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The Balance of Justıce ın The Ottoman Empıre:
Non-Muslıms as Agents ın an Islamıc Imperıal Legal Context

Organizers: Abdurrahman Atçıl, Eugenia Kermeli, Ayşe Ozil


The Ottoman Empire was a multi-religious empire. Yet Ottoman non-Muslims, who made up half or more of the empire’s population for most of its history, rarely appeared as agents in imperial discourse. This asymmetry is reflected in the way historians understand non-Muslims’ position in Ottoman society, which they have traditionally viewed through the lens of either sharia or the millet system. According to the former, Ottoman non-Muslims were subject to a scripturally based and timeless set of rules imposed upon them from above. According to the latter, they maintained a parallel existence in closed-off enclaves, conducting their affairs within their own communities, separate from and subordinate to the rest of the realm. In both cases, non-Muslims are seen as objects of Ottoman rule but not as active agents in it—subjects of a system that governed their lives but in whose construction and perpetuation they played no part.


Recent research has challenged these traditional understandings. In the legal field in particular, empirical work on the diverse ways Ottoman non-Muslims pressed claims for justice has cast fresh light on the many avenues through which Ottoman subjects pursued agendas and sought redress, while also raising new questions about how state and society reflected upon, responded to, and engaged with these efforts. It has also highlighted the historically contingent nature of sharia as a system of law. Far from a static and inflexible set of rules, sharia was produced and reproduced through the interactions of the state apparatus, Muslim scholars, and different social groups, including non-Muslims. It served as a system of legal norms, but also as a space in which Muslims and non-Muslims could contribute to the development of these norms, thus smoothing the integration of different political groups into the society and the imperial political and legal system.


This conference intends to contribute to the growing body of research on non-Muslims as integral parts of Ottoman society and on the various and evolving roles they played as agents in the legal system across the empire (in Anatolia, Arab lands, the Balkans, Istanbul, the Mediterranean, etc.). Focusing on the period from the early modern to the modern era, we invite participants to engage with questions such as the following: How can we reveal non-Muslims’ agency in the Ottoman legal context? What notions and practices of institutionalization, authority, and coercion did non-Muslims have? How do these diverge from the static models that have traditionally dominated scholarship on the subject? And what new, dynamic models can we develop in their place to better understand the varying ways non-Muslims participated in Ottoman society? We are especially keen to invite contributions from scholars who pursue socio-legal approaches and those who are interested in how social conditions and processes (demographics, economic features, geographies, neighborhood structures, professional solidarities, gender, etc.) influenced and were affected by legal norms, processes, and practices.


We are also interested in non-Muslims’ own perceptions of Ottoman justice at both the communal and the individual levels, and in how other actors perceived and responded to their ideas of justice. In addition, we welcome papers investigating the participation of individual and institutional actors (e.g., the Divan, non-Muslim religious and communal courts, qadi courts, guilds) in legal processes; the mechanisms by which different kinds of jurisprudence and norms (e.g., canon law, local custom, sharia, kanun) were employed in the pursuit of justice; and the role of different forms of coercion (e.g., state, ecclesiastical, professional, social) in the implementation of justice, the instruments through which these forms of coercion were exerted, and the actors who wielded them.


Among the topics we want to explore in this conference are the following:


  1. Ideas of Justice

  • The ideas of justice/legitimacy promoted by the ruling class and their reception, adaptation, and use by different non-Muslim groups

  • The variety of ideas of justice/legitimacy among non-Muslims and their interaction with imperial ideologies of justice

  • The relationship of the discourse of justice with the socio-legal reality


    2. Justice-Seeking by Non-Muslims

        a. Forums for justice:

  • The question of the hierarchy of courts

  • The question of the distinction between and courts (e.g., qadi courts, ecclesiastical courts, communal courts, European consular courts, adjudication by professional bodies)

  • Actors in legal processes involving non-Muslims (e.g., judges, litigants, mediators, witnesses, prosecutors, lawyers)

  • Types of jurisprudence employed (e.g., sharia, canon law, custom)


       b. Complaints:

  • What was the function of complaints for non-Muslims in seeking justice?

  • How did non-Muslim communities use complaints and petitions? Did their recourse to these mechanisms have distinctive features?

  • Did complaints and petitions play a constructive role in the formation of legal norms?


    3. The Implementation of Justice

  • State coercion

  • Religious coercion (e.g., excommunication)

  • Professional coercion (e.g., expulsion from a guild)

  • Social coercion

  • Actors/instruments of coercion (e.g., the role of kefil, çavuş, muhzır)

  • The blurry line between legal coercion and oppression

Format, Calendar and Publıcatıon plans

The conference is being organized by OTTOLEGAL: The Making of Ottoman Law, a project funded by the European Research Council, in coordination with Sabancı University.


We hope that the circumstances created by the Covid-19 pandemic will allow us to meet in person for the conference at Sabancı University’s Minerva Han in Karaköy, Istanbul, on 13–15 October 2022.


The conference will have three main sections (Ideas of Justice, Justice-Seeking, and the Implementation of Justice). Each section will have a discussant who will put the papers into context (with comments, questions, and suggestions for future research).


To maximize the benefits everyone will derive from the conference, we would like to circulate the conference papers among the participants in advance.


We intend to produce an edited volume based on a selection of the conference papers. To ensure quality and timely publication, we aim to submit a proposal to the editors of major academic publishers and to meet and discuss the project with them before the conference commences. Thus, we will ask participants to submit an extended abstract (about 1,000 words) prior to the submission of their draft papers.


These are the key dates:


28 February 2022: Submission of abstracts (about 300 words) and a short bio, including institutional affiliation, to


15 March 2022: Notification of selected abstracts


15 May 2022: Submission of extended abstracts (about 1,000 words)


15 September 2022: Submission of conference papers


31 January 2023: Submission of chapters


30 June 2023: Submission of the whole manuscript to the publisher


We would like to ask conference participants to apply for funding from their own institutions for travel and accommodation. For those without institutional funding, the conference will provide such assistance as it can to help offset the cost of a return flight ticket to Istanbul and accommodation for four nights in Istanbul. The meals during the meetings will be covered from the conference budget.


Please contact Hümeyra Bostan-Berber (, the project coordinator, or Abdurrahman Atçıl (, the project director, with any questions or queries.

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