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.