A brief look at the adoption of Secular Laws in the Ottoman Empire with a particular
focus on the Tanzimat reforms (1839-1876)
Faith Matters is launching this paper to offer a brief insight into the secular reforms of the Qaeda, who portray it historically as an Islamic Caliphate, strictly governed by Shariah Law. The Ottoman Empire is often presented by such groups as a model political system upon which to re-build a global Caliphate. Osama bin Laden marked the decline of the Empire as the fall of Islam - that the Islamic world “has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years” and that “the righteous Khilafah will return with the permission of Allah”. Through the implementation of an Islamic legal and political system, extreme groups who mis-use the Islamic faith, call for the rejection of liberal values and of the current political and societal structures in place. We believe that the very systems that such groups seek to overhall do not fundamentally clash with Islam.The report authored by Hussain who has long studied such ideologies, offers a new challenge to Islamist claims, arguing that the Ottoman Empire bares little resemblance to the model proposed by such groups. In focusing on the period known as the Tanzimat Reforms (1839-1876), Hussain shows that the Ottomans were in fact attempting to secularise their
laws and state institutions rather than integrating narrowly interpreted religious laws into the
State’s legal framework.
These are some of the key findings in the report, which show that:
- Homosexuality was decriminalized
- Ottoman society in general moved away from punishments such as stoning
- The death penalty for Apostasy was not implemented
Islamists often bypass these facts and use a warped interpretation of history in order to weave their own narrative into mainstream debate. They project their own picture of a ‘perfect’ Ottoman society, living under a deeply rigid interpretation of Shariah Law in order to argue for the building of a modern day Islamic Caliphate. Those who spin this historical account help to prop up the ideological narrative that such extremist groups use as their basis. The attacks of 9/11 were even marked by Bin Laden as “a great step towards the unity of Muslims and establishing the righteous Caliphate”. Until now, their account has been met with little intellectual resistance.
This important paper is the first of its kind to expose and dismantle the Islamist historical account of the Ottoman Empire. By debunking one of the fundamental layers of the Islamist narrative, this paper provides an opportunity for debate and discussion within the public sphere. It also supports those civil society organisations and policy makers who defend the liberal democratic values that underpin communities in Britain and also provides another tool for Muslims to counter the small yet vocal groups who espouse such a warped interpretation of the Ottoman Empire and the Khilafah. We also hope that it counters those who
undermine the history of majority Muslim countries as places where pluralism has been very much alive and thriving.
Fiyaz Mughal OBE FCMI,
Founder and Director – Faith Matters
Islamists often present the Ottoman Empire as the most recent historical precedent of their
dystopian vision; according to them, it was the perfect Islamic society with a model political
system. They also claim that the empire strictly enforced and adhered to a single
interpretation of Shariah (Islamic law/code of conduct) across its lands for over 600 years,
from 1299 until its demise in 1924. According to this narrative, the success of the empire
was largely linked to its adherence to Islamic law. This assertion is then used to support the
general Islamist vision within which the establishment of an Ottoman-style empire, in the
form of a Caliphate, or ‘Khalifah’, is presented as being viable, achievable and much
This line of argument has become a fundamental part of the Islamist narrative and is rarely
challenged in any meaningful way. This paper aims to refute this misleading historical
narrative by showing that, rather than implementing Shariah, the Ottomans were actually
attempting to secularise their laws and state institutions. Secular reforms in the Ottoman
Empire can be traced back to the 17thcentury. However, this paper focuses on the period of
reformation better known as the Tanzimat (1839-1876). During this period, as will be
demonstrated, customary and religious laws were either abolished or repealed in favour of
secular European ones. This was done on the orders of the Sultan/Caliph himself and with
the approval of the religious authorities. Also during this period, the Ottomans attempted to
integrate non-Muslim communities and afford those communities equal rights and privileges.
Understanding these reforms is important in the context of today’s political climate. Islamist
activists of various stripes seek to resist reform and modernisation in the political sense by
employing distorted historical facts to further their restrictive ideological goals. I believe that
an objective analysis of the Tanzimat period can illustrate how the Ottoman Empire was far
from being the ideological Caliphate that Islamist groups purport it to be. Rather, it was a
pragmatic military empire doing whatever it needed in order to survive. The implication is
that the Islamist political system has no recent historical precedent to offer Islamist groups.
I would like to thank Prof. Muhammad Bukari of Fatih University (Istanbul) for taking his
valuable time to proof read this paper.
15 February 2011
The Ottoman Empire was one of the longest lasting empires in history. One of the reasons
for its longevity was, to some degree, that it tolerated the existence of multiple faith
communities. As such, ten million Turks were able to rule over 250 million people on three
continents. The Ottomans ruled their subjects through the Millet (communities) structure;
each community had its own autonomous courts and could legislate according to its own
religious laws. They also appreciated religious diversity. When the Sephardic Jews were
expelled from Spain during the inquisition in 1492, the eighth Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II
(1447-1512) welcomed them to his dominions and granted them Ottoman citizenship.
During the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was at its peak as a world super power, but by
the mid-18th Century it had considerably weakened. It suffered increasing losses on the
battlefield and its territories began to shrink. Internal and external revolts became
commonplace and the empire’s collapse seemed imminent. These realities pushed reformist
Sultans and influential thinkers to look for new solutions to the empire’s problems.
The first Sultan to recognise the empire’s serious decline was Selim III (1789-1807). After
being proclaimed Emperor, he began a programme of reforms along European lines. He
started by initiating changes in education, legal and military systems. These reforms were
not welcomed by the Janissaries (Ottoman soldiers) who, through the terror of Europe, had
now become ineffective on the battlefield. When Selim began developing an infantry force
known as the Nizam-i Cedit (New Order) ‘it aroused bitter opposition among the Janissaries
who saw this new army as a threat to their existence’.The Janissaries eventually declared the European-inspired reforms to be bidah and with the backing of the Shaykh ul Islam (grand scholar of the Ottoman Empire), they revolted. They succeeded in deposing (and later murdering) Selim and replacing him with his brother Mustafa (1807-08). A year later, after a bloody struggle, Mustafa was removed by supporters
of Selim and replaced by his nephew Mahmud II (1808-39). Mahmud, like his uncle Selim,
was determined to modernise the empire by adopting European laws over the traditional
Ottoman ones (Kanun-i Osmani), which at the time combined religious, customary and
secular law through imperial decrees. During this period, European states had also started pressuring the Ottomans to give their non-Muslim subjects equal legal status.
The modernising secular reforms were carried out mainly through imperial decrees
(firmans), better known as the Tanzimat (reorganisation). However, the reforms were not
without opposition, in particular the Kuleli incident in 1860 (a revolt and an assassination attempt on the Sultan’s life). Nevertheless, the Ottomans continued their reforms
undeterred and with mixed success, gaining momentum under the reign of Mahmud II.
2: The Gulhane Decree (Hatt-i Sharif) 1839
Sultan Mahmud’s first aim in modernising the military was to remove the ineffective
Janissaries and replace them with a modern army trained along European lines. He spent
the next decade building a new armed force and placing his nominees in key positions of
power amongst the Janissaries:
‘By May 1826 Mahmud was confident that most senior officers were
sympathetic to reform, and at the end of the month he required the corps to
accept a European code of drill, European uniforms and training in the use of
As expected, the Janissaries refused to obey and revolted. The Sultan’s new army,
equipped with modern rifles, gunned down the Janissaries. The Janissaries were completely
destroyed, and by Saturday 18th June 1826 ‘the Janissaries corps was finally abolished’
After this event, the Ottoman Army and state officials all wore European style uniforms and
progress was made in modernising military, navy and state laws. Sultan Mahmud did not live
to see all his reforms implemented, as he died in 1839, but his son Sultan Abdul Majid, who
succeeded him, continued with them at a greater pace. Shortly after Abdul Majid’s
succession, on 3rd November 1839, the ‘Gulhane Decree’ was proclaimed.
The Gulhane decree (Hatt-i Sharif) promised to:
Protect the lives and properties of its subjects;
Insert a new code of Justice asserting equal status of Muslims, Jews and
Christians before the law;
Institute a regular system of levying taxes;
Develop a fair method of conscripting subjects for service in a
modernised army and navy.
The Gulhane decree, whilst acknowledging Islamic principles, paved the way for the
introduction of new laws in the coming years. For example, ‘in 1843 a new penal code was
introduced, and in 1844, the death penalty for apostasy from Islam was abolished’. In
general, Ottoman society had already moved away from punishments such as stoning for
Throughout Ottoman history only one case of rajm (stoning) was decided and
carried out (in 1680). This happened in a period of extreme religious
fanaticism, and it encountered such opposition that it was not repeated.
The Gulhane decree was one of the most important documents in Ottoman history, mainly
because it initiated a period where the state would endeavour to implement a whole series of
modernising reforms (i.e. moving from religious to secular laws.
3: The Imperial Rescript (Hatt-i Humayun) 1856
After the Crimean War, on 18th February 1856, the Imperial Re-script (Hatt-i Humayun) was
proclaimed. This was another step in further reforming the existing laws of the Ottoman
Empire. This edict was also supported by European states, who felt that the previous
proclamation had not gone far enough in providing equal rights to the non-Muslim subjects
of the empire. Unlike its predecessor, this edict did not make any reference to Islamic
principles and favoured a European inspired penal code:
The Ottoman Penal Code of 1858 was based on the Napoleonic code of
1810, putting aside Islamic punishments. It established a French-type system
of courts, with tribunals of first instance, courts of appeals and a high court of
appeals. These were the first distinct hierarchy of a secular court system of
the country…This secular criminal code and court system remained in
operation till 1923’.
Putting aside the Hadd (Islamic punishments) was not wholly unprecedented for the
Ottomans. In fact, the Hadd punishment for stealing had been suspended before by the 2nd Caliph (leader) of Islam Umar ibn al-Khattab, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):
The decision of `Umar ibn al-Khattab to suspend the hadd penalty (a penalty
prescribed by the Qur’an and the Sunnah) of amputating a thief’s hand during
a time of famine is an example of istihsan (juristic preference). Here the law
was suspended as an exceptional measure in an exceptional situation.
Istihsan is considered a method of seeking facility and ease in legal
injunctions and is in accord with Qur’an 2:185. This suggests that the
Companions were not merely literalists. On the contrary, their rulings were
often based on their understanding of the spirit and purpose of the Shari`ah.
The Ottoman Sultans considered their decision to set aside the Hadd punishments to be in
the best interest of their subjects and a way to meet the challenges they were facing. For
example, ‘During the Ottoman administration of the Arabian Peninsula, the Hadd
punishments were not applied’13. It was only after Arabia became independent, and was
ruled by the Saudi Royal family, that the Hadd punishments put into force.
The duty of providing legal edicts all across the Ottoman Empire fell to the Shaykh ul Islam;
a system which had existed for over 500 years. The putting aside of Hadd punishments for
the benefit and in the interest of the people (Maslaha) was accepted by the Shaykh ul Islam
as being in accordance with Islamic theological reasoning. Sultan Mahmud and Abdul
Majid’s reforms were assisted by two prominent Shaykh ul Islams of the empire: Seyyid Wahab Effendi and Mustafa Asim.
The Imperial Rescript (Hatt-i Humayun) also elevated the role of non-Muslims from Dhimmi
status by abolishing the Jizya (head tax paid by non-Muslim subjects of the Empire):
The bedel-i askeri essentially replaced the jizya (head tax) traditionally paid
by non-Muslims, which was abolished with the 1856 Hatt-i Hümayun
declaration that all subjects of the Ottoman Empire were equal and therefore
obligated to serve in the military.
In the Tanzimat period, the Ottomans also adopted: ‘...the Napoleonic Trade Laws in 1850,
the French Penal Code in 1858, the Property Law also in 1858 and the Maritime Trade Law
in 1864.’Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1858.Although there were still Shariah
courts in the empire, these were not the only legal institutions of the period:
Sharia courts had primary jurisdiction over urban Muslims, rural tribes
followed customary rules and procedures (urf), and Milliya courts were
regulated by and for the various sects of Christians and Jews. Hence Sharia
courts were by no means the only form of law and administration. Indeed the
ruler had his own body of administration law (Qanun) that did not draw
authority from the Sharia.
The 19thcentury saw the establishment of secular Nizamye courts across the empire.
These courts were created by the Ottoman Sultans to apply the new secular laws. Attempts
to codify Shariah were also made in the late nineteenth century. This resulted in the
‘Mejelle’, codified law based on Hanafi fiqh . However, the Mejelle covered only a small
part of the Shari’a law - mainly contracts, hire, surety, obligations and trust, agencies as well
as testimony and evidence: that is mainly economic and procedural matters. It did not cover
family law, where traditional Shari’a was dominant nor criminal law, which was already
codified on a European-inspired basis.
The Ottoman Empire was adapting to new realities and the Tanzimat reforms were a direct
manifestation of this change. Another significant point to mention here is that the founder of
the Bahai faith, ‘Baha’u’llah’ (1817-1892), claimed to be a new messenger of God. He also
claimed that the Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were no longer
applicable. Despite these claims, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) did not have
Baha’u’llah executed on charges of apostasy, but had him imprisoned instead. This incident goes to show that the death sentence for apostasy was not only abolished in theory but in
practice as well.
4: The Tanzimat Legacy
The Tanzimat reforms accelerated the process of secularisation as intended by Sultan
…the most significant aspect of the innovations initiated by Mahmud II was
the emergence of an Ottoman state based on secular aspects of sovereignty
as contrasted with the medieval concept of an Islamic empire. The real
beginning of modernisation and secularisation was in this change.
Despite the mixed success, the Tanzimat reforms were successful in bringing about equality
for all citizens, especially non-Muslims who had previously only been tolerated as dhimmis.
They also led to the creation of a new identity known as Ottomanism, which replaced the
millet system. Ottomanism technically meant that all citizens of the empire were equal in the
eyes of the law, regardless of faith, however, in reality old prejudices remained (the Ottoman
Empire’s crimes against the Armenians are well documented).
The Ottoman Sultans, from the late 18th century onwards, were held back from initiating
further reforms because they believed their subjects were not ready for them. An example of
this is in the late introduction of the printing press to the Ottoman Empire. The printing press
was invented in 1450 and was transferred to the Balkan domains of the Ottoman Empire by
Jewish migrants from Spain as early as 1493. Although it found its way to Ottoman Greece
in 1627, it was not permitted in Anatolia until 1727. In 1742, the Ottomans banned the
printing press, and although it reappeared in 1784, printing in Arabic was forbidden
altogether - ‘The printing press, as may be imagined was resisted by the priesthood...It was
pronounced an innovation of Satan, sure to bring every sort of heresy and infidelity in its
It was not until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 that moveable type printing was
available in the Arabic-speaking regions of the empire. This fear of the printing press meant
that the Ottoman Empire fell at least 200 years behind other European states in most fields
of intellectual thought. Radical changes were needed in order to bring the empire up to date
with the rest of the world and the Tanzimat reforms went some way towards achieving that goal.
Although the Tanzimat reforms never quite produced the results the later Sultans had hoped
for, they did improve various aspects of the empire such as the education system and the
status of non-Muslims. It could be argued that, had the empire been around today, it would
have had a very similar political structure to modern day Turkey. After all, it was only
because of the reforms that the Turkish Republic was able to emerge from the ashes of the
Ottoman Empire and resist being colonised by European powers.
By constantly citing 1924 as the last time that a Caliphate system existed, Islamists seek to
convince the world that their ideal is an achievable and workable political model exemplified
within recent history (the last one hundred years). Writing their own history of the Caliphate
is, therefore, a tactical move on their part and a vital component in their grand narrative. The
political model that modern day Islamists are seeking to introduce bears little resemblance to
the past, despite using language such as ‘Caliph’ (for political expediency) to invoke
nostalgic imagery of Muslim Empires of the past. In fact, the Ottoman Empire did not enforce
a single interpretation of Shariah on their citizens and differing political systems were
implemented across the various Muslim Empires.
Therefore, the modern day Islamist vision has no historical precedent and is more inspired
by European political constructs than Islam. It is rooted in a totalitarian vision of society,
where the state is seen as a tool for social engineering, capable of shaping obedient citizens
at the mercy of theocratic dictators. It is devoid of the essence of Islam, which is to seek
social justice through a fair and flexible framework.
This paper aims to fundamentally challenge, balance and re-write a historical narrative
dominated by extremist organisations such as Al-Muhajiroun and Hizb-u-Tahrir, who
promote a ‘Khilafah’ concept state, intent on a literalist interpretation of religious texts.
Whilst Hizb-u-Tahrir does not espouse violence in communities, their pamphlets and
literature regularly promote a narrow historical view of the Ottoman Empire by harping back
to a misleading narrative on the Khilafah. In so doing, they ignore the pragmatism that
formed the basis of the Tanzimat period of the Ottoman Empire. Such pragmatism that
developed in this period, fused with the strong Islamic roots of the Ottomans, to produce an
outwards-looking country that actively engaged with its neighbours and tried to secure its
future by implementing equality laws and the inclusion of minorities. It was hoped that this
would bind minorities to the empire while complying with the Islamic principles of social
inclusion for the ‘People of the Book’ (meaning Christians and Jews).
Therefore, this research shines a light on a fundamental pillar of the narrative that radical
groups promote within towns and cities in the United Kingdom. Their literature portrays the
Ottoman Empire as a shining example of an Islamic state, due to its apparent adherence to
fundamental scriptural edicts. However, this view is formed through a narrow ideological
lense, which ignores the range of reliable historical sources that express more accurately the
the values and practices of the Tanzimat period. Through this contextualised and rigorous
enquiry, the Tanzimat reforms can now be understood to have formed a fundamental part of Ottoman history rather than a simple deviation or aberration. Furthermore, such radical groups ignore the very flexibility of the Islamic religious framework that was so integral to the survival of the Empire during this period. They fail to accurately reflect the religious narratives and theological discussions that have been present throughout Islamic history and that fuse spirituality and belief with the realities of living in changing political and social
It is hoped that this paper can provide a focal point for discussions on the Tanzimat and the
manner in which Ottoman history is used by certain groups to promote an exclusionist and
restrictive ideological viewpoint. History demonstrates that groups viewing the past through
such a narrow lense are in danger of not only reducing their life chances, but also of
corroding communities from within. Islam and Muslim communities deserve better and the
influence of these historical misreadings and hence misunderstandings can be countered by
considering a range of differing narratives. Without these varied perspectives, history can be
manipulated into a dangerous tool for ulterior polical and radical Islamist motives.