What kinds of similarities and differences are evident between how systems of rule operated practically?

What kinds of similarities and differences are evident between how systems of rule operated practically?
By Libin Farah

Throughout the course of history there have been a multitude of Empires across the world although it is important to deconstruct the features of an Empire. Some common characteristics that most empires share is that they cover vast areas of land with large populations with diverse religious and cultural practices. Secondly, there is often a tributary system that extracts wealth from this population. This wealth is generated by the peasantry or slaves which is given to the ruling class in the form of a centralised bureaucratic governing elite.

This basic outline provides the framework for which I will begin to analyse the similarities and differences between the Ottoman and Spanish empires. The Spanish and the Ottomans take different approaches in dealing with religious diversity within their empires as well as how they treat the slave faction of society.

However, despite the differences of how these empires run practically they operate with the same ideological mind set. The philosophy of these empires is that they are religiously duty bound and compelled to expand their empires.

When this notion is coupled with material benefits in the form of tributes and the extraction of gold, economic and religious motivation became the foundation on which these empires were built and helped solidify the political creed of territorial expansion in God’s name.

In this way, it can be argued that while they adopted different methods they were used the achieve the same goal: to widen their sphere of influence by establishing economic and political sovereignty through the subjugation of large populations over a vast geographical area as a means to increase their balance of power in the Global arena.

The Ottoman empire was able to expand through the bipartite relationship of conquest and consent. By consent I am referring to the cooperation and toleration of religious and cultural practices within the empire.

The Ottoman empire stretched from the Arabian Peninsula to parts of Southern Europe therefore it contained an eclectic mix of inhabitants with differing religious beliefs. The Ottomans declared themselves the Islamic caliphate yet the Sultan ‘considered subjects, Muslim or non-Muslim, as reaya – meaning ‘flock’’ (İnalcık, 1973).

Non-Muslims were known as dhimmi’s and they were given protection from the state in exchange for tax known as jizya. Some historians such as Richardson argue that ‘dhimmi’s under Muslim oppression suffered!’ (Richardson, 2003) and having a dhimmi status created a social hierarchy which is a form of religious inferiority.

While Richardson’s analysis is in many ways superficial it is not completely inaccurate. Richardson fails to note that Muslims under Ottoman rule also payed a compulsory alms tax known as Zakat. While the jizya higher it is worth mentioning that Muslims were not exempt from tax.

The Dhimmis experienced many liberties under the Ottomans such as legal autonomy for the Jews and Christians who were given their own courts in which they could legislate according to their religious laws. Dhimmis were able to attain jobs in the public sector and military, ‘In the Balkans in the fifteenth century they accepted thousands of Christian cavalrymen into the military despite religion’ (İnalcık, 1973).

There were a few exceptions such as positions in the elite circle such as grand vizier as these offices were closest in rank to the Sultan and therefore reserved exclusively for Muslims (Akgündüz and Öztürk, 2011). Most importantly the dhimmis were given religious freedom as there was no forced conversion, they were allowed to practice their faith, teach it to their children and keep their religious symbols.

Moreover, society was organised into millets (nations) such as the Jewish millet or the Christian millet. These groups were given political representation in front of the Sultan through the respective group’s elected community leader.

While the Ottomans distinguish Dhimmis and Muslims the overarching conduct in how both groups were treated in the military, social and political sphere was fairly similar. This suggests the notion of citizenship and loyalty to the Sultan is of greater concern rather than religious homogeneity.

However, while the Ottomans were tolerant of religious diversity it would be inaccurate to depict them as completely liberal or receptive. Their tolerance, I believe, is rooted in the economic benefits that was to be gained from the non-Muslim communities.

The Ottomans subordinated rather than eliminated diversity as it allowed them to extract tributes from minority groups thus generating more revenue. Unlike the Spanish they did not coerce their subjects into Islam rather they allowed a multi-religious society so long as everyone payed their dues to the Sultan.

The expulsion of 300,000 Muslims from Spanish territory, under the Spanish inquisition, decelerated the rate of economic growth in the region (Burbank and Cooper, 2010). The 200,000 Jews that were expelled migrated to places such as North Africa and Turkey, areas within the Ottoman empire, where they would pay Ottoman taxes.

The Spanish example depicts that an economic downturn is a by-product of religious intolerance therefore it was in Ottoman interest to incorporate non-Muslims into the fiscal system. In this way they could maximise revenue which would be used to fund the army as well as maintaining a sympathetic and tolerant image. In this way, the tolerance the Ottomans showed was an instrument to increase their balance of power against rival empires such as the Spanish.

The Spanish approach to religious difference was more explicitly coercive compared to the Ottomans. They imposed the Encomienda system on the natives which was a legal system of tributary extraction of wealth generated by forced labour. Authority was handed to the colonialists which took control over the land, labour and production which inevitably resulted in terrible abused and cruelty as settlers could get away with just about anything. (Fagan, 1998).

The natives were subjugated to violence, cruelty, disease and were removed from the social groups. The intense exploitative nature of work was then coupled with Christian indoctrination. The Spanish assumed responsibility to Christianise and civilise the New World.

The destruction of native customs was seen as a moral duty and a step towards progress and modernity. The Spanish saw this religious ‘vacuum’ as an opportunity to counter educate the natives to undo their ‘savagery’ and as their ‘barbarity’ was deeply ingrained, discipline was a natural and necessary tool in order to achieve this. The Spanish ultimately aimed to permanently eradicate pagan beliefs and practices of worship and create the groundwork for a new nation built on Spanish and Catholic fundamentals.

The Spanish aimed to mould indigenous communities to emulate Spanish societies whereas the Ottomans left most cultural and religious practices intact. The two empires had differing methods with dealing with religious diversity. Although the means differ between the empires the end result is the same: the subordination of the masses who provide the labour force to generate goods which then is extracted as tribute. The native were physically subordinated whilst the Dhimmis were economically subordinated. In this way practically they are different but theoretically alike.

Nevertheless, the instrument of violence and sheer brutal force of the Spanish colonisers is a distinct difference that is worth exploring as it was a tool utilised to make the natives physically inferior. The Spanish equated their military superiority and Catholicism with their whiteness and therefore the natives lack of religion and brownness as a reason for inferiority.

Furthermore, race became an additional component, along with religion, in the Spanish disposition which made the indigenous population appropriate targets for conversion as well as legitimising Spanish colonial conquest. This established a rigid social hierarchy with the Spanish at the top, those of native ancestry neat the bottom and slaves were on the lowest rung of the social ladder (McCannon, 2010). Therefore, racial prominence became entangled and was a by-product of religious intolerance which is distinctly different to the Ottoman empire.

The Ottomans also had a system of slavery, Devshirme, however it was entirely different to the Spanish system. The Ottomans would kidnap Christian boys, Janissaries, from the Balkans, covert them to Islam and train them to work in the service of the state.

The historical discourse surrounding the Devshirme is centered around whether it was a beneficial or oppressive. Some communities such as strict Muslim scholars and the Orthodox Christian hierarchy see Devshirme as a ‘gross violation of the rights of the Sultan’s non-Muslim subjects’ (Nicolle and Hook, 1995). Rather other historians disagree that even calling it slavery can be, to an extent, misleading as it does not reflect modern notions of slavery but rather a form of human taxation.

The term slave is not rigid or fixed but is historically dependent therefore it is essential that the word ‘slave’ is deconstructed and put in to historical context. In the Ottoman empire to be a slave was not to be shackled and whipped like the transatlantic slave trade or being exposed to foreign diseases and being over worked in the Encomienda system such as the Spanish invasion of America.

Rather the term ‘slave’ in this context was a noble position that had immense freedom. These Janissaries were recruited, trained and assigned position in the harem. They worked within the central administration which included positions such as ministers, judges, bureaucrats thus making them part of the ruling elite.

There are accounts of both Muslim and Christian families reportedly offering bribes so that their children would be accepted as a Janissaries (Nicolle and Hook, 1995). In this way it could be argued that this was a desired and sought out position in society and as many of these families were from a poor background, it guaranteed their sons a good education.

Therefore, in many regards the Devshirme and Encomienda system are incomparable as the Spanish coerced and inflicted violence to achieve subordination. The Ottomans did remove young boys from their families and the psychological and emotional consequences cannot be ignored.

Nevertheless, the Devshirme system created a ruling class whose primary function was to serve the state and in this way the Ottomans always guaranteed an efficiently run state, a well-trained army and a loyal bureaucracy while the Spanish relied on constant violence to create an efficient labour force.

In conclusion, the Spanish and the Ottomans had different methods of operating practically, however as they are both Empires they naturally have fundamental similarities. The notion of imperialism is at the heart of these Empires, to establish a political and economic hegemony and they are also expansionist by nature.

The imperial and chauvinistic qualities that are inherent and necessary for Empires to exist is what ultimately makes most of them, not just the Ottoman and the Spanish, alike regardless of practical differences. The differences between them, such as religious intolerance and the slave system, only reinforce this notion because while they had different means they achieve the same end, subordinating the masses either physically, economically or both.

Their ideological likeness is rooted in religion and based on the idea of holy authority and divine right as the Ottomans were an Islamic caliphate and the Spanish pursued Catholic expansion. This religious legitimacy coupled with economic benefits was a constant motive for the Empires to continuously expand and grow in size.

Therefore, it is interesting that 1492 is regarded by many historians as the beginning of modernity. Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas was the followed up by the genocide of the natives and the system of taxation of non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire formed an economic and religious hierarchy.

It is dangerous to assume modernity as progressive as the Empires in practice depict otherwise. However, they were ‘modern’ in the sense that these hierarchical and hegemonic structures were institutionalised, legal and supported by the state and legitimised by religion.

In this way, our definition of modernity is problematic because, the Spanish empire in specific, becomes a historical example that supports contemporary imperialism such as American imperialism. The rhetoric that was used during the American intervention of Iraq 2003 was the similar dogma that the Spanish used: progressing and advancing a society that was ‘backwards’ by their standards. Therefore, constituting Empires as progressive is dubious.


Akgündüz, A. and Öztürk, S. (2011). Ottoman history. 1st ed. Rotterdam: IUR Press.

Burbank, J. and Cooper, F. (2010). Empires in world history. 1st ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Fagan, B. (1998). Clash of cultures. 2nd ed. New York: W.H. Freeman.

İnalcık, H. (1973). The Ottoman Empire. 1st ed. New York: Praeger Publishers.

McCannon, J. (2010). Barron’s AP world history. 4th ed. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron’s.

Nicolle, D. and Hook, C. (1995). The Janissaries. 1st ed. London: Osprey.

Richardson, D. (2003). Secrets of the Koran. 1st ed. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books.

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