Islam in the Ottoman Empire

William Ochsenwald

in Islamic Studies

ISBN: 9780195390155
Published online May 2011 | | DOI:
Islam in the Ottoman Empire


The Ottoman dynasty’s history can be traced from about 1300 to the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. At its greatest extent, the Ottoman Empire covered an enormous territory, including Anatolia, the Balkan region in Europe, most of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, and all of North Africa except for Morocco. As of the 1510s the empire had possession of Sunni Islam’s three holiest shrine cities—Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The Turkish-speaking Ottoman royal family, the administration it created, and the educational and cultural institutions it eventually favored were all Sunni Muslim. However, subordinate Christian and Jewish sects also coexisted with Islam, which enjoyed the support and favor of the state. While a tremendous amount of scholarly material is available on the history of the Ottomans, surprisingly little of a general nature has been written on the history of Islam in the Ottoman Empire. What has been published is often narrow in scope and frequently not theoretically based. The earliest period of Ottoman history contains the contentious issue of the role of Islam in the spreading of Ottoman rule beyond the small territory in northwest Anatolia where it began. Despite a dearth of reliable sources, several valuable studies have appeared recently that modify the earlier view that waging holy war against Christians was the chief impetus for Ottoman expansion. However, Ottoman sultans did appeal for political legitimacy on the basis of their sponsorship of Islamic buildings, institutions, pious foundations, and judicial institutions. Among the four main legal schools of Sunni Islam, the Ottomans favored the Hanafis. The Ottoman ruling establishment and the general Muslim population also had close links with Sufis (Islamic mystics). Among the main opponents of the Ottoman state was the Safavid Empire, a Shiʿi Muslim empire to the east of the Ottoman lands. Shiʿism and so-called Islamic heresies were major internal issues as well as an external threat for the Sunni Ottomans. One means of curbing Shiʿism, as well as promoting Sunni Islam, was through the patronage of the judicial system that was organized and formalized in a new manner by the Ottomans. The question of how much flexibility was available to judges and legal scholars has been a source of much controversy among scholars. Other Muslim institutions that received government support included schools and numerous charitable foundations, many of which owned extensive properties. The state also had a direct role in the training and promoting of the Sunni religious hierarchy. Even in the production of art, religion played a large role. Outside the Ottoman ruling elite, much is known about the religious conditions of town dwellers, thanks in large part to the archival records of Muslim courts. It is safe to assert that the role of Islam in everyday life was substantial. However, for the majority of Ottoman subjects, who lived in villages, there is less information available, and even less is known about nomadic groups. On the other hand, many fine studies now exist dealing with the history of urban Muslim Ottoman women. Returning to the study of political elites, accounts of the rise of secularism in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire have been heavily revised on the basis of new scholarship. Many researchers now point to a closer involvement of religion in the reforms that tried to save the empire from the destruction that ultimately overtook it at the end of World War I.

Article.  8274 words. 

Subjects: Islam

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