Leo Hochberg: Diversity and Art in the Three Medieval Muslim Empires

Even the greatest of historians could not successfully document all the many commonalities between the three medieval Muslim empires. However, two stand out in their descriptions of imperial culture, the first being responses to internal diversity. Each empire met its own struggle to maintain central authority throughout its expansion without risking the alienation of its minority religious sects. Keeping the peace with non-Muslims and other Muslim sects proved challenging, but as the history of each empire proves, tolerance was and is key to maintaining stability. The second commonality lies is artistic and intellectual growth. Each empire became a famous patron to the arts, albeit by different ways and for different reasons. The establishment of national artistic identity became a critical undercurrent of all three, leading the medieval Middle East and India to produce monumental bodies of art. Thus, one can see that, through the lens of history, these empires shared many fundamental similarities.

One of the most fascinating characteristic struggles of the three Medieval empires lay in reactions to religious diversity. The parallel that governed this trade-off within all three cases is that religious tolerance and intolerance underpinned each empire’s strongest and weakest moments, respectively. For the Ottomans, pluralism was a must. A central authority institution adopted from Persian administrational legacies enforced, as one example, acceptance of Christianity as a pillar of its governmental structure: “Even before the conquest of Constantinople, the Ottomans appeared as protectors of the Church and considered Greek Orthodox ecclesiastical organization as part of their administrative system,” (Streusand, 67). Thus, in keeping an open mind towards minority systems, the Ottomans expanded their Empire without alienating those minority sects. Meanwhile, the interplay between faiths characterized the history of the Mughal empire. The Muslim elite made up roughly eighty percent of the administration in a majority Hindu nation, thus marking an extremely unique imperial identity cross-generated by Turko-Persian-Hindu-Muslim influences. It was this ideological fusion that led to the creation of the first Hindu-Muslim interfaith dialogue at the hands of Darashikooh, which sought to bring the two faiths together through a Sufi lens. Thus, it was effectively the balance between faiths that controlled the internal strength of the empire. In times of derision, the empire faced weakness, and at the behest of unity, the empire met greater strength. In the end, it was derision that brought out the beginning of the end. Darashikooh’s fundamentalist brother Aurangzeb “adopted a hard line toward his Hindu subjects. Aurangzeb was the last of the great Mughal emperors. During his reign Mughal power was already in decline,” (Brown, 238). This interplay continues to form India and Pakistan’s religious and political identities today, as can be seen most directly by the Babri Masjid riots in Uttar Pradesh in 1992 (Mujahid). As for the Safavids, their religious struggle was characterized by a fight for sovereignty among sectarian groups. The founder of the empire, Ismail, attempted to enforce a neo-Messianic Shi’ism, resulting in a foundational struggle for Shi’i identity (Brown, 235-236). Soon, the Safavid Empire became the exception that proved the rule – rather than pursue strength and identity through tolerance, Twelver Shi’ism was rigorously enforced, and as new rulers ascended to power, it became common practice to enforce conversions (Streusand, 166). In some cases, distinctly Sunni tribes fled en masse, while others accepted conversion. In the end, it was forced religious imposition that contributed to imperial collapse. Safavid ruler Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (d. 1699 or 1700) instituted a strict Shi’i Islamicization program directed primarily at Sunnis and Sufis. “It is unclear to what extent his policies actually led to forced conversion; it is possible that Majlisi’s anti-Sunni policies provoked the Afghan uprising which led to the collapse of the regime,” (Streusand 166). And thus, a pattern can be observed; in medieval Muslim empires that stressed religious tolerance such as the Ottomans’ adoption of foreign administrative structure, strength and unity were fostered and upheld. However, in cases such as the Safavid Shi’i inquisition and Aurangzeb’s fundamentalism, which severely restricted religious tolerance, empires faced collapse by internal tension. Yet faith interplay was not the only commonality between these empires – to understand their similarities, one must also consider the arts.

One can hardly describe in less than an extensive library the artistic, intellectual, architectural, poetic, and literary contributions of any of these three empires. Each was a massive patron of the arts and sciences, so much so that many of the finest achievements of Muslim artistic history originated within their intellectual circles. One may start by considering the Ottoman contributions. The rise of this empire saw the conversion of the Hagia Safia to a mosque of widely acclaimed beauty. However, upon realizing that one of their greatest architectural achievements was largely the product of Christian design, the Ottomans soon began financing other projects such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Advances continued in mathematic achievement, miniature painting, and perhaps above all else, poetry. Surprisingly, there has only been one major Western study into Ottoman poetic history, and that now comprises E. J. W. Gibb’s massive six-volume work, History of Ottoman Poetry (Streusand, 116). Similarly, Safavid cultural history is characterized by a massive output of philosophical and artistic creation. Given the persecutionist history of the empire, one would expect the opposite, and indeed many prominent members of the intellectual elite fled the rigorous establishment of Shi’ism. And yet, a strong counter flow of Shi’i artistic expansion easily filled the gap. Safavid reign saw the unification of the two great schools of painting on the Iranian plateau as well as the growth of Indian-style poetry to replace the traditional Arab style that disappeared with the flight of the ulama. However, perhaps the greatest cultural output of the Safavids was in the realm of intellectualism. “Shii thought changed considerably in Safavid times. The doctrine that Shii ulama capable of independent legal reasoning… should exercise the religious and judicial authority of the Hidden Imam gained acceptance during the sixteenth century,” (Streusand, 195). This idea took time to triumph, but in the end, it came to underpin Twelver Shi’ism. However, the empire that has perhaps garnered the most acclaimed cultural output is the Mughal empire. Much of Mughal cultural development derived from the movement of learned individuals from the Safavid region, where they faced persecution. Soon, the empire had produced such wonders as the Taj Mahal and a substantial body of Indian poetry. Multilinguistic writing enjoyed widespread support, particularly as the court adopted Persian. Akbar (d. 1605) even championed a massive ethnographic study of India which detailed everything from geography to Hindu philosophy. As evidenced above, while all three empires upheld entirely different perspectives on intellectualism and culture, each produced massive bodies of Muslim creative work to rival the greatest artistic triumphs of the West. This commonality remains essential for any historian of Islamic history, particularly when considering the cultural progression of the Islamic world.

Of course, there are plenty of other commonalities to be highlighted between these empires. Were there time, one could document their attitudes towards the ulama, the specific nature of their collapses, and even their approaches to relations with each other. However, the two commonalities described here were chosen because they carry substantial weight towards modern Muslim identity. Reactions to diversity remains a critical topic of controversy across the Muslim diaspora, as does the continual progression of art and intellectualism. As one looks to the future, one must also consider the past, and today a deep consideration of the history behind modern Islamic cultural relations is necessary to find peace in a turbulent part of the world.




Brown, Daniel W. “Revival and Reform.” In A New Introduction to Islam, 234-38. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Mujahid, Abdul Malik. “What Is the Babri Mosque Issue?” Sound Vision. Accessed October 29, 2016. http://www.soundvision.com/article/what-is-the-babri-mosque-issue.

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