The Changing Relationship Between Rulers and Ruled in Middle Eastern Empires
Under Middle Eastern empires, imperial subjects were defined not by their individual role to government, but by their place within a community that was defined by territory or religion or profession. It was the community that appointed representatives to communicate with the imperial government. These communities were the fundamental political unit of Middle Eastern empires. Laws were passed to apply to communities, rather than individuals. Imperial law governed issues such as the regulation of crafts and markets, or punishment of crime, but there was also “personal status” law. Personal status law dealt with issues of daily life and religious doctrine, like marriage, death, and inheritance, and was structured according to the beliefs and practices of each religious community and applied to its members.
During the 1800s the idea of the relationship between subjects and government began to change in important ways. First, government became more involved in the day-to-day aspects of people’s lives. As Middle Eastern empires began their modernization programs, government became increasingly present through actions like mandatory elementary education, census taking, or the creation of infrastructure and sanitation projects that affected daily activities like travel, cooking, and disposal of household waste. In a relatively short time period, the imperial government transformed from a distant idea that had little effect on daily life to a growing presence in the daily activities of all subjects.
Along with the expansion of imperial government, there was also a growing idea among imperial subjects that governance should take place in consultation with representatives of the people. As the government became more involved in daily life, people wanted more say in how that government functioned. The result was an increased call for consultative government in the form of some sort of consultative councils, at the least, or even a legislative assembly. This idea was often accompanied by the call for a constitution, to define the rights and responsibilities of this legislative body and of the ruler.
Finally, the idea that rights and responsibilities reside in the individual resident of the empire, rather than in the community to which that person belongs, began to gain popularity among members of both the government and the populace. Along with calls for more representative government, these ideas represent a transition from the concept of imperial subjects to that of citizens. No longer would the relationship of the governments be with communities, but rather directly with the individuals who made up the population of the empires and expressed their wishes to their rulers through representative government.
“Civil Liberties and the Making of Iran’s First Constitution.” American Iranian Friendship Council. Link to resource (accessed April 30, 2010).
Ottoman Constitution of 1876, The. Bogazici University, Ataturk Institute of Modern Turkish History. Link to resource (accessed April 30, 2010).
A. Holly Shissler
Associate Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish History, University of Chicago
Erin L. Glade
Ph.D. candidate, University of Chicago
1. What kinds of changes in governance happened in the shift from empire to nation-state in the Middle East?
2. What does this history suggest about the relationship between Islamic thought and philosophy and the idea of a representative government?
3. How did the ideals of representative or constitutional government affect the lives of people in the Middle East? The general populace? The elites?