Throughout Islamic history, empires rose and fell for 1400 years. The Umayyads, Abbasids, Mamluks, Mughals, and Ottomans are just some of the major dynasties of Islam that rose to prominence, achieved a golden age, and eventually fell and were only remembered in the history books. Ibn Khaldun, in his brilliant book on historiography, The Muqaddimah, states that “dynasties have a natural life span like individuals” and that “it [a dynasty] grows up and passes into an age of stagnation and then into retrogression.” The insightful words of Ibn Khaldun in 1337 hold true for the history of the last great Muslim empire – the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire began as a small state of Turkish sultans in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) in 1300. By 1453, they were a force to be reckoned with, controlling land in Europe and Asia, with a capital at Istanbul. By the mid-1500s, the empire had reached its zenith under Sultan Süleyman. At that time, it was by far the most powerful and largest empire in Europe, and also controlled North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of Persia. However, as Ibn Khaldun stated, this dynasty would eventually go into a time of stagnation, and finally decline. This post will analyze two factors that helped bring about the decline of the Ottomans from the 1500s through the 1800s – a weak and ineffective government and economic stagnation.
At its height in the mid-1500s, the Ottoman Empire controlled North Africa, Southeast Europe, and the Arabian Pensinsula
From the birth of the Ottoman state under Osman Gazi through its period of unrivaled power in the mid-1500s, the center of the Ottoman Empire was always the sultan. The Ottoman Empire was a dynastic one, so when a sultan died, his son would become the new sultan. These early sultans all took great pride in their jobs and had a central role in the direction of the empire. Sultans oversaw governmental meetings, hired and fired officials, and personally led military campaigns to the edges of the empire.
However, there was one aspect of the sultanate that was never fully formalized – succession. The early years of the Ottoman Empire were beget by numerous civil wars, as sons would fight each other for power after their father had died. Usually it was not much of a problem, as the sultans would make it clear which of their sons they preferred. At other times, however, wars within the empire lasted for years and were horribly destructive to the power of the empire.
Seeking to solve this problem, Sultan Ahmed I (reigned 1603-1617) instituted a new system for choosing sultans. Instead of a sultan’s sons being governors within the empire until their father died, they would stay at the palace in Istanbul until their time came. In most cases, they actually were not even allowed to leave the palace. This essentially made them prisoners until they became sultans.
Sultan Ahmed I began a new system for picking sultans in the 1600s
While the intentions of Ahmed I were probably righteous, the effects of his policy were disastrous. Instead of sultans coming to the throne with experience in governance and policy, they were usually ignorant of anything but the pleasures of palace life. They were completely incompetent as rulers of a powerful empire. The 300 year old tradition of sultans being the powerful, resourceful, and able leaders of the Ottoman State was over. To give some context, the Ottoman sultans saw their job primarily as the commander-in-chief of the army. All Ottoman sultans led their armies into battle and saw that as a central aspect to their job. However, Sultan Murad IV was the last Ottoman sultan to lead his army into battle in 1638.
Despite their inexperience and incompetence, Ottoman sultans were still officially in charge of the empire. Thus, without education and knowledge of how to run an empire, they still had the power to direct the government. The result of this was a long period of complete administrative instability. Viziers (ministers) were appointed and fired at the whim of the sultan, leading to great difficulty in policies ever being put into place. Also, since experience and talent were no longer seen as necessary by the Ottoman sultan himself, those hoping to advance in civil service were not promoted based on skill. Instead, bribery and favoritism wreaked havoc on the Ottoman government.
With the rise of incompetent officials in the central Ottoman government, a process of decentralization began. Local governments gained more autonomy and showed less respect for the government in Istanbul. On a practical level, this meant less tax revenue sent to the central government, which meant a weaker government and military in general. All this occurring during the rise of the empires of Europe such as England, France, Russia, and Austria.
Going hand-in-hand with the political decline of the empire was its economic decline. Traditionally, one of the major sources of income of the Ottoman Empire was booty gained in war. As the empire reached its maximum size in the mid-1500s, that source of income dried up. Because of the empire’s large size, foreign nations were further and further away from the capital, making campaigns against those nations very expensive. So expensive, in fact, that it didn’t make economic sense to keep expanding.
Another economic aspect that affected the empire staring in the 1600s was inflation. In the 1500s and 1600s, Western European nations like Spain, England, and France were exploring and conquering the New World across the Atlantic. Their conquests brought them huge quantities of gold and particularly silver, particularly to the Spanish from Mexico. The Ottoman economy was based on silver. Coins were minted in silver, taxes collected in silver, and silver to government officials paid in silver. The huge influx of silver coming from America drastically devalued the Ottoman currency according to the economic laws of supply and demand.
These statistics show how bad inflation was in the 1500s and 1600s in the Ottoman Empire. In 1580, 1 gold coin could be bought for 60 silver ones. 10 years later, in 1590, it would take 120 silver coins to buy one gold. And in 1640, it took 250 silver coins in order to buy one gold one. This inflation caused prices across the empire to rise, hurting average citizens and the empire as a whole.
As this process of economic stagnation and decline continued throughout the 1600s and 1700s, the central government had to look for new sources of income. At the same time, European nations were gaining the upper hand over the Ottomans militarily, politically, and economically. As a result, a new policy of economic capitulations and concessions began. Capitulations were agreements between the Ottoman government and certain European governments (usually the French), giving the Europeans control over an entire industry within the Ottoman Empire in exchange for a one-time payment and/or diplomatic support. Because of the relative weakness of the Ottoman Empire compared to European nations, the Ottoman government had to enter into these agreements.
The negative side effects of these agreements were devastating. For example, in 1740, the Ottoman Empire entered into an agreement with France that gave French citizens the right to travel and trade in any part of the Ottoman Empire. With cheaper and better goods, they were able to start to push out local Ottoman merchants, hurting the economy in general. In addition to economic concessions, the capitulations also meant a loss of sovereignty for the Ottoman government. In that same agreement, the French were given full jurisdiction over their own citizens and all Roman Catholics in the Ottoman Empire. In effect, what this meant is that the Ottoman government had no authority to enforce laws on any of those people, even if they are with the empire’s borders.
The capitulations of the 1700s and 1800s were one of the biggest reasons for the decline of the Ottoman Empire during this time. This series of humiliating contracts put the empire in a position of subservience to European nations, which referred to it as the “Sick Man of Europe”.
Religious Changes – The Tanzimat
From the very beginning of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1300s, Islam had been the basis of the state. The Ottomans built on the Islamic government traditions of the Seljuk Empire of the Middle Ages which prided itself on being the defender of Islam in its time. The Ottomans saw themselves in the same light. As the empire grew and expanded through the centuries, the Ottomans formalized their position as the defenders of Islam, with the sultans taking on the title of khalifah (caliph) of the Muslim world. The law of the land was the Shariah, the religious laws of Islam passed down through Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in the deserts of Arabia in the 600s.
In the late Ottoman Empire, however, things began to change. With the political and economic rise of Europe in the face of Ottoman decline that was discussed in part 1, questions began to be asked about the direction of the Ottoman Empire. Many people within the government of the empire began to think that in order to become more powerful like the Europeans, the Ottoman Empire needs to become more like European nations.
These beliefs reached the level of the Ottoman sultan in the early 1800s. Soon, reforms meant to make the Ottoman Empire more European touched all aspects of Ottoman life. In 1826, sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808-1839) instituted a clothing reform for all government officials. Instead of the traditional robes and turbans that sultans and government workers wore, they now dressed in European-style military clothes. Looking like the Europeans was not the only reform, however. Mahmud also abolished the ancient Janissaries, military troops that came from all parts of the empire. Instead, he began a new corps called the Nizam-ı cedid, which was recruited only from the empire’s Turkish citizens.
Mahmud II’s reforms only began the drastic changes that the Ottoman Empire would undergo in the turbulent 19th century. The changes would culminate in the Tanzimat reforms under sultans Abdülmecid in 1839 and 1856. “Tanzimat” means reorganization in Ottoman Turkish and that is exactly what these changes were: a complete reorganization of the Ottoman government. The Tanzimat were a series of laws that was meant to modernize the Ottoman Empire along European lines. The old system of a Shariah-based government was gone. Islamic laws and norms were gone from the government. The fair and equitable Islamic social structure of the empire was gone.
Sultan Abdulmecid I, who instituted the Tanzimat reforms
Keeping in mind the political and economic problems the empire faced from part 1 of this article, the Ottoman Empire certainly did need to reform. It was declining fast in power in comparison to Western European nations. However, the path the Ottomans took was to erase Islam from the political structure of the Ottoman state. During this time, Europe had mostly gotten rid of religious influence in politics. The French Revolution in the early 1800s separated church and state and created a secular society. The power of the Anglican Church in English politics was nowhere near its former power. The pope in Rome was merely but a figurehead. The overarching idea in Europe at that time was that if you get rid of religion in general, you will become more successful. The Ottomans copied this same formula.
Some of the changes included: secular courts replaced Islamic judges, a finance system based on the French model, legalization of homosexuality, factories replaced artisans guilds, enforcement of an “Ottoman” identity instead of unique cultural identities, and the reform of the educational system to be based on a science/technology curriculum instead of traditional subjects such as Quran, Islamic studies, and poetry. While there were many other reforms that were necessary and did not change the role of Islam in the empire, many of the new laws were aimed at removing Islam from public life. The Ottomans brought in people known as “French knowers” from Europe to come and reform their society.
European influence was even seen in architecture. Dolmabaçe Palace, built by Sultan Abdulmecid was meant to look like European palaces of that time.
This attempt to remove Islam from public life left many within the empire feeling as if their traditions were being marginalized in favor of European norms that did not fit in the empire. The role of teachers, shaikhs, and Islamic judges was suddenly marginalized. Large segments of the population opposed the Tanzimat’s efforts to redefine their lives. Islamic rebellions against the government began in places such as the deserts of Arabia (the First Saudi State), Bosnia, and Egypt. The Ottoman Empire had historically used Islam to unite the diverse peoples of its lands, but with the removal of Islam, that bonding agent was slowly breaking away the empire.
Sultan Abdülhamid II
In the middle of all these changes and reforms regarding the role of Islam came a new sultan in 1876: Abdülhamid II. While he was in favor of the parts of the Tanzimat that did not contradict Islam and actually did benefit the empire, he was vehemently against the decline of the role of Islam in the empire. Since 1517, the Ottoman sultans were also the caliphs of the Muslim world, in essence the official leaders and protectors of Muslims worldwide. Most sultans had recently played down their roles as caliphs. Abdülhamid on the other hand emphasized the Islamic aspects of his job.
In the late 1800s, Sultan Abdülhamid II attempted to bring back the Islamic character of the Ottoman Empire.
During his reign, Abdülhamid built the Istanbul-Madinah railway which make travel to the Hajj for pilgrims much easier. During his reign, Istanbul was made a center of Islamic printing, producing thousands of copies of the Quran for distribution around the Muslim world. In 1889, he established a “House of Scholars” whose purpose was to promote the Islamic sciences across the empire. Perhaps his most daring and notable defense of Islam and Muslims occurred when the Zionist leader, Theodor Herzl offered Abdülhamid II 150 million pounds in gold in exchange for the land of Palestine. Abdülhamid’s response was legendary:
Even if you gave me as much gold as the entire world, let alone the 150 million English pounds in gold, I would not accept this at all. I have served the Islamic milla and the Ummah of Muhammad for more than thirty years, and never did I blacken the pages of the Muslims- my fathers and ancestors, the Ottoman sultans and caliphs. And so I will never accept what you ask of me.
Despite Abdülhamid’s best efforts, the rising tide of European secularism was too great to resist. In 1909, the Young Turks, a liberal secular group, overthrew Abdülhamid and installed his brother Mehmed V on the throne. Mehmed was to have no real power as the control of the empire was in the hands of a group of three Young Turks called the “Three Pashas”. Abdülhamid II was the last Ottoman sultan to exercise any real power over the empire. Just 13 years later the empire would be destroyed in the aftermath of World War One, and the caliphate destroyed 2 years later in 1924.
The Millet System
Before looking at how nationalism affected the Ottomans, we have to look further back, at how different nationalities originally were a source of strength for the Ottomans. After Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, he had a unique problem on his hands: how to deal with the sizable Christian minority within his realm. Islam has numerous rules about how to treat religious minorities and what kinds of rights they are accorded. Working within these rules, Sultan Mehmed established a system later known as the millet system (millet coming from the Arabic word ملة meaning “nation”).
Sultan Mehmed II established the millet system, giving religious freedom to minorities in the Ottoman Empire
According to the millet system, Christians within the Ottoman Empire were allowed to live much like they did before Ottoman rule. They were allowed to chose their own religious leaders, collect their own taxes, use their own language, and even to have their own courts where Christians were tried according to Christian laws, not Muslim ones. This type of a system was revolutionary at that time in Europe, where in Christian-dominated areas, there was no concept of religious freedom or minority rights.
Over time, the millet system would grow to include more than just one group of Christians. To accomodate all the different forms of Christianity within the Ottoman realm, each church was given its own millet, and allowed to run by its own rules. Jews were also allowed to have their own millet. During the reign of Mehmed II’s son, Bayezid II, thousands of Jews who were experiencing religious persecution at the hands of Spain’s Catholics were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire where they were given much more religious freedom than anywhere else in the world at that time.
With the millet system, different nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, and religions were allowed to thrive. People commonly think of the Ottoman Empire as a “Turkish” empire. This is far from the truth. While the sultans from the beginning to the end were Turkish, the general populace was a wide variety of peoples. People within the millets were able to rise up in society to prominent positions. In fact, many of the sultan’s viziers (ministers) came from Greek, Bosnian, Arab, or Persian backgrounds.
In 1789, a revolution began in France that would alter world history. The French Empire, headed by a tyrannical king was shaken to its core. The revolution helped bring Enlightenment ideas to the forefront in Europe, such as natural rights, government by the people, and social contract theory. However, besides the political effects of the revolution, a much more important social one was taking form: nationalism.
In Europe, the concept of nationalism took the form of people being led by ethnically similar people. The large multi-national empires of the past, such as the Holy Roman Empire or the Spanish Empire were seen as inherently weak because of the numerous nationalities and languages within the empire. Ethnic/linguistic groups began to revolt. The goal of many of these groups was to be led by someone who has the same ethnicity and language as them. Thus for example, the Dutch of Holland rejected Spanish rule, as did the Italians in Sicily. Revolutions broke out across the European continent, based on the idea of establishing nation-states: countries that only have one nationality within them, and are ruled by someone of that nationality.
This rising tide of nationalism made its way into the Ottoman Empire as well. Although the millet system gave people their rights and allowed them to rule themselves, European nationalism dictated that the ethnic minorities of the Ottoman Empire should not have a Turkish sultan. Nationalism meant that they had to break free of the Ottoman Empire and be led by their own people.
Such an idea did not just arise on its own within the Ottoman Empire. As previously stated, the millet system provided a framework for different nationalities to have rights and freedom within the Ottoman realm. With this type of contentment, average people were unlikely to rise up against their Ottoman governors. To provide the backbone for such revolutions, the major European powers of the day – Britain, France, and Russia – stepped in.
Revolts Against the Ottoman Government
European powers actively encouraged nationalities within the Ottoman empire to revolt throughout the 1800s. For example, the Greek revolution of 1821-1832 was strongly encouraged by other European powers, who sought to undermine and weaken the Ottomans. Not all Greeks were in favor of independence, in fact the Orthodox Patriarch, who was chosen by the Greeks in accordance with the millet system openly denounced the rebels in favor of unity with the Ottomans. However, the Greek revolutionaries were heavily aided by the British, who sent their navy (along with the Russians and the French) to battle the Ottomans on behalf of the Greeks. With the political and economic strains that the Ottomans were already facing at that time, they were unable to defeat this intervention by Europe and Greece was proclaimed independent of the Ottoman Empire.
With the successful nationalistic revolt of the Greeks, other minorities within the empire were encouraged to revolt. The Tanzimat reforms that were discussed in post 2 also helped to strengthen nationalist revolts. The Tanzimat encouraged all people within the Ottoman Empire to submit to a single code of laws, instead of allowing them the right to live according to their own ethnic/religious rules. Thus, more revolts ensued. The Serbians continued armed revolt against the Ottomans throughout the 1800s, and were strongly supported by the Russians. Armenians throughout Anatolia also revolted and were also supported by the Russians. Even fellow Muslims, the Bosniaks began to fight for independence, both because of nationalistic ideas and as protest against the un-Islamic reforms in the Tanzimat.
Perhaps the most bewildering forms of nationalism during the decline of the Ottoman Empire was the nationalistic ideas of the Turks and Arabs. Since 1517, the Turks and Arabs had been intimately linked within the Ottoman Empire. Their cultures and histories mixed, explaining the huge amount of loan words from each other in both languages today. Both had a very large role within the Ottoman Empire, and should have had every reason to see it succeed. However, the rising tide of European nationalism affected them as well.
In response to the revolts of the Greeks, Armenians, Serbians, and others, the Turkish leaders in the Ottoman Empire needed to find a way to counter the effects of such revolutions. While Sultan Abdülhamid II’s solution was pan-Islamic solidarity and an “Ottoman” identity instead of a nationalist identity in the empire, many others began to think of the Ottoman Empire as a purely Turkish state. They promoted the ideas that Turkish pride should be emphasized in the same way nationalist pride was prevalent throughout Europe. Turks began to promote themselves throughout government, and exclude others. This policy was promoted by the same group (the Young Turks) that promoted secularism and a movement away from Islam throughout the 1800s.
World War One and Arab Nationalism
As a reaction to the rise of Turkish nationalism, some Arab thinkers and political leaders began to formulate ideas of Arab nationalism. They looked back at the Abbasid and Umayyad days when Arabs were the leaders of the Muslim empire and hoped to create something similar. In their view, the Ottoman Turks had hampered the progress of the Arab world and held them back.
By the time World War One began in the summer of 1914, the Ottoman Empire was nothing but a shell of its former self. Its former lands in Europe were now gone as the Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Bosnians were all either independent or under European control. All that was left was the predominantly Turkish lands of Anatolia and the Arab lands south of it, including present-day Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia.
Soldiers of the Arab Revolt. The (British designed) flag of the Arab Revolt went on to be the basis of modern nationalistic flags of many Arab countries.
In WWI, the Ottomans sided with the Germans and Austrians against Russia, France, and Britain. Due to Turkish nationalism, the army was almost entirely made up of Turks, with Arabs excluded. Because of this, the British saw an opportunity to further break apart the Ottoman state. The British offered the Arab governor of Makkah, Sherif Hussain, his own Arab kingdom if he sided with them and revolted against the Ottomans. The British sent the later (in)famous T.E. Lawrence (aka, Lawrence of Arabia) to Hussain to convince him to revolt, and provide him with huge amounts of money and weapons.
With British encouragment, a group of Arabs from the Hejaz (Western Arabian Peninsula, including Makkah and Madinah), revolted against their brothers in Islam and sided with the British. From 1914 to 1918, the Arabs harassed the Ottoman forces throughout the Arab world. Because of the Arab Revolt, the British were able to easily conquer Iraq, Palestine, and Syria from the Ottoman Empire. For the first time since 1187, the holy city of Jerusalem was under the control of Christian Europe, this time because of the help given to them by nationalistic Arabs.
Final Destruction of the Ottoman Empire
World War One did not go with for the Ottomans. Invaded by European powers and revolted against by the Arabs, the Ottoman Empire essentially ceased to exist by the time the war was over in 1918. An ultra-nationalist Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, took power in what was now known as Turkey, and declared it a purely Turkish state. Other nationalities were not welcomed in this new nation. In fact, huge population transfers occured between Greece and Turkey, with each expelling the other ethnic group from within its borders.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 divided up the Ottoman Empire among the British and the French.
In the Arab world, the British (of course) did not keep their promise to Sherif Hussain. They had simultaneously decided to divide up the Arab world between Britain and France. Arbitrary lines were drawn on the map to divide up the Arab world into new states called Transjordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Zionist Jews were encouraged to settle in Palestine, creating a new Jewish state – Israel. Egypt continued under British domination to become its own nation, separate from the rest of the Arab world. What had once been the great Ottoman Empire was no more, it was replaced by numerous competing and disunited nationalistic states.
Like all empires throughout Islamic history and world history in general, the Ottomans did not last forever. They were the last great Muslim empire, finally ending just one generation ago. The reasons for their decline are many. Political corruption weakened them in the face of Europe’s rising power. Economically, many factors (both within and outside of Ottoman control) helped bring poverty and despair to the empire that was once the economic powerhouse of Europe. The Islamic character of the empire was lost. And finally, the European idea of nationalism dealt the empire its death-blow. The purpose of this series is not to languish on past failures and mistakes. It is to educate people, Muslim and non, to understand the mistakes of the past to help prevent the same mistakes in the future.