Headline Islamic Civilisation — 14 November 2013
Was the system adopted by the Ottomans Islamic? (The Ottoman Caliphate (2/4))

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The hanafi scholars guided the system implemented by the Ottoman Caliphs. In summary, it follows the following structure.

At the Head was one of the “House of Osman”. The laws of succession were not rigid, and the most competent son was usually chosen as the next caliph (as opposed to the eldest).

The system was run by the Sadr-i-Azam (commonly known as the grand wazir), who reported directly to the Caliph. The Caliph could choose to appoint several Wazir’s if the need required, but they would report to the Grand Wazir (sadr-i-azam). They appointed Governors in each region to look after the general affairs of the people.

The Sipahi’s or Cavalry officers collected the taxes, and they were later augmented by the deviserve (janissaries) – comprised of Christian youth converted to Islam.

From the 16th Century, the kalimiye  (bureaucratic system) grew to deal with the vast expansion of the State. This system standardized documentation, and established processes and protocols that can be unified around the entire state. Given the vast size of the state at the time, this was a huge feat of organizational excellence and is studied to this day by the best management schools as a case of best practice.

The highest officials met regularly in the palace council (divan), which made decisions on policy. Local government decisions were made by the (sancak) and sometimes grouped together in larger provinces (eyalat). Both forms had government representatives reporting back to the Sultan and scholars ensuring that the decisions were based on shariah.

This system they implemented is consistent with the principle of ruling laid out by the Prophet Muhammad (saw), with the same checks and balances, source of ruling and enactment of the people’s authority.

There are three specific questions about the Islamic system:

1)     Ba’yah  (contract of ruling) – amid what appears to be a kingship. There was never a question of ba’yah being refused by the influential people or the general people, hence this area need no further elaboration here.

2)     Sulaiman al-Qanuni adopting legal canons, as explained above. This gave rise to the administrative system that ruled the Ottomans for centuries afterwards. This is strangely cited as an example of secular rule, despite the fact that Sulaiman al- Qanuni’s reign ended some 200 years before European secularism took root. One can assume this is due to the secular viewpoint of lawmaking, and the Islamic system being an unknown, unknown!

Albert Hourani, provides the clearest documented view on this:

“Like previous rulers, the Ottoman sultan found it necessary to issue his own orders and regulations in order to preserve his authority or ensure that justice was done. He did this by virtue of the power which the shar’iah itself gave to rulers, so longs as they exercised it within the bounds of shariah”[1]

Hence, rather than a secular application, he was merely exercising his right as the Caliph. The pity is that the thinking receded soon after him, but that is another discussion.

3)     Tanzimat reforms. Tanzimât emerged from the minds of reformist sultans like Mahmud II and Abdülmecid I, and pioneered by Grand Wazir, Ahmed Rashid Pasha, as well as prominent reformers who were European-educated bureaucrats who recognized that the old institutions and practices no longer met the needs of the Caliphate in the modern world.

Most of the symbolic changes, such as uniforms, were aimed at changing the mindset of imperial administrators. Many of the reforms were attempts to adopt successful European practices. The Napoleonic Code and French law under the Second Empire heavily influenced the reforms. Changes included universal conscription; educational, institutional and legal reforms.

Though these reforms proved to be a major problem for the Ottoman Caliphate, they never understood nor adopted the secular basis of law making, nor the democratic system of government. Hence rather that adopting values and ideas, they imitated solutions. The prophet (saw) gave a clear description of when a state becomes un-Islamic, in the famous hadith:

Al-Bukhari narrated: “… He said, the Messenger of Allah (saw) called upon us and we gave him the Bai’ah, and he said, of that which he had taken from us, that we should give him the pledge to listen and obey, in what we like and dislike, in our hardship and ease, and that we should not dispute the authority of its people unless we saw open Kufr (kufr buwah) upon which we had a proof (burhan) from Allah”

Open Kufr cannot be committed unless there is an understanding by the one who commits it of what they have committed. In this case, they were not at a level to understand what the underpinning values were, but rather imitated solutions.

This is exemplified by the statement of Shaykh-ul Islam Mustafa Sabri who worked for Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the last Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Caliphate. He was exiled to Egypt by the Kemalist regime. He said:

‘Caliphate i.e. succession to the Messenger of Allah means: obliging the adherence of the rules of the Shari’ah over the Muslims by the one who assumes authority, it by this way one is successor to the Prophet. And the abolition of the Caliphate is abolition of this adherence….This has actually happened in Turkey after the abolition of the Caliphate. So what has succeeded it is a secular government.’[2]

The point here is that he considered the Ottoman state, even in its weakened state, Islamic in its basis until it was destroyed. This view was agreed upon by Sheikh-ul-Hind Maulana Mahmud Hassan.  He was the then head of Darul Uloom Deoband and direct student of Maulana Qasim Nanautavi, the founding father of the Darul ‘Uloom) in the 1920’s.  He mentioned a fatwa regarding saving the Ottoman Caliphate from the enemies of Islam. The respected Maulana said:

‘The enemies of Islam have left no stone unturned to strike against and harm the honour and prestige of Islam. Iraq, Palestine and Syria that were won over by the Prophet’s companions and his followers, after in numerous sacrifices, have once again become targets of greed of the enemy of Islam. The honour of Caliphate is in tatters. Calipha-tul- Muslimin, who used to unite the entire community on this planet; who is the vice-regent of Allah on this earth; used to implement the universal law of Islam; who used to protect the rights and interests of Muslims and used to preserve and ensure the glory of the words of the Creator of this universe be preserved and implemented, has been surrounded by enemies and made redundant.’[3]


To conclude this section, we can see that despite some areas of weakness, the Ottoman State was based on Islam, motivated by Islam and never ceased to implement Islam. The allegations of secular implementation are often malicious and politically motivated.

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

[2] Mawqif al-‘Aql, p322

[3] From the Fatwa of Sheikh ul Hind Maulana Mahmood Hassan, 16th Safar 1339 AH, October 29 1920 CE, page 78 of English translation of ‘The Prisoners of Malta’ by Maulana Syed Mohammad Mian, published by Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind

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