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The Caliphates - 6. The Ottomans

Osman I
The Mongols who captured Baghdad and brought an end to the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 were Turks. While the Mongol Turks took Baghdad, the Seljuk Turks seized Syria from the Crusaders before the Mongols captured it. The Mamluk Turks established a caliphate in Cairo, Egypt in 1261.

Meanwhile, Anatolia, located in the eastern part of Turkey, experienced weakening and was divided into ten emirates, or principalities. The leader of one of those emirates was Osman I; it's from Osman that the name Ottoman is derived. Osman quickly began to expand his territory. 

Over the next three centuries the Ottomans continued to grow their reach into Europe and North Africa, and even established a naval presence in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. It had become such a potent competitor to European trading empires, that Queen Isabella commissioned Christopher Columbus to discover a new route to Asia, one that would avoid the Eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. We know the second part of Columbus' trip, but not really the reason why:  it was the Ottomans.

The Ottomans rose to prominence during a period of military and trading empires. Armies gained ground one year, then lost it again the next. The ebb and flow of cultures that rushed in and out of these empires left the conquerors with a mixed bag of cultures, people, religions, and more. How does an empire conquer new lands and occupy them with native people, particularly when religion is such an important part of the basis for the conquest? That's the challenge that faced caliphates from the start.

The Ottoman Empire
The Ottomans themselves were thought to have been a mix of their own Greek and Turkish heritage, combined with the government administrations of the peoples they conquered like the Byzantines, with an undercurrent of Islam.

Many historians see the Ottomans as having been focused on the Islamic jihadist agenda to the point that they didn't care to trouble themselves with replacing the governmental structures they defeated. That can seem indulgent or tolerant in a way while others might see it as keeping one's eye on the ball. While spreading the Muslim faith, they nonetheless permitted some Christian and Jewish institutions to remain under certain conditions. While Sunni Islam was the official state religion of the Ottomans, they also controlled the Eastern Orthodox Church. For the most part, the Ottomans maintained the "millet" system when it came to handling non-Muslims. Christians and Jews - "People of the Book" - could still practice their faiths as long as they paid a higher tax. That made it okay to keep them around.

In the mid-1500s, the Ottomans moved on to bigger things, taking on the Habsburgs in Hungary. At about the same time, the Ottomans moved into and captured Baghdad, then all of Mesopotamia from the Persian Gulf. Then, they moved on to take Tunisia and Algeria in North Africa. With the Habsburgs still on their mind, the Ottomans formed an alliance with the French, English, and Dutch to take on the Austrian and Hungarian Habsburgs.

Finally, the Ottomans settled down and faced the stagnation that status quo-minded empires throughout the ages had faced. They became less attentive to the strategies that made them great and withdrew into their religious conservatism at great expense to their military prowess and strength. Meanwhile, a shift in the military balance of power occurred too as new European weapons and tactics made many Ottoman combat tactics relatively ineffective, if not obsolete. By 1600, the Ottomans discovered they needed to recruit many more infantrymen with weapons to augment their cavalry. However, having to recruit so many in such a short time led them to compromise their military discipline and training which led to a degradation of their military effectiveness.

Mehmed II Entering Constantinople
Over the next 300 years, the Ottomans experienced greater stagnation and decline. As is often the case, though, it's not quite as tidy as all of that. The period included phases of intermittent progress and many attempts at reform, but they failed to hold enough of the progress to return the Ottomans to their earlier prominence. 

Ultimately, European powers caught up in waves of nationalism overwhelmed the old Ottoman territories in the Balkans, and economic failures and the caliphate's inability to consolidate its diverse empire led to its ruin. Even on their own home turf, the Ottomans failed to hold their claims as Turkish tribes took control of Turkish lands and assimilated Muslims as they went. Later annexations of Ottoman territories by European countries persisted until the caliphate was dissolved in 1922. What was left of the caliphate was abolished with the rise of a new Turkish government. The sultan and his family were exiled from the country.

The story of the Ottoman Caliphate was as much in its decline as in its ascendency. As the caliphate spread beyond the Ottomans' ability to maintain a culturally and religiously homogenous population, elements within the caliphate chipped away at its interior while more radical Islamic elements emerged elsewhere in the absence of a meaningful, unified opposing force among the Ottomans.

The Wahabi Movement
In Arabia in the 1700s, for instance, Muhammad Wahab introduced what is best described as a puritanical variety of Islam. He waged a campaign against "corrupt" Muslim leaders and emphasized what he considered to be a return to an original, literal reading of the Koran. Westerners should bear in mind that while we regard such "corruption" as economic and governmental malfeasance and exploitation, fundamentalist Islamic elements see a religious implication akin to "impurity of faith." Wahabbism spread into Iran and Egypt as a push against modernism gained momentum.

Leaders like Attaturk in Turkey and the Shah of Iran pushed for secularism and modernism and the marginalization of Islam in their countries. Shifting influences in the swirl and aftermaths of World War I and World War II had a great influence on the "reform" of Islam as victorious Western allies claimed the spoils of war, often at the expense of the emerging fundamentalist Islamic movements that chose their allies poorly. So, the Ottomans fell, a fairly secular Turkey rose, Jews were repatriated to Israel, and struggles between moderate and fundamentalist Islamic influence in Egypt, Arabia, and Iran persisted throughout the 20th century.

As the book opens on the 21st century, Egypt, Arabia, and Iran remain focal points in the region. Unrest throughout the Middle East today seems as tumultuous as the waning years of the Ottoman Empire were, if not more so. The question today, however, is what will rise in the place of these "corrupt" governments.

As Westerners toil over the narrative regarding the state of affairs in the Middle East, they would be well-advised not to assume there are not significant, powerful, persuasive forces in the region who are working at this moment to establish a new caliphate. What it will look like is anyone's guess right now.

Coming Soon: The Pan-Islamic Mandate

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