“Muslim Identity” (Part 3)

“Muslim Identity” (Part 3) July 25, 2018


Evening on the Bosphorus
Evening on the Bosphorus in Istanbul   (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Here’s a third selection from an article that I wrote for Richard C. Martin, et al., eds.,  Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), on the subject of “Muslim Identity”:


The Ottoman Empire and Its Immediate Aftermath

In its classic Ottoman form, the millet system dates from the reign of Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481), and endured until the nineteenth century.  By the end of Mehmed’s reign, Orthodox Christian, Armenian Christian, Jewish, and Muslim millets had been organized.  Each was headed by its own highest-ranking religious dignitary (respectively, the Orthodox patriarch, the chief rabbi, the Armenian patriarch, and, for Muslims, the seyhülislam.  These and other officials were chosen by their respective communities and confirmed in office (or, occasionally, rejected) by the Ottoman government.  Millets decided on issues related to religious doctrine and practice and questions of personal status (e.g., marriage, divorce, and inheritance).

However, Ottoman sultans understood themselves, first and foremost, as Muslim emperors ruling an Islamic empire.  Subsequent Ottoman monarchs accordingly sought to transcend their dynasty’s origin as a line of successful war lords and border skirmishers—so frankly expressed in the title sultan itself, derived from the Arabic word sulta, “power”—and to claim religious sanction for their rule.  This is evident in the treaty of Kücük-Kaynarca (1774), in which, for the first time, the sultanate asserted extraterritorial religious jurisdiction over non-Ottoman Muslims.  A few years later, the story appeared that the last Abbasid caliph had transferred the caliphate—the right to universal Islamic rule as legal heir of the Prophet Muhammad—to Selim I upon the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517.  While the claim had relatively little practical impact beyond the effective borders of Ottoman political power, it reinforced the sultan’s claim to authority based on the religious identity  and self-understanding of the majority of his subjects.

Vocal claims to Islamic authority, however, carried no weight with the sultan’s non-Muslim subjects, and, indeed, probably tended to alienate them.  Thus, as the empire weakened and Western influences (including legal and commercial privileges granted to European powers) increased in Ottoman lands, nationalist sentiments arose among its Christian minorities, who had a natural kinship to the Christian West and were understandably more susceptible to its influence.  These new nationalist ideas were introduced to populations lacking any prior experience of secularism, or of a separation between religion and politics.  So minority nationalisms expressed themselves religiously, within the context of the already existing millet system.


To be continued.


Posted from Victoria, British Columbia



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