Headline Islamic Civilisation — 18 November 2013
The Political impact of the Ottoman Caliphate (The Ottoman Caliphate (4/4))

Click here to read Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

[The image shows Mustafa II receiving the French embassy of Charles de Ferriol in 1699]

The previous sections deal with some of the negative questions raised about the Ottoman Caliphate. What is ignored is the sheer dominance and progress of the Ottoman’s in their hey day.

The political impact of the Ottoman Caliphate in Europe is long lasting and profound on a number of levels and is the main source of European resentment to this day.

Three Ottoman Sultans were most notable in this area; Mohammed Al-Fatih, Selim I and Suleiman al-Qanuni.  The cornerstone of their overarching philosophy was to take Istanbul and then Rome, thereby destroy the Roman Empire as a result. Their motivations stemming from the famous ahadith of the Prophet (SAW).

The blueprint for this was laid by Mohammed al-Fatih, who took Istanbul and thereby moved the capital of the Islamic state from Anatolia. This provided prestige, due to the reverence that Istanbul held across Europe but also a formidable power-base due to the effective destruction of the Greek Orthodox Church, established under Emperor Constantine.

The second principle was established by Selim I, who consolidated the Arab states under Ottoman rule and effectively secured the Middle East (and a strong Eastern bloc) against European aggression. His ruthlessness against the Europeans earned him the nick name “Selim the Grim”

This allowed his son, the great Suleiman al-Qanuni to focus exclusively on Europe and establish himself as the most powerful man in the world. His contemporaries included Charles V (of Spain), Francis I (of France) and Henry VIII.

Suleiman’s political maneuverings were legendary, and he existed at a time of four major powers; Austria (under the Habsberg’s), France, Russia and Spain, the most powerful of these were the Austrian Habsberg dynasty who stood between him and wider Europe.

He was able to take advantage of Christian intrigue and separate France from the Christian bloc by rescuing their King Francis I on the request of his mother (who had lost hope that she would ever see her son again) against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  His response to this is stated below. I have put the long response in full so we can appreciate his standing and the way in which he addressed the powers of his time; his position was one of immense strength and power.[1]

“I, the khan and sultan of Mediterranean, Black Sea, Anatolia, Karaman, Kurdistan, land of persian, Damascus, Aleppo, Egypt, Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem and all of the lands of arabian, yemen and all of many other countries; Son of the Bayezıd, Son of the Sultan Selim, Shadow of the God, Sultan Suleiman Khan and you, governor of the France, Francis…You have sent to my Porte, refuge of sovereigns, a letter by your faithful agent Frangipani, and you have furthermore entrusted to him sundry verbal communications; you have informed me that the enemy has overrun your country and that you are at present in prison and a captive, and you have here asked aid and succors for your deliverance. (…) Take courage then, and be not dismayed. Our glorious predecessors and our illustrious ancestors (may God light up their tombs!) have never ceased to make war to repel the foe and conquer his lands. We ourselves have followed in their footsteps, and have at all times conquered provinces and citadels of great strength and difficult of approach. Night and day our horse is saddled and our saber is girt. May God on High promote righteousness! May whatsoever He will be accomplished! For the rest, question your ambassador and be informed.(…)”

He accentuated European disunity by encouraging a different form of Christianity (Protestantism) by allying with Henry VIII and William of Orange[2] and entered into the Franco-Ottoman Alliance in 1536[3], which was a series of concessions made by  the Sultan in return for French loyalty and an extension of support across Europe!

It caused a scandal in the Christian world and was designated as “the impious alliance”, or “the sacrilegious union of the Lily and the Crescent”; nevertheless, it endured since it served the objective interests of both parties. The strategic and sometimes tactical alliance was one of the most important foreign alliances of France and lasted for more than two and a half centuries, until the Napoleonic Campaign in Egypt in 1798–1801.

Once he nullified the French threat, he then marched into Hungary, took Budapest and annexed it under his authority, while French support for Hungary did not arrive due to their agreement with the Ottoman’s. This set the Ottoman Caliphate in direct conflict with the Austrians Habsberg’s who ruled Hungary at the time and Suleiman unsuccessfully laid siege to Vienna twice.

By the 1540s a renewal of the conflict in Hungary presented Suleiman with the opportunity to avenge the defeat suffered at Vienna.

This time Suleiman in two consecutive campaigns (1541 and in 1544) ensured the defeat of Ferdinand of Austria and his brother Charles V  (of Spain) and forced them to conclude a humiliating five-year treaty with Suleiman. These were the two most powerful men in the Christian world at the time so this was a most significant treaty.

Ferdinand renounced his claim to the Kingdom of Hungary and was forced to pay a fixed yearly sum to the Sultan for the Hungarian lands he continued to control. Of more symbolic importance, the treaty referred to Charles V not as ‘Emperor’, but in rather plainer terms as the ‘King of Spain’, leading Suleiman to be considered unanimously the most powerful man in the World and considered the true ‘Caesar’.

With his main European rivals subdued, Suleiman had assured the Ottoman Empire a powerful role in the political landscape of Europe for some years to come. Despite loss of land and prestige in following years, this leading position set by Suleiman endured for 300 years and is one of the sources of European resentment to this day.

This section would not be complete without providing some British context to the Ottoman state’s intervention. There are numerous examples, but three are particularly pertinent.

Firstly, Suleiman al-Qanuni reassured Henry VIII of his assistance in the event of Spanish/Roman reprisals for his religious innovations. He took the support from Suleiman before divorcing his wife (an act that was deemed sacrilegious), knowing that the Catholic Church would not be able to force him to accede to their Church. In effect Suleiman took advantage of European disunity to encourage religious dissipation and effective disunity.

Secondly, Sultan Murad III came to the aid of the Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I who came under attack from the Roman Empire (in the guise of the Spanish Armada).  Popular convention states that Sir Francis Drake symbolised English nonchalance and cunning in the face of danger. First, according to the legend drummed into every pupil, he insisted on finishing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe as the Spanish Armada approached in July 1588. Then he dispatched the enemy ships with little more than a few burning rowing boats and a favorable breeze.

The truth is a bit more humbling – it was the Ottoman Caliphate that dispatched it’s deadly naval forces and engaged the Spanish all the way from the Mediterranean to Plymouth harbor, decisively weakening it and allowing Drake to finish the Spanish off.

Jerry Brotton, a lecturer at Royal Holloway College and foremost authority on this topic states that “…Ottoman fleet movements in the eastern Mediterranean fatally split Philip II’s armada _ So alongside all the stories we’re told at school about why the Spanish Armada failed to conquer Britain and destroy Protestantism, we should add another reason: the Anglo- Ottoman alliance brokered by Elizabeth” and the Ottoman Sultan.

Thirdly, in 1845, the onset of the Great Irish Famine resulted in over a million deaths. Ottoman Sultan Caliph Abdulmajid I declared his intention to send 10,000 sterling to Irish farmers, despite on-going economic problems within the Ottoman State.  However, Queen Victoria requested that the Sultan send only 1,000 sterling, because she had sent only 2,000 sterling herself. The Sultan sent the 1,000 sterling but also secretly sent 3 ships full of food. The English courts tried to block the ships, but the food arrived in Drogheda harbor and was left there by Ottoman Sailors.

This act of kindness was well received and the Irish sent a letter of gratitude to the Ottoman Sultan, which is still displayed in the Topkapi Palace.

“We the noblemen, gentlemen and inhabitants of Ireland want to express our thank and gratitude for the Ottoman Sultan’s … The Ottoman Sultan’s munificent response to this aid call displays an example to European States. Numbers were relieved and saved from perishing through this timely act. We express our gratitude on their behalf and hope that the Ottoman Sultan and his dominions will be saved from the afflictions which have befallen us.”

In conclusion, we should take note that despite the cracks towards the last 200 years, the Ottoman Caliphate was only rivaled by the Roman Empire as the dominant force in Europe throughout its history. We should not fall victim to the propaganda against the Ottoman state.  The fact is, even a weakened Ottoman state would be far better than any of the rulers we have now. The current Muslim leadership consists of rulers that are not independent of external influences, have no ideological system that guides them and produces results and are merely self-serving. The fact remains that the best Ottoman Caliphs rank amongst the best heroes in the history of Islam.



[1] Suleiman the Magnificent 1520-1566, Roger Bigelow Merriman

[2] The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century,  Geoffrey Parker

[3] Suleiman the Magnificent 1520-1566, Roger Bigelow Merriman

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