The Ottoman empire through western eyes

Lords of the Horizons - a history of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin. Pub: Vintage Paperbacks, London, UK, 1999. Pp: 352. Pbk: (UK)7.99.
Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abdullah Abubakr

Dhu al-Hijjah 10, 1438 1999-09-01

Book Review

by Abdullah Abubakr (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 13, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1438)

The Uthmaniyyah sultanate, which claimed the legitimacy of khilafah, was as corrupt and rotten as any monarchy in Muslim history. This was a massive contributory factor in its decline and ultimate collapse. The west’s conquest and partition of its lands would never have been possible had the empire been better, more fairly and more competently ruled.

However, this corruption at the core spread across the body of the empire only slowly, and the external body appeared strong and solid long after the core had all but rotted away. For centuries, it dominated Europe as an apparently all-powerful and dominant ‘other’ which filled European minds with both fear and fascination for centuries. The pleasure Europeans took at Turkey’s status as ‘the sick man of Europe’ in the nineteenth century owed much to their relief that the enemy was so reduced.

Jason Goodwin’s Lords of the Horizons is a throw-back to those attitudes, indicating that the western psyche is yet to grow out of them. It is presented as an historic epic, a wide-ranging and all-encompassing survey of the political, social and economic history of the empire. And it has largely been accepted as such by western readers and reviewers: “a high-octane work of art”, the Independent said. The Telegraph called it “brilliant and beautifully written”.

“A fascinating read [which] balances the sweep of great events with a host of revealing and sometimes pungent details... a perfect companion for anyone who visits Turkey and wants to make sense of it and those countries it once ruled”, the Times enthused.

These comments say more of the reviewers’ own attitudes to the Ottomans and Muslims than they do about the book, large chunks of which are little more than sensationalist tittle-tattle and the joyful repetition of historic myths to feed a western audience which clearly still relishes them. There are no references and the bibliography consists entirely of western secondary sources, many of them dating back to the days of open warfare between the Ottomans and the Turks. Numerous improbable stories from such books are repeated as fact, no questions asked. No reviewer would normally take such shoddy work seriously -- but this book is about Islam, so anything goes.

Goodwin’s attitude is summed up in the prologue and epilogue. The prologue portrays Turkey’s present situation by comparing it with the roles played by an Armenian puppeteer in an Istanbul cafe, whose puppet comes magically back to life after being locked in its coffin. The epilogue looks back over the centuries of Ottoman rule through the experiences of dogs in different places and different times. Nothing could possibly be more calculatedly contemptuous.

That is not to say that the book is badly written; the prose is frequently excellent, the coverage of some episodes sympathetic, and Goodwin even corrects some traditional misrepresentations. This is only to be expected; even at the height of enmity, there was grudging admiration for the Muslims’ achievements. But the overall tone of the book, and the response to it among western intellectuals, is telling of the west’s attitude still.

It is remarkable that many Muslims still cannot see the west’s enmity to Islam. The west knows better: it is still fighting us with every tool at its disposal. Works such as this are one such tool; and another is the propaganda that western academia is objective and fair. Muslims should know better by now.

Muslimedia: September 1-15, 1999

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