By Ohannes Kilicdagi
As it has been established, the 19th century was the era of reform for the Ottoman Empire. Although military reforms started earlier, the 1839 Tanzimat Edict had been generally accepted as a watershed in the history of these reforms, as it reflects the will of the state to make important changes in law and the way of administration. One of these promises was related to the treatment of people, as the text of the edict acknowledged that people had been treated and punished arbitrarily.
In this context, treatment of Christians and Jews was particularly highlighted since their religions were different from the religion of state, Islam, which exposed them distinct and, for many, discriminatory treatments. The tax of jizya, which had been established in the earliest time of Islamic rule, was arguably the most obvious marker of Christians’ and Jews’ differential treatment from Muslims, since jizya was peculiar to the non-Muslim males. Shortly after the proclamation of the Tanzimat Edict, an important change occurred in the implementation of jizya in the Ottoman Empire. Previously, it had been collected by civil servants from individual non-Muslim males. In other words, there was no intermediary between state and single non-Muslim males in collection of the tax. It was a responsibility of individuals. From the 1840s and onward, however, the state started to collect it through patriarchs and other communal leaders. They were supposed to collect the tax and submit it to the state as a lump sum.
In fact, observing such a change in the Tanzimat reform era, which was supposed to modernize the Ottoman law, is puzzling because the modern law recognizes individuals as autonomous entities and the modern state aims to establish direct, unmediated relation between itself and these autonomous entities. The change in the way of the collection of jizya, then, seems to have been contradictory to the aims and motivations of the state. This is a situation that needs explanation.
The document, which will be referred in this framework, is a report written by Shaykh al-Islām in March 1840. He explains the Islamic principles which should be followed in the collection the jizya as requirement of the Tanzimat reforms. What makes it more interesting is the note added at the top that reflects the sultan’s point of view.