Re-examining the history of the Ottoman sultanate/khilafat

Developing Just Leadership

Laila Juma

Rabi' al-Awwal 09, 1422 2001-06-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 7, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1422)

The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire by Justin McCarthy. Pub: Arnold Publishers, London, UK, and Oxford University Press, New York, USA, 2001. Pp: 234. Pbk: £15.99.

The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimacy of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876-1909 by Selim Deringil. Pub: I. B. Tauris, London, 1999. Pp: 262. Hbk: £42.95.

History, it is often said, is written by the victors. In these terms, the Ottoman sultanate has been doubly damned, its history having been variously written by the West that dismantled it and Turkey’s nationalist-secularists, who have been determined to accept the West’s contempt for it. In some places, however, there are now more understanding and sympathetic assessment of the Ottoman state, even if they do not often impact of the public consciousness.

Justin McCarthy’s The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire, and Selim Deringel’s book The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimacy of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876-1909, are among such works, and complement each other in that they examine the Ottoman state’s place in international affairs and its internal political structures respectively.

McCarthy is a reassessment of the clicheed view that the Ottoman Empire was ‘the sick man of Europe’. In his introduction, he asks: “But was the patient dying? Did some chronic malady eventually overwhelm the Ottoman Empire? Or was the prognosis constructed and shaped by the aggrandizing aims of other countries?”

McCarthy argues strongly that the Ottoman Empire ultimately collapsed not because of any problems within it, but because of the imperial ambitions of outside powers and the irresistible tide of nationalism that they encouraged. In tracing the relations between the Ottoman Empire and European powers, he is not blind to the weaknesses of the empire but argues that it also had a great many achievements in its administration of its empire, which compared favourably to the administration of their colonial empires by the European powers of the time.

He also concludes that “in light of the baleful development in the Balkans and the Middle East in the twentieth century, it is impossible not to reflect on the opportunities lost as a result of the Ottoman demise. Until the final years of the empire, people of different religions lived together who have been unable to live together since.”

It is worth noting also that this is no dry academic tome, though Justin McCarty is Professor of History at the University of Louisville. Rather it is a well-written and readable text designed for undergraduates, making it accessible also to general readers.

Deringel’s book, which was published in 1998, is rather more academic in its style, and suffers either from having been poorly translated from Turkish, or poor editing of the author’s weak English. Nonetheless, it is a useful and stimulating book on a rare subject: the self-image of the Ottoman elite and the means by which they tried to promote that self-image in public life.

Based largely on Ottoman documents — which have been accessible to relatively few Turkish historians because they are written in the Arabic script rather than the Roman adopted by the Kemalist Republic — it seriously challenges assumptions about the attitudes and aspirations of Ottoman state officials.

The first chapter focuses on symbols of Ottoman power, by which the Ottoman state tried to inculcate a sense of Ottoman citizenship among its diverse people. It is interesting to note how this was based on dual values: the re-assertion of Islamic identity, for example through conscious promotion of the sultan as a man of piety, and ideas imported from the West, such as a coat of arms designed in Italy which included both Islamic and Western motifs.

At the same time, the Ottoman policy was strongly influenced by a realization that the state’s legitimacy depended on service to its people, and a popular perception that the state was just. Thus efforts to promote the Sultan’s Islamic legitimacy (for example by the codification of the Shari’ah based on the Hanafi fiqh, the building of mosques, and the encouraging of da’wah among some non-Muslim communities) was combined with major initiatives in education, public services and ensuring that non-Muslim communities were not oppressed by over-zealous local officials or religious leaders.

In this last matter, Deringels’ chapter on the Ottomans’ attitude towards Western missionaries, and their sensitivity towards justice for both their Muslim and non-Muslim subjects alike, is particularly interesting. Other chapters focus on education and Ottoman mechanisms of image management and — where necessary — damage control.

Deringel is by no means free of modern Turkish biases, but this book is nonetheless a welcome contribution to Ottoman history.

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