On this journey, I question the way we look at Islamic history.
- Do we glorify past nations too much?
- What can we learn from being more mature about our discussions around Islamic history?
- What implications could this have for our approach to politics and our own role in the world today?
Book in focus: The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Period - 1300-1600 by Halil İnalcık (Turkey).
[00.00] Opening and summary of the book.
[02.50] Events of this world are cyclical.
[03.40] Avoiding a good/bad dichotomy when discussing empires and nations of the past.
[10.00] Learning from the way previous nations dealt with problems.
[11.10] We need to build strong nations in order to help others.
[14.00] Our faith shouldn't depend on the perfection of any other than Allah.
[15.05] Developing ourselves allows us to be of more benefit to the world.
[15.50] Extract from the book.
[17.10] Conclusive summary.
[00.00] Assalamu alaykum and welcome to another mini-episode of Book Nomad. I want to keep these episodes to twenty minutes or less, so I'm going to dive straight in. Today, I'm talking about The Ottoman Empire - the Classical Age: 1300-1600 by Halil İnalcık, who is a Turkish Ottoman scholar. He's passed away now, but he was one of the main experts in the field of Ottoman studies and this book is not a textbook, but it's a foundational reference text, I think, for people who are interested in the Ottoman Empire. I didn't know that when I started reading it so I struggle a bit to get through it! I haven't finished reading it, but it's written a very easy way to follow and understand. There is some jargon I suppose, but it is explained - it's just that sometimes I forgot what some of the words were referring to. But it's a very interesting book, easy to read and I think the organisation of it is quite clear, although I read some reviews saying they didn't like the organisation, but I'm not sure why. It is divided into four parts. The first one is an outline of Ottoman history, and it covers the start - how the Ottoman Empire came to be - and then different periods until the start of the decline of the empire. Then, the second part is the state and that explores the political system that was in place and it changed as time progressed, of course, because this book spans three hundred years. So then part three is economic and social life which I haven't read yet. Then part four is about religion and culture in the Ottoman Empire. So I think it's well structured. It's very interesting and is also very detailed. So I realised quite quickly once I started reading it that it was primarily for research purposes or for someone who really wants a detailed understanding of how the Ottoman Empire functioned, dealt with its citizens and all the details.
[02.50] Every time I read history, I think it's a good reminder that a lot of things that we think are new, that are happening now, either in a good way in a bad way, are often not as new as we think. It reminds me of the cyclical nature of events, I suppose. The rise and fall of nations is just part of the nature of this world. So reading history I think reminds us of that and that's a good thing, because we can learn from the mistakes of the past and we can learn from the successes of people in the past.
[03.40] The main question I wanted to talk about today is something that came up for me very early on reading this book. And I guess it's a mistake that I made myself and I think a lot of us make it. It's with regard to the way we look at history and the way we look at particular groups of people. I think we really need to - if we want to move forward, considering the position today in the world of Muslim nations and Muslims in general - if we want to move forward, we need maturity, I think, in the way we discuss history and politics, I suppose. We need to remember that it's not black and white situation. There are many, many grey areas. I think with regard to the Ottoman Empire, for example, it seems like there are two sides when it comes to how people perceive the Ottoman Empire. Either it was an evil, kind of colonising force, if you like, in the Arab world and parts of Eastern Europe, or it was perfect - a perfect example of an Islamic state, that we should aspire to. In the end, it was both and neither. I think, for me, I hadn't really studied the Ottoman Empire before, but because I hadn’t thought about it explicitly and directly, I kind of had that feeling of the Ottoman Empire was the last glorious time for Islam in modern history and when it fell, it was a catastrophe if you like. And obviously I'm not saying it was a good thing, but it wasn't perfect either, especially towards the end. But reading this book kind of made me face my thinking I had on this topic. I think it's kind of actually similar to celebrity culture; celebrities are held up as role models just because they’re famous and then made into these perfect people when they're not - they’re humans, right? So it's same thing with with any nation or empire. I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't celebrate or aspire to the good that was achieved by the Ottoman Empire and in the Ottoman Empire. We need to appreciate that and understand how they achieved their successes; for example, the fact that the legal system was based on Islamic principles and it introduced Islam to a lot of people. So they did a lot of good. They also had a lot of interesting mechanics in place that I learned about from this book and the way they dealt with the citizens was really eye-opening in many ways. There was one part I read about when the Ottomans were looking towards Hungary, I think, and they offered very appealing life to these people as opposed to the Byzantine Empire (I believe it was still there then). They offered them freedom, a just system, fairness… So there was a lot to celebrate and to hope for in terms of wanting to recreate that just, fair society. But there were other things that they did that were definitely not something to replicate, and I was quite shocked near the beginning of the book to learn about certain practices that were very unIslamic. And that was when I had to face the ideas that I’d been holding without realising. But those things are things we need to learn from so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes. And I think al-Andalus - Andalusia - is another example of that. They did many things: they valued education and study, there were many discoveries made in so many fields. It’s really a good thing to celebrate these achievements. But they also made mistakes and, in the end, these mistakes led to their downfall in the same way as the Ottoman Empire.
[10.00] Also, once we’ve opened up to the idea that Ottoman society, for example, was not perfect and that they faced many of the same problems that we deal with now in terms of politics, society economics, then we can use that to see how they solved these problems within an Islamic framework. That could help us to consider ways to improve or to attack the problems that we are dealing with today, like corruption, bribery, or at state level: how did they interact with other states - perhaps pressure from other states to make unethical decisions - or how did they deal with the oppression of Muslims in other lands? These are just a few examples.
[11.10] So that opening up to the fact that it was not perfect, that there were problems, actually can allow us to learn more from them. That was what this book really made me think about. In the end, no one is perfect and no civilization is perfect. It actually reminded me of a podcast episode I listened to not long ago by Islam21C with Dr Anas Altikriti and he focused on politics and political activism among Muslims in the UK, because he’s based in the UK. Obviously, there are so many people today in the world who are oppressed and we want to help them, but at a state level it’s not as simple as, for example, Pakistan boycotting all the countries that are oppressing people because in the end that might lead to the collapse of Pakistan, because they can no longer trade or have agreements with different states and this would lead to a weakening of that state. That is the kind of the short term view and he was saying we need to have a long term view; we need to build strong nations that have the leverage to then say “what you're doing to these people is wrong and we're not going to tolerate it. We need that strength within ourselves so that we can then help other people. This is a what I mean by maturity: we need to have the long term and short term view in order to succeed. We’re looking at on the nations today and saying “they didn't do anything about this”, “they didn't say anything about that”, but it's a very complex situation. I am not saying we shouldn't hold them accountable, but we also need to understand that diplomacy and politics is not black and white.
[14.00] So we need to remember that no nation is perfect or was perfect. The closest to perfection was obviously the time of the Prophet, صلى الله عليه و سلم/peace be upon him, in Madinah, but perfection is for God. We need to recognise the positive achievements and contributions of people and of civilisations and learn from the mistakes, but we shouldn't base our own iman - our own faith - on any one nation or person to sustain it. We need to put our faith in God, and everything else is an example in some regard, but never with the idea that they are perfect.
[15.05] I think the other lesson individually is if we want to make a positive contribution to this world, then we need to have an inner strength before we can do that. That is something we should be working on all the time, whether its developing our skills, so that we are becoming an expert in a particular field, so we can help people in that way. And having solid faith in Allah and understanding why we are living this life and where we need to put our trust.
[15.50] To finish, I thought I’d read a short passage from the book:
Mehmed the Conqueror was the true founder of the Ottoman Empire. He established an empire in Europe and Asia with its capital at Istanbul, which was to remain the nucleus of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries. He used the title ‘Sovereign of the Two Lands’ – Rumelia and Anatolia – ‘and of the Two Seas’ – the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. He was a warrior who strove for world dominion but who was at the same time a man of tolerance and culture. He ordered Gennadius, whom he had appointed as Orthodox patriarch, to compose a treatise summarizing the principles of the Christian religion. Members of the ulema came to his Palace on certain days of the week to give him instruction. He received humanists and Greek scholars, at his court; he invited Gentile Bellini from Venice to paint frescos for the Palace and to paint his portrait. But those who rank Mehmed among contemporary Renaissance sovereigns exaggerate. He was, above all, an Islamic gâzî sovereign, whose rule aimed to transform his state into the world’s most powerful empire.
[17.10] Thank you for listening. As I said, if you’re interested in the Ottoman Empire, then I recommend this book. It is very detailed and it’s very interesting. I learned a lot and I’ve only read less than half. So, for those who really want to learn about the Ottoman Empire, how it functioned, the politics, and the way society was structured, I highly recommended it. As usual, you can get in touch on Instagram at booknomadpodcast and the website is booknomadpodcast.com.
Let me know if you agree, disagree or are in the middle - it’s not black and white! - with the things I said. Do you have other ideas about how we should discuss and look at our history, the good and the not so good? Let me know! I'd really like to hear about it. I think this is a topic that can generate a lot of very productive discussions.
Thank you for listening and assalamu alaykum.
Here are a few shots from my recent short but fulfilling visit to Istanbul.
Whenever I'm going to visit somewhere new, I like to try and learn about the culture, history and language of the place beforehand. This way, I can better understand the significance of the places I visit in their cultural and historical context and connect a little with the local people by trying to use their language (even if it's just a couple of words). Not to mention one of my pet peeves is tourists who go to a place without making any effort to learn basic phrases and expect the locals to speak English. 😒 To this end, I look for books (fiction and non-fiction) based in the country/city and documentaries and fit in as many as possible before travelling.
What do you do to prepare for a trip to a new place? Do you like to learn about it before you go?
My recent visit to Istanbul was quite last minute so I didn't get much opportunity to learn beforehand. Here is what I managed:
1) The Caliph (documentary by Al Jazeera English), from which I got an overview of the Ottoman Empire,
2) WWI Throught Arab Eyes (documentary by Al Jazeera English), which covered (amongst other things) the relationships between Turkey and the Arab and Western worlds in the pivotal decisions made in WWI,
3) The Birds Have Also Gone by Yashar Kemal (novella), based in Istanbul with a strong sense of place - to find out more, listen to my (spoiler-free) mini-episode about this book here,
4) The Ottoman Empire: 1300-1600 by Halil İnalcık, a detailed account of social, economic and political aspects of the Ottoman Empire during its growth and peak.
I recently visited Istanbul and before I went I wanted to find a novel that would give me some insight into the city. This book didn't disappoint!
In this first mini-episode of Book Nomad podcast, we head to a land of nostalgia, history and an interesting relationship with small animals!
Book in focus: The Birds Have Also Gone by Yashar Kemal, trans. by Thilda Kemal (Turkey). Original title: Kuşlar da Gitti.
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.