A Link Between Empires: Methods of Establishing Legitimate Rule Among 16th Century Muslim Empires

As new dynasties erupted across the near east and central and south Asia, a new age of Islamic rule descended upon the world of the 16th century. With memories of the Umayyads and other ancient Muslim empires now faded, it fell upon idealistic rulers to take up that mantle. Three contiguous superpowers emerged: The Ottomans, titans of military might and administrative complexity; the Safavids, Sufi-descended Shiites with a short-lived but notable peak; and the Mughals, Indo-Muslim latecomers to the new Muslim renaissance who nonetheless leveraged the union of Muslims and Hindus to great architectural and military effect. Though disparate empires with heterogenous appetites, the Ottomans acted as pathfinders through the floodgates of prosperity, providing an impressive model upon which their fellow empires could build, even as the three stood in a state of – in a waxing and waning cycle – tension and conflict. Their similarities can be found in the methods which they used to expand their territory, as all three grappled with the vast cultural spread of the fraught lands over which they ruled. They were each forced to make compromises and innovations to accommodate hundreds of years of deeply-entrenched culture and traditions, though their approaches to the problem were as various as their economies. By delving into the origins, administrative quirks, and military structures of these impressive empires as they existed in the 16th century, I will conclude that their unique ability to each establish a legitimate claim to power was the key link between the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires.

All empires, to some degree, stand on the shoulders of giants; but the Ottomans’ feet were firmly planted on those of a leviathan. With the fall of the Roman Empire, one of history’s greatest civilizations was scattered to the wind. Though historians have long argued about the exact point at which the Romans ceased being truly Roman, the Ottomans had their own definition: unsurprisingly, the precise moment at which they dealt the killing blow to the famously impregnable Constantinople. The Ottomans had a lot in common with the Holy Roman Empire; famous for their looming fortresses and time-tested walls, they fit right in among the ashes of those titans, making explicit their commitment to the defense of Christianity to satisfy their Christian base[1]. Yet their claim to rule had to be much more concrete than that in order to gain a religiopolitical foothold over a churning populace.

Streusand identifies six ideological elements associated with the Ottoman empire – two of which will be addressed in this response. The first, that of the “frontier ghazi,” he characterizes as a dramatized battle against nonbelievers, which informed the “nomadic ethos” at the heart of the empire[2]. Though the actual reality of Ottoman administration had very little – if anything – to do with this ideology, its adoption was essential to maintaining control over the Turkmen whose loyalty in the fight against the Safavids meant everything.

This, the Ottomans and Safavids shared. Known as Safavid ghuluww, the explicit rejection of settlement as a perpetuator of civilization could be read at the highest levels of Safavid government under messianic ruler Ismail Safavi. Ismail was channeling an ancient drive against complex administration and systems of taxation, the implementation of which put the Ottomans’ attempts to court a Turkish audience to shame[3]. To be fair, the Safavids’ roots were firmly planted in the region, having drawn their origins from an organized Sufi confederation[4]. To counter this immediately legitimate claim to the inheritance of the region, the Ottomans, in their expansion eastwards, offered their second most common tool of conquest, right after war: myth. Wielding the tale that God had granted the fictional figure of Oghuz Khan as the world’s true ruler, they spun myths to establish a veneer of legitimate sovereignty over quite literally everything. The Ottomans’ method of pan-cultural domination was one of the major contributing factors to their utter power; contrast that with the Safavids, whose Turkish and Persians contingencies did not meld as well, often keeping to matters of military and state, respectively.

The Mughals, on the other hand, shared the Ottomans’ relatively successful campaign to unite many cultures under a single banner. The venerated leader Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar, after taking the throne in 1556 – notably, decades after the Ottomans’ legendary Sulayman – combined regional Timurid and Indo-Muslim identities to great effect[5]. By drawing from the ideologies espoused by saints of the Chishti Sufi order, which had already facilitated the rise of Islam throughout South Asia, he adopted a creed appealing to Hindus and Muslims, both of which attended the order’s shrines. That is not to say that Islam did not hold a special place in Akbar’s heart — he did, after all, mandate that his governors read Rumi and Ghazdi[6] — he challenged traditional conceptions of Muslim governance. The empire’s monocultural bent was represented at all levels of Mughali government; the empire’s military, which operated on a hierarchical system called mansabdari, did not distinguish between Muslim and Hindu, favoring the new paradigm of Akbari. The military itself, however, could not measure up to that of the Ottomans, even though – like the Safavids – the Mughals took some cues from it.

This where Streusand’s second Ottoman ideology comes into play. He characterizes a Rum Saljuq-derived “centralizing agenda of monarchy” as warrior Irano-Islam, which manifested itself as the Ottomans’ famed monumental architecture as well as a more legalistic, rigid model of governance that facilitated what scholar Colin Imber calls a “dynastic myth.”[7] Eschewing charisma in favor of an iron fist, Suleiman the Magnificent, as he was known in his day, implemented a broad model of heavy administrative involvement and sociopolitical reform that ensured a tight grip on his many conquered provinces via a militarily-focused system of management[8]. When it came to these provinces, occupational and administrative forces were one and the same, allowing the Ottomans’ impressive technological advances – which enabled the continuation of the east’s long-standing tradition of horse archers via Turkish composite recurved bows and other innovations[9] – to hold its dominion hostage. This military strategy, though singular to the Ottomans, did affect the rule of both the Mughals and Safavids. Uniquely, the Mughals did not rely on military slavery due to a continuous flow of capable soldiers from Iran and central Asia. But they did divide them into units called mansabdar, similar to the military divisions of the Ottomans and the Safavids’ Shah Abbas-implemented qurchis[10].

While the length constraints of this format don’t allow further examination of Streusand’s identified subcategories of Ottoman ideology and the ways in which they compare and contrast with similar examples among the Mughal and Safavid empires, the shared Muslim identity of these three different empires – though wildly variant in practice – contributed to a need to mold that identity around the various socioreligious groups extant under their respective rules. All three did so successfully, contributing to their prosperity, social justice, and longevity – the Ottomans most of all.


[1] Streusand, “Islamic Gunpowder Empires.” 32.

[2] Streusand, “Islamic Gunpowder Empires.” 64.

[3] Streusand, “Islamic Gunpowder Empires.” 160.

[4] Mahallati, “The Safavids.” Lecture, Oct. 25.

[5] Mahallati, “The Mughals.” Lecture, Oct. 27.

[6] Mahallati, “The Mughals.” Lecture, Oct. 27.

[7] Streusand, “Islamic Gunpowder Empires.” 64.

[8] Mahallati, “The Ottomans.” Lecture, Oct. 23.

[9] Streusand, “Islamic Gunpowder Empires.” 84.

[10] Streusand, “Islamic Gunpowder Empires.” 169.