The Ottoman Empire’s birth is properly dated in 1453, the year the Ottomans took Constantinople (the conquest). Prior to this, the Ottomans were a principality surviving in the fluctuating border regions of more powerful Islamic states and the Byzantines. The term “Ottoman” does not describe an ethnic or racial group. Instead it most properly applies to the final version of the evolving governing class of the Oguz Turks, a nomadic people whose origins are in Central Asia. As this branch of the Turkish family fled from Mongol pressure in Central Asia to the Caucuses and Asia Minor, it adopted Islam and learned statecraft from the predecessor Islamic groups and Byzantium, the leading bureaucratic state of the West.
Originally, the Oguz Turks had two classes, the warriors and the subjects. The subjects were peasants. The vast majority of these were Muslims, Christians or Jews. But as the Ottomans successfully expanded their territory under the same crusading expansionist spirit the characterized Islam’s early history, the ruling class lost its ethnic identity. Though, critically, it strictly maintained its cultural characteristics. The true Ottoman ruling class was defined by essential cultural commonalities. These commonalities were Islam, mastery of the Arabic, Persian and Turkish languages and literatures, extensive education either at home, the medrese schools or in the Palace school in Istanbul and career membership in the massive bureaucratic/military structure set up to rule, expand and maintain the empire. Ethnic origin mattered little, and many Sultans were the sons of female slaves from conquered or client lands.
After the conquest of Constantinople, the more successful Ottoman Sultans were seen as consolidators of the central power through expanding and refining the bureaucracy. This was done for several reasons. First, it allowed the Sultan more control over ethnically, religiously and geographically diverse lands and peoples by expanding the government’s ability to keep records and thus tax these groups. Second, an active and expansionist government gave the ruling class the ability to react to the diverse influences that were constantly influencing Ottoman society. These influences included the Turks Asiatic Steppe origins, the different legalist school and threads of Islam (the Ottomans largely followed the Hanafi school), the neo-Platonic philosophies of conquered Greeks, the high artistic culture and literature of Persia, the rise of Western Europe and the need to maintain cultural identity while also being a nexus of world trade. The Ottomans formed their empire in a rich and fluid part of the world and they had contact with nearly all the major cultures of the old world.
During the consolidation phases that followed the establishment of Empire, the ruling class split into three distinct parts: the military administrators, the judiciary, and the bureaucratic civil administration.These three groups were nominally independent in terms of recruitment, education and career tracks, but since they were all under the sultan, moves between branches were made as needed. The defining characteristic of the Ottomans was not their people or unique culture, but their government. The Ottoman government was set up to run a massive empire made up a multitude of peoples whose cultures sharply contrasted. To adapt to this, the Ottomans set up a poly-legal system in which a person’s religion and gender determined what legal rights and obligations they had, both to their fellow subjects and to the state. The Ottomans greatest innovations came not in invention, but in incorporation of the strengths they were exposed to while balancing their own cultural norms and those of their subjects. Ottoman greatness was embodied in their ability to balance innovation and the status quo – largely through their legal system, which tolerated and encouraged very high levels of self-government.
The telodic function of the Ottoman government was to wage holy war against infidels, maintain a domestic status quo and collect taxes. The Ottomans felt that these purposes reflected what they called ‘the circle of equity.’ The circle is a political concept that states,
1.) There can be no royal authority without the military.
2.) There can be no military without taxes.
3.) Taxes are generated by the under classes.
4.) The sultan keeps the under classes by ensuring justice.
5.) Justice requires harmony in society.
6.) Harmonious society is a garden, its walls are the state.
7.) The state is sustained by religion.
8.) Religion is supported by royal authority.
These statements were usually written around the circumference of a circle, showing how the eighth statement led directly back to the first. The basis of this political reasoning rested on the division of society into the ruling Ottoman class and the subject under classes. The Ottomans sought to maintain this relationship by working out agreements with their subjects which would result in the under classes largely ruling themselves. To this end, the Ottomans dealt with both geographic and cultural diversity within their empire by expecting their subjects to self regulate. One Ottoman technique was empowering and encouraging their subjects to convert to Islam and thus join the community of Muslims (umma) or to accept certain conditions in exchange for recognition and protection by the state.
The Ottoman Government – A Model Bureaucracy
The Ottoman bureaucracy, following the models of earlier Islamic states, expected the subject non-Muslim communities to deal with their own internal affairs and deliver on their tax obligations. These groups were called millets and had powers of taxation and collective representation before the Ottoman state. Very often the groups were allowed to choose their leaders and were largely divided up by civic units for tax and judicial purposes. In order for a group to be granted millet status, it had to convince the bureaucracy of certain threshold issues. First, the group had to establish itself as a cohesive religious community rooted in history. Innovation was frowned upon. Second, it had to nominate leadership that would be responsible for taxes and communication to the Ottomans. Third, the group had to accept the Pact of Umar.
The Pact of Umar is a series of promises and obligations between Islamic states and their non-Muslim citizens and reflects the evolution of Islam and its relation to its sister monotheistic religions. To fully understand this document, a basic understanding of the history of the expansion of Islam is needed. Mohammed’s Arabs were conquerors. Between 632 C.E. and 750 C.E. the Muslims reached the borders of France and China. This put them in political control of millions of non-Muslims. Since the Koran taught tolerance for fellow monotheistic religions (Jews and Christians, or “People of the Book”), but vacillated on just how that tolerance was to manifest, early Arab conquers combined both the teaches of Islam with the realities that they found themselves in. Historically, most non-Muslim groups in Muslim lands became marginalized as peoples inevitably converted to Islam for social and economic reasons.
This marginalization of minorities was balanced by the tolerance taught by the Koran and eventually distilled into the Pact of Umar. Muslim tradition states that the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab (634-44) issued the pact to the Christians of Jerusalem, or alternatively Syria as a whole, following its fall to the Muslim armies. Although Western scholars have ascribed the formulation to the Umayyad caliph, Umar II (717-20), it may be that the its final formulation is a composite of many different agreements between Muslims and non-Muslims. In its earliest and most basic formulations, the pact stipulated that in return for the Muslims’ pledges of safe-conduct for their persons and property and of non-interference in any internal autonomy the non-Muslims would agree to the following:
1.) They would be subject to the political authority of Islam.
2.) They would not speak of the Prophet Muhammad, his Book, or his faith.
3.) They would refrain from committing fornication with Muslim women.
a. This was extended to include marriage between non-Muslim men and Muslim women.
b. Marriage between Muslim men and non-Muslim women was allowed, following the Prophet’s example, as long as the children were brought up as Muslims.
c. But non-Muslim wives of Muslim men were free to worship according to their own faith.
4.) Non-Muslims were forbidden to sell or give a Muslim anything that was in violation of Islamic law, i.e. carrion, pork, or alcohol.
5.) The display of crosses or ringing of bells in public was not permitted, nor any public proclamation of “polytheistic” belief to a Muslim. This included references to the Trinity.
6.) No new churches or synagogues could be built.
7.) Non-Muslims must wear the girdle over their cloaks and were to differentiate themselves from Muslims by their headgear, mounts, and saddles.
a. This was expanded later to prohibit non-Muslims from riding either horses or camels, limiting them to mules and donkeys.
b. Often local variations took root. In Aleppo non-Muslims were to wear red shoes. In other cities, there were to wear only blue or black clothing.
c. Everywhere, non-Muslims were to refrain for using green, the prophet’s color.
8.) No non-Muslims could hold a Muslim as a slave.
9.) No public religious processions, such as those traditionally held at Easter, were to be allowed.
10.) Non-Muslim communities agree to pay the jizya, or head tax on every non-Muslim male in Muslim lands.
The pact stipulated that if a group faithfully followed its strictures, the state would largely not interfere in their internal administration. As such, decisions made by the leadership of the non-Muslim religious communities in regards to personal status law or contracts unless all parties agreed to Muslim adjudication. While the pact allows non-Muslims to retain their own customary practices in regards to personal status law, it established a public disdain for those practices in the eyes of the Muslim legal scholars and kadis and, by extension, the state. Critically, “it established the primacy of the Muslim population over the non-Muslims in any public space the communities might share.
The call to prayer might disturb a non-Muslim’s slumber, but the ringing of the church bells or the chants of the non-believers should not inconvenience a Muslim.” Additionally, Non-Muslims had to pay the jizya, but the amount assessed in the Ottoman period was usually more symbolic than onerous because the tax was calculated on the man’s ability to pay. Under the pact the Ottoman’s allowed millets to establish and maintain their own, internal legal structures. This respect for minority group autonomy was so great that kadis and local officials would routinely enforce the orders of millet courts.
Only when all parties agreed or when one of the parties was Muslim, would legal issues be heard before a kadi. Non-Muslims had difficulty achieving justice there, however, because of the high evidentiary burden sharia places on those making claims against Muslims. In 18th Century Aleppo, a Christian chronicler described the murder of a Christian merchant. A Muslim contract worker approached the merchant and asked for work. The Christian merchant said that he had none to offer and the Muslim contractor pulled his dagger and killed the merchant. Since there were only Christian witnesses, no charges against the murderer were brought. This violated the standard evidentiary burden outlined in sharia that required two adult male Muslims as witness against a Muslim on a murder charge.
Minority groups would use the Ottoman court system to enforce their own internal decisions. Records abound of the Patriarchs of Constantinople condemning corrupt or heretic priests. Local kadis or the central government, satisfied that the dissidents were properly tried under the rules of their group, would then enforce the groups ruling. Enforcement by the Ottomans of religious minority decisions ran the gamut of removal from office to executing those condemned by their own groups.
Some groups prevented their members from using the Ottoman court system. A resident English consulate in Aleppo claimed that the rabbis of his city “had issued injunctions forbidding any of their community from bearing testimony against another Jew in the Muslim courts.” This does, however, contrast with the Jewish population of Jerusalem and Damascus, which used the Muslim courts often to resolve their internal conflicts.
Ottoman Sources of Law – Sharia and Kanun
The Ottomans, being good Muslims, took the sharia as the basis of their jurisprudence. The Ottomans, being good Turks, also relied heavily on their ancestral practices, which sustained them before Islam and helped them to gain their empire. Being good administrators as well, the Ottomans adopted, merged, or even sometimes ignored these precedents over the course of their empire.
At its origins, Sharia gives rules for running a community of like believers. The Ottomans, however, ruled a massive empire of diverse communities, thus they built upon and adapted the religious law. Ottoman secular law was steeped in their nomadic Turkish origins. When Mehmed II was consolidating the empire after his conquest of Constantinople, he issued a Kanunname. This ‘dynastic law’ was a codification of customary practice with commentary and instructions for his successor on how to rule in the “Ottoman Way.” “That portion of the Conqueror’s institutes dealing with the structure of the central government ...
which formed the effective constitution of the Empire, was thus a mixture of description of actual practice, acknowledgment of precedent, and prescription emanating from the ruler’s discretionary authority, all given canonical force.” “Kanum was an accretive and, within limits, mutable phenomenon. The institutes of the ‘founding father’ were to be binding on his descendants, for they expressed the dynastic mandate. But Mehmed also enjoined his successors to amend usage as necessary. Kanun was not to be changed willfully, however, but only in accordance with the spirit of impersonal justice and dynastic honor that informed the primal promulgation.” Kanun not only regulated the structure of the Ottoman government, but also “dealt with general matters of provincial military organization, penal justice, taxation, and the position of certain minorities within the Empire.”
The Ottomans did not use the laws of their conquered subjects for their own internal purposes (aside from adopting many Byzantine and Persian governing practices), however, they did carry out the court decisions of the millets and allowed minorities access to both substantive Ottoman law and court procedures when appealing millet decisions.
While Christians and Jews “appeared frequently in the Muslim courts in the Arabic-speaking provinces and apparently showed no hesitancy to press cases involving breach of contract against Muslims, the recorders of their testimonies have left semiotic evidence it was not on the basis of equality.” Individual Christians and Jews were always identified by their religion when entered into the records, an indication that the court scribes considered “Muslim” to be the norm and unnecessary for notation. Non-Muslim men were further set apart from Muslims by the scribes in both Aleppo and Damascus who recorded their patronymic as “walad,” for example, Jirjis walad Tuma (George son of Thomas), as opposed to the “ibn” reserved for Muslims. This makes sense in light of the hierarchies that exist in Islam, between men and women, believers and non-believers, saints and sinners.
The testimony of a non-Muslim was accepted in court with the swearing of the appropriate oath, on either the Torah or the Gospels. Despite the Koranic injunction that the testimony of two non-Muslim males, or two Muslim women for that matter, was required to equal that of one Muslim male, non-Muslims and women testified against Muslim males on an equal basis. There was a difference, however, between the two classes of witnesses. Women of whatever faith were generally required to present two male witnesses as to their identity, while non-Muslim males were accepted on their own assurances.The physical descriptions of non-Muslim males were sometimes recorded as an apparent identity check, however, as was often the case for slaves. Such physical descriptions were rarely, if ever, added in the case of free Muslim males. Despite such hints of possible discrimination, “at least in the eyes of the recording secretary, non-Muslim men and women were frequent visitors to the Muslim courts.”But, “as non-Muslims often relied on Muslim witnesses to win their civil cases against Muslims, we can assume that they understood the efficacy of having Muslim testimony to sway a Muslim judge to their side.”
The Ottoman poly-legal system was a balance of criminal and torts actions. The Ottomans carried out the sharia. They also allowed the millits to carry out their own law. If there was a choice of law, the choice would inevitably be to follow Ottoman law. In the Ottoman system, claims were heard before a kadi, who applied the Ottoman understanding of their own and the minority laws.
The Tort and Criminal Law Split
The Ottomans did not have split between tort and criminal structures, per se. Instead, they followed the practice of Muslim states before them who were strongly influenced by the sharia. Under the Ottomans issues between an aggrieved party and the defendant were heard before the officially recognized state courts or the state sanctioned millet courts. In Ottoman jurisprudence, the difference between causes of actions was the type of penalty possible for the complaint. The sharia contained different categories of offenses: those to which are affixed a specified punishment (hadd); those for which the punishment is at the judge’s discretion (ta’zir); those offenses in which a form of retaliatory action or blood money is inflicted against the perpetrator or his kinsman by the victim’s kinsmen (jinayat); offenses against the public policy of the state, involving administrative penalties (siyasa); and those offenses that are corrected by acts of personal penance (kaffara). The Ottomans, unlike other Muslim states, handled siyasaoffenses through state courts.
Unlike other Muslim states, the Ottomans only had a single court system administered by kadis trained and paid by the state. While the Ottomans did distinguish between Koranic law and government issued administrative law (kanun), these issues were all heard by the same kadi administered courts. The Ottomans were sure to control the medresse and thus quality of the kadisproduced. The products of Ottoman judicial education were well versed in both sharia and kanum and were expected to rule on both as need be. This was especially clear in areas of law that touched both, like taxation.
For the Ottomans taxation was a major governmental and political concern but it was also one with strong religious overtones. The Pact of Umar required non-Muslim adult males to pay a head tax (jizya). The tax was determined in many different ways. However, part of the Ottoman obsession with justice and governance meant that the tax not especially onerous. Additionally the Ottomans were able enough administrators to know that crushing the populace with taxes was not a sustainable practice. They were such good taxmen, that when the Spanish expelled the Jews following the Reconquista, the Ottomans welcomed the Sephardic Jews because they recognized a chance for income creation through the addition of talented new taxable subjects.
The jizya was taxed to the local millet. Since the Ottomans usually only recognized the three major millets of the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians and the Jews, the different communities in them needed to agree on the appropriate proportions. This reflected the Ottoman belief that the millets should be self governing, but in order to aide the collection of taxes, the Ottomans would conduct population surveys and would enforce the agreements of the local millets. In the end, the Ottomans did not care how the division was made as long as the taxes were paid. In the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s there are a series of court cases recorded in Aleppo that refer to extensive inter-Christian litigation over the fair share of the tax burden. The litigation revolved around the determination of the appropriate taxation method in the facing of changing demographics. In 1754, the Greek Orthodox were required to pay 46.7 percent of the total levied against the Christians; the Maronites 23.3 percent; the Armenians and Jacobites, each 15 percent. Two years later the communities came back and argued for the following distribution: Rum, 42.5 percent, Maronites 31.5 percent, Armenians 16 percent, Jacobites 10 percent. The communities decided this was the fairest distribution based on ability to pay. The kadis, tired of litigation, ruled the subsequent year that tax on Christians would be determined to each church on a basis of their numbers of membership. In contrast the Jews of the Aleppo simply choose to be taxed as one group and thus jointly shared the liability for the jizya assessed to them.
The Ottomans taxed foreigners differently. Since they were not ruled by the Ottomans there were not subject to the jizya. However, since they were not Ottoman subjects, the Ottomans only suffered their presence on Ottoman terms. Following the standard Ottoman model, a foreigner’s status was determined by his group membership. In the case of foreigners, that group status was determined solely by the foreigner’s country of origin and the current relationship enjoyed by that state with the Ottomans. These trading agreements (capitulations) eventually evolved in most favored nation trading statuses and resembled modern trading agreements. Besides allowing for trade, the capitulations would often allow a foreigner to be taxed at the same rate as a subject Muslim.
Foreign businessmen and governments needed agents in the Empire however, who had business connections and, even more importantly, spoke the local dialects critical for the facilitation of trade.Always eager to foster taxable activity, the Ottomans eventually allowed the agents of foreigners to take on the status enjoyed by the foreigners. This was an extension of the general Ottoman affiliation based political system, though it was novel in that it was not based on religious affiliation.
The Ottoman ideal was true justice via correct application of the law. Speed was always helpful, but often just an ideal. If matters were appealed to Istanbul (either through a limited system of rights to appeal or through direct intersession by the central government), the bureaucracy would hear issues on Ottoman law or sharia anew, but issues of millet (Jewish, Christian or other law) or foreign law (French, Venetian or other law), would only be reviewed for factual error or jurisdictional error. This tenet was largely based on the pact of Umar, which guaranteed minority groups the right to run their internal affairs. Foreigners received protection largely based on the Ottoman’s treaty obligations to their home states.
Additionally, all subjects of the Sultan, whether Muslim or not enjoyed a right of appeal directly to the central government. This was an ancient Islamic practice, traced back the first four caliphs who “extended justice to non-Muslim petitioners, even at the expense of their trusted lieutenants.”
While most courts had specific jurisdictions (often geographic, military, market, or community or millet based), Ottoman subjects did have some choice of courts. Non-Muslims could have cases heard in Ottoman courts and in the larger cities, groups could go to specialized Islamic courts that practiced the different schools of sharia interpretation. These could all be appealed, but usually only on the claim that the chosen form of law was incorrectly applied. Unusually, an appeal might be won on the basis that the chosen school or form of law did not actually apply to one group or another.
Muslims and non-Muslims worked together in many of the trade guilds and went as a collective unit to voice guild concerns before the court, although the names of Muslims were always listed first in such depositions. If the guild had partial Muslim membership, the head of the guild was invariably a Muslim, though his second in command would reflect the majority population. Not all the guilds were religiously integrated. But guilds consisting mostly of Muslims were usually low prestige jobs such as tanners or porters, the membership of which was typically of tribal origin.
While marriage was one method of expression of adulthood for men, marriage was almost the exclusive route for women. Ottoman girls were married off between their 12th and 14th years and, when widowed, were encouraged to marry again quickly. New brides entered the orbit of their husband’s families. Indeed women were so defined by their new families that most post-pubescent education and domestic instruction was managed by a woman’s mother-in-law.
The Ottomans used an arranged marriage system. This process started when a family decided that it had a single male who was ready to married. Men were given a great deal of leeway regarding when to marry but where expected to marry by 30; allowing for time in military service, advanced education or other career development. His family would thus start scouting for marriageable girls. His family would do this by either employing a female member close to the man, usually his mother or a close female relative or a professional matchmaker as scout for marriageable girls and women. The scout, called a viewer (görücü), usually had an eye out for marriageable girls ahead of time, and if an especially promising one was found, a man’s family might pressure him to start thinking about marriage before she was snatched up by another family. A görücü would likely choose from among the girls she saw at the public baths. If the görücü was a professional matchmaker, she likely traded on her access to lots of young women. The source of this access was likely the görücü’s primary business engagement as a kira (merchantwoman). Because women sequestered away in harems were not allowed to leave and were often prevented from even shopping in the bazaars by jealous husbands, merchant women would come to them to sell jewelry, bolts of cloth and other domestic goods. Since these merchantwomen had access to the harems within their spheres of operation, they were one of the few people to have a good idea about the looks, qualities and availability of the women of their districts.
After identifying potential candidates, that görücü would arrange for a viewing. These viewings were very ritualized and followed a prescribed format. The görücü would sit with the girl’s mother or female guardian and exchange pleasantries and also any articulated requests by the prospective groom in what he wanted in a bride. Then the candidate(s) would “come into the room dressed in her best, salute the guest with handkerchief and, with downcast eyes, hand out dainty coffee cups (fincans) set in silver containers (zarfs). “[The görücü] would drink the coffee slowly in order to have time for inspection – for when the coffee was consumed the girl withdrew – and also to keep from hurting the girl’s feelings by a too hasty dismissal. Then as soon as the girl left the room, the elders would get down to business. Details discussed would include what the görücü thought of the girl, the mother describing the “girl’s trousseau, including jewelry.” The looked over girl would later consult with her nurses and sisters and immediately report if the görücü “handed back their coffee cups too soon or not.”
After viewing candidates the görücü would head back to the man’s family to discuss with him and his guardians the supposed compatibility of the pair and the advantages to both families stemming from the union. The girl had two things to offer: her beauty and her family connections “and a girl’s plainness could be compensated for by her family’s influence.” After the reports of the girls had been given to the man and his parents, the advantages of the potential arrangements were discussed in a family council. At these councils the man’s female relations were expected to do most of the talking and were also expected to come to a consensus, the male relatives, speaking through the man’s father, were expected to agree.
Before proceeding further, the girl’s father needed to give approval. Usually, the two families were known to each other and viewings would likely not have taken place if the women involved thought the match improper in some way. If the girl’s family did not know much about the man’s, it was expected and understood that the man’s father would do an extensive check into his family’s finances and his career and economic potential. Additionally, the girl’s family could pull out at any time prior to the marriage ceremony by resorting to the study of dreams or istihare with the ambiguous but authoritative pronouncement that, “Our dreams did not turn out well.”
If the girl’s family felt that the groom’s family was of the right character and resources, then a series of family visits ensued. Representatives of the two families would then meet to settle the trousseau and dowry and to set dates the dates of the formal engagement and the legal ceremony to bind the two in marriage. These were considered social issues and were thus often settled by the matriarchs of the families. To the extant that this was an economic decision, it was a decision based on what would be a fixed amount of worth, one that the men could comment on ahead of time. The husband’s father would then call on the bride’s father for a final promise of his daughter “at the command of God and the Prophet.” The men would then decide in whose household the new couple would live. At its base this was an economic decision that had far reaching ramifications, not just in terms of the earning power of the husband but in terms of the domestic contributions of the wife to the greater family community. Additionally due account was likely taken of the potential impacts such a move would have on the husbands career prospects, a critical issue for Ottoman men. 
Once these agreements were worked out and sworn before God, the husband’s family would start on the delivery of the dowry. The Ottomans practiced dowry by dividing it into two parts. The first, and smaller portion, was paid before the marriage contract was signed. Its purpose was to help defray the cost of the wedding and to contribute to the furnishing of the young couple’s home. The greater portion of the dower was the sum the husband contracted to pay his wife in the event that he divorced her. This sum also came to her if he died while she was still his wife. In this way, the bride’s family was assured that she would be taken care of by either her husband or the rump of her dower.
Once the small dower payment was made to defray the costs of the wedding, the husbands mother and female relations would visit the bride and her female relations bearing red silk and candy.The red silk would eventually be made into underwear for the bride. The candy had a more ceremonial function however. Most of it was to be shared by the women but a choice piece would be offered to the bride by her future mother-in-law. The bride would eat half of it and return the rest to her mother-in-law to give to the groom to be. This was a sign of her willingness to share her life with him. The women of the bride’s family (including the bride) would then repay the visit with a social calling to the husband’s family. If economically feasible, this ritual would repeat several times, each time with a train of gifts from one family to the other.
This period was likely the most functional of the pre-marriage festivities to the institution of arranged marriages. While the rules preventing the mixing of genders required that the women only interact with other women, they also prevented the bride and groom from seeing each other until their wedding night. Thus, this series of mass female visitation was the second best way for the couple to gauge each other’s characters by getting to know their respective families. As in any culture, it was considered especially fortuitous for the bride and her mother-in-law to get along well during these initial stages. If the meetings did not go well, the bride’s family could still claim foreboding dreams.
While these visits were on going the fathers would hire the local imam to secure the permission for the marriage from the local kadi and/or imam. Permission was based on both the religious and the secular law on appropriate degrees of familiar separation and very likely served the important of function of keeping the central bureaucracy fully informed of who in the powerful families was marrying whom. When the marriage was approved, a marriage contract was drawn up. It’s primary purpose was to record the amount of the dower. On the wedding day, the imam would present the contract to both fathers who would sign after the imam first asked the bride three times if she consented to the marriage. The husband’s presence was not required.
The marriage itself was considered to take place in the weeklong feast that occurred after the signing of the marriage contract and the finances for the events secured. This could take years and often provided an excuse for a girl to mature a little more before she entered into married life.
The week of festivities followed a set schedule. On Monday the bride’s trousseau was processed to her new quarters. This was followed by a feasting of the bride with her female relatives and by a public display of the trousseau. Any women could attend the viewing, and it was considered very important for the bride’s father to suitably impress the neighborhood women. Additionally, the bride’s family would spend the evening setting up her new quarters so that they would be ready for the couple to start their lives together at the end of the week. 
On Tuesday the bride and her guests went to the public baths. There the bride would spend hours being “soaped, pummeled, shampooed, scalded, and perfumed” by the bath workers. “Her body hair was removed with depilatory paste in accordance with the Hanafi law on decency in women.” On Wednesday, the bride received the groom’s female relatives and family friends. The day was filled with socializing and the evening spent applying henna to the bride’s hands, feet and arms. This was the customary entrance of the girl into womanhood and then formal good byes by the bride to her female relations. Even if the bride and her husband were going to live with her family, she was no longer under the care of her father’s house, under the marriage contract she was now under the care and protection of her husband first.
Thursday morning was the formal preparation of the bride. At this point her party consisted of her mother, mother-in-law, close aunts of the couple and her sisters. After being fully arrayed, she formally approached her father who, speaking for the men of her family said farewell to her and gave her the belt of the married women, signifying her independence from her old family and subjugation to her husbands. During this time, the groom and his male relations processed to the bride’s family to claim the bride. The groom passed through the bridal party and was allowed a brief moment together with his wife, usually just enough time to view each other for the first occasion and were then immediately separated for separate feasting of all the women and all the men involved.Interestingly, the women did not wear their veils in his company “on the probably sound assumption that he did not have eyes for them.” Later the two groups would go to evening prayers and then the couple would be left allow to enjoy dinner as their first meal together. Consummation of the marriage was expected on this night. A married aunt or close to the bride would wait outside the bridal chamber all evening, in case the bride needed to consult an experienced adult. On Friday both families were feasted and then guests sent on their way leaving the exhausted couple to start married life together.
If the bride had been married before, the feasting and gift giving was minimalized with only the legal and religious formalities still being strictly followed. If the girl was marrying into a polygamous household, the other wives were as a much a part of the wedding festivities as her mother-in-law, though with lower rank. The focus was on the young bride and ensuring that her transition from girlhood to married life went smoothly, with a great deal of support.
Islam encouraged widows to remarry quickly. The arranged marriage system worked to help fulfill that, with the social networks of Ottoman women constantly updating itself on who was recently widowed and how well off she was left by her husband. Since her dowry was her property (though she had limits on her ability to alienate it, beyond simple maintenance of herself and her household), her economic worth would help to make up for any advancement in years. While widows’ marriages were still largely arranged by their female relations, they could count on having more influence, having been married once and knowing what they wanted in a husband, and having been part of society, they had a sense of potential men they wanted their family to target.
Arranged marriage was accepted by girls and women as a matter of course – something all women went through. Though the traditional disadvantages of arranged marriages, that the couple would discover that their marriage partner was not all they had imagined, applied to Ottoman arranged marriages. It was not until the advent of widespread female education and Westernization in general in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the institution fell into decline. Arranged marriage was one of many institutions that fell sharply under attack in the early 20th century and was targeted by reformers.Women, as well as men, found it ridiculous that they first met their spouses on the wedding night. A common reflection by reformers being that one could examine produce in the market, even consult an expert before a major purchase, but finding no common sense in the prevention of examining a spouse before joining in marriage.
Conservatives praised the system because not only did it encouraged the remarriage of widows, but it helped to prevent spinsters as it was the girl’s family, not just herself, attempting to marry her off. When marriage was a community effort many more women found themselves married and ideally cared for.
The Ottomans practiced polygamy. They followed the standard Islamic limits of four full legal wives, as many slaves as the husband could support and as many concubines as he wanted. Sociologists of the empire believe that polygamy mostly existed at the apex of society, with the wealthy being the ones best able to afford multiple wives. The most common reason a man took a second wife was to procure sons. Second wives were also often freed slaves. This had certain benefits. First was that the husband could inspect his bride before he bought, freed and married her. Secondly, because she had been trained as a slave, she was unlikely to disturb the first wife’s mastery of the home.
This last benefit was considered an import one because one method of maintaining domestic harmony in a polygamous household was for the wives to follow a strict chain of command and the etiquette that went with it. The lowest wife was not without rights, however. “According to Ottoman custom, each wife was supposed to have her husband’s amorous attentions once a week. If a husband faltered in his attentions to a legal wife, she had the right to complain and seek divorce.” Another method of keeping the peace at home was to divide the house into separate apartments for the different wives or even for the husband to simply keep a house for each wife, if he was able.
Ottoman divorce was usually controlled by tenets of the Hanafi Islamic law. In practice, the most common method of divorce was by repudiation of the wife by the husband. To divorce a wife, a “husband needed only to pronounce his wife divorced during the time when she was canonically free from impurity, and then abastain from marital relations with her for the next three months.... During these three months, he could change his mind and take her back; otherwise ... the divorce became final and irrevocable.” A husband could remarry his ex-wife “only if she first married another man, consummated the marriage, was divorced by him, and then observed a three month waiting period.” If the wife turned out to be pregnant during the three-month waiting period, there could be no divorce until the child was born. Additionally any man could simply make a statement of irrevocable divorce. Hanafi law viewed this as shameful but legal.
Regardless of method a man need never state grounds for divorce. But a woman did. Ottoman law provided three grounds on which a wife could sue for divorce. These were failure to financially provide for the wife, impotence or sexual neglect and unproven accusations of infidelity made by the husband against the wife in court. Additionally, Ottoman courts would allow for divorce by mutual consent, but there was disagreement among jurists if this meant the wife forfeited her dowry. A wife’s divorce for cause kept her dowry in tact. “In addition, there was the provision that the wife was able to get a divorce by virtue of her husband’s having delegated his right of divorce to her in the marriage contract. Such a divorce was known as repudiation by deputy.” Finally, a woman’s family could secure a divorce cause for her.
Men most often divorced wives for being childless. Infidelity does not seem to be a common excuse for formal divorce procedures though, because the Ottomans worked so hard to either keep women locked in the home or, even if she was free to leave the house, her entire neighborhood and social network was dedicated to preserving her virture. The neighborhood’s imam was free to enter homes upon reliable reports that adultery was being committed inside. As punishment, the law required stoning for adultery or other kinds of unlawful intercourse (zina). Since death removed the need for a formal divorce, this may explain the lack of formal divorce action on this basis. Even if the state did not operate to execute the adulterers, a husband had a right to kill his adulterous wife. Ottoman law did not give her the same right in return.
ILLNESS AND DEATH
Doctors, midwives and healers of all sorts enjoyed special status in Ottoman society. Besides the useful functions they served, healers were seen as users of magic and enjoy perceived magical power over the world. Foreign commentators on the Ottomans thought Turkish doctors were appallingly backwards and inept. This was likely because of widespread belief in superstition and because, until westernization, Turkish doctors were trained on Galen and Avicenna. These foreign commentators remarked that citizens of the empire constantly asked them for cures and medicines. This supposedly stemmed from a wide spread belief that Westerners had an innate understanding of the physical world. Western doctors still found it difficult to actually examine female patients, however. Many complained women would only consent to be interviewed through a door held ajar. Especially daring women might allow their hands, arms and feet to be touched, but only through gauze.
The Ottomans were also widespread believers in superstitious folk remedies and magic. These included: “to pour lead, to extinguish fire, to pour sherbet, to cut spleen, to cut jaundice, to expunge fear, to singe, to fumigate, to tie a fever ... to go through some folk rite 40 times, to nail, and to read. In addition, letting and leaching blood were also customary remedies.” While most of these cures had clear pre-Islamic origins, verses from the Koran were often read while the cures were carried out. Often people from families that had long practiced these cures carried them out. There was both a belief in innate family ability and also in the hope that the practitioner would be brought up in the family art.
Magic was not limited to curative ends. A great deal of time and worry was spent on dealing with spirits and spells. Many illnesses were thought to be caused by the malicious actions of jinns and peris(loosely, genies and fairies). The underlying disease could either be treated itself or the spirits could be appeased. An Ottoman, thinking himself prudent, would as often as not follow both courses of treatment. Thus he would undertake certain magical rituals to appease these spirits.
Magic was also used to influence others and protect oneself. “These spells were usually cast by means of a buyu bohcasi (packet of charms) which ... ‘is composed of a number on incongruous objects, such as human bones, hair, charcoal, earth, besides a portion of the intended victim’s garment, etc., tied up in a rag.’” The belief in magic reached the highest levels of power. After the death of the Sultan Abdulmecit, fifty of these charms were found stuffed into his sofa.
Influence aside, nothing was more feared by Ottoman women than the ‘evil eye.’ Its intent is malicious and its effect is to cause loss of health, life, beauty, affection, wealth and very young children. The eye did not require charms, so much as ill intent channeled by a bad expression and malicious thoughts and comments. Fumigations and repeating chanting of certain Koranic verses were the preferred methods of riding oneself from its effects.
At the end of life, a good Ottoman was expected to put his or her affairs in order and to put special emphasis on the study of religion. The Ottomans believed that as Muslims they would be tested in the afterlife on both the value of their good works and on their understanding of their faith.
When a person did pass, they were buried quickly, in accordance with Islamic law. This meant massive community involvement requiring a general neighborhood and family meeting. At the meeting the community assured the local imam of the worth of the individual. Convinced that the person was a good Muslim, the imam would then led the community in prayers designed to release the person from their community to God. The funeral was a chance for acts of piety by the deceased family as displayed by massive alms giving. Even if a tomb was built, the deceased was always buried below ground.
The Ottomans practiced slavery. Initially a steppe people, the Ottomans took slaves as part of the spoils of war. Many of these slaves were incorporated into the state structure, either as recruits for the military and bureaucracy or as sources of revenue as the war captives were sold into slavery in the Empire’s markets.
The Ottomans also imported slaves. “Long before Istanbul became an Ottoman city, it was a flourishing way station and market for the Caucasian slave trade. Throughout the Middle Ages slaves were purchased in the Crimea and the ports of the Taurus Peninsula for transport to Mamluk Egypt.” The Ottomans kept up this important trade, especially after the empire stopped expanding, which resulted in a massive decrease in war captives. The Ottomans in Egypt also purchased Africans of all types and Alexandria was the main center for the production and training of the black eunuchs that played important roles in the administration of the Empire’s harems.
Like many of the institutions the Ottomans inherited from their political forbearers, they stream lined the institution of slavery and taxed it. The Ottoman government normally took a fifth of the sale price of the slave as a tax. This was collected from the purchaser and was a prerequisite for the issuance of title to the slave. This title would follow the slave for life and if she was freed, the title was processed by a local kadi and reissued to her as proof of her freedom.
The government was not the only entity making money off of the slave trade. Professional slave trainers, often women, would purchase young slaves, spend years training and educating them and then sold their product at a profit: “Children of from six to ten years of age are the most sought after by these connoisseurs, who pay large prices for them in the expectation of receiving perhaps ten times that amount when the girls are about seventeen.” Many of these girls would be sold off to the best families as wives for sons, or as concubines for the master.
Many slaves were freed. “If a female slave became pregnant by a member of the household, she could no longer be sold or given away, for she then had the legal status of ‘mother of a child,’ and became free at her master’s death.” Additionally, it was considered a virtuous act to free slaves, especially Muslim ones. Many well to do Turks would free some or all of their slaves in their will.Slaves did not seem capable purchasing their own freedom. Few slaves had no resources of their own and if they did there were massive restrictions on the ability of slaves to alienate them. A slave’s best hope for freedom was virtuous and pleasing service to the master.
Pressure for ending slavery came from the west. The British, in particular, objected and tied a trade concessions and military assistance to clamping down first on the trade of slaves and then on the existence of the institution itself. The institution was finally outlawed in 1908 by western inspired reformers.
Regulation of Religions
This paper does not focus on the various tenets of Islam or any other faith practiced in the Ottoman Empire, though they all provided critical legal foundations for both the religious class and for the milletsystems. But it is important to address how the Ottomans dealt with and regulated the different religions in their empire.
The Ottomans rightly saw Islam as a method of controlling the populace because Islam is largely centered on orderly community living. To that end, the Ottomans “sought to promote a state-sponsored version of Islam, preached by men who were graduates of state-sponsored [medresse] and paid salaries from the sultans’ coffers.”
These men of religion formed the core of what might be considered the empire’s Muslim intelligentsia. They were its scientists, historians, and poets, as well as its legal scholars. Their ethnic and social origins were as diverse as the empire itself. As such, we might expect them to represent a diversity of outlooks. But as a social and intellectual class, they held remarkable similar world-views, undoubtedly molded, as hoped for by the state’s bureaucrats, by their shared educational experience.
By ensuring that imams, kadis, and the faculty of medresse, were all state trained and appointed, the Ottomans regulated and standardized Islam, in furtherance of their goal of peace, justice and tax collection.
The Ottoman approach to apostasy was determined case by case. What was controlling in each case was the original affiliation of the apostate. It was forbidden for a Muslim to abandon Islam. If he did, both he and the person who converted him would be put to death. However, Muslim peasants could move between different sects of Islam, though a true Ottoman was a Sunni adherent to the Hanafi school. Though the Ottoman authorities did their best to control all Islamic institutions by controlling important religious, legal and educational appointments. Additionally the usual social opprobrium applied to keep people within the traditions followed by their families.
Conversion to Islam was encouraged, though, “there is no evidence of wide-scale forced conversions ... with the possible exception of the Albanians.” Instead, the Ottomans provided incentives to convert. Islamization proceeded quickly in Christian Analtolia as Greek and Armenian Christians accepted the faith of those who held military and political power. One of the oldest career paths for men, the military was only open to Muslims, with important exceptions for some Balkan groups who accepted Ottoman suzerainty. As such, Christian men embraced Islam as a way of getting into the military and out of poverty. Christians might also convert to Islam to take advantage of a quickie divorce. Newly converted men could simply divorce their wives. Even Christian women could obtain an easy divorce by converting to Islam, since it was illegal for a non-Muslim man to be married to a Muslim woman. The marriage was, in effect, annulled. Additionally, women would convert in order to “claim a portion of their fathers’ and/or husbands’ estates.”
Islam also had its own inherent appeal as a religion:
Islam’s emotional and spiritual appeal to the sultan’s Christian subjects was increased by the syncretistic interpretations which were being preached by the wandering Sufi mendicants who visited the villages of Anatolia and later the Balkans. Prominent among these were the adherents of the Bektaşi order who blended elements of Christianity with Islam, retaining a special place for Jesus and Mary and a fondness for wine while adding reverence for Ali. The retention of Christian customs by the order must have seemed comforting and familiar to the region’s Christian peasants, often physically remote from their own clergy. Confirming this assumption, the strongholds of Bektaşi belief in the Ottoman lands were found among the Albanians, Pomaks, and Bosnians – the only Balkan peoples to apostatize in any great numbers – and in the ranks of the Janissary corps, which was conscripted from the Christian subjects of the sultans.
The Balkans were the only area conquered by the Ottomans that did not widely Islamize. The Ottomans may have had an interest in keeping the Balkans Christian however, as it was the primary source for the fabled and essential Janissaries
Non-Muslims were free to leave their old traditions for new ones. Christians could join different Christian sects or become Jews and Jews could become Christians. Complaints to the Ottoman authorities of group members’ apostatizing largely went unanswered by qadis who would usually repeat the teaching of Muhammad that “unbelief is one group.”
The Ottoman Military and Bureaucracy
In order to enforce their poly-legal system, the Ottomans developed and deployed a massive military complex. During the empire, the Ottoman’s armies were successful because of the superb ability of the Ottomans to organize. Ottoman organizational talent manifested itself in the military through the Janissary Corps.
The Janissaries were slaves of the state. The Ottoman system of slave-soldiery had two very important military advantages. First, because the Ottomans did not have to advance officers on the basis of their familial wealth or power, a meritocracy developed. Second, because the military was run through a meritocracy, the assassination of a leading general was no huge setback as the Ottomans were able to simply appoint the next best man. The Ottoman’s possession of an assassination proof military led to no end of frustration for the Empire’s enemies.
Janissaries were recruited from Christian populations under the control of the empire. Janissaries were most commonly levied through a form of human taxation, called the devşirme, of the children of the Christian populations in the Balkans and Armenia, and to a much lesser extent, in Egypt. The Janissaries had a Christian origin because Islam forbade the enslavement of Muslims. “Converted to Islam and taught Turkish, the most promising young slaves were educated for rule in the Imperial Palace....The bulk of such slaves staffed the Empire’s standing forces.” “The janissaries numbered 6,000 toward the end of Mohammed the Conqueror’s reign, close to 8,000 at the beginning of Suleiman’s reign, and 12,000 when he died in 1566. By 1609 the corps has burgeoned to 37,000.”
The bulk of the professional troops of the empire were cavalrymen known as timarsiots:
In return for military service they were granted incomes derived from agricultural tax revenues collected from the provinces....By granting timars to their cavalrymen, the Ottoman sultans solved the problem of maintaining a large military force without huge outlays of cash. Since their economy suffered a chronic shortage of precious metals, paying their troops with timars rather than with cash relieved the central state treasury of an enormous burden. An added advantage of the timar system was that the timariots, in addition to carrying out their military duties on state campaigns, also performed important functions on the local level in the provincial administration.
This seems to be a form of Western European medieval feudalism, albeit with a much more advanced taxation and record keeping system.
Members of the other two branches of government were usually free-born Muslims who had access to education either by being the sons of prominent families able to afford education in the home or in the medresse system or in the palace schools. These men then obtained higher education at either the palace or in the more preeminent medrese universities in Istanbul, Damascus, Baghdad or Alexandria. Those who would be become bureaucrats initially transferred from the military (due to their necessary organizational and record keeping skills) or from the among the more talented kadi or teaching graduates of the religious schools. Eventually, training for the bureaucracy became centralized in the Imperial quarter of Istanbul and bureaucrats learned though a master/apprentice system, usually while completing a more generalized religious and literary education.
The elites of all three groups were eligible for the very highest positions in the Sultan’s privy council (divan). The make up of this group changed with the tastes of the ruling sultan, but it almost always contained at least a Grand Vizier (who functioned as a prime minister with more or less power depending on the other members of the cabinet), the Seyhülislam (a chief interpreter of sharia and chief overseer of the medresse system), the chancellor (a chief interpreter of civil law and chief administrative secretary of the cabinet), the chief treasurer, however many generals, admirals and military judges were needed to adequately reflect the state of the Empire’s current campaigns and a chief eunuch who oversaw the palace system and administered to the harem and the extended royal family. Additionally, the Sultan’s mother always enjoyed a great deal of access to her son regardless of the independence of his personality. The presence of the Queen Mother was usually felt in all cabinet meetings through her proxy, the chief eunuch.
Like all empires, the influence of the Sultan would wax and wane depending on the strength of his personality and those of his ministers. Under a strong Sultan, the Empire would enjoy great military success as evidenced by the conquest of Constantinople and the Nile. But the advantage of the bureaucracy was that the central government could usually weather a bad sultan through the force of sheer inertia or through the meritorious appointment and advancement of able administrators. Proof of the Empire’s strength was the ability the administration to cater to the needs of a massive and diverse imperial populace – largely the result of a legal system that allowed communities to self-rule within the limits of Islam.
The Ottomans ran an empire. Instead of working to assimilate their subjects, the Ottomans instead choose to coexist with their subjects as long as they remained passive. The Ottomans strove to maintain their empire and their culture by living up to the standards of the Circle of Equity and when they did, the Empire was strong and prosperous. The flaw in their culture wasn’t internal; it was external. Faced with the rise of Western Europe, the Ottomans only sought to maintain their own status quo. Able to withstand any internal test, under its poly-legal system, the Ottoman Empire fell to external influences beyond its control and was replaced by secularized, pro-Western governments. These governments have not succeeded nearly as well as the Ottomans in maintaining a diverse and dynamic populace largely because they forced changed on all groups as opposed to toleration and allowance for self-government.