Early Modern Islamic Empires

Three Islamic empires emerged in early modern times: the Ottoman Empire of Turkey and surrounding areas, the Persian Safavid Empire, and the Mughal Empire of India and Pakistan. All three derived from nomadic, Turkish speaking people of central Asia who settled in the lands of Anatolia, Persia and India. They readily adapted to city-based agriculture and made effective use of firearms. However, over time, all three faced problems and eventually collapsed.

Formation of Islamic Empires: The Ottoman Empire was named for Osman Bey, who founded the dynasty which ruled the Empire from 1289 until it was dissolved in 1923. (The term bey means "Chief.") They hoped to become ghazi, or Muslim holy warriors and found ample opportunity on the borders of the Byzantine Empire. IN 1352 they captured the city of Bursa in Anatolia and established a headquarters there. Later, they established a second capital at Edirne (Adrianople). Their success attracted more ghazi, and Bursa soon became a major commercial and intellectual center.

Ottoman expansion was fueled by a powerful military. An important part of their military apparatus was a special force known as the Janissaries. (From the Turkish yeni cheri, "new troops.") Janissaries were acquired through the devshirme, an assessment which required Christian populations under Ottoman rule to contribute young boys who became slaves to the sultan. They learned Turkish, converted to Islam, and received special training after which they either entered the civil service or the military. The Janissaries were known for esprit de corps, loyalty to the sultan and readiness to employ new military technology. Their forces were often outfitted with cannon and other firearms.

Ottoman forces under Memed II (r. 1451-1481) captured Constantinople in 1453, effectively ending the Eastern Roman (Byzantine Empire.) The city was renamed Istanbul and soon became the new Ottoman capital. Mehmed then called himself the Emperor of "the two lands and the two seas: Europe and Asia and he Black and Mediterranean seas. From there, he conquered Serbia Albania, and portions of the Crimea. He had plans to march on Rome and capture the Pope, but never lived to do so. His successors abandoned his plans to expand into Western Europe.

Ottoman territory expanded into Egypt and Syria under Selim the Grim (r.1512-1520) and climaxed under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566). Suleiman conquered Baghdad, and captured Belgrade in Eastern Europe, killed the king of Hungary in the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 and even attacked Vienna Austria for a brief time in 1529. Suleiman made the Ottomans a major naval power. He inherited the naval forces of the Mamluks of Egypt and also gained a pirate fleet which had attacked Spanish forces. He was able to challenge Christian vessels throughout the Mediterranean and Portuguese fleets in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Ottoman forces seized the island of Rhodes, captured the port cities of Yemen and Aden, and even sent a squadron to attack a Portuguese fleet in India.

The Safavid Empire was founded by Shah Ismail, (r.1501-1524) who had hidden in the swamps on the shores of the Caspian Sea for twelve years to escape the enemies of his family. He emerged at age twelve to seek revenge and laid claim to the Persian imperial title. Eventually, he controlled Iran and expanded into the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, and central Asia. He carefully controlled accounts of his rise to power for propaganda purposes, supplying necessary but not necessarily true details when he felt it necessary. He supposedly traced his ancestry back to Safi al Din, leader of a Sufi religious order. The tomb and shrine of Safi al Din at Ardabil became the home of Ismailís family, the Safavids. The Safavids changed religious preferences several times to gain popular support; but eventually settled on a form of Shiite Islam known as Twelver Shiism. Twelver Shiism taught that there had been twelve infallible imams after Muhammad, beginning with Muhammadís cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The Twelfth, or "hidden" Imam had gone into hiding in 874 to avoid persecution; but the followers of the sect believed he was still alive and would return to spread the religion and take power. Ismailís father had insisted that his followers wear a red hat with twelve pleats in memory of the twelve imams. They became known as the qizilbash ("red hats.") Propaganda spread by the Safavids suggested that Ismail was himself the twelfth Imam or even an incarnation of Allah. Though blasphemous to most Muslims, the qizilbash swallowed it wholesale, because it resembled Turkish concepts of military leaders with divine attributes. They believed that Ismail would make them invincible in battle and were fanatically loyal.

Although his propaganda created fanatical followers, it also gave rise to powerful enemies, primarily the Sunni Ottomans, who despised the Shiite Safavids and did not wish their propaganda spread among the Turks in their own territory. Selim the Grim persecuted Shiites within Ottoman territory and invaded Safavid territory. At the battle of Chaldiran, Janissaries using firearms fired behind carts at the Shiites who knew of gunpowder technology but refused to use it as unreliable and unmanly. They rather placed their faith in Ismail, attacked head on, and were slaughtered. Ismail himself was forced to escape. The Ottomans temporarily occupied Tabriz, Ismailís capital, but did not have the forces to completely destroy it. The two empires fought intermittently for the next two hundred years.

The Safavid Empire was revitalized under the reign of Shah Abbas the Great (r. 1588 Ė 1629.) He reformed the empires institutions, increased the use of gunpowder and the size of his military and even asked for European assistance against the Ottomans and Portuguese in the Persian Gulf. He ultimately defeated the Uzbeks of central Asia, expelled the Portuguese from Hormuz and mercilessly harassed the Ottomans. He managed to bring most of northwestern Iran, the Caucasus and Mesopotamia under Safavid rule.

The Mughal Empire of India was founded by Zahir al-Din Muhammad, known as Babur ("the Tiger.") He never claimed to be anything other than a soldier of fortune, but also claimed to be descended from Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. In 1526 he captured Deli, India and worked to build a loosely connected empire in the region. Oddly, his soldiers did not want to stay, as the climate ruined their bows, but he elected to stay. He founded the Mughal (Persian for "Mongol") Empire which soon controlled most of the Indian sub-continent.

The Mughal Empireís major architect was Akbar. (r. 1556-1605.) He gained power when he argued with Adham Khan, commander of the Mughal army. Akbar threw him from a window, then dragged him back from the courtyard and threw him out again to make sure he was dead. He then took control of the empire, and tolerated no challenge to his rule. Although strict in his rule, he was deeply interested in religion and philosophy. After conquering parts of Southern India he invoked a policy of religious toleration to reduce tensions between Hindus and Muslims. He did not impose Islam on his subjects, but rather encouraged the elaboration of a hybrid religion which he called the "divine faith," under which the Emperor was the center of all religious, ethnic and social groups in India. The Empire reached its zenith under Aurangzeb (r. 1659 Ė 1707.) who ruled most of the subcontinent. Although he expanded the empireís boundaries, his reign saw conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Himself a devout Muslim, he did not follow Akbarís policy of religious toleration and demolished several famous Hindu temples which he replaced with Mosques. He taxed Hindus as a means of encouraging them to convert. The end result was resentment among the Hindus and occasional rebellions.

Imperial Islamic Society: In all three Empires, the prestige and authority of the dynasty resulted from the personal piety and military prowess of the ruler and his ancestors. Their devotion to Islam encouraged them to carry the faith to new lands. Some, such as the ghazi, did so by fighting infidels; successful warriors were often charismatic leaders. Much of the authority which they exercised reflected traditions from their time as nomads on the steppes. Ottoman sultans issued legal edicts unilaterally, including the famous kanun ("laws") issued by Suleiman. (Interestingly, the Europeans referred to him as Suleiman the Magnificent; but the Ottomans called him Suleiman the Lawgiver.) Rulers of the Safavid and Mughal Empires exerted even more spiritual authority. Ismail forced Shiite religion on his subjects and Akbar claimed broad authority in religious matters. He primarily promoted an eclectic form of religion which glorified the emperor as much as Islam.

Also reflective of steppe practices were issues of succession. Steppe empires often saw succession hotly contested by members of the ruling family. In the Mughal Empire, conflicts between fathers and sons were frequent. The Safavids fared no better. Shah Abbas lived in fear of deposal by another family member and as a result, kept his sons confined to the palace and murdered or blinded any relatives he suspected. He ultimately wiped out almost all his family. The Ottoman rulers maintained power by eliminating family rivals. Mehmed the Conqueror issued a decree that a ruler could legally kill his brothers after he took the throne. They were normally murdered by strangulation with a silk bow string (so that royal blood would not be shed.) This practice continued until 1595 when the new sultan executed nineteen brothers, some of them infants, and fifteen expectant mothers. After that, sultans confined their sons to special quarters in the harem and forbade them to go outside except to take the throne.

Women played an important role in the empires, even though Islam discouraged their involvement in public affairs. The rulerís mother and chief wife or concubine often enjoyed special privileges, such that Ottoman couriers often complained about the "rule of women." One Mughal ruler, Shah Jahan, constructed the famous Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved wife who died in childbirth.

All Islamic empires were based on agricultural economies, primarily wheat and rice; but later maize, potatoes, and tomatoes from the Americas; although they did not have the dramatic effect in Islamic areas as in western Europe. The Columbian exchange encouraged consumption of coffee and tobacco, especially in the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. Coffee, native to Ethiopia and cultivated in Southern Arabia did not become popular until it was exported to America and grown there. It was later sold to Muslim markets along with sugar. Tobacco was introduced around 1600 when it was believed to have medicinal values. The two products together led to the establishment of coffee houses where men drank coffee and smoked pipes, often to the consternation of religious officials who claimed that coffee was an illegal beverage and that it was worse to frequent a coffeehouse than a tavern. Coffee and tobacco were in fact outlawed by Sultan Murad IV, violations of which were punishable by death. It was a losing battle, however, and coffeehouses soon became prominent throughout Islamic empires.

Trade was important in the Islamic empires. Bursa, the early Ottoman capital, was at the terminus of a caravan route for silk from Persia and supplied Italian markets. Special trading privileges were granted to English and French merchants as a means of forming alliances against their common enemies, Spain and central Europe. Aleppo became important for the Spice trade and was local headquarters for the English Levant Company. The English East India Company, the French East India Company and the Dutch VOC all traded with the Safavids. The English sent military advisors to introduce gunpowder weapons as a means of gaining favor with the Safavids. They also provided a navy to retake Hormuz from the Portuguese. The Mughals were not as interested in foreign trade as the Ottomans or Safavids, primarily because they had little interest in maritime affairs. They did, however, allow the English, French, Portuguese and Dutch to set up trading stations while Indian merchants traded as far as Russia.

All three Empires had religiously and ethnically diverse populations. Maintaining harmony was often a daunting challenge for the Emperors. Christians and Jews lived within the Ottoman Empire, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews within the Safavid Empire, and Hindus, Zoroastrians, Christians and Sikhs were within Mughal territory.

IN 1580, Portuguese Jesuits traveled to Goa in India to provide instruction to Indian children, and hoped to convert the emperor Akbar. Akbar received them cordially and discussed religion with them, but did not convert, as he feared it would alienate his subjects. In fact, he was not totally devoted to Islam. He never explained his ideas about religion, although most of them drew from Islam. He primarily promoted a "divine faith" that emphasized loyalty to the emperor and borrowed ideas from several other religions. It was monotheistic, reflected Shiite and Sufi teachings but glorified Akbar as the "lord of wisdom."

In all three Empires, religious minorities attained the status of dhimmi, "protected people") who were allowed substantial religious and personal freedom, but were required to pay a special tax known as the jizya. In the Mughal empire, the most important military and administrative positions were held by Muslims, but otherwise Hindus and Muslims worked closely together. Akbar abolished the jizya as a means of promoting cooperation between peoples; however this policy was not popular with many Muslims, who feared they would lose their religious identity, and that they might ultimately be absorbed into Hindu society as simply another caste. They insisted upon the creation of an Islamic state based on Islamic law, which was instituted in 1659 by the ruler Aurangzeb who promoted Islam as the official religion of the realm and reinstated the jizya. Although Muslims were satisfied, Hindus were bitter, and tension between the two became strong.

Islamic rulers attempted to enhance their prestige by erecting public works and patronizing scholars. They erected lavish mosques, libraries, fountains, bridges, hospitals, even soup kitchens for the poor. Their cities often reflected magnificent architectural accomplishments. Among the most famous was that erected by the Mughal ruler, Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal built by twenty thousand workers over eighteen years. He planned a similar black mausoleum for himself, but his son deposed him and he spent his last years confined to a cell with a tiny window from which he could see the Taj Mahal only with the help of a mirror.

Change and Decline: For the Islamic Empires to survive, strong leadership was essential. Muslim political thinkers frequently emphasized the need for effective leadership. All three Islamic empires enjoyed capable talented rulers for several generations; however with time all found themselves ruled by incompetent rulers who were more interested in personal pleasures than in tending the affairs of state. The problem was exacerbated by suspicion and infighting among members of the ruling houses.

The Ottomans attempted to forestall problems by confining royal princes to the palace. This strategy backfired. The princes were insulated from government affairs and received the experience necessary to govern effectively. Instead they were exposed to plots and intrigues. Weak rule ultimately led to mutinies within the army, provincial revolts, political corruption, economic oppression, and a sense of insecurity within the Empire.

Problems within the Empire are indicated by the successor to Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim the Sot. (r. 1566 Ė 1574). Another such ruler was Ibrahim the Crazy, who taxed and spent so heavily that government officials had him deposed and murdered.

Religious tensions also contributed to the problems faced by the Empires. Conservative Muslim clerics did not trust the Emperorís interest in unconventional forms of Islam, such as Sufism, and complained loudly and bitterly when women or non-Muslims were placed in positions of authority. Because the clerics held a monopoly on education and their involvement in the lives of Islamic subjects, their influence in these matters was considerable. Examples:

Religious students often joined Janissaries in the Ottoman Empire in revolting.

The Wahhabi movement in Arabia denounced Ottoman religion as a dangerous innovation and declared the Ottomans unfit to rule.

Conservative Muslims protested the erection of an astronomical observatory in Istanbul in 1580. The sultan was forced to demolish it. In 1742 they also forced the Ottoman printing press to close when they called it impious technology.

The Safavids, who had begun their reign by crushing Sunni authorities, came under the influence of the Shiites they had supported. Shiite leaders persuaded them to persecute Sunnis, Sufis and non-Muslims. In India, a conservative cleric rebuked Akbar for religious tolerance. In the eighteenth century, Aurangzeb, required non-Muslims to pay a poll tax and ordered Hindu temples destroyed. The result was inflamed tension between the Sunni, Shiite and Sufi branches of Islam as well as tension between Muslim and non-Muslim subjects.

The Islamic Empires had been able to pay their armies and bureaucracies with resources from freshly conquered lands, as long as the Empires were expanding. However, when expansion ceased or was reversed, financial difficulties soon presented themselves. The war between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs in Austria had been both non-productive and expensive and royal treasuries were soon exhausted. In 1589, the Ottomans attempted to pay the Janissaries with debased coinage, which provoked a revolt. Six additional revolts occurred over the next 150 years. In an attempt to gain revenue, officials raised taxes, sold public offices and even resorted to extortion. Although these measures produced cash in the short term, the long term effect was to further damage the economy. Islamic governments saw foreign trade simply as another source of revenue, and expanded trading privileges for the Dutch and English. The Mughals actually encouraged the Dutch and English to establish trading posts in India. Although traders came to their empires, the Islamic rulers made no effort to establish commercial stations abroad.

Military decline soon followed. The Ottomans had relied heavily on European armaments which they purchased from European merchants. The cannon used to breach the walls of Constantinople were made by a Hungarian arms manufacturer. However, by the mid seventeenth century, European armaments technology was advancing so rapidly that the Islamic rulers could not keep pace. None had large armament manufacturers and relied increasingly on European imports, most of which consisted of outdated European weapons. By the late eighteenth century the Ottoman Navy closed its only shipyard and ordered all new ships from foreign yards.

The Empires also insulated themselves from European culture and learning as much as possible. Europeans who visited the empires attempted to learn as much as possible about Islamic language, religion, social customs and history, and published accounts of their travels which were popular in their home countries. Most encouraged serious study of Islamic culture. The English scholar, William Bedwell, described Arabic as the only important language of diplomacy and trade from Morocco to the China sea. Sadly, the interest was not mutual. Muslims considered the "Franks," to be infidels and inferior to them; therefore they had nothing to learn from them. Most Muslims remained woefully ignorant of to European technological developments or even European colonization. No attempt was made to introduce astronomical observatories until 1703, and even then Muslim clerics forced their removal.

The sole exception was an Ottoman admiral and cartographer, Piri Reis who used reports and maps of European explorers, consulted a chart drawn by Christopher Columbus, and drew maps of the Atlantic coast of North America. He drew several large scale maps and published a major navigational text, the Book of Seafaring.

The first printing presses in the Turkish Empire was introduced by Jewish refugees in the early fifteenth century who were allowed to print books so long as they were not printed in the Turkish or Arabic language. Government authorities did not lift the ban until 1729, but even then it was reimposed in 1742 A truly Turkish printing press did not open until 1784. In India, Jesuit missionaries in Goa published translations of the Bible in Indian and Arabic languages as early as 1550; but Indian rulers showed no interest. Printing did not become prominent in India until British colonial rule in the eighteenth century. All three empires preferred political and cultural stability to technological innovation from foreign influences.