Intersections Between Medieval Islamic Empires – Ciaran Disny

Response Paper 4

Three Islamic empires dominated Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and of course, the Middle East. The rise of these empires all occurred during the middle ages, or the medieval age. These empires were known as the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires. Many different factors set these empires apart including the lands that they conquered, different groups of people who resides inside the empires, types of government, tolerance, art, and economy. However, the roots of these empires were all very similar. All three of the empires had turkic, or central asian, backgrounds and all three were considered to be Islamic. Despite all the different influences these empires experienced, many similarities can be found between them. These similarities are founded in governance, art, architecture, tolerance, and economy. These connections can be traced back to the persistence of Islam in these medieval empires.

Art has been a central part of Islam since its birth. The Quran’s teachings encourage muslims to explore calligraphy and poetry. This has extended to visual art like carpets and miniatures as well as literature. In addition, architectural beauty and its connection to holiness has always been important to Islamic cultures. This can be observed in the architecture of mosques throughout Islamic history. The art of mosque building can be observed on a new level throughout the Islamic world in the medieval ages. Each of these empires were responsible for some of the greatest architectural achievements of history. Examples of this include the Blue Mosque in Istanbul which was built by the Ottomans, the Maydan-i Shah in Isfahan built by the Safavids, and the Taj Mahal in Agra built by the Mughals(1). These three buildings exemplify

the dedication to architectural beauty fostered by each of these empires. The one unifying characteristic between the empire’s achievements is that these buildings were all mosques; created for and because of Islam. Miniature painting, adopted from East Asian cultures, was also very important to the three Islamic medieval empires. Paintings depicted religious scenes or feats of the empire and its rulers. Artists and craftsmen of all different talents flocked to the cities of these empires due their power and influence in Eurasia. However, other than architecture, literature was one of the most highly valued art forms in the Islamic empires. Due to the Persian background in all three of the empires, most literature was written in Persian. Persian was the language of intellectualism and was also renowned for its fit with poetry. Despite the presence of a baseline language across the arid zone of these empires, the style of poetry called sabk-i-Hindi spread from Mughal India into the Safavid and Ottoman empires(2). A description of this development in literature is described as “Three major intellectual developments occurred in the Safavid period” one of them being “the appearance of the sabk-i-Hindi”(3). Like the Ottomans reputation of great architecture and the Safavids reputation of painting, the Mughal empire defined Islamic literature and poetry. Not only did the Mughals promote the sabk-i-Hindi style, they also promoted more contemporary poets within their empire(4). Unlike other empires, the Mughals supported literature created by women. Conquest and expansion across new territory wasn’t the only factor that defined greatness to these empires. Architecture, literature, and visual art were becoming cultural indicators that extended beyond the boundaries of a society into

global indicators of strength and worthiness. It becomes clear that dominance of artistic culture was important to the Islamic empires. Art was hoarded and valued by these leaders in an effort to showcase piety as well as cultural strength.

The Golden Age of the Islamic Empires did not come without war, expansion, and inclusion. The administrations of the empires adapted to their respective environments allowing them to efficiently rule over there subjects. This is where the three empires start to diverge in shared characteristics. The foundation of success for the Ottoman empire resided in their expansion. The central asian roots of the Ottomans drove them out of city life and into conquest. However, there Persian aspect of the Ottomans allowed them to create flourishing urban centers that were efficient rulers of the large expanse that the empire encompassed. This manifested itself in accessible institution and religious tolerance: “the Ottomans incorporated non-muslims as millets” which means community(5). This allowed conquered peoples to retain their societies and were only required to pay taxes and serve militarily. The administration of the Ottoman empire set up institutions, such as Janissaries – christian infantrymen, which included non-central ethnicities and religions into the Ottoman government. This encouraged tolerance within the government and allowed for “Ottoman Identity” to exist beyond the Turko-Muslim roots. The Safavid empire governed over its constituents in a different manner from the Ottomans. Instead of a law based system, the Safavids used religion a unifier for the empire. The Safavid forced conversion to Shiism and ruled through religion. However, due to the sedentary-trade-based-economy of the empire, the Safavids were not ruling over the same amount of ethnicities. This was administration through singular identity rather than inclusion. The Mughal Empire had success on the sub-continent where Islam and Hinduism was once divided. Mughal success came from two sources: their centralized bureaucracy and religious tolerance. The Mughal government was constantly growing financially; a certain drive forwards that fueled the empire. The Mughals adopted the already established Hindu-Muslim relationship of the sub-continent. Akbar Shah’s doctrine expanded beyond Islam and incorporated elements from Zoroastrism, Christianity, and Jainism. Beyond this, the hindu-muslim divide developed intersections: mosques and temples switched back and forth, hindu teachers accepted Islamic students, and they both intertwined a similar mysticism(6). Despite differences in administration, all three empires held primarily Persian courts. The differences arise from reactions to their environments. Each administration had some religious policy that effected the empire positively. Whether it was Ottoman tolerance, Safavid unity, or Mughal fluidity, these administrations commanded their populations effectively to grow their empires into the golden age. 

The three empires had many differences between them. When observing a map, it is easy to see how the three diverged. Control of such large spaces that spanned many different cultures required and sparked innovative methods of governance. However, it also easy to see that three empires all were born out of the same Turko-Persian tribe. The massive incurred wealth allowed these empires to create wonders of the world – bringing beauty to Islam. In the end, the persistence of Persian culture and, of course, Islam can be credited with the intersections between the Mughals, Ottomans, and Safavids.

Endnotes:

1,2,3,4,5,6:

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