In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Millet System in the Ottoman Empire

  • Introduction
  • General References to the Millet System in the Middle East
  • General References to the Millet System in the Ottoman Empire
  • The Definition of the Term Millet
  • Attitudes toward Minorities
  • Millet and Economics
  • Millet and Nationalism
  • Legal Process and Toleration
  • Christians
  • Greeks
  • Armenians

Islamic Studies Millet System in the Ottoman Empire
Efrat Aviv
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0231


The term millet in the Ottoman Empire referred to a non-Muslim religious community. The Turkish term millet (from Ar. milla; Ott. Tur. pl. milel; mod. Tur. pl. milletler) originally meant both a religion and a religious community. In the Qurʾan, millet frequently refers to the “millat Ibrahim,” or religion of Abraham, and rarely as milla, for only Judaism or Christianity. There are also references to millet as “religion, confession, or rite” from 1158 to 1833 in various internal and international communications, mainly between the Ottoman Empire and non-Muslim empires. Occasionally, millet was translated in the West as “sovereign nations,” especially in terms of rebellion. Commonly, millet was defined as a “religious community.” Millet has its roots in early Islam, and the Ottomans used it to give minority religious communities within their Empire limited power to regulate their own affairs, under the overall supremacy of the Ottoman administration. According to the Qurʾan, Christians and Jews were people of the Bible, known as dhimmi, who were not forced to convert to Islam but allowed to live under the Muslim arrangement with certain prohibitions while practicing their religion and paying the cizye and military exemption tax. The Ottomans allowed the “religions of the book” to be organized in millets: the Orthodox Christians or Rums, the Armenians, and the Jews. Non-Muslims had to be part of a millet to be considered citizens of the empire. In the 19th century, millet additionally came to denote such modern concepts as nation and nationality. Nineteenth-century reforms in the Ottoman Empire changed the structure of the millet organization. The regulations of the Greek community (millet-I Rum) were drafted and approved in 1862, and for the Armenian community (millet-I Ermeniya) in 1863. Submission of proposals for the reorganization of the Jewish community (millet-I Yahudiyan), as required by the Khaṭṭi humayun (imperial decree) of 1856, was delayed due to internal dissension. The “Organizational Regulations of the Rabbinate” (ḥakham Khane niẓamnamesi) was approved in 1865 (Haham Başı). The regulations reveal a desire to limit the powers of the ḥakham bashi. They remained in force as long as the Ottoman Empire existed; only under the republic did they lapse de facto without being officially replaced. In recent years, there has been an academic discussion regarding the general attitude toward non-Muslims in the empire, and the millet in particular, either as an example of tolerance or oppression, using the Ottoman millet system theory as a model of interpretation. It should be noted that in the late decades of the Ottoman Empire, the term millet was used for the Muslim community as well, not just for the non-Muslim communities. In addition, the communities did not see themselves as such, and neither did the Ottomans. They were religious communities. There was no word for “minority” in Ottoman Turkish. The term was introduced with the treaty of Lausanne along with the modern Turkish azınlık. Thus is it considered as an anachronism if used before 1923.

General References to the Millet System in the Middle East

Arberry 1969 provides important background information for considering the millet system by outlining the interaction between the three major religions in the Middle East, with the focus on Islam. Similarly, Bates and Rassam 2001 provides a context in which to consider the millet system by outlining the geography, history, and social structures of Islam. Ma’oz 1999 argues that Christians and Jews were discriminated against and seen as illegitimate denominations, a suggestion that is contested by some scholars, such as Anver Emon, who, in Emon 2012, claims that legal systems face similar challenges when governing a populace in which minority and majority groups diverge on the meaning and implication of values. Thus, treating Islam as an intolerant religion in terms of the millet system is wrong. In addition, Aral 2004 claims that the state in the Ottoman case did not seek to take control of the “public sphere” unless politics set in. It was only after the Tanzimat reforms of the 19th century that the state came to predominate in the public sphere, thus narrowing the scope for civic action. However, Yeór 1985 counters such arguments by documenting the prejudices and segregation of Jews and Christians who were classed as dhimmi. For example, Yeór deals with the “Invalidity of the Dhimmi’s Oath” (p. 56) as an example of the prejudice that was applied to Jews and Christians who refused to bow to Islam.

  • Aral, Berdal. “The Idea of Human Rights as Perceived in the Ottoman Empire.” Human Rights Quarterly 26.2 (May 2004): 454–482.

    DOI: 10.1353/hrq.2004.0015

    This paper argues that both the Ottoman sultan as well as the courts took great care to observe Sharia law, understood of course from a Sunni perspective, which accorded extensive rights to the individual, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. These rights included the right to life, property, fair trial, and social protection, as well as specific rights for women.

  • Arberry, A. J., ed. Religion in the Middle East: Three Religions in Concord and Conflict. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

    The book discusses cooperation between the three faiths and their multifarious sects, throughout history. The book aims to give a factual account of these three religions and their sects, in concord and conflict, from a historical perspective. The focus is on the significance of Islam, considered to be the dominant religion of the Middle East since the 7th century.

  • Bates, Daniel G., and Amal Rassam. Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001.

    An excellent overview of the Middle East region. It introduces us to the geography, history, and different social structures of Islam. The millet system was developed to protect the rights of tolerated clients within the Muslim community.

  • Emon, Anver M. Religious Pluralism and Islamic Law: Dhimmis and Others in the Empire of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199661633.001.0001

    The Islamic legal treatment of non-Muslims is symptomatic of the more general challenge of governing a diverse polity. The pursuit of pluralism requires impositions and limitations on freedoms that are considered fundamental to an individual’s well-being, but which must be limited for some people in some circumstances for reasons extending well beyond the claims of a given individual.

  • Eryılmaz, Bilal. Osmanlı Devletinde Gayrimüslim tebaanın yönetimi. Istanbul: Risale, 1996.

    The book (The administration of the non-Muslim subjects in the Ottoman state) discusses the status and the rights of non-Muslims under the Ottoman rule from Tanzimat to the Turkish republic.

  • Ma’oz, Moshe. “Middle Eastern Minorities: Between Integration and Conflict.” Policy Papers 50 (1999): 5–9.

    According to Ma’oz, Christians and Jews were considered to be inferior, living outside accepted standards. As a result, they were often discriminated against by the state. In contrast, other scholars may argue that the position of minorities under the Ottomans was lenient compared to minority treatment elsewhere in the world, such as in certain parts of Europe.

  • Yeór, Bat. The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985.

    Indispensable to the Western observer for a full understanding of the complexities of the conflicts in the Middle East, this study analyzes and documents the historical, social, and spiritual realities of the dhimmi peoples—the non-Arab and non-Muslim communities subjected to Muslim domination after the conquest of their territories by Arabs.

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