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Ottoman Tanzimat and Conflict in the Arab Lands

by Mahnoor Bari 


Though they were intended to modernize the empire and make its governance more efficient, the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms often had the reverse effect of leading to conflict, particularly in the Arab regions, by upsetting local norms of social cohesion and power. The Tanzimat reforms brought about massive change wherever they were applied, in varying degrees and with varying enthusiasm, throughout the empire; however, the areas of Mount Lebanon and what is now considered Iraq were particular flashpoints.


Tanzimat and origins of social change

                  Prior to the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire faced multiple challenges on several fronts. The empire had become decentralized as the power of the state had become diffuse due to its reliance on local intermediaries for administration, as well as increasing corruption and inefficiency in tax collection and revenues. In addition, there was a decline in the strength and reliability of the army which was becoming increasingly outdated, an issue that called for urgent attention in the face of loss of dominance and existential and ideological threats from European powers. Also, there was an internal identity crisis arising from conflicting religious and ethnic nationalisms within the empire, as well as emerging questions about the future and the nature of the empire which further threatened the stability and unity of the traditional order: should it be secular, based on the revival of a broad Islamic identity, or should it be based on a specific “Ottoman” character. A system of rule that had worked for centuries had become unfeasible over time in a more modern context. To address these challenges, Istanbul adopted a series of reforms, already implemented in Egypt by Mohammad Ali Pasha beginning in 1813. Ussama Makdisi (2002) writes that the Tanzimat period was “a period when the Ottoman state sought to redefine itself as more than an Islamic dynasty, as a modern, bureaucratic, and tolerant state – a partner of the West than its adversary” (Makdisi, 2002, p. 770). Here, the meaning of “state” refers to the western model of a liberal, bureaucratic nation-state; a centralized, secular, and inclusive entity consisting of a representative government with accommodation and tolerance for the monarch, along with a society based on Ottoman citizenship rather than the confessional millet[1] system. A Weberian definition of the state – “exclusive monopoly on the use of force” – seems rather fitting as well. This is only natural given the narrow, elite segment of Ottoman society which came up with the Tanzimat and wished to see them through, as will be discussed further on.

Although the Ottoman reforms were similar to Mohammad Ali Pasha’s, they were more extensive due to their wider goals and the more decentralized and heterogeneous nature of the Ottoman Empire as a whole in comparison to Egypt. The main Ottoman Tanzimat were launched with the Hatt-i-Sharif Gulhane Edict of 1839, reaffirmed in the Hatt-i-Humayun of 1856, and reinforced by other reforms such as the Ottoman Land Law of 1858 and the overhaul of the legal, commercial, and penal codes from the 1850s through to the 1880s (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013, p. 76-77; Liebesny, 1975, p. 63-65). Cleveland and Bunton write that 


“[the Gulhane Edict] was not a piece of legislation but rather, a statement of royal intent the sultan issued to his subjects… in it the Ottoman ruler promised… the abolition of tax farming, the standardization of military conscription, and the elimination of corruption… [it] was the sultan’s pledge to extend the reforms to all Ottoman subjects, regardless of their religion” (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013, 76-77).


The Hatt-i-Humayun of 1856, in turn, reaffirmed this pledge of the sultan “and the guarantees of the equality of all subjects were made more explicit” (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013, p. 77). The context and significance of the two decrees is very important. Part of the external pressures exerted on the Ottoman Empire was the threat of European intervention on behalf of non-Muslim ethnic and religious minorities in case their rights were seen as being violated. The Ottoman ruling class saw an apparent need to be more inclusive and tolerant in order to combat increasing ethnic nationalism, particularly in the European provinces, and prevent intervention at a time when European presence was expanding worldwide through colonialism – perceived to be a serious threat given increasing European colonial control of Muslim lands such as northern Africa, the Asian subcontinent, as well as southeast Asia. This marked a change from the way things were done previously, which was semi-autonomy for the various religious communities through the millet system, a form of confessional politics. In this way, minorities were also the target of the Tanzimat’s centralization.

Another goal of the Tanzimat reforms was to create a new bureaucracy which was trained and specialized in its function within the state. To do this, Western style schools and institutes in medicine, languages, and sciences were opened, often with instruction in European languages (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013, p. 77).  Open to civilians, these schools were state-sponsored and intended to produce modern, educated civil servants and army officers, and led to the creation of a new political elite class which was given greater preference and opportunities with and by the state. This had the effect of alienating those who were traditionally trained through the madrassahs,[2] leading to a divide resulting not just from different outlooks through diverging education, but also the creation of a new bourgeois. Göçek (1996) notes that the sultan’s measure of trying to groom a new segment of society loyal solely to him through the creation of schools and institutes with Western education had unexpected consequences because 


“contrary to the sultan’s expectations based on the… fifteenth-century experience with Janissaries, this new social group did not develop an allegiance to the sultan. The systematic Western-style education they acquired as a group fostered social networks and allegiances with one another. … This group therefore developed allegiance not to the sultan but to the abstract notion of an Ottoman state” (Göçek, 1996, p. 45).


Göçek’s analysis about the role of education in shaping societal views overall indicates that there existed segments of Ottoman society which were already open and receptive to the ideals of the Tanzimat, that the educational institutions resulting from the Tanzimat were extremely effective in their purpose of creating a trained and specialized bureaucracy and, as Cleveland and Bunton (2013) suggest, an important means for upward social mobility. At least in terms of accomplishing the goals initially set, the Tanzimat can be said to have been highly effective in this regard. Combined with the early aims of the Tanzimat, this new platform and basis for solidarity, a modernized view of what it meant to be Ottoman and part of the Ottoman elite, had the effect of being a new equalizer of sorts. Through the state schools, those from more humble origins could now rise and hold high ranking positions in the state as well (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013, p. 76). Nonetheless, it should not be forgotten that this segment of Ottoman society was extremely small and concentrated when compared to the overall population of the empire.

From within the Ottoman order, two major strains of thought emerged in the late Tanzimat period: the Young Ottomans and the Young Turks. The former, active until the Balkan war of 1878, brought a crackdown on internal dissent and were “opposed to authoritarianism, convinced of the benefits of Islamic culture… as a potential unifier of diverse people, [and] believed that such liberal institutions and practices as parliaments and constitutions, and extending rights to all citizens, would give people a stake in keeping the empire alive and prosperous” (Gettleman and Schaar, 2012, p. 76). The latter, on the other hand, “overthrew the sultan [in the military coup of 1908] and made all subsequent Ottoman rulers follow their orders. … [and] favored centralizing and Turkifying what remained of the empire, thereby alienating many Arabs who before this had shared power with the Turks in governing the empire” (Gettleman and Schaar, 2012, p. 77). This notion of modern, “progressive”, and visionary bureaucrats venturing into central planning falls in with James Scott’s (1998) argument in Seeing Like a State that such bureaucrats tend to oversimplify – in their quest to model and gather information – local nuances for the sake of creating a quick go-to guide, which Scott calls “abridged maps” (Scott, 1998, p. 2). According to Scott, these “social simplifications … permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription [and] greatly enhanced capacity. They made possible…  [state] interventions of every kind”; he also notes, however, that such grand centrally planned projects “seldom succeeded” (Scott, 1998, p. 1-3). Given that Scott’s discussion is in the context of the early modern European nation-state, this makes his observations quite relevant in the Ottoman context as well, especially since the Ottoman Tanzimat were essentially based upon emulating the modern European model.  As such, when Europeanized Ottoman bureaucrats and officers sought to forcefully modernize the still traditional populations in the provinces, they often faced considerable resistance and blowback. Two examples, Mount Lebanon and Iraq, will be considered.


Mount Lebanon

                  The impact of the Tanzimat in the Mount Lebanon region was felt most acutely, particularly through the riots of 1860. The area of Mount Lebanon was considered a frontier of the empire due to its mountains and a large population of dissident religious groups and other non-Sunni Muslims (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013, p. 90). The system of using local intermediaries, or ayan,[3] in combination with the millet system, had worked to ensure relative peace and security and a balance of power. This can best be understood by Makdisi, who writes that in the Ottoman Empire “Christians and other non-Muslim subjects were tolerated but never considered as equals… the Ottoman state sought to manipulate and regulate rather than to overcome the multi-religious nature of the empire” (Makdisi, 2002, p. 774).

                  Conflict initially began when Mohammed Ali Pasha’s son, Ibrahim Pasha (whom his father had sent on campaign to conquer Greater Syria and Palestine for Egypt), engaged in direct rule rather than through intermediaries. In addition to attempting to impose conscription, Ibrahim Pasha “insisted that the government treat all the religious communities in Greater Syria equally, and he issued decrees abolishing the special taxes that Jews and Christians had to pay on their places of worship… and [introduced] universal conscription and … simultaneous[ly] attempt[ed] to disarm the local population” (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013, p. 90). From 1837 to 1839, Ibrahim Pasha alternatively played off the Christians and the Druze against each other when the latter refused to surrender arms and the former used the opportunity to increase territories in their control. Egypt was eventually forced to give up Greater Syria and other territories under the terms of the Treaty of London in 1841, after Sultan Mahmud II, along with British assistance, ended Egypt’s military and economic expansion by forcing Mohammed Ali Pasha to “withdraw from all territories he had occupied except the Sudan… [and] the Egyptian army could not exceed 18,000 men” (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013, p. 68). Mohammad Ali Pasha’s own imperial expansion threatened the sultan’s rule and the territorial integrity of the empire, while the Egyptian economy’s shift towards manufacturing and textiles threatened British markets (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013, p. 68). However, the Egyptian retreat from Greater Syria in 1840 was not before there had been a general uprising by all the religious groups in Mount Lebanon (Cleveland and Bunton, 2013, p. 90). Back under Ottoman rule, the Christians took advantage of Tanzimat guarantees of the right to the protection of honor, property, and life (Gettleman and Schaar, 2012, p. 83) and enjoyed a greater freedom than ever before, causing resentment among the groups they had displaced, namely the Druze and Sunni Muslims, who felt infringed upon. This led to a civil war in 1860, starting with attacks on Christian villages and spreading throughout Syria. When the Ottoman force came in, there was an urgency not just to restore order, but also to forestall European involvement on behalf of Christians. This was also seen as a chance to create a new kind of order, a chance for a fresh approach from the Tanzimat. Makdisi writes that the “Ottoman reformers took advantage of the restoration of order in Mount Lebanon and Damascus to construct their vision of an Ottoman modernity in contrast to an alleged local barbarism… to ensure that modern Ottoman law and order was properly imposed” (Makdisi, 2002, p. 780). Makdisi further explains that in imposing this new order, Fuad Pasha (the Ottoman foreign minister at the time) took care to emphasize the tribal, ethnic, and religious struggles in Mount Lebanon. He dismissed them as historically continuous and “age-old,” as something that the new order being imposed was meant to address and correct, so to say, by doing away with the millet system of governing minorities through their respective religious leaders in a manner similar to the ayan, wherein “Christian and other non-Muslim subjects were tolerated but never considered as equals” and that “the [pre-Tanzimat] Ottoman state sought to manipulate and regulate rather than to overcome the multi-religious nature of the empire (Makdisi, 2002, p. 774). Since the Ottoman state did not have the historical precedent of conversions as a way of homogenizing indigenous populations in peripheral regions, as Makdisi gives the example of the Spanish empire in the New World, it had to find a new means of creating a homogenous identity necessary for a nation-state. This was implemented by exporting modernity from the capital to the periphery to create a new basis of integration involving the individual with the state, centralizing and curbing the power of the ayan and the millets in doing so.

Never mind the underlying causes and grievances that sparked the civil war, it was more convenient and in the spirit of the Tanzimat to dismiss traditional hierarchies in favor of more direct rule over subjects rather than through their community leaders. The soldiers sent to subdue the Syrian population therefore, argues Makdisi, “constituted the vanguard of Ottoman modernity, rationality, and nationalism. They were to lead by example” in the cause of “loyal[ty] to an abstract Ottoman nation” (Makdisi, 2002, p. 782). Thus, it can be said that it was inherently necessary for the violent destruction of the traditional system in order for the Tanzimat and, ultimately, an Ottomanized Western mode of modernity to be imposed from the capital, turning minorities from being ruled as and by intermediary groups to individuals subject to (and citizens of) the state, which had the veneer of being tolerant and inclusive of all groups and minorities.



Ottoman Iraq was another very diverse periphery of the Ottoman Empire also ruled via the millet system and intermediaries, such as local tribal chiefs and sheikhs. Al-Tikriti describes pre-Tanzimat Iraq as: 


“Arab, Kurdish, Turcoman, Sunni, Shi’ite, Jewish, Assyrian, and Sabaean populations all lived peacefully under Ottoman rule in one proto-Iraqi district or another from 1515 to 1918… [The Ottoman state] thus was able to rule through local elites of different, and frequently hostile, communities. (Al-Tikriti, 2007, p. 208).


It is clear that as in Mount Lebanon, the Iraqi provinces had great religious and ethnic diversity, with conflict largely avoided through clear regard for the millet system and semi-autonomous self-rule in the hands of intermediaries. Between 1831 and 1834, as part of the Tanzimat reforms, Sultan Abdelmecid ended Mamluk rule and brought the three provinces of Iraq (Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul) back under direct rule through a military conquest (Tripp, 2002, p. 14). The goal was to “strengthen the central Ottoman administration at the expense of shaikhly power” (Batatu, 2012, p. 90), and implementation of the Land Law of 1858 and the Vilayet Law of 1864 followed under the governor Midhat Pasha. The Land Law, the reform which arguably had the greatest impact in the Iraqi provinces, was intended to slow the fragmentation of property through distribution of inheritance among heirs, a goal which was relatively unsuccessful (Liebesny, 1975, p. 64). It also introduced the notion of private property, an extremely modern concept, whereas previously land had been owned and farmed in common. It was also intended to “[regularize] the land tenure system of the empire, [create] security of tenure (whilst reasserting state ownership of land) in the hope that this would encourage a more productive and settled agriculture, [attract] investment and [generate] revenues for the imperial treasury” (Tripp, 2002, p. 15). Meanwhile, the Vilayet Law demarcated the boundaries of the various provinces and the administrative apparatus to govern them (Tripp, 2002). In addition, the Land Law changed the relationship between the farming peasants and the local tribal sheikhs through the registering of property. This allowed some sheikhs and their families to create vast private estates which they then were able to trade on a market. Tensions between the peasants and sheikhs, particularly regarding taxation and land rights, were intermittent from the 1870s to 1880s (Batatu, 2012, p. 90-1). Charles Tripp writes that “the direct and indirect consequences of the reforms had the effect of creating new interests and groups, some with explicit commitment to the reforms themselves, others seeking to find a role as the reforming measures began to erode their hitherto secure status.” The previous order of power and authority in the pre-Tanzimat era was now challenged as “the interplay of these forces helped to create new social positions for individuals and gave them an opportunity to play a part in the Ottoman state and the new social order” (Tripp, 2002, p. 14-15). With this in mind, it can be said that in the Iraqi context, changes in the local norms of social cohesion and power as a result of the Tanzimat caused an adaptation rather than a thorough, disarraying transformation as was the case in Mount Lebanon. For example, Tripp writes that over time the “shaikhly families” came to see that cooperation with the Ottoman state and its assistance was necessary in order to properly cultivate, tax, and deal with the tenants of the lands they had registered under the Land Law of 1858 (Tripp, 2002, p. 17). The ruling tribes came to realize that:


“Rather than avoid taxation through violent resistance, they came to see that it was more fruitful to engage with [the state] to ensure reduced tax demands or… exemptions. They would thereby also hope to enlist the force of the state to help them extract revenues from their tenants. Consequently, even in this sector of society, traditionally wary of the state and disdainful of engagement with it, there was a growing number for whom the advantages of participation in some effective form began to outweigh the advantages of keeping their distances” (Tripp, 2002, p. 17).


In the context of Scott’s argument, it can be further said that the state has succeeded in its “perennial” goal of “sedentarization” and regularization, falling in perfectly with the early goals of the Tanzimat in the mid-nineteenth century to centralize rule from Istanbul – the center – to the peripheries of the empire and make governance and taxation more efficient. It can be further said that the former intermediaries, both urban and rural, gained a new title – landowners – yet retained much the same function: to organize and maintain some degree of control over the local population. Former intermediaries turned into bureaucrats and administrators; many families which had previously ruled through the legitimacy of local authority retained their wealth and status through cooperation with the Ottoman state and inclusion in the new order (Batatu 2012; Tripp 2002). However, now that the legitimacy of the local rulers came from the Ottoman state and not the people they ruled, it made the tribes more vulnerable to challenge from within. Batatu (2012) mentions conflicts between various factions over the payment of taxes, wages of tenant farmers, and the migration of labor, as well as the shift of the farmers in the rural areas to a more detached relationship with their respective tribal sheikhs; the transformation from sheikhs into petty landowners resulted in “the legacy of the Turks… a tribal system generally enfeebled and, on the Shatt-il-Arab and in areas adjacent to the cities, in a state of advanced decomposition. The decline of the political and military power of the shaikhs … was unmistakable. The military confederations and principalities were destroyed. In their place arose a multitude of antagonistic tribes and tribal sections” and that the new economic power of the sheikhs was alienating them from the real source of their power, the people of their tribe (Batatu, 2012, p. 91). This detachment from the traditional ruling authority, particularly in the local context, and change in labor patterns mark the upheaval and deterioration of social cohesion in the Iraqi context.


The Tanzimat, a program of state-centralization and reconsolidation of control, interrupted the traditional modes of semi-autonomy, power sharing, and balance of power in the peripheral provinces of the Ottoman Empire, often through and requiring violence in order to bring about this change. The result was social disruption and upheaval in the local norms of cohesion and power, such as rebellions, riots and communal violence, changes in inter-class relations and hierarchies, as well as the transformation of intermediaries and their respective roles.  The Western modes of modernization packaged with the Tanzimat also brought a certain ideological and institutional framework into this mix, resulting in a small, elite class of Europeanized Ottoman subjects loyal to each other and varied notions of what an Ottoman state should be, rather than the traditional center of power, the sultan. It also contributed to the internalization of the European gaze resulting in what Ussama Makdissi calls “Ottoman Orientalism”.  It is also worthwhile to note the link between land and power relations in communal conflict, which gained even more significance with the introduction of private property and an individual relationship with a central state. Perhaps, clearer demarcations of power lead to the greater possibility of conflict.



Al-Tikriti, N. (2007). Ottoman Iraq. Journal of the Historical Society 7,2 (June) 201-211.

Batatu, H. (2012). Political Centralization in Iraq and Kurdistan. In M.E. Gettleman & S. Schaar (eds.), The Middle East and Islamic World Reader (88-92). New York: Grove Press.

Cleveland, W. L. & Bunton, M. (2013). Eds. A History of the Modern Middle East, (5th ed.). Westview Press.

Gettleman, Marvin E. & Schaar, S. (2012). Eds. The Middle East and Islamic World Reader. New York: Grove Press.

Göçek, F. M. (1996). Rise of the Bourgeoisie, Demise of Empire: Ottoman Westernization and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Liebesny, H. J. (1975). The Laws of the Near and Middle East: readings, cases, and materials. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Makdisi, U. (2002). Ottoman Orientalism, The American Historical Review 107,3 (June), 768-796.

Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press. Retrieved from

Tripp, C. (2002). A History of Iraq: Second Edition. Cambridge University Press.


[1] Millet: “A recognized religious community in the Ottoman Empire; the Ottomans administered their non-Muslim subjects through the millets and allowed them a large measure of internal autonomy in religious and legal affairs.” (Cleveland & Bunton, Glossary)


[2] Madrassah: “A college whose primary purpose is the teaching of Islamic law and religious subjects.” (Cleveland & Bunton, Glossary)


[3] Ayan: “Notable persons; term for prominent urban Arab and Turkish notables.” (Cleveland & Bunton, Glossary)


Mahnoor Bari is a Pakistani International Studies major with a concentration in International Relations and a minor in Middle Eastern Studies who has graduated in Fall 2015. She is interested in pursuing a masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies and working in journalism. Mahnoor is a polyglot third culture kid. 



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