Headline Islamic Civilisation — 13 November 2013
The Ottoman Caliphate and its European legacy (1/4)

In the first part of a four part series, Muhammad Jilani discusses the motivations of the Ottoman caliphs.

The Caliphate system has left its mark on history, but contrary to a basic view of history, the Caliphate did not just leave one mark but several.

It was able to adapt to different cultures and people and moved from one seat of power to another.  The Ummayad Caliphs, for example, were responsible for amazingly beautiful design and inventions, including the first computer. This great civilisation managed to dominate all of Spain (except the troublesome Catalan region).

Despite its close proximity to France and Britain, it is another incarnation of the Caliphate that haunts Europe to this day, namely the Ottoman Caliphate. European historians still refer to it as the “sick man of Europe” to this day and deny its greatness, despite some of its Caliphs being unanimously regarded as the most powerful men in the world during their day.  Its rule was uninterrupted for over 600 years and is comparable to any civilization throughout history. It is still a scar on the psyche of Europe and to this day breeds resentment and hatred towards Islam and Muslims.

This paper aims to address many of the misconceptions about the Ottoman Caliphate, since they are likely to be repeated time and again. The aims of this paper are three things:

1)     Ensure that there is a strong case for Caliphate, by understanding Islamic heritage.

2)     Address the propaganda leveled against it by a plethora of other European historians and orientalists over previous decades and centuries.

3)     Ensure we don’t succumb for the age old propaganda aimed at weakening the intellectual value of the Ottoman Caliphate by labeling it the ”sick man of Europe”


Since this is a vast topic, I will address the following areas:

a)      The motivations of the Ottoman Caliphs

b)     Was the system adopted by the Ottoman state Islamic?

c)      Alleged brutality of the Ottomans

d)     Political impact of the Ottoman Caliphate


1)     The motivations of the Ottoman Caliphs

The Islamic motivations of the Ottoman Caliphs have come under scrutiny. The BBC in a recent documentary specifically cited the example that over several hundred years no Ottoman Caliph made hajj to exemplify their so-called Machiavellian tendencies.  In fact Orientalists have often explained their conduct, honour, kindness, valour and justice were all accredited to their own personal character, while their misdemeanors were put down to Islam.

One of the problems with secular historians and commentators is that they embody an implicit arrogance that the only world view is their own one. Motivating factors such as altruism, spirituality or social justice are generally viewed skeptically.

The reality is that Islam makes no division between religious motivation and political aims. So to see it through a Machiavellian/Spiritual dialectic will never lead to the truth. Rather it should be viewed from a perspective of the standards that Islam set in rulers, which are well documented.

The Islamic motivations of the Ottoman Caliphs are very clear.  For example, the second Ottoman Sultan, Orhan (the son of Osman) specifically adopted the Hanafi school of thought as the official state madhab (legal school of thought). He took care in understanding it, familiarizing himself and then implementing its practices. In 1324 he passed a law granting land for the building of Masjid’s as part of official policy. This law was enacted in every newly conquered land thenceforth and is the prime reason for the proliferation of Masajid across Eastern Europe[1]

Such care to expand Islamic learning demonstrates their deep Islamic inclinations at a time when they were becoming the dominant force in their region.

In fact the Ottoman Caliphs saw themselves as divinely chosen to carry the banner of Islam. Osman I (from whom the Ottoman caliphs descend) saw himself as the “glory of Islam” and Orhan as “Champion of Islam”.[2]

They wanted to demonstrate their noble stock by commissioning genealogical experts to trace their heritage back to the Prophet Nuh (as) so as to ensure that their Islamic legacy endures[3].  They were able to clarify that the land from which they emanated from was given to Nuh’s son, Japeth, from whom they descend. This gave them an Islamic sense of mission.

This view disseminated down, one caliph after another.  For example, the famous Caliph Muhamamd at-Fatih was well versed with the hadith of the Prophet (saw), when he stated ”One day Constantinople will be conquered, a good army and a good amir will achieve it”. This particular hadith acted as a motivation for the fathers of Mohammad al-fatih.

He was particularly honoured by his achievement as none other than the Prophet (SAW) himself endorsed it, and it was the 13th attempt by a Muslim army to conquer the city. When he achieved his success, he offered salah (prayers) at the Hagi Sofia as an act of gratitude.[4]

Mohammad al-Fatih was particularly spiritual. In one reverse against the Italian fleet he turned to the Sheikh of Islam, Sheikh Aksemuddin, who reassured him with classical texts and prophecies of his great achievements. This soothed his heart and gave him tranquility. [5]. His sons all vied with each other to be the “good amir” to conquer Rome, as foreseen by the Prophet (SAW)!

There are many examples abound to demonstrate the Islamic motivations, but the quote below from Albert Hourani (the pre-eminent Arab historian) is clear enough:

“The most fundamental duty of a Muslim ruler….was to maintain the Shariah. In the Ottoman period, the institutions by which the Shariah was preserved were drawn into closer union…than ever before. The school of law favoured by the Ottomans was the hanafi school, and the judges who administered it were paid for directly by the government. They created a special corps of ulema and ranked and graded them. They created a new military court (kadikaser)…” to curb the excesses of previous caliphs.[6]

It is explicitly clear from this that the Ottoman caliphs were motivated by Islam and saw themselves as the carriers of the Islam.


[1] Lowry, The Nature of the Early Ottoman State, 72-8

[2] Uzuncarsili, Gazi Orhan Bey

[3] Flemming, Political Geneologies

[4] Inalcik. Istanbul, An Islamic City

[5] Inalcik, Ayup Projeci

[6] Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples

Related Articles


About Author


(0) Readers Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Read previous post:
Re-assessing Political Islam: Part II

Eric Walberg The Pinochet-style coup in Egypt in July 2013, 40 years after the Chilean coup, gives pause to reconsider...