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Religion in the Ottoman Empire

Religion in the Ottoman Empire

As you may know, the Ottoman Empire is possibly the most famous Muslim-led empire in history. But did you know that as well as Islam, other religions held a considerable influence over the various different groups of people who lived under Ottoman rule? As is true today, a person’s religion had a massive impact on their lives, as religion sets out guidelines for how a person should organise their lifestyle. Religious leaders also had a powerful influence among their congregations, and may potentially have rivalled the state’s power. However, we shall learn why this wasn’t the case under the Ottoman Empire in part two.


So, Islam was the religion of the upper class and ruling Ottoman citizens. It was also the religion of a great many of the peasants. Essentially, it was the state religion, a bit like the Church of England is the state religion of the UK today. These people ranked at the top. Below them were the Christians and the Jews. In terms of Christianity, the Greek Orthodox Church had the most power, and other Orthodox churches (such as the Armenian one) were subordinate to the Patriarchate of Antioch.


Below the Christians were the Jews. There were many Jews in the Ottoman Empire – many had fled persecution in the early days of the Empire, because the Sultan offered them a safe haven. Their home governments may have sought to wipe them out, as they did in Spain, but many found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. A city known for its Jewish community was Thessaloniki (which used to be called Salonica). Salonica was the second city of the Ottoman Empire, and it was a great business and trade hub, as well as an important port.


There were a smaller number of other religions, too. This was especially true of Syria and Lebanon – these two places were (and still are) melting pots for peoples of different religions. Another notable Christian group were the Catholics, who may have been a little problematic for the Ottomans, as they swore allegiance to Rome and to the Vatican above all else.


You probably already know a fair amount about Christianity and the variety of different Christian beliefs from your lessons at school, but you might not be so confident about the various Islamic groups that existed in the Empire. Most of these groups believed in the fundamental 5 Pillars of Islam. These are the Shahada (or declaration of faith), the pilgrimage to Mecca, 5 daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, and Zakat (alms, a combination of tax and charity). But some forms of Islam were ranked more highly than others. This is because they believed some forms to be heretical, such as Ismailis and Alevis. Basically, this meant they weren’t following the “normal”/official Islamic practices, so these groups were the target of persecution and unjust punishments.


There is so much to say about religion and this massive, longstanding empire, so join us for part two when we focus on how the Ottomans dealt with religious diversity in the region.


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