Archive for December 3rd, 2011

The role of religion in the political history of the Ottoman Empire is discussed here.

If one examines the rise and fall of Islamic Empires, one finds the same old stuff in the case of their history. These had a beginning a middle part and end. Timurid Empire died a quick death after Timurleng’s demise while the Ottomans suffered a lingering death after Suleiman the Magnificent left the fate of his empire to the harem politics. No dynasties could prevent the march of events and their bad governance reverberate even to this day. The Arab spring perhaps may prove a change in the muddled state of affairs.

Let us examine the course run by the Ottoman Empire. It was melded out a number of Turkish principalities, or emirates, many of which were led by gazi warriors. Out of a gradual collapse of central authority in Asia Minor rose one such warrior, Osman Gazi. His small emirate was closer geographically to the Byzantine Empire than any other, and thus he had many chances to prove his abilities as a gazi warrior against them. His continuous forays proved successful which brought other gazis from neighbouring emirates to take part in these victories and obtain their share of the spoils. Plunder was their motive and sword their language. Their political wisdom did not go beyond the power that they could wield over their subjects. In 1301, with the victory of the Ottomans over the Byzantines at Nicaea, the former Byzantine capital, the Ottoman emirate established itself as a powerful military force.
The Ottoman Empire reached its peak by 1600, after which time it fell into a gradual decline, as a result of both internal disorganisation and pressure from its external foes in Europe and Asia. Inversion principle points to the fact: greater speed with which they annexed territories seeds of its destruction grew at faster rate. Power was surrounded by self interest and corruption which the interest groups could exert.
No dynasty can survive in a vacuum or on faith alone. Their religious law called sharia (TR: şeriat) was supplemented by royal ordinances and customary law and such governance stood in contrary to the wishes of subjects who were Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Gregorian Christians and Jews. The millet system of communal self-government gave the Ottoman state a multi-ethnic character but the rise of nationalism swept through many countries in the period after the French Revolution put pressure on the Ottoman Empire.
The state would gradually lose its control over the Empire’s territories. On one hand, Ottomans were forced to allow the European powers to intervene on behalf of the Empire’s Christian subjects, which meant increasing foreign influence on Ottoman internal affairs, and on the other hand, in a time when feudalism was weakening elsewhere, the Ottoman Empire saw the rise of local ruling notables, called ayan, in the provinces. These local rules were able to exercise almost absolute authority, collecting taxes for themselves, thus depriving the Imperial Treasury of an important financial source. The Cluster principle explains the various power centers that flexed their muscle- and the ayans were power within the imperial power while clerics had their own interests to follow.

It was the people, of all ethnic and religious groups, who suffered most. Their situation worsened by a large population growth in 16th and 17th centuries accompanied by a decline in food production. Landless peasants began to flee to the cities in the hope of making a living. Those remaining in the countryside joined rebel bands, which further weakened the central governments power in the provinces.

The Ottoman rulers failed to identify the real causes of the decline, since they were completely isolated from developments outside. European powers were exercising mercantilist policies promoting local productivity and favouring a national bourgeoisie. They were advancing in industry, science, technology as well as political and military organization. The powers that be were lulled into inertia by interest groups who saw little need to change the status quo from which they were benefiting.
How backward were they can be judged from the following fact: it was not until 1727, three centuries after Johannes Gutenberg, that the first printing press was set up in Istanbul by a Hungarian convert called İbrahim Müteferrika.
There were some attempts at reforms which were done to change the traditional Ottoman system based on theocratic principles to that of a modern state. However, they reforms did not manage to reverse the decline of the Empire. Yavuz wrote: “The reformers were handicapped by a lack of sources and trained staff, besides a tough opposition by conservatives who argued that the reformers were destroying the Empire’s fundamental Islamic character by following the Western modes”.
Do we not hear the same arguments even these days? Libya has got rid of one dictator for another? There is a talk that liberated Libya must follow Sharia law. For whose benefit, for the good of the people or for those who fatten themselves on religion?

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