DHIMMI STATUS AND THE MILLET SYSTEM
bro. John Samaha
Dhimmi is the term that was used in the Muslim world for the minority status
accorded non-Muslims. Because Jews and Christians were “People of the
Book,” they were tolerated minorities who owed a tax to the state but did
not serve in the army. But they did play a significant role in government,
the arts, architecture, and with languages.
The Ottoman Empire dealt with non-Muslim Dhimmis through the millet system,
especially during the nineteenth century. In the millet system the
ranking religious leader was recognized by the government and in turn was
responsible for relations with the government, including with the payment
of taxes. The religious leader was responsible for all the internal
workings of the millet and not simply religious functions. Education
and personal law, such as marriage, divorce, birth, death, and inheritance,
were the jurisdiction of the head of the church.
The millet system kept the various Christian groups separated and reduced
friction. This increased self-awareness in the churches and discouraged
conversion from one to another. By the twentieth century millets had
come under the protection of foreign governments. During that period
of nationalism and pan-Arabism, equality with Muslim citizens and the elimination
of the millet system caused tensions in the empire.