Sanam Tiffany: Commonalities Between the Three Muslim Empires

The three medieval Muslim empires of the 16th century were made up of the Ottomans, the Mughals, and the Safavids, sometimes collectively referred to as “The Gunpowder Empires”. Because of the close relation of beliefs (religious, cultural, lawful) between these empires, there are many similarities and comparisons to be drawn and understood about these great powers, whose roots often begin in the same places.

Bonding over the common problem of Mongol destruction of Muslim unity, the three great empires all came into existence to restore Islamic faith across the land once again. Despite their many differences, this is the main point of importance that ties these empires together deeply at the roots. All three empires also had roots in nomadic cultures (primarily Turkic), providing a strong similarity in cultural background and ethics. Much of the inspiration and motivation to continue expansion can also be contributed to this; after a loss of Muslim community, all empires sought to expand Islam by re-introducing it to old lands and showing it to new ones as well. Over time, conquest had less to do with religion and more to do with the power of land and the inspiration given by further expansion.

Because of their power and stretch across the land, all three empires saw great bursts of exciting artwork and literature. The meldings of religions, cultures, and unique landscapes created new forms of art and nurtured incredible pieces to life. All three empires had a deep respect for these arts and cared deeply to make artistic discovery a more significant part of their expansions.

All three empires had exceptional militaries, memorialized by the title of “Gunpowder Empires”; a moniker that perfectly depicts the power and rulership that came alongside the military application of the technology of guns and gunpowder. Because of their immense armies and advanced weaponry, the Ottomans, Mughals, and Safavids were all unstoppable forces upon conquering new land. Eventually, all three empires would be unwilling to adopt newer forms of military technology, turning their once strongest asset to the foundation of their downfalls.

Additionally, these armies all served an absolute monarch (or single ruler), another feature that relates the empires and the ways they function in a powerful way. This practice of a single all-powerful ruler is derived from early Islamic dynasties, whose Persian antiquation made up the bulk of the inspiration for these empires. The Mughals were founded by Babur (interestingly, the son of Genghis Khan, another powerful and notable conqueror), the Ottomans were founded by Osman I, and the Safavids were founded by Shah Ismail. Under the separate rule of these three men (who later chose/birthed new successors), the empires conquered land and created notably advanced economies to sustain growing population.

Because of the rich landscapes that they had conquered, all three empires created economies that were rooted in agriculture. The growing and selling of food was an important distinction that set the empires apart from others. This was also directly related to their militaries. Because of the bountiful land, taxes from agriculture provided both an economy as well as a means to create stronger armies with more powerful technology. Much of the empire’s glory can be somewhat owed to the land they conquered, for it sustained the gunpowder and militaries that made them so powerful.

The empires also all had strong roots in Islamic legal practices. Court etiquette and law was commonly derived from older Islamic dynasties, providing a common root in the legality of all three empires. Much of the cultural morality and ethics seen in the three empires can also be contributed to their older Islamic influences.

The empires also drew inspiration from other religions, as they were all known for their religious tolerance, often allowing people of other religions to exist comfortably within Islamic confines (though sometimes inflicting a tax). Because of the Mughals’ close geographical location to largely Hindu areas, mosques built during their reign hold imprints of the aesthetic and spiritual qualities associated with Hinduism. Similarly, the Ottomans proximity to strong Christian communities created a small Christian imprint on mosques as well.

All three empires were also said to have fallen due to, primarily, poor leadership. Among many mistakes made, the leaders of each empire also heavily resisted acclimating to the technological advancements being made my medieval Europe. Because of their resistance to change, all three empires slowly fell apart because their militaries, once unrivaled, were beginning to be challenged by greater technological powers and stronger military leadership from European countries. During this time they also began losing the ability to trade with Europe, as it was evolving faster than the empires could and slowly their agricultural contributions (and access to gunpowder) meant less and less to ever-advancing Europe.

he Shi’i/Sunni split also played a large role in the downfalls of these empires, as maintaining a cordial populus became more difficult when inner-faith strife began breaking out throughout the lands.

Over time, later rulers of the empires became more enamored with the artistic progression being made than with economic or legal issues, and so the empires grew consumed with the renaissance of art and literature they were experiencing. As Europe grew more advanced and more powerful, the Islamic empires were slowly growing accustomed to lavish, opulent displays of beauty (fantastical paintings, breathtaking mosaics, incredible mosques, and books upon books of poetry and theories) instead of their once-powerful military and religious strength. In time, this was one of the final nails in the coffins of the Mughals, the Ottomans, and the Safavids.





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

Brown, L. Carl. “Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics.” New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 52.

Streusand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Essays in World History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2010. Blackboard. Accessed October 30, 2016.