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'Ottoman Empire' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article discussing the history of the Ottoman Empire is reprinted from The Islamic World: Past and Present in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Calling themselves Osmanlis, after tribal chieftain Osman I, the Ottomans were Turks from Central Asia. They created a vast empire that encompassed southeastern Europe to northern Hungary, the Middle East to Iran, and most of the North African coast. They rivaled European nations, established a formidable army, and had a religious diversity greater than that of previous Islamic empires.

Conquering Lands in Europe and the Middle East

From the 1300s to around 1600, Ottoman rulers expanded their territory through a series of conquests. Osman I and his followers started out as nomadic ghazis (raiders) fighting on behalf of Islam against the Byzantine Empire. They gained control of the Christian lands (such as Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Bosnia) and encouraged large numbers of Turkish warriors to populate their new empire. The Ottomans left Christian rulers in control as long as they accepted the dominance of the Ottomans and provided them with funding and troops. Alarmed by the success of the Turkish warriors, the Europeans launched a series of failed Crusades against them. The Ottomans, however, turned their attention to Islamic territories in the late 1300s. Influenced by Christian princesses and court advisers, the sultan Bayezid I began a new policy of seizing Muslim lands. Turkish soldiers refused to participate in these attacks, leaving armies of Christians to conquer new regions. The Mongol conqueror Tamerlane (Timur Lang) viewed Bayezid's aggression as a threat and captured the sultan, ravaging his lands before resuming his invasion of India. Bayezid's son Mehmed I restored the empire in the early 1400s, establishing more centralized Ottoman rule in conquered lands.

In 1453 Mehmed II completed the major task of conquering Constantinople, the former Byzantine capital. Seeking to restore the city to its former splendor, Mehmed rebuilt it and forced his subjects to move there to help the city prosper. He then repopulated the capital with people of all religions. Mehmed appealed to European Jews, who had suffered religious persecution under the Christians. He urged them to immigrate to the Ottoman lands, promising peace and economic prosperity. Thousands of Jews flooded into the Ottoman Empire, many arriving before the Spanish Inquisition.

During the 1500s, various sultans expanded the empire. They pushed into the Middle East, conquering Syria, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula. They also conquered Hungary and laid siege to Vienna, which they did not win, although border ghazis carried out raids against the Europeans during the next two centuries. The Ottomans formed an alliance with France against the Hapsburgs, the Viennese dynasty that controlled much of Europe. By the 1600s, the Ottomans had seized Romania and Transylvania. They had also established a powerful navy, gaining control of key shipping routes. Ottoman success depended on many factors—the use of sophisticated weapons, a highly organized army staffed with slaves, a religious tolerance that enabled them to rule different groups without provoking discontent, and a government that encouraged the development of agriculture, trade, and the arts. Many Christians viewed their defeat as a sign from God and converted to Islam, accepting it as a religion that values Jesus as a prophet and promotes Christian ideals. They continued to observe certain aspects of Christianity, however, such as celebrating Easter, performing baptism, and venerating saints.

Life Under Ottoman Rule

The Ottomans had a complex society with a lavish court and a strong army. In Istanbul (the former Constantinople), the Topkapi Palace held chambers for the sultan, harem, and staff members; schools for pages and slaves; military, civil, and religious offices; kitchens; and gardens. The Ottoman military had no rival in Europe or the Middle East, with an elite corps of ground troops (Janissaries) composed of Christians drafted from the Balkans. Under what became known as the devsirme system of recruitment, the most promising young men received a palace education and joined the ruling class, serving as pages or officers in the army. The others worked as apprentices to Turkish officers, learning military techniques that surpassed those used by any army in the Middle East or Europe.

Social Structure.

Like other empires in the Middle East, the Ottomans maintained a small ruling class and a large subject population organized into self-governing communities according to religion (millets) or guilds (esnaf). People could join the ruling class only if they demonstrated exceptional loyalty to the sultan, accepted Islam, and practiced the Ottoman way, a complex system of behavior that included the use of the Ottoman language (a dialect derived from Turkish, Arabic, and Persian). Those who failed to meet these requirements served as subjects, even if of royal lineage.

The ruling class consisted of two groups—those of Turkish or Muslim heritage and the devsirme class of Christian converts. Christians tended to favor expansion into Muslim territories, while Turks and Muslims urged the sultans to invade Europe. Sultans typically tried to establish a balance between the two groups, giving them equal positions and pay. Members of the ruling class fulfilled specific functions. Some served as advisers to sultans. Others oversaw the treasury, collected taxes, maintained security, led prayers, and served as judges. All members practiced a form of Sunni Islam that contained elements of Sufism and Christianity.

Sultans received their authority through their family line, but Turkish custom did not specify who would assume power if more than one male heir survived the sultan. This led to conflicts between brothers, often resolved by tests of military strength, though sometimes by murder. Some sultans favored one son over the others, preparing him for the position by giving him an important administrative or military post. After 1595 , however, all of the sultan's male relatives had to live inside the harem, and conspiracies often played a role in the selection of successors.

Ottoman rulers referred to the subject class as the reaya (protected flock). Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups organized themselves into millets, each with its own customs and language. Villages consisted entirely of members of one millet, while larger towns and cities had different millet quarters—gated communities surrounded by walls. Millet communities typically centered around a mosque or temple, and religious leaders supervised the administration of schools, homes for the aged, courts, kitchens for the poor, maintenance of public facilities, and police. Leaders of different millets gathered together in times of emergency or to prepare for certain festivities but typically worked independently of one another. The sultans had introduced the millet system in the hope of preventing the religious conflict that plagued other societies. They achieved a high degree of success but could not always suppress local conflicts between religious communities.

Guilds mainly existed in urban areas, where merchants, craftspeople, entertainers, and even prostitutes banded with their colleagues to manage financial and administrative matters. Guilds settled disputes, collected money for charity, sent members on military campaigns, and organized holiday celebrations. Some had initiation ceremonies involving pilgrimages, prayers, and lectures on sobriety and other virtues. Like millets, guilds typically operated along religious lines.

Arts and Culture.

Literature, visual arts, and music thrived under Ottoman rule, influenced by Turkish, Arab, Persian, Byzantine, and European culture. In the mid-1400s, Mehmed II supported poets and painters from all over the empire. Later sultans concentrated especially on Arabic and Persian poetry. Poets wrote of military battles, love, and their personal observations and emotions. Prose writers composed histories praising the Ottoman dynasty and recording daily life in the court and the military. World histories, travelogues, and geographical treatises also gained popularity during the Ottoman Empire.

Illumination became a highly developed art form under Ottoman rule. Mehmed II opened a studio in the royal court, where calligraphers, painters, illuminators, and bookbinders worked to create illustrated texts and designs for ceramics, carpets, and wood and metalwork. Persian fables and love stories served as the earliest illustrated works, and Persian styles dominated in the 1400s. By the end of the 1500s, however, Ottoman artists had become known for their distinctive illuminations of histories exalting the Ottoman state and the sultan.

In rural areas, wandering poet-musicians were the primary entertainers. In Anatolia (central Turkey), for example, minstrels spread Turkish folk culture with their songs. They entertained people at fairs, participated in contests, sang to soldiers, and celebrated Turkish battles and virtues. Shadow puppet plays were a popular form of entertainment in the countryside.

Decline of the Ottomans

During the 1600s, power slowly slipped from the central government to the provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman sultans were less effective as rulers. Their harem upbringing had deprived them of experience in military or state affairs, and rendered them unfit for the task of maintaining the empire. Because it had ceased to expand, the Ottoman Empire lost a major source of revenue—the wealth of other nations. To boost the faltering economy, the ruling class imposed heavy taxes on the population. The army began to break down as poorly paid soldiers seized lands and kept the taxes for themselves. Work shortages led to widespread hunger and poverty, and masses of people moved to the cities to find jobs.

Efforts at Reform.

Members of the ruling class made little effort to improve conditions, some even profiting from the chaos among their subjects. Sensing Ottoman weakness, Europeans moved to conquer Ottoman lands in Hungary and southeastern Europe. The Ottomans scrambled to strengthen their empire, hoping to restore it to its former power. They executed corrupt officials and instituted reforms in education and the military. Some wanted to modernize the state, looking to the gains that Europe had made during the Industrial Revolution. Others believed in the superiority of Ottoman practices and did not seek change until Russia and Austria took over some Ottoman lands in the 1700s. Alarmed by these developments, the ruling class invited Europeans to help them train a new army. But the military reforms were resisted by the old military establishment and had little impact.

During the 1800s, Europeans became more powerful and began to intervene in Ottoman affairs. They encouraged Christians to rise up against the Ottoman Turks and secure their independence. Alarmed by these developments, the Ottomans began the task of replacing old institutions with new ones, largely based on Western models. The Ottomans centralized their government, weakening the millets and guilds but not entirely replacing them. They organized the government into executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with a prime minister and an elected parliament. They also reformed their legal codes, adopting European models and court systems while retaining shari'ah principles.

New political groups also arose within the empire. A group called the Young Ottomans pushed for reforms within the ruling class, including the use of a simpler official language that would create a sense of equality between Ottoman rulers and their subjects. They believed in citizens' rights and held that Islam and modernization could work together compatibly. The Young Ottomans took over the government briefly during the 1870s, but the sultan they placed in power turned against them and implemented strict policies favoring the ruling class. Other groups formed, among them the Young Turks, organized by Young Ottomans living in exile in Paris, and the Fatherland Society, headed by Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk ), the future president of Turkey. These groups both promoted European-style reforms and a stronger central government.

Clashes with Europe.

Reforms transformed the Ottoman Empire from a disorganized series of states into a relatively efficient, modern regime whose government treated its subjects far more humanely than those of many Western nations. Europeans, however, continued to threaten Ottoman authority, labeling the Ottoman Empire the “sick man of Europe.” Backed by Russia and Austria, Christian nationalist groups created movements and new states that fragmented the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans tried to win them over by officially recognizing the equality of all religious groups but reacted with violence when the Christians failed to end their attacks. Such clashes continued throughout the last 50 years of the empire. At the same time, thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and central Europe settled in Ottoman lands, where they made significant contributions to agriculture, industry, and trade.

During the early 1900s, the Ottomans continued to make reforms. They could not eliminate Christian opposition, however, and the Ottoman states in southeastern Europe rose up in the First Balkan War (1912), gaining their independence. Muslims and Jews from these regions flooded into Istanbul. The Young Turks seized control over the government, making liberal reforms and regaining Balkan lands as part of their program. The Young Turks helped secularize the legal system and provided for the education of women. They also allied the Ottoman Empire with Germany and Austria during World War I (1914 – 1918). When the Germans lost the war, the empire disintegrated and disbanded completely in 1922. Britain, France, Italy, and Russia carved the Ottoman state up into mandates and protectorates to divide amongst themselves.

Mustafa Kemal, however, refused to let the Europeans have all of the Ottoman territories. In 1918 he led the Turkish War for Independence, chasing the Europeans from the former seat of the Ottoman Empire. He took the name Atatürk (meaning “father of the Turks”) and created the Turkish Republic, of which he became president until his death in 1938. Out of all the countries in the Middle East, Turkey alone emerged as an independent nation at the end of World War I.


"Ottoman Empire." In The Islamic World: Past and Present edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t243/e254.

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #244: 'Ottoman Empire' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", July 20, 2024 http://bridgingcultures-muslimjourneys.org/items/show/244.