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Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition

Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition

by Norman Itzkowitz

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This skillfully written text presents the full sweep of Ottoman history from its beginnings on the Byzantine frontier in about 1300, through its development as an empire, to its late eighteenth-century confrontation with a rapidly modernizing Europe. Itzkowitz delineates the fundamental institutions of the Ottoman state, the major divisions within the society, and


This skillfully written text presents the full sweep of Ottoman history from its beginnings on the Byzantine frontier in about 1300, through its development as an empire, to its late eighteenth-century confrontation with a rapidly modernizing Europe. Itzkowitz delineates the fundamental institutions of the Ottoman state, the major divisions within the society, and the basic ideas on government and social structure. Throughout, Itzkowitz emphasizes the Ottomans' own conception of their historical experience, and in so doing penetrates the surface view provided by the insights of Western observers of the Ottoman world to the core of Ottoman existence.

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Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
Studies in World Civilization

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Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition

By Norman Itzkowitz

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1972 Norman Itzkowitz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-38806-9


From Emirate to Empire

Constantinople, like Rome, is a city of hills and was the capital of the eastern Roman world. After the Ottomans conquered that capital in 1453, they took advantage of nature's gifts and crowned the hills with monumental mosques, making the silhouette of Istanbul one of the world's most breath-taking urban sights. Once seen, its image is indelibly stamped upon the memory. Nedim, the eighteenth-century Ottoman lyric poet, extolled the city's glories:

    Stambul, peerless of cities, thou jewel beyond compare,
    Seated astride upon two seas, with dazzling light aflare!
    One single stone of thine, me thinks, of greater worth by far than all the treasures of Iran!
    Resplendent as the Sun whose rays the world in light enshrine.
    Thy gardens, visions of delight, patterns of Joy Divine,
    Thy shady nooks of rosebeds fair, of Love's enchantments full, challenge the Prophet's Paradise.

Fittingly ensconced on Stambul's highest hill is the majestic mosque of Suleiman, the loftiness of its dome taking second place only to that of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). Completed in 1557, that mosque was created by the master architect Sinan Pasha upon the order of Sultan Suleiman. It has four minarets with ten galleries from which the muezzins can call the faithful to prayer. Numbers in the mystical East are seldom without special meaning. The ten and the four symbolize milestones in the dynasty's heroic history. Suleiman was the tenth sultan in the family line and the fourth Ottoman to rule over the peerless city since its conquest in 1453 by Mohammed II.

Suleiman reigned over the sprawling Ottoman Empire during the Renaissance, a contemporary of Charles V, Francis I, and Henry VIII, each of whom was the representative of a proud line, but none more proud than the Ottoman. As the tenth Ottoman sultan, Suleiman could take pride in the fact that few dynasties in world history had such a long and almost unbroken succession of remarkable rulers.


The first of these remarkable rulers was Osman, the eponymous founder of the dynasty, who is said to have reigned from 1299 to 1326. There is no need to give in detail the complicated history of the migrations of the Oghuz confederation of Turkish tribes from Central Asia to Asia Minor that ultimately gave rise to the House of Osman. It is sufficient to note that in the tenth century those indomitable steppe peoples were located in an area of Central Asia bounded in the south by the Aral Sea and the lower course of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River, in the west by the Caspian Sea and the lower Volga River, and in the northeast by the Irtysh River. They were largely nomadic, their wealth consisting of camels, horses, and sheep. Some settled groups raised crops in the oases and bartered in market towns, exchanging animals, forest products (mostly furs), and captives for goods from the urban areas to the south and west along the Muslim border. Those economic contacts with Muslims facilitated the conversion of the Oghuz Turks to the Muslim faith.

Islam succeeded among the Turks where Buddhism, Manicheanism, and Judaism had failed. It began to make inroads against their ancestral shamanism early in the tenth century. Contacts with Muslims were primarily of three sorts: raiders encountered in skirmishes along the southern border (and the prisoners taken by both sides), wandering Muslim holy men (Sufis and dervishes), and merchants. The commercial contacts appear to have been the most influential in the long process of conversion. By the end of the tenth century Islam was securely established among the Oghuz Turks, who were now separated from the Islamic territories to the south only by the Syr Darya River.


Once converted to Islam, the Turks began a southward expansion across that river under the leadership of the Seljuk family. The Seljuks started as military bands hired by Muslim princes and soon emerged as governors of provinces and eventually became autonomous rulers of vast areas. After overrunning Persia (Isfahan fell in 1043), the Seljuks struck out in a westerly direction. Under the leadership of Tughrul Beg, they thrust themselves into the settled centers of classical High Islam. Baghdad, the seat of the caliphate, fell in 1055.

The Seljuks, deriving their strength from the possession of both a force of regulars and an army of nomads, created a new empire in the Islamic heartland. Although they were in the service of the caliphs, who remained the supreme religious leaders, the Seljuk sultans wielded power independently in the name of Islam. Soon the conquerors were themselves conquered by the Persian-Islamic traditions of their new homeland. In religious matters the Seljuks came to champion orthodoxy, and in governmental and social organization they relied upon the traditional patterns of the civilization of classical Islam. Based upon Islamic principles of taxation, the Seljuk regime was sustained by a military class supported through land grants in return for service and functioned in behalf of the military, bureaucratic, and religious aristocracy.

This aristocracy, however, was threatened by the Islamized nomadic Turks known as the Turcomans. The unruly Turcomans abhorred the civilization of High Islam since it was identified in their minds with the dual evils of taxation and religious orthodoxy. They were impelled by the love of booty and the desire to spread the faith of the Prophet Muhammad, and they preferred the freer atmosphere of the frontier where they could more easily satisfy their yearnings for loot and independence. The Seljuks encouraged the Turcomans and other tribal elements to raid and plunder the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia in order to divert them from settled Islamic areas. The Turcomans swelled the ranks of the Muslim frontier warriors already engaged in combat against the Byzantines. These warriors, who inhabited the military borderland between Byzantium and Islam, were known as ghazis, or warriors for the faith. The sacred duty of the ghazi was to extend the Islamic territory (darülislâm, "Abode of Islam") at the expense of the land inhabited by the non-Muslims (darülharb, "Abode of War"). He did this by means of the ghaza, or raid, which came to be the perpetual warfare carried on against unbelievers, especially Christians. Wealth captured in this type of warfare was, according to the religious law of Islam, the sharia, lawful booty, and the inhabitants of the raided area could be enslaved or massacred.

As the number of ghazis on the frontier increased, their raids became more frequent and venturesome, penetrating deeper into the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. In 1064 their incursions carried them as far as Ani and Caesarea (modern Kayseri). Those successes provoked a military response from Constantinople. Romanus IV Diogenes, a member of the Byzantine military nobility, became emperor in 1068. He replaced Constantine Ducas, who had been a representative of the bureaucratic establishment in the capital and whose financial and religious policies had allowed the frontier situation to degenerate. The new emperor carried the battle to the ghazis with renewed vigor and success.

The Byzantines were so successful that the Seljuk sultan, Alp Arslan, was compelled to march into Anatolia at the head of his army. Direct confrontation was contrary to Seljuk policy. Alp Arslan had hoped to avoid a clash with Byzantium on the northwestern frontier in order to concentrate his military strength on expansion in Syria and Palestine. Nevertheless, in August 1071 the Seljuks routed the Byzantines at Manzikert near Lake Van. Anatolia was now open to full-scale invasion and permanent settlement, and the long process of Anatolia's Turkification and Islamization was set in motion.

Conquest and settlement were accomplished not by the regular Seljuk army, which withdrew following the victory at Manzikert, but rather by the ghazis. Under the direction of a number of chiefs, such as Danishmend and Ahmed Ghazi, who demonstrated the personal qualities necessary for success in the dangerous and hostile frontier environment, the warriors for the faith began to wrest control of Anatolia from Byzantine hands. This process was facilitated by the internal confusion and anarchy in Byzantium that followed the defeat at Manzikert. The border regions rose in rebellion, and the Byzantine defense system collapsed. Faced with little organized resistance, the ghazis were successful, and each success attracted more ghazis to the expanding frontier.

Ghazis, however, were not the only ones attracted to Anatolia. The Seljuk government decided to incorporate under its own control all the newly conquered regions of Anatolia, although it was not yet committed to expansion into Anatolia. The government sent Suleiman ibn Kutulmush, a prince of the ruling house, to govern. His father had lost his life in a rebellion against the head of the dynasty, and posting the son to Anatolia would rid the dynasty of an undesirable. For his part, Suleiman saw the assignment as an opportunity to establish a firm base of personal support. He hoped to build an army among the Turcomans, march eastward against the centers of the Muslim world under the control of his relatives, and claim them for his own.

Suleiman took control of Nicaea (modern Iznik) in 1081 and negotiated with the Byzantine government, which expected him to keep the Turcomans under control in return for the right to settle his troops in the conquered areas. Byzantine administration was quickly superseded in a vast part of Anatolia, although nominally Suleiman recognized Byzantine suzerainty. The exile to Anatolia then felt strong enough to turn his attention to his primary objective, the central Muslim world. Suleiman marched against Aleppo but met with strong opposition and was killed in battle in 1086, and his army retreated into Anatolia.


Suleiman's death brought no major change in policy. Not until the middle of the twelfth century did the descendants of Suleiman ibn Kutulmush begin to look upon Anatolia as the area in which they would carve out a kingdom for themselves rather than as a staging ground for their return to the central Muslim world. Finally they focused their energies on the central Anatolian steppe around the city of Iconium (modern Konya) and founded a kingdom known as Rum. ("Rum" was the Muslim term used to designate the Asian provinces of the Roman Empire ruled over by the Byzantines.)

From their center at Konya, the Seljuks of Rum carried on a twofold struggle for expansion. They did battle in central Anatolia with their rivals the Danishmends and carried on the holy war against the crusaders. The Danishmends typified the older ghazi spirit of frontier warfare; they had created an eclectic culture infused with mysticism, heterodoxy, and tribal customs. The Seljuks of Rum represented the governmental and cultural traditions of High Islam; they desired a Muslim principality characterized by sound administration, political integration, orthodoxy, and culture. Thus the two were unalterably opposed to one another. The struggle was an unequal one, and victory ultimately went to the more stable and prosperous Seljuks, who incorporated the Danishmend lands after a major victory in 1176. The Danishmends and their followers, now evicted, fled to the western marches of Anatolia, where they again took up the frontier fight against the Byzantine Empire. At this moment, Byzantium was also attacked from the West by the Fourth Crusade.

The event of the Fourth Crusade that had by far the greatest consequence was the Latin occupation of Constantinople in 1204 and the resultant dispersion of the Byzantines to several successor states in Anatolia and around the Black Sea. A strong Greek state was established under the dispossessed Byzantine emperor, Theodore Lascaris, with its center at Iznik. Another state was founded around Trebizond by Alexis Comenus. With the Byzantine emperor resident in Anatolia and devoting all his resources to the defense of his realm, the Seljuks of Rum found it difficult to advance against the strong system of fortifications thrown up by the Lascarids to guard the eastern border of their lands. The ghazis found more profitable areas in the north and south. After the ghazi raids came the Seljuk state, taking possession of Sinope on the Black Sea and Antalya on the Mediterranean. For close to half a century the Seljuk-Byzantine frontier remained relatively quiet and free from the raids of the ghazis, a situation favorable to the interests of the rulers on both sides, enabling them to devote their attention to internal problems.

Two momentous events served to break that stalemate on the frontier. One was the Mongol invasion, and the other the reconquest of Constantinople by the Byzantines. On June 2, 1243, a Mongol army defeated the Seljuks near Köse Dagh in eastern Anatolia. The Mongols raided deep into Asia Minor, but they did not do away with the Seljuks of Rum. Instead, they reduced the once proud kingdom to a vassal state, in which condition it lingered until the death of the last subjugated sultan in 1307 or 1308. Weakened by the encounter with the Mongols and by internal factors as well, the Seljuks could no longer restrain the ghazis from attacking on the frontier with Byzantium. At the same time, the older frontier elements were now strengthened by new forces. These included Turcomans, most of whom had been driven out of their old pastures by the Mongols, and peasants fleeing the burdens of taxation, as well as dervishes and other holy men who had led the resistance against the Mongols in Persia. The dislocation of government and society engendered by the Mongol invasion and the subsequent collapse of the Seljuks created in Anatolia a new state of frenzy. New leaders appeared, the most notable being Karaman ibn Musa Sufi. His descendants, the Karamanids, founded a border principality in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains around Ermenik. All along the frontier ghazi warfare against Byzantium resumed.

Resumption of frontier hostilities coincided with the reconquest of Constantinople by the Greeks under Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261. Removal of the heart of the empire from Anatolia to Constantinople had immense consequences. Reestablished in Constantinople under the Palaeologi, the Byzantine Empire focused its attention on the Balkans. The defense system erected in Anatolia by the Lascarids was allowed to deteriorate. Ghazi raids soon revealed the weaknesses in those defenses, and the ghazis intensified their drive in the face of crumbling resistance. Many local Greek inhabitants, feeling themselves deserted by the Byzantine forces, threw in their lot with the ghazis, facilitating absorption of western Anatolia. Early in the fourteenth century the Palaeologi were driven from that region. Western Asia Minor was now almost entirely in the hands of the Turks, who were organized into a number of Turkish ghazi emirates, or "principalities." These emirates were the products of borderland warfare and were imbued with the ghazi spirit. The emirs, or chiefs, had led the bands that conquered the various districts, and they became the founders of dynasties of varying fortunes, some of longer duration than others.


One of these emirates, the Emirate of Osman, located in the area around Dorylaeum (modern Eskishehir), with Sögüt as its center, was smaller and less powerful than the rest. Despite its comparative insignificance and weakness at the outset, the Emirate of Osman alone achieved lasting fame by forging the borderland principality into the Ottoman Empire. Its rival emirates enjoyed prosperity for a short period of time and then disintegrated under the pressure of internal feuds. What spared the Emirate of Osman from this fate was the fact that it was the ghazi state par excellence. Its borders were smack up against the Byzantine defense perimeter that guarded Iznik and Constantinople, and it faced stronger resistance than that met by any other emirate. Locked in this years-long struggle with a great Christian adversary, the emirate's stature rose among its peers, especially after Osman and his ghazis defeated a large Byzantine force at the battle of Baphaeon in 1301.


Excerpted from Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition by Norman Itzkowitz. Copyright © 1972 Norman Itzkowitz. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Norman Itzkowitz is professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is, with Max Mote, translator of Mubadele: An Ottoman-Russian Exchange of Ambassadors.

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