Adam Jussila: A Common Heritage: Mughal, Ottoman, and Safavid Empires

Three empires rose out of the Islamic societies in the Middle East and Central Asia, all coming into existence around the end of the 15th century into the beginning of the 16th century. They were the Ottoman Empire in the west, the Safavid Empire mostly in Iran, and the Mughal Empire in the east, covering much of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. The Mughals and Ottomans found themselves clashing with the ever more technologically advanced Europeans, while the Safavids were crushed between the other two. All three of these empires were vastly different throughout most of their existences, creating unique cultural identities that can still be seen in modern times. Despite these differences, though, the three empires rose and fell together, sprouting from a shared heritage of Islamic faith, Persian influences, and a common interest in Sharia and Islamic scholarship.[i]

Probably the most important aspect of commonality between the empires is their foundation within the Islamic faith and their struggles with retaining religious identity throughout their existence. Religion was not the same across the empires, as they encompassed religiously divided areas such as the predominantly Hindu India and the Christian Eastern Europe, as well as the majority of the Islamic world. The Persians and the Turks were hugely influential in starting all three empires, but as they spread outward, they ran into these other major religions and found that they needed to find a way to live together peacefully. Not all of the empire handled this issue in the same way, though. The Ottoman Empire had an especially difficult time after Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, bringing many Christians under their rule.[ii] They adopted a policy of religious tolerance that worked well, resulting in the various groups living in relative harmony (though there were subtle attempts to convert people to the Islamic faith).[iii] Similarly, the Mughals found themselves in India, surrounded by Hindus, and instead of forcing everyone to convert, they incorporated them into the government like the Ottomans. This allowed for the Mughals to keep the loyalty of their Hindu subjects, while still having a diverse population.[iv] The Safavids, on the other hand, found themselves at odds over the Sunni-Shi’i divide. While the Ottomans and Mughals tried to convert their subjects subtly, the Safavids were not at all subtle about conversion. They did not always employ a policy of forced conversion, but it was historically a Shi’i dominated empire, and they tended to strongly encourage conversion.[v] Through these approaches, each empire tried to come to terms with the realities of ruling over a large and diverse population that did not necessarily share the same belief systems.

By the 16th century, Muslims had made their presence known to the world, developing technology and contributing to philosophy, art, literature and much more. When the Persian Empire collapsed, the void of culture and art was quickly filled by all three of these empires. This was not the only thing that was taken from the remains of the Persian Empire, though. The Mughals, Ottomans, and Safavids also found common ground in the way that they drew from Persian political ideology in order to set up a functional government for their empires.[vi] They also borrowed certain bureaucratic elements, such as the use of viziers and scribes. The construction of mosques and various places of worship were well known in all three empires. From the Ottoman Blue Mosque to the Taj Mahal of the Mughals, much of the famous architecture of the time period is inspired by Persian architecture. In the Safavid and Ottoman Empires, artisans were known for the creation of Persian rugs, which are still very highly regarded today. They are characterized by their intricate patterns that seem to go on forever and their use of bright colors such as blue (which represent the cosmos).[vii] The Safavids were also known for their poetry and miniatures. They had a rich history as patrons of the arts, starting from very early on when Shah Tamasb ruled the Empire in the mid-16th century.[viii] The Mughals were also known for many of the same things, particularly their poetry and miniatures in the Persian tradition. As you can see, all three empires drew upon their Persian heritage to find inspiration for their artistic expression. In some cases, they even brought reached new peaks of artistry, as with Persian rugs and miniatures.

One final similarity was the way in which all three empires expressed interest the Muslim scholars, though their specific role in each empire were slightly different. In the Ottoman Empire the ulama helped to uphold and support the power of the caliphate by giving it legitimacy. Because of the government’s patronage of the ulama, they became progressively more influenced by the administration.[ix] The Safavids similarly found much use using the ulama to gain legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects. The main difference is in the fact that the Safavids were not employing the ulama as in the Ottoman Empire. Since the government was dependent upon them to prove its legitimacy, they were able to gain a lot of political sway throughout the empire’s existence. The relationship of the Ottoman and Safavid empires to the ulama differed greatly from Mughals, though. The Mughals did not use the ulama to their benefit like the other two empires did, likely due to the fact that they were in a part of the world that was largely Hindu, and being supported by Muslim scholars would hold little meaning in the eyes of their subjects. Because of this, it makes sense that the most important thing to come out of the Mughal ulama was early Hindu-Muslim dialogue. These types of conversations were strongly encouraged by some Mughal leaders.[x] The ulama played a very important role in all three of the empires. The Ottoman and Safavid employed their expertise actively in their rule, while the Mughal saw benefit in using their scholarship to understand the religious landscape around them. This is a trend seen in many other things that are common between each of the empires. There is a backbone of commonality between the Mughals, Safavids, and Ottomans, but the more closely we look, the more differences arise on a case-by-case basis.

[i] Mahallati, Jafar. Three Empires: The Ottoman Empire. Edited by Adam Jussila, 10/24/16.

[ii] Streusand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 2011, pg 32.

[iii] IBID, pg 71-72.

[iv] IBID pg 207-209.

[v] IBID pg 157-158

[vi] Mahallati, Jafar. Three Empires: The Ottoman Empire.

[vii] Mahallati, Jafar. Three Empires: The Safavid Empire. Edited by Adam Jussila, 10/26/16.

[viii] IBID

[ix] Streusand, 71-72.

[x] Mahallati, Jafar. Three Empires: The Mughal Empire. Edited by Adam Jussila, 10/28/16.