Rebecca Posner: Cultural Commonalities in the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires

Three major empires came into being in the Middle East and India and reached the height of their power during the sixteenth century.  These were the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires.  Although they differed in many ways, they had several important aspects in common.  All three of these dynasties were founded and maintained by Muslim leaders, who were descended from Turkish and Persian forbears.  Turkish military techniques and Persian political and cultural practices were combined in each case to create governments that ruled over relatively diverse populations (especially in the case of the Ottomans and Mughals).  The rulers of the three empires were also all enthusiastic patrons of Islamic art and architecture.  They created powerful, culturally complex states that used the principals of Islam for their foundations.

The work of Muslim scholars provided a major source of guidance and power for the rulers of these empires.  In the case of the Ottoman empire, these scholars, or ulama, were directly employed by the government, where they helped create a variety of political and religious institutions.[1]  They were some of the most powerful functionaries in the government (besides the grand vizier), and were in charge of making sure that Sharia law was administered correctly throughout the entire empire.[2]  The Safavid rulers also relied heavily on the ulama for spiritual and legal counsel, but they took a slightly different approach.  Instead of being paid by the government for their services, they worked independently and advised their rulers from a somewhat separated standpoint.  This meant that they were able to speak more freely than the Ottoman ulama, rather than having to worry about losing their employment if they said something that the ruler disapproved of.  However, religious freedom was significantly less present under the Safavids than the other two empires, because the Safavid rulers were invested in making sure that their subjects were Shi’i Muslims.  By contrast, in the case of the Mughals, the ulama were encouraged to conduct theological dialogues with scholars and leaders from other religions.  In particular, Akbar, the ruler who brought the Mughal empire to its most powerful state, was famous for his religious tolerance and sponsored many of these discussions.[3]  He was interested in propagating a religious doctrine called sulh-i kull, which essentially amounted to tolerance and the peaceful coexistence of faiths.[4]  In addition, Akbar’s grandson, Darashikooh, was the first to write and publish a Hindu-Muslim interfaith dialogue, arguing that Hindus took different forms of God and gave them shapes (rather than being truly polytheistic).[5]  Clearly, all three governments took religious scholarship very seriously, and used it to both uphold and check the power of their respective rulers and bureaucrats.

Certain military tactics and traditions were also central to the common origins of the three empires.  These came from Turkish nomadic tribes that were the ancestors of the founders of each dynasty.  The first Ottoman ruler, Osman Bey, began as the leader of one Turkish “beylik [or principality] out of many.”[6]  He and his followers initially formed a band of raiders from the frontier who relied on conquering other peoples in order to survive, and gradually became more organized as they gained more territory.  The Safavids were also originally “a confederation of Turkmen tribes” that was controlled by Ismail Safavi, a young Sufi leader.[7]  Like the Ottomans, they eventually transitioned to a less nomadic way of life, after various power struggles between tribal and bureaucratic forces.  Babur, the warrior who laid the foundations for the Mughal dynasty, also “considered himself a Turk” and used many of the same military techniques in his conquests that the Ottomans did.[8]  The use of gunpowder-based military technologies (such as guns and cannons) was a major factor in the victories that all of these empires earned over the course of their existences (although it is certainly not the only reason that they became successful).

A certain amount of tension was present in the three realms between the more nomadic and militarily inclined elements who helped build the empires and those who were more drawn towards scholarship and a more sedentary, city-dwelling lifestyle strongly influenced by Persian culture.  Persian political philosophies in particular were an essential component of the everyday practices of the bureaucracies.  The idea of absolute monarchy, which was the main basis of ancient Persian government, was used by the Ottoman sultans.  Until the middle of the sixteenth century, the sultans also claimed that they were the inheritors of the Persian kings (as one of their official titles).[9]  Ottoman historians and poets wrote in the Persian language; Safavid and Mughal authors frequently did as well.  The Safavids ruled over the geographic area where the Persian culture first came into being, and thus were naturally inclined to draw on it for inspiration.  In addition, because the Safavid rulers were strongly interested in imposing religious and linguistic uniformity on their subjects, they were able to increase the proportion of Shi’is who spoke Persian (and vice versa).[10]  The Mughals adopted Persian as their court language, and many of their literary and artistic endeavors were inspired by the culture.

Art, poetry, and architecture were all highly important for the cultures of each of the three empires, and much of it was Persian-influenced.  Between the three, hundreds of mosques and madrasas were built.  One of the most famous ones is the Blue Mosque, which was built by the Ottomans.  The Ottomans also turned a famous Byzantine church, the Hagia Sophia, into a mosque.  Common elements for buildings from this time period for all of the empires included the use of the color blue (which symbolized the cosmos) and decorating walls with highly complex patterns of arabesques, or curved interlacing lines.  Arabesques symbolized the infinite qualities of God and the universe, because in looking at them they seem to go on forever.[11]  Miniature painting also reached a peak in all three realms, especially for the Mughals and Safavids, and many of the characteristic patterns that were used for decorating buildings were incorporated into paintings of figures and landscapes.  In general, it is evident that the cultural wealth of these empires was exceptional, and many of their most valuable strengths, such as the adoption of Persian art and language, the use of the Islamic faith to support the government, and Turkish military heritage, were shared between all three of them.


[1] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 10/24/2016.

[2] Streusand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Boulder: Westview, 2011. Print. Page 97.

[3] Streusand. Page 246.

[4] Streusand. Page 209.

[5] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 10/28/2016.

[6] Streusand. Page 34.

[7] Streusand. Page 135.

[8] Streusand. Page 212.

[9] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 10/24/2016.

[10] Streusand. Page 191.

[11] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 10/26/2016.