Law, Colonial Systems of, Ottoman Empire

views updated

Law, Colonial Systems of, Ottoman Empire

The Ottomans were among the Turkish tribes that came to Anatolia (the Asiatic region in present-day Turkey) from Central Asia. They adopted Islam in the ninth and tenth centuries. From a modest nomadic state, they created a stable Middle Eastern empire lasting for more than six hundred years under one dynasty. The Ottoman Empire holds a special place in world history on account of the long duration of its existence and the extent of its realm, which comprised vast territories in the three continents of the ancient world—Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Ottoman Empire passed through several stages: the first Ottoman period (1281–1446), the classical age (1446–1566), destabilization (1566–1789), reform efforts (1789–1912), World War I (1912–1918), and collapse (1923).

By the fourteenth century, the Ottomans ruled the Balkans, and by the early seventeenth century, the empire had expanded as far as Vienna. It extended in Europe to embrace the Balkans, Greece, Albania, Serbia, and the greater part of Hungary and Austria. The Ottomans controlled the Black Sea, and in the north their empire included the Crimea. The Ottomans also controlled most of the Mediterranean, and in Africa the empire included Egypt, Libya, Tripoli, Tunisia, and Algeria. In Asia the Ottomans took in Asia Minor, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, the western shores of the Persian Gulf, and the west and south in Arabia. As early as 1399, the empire's eastern frontier had reached the Euphrates River.

In 1453 the last great Byzantine stronghold, Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) fell to Sultan Mehmed II (ca. 1432–1481), the Conqueror. The Ottoman conquest of Egypt under Sultan Selim I (ca. 1470–1520) brought the caliphate to the Ottomans in 1517, the sultan becoming the supreme voice in all matters religious, not only for the Ottoman Empire but for most Muslims. Under Süleyman the Magnificent (ca. 1494–1566), the empire was the strongest power in Europe, stretching from the Atlantic shore of North Africa to the borders of Iran, Austria, Poland, and Russia. Buda, the capital of Hungary, was taken in 1541.

Geography and brilliant leadership were the two most important factors in the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The first ten sultans had remarkable personal abilities, functioning as kings in Europe and Turkish nomad lords in Anatolia. The empire was created through conquest, and in the early years the Ottomans were attracted to Europe by the booty to be gained there—the principal economic basis of life—and the interest of the Turkish Gazis (warriors of the faith) in expanding the rule of Islam. There was no one power in Europe to oppose this expansion.

Later, the Gazi state was transformed into a centralized bureaucratized empire led by all-powerful sultans. The importance of the nomad warriors decreased, and a new army was created by the regular, enforced recruitment of Christian boys (devçirme) for training and eventual employment in the military and civil service as slaves of the sultan. On arrival in Istanbul, the capital, they were converted to Islam.

The Ottoman Empire was based on expansion. The Ottomans neither colonized the territories they conquered nor carried Ottoman Islamic law to all the new settlements. They did, however, introduce an administrative system for collecting taxes to promote national economic growth. They also established fortresses and garrisons at strategic points and along the frontiers, but the armies returned home after conquests.

Islamic law applied to the Turks left behind in conquered territories and to the few converted natives. The rest of the population continued to live according to their existing laws in most respects. This was a multiethnic, culturally and legally pluralist, and decentralized empire. Cultural and religious differences functioned as structuring elements in the law. The different groups were identified by religion: Muslim, Orthodox, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish, though any Ottoman subject could become a Muslim. The system applied was the millet system, a term first used for Muslims and later for non-Muslim religious communities. Keeping millets as organized and legally recognized separate and distinct religious entries fostered religious separation.

Until the second half of the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had a Christian majority under the rule of a Muslim minority. Eclecticism and pragmatism prevailed in the running of the empire. The principle of tolerance inherent in Muslim governmental tradition toward Christians and Jews was closely connected with a financial policy based on the payment of tribute by non-Muslims. However, tolerance of diversity meant that there was no one language and no single distinct culture within the empire.

Conversion to Islam was practiced only in those regions conquered by the Gazis in Eastern Thrace, and later in the furthest western frontiers in Albania and Bosnia. The vast territory between these two Gazi zones was allowed to remain Christian. Some non-Muslims, the zimmis (mostly Armenian, Greek, and Jewish communities and Christian groups given asylum), lived in and around Istanbul. In personal status and private law, their own religious laws and customs applied, their disputes being settled in their own community courts. Though zummis had special legal status, they had a lower status than Muslims.

The second category of non-Muslims comprised the people of conquered lands in Europe whose own local indigenous laws applied in existing local courts. NonMuslims could not become civil servants and paid special additional taxes (cizye) in these regions.

The third category of non-Muslims comprised foreigners, mostly residing in Istanbul and Izmir (Smyrna), who were concerned with trade. These foreigners had special status, including residence privileges and the right to have their disputes settled by consular courts. These privileges were first granted in 1537 to the French in conjunction with an offensive and a defensive alliance, and later to the Dutch and the English. Such foreigners were ruled by their own laws and paid no taxes to the empire.

The Ottoman legal system was pluralistic, the primary connecting factor in choice of law being religion. Public law and administrative structures were influenced by ancient Turkish political customs and by the organization of the Byzantine Empire and the Balkan states. In appearance, however, the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic state, and the fundamental Islamic distinction between master and slave, men and women, and believer and unbeliever was an essential aspect of Ottoman society.

The sultans settled Turks in sensitive regions for defense; elsewhere a program of conciliation and vassalage was adopted. Defeated kings kept their lands as tribute-paying vassals and contributed troops for Ottoman wars. When the vassals weakened and the Ottoman forces were firmly settled, direct control was instituted. The Crimea, for example, was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. Crimean Tatars accepted Ottoman sovereignty in 1475 and remained as vassals until 1774, defending the frontier against Russian encroachment.

The first Ottoman provinces were military governorships, with high officials (bey) ordered by the sultan to govern regions called sancak. In times of peace, the bey was the civil authority and oversaw the bureaucracy and taxation. In wartime, he was the general. In the Balkans, for example, many sancaks were created and a nonTurkish element came into the operation of the empire. To prevent the establishment of local interest groups and loyalties, the beys were subject to a rotation system.

Serbia (1459), Bosnia (1463), and Albania (1479) were under direct Ottoman rule for most of their time as Ottoman provinces. In Anatolia and the Balkans, the provinces were called vilayet. Hungary also became a regular province in 1541. Later the empire was divided into three beylerbeyliks: Rumelia, Anatolia, and Africa.

In the sixteenth century, throughout much of the Ottoman Empire, conquered lands—theoretically the property of the state—were converted to private ownership (timar lands) by the sultans. In timar lands, appointed landholders acted as imperial representatives for revenue collection. The timar system preserved much of the indigenous social order. Elsewhere, much of the land was vakif ("pious foundations") in the hands of the ulema (Islamic religious leaders), who could set aside income-producing properties for charitable purposes, paying no taxes.

Dubrovnik (in Croatia), Moldavia (a region in present-day Romania and Moldova), Walachia (in Romania), and the North African coastal regions were tributaries of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the tributary states later became sancaks. Turcoman principalities were governed as suzerainties. Over most of the Muslim world, direct rule applied.

The decline of the Ottoman Empire started in 1789. The most important factors in this decline were the growth of European imperialism and the resulting constant loss of land by the empire, and in the nineteenth century, growing nationalism among Christian ethnic groups in the empire. These factors fueled political separation in an empire made up of so many distinct ethnic and religious groups, and led to its dissolution. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, to be replaced by the present Republic of Turkey in 1923.

see also Empire, Ottoman.


Benton, Lauren. Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Gibb, Hamilton A. R., and Harold Bowen. Islamic Society and the West: A Study of the Impact of Western Civilization on Moslem Culture in the Near East. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1950–1957.

İnalcik, Halil. An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, Vol. 1: 1300–1600. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 3rd ed. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923. London and New York: Longman, 1997.

Örücü, Esin. "The Impact of European Law on the Ottoman Empire and Turkey." In European Expansion and Law: The Encounter of European and Indigenous Law in 19th- and 20th-Century Africa and Asia, edited by Wolfgang J. Mommsen and J. A. de Moor, 39-58. Oxford: Berg, 1992.

Wittek, Paul. The Rise of the Ottoman Empire. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1938.

About this article

Law, Colonial Systems of, Ottoman Empire

Updated About content Print Article