Are there examples of interreligious dialogue and tolerance shown to the members of other religions?

The Ottoman State, like the Islamic and Turco-Islamic states before it, behaved kindly and tolerantly towards non-Muslims and showed respect to their religious values. Although one of the reasons why the Ottoman State behaved like that is humane feelings, the main reason is religious. The religion of Islam that they belonged to is a religion that shows tolerance and gives liberty to other religions that orders respect to the beliefs and worships and all kinds of rights of the members of those religions. This system, which the Ottomans established, did not emerge out of a temporary goodwill of a sultan, vizier or an official of high rank by any means. This system is a system that is based on regarding the other religions whose origins are in Islam as equal and as heavenly religions. The Ottoman State regards the fundamental rights and freedoms of Muslims like non-Muslims primarily as a grant of Allah, not as a grant of the king or the administrators, as it is in the development of the Western law.

Islamic jurists divide the world into two as dar-ul harb (land of war) and dar-ul Islam (land of Islam). However, the general thought that is prevalent in the Ottoman State is dar-us sulh (land of peace). Land of peace brings about guaranteeing the rights of people living in the boundaries of the Ottoman State and regarding them as a part of the country like the other citizens. The fact that the concept of land of peace is deep-rooted in the Ottoman State made it possible for everybody, whether Muslim or not, to live under the same rule in peace and ease for years.

The principles Islam brought regarding justice are really remarkable. Beginning from the period of the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) (including the Four Caliphs), the rulers were constitutional monarchs and they were subject to the laws of the country like an ordinary man. The tradition that was started by our Prophet ensures that the head of the Islamic state is not above and beyond laws. History shows us that since then a citizen from the lowest level of the society, even a non-Muslim, could file a suit against the ruler. (1) (That Fatih Mehmet II was sued by a Christian Byzantine and was convicted is just one of the numerous examples.)

The Quran, hadiths and the examples from all periods of history demand that non-Muslims have their own legal systems and be tried in their own courts by their own judges regarding religious or social issues without the intervention of Muslim authorities. (2)

The rights given to non-Muslims in the structure of the Ottoman State were always in accordance with the general religious attitude of Islam. It is seen that non-Muslim people were given the necessary rights in terms of human rights beginning from the period of our Prophet (PBUH) in accordance with that religious attitude. The most fundamental of those rights are the freedom of religion and conscience, the freedom of protecting the generation, life, estate and the mind. Islamic authorities always observed those rights during the conquest operations throughout history. Thus, we see that this chivalrous and kind attitude was carried out beginning from the period of the Messenger of Allah, Umayyads, Abbasids, Seljuks and the Ottoman State in the same way.

a. Examples of Tolerance and Dialogue in the Turks before Ottomans.

Turks always behaved tolerantly towards the other communities living under their rule; they never intervened their religions and customs, and let them free to carry out their works securely.

The Seljuk rule adopted the principle that the communities from different religions should have a special kind of freedom regarding their religious affairs.

It is written in the Armenian and Georgian sources that the heart of Malikshah was full of compassion towards all Christians that he behaved like a father towards the people of the countries he traveled through and therefore many countries accepted to be under his rule on their own accord. (3)

The sources present Malikshah as the most distinguished man, and state his high characteristics, justice and goodness. It is recorded in history that Christians joined the mourning of Muslims when he died due to his distinguished personality and influence.

Turkish rulers regarded it as their duty to show respect to sacred values of Christians. The religious understanding between Muslim and Christian people have reached to such extent that in the city of Duvin, mosques and churches, crescents and crosses were side by side, and Muslim rulers married Armenian and Georgian princesses.

Seljuk Turks, who started to live in Anatolia after 1071, were very careful about protecting estates and lives of Christians along with religious tolerance. For instance, in the 12th century special churches were built for the worship of Latin merchants who traveled through Anatolian cities like Erzurum and Erzincan for trading. What is more, most of the Seljuk Sultans visited churches and monasteries, and they made donations to priests; some of the sultans exempted monasteries from tax.

This tolerance was existent in Turkish States before they embraced Islam. In the old instructions given to the commanders who campaigned to conquer towns and to the governors, they were ordered to allow the People of the Book who bowed to them to worship freely and to deal with them humanely. (4)

b. Examples of Tolerance and Dialogue in Ottomans

The Ottoman State that directed the policy of the world for 600 years attracts the attention of almost every state today and it has an exemplary identity that multistate countries see as a source of experience. The reason why it attracts so much attention is not only the strategic lands it had in Europe, Asia and Africa but also its keeping different nations and religions together under its rule. There was a large population in Ottoman Europe and Anatolia that interested European states of that time both ethnically and religiously. As a matter of fact this non-Turkish and non-Muslim population had an important role in the 624-year long life of the Ottoman State.

Indeed, the legal system and the tolerant rule that Ottomans carried out for the communities that were not of the same religion as themselves and that had quite a large population paved the way for the larger expansion and longer settlement of Ottomans in Balkans. Thus, the fact that the Jewish people who were under Spanish oppression were brought to the Ottoman land and settled there showed the non-Muslims there the advantage of tolerance and being subject to a strong state and increased their loyalty. (5)

It is possible to present a lot of information about the relationship of the Ottoman State that lived a very long time with the non-Muslims within the borders of the state and their attitudes towards them but I will suffice with some examples so as not to increase the volume of this issue.

1. The rights and freedoms given in the fields of religion, belief and thought

Due to the understanding that they received from Islam, Ottomans did not intervene the freedom of religion and conscience of the non-Muslim communities living under their rule. It was the most important characteristics of the state policy, as it was in all of the Muslim countries, to show tolerance to the people of other religions and to their attitudes. This policy was observed from the beginning of the establishment of the state.

The religious tolerance of Ottomans was so vast that they made things easy even for the non-Muslim clergymen who came from other countries to the Ottoman State.

Ottoman Sultans stated clearly with the writs that they gave to the Patriarchs of Jerusalem and to the Archbishops of Mount Sinai that they accepted the situation determined during the periods of Hazrat Umar and Salahudin Ayyubi.

The Ottoman State did not force its subjects to become Muslims. If it had, it would have been possible to Islamicize all of the Balkans. On the contrary, Ottomans let Christian subjects free not only in religion but also in language and other cultural elements; and they all continued to live as separate nations in spite of the centuries long Turkish sovereignty.

Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror, entered Istanbul on 29 May, 1453 and came as far as Saint Sophia. The people who were conducting a religious ceremony were terrified and embraced each other out of fear. They thought they would lose everything and that they would be exterminated. Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror, ordered the priests to tell people to return to their homes and to continue their jobs, that everybodys life, estate and honor were secured. He secured the order in the city and declared that people could live together with Turks in accordance with their own customs, traditions and religions.

The Conqueror organized the Orthodox Byzantines again and dealt with the rank of Patriarchy. When he found out that the rank of Patriarchy was vacant, he ordered them to choose a Patriarch in accordance with their own customs and traditions. So, the heads of the churches, priests and people came together and chose Georgios (Kortesios) Scholarios as Patriarch unanimously with the name of Gennadios. So Gennadios became the first Patriarch under Turkish rule.

Mehmet II invited the Patriarch to dinner after the election and sent his elderly viziers to meet him as a sign of a special respect and courtesy. He stood up; moved forward ten steps, held the hand of the Patriarch and made the Patriarch sit next to him. After having a long talk with him, Mehmet II presented him rights regarding religious administration and sects. He also gave the Patriarch the title of Head of the Nation and made him authoritative on the problems of all of his co-religionists. Then he saw the Patriarch off at the gate of the palace respectfully; he made the Patriarch ride on a white horse, and told to the people of the palace and the administrators to accompany the Patriarch to his Patriarchate like a ruler.

He also gave the Patriarch a charter. According to that charter, the Patriarch and the high rank clergymen would not be disturbed, and they would be exempt from general services (tax, etc). In addition, their churches would belong to them; that is, they would not be turned to mosques and their religious ceremonies would be free. Their weddings and funerals would be carried out as in the past. The Patriarch had the same rank as a vizier. He was also given a group of guardsmen.

A sentence from the charter Mehmet II declared for the clergymen in 1463:
I am Sultan Mehmet II. It should be clear to everybody that Bosnian clergyman came to me and I decided to help them; nobody should prevent them and their churches, they should live in their land securely. And those who run away should be safe and secure, they should come and live peacefully in the churches in our country, nobody from my subjects, my viziers, and my people should intervene them and disturb them. If they bring somebody else from other countries to our country, they will also have the same rights. I swear by the name of the Creator of the earth and the sky, by the Quran, by our exalted Prophet, by 124 000 prophets, by the sword I carry; nobody should do anything contrary to the orders written here

An important example of tolerance about the freedom of religion shown by the Ottoman State: Serbian King Brankovich wrote the following to the Empire of Hungary: Ottomans squeeze us from the south; you squeeze us from the north. We want to obey you because you are Christians. What will you do about the Orthodox churches? The answer by the Hungarians was very interesting: All of the Orthodox churches will be demolished; new churches will be built in place of them. Then the same delegation was sent to Mehmet II. This is the answer of Mehmet II:Everybody will go on praying their own creator. If we hear, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, the sounds of church bells and hear azans of the afternoon prayers, if constructing a church was permitted next Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, it is the manifestation of that spirit. The Albania Book published by Halil İnalcık shows something more interesting. Ottomans see no harm in appointing Christians and Jewish people to high ranks in the new lands they conquered in Balkans. Non-Muslims were appointed to all ranks except as grand viziers, governors, governors of states, in certain places qadis and heads of state. (6)

Some new rights were added to those rights that can be called religion privileges during the periods of the sultans after Mehmet II but in general the previous rights were confirmed and clarified.

In the reply to the request letter written by the king of France, F François, about the transformation of a church into mosque, Suleiman the Magnificent wrote that the previous privileges would go on. (7)

Let alone limiting the beliefs and the rights and freedoms necessitated by those beliefs of the non-Muslim subjects, the Ottoman State, from the establishment to the decline period, paved the way for them to enjoy those rights more easily.

2. Economical and Social Rights and Freedoms

The Ottoman administration not only ensured the freedoms regarding religion, tradition, customs and education of the non-Muslim citizens under its rule but also aimed that they should have a high standard of living economically. That is why they changed the day of the weekly local bazaar that was on Sunday because Christians did not work on that day; thus they tried to prevent them from being wronged. (8)

3. Legal Rights and Freedoms

Zimmis were completely autonomous regarding the issues like marriage, divorce, dowry, dower and alimony, which are in the scope of personal law (9) today, because they were included in the religious law then. Their own congregation courts dealt with lawsuits like those. However, if they wanted, they could bring those problems to Islamic courts. People belonging to the same religious community were tried in the congregational courts established by the patriarch or the chief rabbi. If the lawsuits involving people from different congregations were not settled by the arbitration of the related congregation heads, then they were brought to Shariah courts. However, we see in the Shariah registry books that zimmis preferred to bring their lawsuits about personal law and the notary transaction to qadis. The decisions made by religious chiefs and congregation courts were executed by the state on behalf of them. (10)

4. Ottoman Nations System

In those kinds of structures that reached the peak with the Ottoman Nations System, the arrangement of civil life was left directly to the initiative of the religious congregations. Apart from Muslims, Armenians, Jewish people and Orthodox Byzantines lived as nations completely autonomous in their cultures and personal laws. The state did not intervene their socio-economical, cultural, religious, worshipping and educational systems. In return for this pluralist civil life protected by Islam, administrative and bureaucratic relations of the political government were carried out by the customary law. When it is compared with modern state projects and applications, there is no doubt that the Ottoman community structure is based on a much more civil and legal pluralism. (11)

Freedom of religion is so vast in the Ottoman State that Luther, the contemporary of Suleiman the Magnificent and the founder of Protestant Church, expressed his thought and cherished hope by saying appreciatively, Cant the Turks come to Germany and establish their just and fair administration here?. (12)

In addition, Voltaire, who saw that minorities led a hard life in European states, had to write the following about the minorities in Turkey: We should go out of our small world and research the rest of the continent; Turks make people belonging to more than twenty nations with different religions live peacefully. Two hundred thousand Greeks are secure in Istanbul. Turkish historians do not mention any revolts of any of those nations. It means that the Ottoman administration provided the non-Muslim elements with complete freedom and justice. (13)

When the Spanish King Ferdinand wanted to exterminate the Jewish people, Sultan Bayezid II blamed him; then Bayezid II enacted a law, brought the Jewish people to Turkey and saved them. (14)

It is seen clearly through the given examples how noble-heartedly, justly and tolerantly the Ottoman State behaved in accordance with the order of Islam towards non-Muslims.

d. The Reflection of the Ottoman Religious Tolerance to Non-Muslims in Konya in the 18th Century

According to Shariah registries and jizyah books only in the center of Konya between 2500 and 3000 non-Muslims lived. Those non-Muslim elements enjoyed the respect Islam showed to human rights. Their life and estate securities were always protected.

Life Security: In the 18th century, the non-Muslims living in Konya always applied to the Shariah court if they were inflicted any harm regarding their life security, right of living, anything related to their lives, and they tried to eliminate any injustice.

Economic Status and Possession Rights: In that period, non-Muslims economically had the rights of possessing and selling estates as much as Muslims; and when their estates were inflicted any harm, they could easily seek their rights.

In Konya, in the 18th century non-Muslims protected their rights of possessing and applied to Shariah courts to defend their rights when their private property was harmed. That demand could be the demand of a Christian from another Christian or the demand of a Christian from a Muslim to pay his due. Thus, the non-Muslims protected their rights of living and possessing, which are the most important rights in terms of human rights and freedoms, and continued their existence in the community as respected social elements. Non-Muslim elements had the opportunity of living in the same district with Muslims. This is something seen only in Islamic countries. Only that right was the most important right given to non-Muslims.

The non-Muslims living in Konya in the 18th century enjoyed the privileges of living under first Muslim then Turkish rule for 15 centuries by living together in a pluralist society. With that style, the Ottoman administration formed the most vivid example of pluralist democracy and presented a sample model of living together to especially the communities of this century. (15)

Ottomans behaved kindly and tolerantly towards non-Muslims like the previous Islamic and Turkish States and showed respect to their religious values. The Ottoman State protected the Christians under its rule in order to make them live their religions. The registries of Shariah, Patriarchs Finance Books, state books belonging to non-Muslim congregations, and the most important of all, the private archives documents of Christian minorities act as witnesses regarding this issue. So much so that, the Ottoman State, an ethnic mosaic made up of people from 22 different nations and religions, stands before us as a Muslim state experience that successfully made people from different religions live together. If it is thought that today a community in which people from two different religions live together causes a lot of problems, it is necessary to look for the capability of holding together so many religious and ethnic identities and the social and cultural structure formed by them in the deep tolerance of the Ottoman State. Ottomans did not intervene the transactions of different religious congregations; they let those groups to protect their languages, religions and nationalities, and have economic and social freedoms. (16) So much so that, it is a known experience that from the 16th century, the time when Ottomans had sovereignty over world politics, to the 19th century, when the Ottoman State started to come apart, both Muslims and non-Muslims lived peacefully in the Ottoman State. Even some Westerners that slander Ottomans call that long period Pax Ottomana.


As it can be understood from what we have mentioned so far, it is interesting that Islam started the interreligious dialogue attempt 15 centuries earlier than the Western Catholics, especially after the second Vatican Council, started the interreligious dialogue attempt. Throughout centuries, all of the Islamic states, especially Turco-Islamic states, which were the standard-bearers of Islam, always made the religious tolerance and attitude of Islam their starting-points. In the West, throughout history, people wanted to be seen in the religion of the kings whereas in Turco-Islamic world the principle of living together in pluralism always prevailed. The foundations of that religious attitude were laid by the Quran and the exalted statements of the Messenger of Allah. (17)

In the Islamic community, non-Muslims – as we have mentioned above through examples – have the freedom of life and estate, belief and worship, residence and traveling and working thanks to the zimmah (covenant). It is the most natural quality of a universal religion to embrace all of the humanity, to be tolerant and to give people the fundamental rights and freedoms. Islam calls people to worship Allah, who is one, to respect human beings, to observe the rights of others; Islam also tells people to be cautious about the rights of others, and calls especially the People of the Book to carry out the orders in their own books. That ambience of tolerance carried out and developed by Islam caused the minorities living in Islamic communities to be Muslims on their own accord.

1. Hamidullah, al-Wathaiq, s.83.
2. Hamidullah, al-Wathaiq, s. 66-72.
3. Osman Turan, Türk Cihan Hâkimiyeti Mefkûresi Tarihi, İst. 1979, I,288-289.
4. I. Goldziher, İslâm Ansiklopedisi, Ehl-ü Kitâb item.
5. Yusuf Halaçoğlu, Osmanlı Devleti'nde Gayrimüslim Vakıf ve Dinî Teşekküllerin Statüsü, Osmanlıda Hoşgörü, Birlikte Yaşama Sanatı, Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfı yay., İst., 2000, p. 127-129.
6. Ahmet Akgündüz, Osmanlı Devletinde Barış ve Hoşgörünün Hukukî Temelleri, Osmanlıda Hoşgörü, Birlikte Yaşama Sanatı, Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfı yay., İst., 2000, p. 64-73.
7. Süreyya Şahin, Fener Patrikhânesi ve Türkiye, İst. 1980, p. 48.
8. Ziya Kazıcı, Osmanlı Devletinde Dini Hoşgörü, Kültürlerarası Diyalog Sempozyumu, İst. Büyük Şehir Belediyesi, 7-8 Mart 1998, İst., p.110-113.
9. Fahri Fındıkoğlu, Hukuk Sosyolojisi, İÜY, İst., 1958, III/55.
10. See. Türk Dünyası Araştırmaları Vakfı, Şeriyye Sicilleri, İst., 1989, II/56-57; Gülnihal Bozkurt, Gayrimüslim Osmanlı Vatandaşlarının Hukukî Durumu, TTKY, Ank., 1989, p. 23-24.
11. Ali Bulaç, İslâm ve Fanatizm, İst., 1993, p. 86-88.
12. Tarih III, Yeni ve Yakın Zamanlarda Türk Tarihi, Türk Tarihi Tetkik Cemiyeti, İst., 1931, p. 52.
13. E. A. Murat, Millî Işık. Sy. l, p. 31.
14. M. Süreyya Şahin, �Osmanlı Devleti'nin Hıristiyanlarla Münasebetleri�, Asrımızda Hıristiyan-Müslüman Münasebetleri, İSAV, İst., 1993, p.111-120.
15. Mehmet Aydın, 18.Yüzyılda Osmanlı Dinî Hoşgörünün Konyadaki Gayrimüslimlere Yansıması, Osmanlıda Hoşgörü, Birlikte Yaşama Sanatı, Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfı yay., İst., 2000, p. 121-126.
16. Ziya Kazıcı, Osmanlı Devletinde Dini Hoşgörü, p.106-109.
17. Mehmet Aydın, Hz. Muhammed (s.a.s.) Devrinde Müslüman-Hıristiyan Münasebetlerine Bir bakış, Asrımızda Hıristiyan-Müslüman Münasebetleri, Tartışmalı İlmî Toplantılar Dizisi, İSAV, İstanbul 1993, p.8

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