The Case of a Special Meeting

Between Islam and a Christian Nation


A survey from Islamic dhimma through the Ottoman millet

with a special regard to the Armenian experience of living together with Islam


By Dr. Boghos Levon Zekiyan

Professor of Armenian Language and Literature

University of Venice, Italy


Armenians met Islam since its earliest origins. Islam’s first impact with Armenia and the Armenians was due, first, to the Arabs’ invasion (600-643) and then, nearly half a century later, to their dominion of Armenia. An impact which would subsequently have a long and rich history.


Differently from all earlier invaders, as Achemenians, Parthians, Romans, Sasanians, Byzantines, the Arabs came to Armenia with all their tribe-family structure to settle there in a permanent way. This leads to a basic change of Armenia’s demography to the very detriment of the indigenous population. As to the “nakharar system, Armenia’s special feudal structure going back to immemorial times and being the backbone of the Armenian political system and of Armenia’s inner autonomy, the Byzantine Empire, under Justinian, had already put an end to its existence as a political structure. But the “nakharar dynasties were still alive. They were practically exterminated by the Arabs, especially during the last Armenian insurrection of the 8th century, in 774, which showed itself disastrous at all. Only a few families could survive, among which the Bagratids and the Artsrunis who laid later, in the 9th century, the foundations of the last two main Kingdoms of Greater Armenia, the Bagratids in the North, around mount Ararat, and the Artsrunis in the South in the region of Van and surroundings.


To resume, two basic changes took place in Armenia as a result of the Arabic domination. These changes revealed themselves fatal for the country’s future destiny: a) a structural change in the demographic upset; b) the actual end of the nakhararian dynastic system.


Obviously there is no invasion or foreign dominion in history without shedding of blood and, often vehement, cruelty. Nevertheless we cannot evaluate subsequent evolutions of those events uniquely at the light of shed blood and stroke violence. As in many other similar cases, subsequent history between the Arabs and the Armenians has also had more than one bright moment, and above all a remarkable mutual enrichment in arts, crafts, thought, and literature, and even phases of political collaboration and alliance, as it happened between the Caliph and Bagratid Armenia. This history of mutual relationship, especially in its intellectual, artistic, cultural aspects, is still almost a virgin forest for scholarly research. The Arabs were amazed of Armenia, of its arts and crafts. Their historians vie with each other in commending them.


Having made this preliminary statement, we still need some further remarks for a better contextualization of the announced topic in a more adequate frame.


Our first remark will be a strong caveat against a banally superficial common place: to consider Armenia’s historically radical option for Christianity, since the official conversion of Armenia’s King and Kingdom at the beginning of the Fourth century, in the prospect of a simply pro-Western option.


This would be a misleading attitude, frequent indeed even among scholars, for the following reasons:

a) not only Christianity itself has deeply Oriental roots, but the Armenian Christianity, especially in its earlier phases, derived so much from the Jerusalemite and proto-Syriac Christian traditions which certainly represent the most prominently and genuinely Oriental faces of early Christianity. Furthermore Armenia, whose culture has often and properly been considered as a bridge between East and West, kept a deal of its pre-Christian traditions, also after its conversion to Christianity, somehow re-baptizing them.

b) Islam, in its turn, even though originated in a remarkably Oriental context, has come very soon, especially in its culturally more refined currents, into an intimate contact with the Western civilization and, in a very special way, with Greek thought, science and philosophy.   


Obviously, these statements do not mean anyway ignoring all those elements in the early Armenian Christianity which are indicative of a pro-Western, i.e. a pro-Greek/pro-Roman tendency. Simply the reality itself is of a great complexity and has a great variety of dimensions. It would be misleading not to perceive this or to oppose those dimensions as irreconcilable. 



Religious and Ethnic Groups in Traditional Islam


The Islamic society, in its traditional, classical form was basically formed by the umma, that is by the people of Muslim faithful while the followers of the great Biblical religions, Jews and Christians, called the people of the Book (ahl al-Kitab) - the Book being the Bible - were considered as dhimma, that is “protected”, when defining the community, or dhimmīs with regard to the individuals. The Ottoman socio-political concept and the corresponding juridical system of millet – from Arabic milla meaning originally a group, a sect – was based on the Islamic ethno-religious conception of dhimma which was brought by the former to a fuller formulation as a basic element in the composition of the new Islamic political society. In fact the original dhimmī system  used to distinguish between the non Muslim subjects but for their religion, such as Jews and Christians. It took into consideration other elements defining a community identity, as the factors linked to ethnicity and to the living culture of a people, but on the ancestral territory of the submitted peoples considered as a political administrative unite of the Muslim Empire. The Ottoman millet system, on the contrary, recognized, according to established criteria, the communitarian identity of the various ethnic groups, at least of some of them, as Greeks and Armenians in particular, even outside of the borders of their ancestral territories; with a limit, however: that of being somehow subjects of the State at a second degree, with mutilated rights in comparison with the Muslim umma, in so far the members of the various non Muslim millets did not fully enjoy the same rights owned by the Muslim subjects. Although similar, to some extent, to the imperial law system of ancient Rome where non territorial ethnic elements were also recognized – this we know for certain with regard, at least, to the Jews –, the Ottoman millet system, as in general the Muslim law systems, differed from it for their discrimination between Muslim and non Muslim subjects. In ancient Rome citizenship was though acquired, and not all the subjects of the Empire were ipso facto citizens, all citizens, however, were equal at all in front of the law.


The development that led from the dhimmī to the Ottoman millet needs still further investigation and explanation as to its basic rationale and its interior dynamics. Since it was Mehmet II the Conqueror its great conceiver, who had a very close friendship with the Armenian Bishop of Boursa, the early Ottoman capital, prior to Constantinople, I would like to propose here as a pure hypothesis, to be investigated and ascertained indeed, that in his re-interpretation of the dhimmī system, the Conqueror was perhaps inspired by the traditional Armenian model of conceiving the ethnos, that is the «nation» (azg, in Armenian) in the sense of ethnicity. A conception that was far from perceiving ethnicity as a simple folklore or as something belonging to a quasi ethereal sphere that might function as a substitute for frustrated ambitions, but rather as a real and concrete factor defining community's identity and founding its Weltanschauung, as I tried to show in several prior studies.            


Discriminations, as the ones just described in the Islamic societies, existed, however, almost everywhere in past centuries following the collapse of the classical Roman system, even if in different measures and according to different modalities, and led to periodic persecutions which could end even in mass executions. Apart from these extreme cases which prevailed rather in times of turbulence, war and invasions, it is evident enough that those forms of statehood and governance were essentially of a theocratic and absolutist, consequently of a dictatorial nature. Such features were indeed common traits, even though, as already said, in different forms and degrees, almost of all the various regimes of the pre-modern era in human history. We must remind, moreover, not to evaluate all those restrictions neither according to contemporary European/Western standards, that would be a heavy anachronism, nor on the basis of unique criteria or one-sided viewpoints. This general rule of historical hermenutics must be applied with a special attention as far as the great Islamic Empires, mainly the Safavid and the Ottoman Empires, are at issue since their remarkable differences from the Western models of State absolutism, to which we are better accustomed, can be easy temptations to overemphasize some particularly despotic aspects. A special caution and balance in judgement are all the more necessary for the following reasons that I would like to point out here, to which eventually others can be added: a) the prohibition, for instance, to bring arms and to become soldiers or warriors, applied to Christians and Jews in Islamic societies, pushed the members of both these groups to develop mercantile skills which guaranteed many of them a highly well-off standard of life even in a larger percentage vis-à-vis the Muslim population; b) exception to the restrictive rules were sometimes made by Shahs or Sultans, if not on a theoretical, certainly on a practical ground. For instance, some privileges conceded by Shāh ‘Abbās to the Armenians offered these latter better opportunities than those enjoyed by Muslims; c) a very special status of exception was represented by the Khojas in Persia and the Amiras in the Ottoman State some of whom were at top positions as counsellors and administrators of Shahs and Sultans. 


Ethnicity and the Nation-State


Notwithstanding the now stressed limits of both the general Islamic and the Ottoman rules – limits that cannot absolutely be ignored or minimized, however contextualized they must be in their epochal Sitz im Leben –, if we make a comparison of those rules with the current Western system of the nation-State as such, in its rigorous and coherent formulation, it is only fair to admit that this latter is capable but to realize two kinds of identity: either the one consisting in citizenship, or the one that derives from belonging to a territorial minority intending with this term such minority groups that are basically linked to and recognizable in a well defined territory as are, for instance, the Basks in Spain, the Magyar in Transylvania, the South-Tyrolean in Italy, etc. In all other cases, which offer a remarkable multitude of typologies, based on differences of ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic, and similar peculiarities, the identity of minorities is recognized, in public life and institutions, certainly at a lesser or much lesser degree, according to the variety of single cases, than in the above mentioned traditional Islamic systems, even if a treatment of full equality is guaranteed individually – which unfortunately is not even as frequent as one could or should expect from modern democracies – to all the individual citizens belonging to those minorities. Being an Armenian or a Greek or a Jew, within the Ottoman State, was not a kind of “hobby”, expressible at best in forms of an association, as often it is the case in the frame of modern nation-States for non-territorial minorities; in fact the ethnic, cultural, and religious identity of the various officially recognized Ottoman millets was realized in and expressed through typical, and exclusively owned institutions which were linked to the very existence of the community itself, independently from any contingent personal or group initiative.



Historical Forms of Fanaticism and Intolerance, and Modern Fundamentalism


The traditional Islamic systems put moreover in light another and very important reality, of topic interest for our time: fundamentalism was alien to the traditional, classic Islam. This is clear in so far dhimmīs and millets had their own law and procedures which did not coincide with the Islamic rule or sharī‘a. This does not mean at all that there was no fanaticism in traditional Islam as there was, even if in different measures and according to different modalities, everywhere else. The fact is that fundamentalism is not simply fanaticism. Neither is fundamentalism synonymous of “integralism” which also is an attitude of a literal and most rigorous interpretation of religious law, but remaining in the inner sphere of a given religion and of its community of faithful without conditioning other religious groups; nor is fundamentalism synonymous with classical Medieval theocracy which occurred, as we just said, both in the Muslim and Christian worlds and is rather a peculiar theological view of society, State, power, sovereignty, law and related concepts.


Fundamentalism is a modern and technical concept to denote those cases in which some religious law must be applied to all the members of a given political community whatever their religion may be. In this technical sense, fundamentalism supposes a conception of the law as a pure form which is a typically Western conception, and has known its most remarkable developments in  modern era, especially in the culture of Enlightenment and of Kantian philosophy. Even if the origins of modern fundamentalism is related mainly to religious contexts, but fundamentalist forms of thought have had a large diffusion also in other domains of life, as for instance in education, the conception itself of the secular state, and not least in economics. Thus it is possible to speak of a "market fundamentalism" (see Kensei Hiwaki, "The enrichment of culture", in Journal of BWW Society, Nov.-Dec. 2001).


As a religious trend, its origins lay in some peculiar forms of Christian Protestantism that developed, especially in the New Continent, through the Nineteenth century and further. Normally, neither Ottoman Sultans nor Savafid Shahs imposed Islamic sharī‘a to their Christian subjects. Sometimes fanaticism lead them or their representatives, their high officials, to attempt converting those subjects by force or simply to persecute them, as already mentioned. But it is evident that this did not happen either universally or constantly. Hence fundamentalism, injected into modern Islam by Western models, in a strange dialectics of contrasting and at the same time emulating the West, its models, its achievements, sets out on a path that, both historically and ideologically, seems not to be lined up with the basic attitude and the world vision of the classic, traditional Islam.


What I am saying is not denied even by the catastrophic tragedy of the Armenian Genocide. In fact, its conception and execution were due mainly to the Panturkic/Panturanian nationalistic ideology of the modernizing and Westernizing movement of the Union and Progress party whose ideology was inspired and clumsily copied from Western, and especially French, models. Very difficultly indeed the theocratic Islamic ideology would conceive such a universal target, unless in its more primitive form, common to all radically aggressive, devastating action, of “not leaving stone upon stone”. But this latter form of action was typical of intense contexts of war or invasion; moreover, it happened, and normally on regional dimensions, in concurrence with the advancement of huge waves of migrating populations or invading and destroying armies. Such was not the historical context at all in Anatolian Turkey towards the end of the 19th century. Nevertheless the Westernizing pioneers of the Union and Progress have been able to project and execute a muss murder, the murder of a millet, in an exemplary way. We also know that the Sheikh-ül-Islam of the time opposed, himself, the decision of “deportation” of all the Armenians on the basis of eventual, conjectural imputations, judging such generalized measures against innocent people contrary to the Islamic faith and law requiring to punish those whose guilt was proved, but not the whole innocent people.



Some Conclusions


We can resume in the following points what has been said above drawing some conclusions which are, I think, of topic interest for our times:

1.      the Armenian adhesion to Christian faith is certainly one of the firmest witnesses to Christianity given by a nation or by an ethnic group that we can ever see in history. This firmness, in any case, did not comport as such a radical incompatibility for a peaceful coexistence with other religions, and with Islam in particular, within an Islamic society, even under Islamic dominion; on the contrary, Armenians were distinguished for their sense of loyalty (they were known in the Ottoman Empire as the “loyal nation”) contributing all out to the enrichment and progress of the societies, both Christian and non, in which they used to live. As far as the catastrophic tragedy of the Armenian Genocide is at issue, its conception and execution were due mainly to the Panturanian nationalistic ideology of the modernizing and Westernizing movement of the Union and Progress party whose ideology was inspired and clumsily copied from Western models.

2.      Religious fundamentalism, which is to be accurately distinguished from simple fanaticism, intolerance, and even from religious integralism, and which forms one of the major and most awful concerns of our days, does not derive from the inner nature of Islam as such. It certainly did not exist, in its current theoretical, universalistic forms of our days, neither in the Safavid nor in the Ottoman Empires, which were, without any doubt, theocratic Islamic entities based on sharī‘a. As a rule, however, except in cases of local violent persecution or institutional prescriptions imposing Islamic faith, as in the case of the devşirme (the forced recruiting of adolescent boys to raise them as future janissaries and officials of the Empire), neither Shahs nor Sultans thought to impose, as a rule, Islamic law to their non Muslim subjects.

3.      The Islamic dhimma, and later the Ottoman millet systems, although limited in their conception of human rights, so that non Muslim subjects were somehow considered as “subjects” of a secondary degree, balances, however, this limitation by its explicit recognition of an ethno-cultural group identity, different from that of the dominant Islamic majority. In the ancient classical West, the Roman Empire offered a similar prototype in which, however, all those who had got Roman citizenship enjoyed equal rights regardless of their ethnical origin which was, all the same, recognized, even independently from an immediate territorial bond. This we can state with sufficient evidence as far as at least Jewish communities were concerned.

A synthesis between the best of the classical imperial “cosmopolitan” systems and the modern conception of full citizenship – as taught and practiced in the nation-States of a Western standard which gave us a rather great chart of human rights, and especially of the rights of human person, regardless of any eventual factor of discrimination – seems not only theoretically possible, but also actually suitable. It can offer a highly appropriate path to come out from the blind alley in which things seem entrapped today, with inter-cultural and inter-religious relations following the big bang, at global extensions, of migratory movements and inter-ethnic conflicts.




An essential bibliography:


BRAUDE Benjamin - LEWIS Bernard, (ed.), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, 2 vols., Holmes & Meier Publishers, New York, 1982.

GREGORIAN Vartan, Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith, Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2002 - Ital. Transl. Mosaico Islam. Alcune cose essenziali che dobbiamo smettere di ignorare, Marsilio, Venezia, 2006.

HEMMINGER Hansjörg, (ed..), Fundamentalismus in der verweltlichen Kultur, Quell, Stuttgart, 1991.  

KERBER Walter (ed.), Wie tolerant ist der Islam? Isslamwissenschaftler nehmen Stellung, (Fragen einer neuen Weltkultur, Bd. 6), Peter Kindt Verlag, München, 1991.

            KÜNG Hans - MOLTMANN Jürgen, (ed.), Oecuménisme. Le fondamentalisme, défi œcuménique: Concilium, Revue Internationale de Théologie, N° 241, 1992.

            LAURENT  Joseph, L’Arménie entre Byzance et l’Islam depuis la conquête arabe jusuqu’en 886 (Paris, 1919), nouvelle édition revue et mise à jour par M. [Marius] Canard, (Armenian Library of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation), Librairie Bertrand, Lisbonne, 1980.

            LEPSIUS Johannes, Der Todesgang des armenischen Volkes. Bericht über das Schicksal des armenischen Volkes in der Türkei während des Weltkrieges, Vierte Auflage, Missionshandlung und Verlag, Potsdam, 1930, 1st ed., Potsdam, 1916.

            MARCUS Abraham, The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity. Aleppo in the Eighteenth Century, Columbia University Press (New York, 1989), pp. 13-72.   

            PANE Riccardo, La Chiesa Armena. Storia, Spiritualità e Istituzioni, (L’Oriente Cristiano, 2), “Settereligioni” 2 (2005), a. 15° - 42.

SANJIAN Avedis, The Armenian Communities in Syria under Ottoman Dominion, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1965.

           ZEKIYAN Boghos Levon, “L'«idéologie» nationale de Movses Xorenac‘i et sa conception de 1’histoire, Handes Amsorya, CI (1987), pp. 471-485.

      “The Iranian Oikumene and Armenia”, in Iran and the Caucasus, vol. 9 (2005), pp. 231-256.



Dr. Boghos Levon Zekiyan was born in Istanbul on October 21, 1943. He joined the seminary of the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist Brotherhood in Venice in 1955, and received his higher education in Rome at the Pontifical Gregoriana University, earning a Master's degree in Philosophy in 1962 and a Master's degree in Theology four years later. Dr. Zekiyan specialized in Oriental Christian Spirituality in 1968, and in 1973 he obtained his Ph.D. degree with a dissertation on the principle of inwardness in St. Augustine's theory of knowledge.


In 1974 Dr. Zekiyan moved to Venice as Assistant Editor of Bazmavep, the publishing organ of the Armenian Mekhitarist Academy. He was its Editor-in-Chief from 1980 through 1985. Additionally, in 1976 he was invited by the University of Venice to inaugurate the post of Chair of Armenian Studies, which he still holds today. That same year, in Milan he joined the Center for the Study of Armenian Culture, which promoted remarkable research on Armenian art, as it was then one of the rare private partners of the central Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. In 1988 Dr. Zekiyan was appointed Professor of Armenian Church Institutions at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. From 1988 through 1992 he held annual lectures as a Visiting Professor at the American Armenian International College of the University of La Verne in California.


Since 1978 Professor Zekiyan has animated some of the major activities in Armenian Culture in Italy, such as the first Festival of Armenian Cinema in Italy in 1983, the series of conferences entitled Armenians in Italian Culture, the 5th International Symposium on Armenian Art in 1988, the exhibition 'The Armenians in Italy' in 1990, and since 1986, the Summer Intensive Course on Armenian Language and Culture. In 1982 Dr. Zekiyan joined the Committee Board of the newly founded Association International des Etudes Armeniennes. He is President of the special Armenian Studies 2004 Committee for the celebration of the 16th centenary of the Armenian alphabet. He was one of the founders of the Association Padus-Aries in 1987, and of the Association Italiarmenia in 1991.


Dr. Zekiyan is the author of 11 monographs and over 100 scholarly articles in six languages. He also directed the first audiovisual course on the Armenian language. Dr. Evian's scholarly interests mainly concern Armenian studies in different dimensions, such as literature and philology, Church history, and Armenian thought and identity, as well as philosophical and theological issues, such as the problem of consciousness, the philosophical idea of humanism, the question of value, and the attempt at a theology of ethnicity.


A brilliant orator, Dr. Zekiyan speaks eight and can understand twelve languages. He has given almost three hundred lectures and has presented more than fifty scholarly papers at international conferences in different countries of the world. In 1992 Dr. Zekiyan was named a corresponding member of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, and in 1994 he was accepted as a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia.





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