Elijah Lawrence: The Three Empires of Early Islamic Civilization

There were three empires that defined Islam in the earliest days of its existence: the Safavids, the Mughals, and the Ottomans. These three empires created what we think of today as the basis for Islamic civilization.

The Safavid Empire began with Shaykh Safi al-Din (1242-1334), who was the head of the Zehediyya Sufi order. Under him, the Sufi order transformed into a revolutionary movement, with Shi’ism at its helm. In 1501, Shah Ismail (d. 1524) became the ruler of the movement after defeating the Turkish at the astounding age of 14. By 1510, his power had allowed him to conquer all of Iran. However, in 1514, he was defeated by Sultan Selim the First (Ottoman). Selim also conquered Egypt in Syria in 1517. Sulayman, in 1566, ceased Iraq and ruled over a vast empire. This was the peak of the Ottoman Empire, which stretched from Algeria the Baghdad. The Empire saw the birth of the Dual Principle of Powerful Ruler and Qanum (Law), along with the Persian Absolute Monarchy partnered with Asian Constant Warring. Until the mid-16th century, the ruler was called the inheritor of the Persian kings, Alexander, and then Caesar. Ulama, under the Ottomans, became the state functionary. In the area of art and literature, Sinan was an architect who built Sulaymaniya Mosque, along with Topkapi, which contained 350 rooms and 1,200 concubines. He also built Haga Sophia, one of the most famous mosques, in 537 C.E.

The Ottoman was the longest lasting Muslim empire, spanning from 1300 to 1922, with 36 caliphs. It was also one of the most politically stable empires in Islamic history. Also culturally diverse, it was structured in such a way that Turks, Arabs, Armenians, and Slavs could all reach the highest government positions.

The Safavids, at their peak, had many defining characteristics attached to them as an empire politically and artistically. Shah Thamasb, who was a painter and an ascetic, defeated the Ottoamns four times. Likewise, Shah Abbas (1588-1629, grandson of Tahmsab, was the greatest Safavid ruler who repelled Ottoman and Uzbec incursions and brought the empire to its peak. He was a great patron of the arts and literature, and of Islamic scholarship. Isfahan soon became the capital of his empire, which would see the birth of 162 mosques, 48 madrasas, 170 caravanserais, and 273 public baths. The extravagance of the Empire, if based on nothing else, is clear in the construction of these aspects. Also in this time period, Persian miniatures and carpentry reached their artistic peaks. There was, in addition, an influx of philosophy that mixed with politics, creating a wider range of political ideals and theories. Ismali was a poet by the nickname Khata’I, which translates to “sinner.” He used Shi’ism as the identity of the new dynasty, and invited Shi’ite Ulama from Lebabnon, which formed a theoretical foundation for the Shi’ite state.

The Ulama institution rose with Majlesi, who became Shaykh al-Islam (chief cleric) in 1694. By the 18th century, the theory of the Divine Right of Kings was dopted. Majlesi became the shadow of God, or the Imam incarnate. However, the balance changed in 1694 when Muqaddas Ardabili told the Shah that he did not rule by divine right, but rather as a trust on behalf of the Imam. The theory of guardianship of the jurist made the political power oscillate between the clerics and the rulers. There was also the popularity piety of Safavids, and the Passion of Hussayn. In contrast with the UIama under Ottomans, the Safavid Ulama kept their independence. The Empire eventually fell when Mahmoud Afghan conquered it in 1722. Posthumously, Mahmoud Afghan ended the Safavid Empire in 1722, and in 1736, Nadir Shah reunited Iran and conquered Delhi.

The Mughal Empire was the second Empire that dominated early Islamic civilization. The early Mughals (Turko-Mongols) began with Babur, a descendant of Temerlane, who marched from India to Samarqand, and then to Kabul. In 1526, he defeated the Muslim ruler of Delhi and founded the Mughal Empire. Under his grandson, Akbar Shah (1556-1605), almost the entire subcontinent fell under Mughal control. In 1586, Lahore became the capital of the Empire. Babur became famous, not only because of the vastness of his land, but even more so because of his religious tolerance. He created a new doctrine (Din Ilahi), which was a mix of Zoroastrian, Islamic, Christian, and Jainism. This was not ideal for fundamentalists, who did not like the mixing of different parts of different faiths. He was accused of being a heretic, but he ordered his governors to read Rumi and Ghazali.

Islam eventually interacted with Hinduism in this time period. Akbar Ahmad saw the success of Islam in its encounter with the Central Asian Buddhism, but not Hinduism. For a very long time, mosques and Hindu temples were transforming from one faith to another. Shah Jahan, the father of Darashikooh, ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal, which still stands today, as tomb for his wife. Darashikooh also wrote the first Islam-Hindu interfaith dialogue in Persian. His brother, Aurangzeb, was a radical fundamentalist, opposite of Darashikooh, who caused the beginning of the end of the civilization. It was said that he eventually won over Darashikooh, which sealed the fate of the separation of Pakistan from India. The last Mughal ruler was Bahadur Shah Zafar, who lost power to the British colonizers in 1857. Eventually, fundamentalism led to India’s colonization.

In the area of art and literature, 20% of the temples that were built in the time period of Hindu. Also, women had an impressive competition with men in producing literature with high quality. This is in opposition to the common view that Muslim women were oppressed in the Middle Ages onward. Nur Jahan, the wife of Jahangir, was the actual ruler of India. She ordered the inscription of lines of poetry on her tombstone. This was an expression of sorrow for leaving the world.

These empires dominated Muslim civilization, and the idea of what it meant to be Muslim in this time period. They created a basis of the governance of Muslim states, and built a foundation off of which modern Islamic politics could easily springboard.