The Decline of the Ottoman Empire: Part 2 Islamic Decline

In Part 1 of The Decline of the Ottoman Empire we analyzed the political and economic aspects of this great empire’s decline. In history, nothing happens for only one reason. The decline of the Ottomans was the result of a great many factors. Among the most important reasons are the social and religious changes in the Ottoman realm. This post will analyze the Islamic changes in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s and how they helped bring the downfall of the empire in 1922.

Religious Changes – The Tanzimat

From the very beginning of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1300s, Islam had been the basis of the state. The Ottomans built on the Islamic government traditions of the Seljuk Empire of the Middle Ages which prided itself on being the defender of Islam in its time. The Ottomans saw themselves in the same light. As the empire grew and expanded through the centuries, the Ottomans formalized their position as the defenders of Islam, with the sultans taking on the title of khalifah (caliph) of the Muslim world. The law of the land was the Shariah, the religious laws of Islam passed down through Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in the deserts of Arabia in the 600s.

In the late Ottoman Empire, however, things began to change. With the political and economic rise of Europe in the face of Ottoman decline that was discussed in part 1, questions began to be asked about the direction of the Ottoman Empire. Many people within the government of the empire began to think that in order to become more powerful like the Europeans, the Ottoman Empire needs to become more like European nations.

These beliefs reached the level of the Ottoman sultan in the early 1800s. Soon, reforms meant to make the Ottoman Empire more European touched all aspects of Ottoman life. In 1826, sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808-1839) instituted a clothing reform for all government officials. Instead of the traditional robes and turbans that sultans and government workers wore, they now dressed in European-style military clothes. Looking like the Europeans was not the only reform, however. Mahmud also abolished the ancient Janissaries, military troops that came from all parts of the empire. Instead, he began a new corps called the Nizam-ı cedid, which was recruited only from the empire’s Turkish citizens.

Mahmud II’s reforms only began the drastic changes that the Ottoman Empire would undergo in the turbulent 19th century. The changes would culminate in the Tanzimat reforms under sultans Abdülmecid in 1839 and 1856. “Tanzimat” means reorganization in Ottoman Turkish and that is exactly what these changes were: a complete reorganization of the Ottoman government. The Tanzimat were a series of laws that was meant to modernize the Ottoman Empire along European lines. The old system of a Shariah-based government was gone.  Islamic laws and norms were gone from the government. The fair and equitable Islamic social structure of the empire was gone.

Sultan Abdulmecid I, who instituted the Tanzimat reforms

Keeping in mind the political and economic problems the empire faced from part 1 of this article, the Ottoman Empire certainly did need to reform. It was declining fast in power in comparison to Western European nations. However, the path the Ottomans took was to erase Islam from the political structure of the Ottoman state. During this time, Europe had mostly gotten rid of religious influence in politics. The French Revolution in the early 1800s separated church and state and created a secular society. The power of the Anglican Church in English politics was nowhere near its former power. The pope in Rome was merely but a figurehead. The overarching idea in Europe at that time was that if you get rid of religion in general, you will become more successful. The Ottomans copied this same formula.

Some of the changes included: secular courts replaced Islamic judges, a finance system based on the French model, legalization of homosexuality, factories replaced artisans guilds, enforcement of an “Ottoman” identity instead of unique cultural identities, and the reform of the educational system to be based on a science/technology curriculum instead of traditional subjects such as Quran, Islamic studies, and poetry. While there were many other reforms that were necessary and did not change the role of Islam in the empire, many of the new laws were aimed at removing Islam from public life. The Ottomans brought in people known as “French knowers” from Europe to come and reform their society.

European influence was even seen in architecture. Dolmabaçe Palace, built by Sultan Abdulmecid was meant to look like European palaces of that time.

This attempt to remove Islam from public life left many within the empire feeling as if their traditions were being marginalized in favor of European norms that did not fit in the empire. The role of teachers, shaikhs, and Islamic judges was suddenly marginalized. Large segments of the population opposed the Tanzimat’s efforts to redefine their lives. Islamic rebellions against the government began in places such as the deserts of Arabia (the First Saudi State), Bosnia, and Egypt. The Ottoman Empire had historically used Islam to unite the diverse peoples of its lands, but with the removal of Islam, that bonding agent was slowly breaking away the empire.

Sultan Abdülhamid II

In the middle of all these changes and reforms regarding the role of Islam came a new sultan in 1876: Abdülhamid II. While he was in favor of the parts of the Tanzimat that did not contradict Islam and actually did benefit the empire, he was vehemently against the decline of the role of Islam in the empire. Since 1517, the Ottoman sultans were also the caliphs of the Muslim world, in essence the official leaders and protectors of Muslims worldwide. Most sultans had recently played down their roles as caliphs. Abdülhamid on the other hand emphasized the Islamic aspects of his job.

In the late 1800s, Sultan Abdülhamid II attempted to bring back the Islamic character of the Ottoman Empire.

During his reign, Abdülhamid built the Istanbul-Madinah railway which make travel to the Hajj for pilgrims much easier. During his reign, Istanbul was made a center of Islamic printing, producing thousands of copies of the Quran for distribution around the Muslim world. In 1889, he established a “House of Scholars” whose purpose was to promote the Islamic sciences across the empire. Perhaps his most daring and notable defense of Islam and Muslims occurred when the Zionist leader, Theodor Herzl offered Abdülhamid II 150 million pounds in gold in exchange for the land of Palestine. Abdülhamid’s response was legendary:

™Even if you gave me as much gold as the entire world, let alone the 150 million English pounds in gold, I would not accept this at all. I have served the Islamic milla and the Ummah of Muhammad for more than thirty years, and never did I blacken the pages of the Muslims- my fathers and ancestors, the Ottoman sultans and caliphs. And so I will never accept what you ask of me.

Despite Abdülhamid’s best efforts, the rising tide of European secularism was too great to resist. In 1909, the Young Turks, a liberal secular group, overthrew Abdülhamid and installed his brother Mehmed V on the throne. Mehmed was to have no real power as the control of the empire was in the hands of a group of three Young Turks called the “Three Pashas”. Abdülhamid II was the last Ottoman sultan to exercise any real power over the empire. Just 13 years later the empire would be destroyed in the aftermath of World War One, and the caliphate destroyed 2 years later in 1924.

Part 3 of this series will analyze the effects nationalism had on the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.


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Ochsenwald, William, and Sydney Fisher. The Middle East: A History. 6th. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.