The Ottoman dynasty’s history can be traced from about 1300 to the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. At its greatest extent, the Ottoman Empire covered an enormous territory, including Anatolia, the Balkan region in Europe, most of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, and all of North Africa except for Morocco. As of the 1510s the empire had possession of Sunni Islam’s three holiest shrine cities—Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The Turkish-speaking Ottoman royal family, the administration it created, and the educational and cultural institutions it eventually favored were all Sunni Muslim. However, subordinate Christian and Jewish sects also coexisted with Islam, which enjoyed the support and favor of the state. While a tremendous amount of scholarly material is available on the history of the Ottomans, surprisingly little of a general nature has been written on the history of Islam in the Ottoman Empire. What has been published is often narrow in scope and frequently not theoretically based. The earliest period of Ottoman history contains the contentious issue of the role of Islam in the spreading of Ottoman rule beyond the small territory in northwest Anatolia where it began. Despite a dearth of reliable sources, several valuable studies have appeared recently that modify the earlier view that waging holy war against Christians was the chief impetus for Ottoman expansion. However, Ottoman sultans did appeal for political legitimacy on the basis of their sponsorship of Islamic buildings, institutions, pious foundations, and judicial institutions.
Among the four main legal schools of Sunni Islam, the Ottomans favored the Hanafis. The Ottoman ruling establishment and the general Muslim population also had close links with Sufis (Islamic mystics). Among the main opponents of the Ottoman state was the Safavid Empire, a Shiʿi Muslim empire to the east of the Ottoman lands. Shiʿism and so-called Islamic heresies were major internal issues as well as an external threat for the Sunni Ottomans. One means of curbing Shiʿism, as well as promoting Sunni Islam, was through the patronage of the judicial system that was organized and formalized in a new manner by the Ottomans. The question of how much flexibility was available to judges and legal scholars has been a source of much controversy among scholars. Other Muslim institutions that received government support included schools and numerous charitable foundations, many of which owned extensive properties. The state also had a direct role in the training and promoting of the Sunni religious hierarchy. Even in the production of art, religion played a large role.
Outside the Ottoman ruling elite, much is known about the religious conditions of town dwellers, thanks in large part to the archival records of Muslim courts. It is safe to assert that the role of Islam in everyday life was substantial. However, for the majority of Ottoman subjects, who lived in villages, there is less information available, and even less is known about nomadic groups. On the other hand, many fine studies now exist dealing with the history of urban Muslim Ottoman women. Returning to the study of political elites, accounts of the rise of secularism in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire have been heavily revised on the basis of new scholarship. Many researchers now point to a closer involvement of religion in the reforms that tried to save the empire from the destruction that ultimately overtook it at the end of World War I.
High-quality English-language surveys of Ottoman history have increased in number since the 1990s. While several such studies exist, Finkel 2006, a one-volume survey, is a good beginning point for readers. When completed, the Cambridge History of Islam, of which Faroqhi 2006 is one part, will perhaps replace Shaw and Shaw 1976 as the standard multivolume survey. Hathaway and Barbir 2008 deals with the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. These authors, along with many others, have helped demolish the former interpretation that the Ottoman Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries witnessed little change. Few documentary films have been made on the subject of Islam and the Ottoman Empire. While Gardner 2000 is centered on political history, it does include some discussion and footage of religious sites. Overviews of Islam and the Ottomans are often informed by an anti-Muslim and anti-Ottoman bias. Such biased works were frequently written by post-Ottoman nationalists in the successor states of the empire. Two more balanced treatments that both specialize in the early Ottoman or pre-Ottoman period are Inalcik 1968–1970 and Itzkowitz 1972. Scholars specializing in Ottoman-Islamic topics have tended to avoid the politically charged question of the impact of this subject on the period after World War I. One exception to this pattern is Ochsenwald 1996.
Sultans and Islamic Legitimacy
Islam was one of the chief sources of political legitimacy for the Ottoman dynasty. However, some of the rulers were far more active in promoting Islam than were others. The best beginning point for considering the subject is Karateke 2005a, which includes a general review of the matter but one that pertains particularly to the early and middle eras of Ottoman rule. Another chapter of the same book, Karateke 2005b, looks more particularly at some of the sultans’ personal mystique, Islamic devotion, and pious acts. One particular method used by the sultans to establish their religious credentials was to build vast mosque complexes, as explained in detail in Crane 1991. Still another manner of demonstrating religious legitimacy was through the maintenance and occasional display of holy relics, permanently housed in the chief imperial Istanbul palace. An informative visual tour of this palace is available online at the Topkapi Palace Museum website, maintained by the Bilkent University Department of History, with both English- and Turkish-language versions available.
In practice, many of the Ottoman dynasty’s patterns of behavior, particularly in regard to succession to the throne, were clearly un-Islamic, as may be seen in Peirce 1993. Insofar as such behaviors were known to Muslim subjects of the state, the dynasty probably lost some part of its religious legitimacy. For the role of the sultanate and Islam in the last part of the dynasty’s long history, see Deringil 1998, which is theoretically sophisticated but written in an accessible manner. Also pertinent to the last two centuries of Ottoman rule is the issue of Pan-Islam, which was the concept that all Muslims should be loyal to the Ottoman sultan-caliph as the leader of the last large independent Muslim empire. While Landau 1990 is quite lengthy, it is still the best introduction to the subject. For more on the Ottomans and the caliphate see Caliph and Caliphate.
Sunnism and the Hanafi Madhhab
As a result of political differences and theological disputes, two main divisions emerged in Islam: Sunnism and Shiʿism. Inside Sunnism, the four main madhhabs (schools of Islamic legal practice) that gradually appeared were Hanafi, Shafiʿi, Maliki, and Hanbali. The Ottoman dynasty and state espoused the Hanafi madhhab and reserved top posts for Hanafi ulama (men of religion), though according to Peters 2005, sultans could and did interfere in Hanafi judges’ interpretations. Among the Hanafis there were differences in interpretation and degrees of zealotry. A particularly zealous Hanafi reform movement, the Kadizadeli movement, was ultimately unsuccessful in imposing its narrow interpretation of Islam on the Ottoman population, as discussed in Zilfi 1986. Rafeq 1999compares Hanafi with Shafiʿi ulama in terms of career patterns. Both Madeline C. Zilfi and Abdul Karim Rafeq employ a close and insightful reading of Ottoman records, while Rafeq also looks at Arabic-language chronicles. The study of conversion from one religion to another has provoked great controversy. In the context of Ottoman history, this issue has usually been examined in terms of the conversion of Christians and Jews to Islam, as in Vryonis 1986. A relatively understudied aspect has been the motives of Muslims who sought converts and the reasons they chose particular methods to encourage conversion. Baer 2008 helps fill this gap with a pioneering book.
Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, flourished in the Ottoman Empire as Sufi brotherhoods became deeply entrenched in social, economic, and political life. Studies of Ottoman Sufism tend to be very specific and intended for advanced readers, as can be seen in the works cited here. The earliest period of Ottoman Sufism is the beginning point of Mélikoff 1998, although the author continues her narration up to the late 20th century. Le Gall 2005 has an extensive geographical scope while examining only one Sufi order. On the other hand, Faroqhi 1976 looks at a very specific geographic spot (the location where a brotherhood began), examining the order’s social and economic impact in the region. Although it may be difficult for the reader to locate, Ocak 2001 has a valuable overview of Ottoman Sufism up to about 1800. Winter 1982 studies thought and Sufi criticism in Ottoman Egypt, one of the richest and largest provinces of the empire. Abu-Manneh 2001 contains several influential articles on Sufism reflecting a new appreciation of its durability and relevance into the 19th century.
• Abu-Manneh, Butrus. Studies on Islam and the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century (1826–1876). Shiʿism and Heresies
The Ottoman dynasty and administration were strongly Sunni and anti-Shiʿi. This meant that inside the empire, Shiʿis and Druze were the victims of discrimination, as shown in Abu-Husayn 1992 for the Syria and Lebanon region and in Imber 1979, which discusses chiefly Ottoman Anatolia. In Ottoman-ruled southern Iraq, Shiʿis ultimately came to be a majority, a process elucidated by Nakash 2003. As a result, many problems emerged there for the Ottoman government. One difficulty the Ottomans faced was defining who was a Sunni, who was a Shiʿi, and who was a so-called heretic. By far the best discussion of this subject for the early and middle Ottoman periods is Ocak 1998, a rather dense but rewarding volume. Khoury 2007 examines somewhat similar issues in a short chapter that deals with one Ottoman region in one century. Ottoman anti-Shiʿism also carried over to foreign policy, particularly relations with predominantly Shiʿi Iran. Dressler 2005 is one of the most recent of many works that could be cited for this purpose, including in part Imber 1979.
Justice and Law
Justice and law in the Ottoman Empire were based on several sources. Christians and Jews could use their own separate courts, though some minorities chose to take issues to Islamic courts. For Muslim Ottomans, the Sharia (holy law of Islam) was theoretically the most important source of law; according to many of the ulama, it was the only appropriate source for many kinds of cases that would be tried by government-appointed judges. However, Kanuns (administrative decrees by the sultan) affected a lot of issues and people. In addition, customary law also greatly influenced society, especially people living outside the larger cities. An extensive and profound survey of the whole history of Sharia may be found in Hallaq 2009, the best beginning point for the reader. Judges issued decisions for particular cases, while muftis (religious legal consultants) gave legal opinions that might be taken as authoritative interpretations in subsequent cases. Imber 1997closely examines a highly important mufti, giving the reader an opportunity to closely follow judicial reasoning. In the last decades of the empire, much of the civil law was codified; an English-language translation may be found in Ottoman Empire 1901. This law code was the basis of law in some of the successor states of the Ottoman Empire long after the empire itself had disappeared. Most people were more directly affected by the local application of law than by the actions of the judicial elite in Istanbul. Many studies of Ottoman local history are based on court registers. Some useful examples are Gerber 1994 for Anatolia, el-Nahal 1979 for Egypt, and Jennings 1975 for the treatment of women in courts.
Muslim Institutions and Education
As discussed in General Overviews, many fine general studies of Ottoman history have been published since 1990. Often, these works cover institutional history, usually specializing in government administrative efficiency or economic affairs. Those authors who cover the 18th and 19th centuries have been in effect revising or attacking Gibb and Bowen 1950–1957, a work that for several decades was the standard book on the subject. More specialized studies of Ottoman institutions linked to religion include works on the extremely important topic of charitable foundations (Barnes 1986), the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (Faroqhi 1994), and the status of Christians (Inalcik 1991). Gerber 1999 carefully studies the role of muftis and concludes by reinforcing the idea—as seen in Justice and Law—that judicial institutions played a large and positive role in Ottoman governmental affairs. Studies of Ottoman education have also flourished recently, though chiefly for the last years of the empire rather than for earlier times. Two fine examples are Bein 2006 and Fortna 2002, with each author covering a different part of the age spectrum of students.
This subject is closely related to items mentioned in several other sections, including Sunnism and the Hanafi Madhhab, Justice and Law, and Muslim Institutions and Education. For the reader new to the subject, three valuable studies exist: Inalcik 1973 for the early and middle Ottoman periods, Zilfi 1988 for the middle and early modern periods, and Kushner 1987 for the late period of Ottoman history. All three cover the role of the ulama in general. Two specialized studies deal with the legal hierarchy: Repp 1986 looks at the role of muftis in Ottoman courts as well as the learned hierarchy more broadly speaking, while al-Qattan 2007 is an essay on the role of judges and a quite useful evaluation of earlier scholarship on this subject.