Primary Source

Ottoman Decree, 1856 [Legal Document]


The Ottoman Empire undertook extensive reforms between 1839 and 1876, a period known as the Tanzimat (reorganization). Europeanized Ottoman bureaucrats and a series of decrees from the sultan shaped these reforms that sought administrative, military, legal, and educational improvements. A series of reversals in wars with European powers during the 18th century and the realization that the West had outstripped the Ottomans in scientific and technological advancements, forced the Ottoman government to reevaluate its institutions and introduce changes to the traditional education system.

At the heart of the new direction lay the intent to quell growing nationalist agitation in the European provinces, secure the loyalty of Christian subjects, and break down the millet system that administered legal and communal rights within religious communities. The goal was for secular identity and a common Ottoman citizenship to replace religious affiliation.

This decree highlights the emphasis on placing schools under a central ministry to establish an educational system outside the control of the religious authorities. As in many societies of the time, including those in Europe, children's primary education took place in village and neighborhood religious institutions. There they learned to recite scripture, often acquired basic literacy and numeracy, and were socialized into the rites of their respective religious tradition. These schools were typically staffed by the imam or a person known for learning in the area and paid by the parents through donations or via charitable endowment or donation.


Sultan Abdul Majid, "Islahat Fermani Decree," February 18, 1856 in Akram Fouad Khater's Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 16. Annotated by Heidi Morrison.

Primary Source Text

. . . All the subjects of my empire, without discrimination, shall be received into the civil and military schools of the government, if they otherwise satisfy the conditions as to age and examination which are specified in the organic regulations of the said schools. Moreover, every community is authorized to establish public schools of science, art, and industry. Only the method of instructions and the choice of professors in schools of this class shall be under the control of a mixed council of public instruction, the members of which shall be named by my sovereign command. . .

How to Cite This Source

"Ottoman Decree, 1856 [Legal Document]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #465, (accessed August 10, 2021).