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The Ottoman Caliphate And Its European Legacy – Analysis


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

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.

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”. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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

Was the system adopted by the Ottomans Islamic?

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.”

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.’

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.’[9]

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.

Ottoman Brutality

One of the continuous acts of propaganda against the Ottoman Caliphate is the allegation of brutality. Several examples are given such as the practice of the killing of all brothers of the newly selected Caliph, the put down of rebellions and the alleged Armenian genocide.

The first two points can be dealt with later. With regards to the Armenian uprising, this is one of the worst cases of black propaganda, pre World War I. I have gone into detail on this point to demonstrate the level of misinformation regarding the Ottoman Caliphate.

The allegation is that between the periods of 1894-1896, Sultan Abdul Hamid II enacted acts of genocide against entire Armenian populations; indiscriminately killing men, women and children while the Christian Armenians were defenseless (this is not to be confused with the events of 1915 by the Young Turk movement).

The truth is very different:

1) The Armenian Christian, with the backing of Russia and Europe were trying to separate from the Ottoman state. The position of Abdul Hamid II was consistent with Islamic unity and he wasn’t in a position to allow this to happen under his watch, since this was haram. This is the root cause of European derision. There were inflammatory nationalistic speeches made by prominent Christian Armenians openly calling for violent separation from the Caliphate.

2) Britain and Russia claim that Ottoman soldiers committed the massacres, but this has never been proven. In fact, after the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, Western powers forcibly removed Bulgaria from the Caliphate. Crucially, the borders surrounding the Armenian enclaves were no longer under Ottoman authority due to losses against Russia and Western Powers, and the subsequent Treaty of Berlin. Hence it is unlikely the Ottoman soldiers would have been present in the first instance. In reality Russian and Hungarian militia, assisted by Kurdish separatists undertook genocide activity against the Armenians, in order to incite ethnic tensions and this caused reprisals against the Ottoman State, creating circular behavior. [10]

3) The only reporting to come out is politically motivated, and not unbiased. This episode occurred during a period of time when mass communications were not available. The sources that state the genocide and the actions that emanated are from various European embassies and the Russian diplomacies. The reality is that these sources are not credible.

In fact, every original document of the Ottoman Archives was taken over by the Governmental Archives Directorate of the Prime Ministry. According to Turkish authorities many historians have researched the Ottoman Archives. Besides the research made by thousands of historians, these documents were translated into English and published in order to enlighten the public.[11]

Turkish authorities point out that even if the facts were reported correctly, the conclusions are unclear. Therefore, it is also crucial to look at secondary sources in the Ottoman Archives of the period such as budget, allocations, decisions/reasons of requests. This is important since Kurds, Turks and Hungarians suffered much of the starvation suffered by Armenians – i.e. there was widespread famine in the region. There are also personal records such as Mehmed Talat Pasha’s personal notes. – Which were disregarded.

They also point out the general attitude (“Sick man of Europe”) of the time and how it deforms perceptions. They state that the conclusions reached toward genocide are highly biased.

Some very “central” and the most cited sources are actively questioned on the basis that they do not include a single reference from the Ottoman Archives mainly occupying forces’ sources of the period (British, French) on the basis of their Intelligence (information gathering) issues. There are major concerns that these sources promote propaganda.

4) Far from being unanimously accepted as the Truth, prominent experts have openly questioned the events of the Armenian Genocide. For example On May 19, 1985, The New York Times and The Washington Post ran an advertisement in which a group of 69 American historians called on Congress not to adopt the resolution on the Armenian Genocide. Bernard Lewis, a prominent historian of Islam at Princeton, was among them and so the case was named after him[12]

Muslims will point to the numerous examples of Ottoman integration of its disparate populations – from Serb, Croat, Hungarian, Arab, Jew and others. For the majority of the 600 years of the Ottoman Caliphate, unity reigned in the state and the state’s integration policies were marked by kindness rather than brutality.

In fact, the State’s leniency led to the effective balkanization of the Ottoman Caliphate, since it allows whole communities to function independent of the State system. These communities were later used against the State and led to various atrocities in the former Ottoman regions, such as the Bosnian War on the mid 1990s.

The Political impact of the Ottoman Caliphate

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.[13]

“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[14] and entered into the Franco-Ottoman Alliance in 1536[15], 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] 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

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

[8] Mawqif al-‘Aql, p322

[9] 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

[10] Klein, Janet (2011). The Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 21-34.

[11] “Regulations for the use of Ottoman Archives”. Ottoman Archives. 2006-10-12.

[12] Yves Ternon. The «Lewis Affair» // Richard G. Hovannisian. Remembrance and denial: the case of the Armenian genocide. Wayne State University Press, 1998.  P.237-348.

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

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

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

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