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A Culture of Peaceful Coexistence:
The Ottomman Turkish Example

Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin

The spirit of cultural pluralism thus reflected in real life has been maintained in Republican Turkey and found its permanent expression in the following words of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: "Peace at home, peace in the world".

Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin IHSANOGLU, during his presentation at
Howe Center, Stevens Institute of Technology on May 13, 2004.

Photographs by Marta CURRY

Presented at the "Turkish American Conference on Technology, Business and Culture: Geopolitical Experiences. Organized jointly by the Stevens Institute of Technology and the Strategic Research Center, Beykent University (Istanbul, TURKEY) at the Stevens Institute of Technology campus Castle Point at Hudson, Hoboken, New Jersey, 13-14 May 2004.

I feel most pleased to be addressing the cultural aspects f the conference theme with a talk centered on A Cultural of Peaceful Coexistence which I shall try to treat concisely with special references to the Islamic civilization and particularly the Ottoman world. What is implied by coexistence is certainly the coexistence of cultures; thus, a culture that would promote a peaceful coexistence can be built but through a deep and correct knowledge of the different cultures, notably with respect to their approach and their outlook towards each other, that is, their attitude toward pluralism

With the expansion of communications and increased contacts of people of different continents thanks to the ongoing process termed globalization, peoples are finding new avenues of encounters with each other and also opportunities to discover new cultures and lifestyles previously unknown. In consequence, cultural identities and cultural differences have gained more importance than before as governing forces in international relations. In this environment, correctly understanding the basic outlook of each culture towards others is crucial if we want to derive the implications of cultural factors for international relations. Projecting and receiving a true image of essence, guiding principles and modes of existence of each culture is therefore essential.

The religious-cultural pluralism in the Islamic tradition has an underlying philosophy. The Islamic tradition has a complete God-centered theistic interpretation and justification of political power, which forms the theoretical background of religious-cultural pluralism and institutional monism in Islamic history. The fact that the totality of power and authority belongs to God and Him only, causes a political consequence that political power could be justified only through an ontological interpretation of power. This understanding of power formed a holistic framework from a philosophical-political way of thought together with the idea of responsibility of man and the unity of life.

The strong and direct link between ontological transcendency and political power in Islamic political culture has its origin in the Qur'an. The Qur'anic call for obeying God, His Prophet and ulu-l amr minkum (those of you who are in authority) become the basis not only of the link between ontological justifications of political power in the writings of all Muslim theorists. The distinctive character of Islamic socio-political and socio-economic equitarianism is a resul of its premise that every human being is privilege except the fulfillment of his divine responsibility (taqwa).

This is why; the concentration of political power at the centre didn't form a socio-cultural monism throughout Islamic history. The multiplicity of socio-cultural groups within the  territories of Muslim state is in fact a counterpart of the ontologically defined political power structure which assumes a horizontal segmentation of governed people according to their ontological approaches. Looking to history of Islam, an Islamic state, from this perspective may be considered as a confederation of several socio-cultural groups under the patronage of the political center where power is concentrated. The privilege of becoming a protected minority via an act of dhimmiship was only given to the followers of a prophet to whom a sacred book was revealed. Therefore these communities have been called as ahl al-kitab. This demonstration and the rights of these communities have been specified by Qur'an.

In fact the Qur'an refers in several places very positively to some of the ahl al-kitab. : "Those to whom we have given the Book rejoice at what has been revealed unto you" 813:36). Also, "and there are, certainly, among the People of the Book, those who believe in God, in the revelation to you and in reeation to them, bowing in humility to God: they will not sell the Signs of God for a miserable gain! For them is a reward with Lord, and God is swift in account" (3:199). It also calls some of them the believers (al-mu'minun) and the righteous (al-salihun).4

Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin IHSANOGLU

The Jews and Christians were accepted as ahl al-kitab; yet the members of some other religions such as Zorostrians, Hindus, Buddhists, the gnostics of Harran and pagan Berbers of North Africa were considered as protected minorities after the Islamic expansion. In this content, some Muslim scholars even found sources from Qur'an for a comprehensive interpretation of the conception of the monotheistic religion. For instance, Muhammed Hamidullah accepts the verse beginning with "wa-l tiyn/by the fig" as an indication for the prophecy of Buddha due to the fact that the following verses refer to the other great prophets. This comprehensive extension of the concept f ahl al-kiab is the basis of the multicultural and multinational Muslim states such as Umayyads, Andalusia, Abbasids and Muslim empires in India. Ottoman millet system was the last and most developed version of this religious-cultural pluralism.

To cite an example for the practice, Goitein who studies the inner organization of Jewish community in Egypt during the 10th through 12th centuries argues that "the Christians and Jews living under Islam formed a state not only within the state, but beyond the state in as much as they owned loyalty to the heads and the central bodies of their demonstrations."6 In theory and practice, Muslim government did not interfere with international affairs of the community and "acted only and then reluctantly when approached by one of the rivaling parties within a non-Muslim community." Therefore Goiten describes this religious-cultural pluralistic system as a "medieval religious democracy" interpreting it as a successful application of the liberal-instrumentalist type of state theorized by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 19th century.

In brief, Islam essentially advocates cultural-religious pluralism. It considers all kind of ethnic (Qur'an 49:13), religious (5:48), linguistic and racial (30:2) differences as coming from God and hence natural. The raison d'etre of the diversification of the human beings as nations is ta'aruf (recognition of each other) rather than conflict. Therefore, in general, in Muslim lands, communities with different religions had the right to live in accordance with their own laws and traditions, just as Muslims could follow any legal school they preferred and attend the Sufi communities.

Especially pertinent here is a historical-legal arrangement underlying the philosophical-religious framework briefly described above, and that is the document called the Medina Constitution. This constitution is the Covenant which was promulgated by Prophet Mohammed after He emigrated from Mecca to Medina, in the year 662 AD. It regulated the relations between the Muslims on one hand, and the Medina people and Jews on the other hand.

It said: quote, "believers are friends one to the other... to the Jew who follows us belongs help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided. The peace of the believers is indivisible conditions must be fair and equitable to all... To Jews of Al-Aus, their freedmen and they have the same standing with the people of this document" unquote. This constitution the text of which has come down to us complete, 8 specifies very clearly that everyone was to be not only free to comply with the laws of the community to which he belonged, because as Qur'an says "there is no compulsion in religion". When a person chooses a certain religion, this means that he also chooses the law this religion ordains. So it would be a paradox to prevent the people to prefer a law, while letting him free in choosing a religion. With the Medina constitution, it was the first time, since their defeat by the Romans, that Jewish communal existence was recognized as legitimate by any state. In fact in none of the Islamic states having existed throughout the history did the Jews loose this de jure status. As to the Christians of the region, the Prophet constituted them into a community within the Islamic state. Thus, the very first Islamic sate was made inclusive of the Jews and Christians in Arabia. When some members of the Jewish community in Median brought a legal case and asked Prophet Mohammed as the head of the Median city-state to resolve it, he asked the Rabbis for what the application of Torah's ordinance. Some scholars trace the origin of the legal pluralism in the Muslim history to these kinds of examples set by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. 

In this system, each group should determine its own legal and cultural standards; define its own norms according to which it will arrange the lives of the members, and judicial autonomy which is the basis of the new political organization. This new organization transcends in a great extent the dilemma of the state-individual conflict, since the role of the state is minimized just as the scope of its intervention is mitigated. The only field where one feels the existence of the central authority is the judiciary which will resolve the disputes among the groups. By relying on the Item 25 of the constitution which recognizes legal, religious and cultural autonomy, we can say that many activities such as legislation, culture, science, art, economy, health and education are left with the "civil society". Yet there is an obligation to act in cooperation in case of a war and defense.

In this model, the state is not scared and the individual is no slave. The state whose fundamental duties and rights have been redefined is organized in order to serve the people. It doesn't produce (and impose) values for citizens; on the contrary it protects the values of the groups. Thus "participation" for a good order becomes more important than the "sovereignty", and the ground for conflicts and disputes (ethic, religious, cultural, political, intra-class etc.) are minimized.

With this spirit, when the first Islamic state expanded to include other parts of Arabia, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Persia and Egypt, the Jews and Christians who lived here were automatically treated as legal citizens. During the seventh century, when Byzantines were defeated in battles, they abandoned the territories of the Fertile Crescent to the natives of the region. Having heard of the Muslims and their attitude towards Christians, the archbishop of Jerusalem refused to surrender the keys of the city except to the Caliph of the Muslims in person. Caliph Omar traveled to Jerusalem, and in the agreement with the archbishop, signed a treaty, in the year 637 AD. With the treaty, Caliph granted to the people of Jerusalem security for their persons and their properties, for their churches and their crosses and for adherents of the Christian religion.

It reads: quote "Neither shall their churches be dispossessed nor will they be destroyed, nor their crosses or any of their properties, will be reduced in any manner" unquote. This charter treaty remained a typical example of tolerance on religious and cultural levels.

The early period of Islam referred to until now went on during Muslims expansion in the Middle East, in the late 7th and first half of the 8th centuries, the time when the first Muslim caliphate in the East of the Mediterranean expanded to provinces bordering Byzantine Empire in Palestine, Syria and Egypt. This can be considered as the first great moment of Islamic history. This also coincided with the beginning of the period of expansion of Muslim rule into the North Africa, Spain and Sicily, with the establishment of the Arab kingdoms in Andalusia which lasted until the 15th century, and the Muslim rule in Sicily that lasted until 14th. This can be considered as the second moment, the second geographical context in which Islam nurtured its civilization and interacted with its geographical environment. Around the same period, in the East, Muslim Turks settled in Anatolia which was formerly under Byzantine rule, and from the 14th century onwards the Ottomans expanded their administration and civilization gradually from Anatolia towards the west and the east. The ensuing state and civilization represents the third major moment in Islamic history, during which the aforementioned principles and understanding were upheld and applied in practice.

One of the major indicators of the application of cultural pluralism in the Ottoman State was millet :nation system. The Ottoman policy about non-Muslims was based on this system which organized the population on basis of religion and the sect and determined the relationship not only between the communities and the state, but also among communities themselves. The society was mainly composed of Muslims and non-Muslims. The factor which determined the status of the individual in the society and his relationship with the state was either religion or denomination. All the Muslims formed the Millet-I Islam, regardless of their races, cultures, languages and even sects. Thus in Millet-I Islam were Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Albanians, Bosnians, Lazs etc. the non-Muslims were organized in different millets, that is, around different churches such as Orthodox( Greeks, Bulgarians and Serbs), Catholic, Gregorian (Gregorians, Armenians), and around the synagogue (Jews).

The millet system was initiated by Mehmed (the Conqueror) after the conquest of Istanbul. According to his decree, the Orthodox Patriarch who was elected by the Orthodox people became the religious and administrator head of all Orthodox Christians and attended the Divan-I Humayun (Imperial Council) on behalf of his community. This was later extended to other communities as well. Thus the state granted the non-Muslim religious freedom and guaranteed the security of their lives and property.

The definition of the "civil(ized) (medeni) society' by Kinalizade Ali Efendi (a 16th century Ottoman thinker) expresses well the function of the millet system: "Civilized society consists of different groups and rival millets which come together, come toan agreement and live in order and harmony".  ( Pes malum olsun ki temeddun ki tavaf-i muhtelife ve umem-I mutebayinenin ictima-i am ve teelluf ve intizam'ndan ibarettir). The non-Muslims had an autonomous status in many spheres such as religion, education, family law, social solidarity and health. Every millet established powerful organizations in order to fulfill these functions. The Ottoman government limited itself with the functions of administration, finances, military and justice. So the remaining ones such as education, communication, social security, health, religious services, marriage, dowry, alimony and inheritance were fulfilled by millet organizations. Each millet had separate courts and the Ottoman government had to apply their judgments. The leaders of the communities could impose taxes, control the journals through censorship and determine school curriculum. There was not any government control on churches and school. And any non- Muslim individual could sue a community leader or a Muslim officer, and apply to the Imperial Council for this purpose. While non-Muslims applied their own laws in private and family laws; they were subject to the Muslim penal code. They had to pay two kinds of tax: jizya (in return for the protection they receive for Muslims.) and kharaj (land tax). Women, children, the old, slaves, patients and men of religion were exempted from jizya.

A few examples from different centuries of the Ottoman rule will illustrate the application of the millet system in real life. As soon as he conquered Istanbul, in 1453, Sultan Mehmed spoke to the people telling them to return quietly to their homes, and that they could continue to practice their own religion and their trades. The conqueror announced that the "Peoples of the Book", that is the adherents of the divinely revealed religions, would preserve their special status under the protection of the state. A new Patriarch was elected. The Conqueror made Gennadios 2, the new Patriarch, the civil and the religious head of the Orthodox millet, and conferred upon him the rank of governor in the Ottoman official hierarchy. The Greek historian Kritovoulos, a contemporary of Gennadios, narrates that the Sultan "made him Patriarch and High Priest of the Christians, and entrusted him among many other rights and privileges with the rule of the church and all its power and authority, no less than that enjoyed previously under emperors". The Sultan established the rights of the Christians by an "ahdname" (pledge) granted through an imperial decree. This pledge whose original is preserved at the British Museum in London expresses important issues such as protection of the minorities, freedom of language, education in one's own language as well as religious, cultural and economical freedom.

Now let us see another example of the spirit of the pluralism from the same period, the 15th century. Here we find the pledge which Sultan Mehmed 2 the Conqueror made in Bosnia and Herzegovina, on 28 May 1463, to grant safety and security to the Fransiscans. This pledge reads as follows: quote "I, sultan Mehmet Han, inform the entire world that those who posses these imperial edicts, the Bosnia Fransiscans, are in my good graces and do hereby command: let nobody bother or disturb neither those mentioned nor their churches. Let them dwell in peace in my empire. And let those who have become refugees be allowed to do so and be safe. Let them return and let them settle in their monasteries without fear in all countries of my empire" unquote. And it goes on then says "Let nobody attack, insult or endanger their life or their property, nor their property of their church", unquote.

Another example from another region of the Empire is the decree which was issued by Sultan Selim in May 1517 when he entered Jerusalem, to patriarchs in and around Jerusalem. The document given to the Armenian Patriarch Serkis guaranteed all the previous religious rights and institutions of the Christians.

As to Sultan Mahmud the second, he declared in a public speech that: "From among the subjects, where I distinguish who is Muslim is at a mosque, who is Christian, in a church, and who is Jewish, in a synagogue. There is no difference between them on other days." In another speech at Shumnu, Shumen in present day Bulgaria, delivered on 5 May 1837, Mahmud the second said: "Oh Greeks, Armenians and Jews! All of you, just like the Muslims, are God's servants and my subject. You have various religions and you are all under the protection of the laws of the state and my royal will. Pay the taxes assigned, for they are used for your security and welfare.

Some reforms were introduced in the millet system after the Tanzimat and Islahat Ferman', in 1858, in response to contemporary needs and demands and the proposal was approved and took effect on 25 April 1861 under the name of "Rum Partigi Nizamati...( Regulations related to the Greek Patriarch). Similarly, "Ermeni Milleti Nizamnamesi" ( regulations on the Armenian community) became effective on 18 March 1863 and, "Yahudi Milleti Nizamnamesi" ( Regulations on the Jewish community) on 22 March 1865.

The period of the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid 2 is best reflected in the following report published in the Bulletin de I'Alliance Israelite Universelle in 1893: quote "There are but few countries, even among those which are considered the most enlightened and the most civilized where Jews enjoy a more complete equality than in Turkey. H. M. the Sultan and the government of the Porte display towards Jews a spirit of largest toleration and liberalism. I every respect Abdul-Hamid proves to be a generous sovereign and a protector of his Israelite subjects" unquote.

In this favorable environment, many Ottoman citizens of Armenian and Jewish origin rose to significant ranks and hold important posts within the Ottoman administration and bureaucracy. From among the Armenians, while Artin Dadyan Pasa (1830-1901), Kapriyel Noradunkyan Pasa (1852-1941) and Ohannes Kuyumcuyan Pasa (1858-1933) served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Agop Kazayan Pasa (1833-1891) and Mikeal Portukal Pasa (1842-1897) worked at the Ministry of Finance. Again, Sakiz Ohannes Pasa worked at the Miistries of Education, Forign Affairs and Finance, while Garabet Artin Davut Pasa (1816-1873) served at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior Affairs, and also became Governor of Lebanon (1861). Besides, Dr. Kapriel (Gabriel) Pasa Sevyan (1822-1900), Dr. Istepan (Stephan) Pasa Aslanyan (1822-1902), Dr. Dikran Pestimalciyan Pasa (1840-1894) and Dr. Antranik Gürcikyan Pasa (1819-1894) hold important positions related to their career.

Jews too assumed significant offices in the Ottoman lands. Among them were sadaret kaymakams, military officers, councils, judges and pashas. For example, Leon of Izmir served as Ottoman Council in Paris. Many Jewish physician-officers like Ilya Kohen, Isak Moho, Albay Ilyas Bey Modyano served at the Ottoman army. Other physicians like Jak Pasa Mandil worked as civil servants. Judges like Samuel Effendi in Serres, and Haskiel Gabay in Uskudar, public prosecutor Muiz Zeki Albala in Siroz  and Manastir are just a few examples for Jews in the Ottoman bureaucracy.

I can conclude the illustrations on the implementation of the system with a most significant example, that of the Darulaceze, the charitable institution which was established in Istanbul in 1895 as a house for the needy people. In this complex, we see the mosque, the church and the synagogue which have been active side by side since then.

The spirit of cultural pluralism thus reflected in real life has been maintained in Republican Turkey and found its permanent expression in the following words of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: "Peace at home, peace in the world".

In this quick review of the approach of the Islam towards peoples belonging to cultures and religions other than its own, illustrated with a study of cases and examples from the Ottoman Turkish world, shows us that it had a genuinely "pluralistic" perspective. This is in fact, the spirit behind the centuries-long peaceful co-existence of peoples of different religions and cultures under Ottoman rule. The multinational, multicultural and multi-religious system it established ensured tolerance and harmony among its peoples. We see that this system is often referred to in the academic discussion of themes related to dialogue and co-existence of civilizations, especially with regard to translating its exemplary  features such as religious and ethnic tolerance into today's terms, in order to provide for peoples of different faiths, languages and races to live and work together peacefully on the basis of equality, the supremacy of law and respect of universal human rights, what would constitute a real culture of peace.

_ . _

--- A Major Turkish - American Relationships Conference at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, http://www.stevens.edu/main/home; between May 12 - 14, 2004 was organized incorporation with Beykent University, Istanbul; http://www.beykent.edu.tr

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