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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Turks and Islam [2]

Part Two

Personally, the teachings of Muhammad don't move me, but the doctrines of the Turks we must engage."
Martin Luther (German monk, founder of Protestantism)

Prior to the ninth century, hordes of Turks had crossed the Volga River of Russia into the Black Sea steppes[1]. The Seljuk Turks[2] (Selçuk in Turkish) appeared in Central Asia from a major branch of the Oghuz Turks during the 10th century. Their arrival would mark the beginning of Turkic power in the Middle East. It was the first major Turkic Islamic empire and the target of the First Crusade[3].

The Seljuks

Mina'i Bowl from the late 12th-early 13th century; Persian, Seljuk Dynasty; CeramicLike most other Turks of the time, the Seljuks were initially pagans. In 956 AD a military commander called Seljuk migrated along with his clan to the province of Bukhara, where he and his people converted to Islam. The conversion of these Seljuk Turks and the founding of their Sunni Muslim dynasty in 1055 would be of supreme importance to Islam.

The Seljuk royal dynastic empire ruled parts of Central Asia and the Middle East from the 11th to 14th centuries. Stretching to the Punjab, it united Mesopotamia and a large portion of western Persia, with the great Seljuk Sultanate centred in Baghdad and including what is Iran, Iraq, and Syria today. The Seljuks played a major role in medieval history by creating a barrier to Europe against the Mongol invaders from the East, defending the Islamic world against Crusaders from the West, and conquering large parts of the Byzantine Empire.

Seljuk power was at its zenith during the regions of Sultans Alp Arslan between the years 1063-72 and Malki Shah whose reign lasted from 1072-92. Their defeat of Byzantine armies at the battle of Manzikert in 1071 opened the way for the Turkish colonisation of Anatolia. By the 12th century, the dynasty seemed firmly established and, if the lateral branches of the family as well as the vassal states are included, it became one of most extensive realms of Islam.

Today they are regarded as the cultural ancestors of the Western Turks and they are known as great patrons of Persian culture, art, literature, and language. The Seljuks adopted the Persian culture and language, and played an important role in the development of the Turko-Persian tradition which features "Persian culture patronized by Turkophone rulers"[4].

Born in what is now Afghanistan, Sufi mystic, philosopher and poet Mevlana Rumi preferred to live and die under the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm, a branch of the Seljuk dynasty in Anatolia, and continued his work under their patronage. The Seljuk period was known for its tolerance of other races in times of war and peace, and Turkish humanism first sprang under their auspices in the 13th century under the guidance of another Sufi mystic Yunus Emre.

The dynasty was splintered by attacks from the Mongol hordes in the 14th century. After the disintegration of the Seljuk Empire, the Arab and Persian regions fragmented into several military kingdoms until 1500. However, it would be a Seljuk king, Osman, who founded a new Turkic empire, the Ottoman Empire, which would continue the Turkish colonisation of Anatolia and push into Europe.

The Ottomans

An Iznik late, c.1550, decorated with tulips and hyacinths bound together with lotus flowers, showing the distinct Chinese influence of Iznik potteryThe Ottoman Empire arose out of the leftovers of the old Seljuk sultans of Anatolia. In 1299, one of these Seljuks, Osman from the Oghuz clan, began to expand his kingdom. The geographic location of his Ottoman principality and the weak state of Byzantine Empire combined to make it the strongest state within the Islamic world by the 14th century[5], and when the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II claimed the caliphate authority, the Ottoman rulers became the head of the Islamic world[5a]. Beginning their sultanate in 1300 under Osman I through to the height of their civilization under Suleiman the Magnificent who came to power in 1520, the Ottoman Turks were to become one of the greatest imperial powers in history.

Stretching from 1300 to 1923, it would also become the final Muslim Empire to shuffle off the record, officially coming to an end by decree in 1924, a year after the last sultan had been shipped into exile by a soldier from the Ottoman ranks.

During the early centuries, the Ottomans fought many wars with Venice over control of the Eastern Mediterranean shipping routes. In 1453 Mehmed II and his army of Janissaries conquered Constantinople (modern Istanbul) from the Byzantine emperors, ending the last piece of the Roman Empire[6].

The tolerant approach taken by Mehmed the Conqueror to other religions and their adherents became a tradition adopted by his successors. Following the capture of Istanbul, the Orthodox Church was freed from obedience to the Catholic Church and granted its independence. In 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella made all the Jews leave Spain, many of them came to live in the Ottoman Empire, where the sultans welcomed them and let them follow their religion[6a].

The calligraphic signature, known as a tughra, of Suleiman the Magnificent that was affixed to all official documents and correspondence. It was also carved on his seal and stamped on the coins minted during his reign.By 1517, the Ottomans had gained control of Egypt, and gradually they extended their control over the North African coast, too. The brightest period of the Ottoman state was during the reign of Sultan Suleiman (or Suleiman the Magnificent as the West called him) between the years 1520-1566[7]. In those years the empire grew to span three continents, from the outskirts of Vienna to the Bay of Basra, and from the Crimea to Africa as far as Ethiopia.

The death of Suleiman in 1566 marked the beginning of an era of diminishing territorial gains, though the empire continued to colonise until the middle of the 17th century. Even when in 1683 it suffered its first major loss with defeat in the siege of Vienna, North Europe's close contact with its oriental counterpart sparked a "Turkish craze" in Western music and fashion[8], and greatly influenced Victorian Britain over a century later.

The empire was at the centre of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for six centuries and was in many respects an Islamic successor to earlier Mediterranean empires, the Roman and Byzantine empires. As such, the Ottomans regarded themselves as the heirs to both Roman and Islamic traditions, and hence rulers of a "Universal Empire" through this "unification of cultures"[9]. Thus, in accordance with Islam, there was no intrinsic nationalistic ideology that drove the Ottoman state.

The decline of the empire came after a period of peaceful stagnation in first part of the 18th century known as the Tulip Era[10]. It was also the time, in the transference between the two cultures, that the Ottoman rulers began to emulate all things European. The period ended in revolt and was a sign of things to come.

Imported notions from the West slowly began to replace Islamic notions, and the demise of Ottoman rule took place in part because of a slow erosion of power in relation to Europe and the end of the state due to partitioning of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

Once a great power, which had swallowed up the Byzantium Empire and become the head of the Muslim world, in the 19th century the Ottoman state began to sicken and die. The empire lost territory on all fronts. There was administrative instability because of the breakdown of centralised government, despite efforts of reform and reorganisation.

The rise of nationalism in the West during the 19th century infected the Ottoman Empire, as it was forced to deal with nationalism-related issues both within and beyond its borders. Uprisings in Ottoman territory had many far-reaching consequences during the 19th century and determined much of Ottoman policy during the early 20th century. There was a significant increase in the number of revolutionary political parties and many Ottoman Turks questioned the policies of the state. In contrast to Turks initially turning to Islam centuries ago due to it signifying military success, it seemed that religion was no longer a strength, but a hindrance to modernisation.

Bad leadership led to wrong decisions. After the Ottomans sided with Germany in World War I, the empire was forced to submit to a complete partition to the winning forces. For the first time in over a thousand years, Turks found themselves fighting for land not in the name of God, but for the sake of sovereignty. Rallying for this cause was a new symbol of strength and military success, an Ottoman commander who had held back the winning forces at the Battle of Gallipoli, General Mustafa Kemal[11]. He would found a new Turkish state, the Republic of Turkey, by forcing the new occupying powers to become entangled in what the Turks call their War of Independence.

Ironically, winning their war for freedom would fundamentally bring to a close the final Muslim Empire of the Turks and the world, and in doing so, change the relationship between Turks and Islam forever.

The Republic of Turkey vs Islamic Legacy

On July 24, 1923, the Lausanne Peace Agreement was signed, and the Turkish Grand National Assembly announced on October 13, 1923 that Ankara was the new capital, removing Istanbul's status as the centre of the empire. On October 29, 1923, the Republic was proclaimed.

Following the foundation of the Republic, a series of reforms took place one after the other; through amendments to the civil code, women were given social rights and privileges, the Latin alphabet was adopted, and a secular state was formed.

Mustafa Kemal, now known as Atatürk[12], dismembered the caliphate as part of his reforms to create the modern Turkish state. On his initiative, the National Assembly abolished the "Ottoman Caliphate" on March 3, 1924. The last Ottoman ruler was sent into exile along with the remaining members of the Ottoman House, marking the official end of a vast Ottoman regime that had survived for centuries.

A man with a very religious Islamic upbringing and one of the Ottoman army's most prestigious soldiers ended what had been the most powerful Muslim state in modern history. The centuries long relationship between Turks and Islam had concluded in a bitter public divorce, leaving the newly formed country with no official religion, except for secularism. These fighters for Islam, swapping sides ideologically for the defence of their sovereign state, in a political sense became fighters of Islam. Pushing for acceptance, most things that were considered imperial or Ottoman during the early years in the country were outlawed.

Yet, while publicly the division between religion and state had been made clear, privately it became increasingly difficult for citizens to come to terms with the new relationship to their religion; one that had become complicated and confusing.

One of the profound differences between the East and West occurs over separation of faith and state. In Islam, the two are usually inseparable. Torn between ideologies, and not knowing which identity to give precedence to now that "Turkishness" and Islam had been divided to an extent, some Turks turned to their Islamic heritage with pride and longing. However, some argued that the Turks were rightfully reverting to their true origins before coming into contact with Islam, while the strongest supporters of the state viewed their Islamic heritage with fear, seeing it as an obstruction to the dream to heal rifts with their old neighbour and become part of the European continent at long last; one that had ironically begun in the Tulip Era of Ottoman Empire.

Practically, while such reforms were to aid alienate the Turks from the Islamic community they had once ruled, they were not to be readily accepted into the Western one they had once tried to conquer, either.

Atatürk had radicalised his people for their survival, but gave them a nation caught between the Bosporus and Anatolia, misunderstood, unwanted, feared and mistrusted by Europeans and Asians alike. Their cry for acceptance would fall on deaf Western ears, as a once feared nation now isolated, became an unfamiliar one.

In a final modern twist, it was not the previous strong ties with their religion that was to come back to haunt the Turks in the realisation of their dream on the international political stage, but acts committed by the Ottomans infected by Western notions of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. The fear of the Ottoman forces as a dangerous enemy was a fear that long survived the danger in the Western psyche, however Turks were being called to account for the final acts of an empire that had been guided by Western nationalism and not religious fervour.

Consequently, Turks were typecast in the role of barbarians in the West for a legacy they had rejected almost a hundred years ago. Moreover, even though the Turkish threat abated realistically after the last assault on Vienna in 1683, in the 20th century Turks were still regarded as the counterpart of the old foes of Greece and Rome, and depicted as cruel, of savage habits, and the enemies of culture. Fearing a clash of civilizations, the "Turk" was the caricature bad guy in the battle between the forces of Christendom and that of its arch-enemy, Islam, notwithstanding the Turks had ended the caliphate themselves.

It seemed that the 16th century German philosopher Martin Luther's understanding of the Turks, as God's chastening rod to constantly keep pious Christians vigilant to the danger, was to be a myth that outlived any real legacy left by Turks and Islam, possibly because the Turks had begun to play the West at its own game.

Picture 1: Mina'i Bowl from the late 12th-early 13th century; Persian, Seljuk Dynasty; Ceramic (Detroit Institute of Arts). Picture 2: Iznik pottery, late, c.1550, decorated with tulips and hyacinths bound together with lotus flowers, blue and turquoise. Picture 3: A calligraphic signature, known as a tughra, of Suleiman the Magnificent that was affixed to all official documents and correspondence. It was also carved on his seal and stamped on the coins minted during his reign.

Part one | End of part two

Main Index | Intro | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5


1. Vol 1, pg 278, Previte-Orton, C. W (1971, reprint). The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Go back

2. Variant spellings include Seldjuk, Seldjuq or Seljuq. Go back

3. The First Crusade was launched in 1095 by Pope Urban II with the dual goals of liberating the sacred city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslims and freeing the Eastern Christians from Muslim rule. What started as an appeal by Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos for western mercenaries to fight the Turks in Anatolia quickly turned into a wholesale Western migration and conquest of territory outside of Europe. Go back

4. Daniel Pipes: "The Event of Our Era: Former Soviet Muslim Republics Change the Middle East" in Michael Mandelbaum, "Central Asia and the World: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkemenistan and the World", Council on Foreign Relations, pg 79. Exact statement: "In Short, the Turko-Persian tradition featured Persian culture patronized by Turcophone rulers." Go back

5. The weakness of the Byzantine Empire after the Fourth Crusade and the Black Death of 1347 allowed the Ottoman sultans to cross over into Europe in 1352 and begin conquering Greece and the Balkans. By 1361, Murad I had captured Adrianople, and by 1386, Bayezid I had taken Sofia (modern Bulgaria). Go back

5a. A caliphate is the Islamic form of government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world. The head of state (Caliph) has a position based on the notion of a successor to Muhammad's political authority. From the time of Muhammad until 1924, successive caliphates were held by various dynasties, including finally the Ottomans. Mehmed II and his grandson Selim I claimed it to justify their conquest of Islamic countries. See also, O. Saeed: "The return of the caliphate", The Guardian (Nov 1, 2005) Go back

6. Peten Travels: "Stubborn in his purpose, and bold in everything, he aspires to no less fame than that of Alexander the Great. He has read to him by two Italians in his service the histories of Rome and other nations. He speaks Turkish, Greek and Slavonic. Eager for information about the Western world, he possesses a map showing the realms and provinces of Europe ... he declares that there must be but one empire in the world, one faith, one monarchy – and that to realise this unity there is no place more worthy than Constantinople." That was how Languschi, an Italian contemporary, described Mehmed II (reigned 1451–80) as he was soon after his accession to the Ottoman Sultanate at the age of nineteen in 1451. Just two years later Mehmed commanded the Turkish armies in the conquest of Constantinople. Go back

6a. There is a quote by Ottoman Sultan Bayezid to Spanish King Ferdinand on the saving of the Spanish Jews by the Ottoman Turks which hangs in The Center for Jewish History building in New York. See: "Words of the Ottoman", Tarkan Deluxe. Go back

7. Sultan Suleiman was the tenth and longest‐serving sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and is known in the West as Suleiman the Magnificent and in the Islamic world, as the Lawgiver, deriving from his complete reconstruction of the Ottoman legal system. Within the empire, Suleiman was known as a fair ruler and an opponent of corruption. As well as being a capable goldsmith and distinguished poet, Suleiman was also a great patron of artists and philosophers, overseeing the golden age of the Ottoman Empire's cultural development. Go back

8. Mark Mayhey: "Diplomatic License" pt 1, Tarkan Deluxe: When tensions lessened during relatively long periods of peace, anything Turkish was eagerly adopted by the Europeans, and in the 1700s Turquerien were all the rage. Go back

9. Pages 295-200, H. İnalcık: "The Rise of the Ottoman Empire" in P.M. Holt, A.K. S. Lambstone, and B. Lewis (eds), The Cambridge History of Islam, (Cambridge University). Go back

10. Known as the Lale Devri in Turkish, called so because of the tulip craze among the Ottoman court society (The Telegraph, 2007). Go back

11. In the army, Mustafa Kemal's rank was of Pasha (Paşa in Turkish), a high rank in the Ottoman Empire political system, typically granted to governors and generals. Go back

12. Atatürk was a title that had been given to him that literally meant "Father of the Turks" in Turkish. In 1934, when the surname law was adopted, the national parliament gave him the name. Go back

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