The History of the Middle East

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How did the Ottoman and Safavid Empires treat the religious minorities they conquered? Also, what is the Ottoman Janissary system and the rivalry between Sunni and Shi’s Muslims in the Safavid Empire?

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While the Ottoman and Safavid Empires certainly encouraged their non-Muslim subjects to convert, they still tolerated most of the minority religions in their lands. Jews and Christians were seen as "Peoples of the Book" and were therefore permitted to continue the practice of their religions. However, there were usually certain...

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While the Ottoman and Safavid Empires certainly encouraged their non-Muslim subjects to convert, they still tolerated most of the minority religions in their lands. Jews and Christians were seen as "Peoples of the Book" and were therefore permitted to continue the practice of their religions. However, there were usually certain restrictions on how they went about this. They were forbidden to worship in public and attempting to convert Muslims was strictly forbidden and could be met with very harsh punishment. They remained second-class citizens as long as they remained adherents of these religions. They had to pay an extra tax called jizya and were barred from many political offices. Many did convert to Islam though to take advantage of the benefits of being part of the state religion. However, anyone who converted to Islam and then reverted to their former faith could face dire punishments. Other religions, such as Zoroastrians and Sabeans were generally even less tolerated and their practitioners often had to worship in secrecy.

The Janissary was an elite fighting force in the Ottoman Empire. It often acted as the sultan's bodyguard and remained active as a standing professional army. At first, the Janissary was made up of highly trained slaves. Christian boys from the provinces would be kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam. They would spend their whole lives in the Janissary as they were forbidden to marry or take other employment. The Janissary was characterized by having very tight cohesion and fearlessness in battle. By the end of the fifteenth century, its forces were about 6,000 strong. They were instrumental in the capture of Constantinople in 1453. By the seventeenth century, the Janissary was influential enough to dictate internal policy in the Ottoman Empire. They could influence who would be sultan and began taking land and trade commissions for themselves. This reduced their value as a fighting force. In 1826, when the sultan decided to disband the Janissary in favor of creating a more modern army. This resulted in a mutiny. This revolt was brutally put down and signified the permanent end of this unique military system.

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Like many empires throughout history, the Ottoman Empire conquered many people and sought to convert them to their own religion. Those that did not convert were given second-class status, called zimmis, granted some limited autonomy but still subject to Ottoman rule and Islamic law. This was better than religious minorities were treated in many other parts of the world, but hardly equality.

The Ottoman Sultan Marad I formed the Janissary from captured Christians who were pressed into service as a personal bodyguard for the Sultan. His successor, Marad II, expanded their role to be an elite military corps that served a variety of functions---but still maintained the general practice of pressing Christians into service. Eventually they became a powerful interest group in their own right. In a time when most armies were gathered ad hoc from serfs and peasants, the Janissary formed something much closer to a modern standing army. They used firearms, which at the time were state-of-the-art.

The Sunni/Shi'a conflict has been a part of Islam since a generation after the religion's founding, so it's hardly limited to the Savafid Empire; but it was certainly important there. Though Shah Ismail was originally Sufi, he converted to Shi'a, and declared the independence of the Savafid Empire from the Ottoman Empire when the Ottomans outlawed Shi'a and mandated Sunni Islam.

Ismail then made the Savafid Empire a Shi'a state, despite the fact that most of the population was in fact Sunni. This led to a campaign to convert the population to Shi'a, ranging from propaganda to outright coercion. This conversion of the population to Shi'a was largely successful, and to this day Iran is a Shi'a state with a predominantly Shi'a population.

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