29 May 2009

2855) Social Reflections Of Muslim And Non-Muslim Relations In Urfa During The Classical Ottoman Period

Assist Prof Dr. Mehmet Emin ÜNER
Harran University Arts Faculty Department of History / Sanliurfa

To begin with, before examining social relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the 17th century, it is worth looking at the policy of the Ottoman Empire regarding non-Muslims. The territory in which the Ottoman Empire emerged was a land in which monotheistic religions came into existence and then spread. In addition, at the end of the 16th century, the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire extended to three continents and as a result had a multi-religious society. This led to the establishment of the administrative, legal, and financial status of the Muslim and non-Muslim population. Since the Empire had a multicultural society comprising various religious and ethnic groups, its social, political, and administrative structures were based not on ethnicity, but rather on ideology and religion. This structure of the Empire was the result of not only the demographic structure of the territory but also its perspective on administration, policy, and humanity. The Empire did not attempt to assimilate or oppress, rather it granted certain autonomy to each religious and ethnic community. . .

The policy of the Ottoman Empire towards its non-Muslim subjects was the reflection of the rules regulating Muslim and non-Muslim rela26 tions developed by the Muslim administrations over the centuries. The Ottomans eliminated social boundaries in conquered territories and followed a tolerant policy irrespective of the religious and ethnic affiliations of its subjects. Thus, at the turn of the new age they were able to establish a state superior than that of the Europeans in terms of administration, economy, military, and especially in public law and human rights1. The best example can be seen in the conquest of Constantinople.

When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople in 1453, he declared freedoms for the public and met not only the physical but also the spiritual needs of the Greeks. For the same period, it is impossible to talk about the minority rights in Europe2. This is because in the Christian world there was no legal consideration for Muslims living under Christians. Since Christianity did not recognize Islam, it did not develop any legal policies3.

Bernard Lewis states that, unlike the Jews who just because of their religion, faced serious problems in Europe (such as their expulsion from Spain), the Jews and Christians under Muslims experienced neither expulsion nor death; they were not forced to live in ghettos, rather they were able to live any place--except for a few sacred lands in the Arabian continent--and they had no problem in having and practicing any occupation4.

The Ottomans allowed the population of the conquered lands to live in their own homes and dispose of their own properties. In other words, they neither faced deportation nor loss of their properties. This means that the new population did not experience religious, cultural, or social

1 İlber Ortaylı, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu’nda İktisadi ve Sosyal Değişim, Ankara 2004, p. 285.
2 Ali İhsan Gencer, “İhtilalci Ermenilerin ‘Kaza İhtilal Teşkilatı’ Talimatnamesi”, İstanbul Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi Tarih Enstitüsü Dergisi, Sayı 13, p. 577. Nejat Göyünç, “Türk Toplumu ve Hoşgörü”, Akademik Araştırmalar Dergisi, Sayı 4-5, p. 165.
3 Feridun Emecen, “Tartışma”, Uluslar arası Türk-Ermeni İlişkileri Sempozyumu, 24-25 Mayıs 2001, İstanbul 2001, p. 53-54.
4 Benjamin Braude ve Bernard Lewis “Osmanlı Devleti İçerisindeki Hıristiyanlar ve Yahudiler” (çevirenler: Halil Erdemir, Hatice Erdemir), Akademik Araştırmalar Dergisi, sayı 4-5, p. XVII7.


deprivation or suppression5. Furthermore, they were neither Muslimized nor Turkified6. On the contrary, the Ottoman administration followed a just and balanced policy for everyone, and so did Ottoman society. Ottoman society did not segregate the other various ethnic groups. Rather, they saw them as one of them, and so they were able to establish good social relationships. We see Muslims not only sharing the same neighborhood with non-Muslims, but also sharing their anxieties and pains, joys and pleasures. We also see them as trading partners. There was no bias against non-Muslims, neither at the administrative nor at the public levels. They were employed in the various administrative positions, such as translator or advisor in the government. We also see them occupying the highest position in the State, such as a Ministry7. They became one of the different colors of the Ottoman society.

Before moving to the city under examination, I would like to mention the following statement of researcher Jorga:

In the new Empire, there was peace as it used to be in the old Roman period. The security as it used to be in the famous Roman period was again provided and everybody was happy with it. Compared with the Polish and Hungarian feudal oppressive customs under which the villagers and the others were to live in spite of the autonomy promises; the problems raised by the small Slavic countries; the oppressive and the exploitative administration of the last Byzantine Christian rulers, and the turmoil in Germany caused by the Frederic, the Empire of the Ottomans was equivalent to peace, calm, and welfare. Nobody was to have fear because of his religion or ethnicity; customs and the traditions were not interfered with. A Slavic origin Janissary who worked for a long time in the Janissary forces writes “the Turks are just to themselves and to their subjects irrespective of their religion and to their dependent principalities”. Four times in a year, the Ottoman officials travelled around the Empire to

5 M. Süreyya Şahin, Fener Patrikhanesi ve Türkiye, İstanbul, p. 48.
6 Yücel Özkaya, 18. Yüzyılda Osmanlı Kurumları ve Osmanlı Toplum Yaşantısı, Ankara 1985, p. 154.
7 Arzu Tozduman Terzi, “Osmanlı Maliyesinde Söz Sahibi Üç Ermeni Nazır: Agop, Mikail ve Ohannes Paşalar”, Uluslar arası Türk-Ermeni İlişkileri Sempozyumu, 24-25 Mayıs 2001, İstanbul 2001, p. 21; M. Hidayet Vahapoğlu, Osmanlıdan Günümüze Azınlık ve Yabancı Okullar, İstanbul 2005, p. 23.


inspect their non-Muslim subjects and to prevent oppression of vulnerable people8.

We will give several examples regarding Muslim non-Muslim relations from an Ottoman city Urfa, which was in a location far from the centre of the Empire, in a period in which the central government was strong and the public was in harmony. The basic source which we are going to use here is Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili dated 10399. In the register under study, most of the cases are related to Muslims who were a majority in the city. Although the non-Muslim population constituted one third of the city10, the ratio of the disputes does not correspond to it. This gives us the impression that either Muslims or non-Muslims did not have frequent disputes or that they resolved them peacefully outside the court of law.

We see that only one of the eight quarters of the city was occupied by non-Muslims. However, this does not mean that non-Muslims were totally segregated. This is because it is known that although there were quarters occupied by the people sharing the same religion, Muslims and non-Muslims shared the same quarters living and working next to each other. However, using only the documentary evidence it is not easy to find out the details of daily relationships. What we are going to present are the ones made to the kadi (judge) records11. It needs to be mentioned that the majority of the non-Muslim population of Urfa in that period was Christian Armenians and the rest were Jews.

8 Nicolae Jorga, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu Tarihi, (çev. Nilüfer Epçeli), İstanbul 2005, c. 2, p. 176.
9 This is an important register of the population, as this is the only one that provides data on the classical period of the Ottoman Empire. We have no information about the registers from 1039\1630 until 1261\1845. They are probably gotten lost.
10 According to tahrir (census) register of the second half of the 16th century, the total population of this city was 13.876. Of 8325 were Muslims, and the rest were Christians. Mehmet Emin Üner, PhD Thesis, Osmanlı Klasik Dönem Sonlarında Bir Güneydoğu Anadolu Şehri: Urfa (1700-1800), İstanbul Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, İstanbul 2003, p. 77.
11 For the contents of the registers, see: M.Çağatay Uluçay, “Manisa Şer’iye Sicillerine Dair Bir Araştırma”, Türkiyat Mecmuası X, pp. 285-297.



While Sultan Mill belonging to the wakf of Mevlud Hazreti Halilürrahman, had been rented by a dhimmi (non-Muslim subject governed in accordance with Sharia law) named Karagöz for daily 31 Aleppeon Şahi, it was rented out to Musullu, the child of Serkis for daily 31 Aleppeon Şahi on 15 Jumad al-Awwal 1039 on the condition that he would clean the water trench and would meet the expenses, such as the stone tax and so on12. Although there had been so many trading relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, this is particularly interesting as this indicates that a waqf, which is used for religious or charitable purposes by Muslims, was rented to a non-Muslim. This further shows that there was no discrimination against non-Muslims, and that Muslims and non-Muslims were certain that they would not exploit or misuse each other’s sacred things.

The description of the boundaries of the properties in the sale transactions clearly indicates that Muslims and non-Muslims lived together in harmony. The sale transactions were not only from Muslims to non-Muslims but also the opposite. It can be seen that not only was it possible for the Muslims to buy property in an Armenian quarter, but it was also very normal for an Armenian to purchase a house in a Muslim quarter as the following examples show.

Abdurrahman, the son of Ibrahim and his paternal aunt Fatma, the daughter of Arap sold their 300 root vineyard, located in the village of Aşık, bounded on the southern side by a stream, on the eastern side by the vineyard of Cuma, on the northern side by Aşıklı Halil and on the western side by the vineyard of Vanis, to their neighbor Vanis13. Presumably, this person was a Jew because the name of Vanis was generally Jewish.

12 “Mevlud Hazreti Halilürrahman Aleyhi ves- Salatü-vesselam Evkafı mütevellisi Şah Hüseyin Çelebi b. Ahmed mahfil-i şer’de Musullu veled-i Serkis nâm zımmi muvacehesinde ikrar edup evkaf-ı mezburdan Sultanlık Değirmeni Karagöz nam zımmi uhdesinde Taş harcı kendulerinde olmak üzre yevmî 31 Halebi Şahi’ye icâre de iken Değirmen mütevelli Çelebi üzredir deyu bırakup değirmeni mezbur hali kalmağın mezbur Musullu taş harcını vakıf malından sarf edup ve arkını pak ettirmek vesair evkafa değil harcı mezbur Musullu üzerine olup …”, Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili, Nr. 207, p. 20, case, 44.
13 Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili, Nr. 207, p. 20, case 45.



An inhabitant of Urfa, Maduk, the child of Avakil declared in the court that he had sold his house, bounded on the southern side by the house of Kürd Veli, on the eastern side by the houses of Şaban and Cuma and on the western side by the public road, to Ali, the son of Bedir for 28 esedi (lion) kuruş14. It can be noted that in this case all sides of the house were surrounded by Muslims. The opposite is also true.

We can see Muslims living in an Armenian quarter named Erâmine with Armenian neighbors. Cuma, the son of Mehmed declared in the court that he had sold his house bounded on four sides by the houses of Armenians, which has an upper bower comprising a small roof, and which has enough courtyards, to an Armenian for 65 esedi kuruş15. Here, the neighbors of a Muslim are non-Muslims.

We also have examples which show that the Armenians did not live only in the Erâmine quarter. For instance, a dhimmi called Bedir, the son of Şahin sold his house located in the quarter of Bab’ül Emir to his elderly son Şahin for 40 kuruş16.

Muslims and non-Muslims not only shared the same quarters but also shared the same markets and occupations. For instance, Osman, the son of Hacı Mehmed declared in court that he had sold his two shops where cauldrons were made and sold, which had been the legacy of his deceased mother, to Kazancı Ohan the son of Bâli for 70 kuruş17. In the Ottoman Empire, it was easy for a non-Muslim to file a lawsuit in a court of law against a Muslim18. We have several examples of this from Urfa. Kazzâz Seyyid Mahmud, the son of Seyyid Mehmed, gave

14 Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili, Nr. 207, p 22, case 50.
15 Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili, Nr. 207, p 102, case 235.
16 Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili, Nr. 207, p 152, case 341.
17 “Bilfiil Ruha’da Osman bin Hacı Mehmed nâm kimesne mahfil-i şer’i şerife gelup Ruha zımmîlerinden Kazancı Ohan veled-i Bali nâm zımmi mahzarında bastı kelimât edup dahil-i Ruha’da Arsa kurbunda vaki’ kibleten Hacı Bekir dükkânı ve şarken tarik ve …dükkânı ve gârben Geyvan Ağa bahçesi bu hudud ile mahdud validem müteveffa Fatıma’dan müntekil iki bâb kazancı dükkânı mezbur Ohan’a yetmiş guruş-ı esediye beyi’ edup kabz-ı semen ve teslim-i mübeyi’ ettik dedikte mezbur Osman bil-muvacehe mezbur Ohan tasdik ve kabul edup…” Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili, Nr. 207, p 276, case 565.
18 Yavuz Ercan, Osmanlı Yönetiminde Gayrimüslimler, Ankara 2001, p 247.



gauze (tülbent) to an Armenian to dye. When it was not dyed on time, the aforesaid Muslim hit the Armenian in the head with a mallet and wounded him. Upon this, the Armenian took the case to the court and the court confirmed the facts of the case upon examination19. However, similar cases are few. This may indicate that not many disputes took place between Muslims and the dhimmis.

Although non-Muslims had autonomy in civil and intra-religious matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, we see them frequently coming to the Muslim court. It may not be wrong to say that non-Muslims preferred Muslim courts in marriage, divorce, trade disputes and so on of their own free will. They expected that the decision of the kadi would be just and applicable. Furthermore, the decision of the kadi provided documentary evidence of the Ottoman courts and it was enforceable by the executive authorities as in the following example:

Şenfur, the daughter of Mercan, was divorced irrevocably by her husband Kirkos because of his second marriage to a woman. Since his religion did not allow polygamy, he divorced his ex-wife by sending her a divorce paper. She presented a fatwa20 to the court allowing her to marry someone else and accordingly asked for permission from the court. According to her fatwa, the court issued her permission21. This shows that a dhimmi woman was well aware of the Islamic law and knew the procedure of marriage and divorce. She was also aware of the authority of a fatwa in a court of law.

19 Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili, Nr. 207, p 18, case 38. This sort of case is very rare.
20 A fatwa is an Islamic religious ruling, a scholarly opinion on a matter of Islamic law.
21 “Ruha zımmilerinden Şenfur binti Mercan nâm mer’e mahfil-i şer’i şerife gelup bast-ı kelimât edup zevcim Kirkos nâm zımmi beni bırakup hayli müddettir ki Harbit’te gidip andan gayrı avradı dahi olup ayin-i batılamız üzre zımmiler iki avrat olmak caiz olmamağla beni talak-ı ba’in tatlik edup bana boş kağıdı gönderup zikrolunan kağıt mezbur Kirkos’dan olduğuna ilm-i lahik olup itimat gelmeğin bi-hesab-ı şer’i şerif zevci ahere varmağa … olduğuma marifeti fetva vardır deyu takririni muvafık bir kıt’a fetvay-ı şerife ibraz edup ahere zevce izni talep etmeğin fetvası mucebince ba’del itidat ahere zevce izni verilup vuku’ üzre bi-talep kayd-ı sicil olundu”. Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili, Nr. 207, p XVII4, case 398.



Another example concerns inheritance. Zengel, the son of Ohan brought a case in the court asking for the division of the inheritance of his deceased spouse among their children22. Likewise, we see the dhimmi brothers Panos, Hirabid, Ivad, Isador, and Yoseb coming to the court and demanding the division of the inheritance of their father among themselves. The inheritance comprised a 1300 root vineyard and other properties23.

Although Muslims lived with dhimmis and had trade relationships, they did not marry non-Muslim woman, at least in the period under study. As we see in the following example, a non-Muslim who converted to Islam, divorced his wife upon her refusal to convert. Abdülkadir, the son of Abdullah who converted to Islam, invited his wife Mesfal, the daughter of Yagob to become Muslim. When she refused to convert, he divorced her and had it documented in the court. In Islamic law, a Muslim man may marry a woman from ahl al-kitab (a woman who believes Islam)24.

In conclusion, when Urfa became the part of the Ottoman Empire, Muslims and non-Muslims lived together in harmony. They shared the same quarters and the same markets, and became trading partners. As we have seen above, they sold and purchased goods from one another. It was possible for a non-Muslim to live in a Muslim quarter next to a Muslim neighbor. The opposite was also true. It was not unusual for a Jew to have a garden surrounded by those of the Muslims. Although religion was dominant in the identity of the people of that period, they did not feel any problem in renting out a wakf land, mill, or shop to a dhimmi.

As we understand, since the people knew each other’s ethnic and religious identities, they respected each other. Religious and ethnic diversities did not cause social, economic, or political turmoil. There were no identity crises. Even today, non-Muslims are living in Urfa.

22 Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili, Nr. 207, p 139, case 311.
23 Urfa Şer’iyye Sicili, Nr. 207, p 128, case 288.
24 Ahmet Özel, “Gayrimüslim”, DİA, vol. 13, p. 424.


To conclude, when the Ottoman Empire was strong and there was no outside influence, non-Muslims did not have any problem living in harmony with their Muslim counterparts under the tolerant rules of Islamic law. When the Empire started to crumble and the outside influence began to appear, non-Muslims, especially the Armenians under the outside influence, changed position. This is, however, beyond the scope of this study.

To end with, in the classical period, Muslims and non-Muslims trusted each other so that a Muslim did not hesitate to leave his family and property to his non-Muslim neighbor when he was going on a pilgrimage. Likewise, a non-Muslim did not think much about his family and property being left behind with his Muslim neighbor when he was about to go on a long journey. Furthermore, there are a lot of stories, proverbs and jokes which indicate the harmony that existed between Muslims and dhimmis in the classical Ottoman period.25

25 One of the stories goes: In a quarter where the Muslims and Armenians live, a servant of a mosque had to leave for an emergency and he looks for a Muslim but cannot find one and so asks for an Armenian to recite Azan It was a difficult task for an Armenian to accept. If he accepts to recite Azan, he become a Muslim, as the azan contains “kalima-i shahadat”, if he does not accept, that would be seen as a refusal of a request. So, he accepts and finds a way. He starts to recite, after the words, “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Ashadu anla ilaha ilallah, Ashadu anna Muhammadan Rasulullah” he says to himself ‘they say so’..

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