Ashley Belohlavek: Similarities Between Islam’s Greatest Empires

At first glance, the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires, Islam’s most iconic historical empires, seem to have hardly anything in common. While each empire produced incredible patronage to the Islamic religion, there are so many ways in which each empire approached its devotion in a different manner. Despite their differences, these three golden empires do come together on a few topics, showing that they might not have actually been worlds apart. Some of these three empires’ main similarities include their patronage to the fine arts and architecture, the importance ulama served in their empire, and even where their rule went wrong.

All three empires contributed to the depth and complexity of Islamic architecture and fine art itself. For instance, the Ottoman Empire gained ownership of Hagia Sophia, a church previously used by Christians in Constantinople, once they had captured the city. After the Ottomans’ conquest of Constantinople and its conversion to Istanbul, they converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, but shortly after became bothered that their new architectural gem had been sculpted by their Christian rivals. To resolve this, they simply built a new mosque in Hagia Sophia’s awesome image, which is known as The Blue Mosque.[1] In the Safavid empire, there have been records of the construction of about 162 mosques and 48 madrasas, though it seems that the Safavids’ real gift to the Islamic world was its beautiful carpets, miniatures, calligraphy, and especially their intricately designed tiles.[2] Still glorified today for its beauty, tile created by the Safavids is not only artistically brilliant but its symbolism speaks volumes as well. Common colors used on Safavid tiles include turquoise and a yellowish gold, the turquoise representing the cosmos, a hugely important component of Islamic thought. As for the Mughals, Shah Jahan, a Safavid emperor, had a huge tomb built for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who was actually Christian during her lifetime, while he was Muslim.[3] This tomb is known today as the incredibly famous Taj Mahal. Not only does this show a healthy relationship between two people of differing religious backgrounds, but it also shows the extreme dedication to architecture, along with his wife, one Mughal ruler had during his reign. Keeping with the architectural traditions of Islam, mosques in each of these empires had muqarnas, or structural representations of God’s blessings raining down from the heavens found on the ceiling of mosques everywhere.[4] Evidence of great artistic creation and appreciation with respect to Islamic thought and practice can be seen throughout each of these empires, no matter what artistic area each empire excelled in.

Another common theme between these famous empires is their alternative way of ruling over their diverse constituencies in terms of religious thought and lifestyle. The Ottoman Empire, for instance, had a rather poor reaction to the Safavid Empire’s expansion of power and territory. The Ottoman Sultan Selim defeated the Safavids in battle in 1514, ending their expansion streak, but Selim took his conquest further by continuing to persecute all Shi’i Muslims in order to crush the Safavids’ further chances at expansion of influence and also to assert dominance over those who would challenge his Islamic rule.[5] In this light, the Ottoman rulers took a dark turn in their treatment of religious minorities and really showed some serious intolerance towards people solely based on their differing religious values and identity. Surprisingly, the Mughal Empire was known as an incredibly tolerant province due to Akbar’s benevolent rule during the empire’s peak, but his grandson Aurangzeb unfortunately was not nearly as accepting as he was. While Akbar had stricken down a tax on non-Muslims, the jizya, and advocated for religious plurality, Aurangzeb reinstituted the jizya and heavily suppressed Hindus and their ability to practice their faith, tailoring the Mughal Empire to suit his fundamentalist perspective of Islam.[6] Similar to Aurangzeb’s interference, the Safavid founder Isma’il also imposed Twelver Shi’ism upon his newly established empire, hurling an incredibly intense ultimatum at all non-Shi’ites. Forcing the current ulama to convert, be slain or be banished, Isma’il replaced the current ulama with Shi’i scholars and worked tirelessly to eradicate all integration of Sunni Islam within his empire, particularly by slandering the first three caliphs, recognized by Sunnis, along with threatening all non-Twelvers under his rule.[7] While each of these empires had times of particular cultural flourishing and benevolence, they each also have clear eras in which intolerance was rampant whether it was in order to keep the power of different Islamic sects in check or solely based on a ruler’s problematic dance with fundamentalism.

Lastly, each of these great empires strategically manipulated the role of the ulama within their provinces in order to influence religious culture and state legislature in the most advantageous way to them. While Safavid ulama maintained independence, their Shi’a background kept the empire on track with spreading the Shi’ism imposed by Isma’il. Despite the ulama’s success in keeping most of their power and right to preach what they wanted, it ultimately worked in Isma’il’s favor to have the ulama promoting Twelver Shi’ism all the same.[8] The Mughals seemed to have a moderate amount of success in using the ulama to their advantage, as both Akbar and Aurangzeb attempted to have the final say in what Islamic doctrine would be accepted as law, though the ulama were the real creators of the ideas put forth for critique.[9] Lastly, the Ottomans made great use of the ulama by incorporating them into the state, making them part of the hierarchal class system, providing them with wealth and power in exchange for their promotion of ruling class interests and their lack of independence.[10] While each empire had different rates of success in puppeteering the ulama of their empire, they all certainly gave it their all.

Looking at the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires through a very broad lens, some of the biggest similarities that can be seem between them are their patronage to Islam through the arts, their less than humanitarian treatment of religious minorities at times, as well as their use of ulama as a tool in order to spread their influence. There are an overwhelming number of differences between the culture and history of each of these empires, whether it’s the religious identity of their rulers, their military tactics and power or their lasting impacts on the lands that they ruled. What can be seem in all of them, however, is intense devotion to their perception of God and Islam, the importance of artistic expression in spiritual life as well as their incredible influence and territory.


Works cited:

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Week 8a Lecture. 10-24-16

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Week 8b Lecture. 10-26-16

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Week 8c Lecture. 10-28-16

Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction To Islam. 2nd ed. Oxford, UK. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print


[1] Mahallati, lecture week 8a

[2] Mahallati, lecture week 8b

[3] Mahallati, lecture week 8c

[4] Mahallati, lecture week 8b

[5] Brown, pg 236

[6] Brown, pg 238

[7] Brown, pg 235-236

[8] Brown, pg 241

[9] Brown, pg 242

[10] Brown, pg 240