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Religious Tolerance

The study of religious coexistence in different countries in the Middle Ages is based on the comparative analysis of religious tolerance in the Ottoman Empire and European monarchies. At that period, the first was a large state with a lot of religions, and the main one was Islam. Despite the dominance of Islam, different religions were given autonomy, and it enabled to avoid such problems as religious conflicts. Distinct tolerance was manifested towards Christians and Jews. At the same time, European monarchies conducted quite a different policy. The establishment of absolute monarchy required the sole possible religion. Such attitude was a cause of persecutions and led to religious conflicts. As a result, Europe was suffering from religious wars at that time. Some religions were expelled, and other confessions appeared. Therefore, in comparison with European monarchies the Ottoman Empire was advanced concerning religion tolerance.   

Religion takes a special place in different states and historical epochs. Many emperors and kings, who ruled their countries, were obliged to consult and sometimes be under control of religious leaders. Several centuries ago, religion was an important factor that defined economic and political processes. Since territories were often populated with people of different beliefs, it inflicted disputes and conflicts, which issued in massacres and wars. Thus, the question of religious tolerance was crucial.


A single case of religious tolerance was the Ottoman Empire. During several ages, it held under control a lot of nations with different beliefs and traditions. The ruling power of the Empire was Muslim. Although the Muslims are considered as one of the most irreconcilable people in religious affairs, the Ottoman Empire was marked for a special attitude towards other beliefs. According to Rehman (2000), different nations were given comparative liberty in self-governing and religious affiliation. Through the Millet system, they were given the right to have autonomy and decide many questions concerning political, economic, and religious fields. Muslims had an unusual attitude towards Christians and Jews because they were considered the “people of the Book”. There is a known Muslim expression, that the Muslims, Christians and Jews have the same God, but different prophets. It was important that the Islam laws opposed the conversion from one religion to another by force.

In modern views, the Ottoman Empire is far from ideal. According to McCarthy (2014), the representatives of religious minorities were deprived of the right to serve in the military and share positions in central governing. They had to pay a special tax and even to wear special clothes in some regions. Later, they were deprived of the possibility to vote. Nevertheless, all these limitations are incomparable with atrocities that took place, for example, in Spain in the same period. Spain was one of the most powerful monarchies in medieval Europe. Prior to Christianity, Spain was a Muslim country, where Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisted on the same territory. Though the Muslims were dominant in this region, their leaders were reconciled with such situation, and representatives of other religions had their own rights and liberties. After the coming of Christianity, the situation was cardinally changed. All energy of Spanish monarchs was directed to the purposeful expulsion of other religions. The first who came under attack were Jews. The intolerance against Jews was a characteristic of medieval Europe. Most Jews in Spain adopted Christianity, but it did not help them as they were suspected of insincerity, and the Inquisition was organized. As a result, several hundred thousands of Jews had to leave the country. The attitude towards Muslims in European monarchies was not better. After the fall of the last Muslim stronghold in Granada in 1492, all Muslims were forced to adopt Christianity. 

Other European monarchies were not prominent in religious tolerance as well. France, for example, was known by its clashes between Catholics and Protestants, who belonged to the same religion but different confessions. England had conflicts between Anglicans and Puritans. Germany was known by hostility between Lutherans and Orthodox Catholics. The degree of religious intolerance was very high in medieval Europe, and it resulted to large-scale massacres. Sometimes, small discrepancies in religious views led to bloody wars. Medieval kings and emperors tried to set up absolute monarchies using religion as a tool. Their principle was “one god in the sky, one king in the state”. Thus, they instigated intolerance against other religions. Adopting Christianity in ancient Rome was caused by the consideration to substitute many gods by one.

What are possible explanations of different religious policies in the Ottoman Empire and European monarchies? Initially, almost all European countries were parts of the Roman Empire. Due to the ancient Roman religious strategy, they adopted the Christian religion, the head of which was the Pope, who lived and ruled mostly in Rome. In order to gain sole power, Roman emperors established intolerance to all religions, except Christianity. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, many monarchies were formed. However, the power of Rome was still strong, and local monarchies were weak due to the unwillingness of nobles to obey the will of a king. Gradually monarchies were getting stronger, and kings did not want to share their power with the church. The fact that the latter as a rule had great riches gained because of the general impoverishment of people usually caused general dissatisfaction. The kings’ desire to improve their financial position at the expense of the money of the church was getting stronger and stronger. Therefore, such a phenomenon as Reformation came to light. People and monarchs tried to get free of the Roman rule, and it inflicted the start of religious wars. In contrast to Europe, the Ottoman Empire conquered lands with previously formed traditions and beliefs, which were very different from each other. Ottoman emperors were not interested in constant opposition and defiance, so they tried to give religious minorities more liberty and remove grievances.

To conclude, differences in the attitude towards religious minorities were determined by interests of local rulers. European monarchies were in need of solid power over the whole nation or a group of kin nations. The Ottoman Empire consisted of very different nations, and this resulted into more religious tolerance, which helped it avoid blood shedding as in Europe.