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MILLET. This term is most commonly used in Islamic history to mean “religious community.” It is derived from the Arabic word millah, which was employed in the Qur’an to mean “religion.” Later the Qur’anic usage was extended to include religious community and especially the community of Islam. By the time of the Ottoman Empire (1300-1918) its sense had expanded widely to include non-Muslim religious communities and, in the period of Ottoman decline, foreign merchants who entered the empire under special treaties called capitulations. During the nineteenth century a fundamental change in its usage occurred when the concept of nationalism entered the empire and Ottomans used the word to mean both “religious community” and “nation.” With the collapse of the empire in 1918 and the division of its territories into nation-states, millet acquired its modern Turkish meaning of “nation,” with only a vestige of the old religious sense.

The system of millets was the institutional means by which the agriculturally based empires of Islam accommodated religious diversity. Its religious foundation rested on the concept of Islam as the culmination of a prophetic tradition emanating from Judaism and Christianity. Since Jews and Christians would eventually see the truth of Islam, their place in an Islamic society became one of subordinate and protected religious communities. Over centuries of expansion into non-Muslim lands the application of this institution created an elaborate structure of fairly autonomous communities whose religious leaders developed formal relations with the rulers of Muslim empires in a manner that guaranteed imperial peace at the price of religious and social fragmentation.

What completely transformed the Islamic system of handling religious diversity was the importation into the Muslim world of nationalism. This political ideology was brought into the Ottoman Empire and other Muslim areas from Europe in the nineteenth century, largely by non-Muslims, and was introduced to populations that had no previous experience with the separation of politics from religion or with the secular ideas associated with the European Enlightenment. It therefore followed that national movements, if they were to have any social basis at all, quickly became embedded in the millet system; and where Europeans did not establish a colonial regime, they had the opportunity to split up Islamic states along religious lines.

By the turn of the twentieth century the successesand even the failures-of national movements within the Ottoman Empire had all but destroyed the idea of religious coexistence. Meanwhile, the political supremacy available to a centralizing, industrial European nationstate capable of mobilizing its culturally homogeneous populations encouraged national ideas to spread among the Ottoman elite. In this same period, Ottoman intellectuals became aware of the pre-Islamic history of the Turks. Alienated from an ineffectual government and armed with the image of a glorious national past, young army officers developed the foundation for Turkish nationalism during the last hours of the empire. When World War I resulted in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (1918) and the rise of a Turkish opposition under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to the dismemberment of the core, Turkish-speaking regions of the empire, a Turkish elite appeared with a new politics and a new social framework for which the language was national rather than religious. Under these conditions the word millet came, after 1923, to mean “nation” in modern Turkish.

[See also Capitulations; Dhimmi; Empire; and Pan-Turanism.]

Nation; Ottoman


Berkes, Niyazi. The Development of Secularism in Turkey. Montreal, 1964. Excellent study of the ideological transformation of Ottoman thought from medieval to modern worldviews.

Findley, Carter V. Bureaucratic Reform in the Ottoman Empire: The Sublime Porte, 1789-1922. Princeton, 1980. The best study of bureaucratic reform in the Ottoman Empire during the period of the impact of European ideas.

Jennings, Ronald. “Zimmis (Non-Muslims) in Early SeventeenthCentury Ottoman Judicial Records: The Sharia Court of Anatolian Kayseri.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 21.3 (April 1978): 226-293. Excellent study of the absence of millet structures at local levels in rural Anatolia during the period before the impact of nationalism.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. London, 1961. The major work on the subject.

Shaw, Stanford J., and Ezel Kural Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, vol. 2, Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1808-1975. London and New York, 1977. The most detailed study of the fall of the empire and the rise of modern Turkey.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/millet/

  • writerPosted On: August 13, 2014
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