Turkey has been in my imagination for a long time, ever since I learnt its heritage and modern legacies. I was and continue to be fascinated by its historical and modern development. Turkey is the heir of a great Muslim empire that governed most of the current Muslim world for more than fourteen centuries. Under the rule of the Ottomans, the world of Islam was looked at with due respect, fascination, and fear. They united the Muslim world, expanded its lands wider and farther than any other Muslim empire did before or after, secured its borders, and protected the holy places in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. It defended the faith – this was accomplished by encouraging the study of Islamic sciences, especially the Quran and Hadith, Islamic law or Sharia, and classical Arabic. The latter is crucial as the Arabic language, especially the classical form, is related organically to the Islamic faith and to lose this sacred language would entail a weakening or loss of Islamic faith and identity – an issue that is so prominent among contemporary Muslims these days. What fascinated me further is the way the Ottomans ruled vast territories through decentralised system that achieved relative stability and prosperity, at least during the early part of the empire.
In addition, the way they treated their minorities was to some extent successful – it was humane and this includes both non-Muslim (predominately Jews and Christians, (Ahl al-Kitab, the Arabic term for this group)) and co-religious Muslims (Shia, especially Shia Twelvers). For the former, the empire set up an advanced system known as the ‘millet’ system – the Arabic term derived from the word nation or a group of people with specific characteristics. This system ensured the protection of the personal rights of non-Muslims for centuries, including safeguards for their rights for worship, their personal belongings, and their lives and properties. This was in return for some form of financial payments – jizyah. Despite this, we very often hear some contemporary Western scholars of Islam criticising the system. They view the position of the people of the book or Dhimmis as derogatory, which intends to put non-Muslims in a position that is inferior to the position of Muslim. This is far from the truth for the system, in fact, it was an ideal system in pre-modern time. It protected them and apart from some individual cases where Dhimmis suffered discrimination, under Muslim rule, including Ottoman rule, Dhimmis did not suffer from systematic persecution and ethnic cleansing, as was the case with Muslims in Europe, such as in Medieval Spain and more recently in Bosnia. The current existence of non-Muslims (Jews, Christians, and others) in the Muslim lands is a testament to the fairness and justice with which Muslims treated and continue to treat their non-Muslim fellows in their lands. As for the Shia, despite some theological differences, the Ottomans managed to accommodate them. There were at times some internal conflicts between the two but in general, we are told, the Ottomans tolerated Shi’ism.