After watching episode two of the BBC’s documentary series on the Ottomans, Zafer Iqbal argues that it was historical propaganda which intentionally omitted truths about Europe’s Muslim emperors.
A friend commented: “It took centuries for the political decline of the Muslim empire and sometimes our emotional and sometimes crazy brothers and sisters think it will take 5 minutes to reverse” – the sort of reaction the producers no doubt intended.
Episode one contained various omissions, mistakes, and revisionist history – the portrayal of secular emperors whose empire ultimately collapsed due to ill-health.
Episode two steps up a gear, adding a cacophony of selective research to give these ideas credibility. Indeed, Goebbels would have been proud.
The attempt at rewriting Ottoman history, Omaar contrasted Suleiman’s sixteenth century rule with that of Abdul Hamid II in the nineteenth century; the rise of an empire, its golden era, followed by a long internal decline, resulting in collapse.
Suleiman was alleged to have introduced secular laws competing with the Shariah, visible in the contrasting roles of Grand Vizier and Sheikh-ul-Islam – the temporal and the profane.
The Ottomans were described as insular and inward-looking, apparently causes of their weakness and decline and despite many reforms, an inevitable collapse occurred following WW1.
Europe however had enlightenment, technological innovation and trade with the Americas – propelling them to power and prosperity.
Omaar concluded with saying no Ottoman Sultan ever undertook Hajj – the Ottoman polity was evidently little more than a secular adventure.
Ottomans and the Shariah were “secular laws” introduced by Suleiman to supplement the Shariah? The answer is a categorical no.
The Shariah and new realities
Research reveals Ottoman adoption of Islam was serious from the onset, believing their mission was to convey Islam globally and protect Muslims. All Ottoman Sultans embodied this Shariah-infused outlook, built around the Islamic imperative of jihad, reflected in their characteristically militaristic state.
Ottoman rulers were regularly advised by jurists, such as Es’ad Effendi and Aziz Hudai, of the priority of jihad over even the hajj. Subjects were encouraged to undertake hajj as they had no responsibility for security – this being the Caliph’s key responsibility. In an era where it took three months to perform hajj, this left the state open to attack by enemies and rebels. Thus it was not uncommon for rulers to devote much of their lives to jihad campaigns.
The Shariah dealt generally with matters of public law, state organisation and administration, avoiding an overly prescriptive approach in many areas. According to orthodox Islamic political theory, the doctrine of “siyasa” provided rulers discretionary powers to safeguard interests of the state and rulers were required to issue directives to fulfil these. The ulema were required to invalidate any kanun contradicting the Shariah, they rarely felt the need to do so as rulers enacted kanuns when and where necessary only within these areas.
The Prophet’s (saw) companions (ra) enacted similar rules necessary to fulfil divine commands, during his rule. The famous hadith where the Muhammad (saw) asked Muadh (ra) how he would judge, and he replied by Quran and Sunnah and would exert ijtihad where the matter was not detailed in the primary sources is widely rehearsed by jurists.
That is why the Khulafah Rashida introduced amongst other innovations, postal systems, public census, prisons and land revenue departments. They were always understood as a necessary part of the Shariah aims – never as “secular”.
The Ottoman kanun-namas thus continued a well-established tradition. Those of Mehmed II frequently referred to Islamic law, treating various offices, court ceremonials, financial ordinances, tazir, monetary fines, non-Muslim subjects, land law and the law of war. Selim, Suleyman and their immediate successors amalgamated everything into a single legal system.
This nuanced understanding is often incorrectly categorised as “secular”. Traditional Muslim jurisprudence saw both domains governed by the divine.
In the Ottoman state, the Grand Vizier was delegated with executive authority. The religious institutions administered Islamic law, justice and education, headed by the Sheikh-ul-Islam, the Chief Mufti of Istanbul, who presided over a hierarchy of jurists and judges, and Shariah courts with territorial jurisdictions.
Both roles are sourced in prophetic traditions. On assuming power the Prophet (saw) said, “My viziers in the heavens are Gibreel and Mikail, whilst on earth they are Abu Bakr and Umar” – he also appointed many companions (ra) to judicial functions. These roles delegate responsibility for divine political, judicial, legislative and executive decisions – all regulated and guided by revelation.
Fairy tales of Ottoman decline
Omaar conflates the Ottoman decline from the sole leading state prior to the eighteenth century to competing powers, with a fictitious internal weakening and decline. The former is fact – the latter fiction.
In his research, Jonathan Grant considers military technology and shows the Ottomans could reproduce the latest military technology maintaining a relative position through two technology diffusions, until the nineteenth century.
Other Ottomanist researchers document economic growth until 1924, after which the region went over the fiscal cliff edge. Reviewing industrial and agricultural growth, automation of manufacture and transport, and the growth of trade and commerce all reflect upward trajectories on smoothed charts.
The Ottomans did not suffer an internal decline, as Omaar would have us believe – he is repeating discredited nationalist revisionist history.
Western Power and Prosperity
“A rising, enlightened West prospering from trade with the Americas” is little more than fiction produced by Whig historians.
Europe emerged from its medieval era through the colonisation of the Americas with Spain becoming immensely wealthy “overnight” during the sixteenth century. American Professor David Stannard graphically documents the largest genocide in human history – 90 million of the 100 million inhabitants were wiped out following Christopher Columbus’ ill-fated arrival.
Spanish treasure ships hauled back vast amounts of silver and gold, triggering a European race to colonise the continent and create plantations built on slave labour; from which emerged a merciless elite, focused on accumulation of wealth. Their successors were to violently destroy European feudal systems and structures – giving birth to capitalism.
Replicating their experiences in the Americas, they went on to colonise Africa, India and Asia, destroying stable and prosperous patterns of life, whilst driving their peoples into poverty, ignorance and despair. In the Bengal famine of 1769-73 over 10 million starved to death whilst the British exported grain to Europe.
The gap between the Ottomans and Europeans thus began to shrink, as they leveraged their ill-gotten gains.
Were the Ottomans “sick” or “murdered”?
The Ottomans far from being weak, exhibited dynamism and innovation to a rapidly changing world. They innovated economic, militaristic, educational and legal reforms across society.
Throughout they adhered to the Shariah, ensuring they did not violate it. There is no historic evidence to indicate their aims or goals were to Westernise in the sense of adopting foreign ideological systems.
Confronted on many fronts, along with internal treachery, the Ottoman rule was destroyed following WW1.
It neither collapsed, nor was it “sick” – it was brutally murdered.
The BBC’s narrative is little different to that of orientalist and nationalist writers, who have attempted to darken Ottoman history by presenting it as an irreligious product of a historic context, unable to keep pace with modernity.
The BBC’s interest in the Ottomans is little different. An attempt to present a distorted version of Islamic history to counter the growing global call for resumption of the Islamic political system, the caliphate; a political system established by the Prophet (saw) himself, part of orthodox Islamic creed and tradition.
We are being asked to swallow the lie that ours was a history of decadent secular rule, whilst the West overtook us through innovation and enlightenment.
Over my dead body!