Léo Anderson: Diversity, Governance, and Military Organization of the Ottoman, Safavid & Mughal Empires

Around the beginning of the 16th century, the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires began to expand and develop various ways of enacting governance, military power and methods of taxation and trade. Although these empires originated from different roots and the territories and populations encompassed under them varied greatly, they shared similar aspects in their approaches in managing the diversity of communities consolidated under expansion and how to manage them culturally, politically, and militarily.

Multiculturalism & Diversity

The most telling evidence of how each empire viewed multiculturalism and diversity was through their treatment of other non-Muslim communities. However, divisions among the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal societies were divided across numerous lines—by ethnicity, urban and rural settlements, nomad and agrarian communities, free and enslaved people. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, non-Muslims were incorporated into the empire by designating “millets” (literally “community”) with their own legal systems, communal leadership and welfare; the three major millets around the 16th century were the Jews, Greek Orthodox and Armenians, with a notable exclusion of a Roman Catholic millet, who were treated as members of the Armenian Christians. Despite the Ottoman perception that Catholics were the enemies of the empire, the majority of Orthodox Christians preferred Ottoman rule, which was known for political stability and fair treatment that allowed Turks, Arabs, Slavs and Armenians to reach the highest positions of government, regardless of their ethnicity (Lecture 16). While these religious differences mattered, divisions did not always fit into ethnic and linguistic ones; furthermore, most ethnic groups used Turkish as their everyday language and even consulted Shari courts on routine matters in their own communities, showing the level of bureaucratic and cultural integration in the Ottoman Empire (Streusand, 114).

Similarly, Mughals were most well-known for the religious tolerance and diversity that flourished under Babur, who is thought to be the official founder of the Mughal Empire. Acceptance may have been the product of the exchange and cultural intermixing between Hindu and Muslims, especially through the promotion of a new religion, Din Ilahi, that was promoted by Babur in order to reconcile differences and unify his subjects by combining aspects of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism (Lecture 18). Due to the nature of indirect Mughal rule, Hindu leaders were directly incorporated into the Mughal ruling class, allowing the preservation of Hindu culture and institutions. This was initiated by Babur’s grandson Akbar, who reinforced this by implementing a policy to end the collection of the jizya tax in 1579, and espousing sulh-i kull, or universal toleration instead of upholding Sunni Islam (Streusand, 209). Unlike the Ottomans, there was no uniform language or bureaucratic system that distinguished between rulers of principalities and purely imperial servants.

Unlike the Ottoman and Mughals, the Safavid Empire lacked the commonplace cultural intermixing that took place in the other two empires. While there were prior conceptions of Turko-Mongolian kingship and the “folk Sufism” of the Turkish tribes, the establishment of Twelver Shiism overtook them as the primary political platform and a source of legitimacy (Streusand, 138). Despite the strictly Shia character of the Safavid rulers, religious diversity existed in the empire across several different divisions such as ethnic group, Muslims and non-Muslims as well as Sunni and Shia and Sufi mystical and esoteric beliefs within the Muslim community. However, Shia Islam continued to be the predominant religion and was used to craft the identity of the Safavids in the upcoming centuries.

Military might & Political Rule

The three empires had a number of similarities— especially in their ruling style as military states. Both the Ottoman and Safavids trace their origins to Turkish tribal roots, which contributed to the use of hard military power through Turkish military strength. The Ottomans were a “military patronage state”, thus military became synonymous to ruling class, and the entire governmental framework and institutions, including religious functionaries were treated as part of the military establishment (Streusand, 31). However, the Ottomans did not just rely on military force and utilized a Persian-style “absolute power” of bureaucracy to administer their empire, which led to some tension between the nomadic military culture of the Turks and sedentary establishment culture of the Persians (Lecture 16). The use of indoctrinated foreign slaves as military force was also prevalent in the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. Ottoman Janissaries were slaves who originated from Christian families in the Balkans, but were well payed and trained to be a group of elite soldiers loyal to the sultan, who would protect him in the case of an aristocratic uprising. Similar to the Ottomans, the Safavids forcibly recruited Christian outsiders and the occasional Muslim nomad to become enslaved soldiers that dominated a substantial portion of their armed forces (Streusand, 139). However, their mechanism was not as nearly systemic as the planned and bred loyalty of the Janissaries, and those recruited never became a political force stronger than the Turkish tribesmen.

Unlike the Ottomans and Mughals, the Safavids were not a “conquest state”, and did not let their expansion define their regime. The Safavids began as a confederation of Turkish tribes that was transformed into a bureaucratic empire under Abbas I (Streusand, 137). The brunt of their military power came from their symbiotic relationship with the Turkish tribes, many of whom favored nomadic pastoralism and continued to live around the peripheral edges of the settled populations of the “empire”. Similar to the Ottomans, the Safavids forcibly recruited Christian outsiders and the occasional Muslim nomad to become enslaved soldiers that dominated a substantial portion of their armed forces (Streusand, 139). Military slaves or qullar, were recruited from prisoners in Tahsmap’s Caucasian campaigns and converted to Islam, and this new corps were known for their loyalty, reliability and high military training, much like the Janissaries. Some were even served in high positions in the central and provincial administrations during and after the reign of Abbas I (Streusand, 171). However, their appointments were not nearly as systemic as the Janissaries, and never developed into the political force that the Janissaries became in the Ottoman empire.

While the Mughal Empire in the beginning of the 16th century was renowned for its religious tolerance, it was certainly not free of military skirmishes or conflicts. However, for the most part the Mughal Empire governed its subjects indirectly through a highly centralized bureaucracy that systemically collected tax revenue through intermediaries, often local authorities who had their own bases of power external from their relation to the empire. Most of the power was held by the Mughal officers known as mansabdars, secondary rulers in charge of tax collection and controlled most of the empire’s military power (Streusand, 206). Over the vast Mughal Empire, the top Mughal rulers only held power at the imperial level while these secondary, regional and local rulers conceded sovereignty to them despite their lack of effective authority over them. There were times, however, when Mughal capacity for military might was required to settle disputes or challenges to their authority, which they put down with a combination of artillery and mounted archers. As a result, very few opponents would challenge the Mughals directly in battle.

While all three Muslim empires shared similar circumstances of diversity of religion, ethnicity, and language among their populace, the way they culturally administered, politically ruled and militarily enforced themselves on their empires differed on ideological lines. However, cultural intermixing through societal assimilation, religious transformation, military tactics such as the use of outside slaves and Turkish political roots were all commonalities shared by the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals despite the variety of people living and ruling over the respective empires.