Chamden Henzler-Lhasawa: The Golden Age of Islam

The 16th century three of the greatest empires in Islamic history came to power, the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. These empires all descendants of central Asian Turkish tribes became synonymous with the golden age of Islam. Each empires accomplished greatestness in religious policy, administration and art. While they differed in their implementations their creations had many similarities founded in the their shared cultural and religious heritage.

The most profound element which connected the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires was religion. Each empire derived itself from a Sufi order, and Islam influenced every aspect of each society from art to administration. The Ottoman empire was comprised of a diverse religious population with only half of their subjects practicing Islam. This religious mixture, created a society where ascending to military and political positions were based more on merit than religion. Although “non muslim groups suffered significant disabilities and social restrictions,” in the Ottoman empire they were allowed to take up their grievances in the Sharia courts (Streusand, Islamic Gunpowder Empires, 114). Non-Muslims weren’t forced to convert to Islam, only serve a tenure in the military and pay the Jizya. The Ottomans used their religious tolerance and institutions to overcome the instability caused by the many ethnic groups in their empire. Unlike the Ottomans the Safavids territories were composed of primarily Muslim. The uniform demographic of the Safavids caused their transformation from Sufi order to empire to be a rooted in Shi’ism. Shah Ismail brought top Shi’i scholars from lebanon to Iran and forcibly convert the small amounts of his subject who weren’t muslim to Islam. Just as the Ottomans used institution and organization to create nationalism, the Safavids used religion to foster identity. Similar to that of the Ottomans the Mughals were known for their religious tolerance. The Mughals ruled over a predominantly Hindu population, however Hindus only formed 20 percent of the administration. The Mughals abolished the jizya for non-muslims and created the policy of Sulh-i kull (universal religious tolerance). The religious practices and tolerance of each empire was informed by the populations they ruled. The Ottoman and Mughal policies of religious tolerance reelected the large swaths of non-Muslims they governed. The Safavid policy of forced conversion illustrated their predominantly Muslim population was used to create nationalism. While each empire was governed by Muslims the way the ruled were different.

The Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires shared a common ancestry which influenced their courts and central administration, however they differed on their implementation. Within all three states the bureaucracy was dominated by those of Persian descent, making the court language off all three empires Persian. The Ottomans had a level of administrative organization unmatched by the Safavids and Mughals. Ottoman central authority was broken up into two parts, the palace and the bureaucracy. Although the sultans and caliphs were usually of Turkmen descent, as the empire expanded Muslim officials from principalities rose to top ranks in the Ottoman administration. The Ottoman meritocracy was unique among the other empires. Similar to the Ottomans the Safavid administration was broken up into the palace and bureaucracy. Although the role of Shah was patrilineal, the administration came from Aqquyunla elite, Qizilbash tribal leader and members of the Safavid order. During the reign Shah Abbas, known as the peak of Safavid leadership, he “increased the importance of the civilian bureaucracy”, which held their power until the end of the empire (Streusand, Islamic Gunpowder Empires, 176). Unlike the Ottoman and Safavid empires who had a two part administrative system and ruled from a set, central location, the Mughal court was mobile, following the emperor. The Mughal emperor spent “35 percent of their time traveling,” reminiscent of their nomadic central asian heritage (Streusand, Islamic Gunpowder Empires, 264). The Mughals didn’t have the organization of the Ottomans or the Safavids, however the membership of their court, primarily of Iranian descent, was similar among all three. While the administrative styles of all three empires differed, the rulers of each were patrons of the arts, and produced level of artistic and scientific merit never before seen.

The art, science, culture and intellectualism is the primary reason while the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals are known as the golden age of Islam. Each empire was extremely well versed in the art and competed with each other. The Ottomans were committed to building the most magnificent buildings in the world; this dedication to architecture best showcased in the Sulaymaniyah and the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. The Ottomans are best known for their literature, both classical and popular. Their classical work was produced within the Persian tradition, focusing primarily on poetry. Popular writing in the Ottoman empire ranged from religious texts to court chronicles. The Ottomans were also great scientists. During the 17th century their works on geography, mathematics and medicine far surpassed their European counterparts. The Safavids, just as Iranians today, were highly praised for their poetry, works written during the height of their empire are still renowned throughout the world. We see the interconnection of each empire through the “appearance of the Sabk-i hindi (indian style) in poetry” (Streusand, Islamic Gunpowder Empires, 194). Like the Ottomans and the Mughals the Safavids were also great architects. Under the rule of Shah Abbas 162 mosques, 48 madrasas, 1801 Caravanserai and 273 public baths were built. The greatest of the Safavid buildings is the Maydan-i Shah in Isfahan, an urban center attached to two mosques. Although each empire was known for its groundbreaking architecture, The Mughals are ranked best among them. Works like the Taj-Mahal and the Red Fort illustrate the mixture of Persian, central Asian and southeast elements to produce architectural achievement unique to the Mughal empire. The Mughals had a great influenced poetry and literature as well. Their works were primarily written in Persian and kept within the vein of Persian writers because the most prominent writers of the time were from Iran.

The Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires are known as the golden age of Islam. Although they came from the same ethnic background and practiced the same religion, their administrative styles, religious practices and art had differences and similarities which were informed by those they governed. Each empire made great strides in intellectualism and policy, unique to their time in history.  



Streusand, Douglas. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. Boulder, Westview Press, 2011.