ESSAYS ON THE GLORIES OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE
By Dr Saydam Akpinar (Sheikh Abu Selman Abdulezel)
Prepared under the auspices of and dedicated to
MAULANA SHEIKH MUHAMMAD NAZIM AL HAQQANI
(may Allah bless him in terms of both worlds)
A PUBLICATION OF THE OTTOMAN RESEARCH SOCIETY BASED ON THEIR PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED ARTICLES IN THEIR MONTHLY MAGAZINE ‘THE SULTANATE’
All praises are due to and deserved by Allah the Most High and Most Gracious and let Allah’s highest blessings and choicest greetings be on our master and saviour in both worlds with the permission and help by Allah be on our incomparable master Muhammad the Last of prophets and messengers of Allah as well as on his house and companions and their true and worthy followers until the Day of Judgment.
It has been quite a few years now when the following essays were penned down by my humble self at the instigation and with the encouragement of Maulana Sheikh Nazim al Haqqani who has been my life-long mentor and to whom therefore I owe an incalculable debt. He has been for me a true and full example how a Muslim brother should be. All his life he did his best to study, absorb and project the essence and image of Allah’s most beloved and praiseworthy servant and prophetic messenger Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wa sellem) and he succeeded in that respect more than anybody else I know of and I pray that Allah simply increases his attainments and perfections until none remains except the eternal rise in the Face of and Company of Allah. Amen. I pray for the same for all Muslim believers and for all mankind to join in with the faith Allah ordained for all His servants and the attainments consequent on that faith. Amen.
The reason why Maulana desired such a composition was that he believed (as I and many sensible Muslims do) that our until recently extant Ottoman Empire (Dawlat-e Aliya-i Utmania- the Exatlted State of Uthman) was the best and last one of all Islamic states; it surpassed both not only in conquests and statesmanship but also in piety (taqwa) and sincerity (ikhlas) all before it, like the Umayyad (Amawiya) Empire and the Abbasid (Abbasiya) and in fact their political predecessor the Roman Empire.
For one thing, the Ottomans were the only Islamic power to have made lasting conquests in the continent of Europe and rule over about two dozen European races as long as five centuries. This not at the expense of losing dominion over Islamic lands; except for Persia and Central Asia they retained the Islamic rule over all Muslims in the Near East and the whole of Africa as far as Islam’s spread there made possible.
Theirs was the most orderly, unified and civilised state of Muslims ever; things like the impious brutality of the Ummayyads, their equally brutal overthrow by the Abbasids and the interminable brutalities the Abbasids had gradually to commit to hold on to power and anarchy they had to preside over as they began to lose their grip has had no parallels or equivalents in the case of the Ottomans. For six centuries and from beginning to the end theirs have been the most enlightened, reasonable and benevolent and beneficent of rules both over Muslims and non-Muslims. It is a credit to their success and legacy that Ottoman laws still form the bulk or foundation of the laws all lands from south Eastern Europe, to the Arab Middle East and Muslim Africa. Even the Jewish State of Israel retains and implements many Ottoman laws and at times feels happy to consult the Ottoman records in Istanbul to clear up some matters of law, especially in the matter of land ownership and transfer. As the Turkish term puts it ‘seventy two races’ still live under a cultural and spiritual canopy of ‘Ottomanship’ although for despicable political and ideological reasons some of their leaders routinely curse their former masters the Ottomans. Their better informed and more enlightened public know the facts and miss the Ottomans only too much. Is it not the case after all that what is the most unhappy and troubled part of the world for about a century now, namely the Middle East, North Africa and South East Europe (in that order) were kept near-perfectly in peaceful and stable control by the Ottomans; almost all who ‘threw off the Ottoman yoke’ (thanks to then blowing nationalism winds) and won independence from it have been unhappy with the results and there seems to be not much hope for a brighter future for at least the Muslims among them. For example, Ottomans has been the only power not to create and suffer from a Jewish problem; Jews under the Ottomans could live and prosper as much as in Palestine and in its focus Jerusalem as anywhere else. Compare this with the awful record of that much vaunted British Empire. As soon as they wrestled Palestine and the rest of the Middle East from the dying Ottoman Empire they knowingly or unknowingly destroyed the basically good of that area and together with the French are almost wholly responsible for the disorder and frequent carnage both between Arab and Arab and Arab and Jew. As such they could not be even pupils of the Ottomans.
Lastly, Ottomans did not fail because of their Ottoman habits but because of their uncritically imported Western habits which infected and corroded them. Otherwise they could learn many things helpful to their success as they could teach them in return. After all Muslims had always been good pupils of the good sides of older civilisations and had not therefore ruled the better part of the world for centuries for nothing.
The worst agents of wrong Westernisation were the Young Turks who flourished in the early years of the 20th century and it was they that messed up everything for their Ottoman state, their chief mischief being abandoning the wise Ottoman alliances with England and France (whatever their defects and disappointments with them) and siding with the untested and utterly unwise Germans. They joined the German side in the First World War (1914- 18) and despite the heroism of the Ottoman armies and because of the awful leadership the Young Turk governments exercised the result was the ruin of the glorious, long-lived Ottoman Empire. At its end period it was a fully modern state except for its economic shambles; had ‘Turks’ not joined the war or joined it on the Anglo-French side the Empire could be still around, not only still extending all over the Middle East and much of North Africa but modernised to a very high standard, most likely in the form of a constitutional monarchy but a monarchy all the same, as well as a caliphate with significant, appreciable influence, a power capable of holding that problematic Middle East and its multiple races and cultures together. Allah knows best. Probably the best way forward for at least the Western part of the Islamic world is some integration based on a hybrid formula of European Union and Ottoman Empire systems as a result of which a new and powerful block of basically peaceful nations is brought about which can both moderate the powers of both the USA and EU and more civilising and enriching its citizens this block could make violence less necessary both at home and abroad and peace more satisfactory and rewarding for all concerned. Imagine a working and peaceful union of Islamic nations from Pakistan to Algeria East-West-wise and from the Caucasia to Sudan North-South-wise which, thanks to its peacefulness and increasing social and economic success, can be accused of nothing and praised for many things. It can be instrumental both in the improvement of Muslims themselves and the peaceful and ingratiating spread of correct Islam, that faith of workable peace and practicable morality to the rest of the world as much as Allah wills and helps. Amen.
We designed this work in the form of several essays for easy reading and light-paced enjoyment. Each essay is a separate work in itself yet together the essays are intended to give a fair sampling of the glories of the Ottoman Empire and stimulate further reading from larger works whose titles appear in the references to each essay.
We men all are in the same boat. We are sharing an ever-shrinking world in which what affects one is increasingly affecting others with a domino effect. A war in a petroleum area sends fuel prices sky-high for all of us, bankrupting many and enriching many. Terrorists kill innocents in the streets of world’s capitals to advertise their problems with others thousands of kilometres away. Given this ever increasing integration of our world we men and nations either hang together or drown together.
In other words, we need a lot of bridge building among the nations of this earth before it is too late. Which means all the various races, nationalities and faiths must come to understand, tolerate and even value each other more than they are doing now. Any culture which refuses to go along this path and sticks to its exclusivity and arrogance will not only look increasingly backward but also will be liable to cause dangerous tensions and confrontations. Look if you want at certain ‘pariah’ states and cultures (ideologies) which presently insist on keeping out of the fold of the rest and as a result both are suffering miserably and are prevented from relaxing and doing better things. North Korea is one current example and Cuba is another. Both live in a cocoon and are almost starving themselves both economically and human interaction-wise. All history indicates that such isolationalist policies help only boost the egos of the leaders presiding over the isolation and collapse totally and ignominiously further down the road.
Communism was such an isolationalist system and was behind the Cold War. It now survives only in the above-named two countries as a shadow of its former self. China and Viet-Nam are only communist in name; they opened up to the rest of the world and at most are one-party socialist states in the process of a gradual transition to capitalism and democracy. With the collapse of much of communism the Cold War is no more. But we have quite a few lesser threats to world peace and harmony. One is the uneasy relation between the Muslim world and the rest (mostly West) and the other between the so-called Muslim progressives and conservatives in each Muslim country. For this state of affairs we think all sides involved are equally to blame. The West suffers from a deep-rooted, historic antipathy and allergy against Islam manufactured by the Christian church over many centuries and fed by the blood which this antipathy and allergy led the Christian powers to cause to be shed. In itself Islam is a perfect wedding of both corrected Judaism and corrected Christianity and in all fairness should be able to unite the members of all these three monotheistic religions which account for at least the two-thirds of all human civilisation. Islam simply denationalised or de-racialised the religion attributed to Moses while in the case of Christianity it stripped it of its post-Jesus invented myths, invented institutions and invented rituals: the result has been a new religion faithful both to real Moses and real Jesus, both legally and ritually pure on the one hand and on the other non-racist and universal as a true religion of One Universal God should be. As a result, the least Muslims, Christians and Jews need is to make an effort to build bridges of understanding and empathy among them on account of their largely shared spiritual cultures. We as the believers in the Ottoman values intend to try to the best of our ability to contribute to this process of healing and integration as mediated by inter-faith, inter-culture affinities. Sure, our field of activity shall be the research into the commendable nature of the Ottoman civilisation, which had been, in our opinion, the best representative of Islamic civilisation relative to age. With our findings we hope to wipe aside the cobwebs of phobia and prejudice which covered the names of Islam and ‘the Turk’ in the Western mind so as to bring that mind to reason. Sure, no one is or can ever be perfect and yet, paradoxically what seems perfect to some may not look so to others since perfection in human affairs is not so much an objective and measurable quality as a subjective matter. And subjective does not necessarily mean wrong. Our subjective judgments are no more fallible than our objective judgments- both are prone to err as well as to find the right way forward. Be as it may there is no doubt that it is worth a try to make people to see each other’s point and hopefully come to understand and value each other more.
Returning to the Ottomans we may observe the following.
To their credit, Ottomans have been the first and arguably the only nation after the Roman Empire to straddle and form a busy bridge between the East and the West. At its full expansion it housed more than forty major nationalities and half a dozen faiths under its benevolent canopy and for at least two centuries it deservedly cast the image of the world’s chief superpower. Again relative to the age it represented the most enlightened, humanitarian and multi-cultural democratic regime on earth, not of course in any modern (and dubious) sense but in the sense of being sensitive and responsive to its subjects needs and ready to listen to and address their grievances with the best intentions in the world. Yes, apparently the Sultan was an absolute monarch but in actual fact he was subject to the provisions of the Islamic Law dispended by the Ulama. Not only their many wishes were frustrated and modified by legal opinion from the Sheikh-ul-Islam (Chief Mufti) but more than one third of all Ottoman Sultans were deposed by ‘fatwas’ issued by such muftis. This amounts to constitutional monarchy with a strong monarch at an age when no kings were under such constraints even perhaps in England, the only other country with any democratic inclinations- and that only after the English Civil War under Cromwell in the 17th century. We believe that there is a lot to learn from the Ottomans by both the West and the Muslim world, Ottomans who made their debut into history as a small band of nomads driven from their homeland by more numerous and fierce adversaries and spilled over into Asia Minor in search of safety, better pastures as well as Islamic conquests. All sultans emphasised their Islamic idealism and contrary to other Muslim monarchs not a single one of them allied themselves with a non-Muslim kingdom to fight against a Muslim one. Within les than a century after the foundation of their small principality in 1299 by Osman Bey they were all over the place from the Balkans and Hungary to Euphrates, ruling over mostly contented and grateful Muslim, Christian and Jewish subjects who in most cases felt liberated by the Ottomans and pampered by their liberal rule. Again the same nomads speedily adapted to settled life and produced magnificent architecture with a distinctive character and set up an efficient and just government surpassing any before it in terms of humanism. All races were given equal chance to develop their respective potentials as fellow citizens and attain positions of power both economically and politically. In other words neither faith, nor race or colour made a bar against the advancement of the truly able and ambitious. Ottoman government was always flush with non-Turkish ministers, governors and commanders with a generous sprinkling of non-Muslims. This cannot be said of almost any of the empires and kingdoms contemporary with the Ottomans, neither in the East nor in the West.
THE ‘TERRIBLE’ TURK
What we mean by ‘Turk’ for the purposes of these essays must first be made plain. Because our subject is the Ottomans we must first point out that ‘Turk’ was the common name applied by the Europeans to the Muslim members of the Ottoman empire and applied contemptuously. Their fear and hatred of the ‘Turks’ were the result of Turkish successes against them, especially Turkish military successes. You see, for many centuries the ‘Turks’ had been beating both the Anatolian and European Christian powers, occupying and settling their lands and overall making them to taste the rule of Islam over Christians. At one point even Vienna looked like falling to them and even London was alarmed at the prospect and churches were filled to capacity for prayers and hymns directed to the obtainment of Divine help.
But Ottomans, overall, were hardly Turks. Yes, their founder was a Turkish petty lord named Osman (Uthman) whose initital subjects were a few clans and tribes of Turks of the Oghuz tribe recently arrived in Anatolia (the bulk of today’s Turkey) as recent converts to Islam. But in true Islamic spirit these Turks absorbed through conquest so much land and by conversion so many new Muslims into their ranks that within a few generations they became, as a very mixed race, indistinguishable or almost indistinguishable from Greeks, Armenians, Bulgars, Romanians, Serbs etc. making a spectacle of every shade and shape of blond, brunette, short, tall, Asiatic and European. Because they were the champions of Islam, in the European mind the term ‘Turk’ became synonymous with ‘Muslim; as a result they reported any European’s conversion to Islam by saying ‘he turned Turk’. Because this identification of Islam with Turkishness in both the Medieval and New Age European mind we will not strain any more to explain the difference and will use the terms Ottoman and Turk interchangeably. The actual fact is that the nation known as ‘Turkish’ is only to a far smaller extent of Turkish blood than often assumed; it is rather an incredibly complicated mixture of forty-some races and look, overall, more a blend European or Middle Eastern than Central Asian typology. The same in fact happened to the ‘Mughals’ of India; over a few centuries their looks were transformed into Indian, i.e. dark-complexioned Arians. The Turkish language itself is a mosaic of original Turkish diluted by Persian, Arabic, some Greek and other European words and as such is barely intelligible by the more real Turks of Turkestan, for example. More recently, many Turkish subjects classified as Turks are acquiring the habit of stressing their Kurdishness, or of being of ‘Laz’ origin or Circassian etc. and often a mix of several now forgotten races. Among this authors ancestors are ‘Turks’, Circassians, Albanians and Allah knows what else. But many keep the title of ‘Turk’ for convenience’s sake which does not bother them so much or they simply believe the official designation of being pure-blood Turks and that is enough for them to feel proud with. All modern nations are similarly and no less mixed and that is simply because nationalism is a recent ideology and not in a single case depends on pure racial origin. Nor anybody before the 19th century believed in nationalism, at least in the modern sense. The whole thing is a myth and a sham although it has been a compelling one. Be as it may, the blame for a lot of modern tragedies can be laid at the door of this noxious ideology nationalism. Lastly, Turkish nationalism was adopted by the Turkish-speaking Ottomans as a defensive reaction against Western nationalism and although not as strongly as at the time of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey it still is the mainstream ideology for the majority of the republic’s citizens and those Turkish-speaking Muslims outside Turkey who once were Ottoman subjects.
The above information is useful to know because it explains something as follows.
It is one of the sad psuedo-axioms of the Western and to certain extent some of the Eastern folklore that ‘Turks’ are simply ‘terrible’ or even beyond the pale (of humanity). Even today, in this supposedly enlightened age, almost all non-Turkish-speaking ex-subjects of the Ottoman Empire (Muslim or Christian) make it a policy matter to fill their national history textbooks with the details of the Turkish cruelties visited on them when they were under the ‘Turks’. In fact in the 1990s wars in Yugoslavia both the Serbs and the Croats delighted in killing their fellow Muslim Bosnians and were calling them ‘Turks’. Greeks for example are notorious for their convulsive Turkophobia and the new Arab nations which sprang up all over the place in the twentieth century following the fall of the Ottoman Empire joined the band-wagon of Turkophobes piling all the blame for their backwardness on the ‘suffocating’ Turkish oppression of themselves for centuries. Interestingly, common folks among them, only love and adore Turks.
For their part, those Europeans who never came under Turkish rule but for a few centuries had been on the defensive against them have no kinder things to say. How come Turks came to be hated so much? Is there a psychological mechanism, other than the historical natural rivalries involved? Let us investigate.
It is a saying very popular among the Turks that “history is made of repetitions” by which they mean that ‘have similar circumstance and you will have similar events repeating themselves’. Today for example hating America and to a lesser but no less virulent extent, Britain is a ‘wholesome’ part of universal culture, especially by those on the left; and that includes many on the left in America and Britain itself! Everything these two cousinly poor chaps try to do on the international scene is declared cynical and sneered at as arrogant and selfish; for example the two are only thinking of petrol (as if being anxious about one’s energy supplies is selfishness). We do not mean that everything this couple are doing is fine; a lot are not. What we want to say is that most men and their associations from family and company level to the state and empire level a lot of times behave selfishly and conspiratorially while at the same time accusing others of the same bad faith. Whether we like it or not the ‘Anglo-Saxon-based group of today’s nations have been in the ascendant for a few centuries now and are simply enjoying the fruits of their turn of being in the ascendant. Once it was the Greek-speaking then the Latin speaking nations; they were replaced by Muslims who have now been replaced by the Western nations as the ascendant block. All took their turns to impose themselves on the rest and as a result have been the subject of envy, phobia and curse. The present top ascendants, namely the ‘Anglo-Saxone-based group (USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand) must suffer abuse from the rest, especially USA and UK. No amount of benefit other nations derive from the Americans and the British can soften the phobia. For example, almost all European nations today owe a great debt to USA AND UK who saved them from both Nazism and Communism in the course of the twentieth century and after the Seconf World War it was USA which had helped build up Western Europe. Ironically, at least by some, they are hated even more for that. Why?
Simply because they have been too successful, have proved with few exceptions too invincible in war and too winning in diplomacy, economy, science and technology! The gut reaction of all animals to winning rivals is phobia which is hatred based on primal fear and nothing else. ‘Survival of the fittest’ ensures that losers or trailers behind will fear and hate the winners. All competitors and combatants are roughly equally ruthless and unscrupulous as well as accusing others with the same accusations levelled against them. We may ask, for God’s sake, in what way the Americans and British are morally inferior to the French, the Russians, to Arabs etc. to deserve this hatred? Are the French and the Russians less selfish and cynical in their foreign dealings? Does the answer need to be named?
We believe exactly this same physiological mechanism lies at the bottom of Turko-phobia; just like ‘Anglo-Saxono-phobes’ have sometimes largely been blind to or reluctant to mention the atrocities on the part of, say, communist Viet-Cong and even Stalin but viewed American behaviour in Viet-Nam under a prosecutor’s microscope, Turko-phobes hid their own bad record even from themselves and instead blew out of all proportion what the Turks did. We can see this no more clearly in the recent civil war in what was Yugoslavia. Most of the greatest atrocities were carried out by the Serbs who only too loudly expressed their hatred of the Muslim Bosnians whom they called ‘Turks’ and from whom, they desired to exact the vengeance of the battle of Kosovo in 1389 which had ended the Serbian independence at the hands of the Ottomans. The modern Serbs massacred, raped and drove these ‘Turks’ from their homes with only too much gusto and delight and what is more telling, they never even contemplated apologising for it. Whatever the world opinion said and legal rulings ruled the perpetrators of these unspeakable cruelties have become national heroes to be defended at all cost. The most evil agents of the Serbian atrocities are still at large thanks to the protection they get from the Serbian nationalist feeling. It must then be obvious to all serious students of history and human nature that no race or nation is innately superior or inferior to others in morals. All have the potential of becoming equally atrocious savage beasts or equally saintly benefactors depending on the circumstances prevailing and individuals involved. Our studied opinion is that the Turk became ‘Terrible’ not because it was more savage than anybody else but because from the ninth century onwards when he made his debut into Near-Eastern and then European history until the eighteenth when the myth of his invincibility was laid to rest he proved a too successful, too resilient and formidable rival in the animal kingdom of mankind to be loved to any degree by the victims of his victories.
What is equally intriguing is the fact that many well-informed people among the ex-subjects of the Ottomans are aware and have stated in their works on history or their memoirs that it was Turks who had saved them from the nationalistic or religious persecution in the hands of their pre-Ottoman masters their public, remain as anti-Turk as ever. Of all nations, for example, Greeks have had most to thank for Ottomans yet they are arguably the greatest Turco-phobes alongside the Serbs. It was sultan Muhammad Fatih, the conqueror of Greek-Roman Empire (1453) who reinstated the national church of the Greeks, namely the Greek Orthodox Church after its suppression by the Roman Catholicism. On the conquest of Cyprus in 1571, Ottomans repeated the favour and reinstated the Greek Church in Cyprus which was similarly suppressed by the then Catholic Italian owners and rulers of the island. Although Ottomans similarly liberated many Balkan nations and even Hungarians from oppression in the hands of their fellow Christians (like the Austrian Habsburg Empire which was a Catholic power) and for example liberated and re-instated the Greek Orthodox church from the hated Latin domination both in the former Byzantine territories and later in Cyprus they never received any genuine thanks in return; but if anything, were hated even more for it (just like the Anglo-Saxons have not received any real thanks for both their liberating role in and enriching role after the Second World War from some of those in their debt). It seems that being in too much debt to somebody hurts the pride of some as well as inspiring an unwelcome realization that they may have to repay it. Unfortunately this is the human nature when still not spiritually matured. We end by a funny moral Turkish story. One asks another: “Gosh, so and so hates you so much!” The other replies: “I do not understand. I don’t remember having done any favours to him”.
Still, we believe that among all temporarily ascendant powers the Islamic power, especially its more recent representative the Ottoman Empire proved the most humane and enlightened of all powers in history. The reason is not far away- our ancestors were informed by the Qur’an from which we may quote two relevant quotations among many.
One is the Chapter 103, named Surat al Asr:
“By the century (as the unit of historical timescale) man is frustrated and in loss except those who believe (in the True God Who is the source of all wisdom and moral excellence) and do good works and exhort each other to do what is righteous and exhort each other to be patient (in the face of temptation)”
Have Muslims in general and Ottomans in particular been anywhere perfect in their assimilation and application of this admonition? Hardly! But they have been nearer to it than the rest of humanity (except an elite and brilliant group of the companions of the Prophet sws especially when he was alive and then also until two or three decades afterwards by which time the better part of that generation had died out) whatever their faiths or ideologies. For example it was the Ottomans who removed many wrongful rulers, either a local Lord or a Muslim sent from Istanbul, when their non-Muslim subjects complained about those rulers with justification. One such governor was a certain Kutchuk Mehmet of Cyprus. Three Greek bishops sailed from Cyprus to Istanbul to report and prove his wrongs; as a result an army was sent to Cyprus which forcibly removed the bad governor and punished him terribly and resorted to the Greeks their property and other rights taken away by the bad ‘Muslim’ governor!
The other is a Divine Promise, quite in accordance with the above admonition in ‘Surat al Asr’ above. It reads “Allah promises you ‘We will cause those among you who believe and do good works to inherit the earth as We had caused those before them to inherit and also We will consolidate their religion Allah chose for them and replace their preceding fear into succeeding safety. Therefore worship Me and do not associate with Me anything (as gods). Whoever becomes unfaithful after this they are then the reneging deserters” (24: 55)
In fact this verse can be seen an aptest summary of the history of Muslims. So long as Muslims, despite gradual deterioration moderated by occasional moderations and improvements, remained close enough to the standards prescribed by the first quotation above from the Qur’an, namely Surat al Asr Allah did make them inherit large tracts of His earth and convert millions to Islam while also blessing other millions with their basically the best rule on the whole earth and kept them largely secure from the threats of their non-Muslim rivals and enemies. For a thousand years Islam was the ascendant and dominant section of mankind, the overall winning and prospering part of it. Then came the ever-growing flux of deteriorations and degenerations and the second part of Allah’s promise had to be kept. All the same, the Ottomans have proved themselves the best ever Muslim power after the age of the Prophet sws and His first three or four caliphs. As such Ottomans study may serve many good lessons to be employed in the salvation of today’s Muslims, of course allowing for the differences in times and climes.
Ottomans were no terrible Turks but a rich racial mixture of mainly good Muslims simply called ‘Turks’ for the reason that they spoke Turkish and the founder of their state were of Turkish origin.