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This is Part 7 of the chapter "Islamic Slavery" from M. A. Khan's book, "Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery". The Ottoman Dewshirme or slave culling that has been widely discussed or condemned, but it was neither an Ottoman invention nor the worst of Islamic slave harvesting. (Part 1Part 6, Part 8)


THE OTTOMAN DEWSHIRME

One severely condemned practice of Islamic slavery is the institution of Dewshirme, introduced by Ottoman Sultan Orkhan in 1330. This scheme consisted of collecting a part of the boys of the age-group of seven to twenty years from Christian and other non-Muslim families of the Ottoman Empire. About the introduction of this policy, Bernard Lewis quotes sixteenth-century Ottoman historian Sadeddin (aka Hoca Efendi) as thus:

‘The renowned king… entering into consultation with his ministers of State, the result hereof was, that for the time to come, there should be choice made, of valiant and industrious youths, out of the children of the unbelievers, fit for the service, whom they should likewise innoblize, by the faith of Islam; which being a means to make them rich and religious, might be also a way to subdue the strongholds of the unbelievers.’[1]

Under the scheme, non-Muslim children, mainly Christian, were "culled" from Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Armenia and Albania that had come under the Ottoman rule. On a fixed date, non-Muslim fathers (mostly Christian) were to bring their children to a designated public square. The Muslim recruiting agents used to choose the healthy, strong and handsome ones of them. After Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, Dewshirme received a boost as notes Stephen O’Shea: ‘…following the conquest, Fatih (the Conqueror) expanded the heartless devshirme or ‘gathering’ system, whereby young Christians were abducted and moved to the capital... Once every few years roving Ottoman talent scouts, accompanied by soldiers, descended on the villages… and culled the most promising peasant boys from their playmates and siblings.[2] The number of children collected as part of Dewshirme varies: ‘Some scholars place it as high as 12,000 a year, others at 8,000…[3]

These lots of the best of Christian, Jewish and Gypsy children were circumcised and converted to Islam, and were indoctrinated with the ideology of Jihad from this impressionable early age. They were meticulously trained solely for Jihadi warfare and served in a special unit of the Ottoman army, the Janissary Regiment. Barred from marriage and confined to their barracks, the Janissary soldiers single-mindedly focused on becoming deadly soldiers for waging Jihad against the infidels, their coreligionists of the yesteryear.

The policy proved a boon for the Ottomans. Muslim rulers had remained frustrated in their repeated failures to capture Constantinople—the greatest centre of Christianity, since the time of Caliph Mu'awiyah (d. 680). In their many early attempts to capture Constantinople, they often suffered disastrous reverses. Finally, the Janissaries launched a devastating assault on Constantinople in 1453 and overran it, winning the greatest prize for Islam. The reigning Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, allowed the Janissaries to pillage the city and slaughter their erstwhile coreligionists, mainly Christians, for three days. Those who survived were enslaved. Later on, soldiers were recruited into the Janissary Regiment indiscriminately, including Muslims and many Sufis alongside those collected as part of Dewshirme. Discipline and resolve gradually declined in the Regiment, which, incidentally, also marked the decline of Ottoman power.

The institution of Dewshirme obviates the fact as to how the Islamic world expanded by exploiting the muscles of the infidels for conquering infidel territories further. Following the Ottoman institution of Dewshirme, Sultan Firoz Tughlaq in India (r. 1351–88) instituted the recruitment of Hindu children in similar fashion. He commanded his provincial officers and generals to capture slaves and pick out the young and best ones for sending to the services of his court. In this fashion, he accumulated 180,000 young boys as slaves.[4]

Criticism of Dewshirme: The Ottoman scheme of Dewshirme, abolished in 1656, has been severely criticized because of the way slaves were culled.  However, the orthodox Ottomans, who were codifying their laws in accordance with the Sunni Sharia law, had their justification for the Dewshirme in the Quran and Islamic laws. The Quran 8:42 says, ‘And know that whatever thing you gain (spoils of war), a fifth of it is for Allah and for the Messenger…

The one-fifth of the plunder obtained from the infidels in wars, allotted to Allah and his messenger, initially went to Prophet Muhammad, the head and treasury of the nascent Islamic state. After his death, this share was acquired by the caliphal treasury. A minimum one-fifth of all produce from Dhimmi subjects was collected as kharaj under a taxation policy promulgated by Caliph Omar, although this share was often raised higher under special circumstances or by whimsical Muslim rulers. Since, newly born children of the infidels were also a kind of produce of the state, the institution of Dewshirme became justified in Islamic holy laws. The Prophet himself had set an example of acquiring Christian children when he forbade the tribe of Taghlib not to baptize their children. Later on, Caliph Omar ordered another Taghlib tribe ‘not to mark their children (with cross on their arm or wrist) and not to force their religion on them (i.e., not to baptize them).[5] As a result, those children entered the house of Islam. The only difference is that the Prophet and Caliph Omar had acquired all the children of the Taghlib tribes, while the Ottomans acquired only a part of them through Dewshirme.

With such Quranic sanction and prophetic example, the Rightly Guided Caliph Othman had enacted a Dewshirme-like scheme by forcing the Nubian Christians to send a yearly tribute of slaves to Cairo (652–1276). Similar agreements were enacted by the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs as already cited. The Dewshirme policy was, therefore, not an Ottoman invention. Moreover, this policy was obviously much more humane than Prophet Muhammad’s protocol of capturing slaves as applied to the Jews of Banu Qurayza and Khaybar etc., whereby he slew all the grown-up men and enslaved the women and children: a divine protocol approved by Allah [Quran 33:26–27]. During the centuries of Islamic conquest and rule, Prophet Muhammad’s protocol of enslavement, much more cruel and barbaric than the Dewshirme, was commonly applied.


[1]. Lewis B (2000) The Middle East, Phoenix, London, p. 109

[2]. O'Shea S (2006) Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World, Walker & Company, New York, p. 279

[3]. Ibn Warraq, p. 231

[4]. Lal (1994), p. 57–58

[5]. Al-Biladhuri AY (1865) Kitab Futuh al-Buldan, Ed. MJ De Geoje, Leiden,  p. 181