Muslim religions like Christianity and Judaism also occupied parts of the Ottoman religious sphere. The vast majority of Ottoman Christians followed the Eastern Orthodox branch of the faith.


Islamic law regarded Jews and Christians as “People of the Book” — followers of older monotheistic religions whose scriptures predated Islam. Yet they were still second-class citizens in Ottoman society. Ottoman law required Jews and Christians (known as Dhimmi) to pay a special tax, called the jizya, in exchange for security. Proselytizing to Muslims was a crime.


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French portrayal of Ottoman janissaries carrying a large pot and ladle, Source: Atlas Obscura


In Ottoman-ruled southeastern Europe, the sons of Christian families could be abducted and conscripted into the elite Janissary troops. This was known as the devshirme system. The Ottoman military would convert these young men to Islam, and they would serve directly under the Sultan himself. Although they were virtually the property of the Ottoman sultan, they seem to have received higher-than-average wages for their work.


The Ottoman Empire was organized into millets — localities defined by religious affiliation. The term millet originally applied to non-Muslim communities but came to encompass Muslims as well by the late 19th century. The system wasn’t as rigid as a provincial system, but it did serve to distinguish between Muslim and non-Muslim Ottoman residents, both religiously and legally.


 …Yet They Did Have Some Autonomy

bayezid ii sultan
Portrait of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, Source: the Daily Sabah


They may have been second-class citizens, but Jewish and Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire did have a degree of autonomy from the central government. The Ottoman Empire’s treatment of minority religions may have actually been less persecutory than that of Western European kingdoms. When the Catholic Monarchs in Spain expelled thousands of Jews from their country in 1492, some settled in the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan at the time, Bayezid II, even welcomed elite Jewish refugees to his domains.


The status of Orthodox Christians in Ottoman lands was especially complex. For Christians in the Balkans region, the devshirme system and the janissaries loomed over the heads of young men. Yet Ottoman authorities don’t seem to have imposed a similar system in Turkey proper or the Levant. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire cracked down more on Christian religious sites in cities than they did on churches in rural regions. The authorities’ concerns may very well have been more about power politics and the projection of social superiority than strictly religious doctrine.


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Copy of a 15th-century portrait of Sultan Mehmed II, by Gentile Bellini, Source: Oriental Art Auctions


Some of the Ottoman sultans were shrewd political operators when it came to Christianity. Mehmed II elevated the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to the spiritual leadership of all Orthodox Christians. Since the Orthodox churches were decentralized and had no singular leading figure, this was a calculated move. The sultan could now deal with a single Christian leader, as opposed to the array of Christian churches that operated in Ottoman domains.


Yet the Ottoman Empire’s attempt to streamline its relationship with institutional Christianity was not foolproof. By the early 19th century, regional nationalisms had sprung up across the empire. This was especially true for Orthodox-majority regions like Greece and the Balkans. Afraid of losing their lands, Ottoman authorities turned to new methods of dealing with their minority religions.


Changes Over Time: Law and Religion in the Late Ottoman Empire

ottoman empire decline map
Ottoman territorial losses between 1807 and the empire’s dissolution in 1924, Source Encyclopedia Britannica


Historians have long since discarded the old theory of the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe” after the 16th century. In the face of challenges on all fronts, Ottoman authorities proved remarkably adaptable while also staying true to their Islamic roots. However, by the second half of the 1800s, it was clear that Europe had outclassed its old Ottoman rivals militarily and technologically. In order to persist as a state, the Ottoman Empire had to make major changes.


This period was referred to as the Tanzimat era. Under Sultans Mahmud II, Abdülmecid, and Abdulaziz (c. 1839-1876), the Ottoman Empire sought to reconstruct its administration and army based on the French model. The military chain of command was overhauled, and Mahmud II had abolished the Janissary corps earlier, in June 1826. The reforms also aimed to reinvigorate a pan-Ottoman identity, especially at a time when regional nationalism was gaining ground in all provinces.


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Ottoman Army soldiers during World War I, 1915, Source: History Crunch


Critically, the Tanzimat reforms altered the legal dynamics between Ottoman Muslim supremacy and the empire’s religious minorities. The Imperial Edict of 1856 did away with the dhimmi status for Jews and Orthodox Christians, instead declaring all religious groups Ottoman subjects. The Ulama (Islamic religious scholars) were outraged, although the sultans never backed down on their claim to the Islamic caliphate. The Ottoman government also continued to harshly persecute some non-Muslim minorities, including the Christian Greeks and Armenians.


The final straw for the Ottoman Empire would be World War I. As a member of the Central Powers, the Ottomans lost the war. The victorious British and French planned to divide the empire into a number of smaller states. But it was Turkish revolutionaries themselves who would seal the Ottoman Empire’s fate. In 1924, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — the leading political figure in Anatolia after a grueling war of independence — abolished the Ottoman sultans’ claim to the caliphate. Turkey became a secular nation-state, and the other former provinces went their own ways. After more than six hundred years, the great Ottoman Empire was no more.

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By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.