A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East

By Ben-Bassat, Yuval | International Journal of Turkish Studies, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East


Ben-Bassat, Yuval, International Journal of Turkish Studies


HEATHER J. SHARKEY, A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), Pp. 394 ?69.99 Cloth

Heather J. Sharkey, an associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, who has published two books on the British colonial period in Egypt and Sudan, has taken a daunting task upon herself, namely, to present the historical relationships between the followers of the three monotheistic religions in the Middle East during the period from the emergence of the Ottoman Empire in the early fourteenth century up to World War I. In five thematic chapters, she discusses the different features of the relationships between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, while concomitantly moving chronologically through the centuries. The book is based on a very broad, encompassing and thorough survey of the secondary literature as well as on translated sources, which the author seems to master very well. It thus presents the state of the art in the field but does not deal with original research based on primary sources. Given the magnitude of the topics surveyed, obviously many works which could have been included are not cited, as the author needed to be selective in the works she relied upon. The end result, however, is a very thoughtful and impressive survey of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish relationships during the Ottoman period, although, for a reader, one could argue that it is perhaps a little too long and detailed. One of the reasons for this length is the ample provision of illuminating evidence from everyday practices and routines, by which Sharkey avoids the pitfall of remaining solely at the level of imperial declared policies or narrow elite documentation. At any rate, the book is very well written and makes for pleasant reading. The proofing was very meticulous and precise. A title focusing on the Ottoman Empire rather than the Middle East would have perhaps better described the book's content.

After a short introduction, chapter 2 provides straightforward narratives of Muslim, Christian and Jewish relationships under Islamic rule, from the rise of Islam to the eve of Ottoman ascension, with special emphasis on the dhimmi status and what it signified in different times and under various Islamic regimes. The importance of this term, as Sharkey writes (p. 27), stems from the fact that:

Over a remarkably long period, from the seventh century to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and stretching in some respects to the present day, early Islamic mechanisms for managing Muslim-dhimmi relations influenced policy, attitudes, and assumptions about how intercommunal relations should work. To be sure, Islamic societies changed significantly across time and place. Nevertheless..., Muslim rulers and ordinary people across the centuries invoked Islamic tradition, as they perceived it, to justify policies and behaviors toward non-Muslims.

Chapter 3 discusses the crystallization of the Ottoman attitude towards the empire's dhimmi subjects up to 1800. Sharkey is particularly interested in the creation and functioning of the millet system under Ottoman rule, which, contrary to common wisdom, was basically a set of local arrangements in various parts of the empire and not a hierarchal and strictly organized system prior to the nineteenth century. Although the Ottoman state preferred to deal with religious communities as entities rather than with individuals or groups based on other definitions, throughout the book, Sharkey emphasizes the disparities between official policies and local practices, habits, and attitudes towards dhimmis at various ends of the empire. Forming the backdrop for these events were the growing Ottoman interactions and exchanges with Europe, which later during the nineteenth century proved crucial for the fate of the empire in many respects, leading to interference in the empire's internal policies vis-a-vis religious minorities and to support for irredentist national movements. …

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