Multiculturalism in Medieval Islam

A centuries-old tradition of tolerance and diversity


| December 16, 2004


Medieval Islam provides a model for tolerance and multiculturalism from which contemporaries of all faiths could learn a lesson or two. While there was certainly legal discrimination against non-Muslims, or dhimmi, under Islamic rule, dhimmi shared space with Muslims on all levels of society, from the streets to the courts. Christian and Jewish merchants prospered in cities like Istanbul, and Ottoman rulers waived religious requirements to allow dhimmi into coveted army positions. Many Sephardic Jews in particular emigrated to the Ottoman empire as refugees from Europe, where the Spanish began expelling Jews in 1492. One such ?migr?, the Sultan's doctor, was so renowned that he had a quarter of Istanbul named after him; another Jewish man served as prime minister.

Even the most successful dhimmi, however, had to observe certain restrictive rules. Non-Muslim males had second-class legal status, and all dhimmi had to externally differentiate themselves from Muslims by wearing deliberately bright clothing and using inferior modes of transportation. Unfortunate and unfair as these regulations were, however, Islamic society did manage to provide the closest thing to equal religious opportunity that the medieval world had yet to see. This remarkable tolerance, which serves as a sort of historical precedent for Islamic multiculturalism, ended in the 16th century with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and its subsequent turn towards conservatism.
-- Brendan Themes

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