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Some Approaches to the Ottoman Empire as part of a World History Curriculum

Robert Zens


     The Ottoman Empire, which has largely been ignored in Western Civilization courses, can serve as a centerpiece of a world history course providing a link between the pre-modern and the modern periods. Despite the frequent depiction of the Empire as a military monolith during the early modern period and then as the Sick Man of Europe, the Ottomans are a powerful exemplar of empire.

     In introducing the Ottoman Empire to students, after one provides some basic background on the state and its development, there is a myriad of possibilities that instructors have before them.  They can either take the traditional route and retell the story of the Ottoman transformation from the terror of Europe to its sick man or they can approach the Empire in a much more constructive way and discuss the Ottomans and the world around it.1

     In my two-semester World History course, my students encounter the Ottomans on numerous occasions; and in the majority of these encounters the Ottomans are somehow interacting with or compared to another empire or group of people rather than at war.  The following will include a few examples of how one can incorporate the Ottomans and create connections in world history.

Moving away from the Terror of Europe and Sick Man Paradigm

One of the most difficult aspects in teaching about the Ottoman Empire in a world history course is moving away from the standard, although out-dated, model of the transformation of the state from the terror of Europe in the mid-sixteenth century to that of the sick man of Europe by the nineteenth century.  Tied with this representation is the belief that the empire was in a long decline following the death of Sultan Suleyman in 1566.  Numerous studies of the empire over the past few decades have shown that after the death of Suleyman the Magnificent the Ottoman Empire remained a powerful state into the twentieth century.2  Despite the military defeats beginning at the end of the seventeenth centuries (these were also interspersed with victories), it must be remembered that the Ottomans frequently were fighting wars on multiple fronts, an extremely difficult task for even the most powerful state. However, much more important than military encounters, one must examine their standing amongst their neighbors.  The Ottomans continued to be feared as a threat and sought after as an ally until the state's ultimate demise during World War I. Thus one must rethink using the decline theory starting from Sultan Suleyman's death and instead speak in terms of the Ottoman Empire moving away from continuous territorial expansion towards maintaining itself as a strong political, economic, cultural, as well as military force.  

     The following examples drawing from various periods of Ottoman history help to illustrate not only the interconnectedness of the Ottoman Empire with the rest of the world, but also its important standing in global affairs.

The Ottomans and the Safavids

One of the issues in which my students seem to be interested, but are rather ignorant, is the present state of the Middle East; and a question that frequently arises is about the differences between Sunnis and Shiites. In a sense one may see this question as a small victory, since it means that students know that different groups of Muslims do exist, as opposed to just lumping them all together.  Although, a discussion of the Sunni-Shiite split would have occurred well before any discussion on the Ottomans, this distinction and the present state of Iran and Iraq could be emphasized and clarified when bringing the Ottoman-Safavid/Qajar encounter into the class.

     In introducing this encounter, I first explain, briefly, who Shah Ismail was and his belief system and movement towards Twelver Shiism.3 The establishment of the Safavid state in 1501, provides one with an opportunity to examine the importance of tribalism in Middle East history; an issue central to Ibn Khaldun's monumental analysis of empires.4 The discussion follows with the expansion of the Safavids eastward into Iran. It is at this point that I make the connection between Shah Ismail's conquests in the early sixteenth century and the present religious and political situation in Iran, since the Safavids were responsible for the spread of Shiism into Iran. Modern Iran should pique the interests of students, however, their knowledge of the Ayatollah Khomeini or the Revolution may be nonexistent. It is here that I discuss the difference between Sunni and Shiite political legitimacy in the context of the Ottomans and Safavids, although I do make reference to the Qajars as well, and include a brief discussion of current Iranian political legitimacy as compared to that of Sunni countries. 

     Within Sunni Islam political leadership is to be held by the one who is most able to promote justice within society. Although piety and morality are viewed as important characteristics of a good leader, these are not essential.5 Thus in Sunni Islam the community is led by an individual who possesses only temporal powers, as had been the case since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. For this reason, historically it is rare to find clerics possessing political power in Sunni societies. This is not to say that a Sunni political leader can forego his religious duties as a Muslim, but rather that one's legitimacy is not dependent on this matter.  This is not to say that there are not examples in Islamic history where a leader was removed from power for his un-Islamic behavior.

     For Shiism, temporal and religious authority are intimately tied, as seen in the role of the Imams.  The Imams, the twelfth and final of whom went into occultation in 874, possessed both full political and religious power within their community.  With the absence of an imam, the question of Shiite leadership becomes more challenging.  However, in the Safavid Empire, the ruling dynasty was recognized as possessing special religious legitimacy due to their supposed links to Ali, the first Imam, that placed them above all others.  When the Qajar dynasty came to power in the late-eighteenth century, they did not even attempt to claim this religious authority, recognizing that it was a special attribute held only by the twelve Imams and the Safavids.  In turn, the Qajars were forced to recognize that the ulema (religious scholars) were the possessors of religious authority, and, thus, the Qajars needed to work with them to establish a proper state and society.6  In 1971, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini outlined that in the absence of the imam, power, both religious and temporal, was to be in the hands of those who best knew how to rule according to God's law, i.e., religious scholars, those most familiar with the law.7  This work has served as the blueprint for the government structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

     Together with this or in a future lecture one can discuss the Ottoman policies in the late-nineteenth century to extend its control and legitimacy over the Shiites who resided in the Empire, namely in southern Iraq of today.  Abdulhamid II (1876-1909), who was responsible for the politicization of Islam, saw the Shiites as a problematic element within the Empire. He wanted to control them without leading them to rebel. Through the implementation of numerous measures, such as a travel restriction on Shiites from Persia into the Ottoman Empire, notably to the holy sites of Mecca, Medina, Karbala, and Najaf, and the appointment of Istanbul-trained Sunni teachers in heavily Shiite regions to promoted obedience to the caliph, Sultan Abdulhamid hoped to promote greater uniformity and loyalty within the empire.8  One can see that these episodes between the Sunni and Shiite communities in both the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, in addition to the numerous wars fought between the Ottomans and the Safavids, highlight the tensions that exist between these people today; tensions that have only been contained with force or more recently secularism.  

The Ottomans and the Mughals

Unlike the Ottoman-Safavid/Qajar relationship, the Ottomans and Mughals were not separated by religious differences, but were at odds due to their common Sunni background. After the acquisition of the Arab provinces with the defeat of Mamluks in 1517, the Ottomans not only inherited a large Muslim population, but also the Holy Sites of Mecca and Medina, as well as Jerusalem. By possessing the Holy Sites, the Ottoman sultan could claim to be the Custodian of the Holy Sites (it was not until the reign of Abdulhamid II in the late nineteenth century that the title caliph was used regularly).  Not only did Mecca and Medina give the Ottomans religious prestige as the greatest Islamic power, but it carried the tremendous responsibility of providing for these cities and safeguarding the pilgrimage routes for the many Muslims on hajj.  As part of the Ottoman efforts to publicize their position as the defenders of the Holy Sites, numerous public buildings in Mecca and Medina were erected and maintained by the sultans and other eminent Ottomans.

     The Mughals did not come into power until 1526 and were not able to establish any truly long-lasting institutions until the reign of Akbar during the second half of the sixteenth century.  However during the long reign of Akbar (1556-1605), the Mughals attempted to establish themselves as a leading Sunni dynasty, thus putting them into competition with the Ottomans.9  In order for the Mughals to establish their legitimacy as a Sunni power, they attempted to leave their mark in the very heart of the Islamic world, Mecca and Medina.  What some may interpret as an act of religious devotion, i.e., the attempt to fund buildings and provide social welfare for pilgrims and residents of the two cities, the Ottomans viewed as a threat.  In 1581, when ladies from the emperor's household arrived in Mecca with their large entourage and sizable treasury, they were restrained by Ottoman authorities and detained for an extended period.10 The Ottomans viewed these Mughals, not a devout Muslims, but attempted usurpers of authority in the Islamic world.11  After the incorporation of the large Arab Muslim population of the Middle East and North Africa as a results of the conquests in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman sultan was forced to pay close attention to his standing as the champion of Sunni Islam, or risk losing their support.

     A rather ironic twist to this relationship was that in the last century of the Ottoman Empire it was the Muslims from South Asia who showed the greatest loyalty to the Ottoman caliphate. This was demonstrated in 1877 when over 40,000 Muslims crowded the port of Bombay to catch a glimpse of the Ottoman envoy who was on his way to meet with Sher Ali Khan, the ruler of Afghanistan.  In his cable to the sultan Sirvanzade Ahmed Hulusi efendi, the head of the Ottoman mission, stated that they came "in order to show their support and love for you as the caliph."  The size of the crowd at the port and the even larger crowd waiting at the Ottoman consulate so frightened British officials in the city that they ordered the mission to leave that day by train and not to stop until they reached the Afghan border.12  Additionally, it was South Asian Muslims who protested most greatly when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate in 1924.  Such an attitude has continued on through the policies of Pakistan which has been typically very supportive of Islamic initiatives worldwide.

The Ottomans and Non-Muslim States

The relationship the Ottomans had with other Islamic states, as mentioned thus far, was oftentimes less than brotherly, however, their relationship with Christian states took on a variety of different appearances.  Although the Ottomans' neighbors to the north and west, namely the Habsburgs and Russians, were their greatest threats militarily, they did not pose the same threat as did the Safavids and Mughals, i.e., they did not threaten the religious legitimacy of the Ottoman state.13  For the Ottomans during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Habsburgs were the vanguard of Catholicism, and their fervent defense of Catholicism was seen also as a weakness. Just as students tend to lump all Muslims (Sunnis and Shiites) together as a monolithic whole, they see unity in Christianity when faced with a non-Christian power.14  In order to undermine Habsburg influence in the borderland region of Hungary during the sixteenth through early eighteenth centuries, the Ottomans showed favor to its Protestant inhabitants.15  The Islamic principle of tolerance (all Christians are viewed as "people of the Book"), which played an important role in the early Arab conquests of the non-Orthodox Middle East in the seventh century, also aided Ottoman rule in religiously divided Hungary. Likewise, this can be seen in the early eighteenth century after the Ottomans regained Belgrade from the Habsburgs. The Serbs viewed the period of Habsburg rule from 1718 to 1739, as a time of economic advancement, but the pressure by the Habsburgs to turn the Serbs into good German Catholics was unbearable. Thus, the policy of Ottoman religious tolerance as compared to the heavy persecution of non-Catholics in the Habsburgs state reaped political dividends.16

     The case with the Russians was quite complex, and I will limit my discussion to a single point, although one that had major repercussions for both the Russians and the Ottomans. The Treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarja of 1774 which ended the first of two wars with Catherine the Great not only saw the Ottomans lose for the first time a possession inhabited largely by Muslims, i.e., Crimea, but it also had a significant religious impact as well.  As part of the treaty Catherine maintained the right of Russia to intervene on behalf of Orthodox Christians in the Empire.  Additionally, it recognized the Ottoman sultan, the caliph (this is one of the first time we see the caliphal title really applied to the sultan), as the religious authority of the Muslims in Crimea.  Although the concession to the Russians would be implemented frequently in the coming decades, it was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that we see a sultan, again Abdulhamid II, use the title of caliph.

     Abdulhamid II did not invoke his power as caliph with regards to the Crimean Tatars per se, but rather as a defensive measure after the disastrous Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78.  One example that really resonates with students is how as caliph, Abdulhamid aided the United States.17 In 1899, as the U.S. military was attempting to subdue the Philippines, they encountered heavy resistance by the Muslim population. In order to avoid a prolonged war, the Secretary of State John Hay sent a letter to Ambassador Oscar Straus requesting the sultan, who had a great personal admiration for the United States, "to instruct the Mohammedans of the Philippines, who had always resisted Spain, to come willingly under our control."18  The Sultan did so, and, surprisingly, the resistance ended. This bit of history not only dispels the myth that Islamic states and non-Islamic ones have always been at odds, but shows the inter-connectedness of the world. However, together with this story, one must add that with the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, the power and authority of the caliph ceased to exist because no longer was the caliph an independent power, but rather he was a puppet of others, i.e., the Young Turks; as, at times, in the past the caliph was subject to various sultans starting in the late ninth century.

     The above discussed encounters, although they involve what many may view as tangential aspects of Ottoman history, in fact, provide excellent opportunities to create connections not just in Ottoman history, but also in world history.  The geographic and demographic diversity of the Ottoman Empire as well as its longevity give instructors almost limitless opportunities to tie this key player in early modern and modern history into their world history courses.

Additional Resources on the Ottoman Empire
Akarli, Engin Deniz. "The Tangled End of an Empire: Ottoman Encounters with the West and
Problems of Westernization – an Overview." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa,
and the Middle East 26:3 (2006): 353-366.

Aksan, Virginia. "Locating the Ottomans Among Early Modern Empires." Journal of Early
Modern History 3:2 (1999), 21-39.
-----. Ottoman Wars: An Empire Beseiged, 1700-1870. Harlow: Longman, 2007.

Aksan, Virginia and Daniel Goffman, eds. The Early Modern Ottomans: Remapping the
Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Barkey, Karen. The Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Boyar, Ebru and Kate Fleet. A Social History of Ottoman Istanbul. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2010.

Brummett, Palmira. Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery.
Albany: SUNY Press, 1993.

Casale, Giancarlo. The Ottoman Age of Exploration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
The Cambridge History of Turkey. 4 Vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006-12.

Dale, Stephen. The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Davidann, Jon Thares and Marc Jason Gilbert, "Empires of Difference: The Ottoman Model of a
Multicultural State." In Cross-Cultural Encounters in Modern World History, idem.
Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2012, 53-68.

Deringil, Selim. "The Invention of Tradition as Public Image in the Late Ottoman Empire."
Comparative Studies in History and Society 35:1 (1993): 3-29.
-----. The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman
Empire, 1876-1909. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998.

Evliya Çelebi. An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi.
Trans. Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim. London: Eland, 2010.

Farooqhi, N.R. "Six Ottoman Documents on Mughal-Ottoman Relations during the Reign of
Akbar." Journal of Islamic Studies 7:1 (1996), 32-46.

Faroqhi, Suraiya. The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
-----. Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Findley, Carter V. Turkey, Islam, Nationalism and Modernity: A History, 1789-2007. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Finkel, Caroline. Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Basic
Books, 2006.

Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2002.

Greene, Molly. "The Ottoman Experience." Daedalus 134:2 (2005): 88-99.

Gurkan, Emrah Safa. "The Centre and Frontier: Ottoman Cooperation with the North African
Corsairs in the Sixteenth Century." Turkish Historical Review 1/2 (2010), 125-163.

Hagen, Gottfried. "Legitimacy and World Order." In Hakan Karateke and Maurus Reinkowski,
eds. Legitimizing the Order: The Ottoman Rhetoric of State Power. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Hathaway, Jane. The Arab Lands under Ottoman Rule, 1516-1800. Harlow: Longman, 2008.

Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave,

Inalcik, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600. New York: Praeger, 1973.

Inalcik, Halil and Donald Quataert, eds. An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman
Empire. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Kafadar, Cemal. Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1995.

Karpat, Kemal H. The Politicization of Islam: Reconstructing Identity, State, Faith and
Community in the Late Ottoman State. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Lowry, Heath. The Nature of the Early Ottoman State. Albany: SUNY Press, 2003.

Matthee, Rudi, "The Safavid-Ottoman Frontier: Iraq-i Arab as Seen by the Safavids,"
International Journal of Turkish Studies 9:1-2 (2003), 157-173.

Murgescu, Bogdan and Halil Berktay, eds. The Ottoman Empire (Workbook 1). Thessaloniki:
Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe, 2009. Free online at:  Accessed September 5, 2013.

Necipoglu, Gulru. "Süleyman the Magnificent and the Representation of Power in the Context of

Ottoman-Hapsburg-Papal Rivalry." The Art Bulletin 71:3 (1989), 401-427.

Pamuk, Sevket. "Institutional Change and the Longevity of the Ottoman Empire, 1500-1800."
Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 35:2 (2004): 225-247.
-----. "Ottoman State Finances in European Perspective, 1500-1914." Journal of Economic
History 70:3 (2010): 593-629.

Peirce, Leslie. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1993.

Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2005.
-----. "Ottoman History Writing and Changing Attitudes Towards the Notion of 'Decline'."
History Compass 1:1 (2003).

Reynolds, Michael. Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian
Empires, 1908-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Shaw, Stanford J. Between Old and New: The Ottoman Empire under Sultan Selim III, 1789-
1807. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Shaw, Stanford J. and Ezel Kural Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. 2
Vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Woodhead, Christine, ed. The Ottoman World. New York: Routledge, 2012.
-----. "'The Present Terrour of the World?' Contemporary Views of the Ottoman Empire c.
1600." History 72/234 (1987), 20-37.

Robert Zens is Associate Professor of Middle East History at Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY, where he teaches World, Middle Eastern, and Islamic History. He has co-edited two books, including Ottoman Borderlands, and published numerous articles on eighteenth-century Ottoman provincial notables. He is currently completing a monograph entitled Problems in the Provinces: Rogues, Reforms, and Rebellions in the Ottoman Empire. He can be contacted at


1 This terminology is taken from Suraiya Faroqhi. In fact, her book, The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), is a very interesting and readable text to assign to students in a World History course.

2 See Donald Quartaert, "Ottoman History Writing and Changing Attitudes Towards the Notion of 'Decline'," History Compass 1:1 (2003); Caroline Finkel, Osman's Dream (New York: Basic Books, 2005); Colin Imber, The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

3 An excellent introduction to the rise of the Safavid state is Andrew Newman, Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006) or Roger Savory's classic account Iran Under the Safavids (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

4 Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). A popular, but useful, article on Ibn Khaldun can be found at:

5 al-Ghazali, Counsel for Kings, trans. F.R.C. Bagley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). 

6 See Abbas Amant, "The Kayanid Crown and Qajar Reclaiming of Royal Authority," Iranian Studies 34:1-4 (2001): 17-30; Said Arjomand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

7 Ruhollah Khomeini, Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations Imam Khomeini (1941-1980), trans. Hamid Algar (Mizan Press, 1981), 27-168.

8 Selim Deringil, "Legitimacy Structures in the Ottoman State: The Reign of Abdulhamid II (1876-1909)," International Journal of Middle East Studies 23 (1991), 347-9.

9 It is interesting to note that despite their common Sunni heritage, the Mughals and Ottomans never cooperated to remove the Shiite state that existed between them. This failure to act was due mainly to their conflicting attitudes towards the Uzbeks.  The Ottomans had established friendly ties with the Uzbeks, while the Mughals, like the Safavids, saw them as a threat, and, thus, worked together against their common enemy to the north.

10 Note: no Ottoman sultan or Mughal emperor ever participated personally in the hajj.

11 For an excellent set of primary source material on this relationship, see N.R. Farooqhi, "Six Ottoman Documents on Mughal-Ottoman Relations during the Reign of Akbar," Journal of Islamic Studies 7:1 (1996), 32-46.

12 Kemal Karpat, Politicization of Islam: Reconstructing Identity, State, Faith and Community in the Late Ottoman State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 144-5.

13 For an interesting article dealing with the Ottoman-Habsburg rivalry, see Gulru Necipoglu, "Süleyman the Magnificent and the Representation of Power in the Context of Ottoman-Hapsburg-Papal Rivalry," The Art Bulletin 71:3 (1989), 401-427.

14 Two interesting examples to point out refuting Christian unity are the Crusades (Latin Christians vs. Eastern Christians), and, more recently, the civil war in Lebanon (Maronites vs. Orthodox Christians).

15 Gabor Agoston, "Information, Ideology, and Limits of Imperial Policy: Ottoman Grand Strategy in the Context of Ottoman-Habsburg Rivalry," in The Early Modern Ottomans: Remapping the Empire, ed. Virginia Aksan and Daniel Goffman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 75-103.

16 Karen Barkey, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

17 Another example that can be used is the British attempt in 1877 to get the sultan-caliph to convince the ruler of Afghanistan to work with the British against Russia. The failure of this mission witnessed the termination of a British attempt at diplomacy and an invasion of Afghanistan the following year.

18 Karpat, Politicization of Islam, 234-5; Oscar Strauss, Under Four Administrations, From Cleveland to Taft (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922), 46; John P. Finley, "The Mohammedan Problem in the Philippines," Journal of Race Development 5:4 (1915), 353-63.

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