GÜlhane Imperial Edict (1839)

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Ottoman edict initiating an era of diplomacy and Western-inspired reforms.

The Gülhane Imperial Edict (Gülhane Hatt-ı Hümayunu) of 1839 declared a set of legal, administrative, and fiscal reforms in order to strengthen the Ottoman state and make it a member of the new European diplomatic order. The edict was proclaimed on the accession of the new sultan, Abdülmecit I (18391861), on 3 November 1839. It was read by Prime Minister Mustafa Reşid Paşa to an audience that included the sultan, ministers, top civilian and military administrators, religious leaders of the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish communities, and the ambassadors of foreign countries. After its proclamation, the edict was published in the official state newspaper and its French translation was sent to various European states and the embassies in Istanbul.

The ideas in the edict originated in the tradition of Ottoman reform during the second half of the eighteenth century, when Ottoman bureaucrats were already experiencing a paradigm shift in their vision of the ideal political order and their relations with the European states. Mahmud II implemented an intense series of reforms during the two decades before the Gülhane Imperial Edict, centralizing the government, restructuring the military and administration, establishing new educational institutions, and introducing European-style dress and head coverings. Thus there is a strong line of continuity of reform before and after the Gülhane Imperial Edict. The rupture, however, lies in the way the edict was designed to enhance the central govern-ment's control by empowering the bureaucracy while changing and reshaping the relationship between the sultan and his subjects. The promised new legal system of the edict was intended to gradually reduce the arbitrary powers of the sultan and assure full rights and equality to non-Muslims under the reinterpreted rule of shariʿa (Islamic law plus customary and useful law endorsed by shariʿa ).

The content of the Gülhane Imperial Edict reflects the agenda of the reformist bureaucrats led by Sadik Rifat Paşa and Mustafa Reşit Paşa, both of whom had experience as ambassadors in European capitals. The bureaucrats wanted to institutionalize and rationalize the reforms, strengthening the scope and legality of their powers. They believed in the necessity of declaring a long-term commitment to "self-civilizing" reforms in harmony with the standards of Europe as a basis for peaceful relations with the European powers. Diplomatically, the image of the Ottoman state as a reformed and civilized polity would allow the Ottomans to receive the support of England and France against external and internal challenges exemplified by Russian pressures on behalf of Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire and the Egyptian province's demands for autonomy.

In the Imperial Edict of Gülhane, the Abdülmecit I guaranteed the rule of law and an end to arbitrary decisions as well as safety of life, property, and honor for all of his subjects, regardless of religious affiliation. He also pledged himself to a just system of tax collection and military conscription. The edict's persistent reference to shariʿa is commonly interpreted as a tool for preventing negative reactions from conservative elements. It could, however, be read as an indication that, in the mind of the Ottoman reformist group, certain aspects of the European standard, such as the rule of law, equality of religious minorities, and protection of property, did not contradict the traditions of Islamic legal thinking. Although the edict's emphasis on shariʿa might imply a notion that the basic rights guaranteed in the edict were natural rights, an instrumental state-interest rationale is also provided in the edict, since if the people are happy and safe, they will work better for the welfare and the power of the state. Moreover, implicitly, if the Ottoman state carried out "civilizing" reforms, it would benefit from becoming a part of the European state system.

Although the Gülhane Imperial Edict gave full legitimacy to the reformist bureaucrats and inspired further acts of reform, its implementation involved a gradual process during which the old institutions and customs were allowed to reach extinction naturally rather than immediately being eradicated. Thus, though legal equality of all subjects was declared, different religious communities continued to have separate religious laws and privileges. Traditional Islamic courts or educational institutions were not abolished but left to become the weaker part of the dichotomous Ottoman legal and social structure. More importantly, interventions by the European powers to protect the privileges of the Christian minorities prevented the process of their full equality, since they became more privileged than the empire's Muslim subjects. Hence, the edict's implementation for the next three decades fell short of its intended goals. However, as a foundational text, the Gülhane Imperial Edict continued to provide inspiration and legitimacy to the Ottoman reforms throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.

See also abdÜlmecit i; mahmud ii; ottoman empire: overview; shariʿa.


Davison, Roderic. Reform in the Ottoman Empire, 18561876. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Shaw, Stanford J. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

cemil aydin

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GÜlhane Imperial Edict (1839)

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