Similar to the Abbasid Caliph
or Sasanid Shahanshah, the Ottoman Sultan was both a religious and an imperial
figure in charge of an autocratic state. he was considered the caliph of Sunni
Moslems and the Sultan of the empire. He claimed loyalty to the Shari'a as the
prime law of the land. But where Shari'a did not cover, the Sultan issued
Firmans [decrees or orders]. Sunni Moslems all over the world looked
to the Sultan for protection.
Ottoman society was divided into two major categories of classes, namely the
Askeri and the Ra'ya; the ruler and the ruled; the elite
and the subject; the warriors and the producers; the tax-collectors and the
tax-payers. This arrangement was unlike Arab vs. non-Arab of the Umayyad period.
For example, people of Christian origins could grow in status and power.
The status of an "Ottoman man" was created which could be reached by birth,
education, military rank, or Moslem religious learning.
During the period
of expansion (the classical age 1400s & 1500s), the Ottoman administrative
culture and system of law took shape.
State: the state structure was absolutist and had a military character; the
Sultan [who also used the Persian title Padishah [Pasha is a
composite term made up of pa (in Persian, foot) and shah (in
Persian king), so it literary means "at the foot of the king"] and on many
instances the religious title Caliph was at the top of the state hierarchy as
both an Islamic and an imperial absolute ruler; soldiers were for the most part
his slaves; the imperial territory, his personal property
It was the
Ottoman state structure that allowed this arrangement; its military character
was from the Ghazi (nomadic) era, and absolutism gradually imposed on the
descendants of the Ghazi warriors; it came to be an efficient and centralized
structure during the heyday of the empire; Byzantine administrative ideas were
added after the fall of Constantinople.
In this state
structure, the army [now with the introduction of gun-powder and artillery, more
that ever dominated by the infantry] was the most important element and
everything else was built according to it; as the empire enlarged [under
Selim] the most important segments of central power were organized in a single
grand army with the Padishah at its head; within this army, not only soldiers
but many types of administrators held military ranks and were compensated by
Iqta' or increasingly military payroll; this army [thus administration] was at
the personal service of the Padishah; military\slave system of the past
[Abbasid-Mamluk] reinforced this; as the role of infantry [particularly the
Janissaries] became more important in the army, so did the slave system which it
was based upon, both in the army and the administration (Divan).
Ottoman state [1300s to 1400s] was turned from a nomadic, warrior like Ghazi
state into an imperial state run by a "military" imperial servant class whose
members were recruited from among the Christian population as slaves; these were
converted to Islam and trained in special imperial schools; those with more
intelligence and aptitude for civilian administration were sent for Divan duties
and those with more warrior capabilities to the army.
personal day-to-day duties were taken over by the Grand Vazir [a slave]; this
office had a high place under Mehmed II, but under Suleyman its authority was
shared by no one but the Sultan; in this absolutist arrangement, the position of
the Grand Vazir was only vulnerable to that of the Sultan; the Grand Vazir stood
at the head of the whole state apparatus [divan]; was the effective commander in
chief in war and master of fiscal and even judicial services in peace; at his
side were lesser vazirs with little independent power. The seat of the Grand
Vazir was referred to as the Bab-e Alli or the High Gate [French
Sublime Porte] and was placed in one of the palaces of Istanbul. Troops were
commanded by three chief generals [Bilerbegi] of Rumelia, Anatolia
and Arab Lands.
The old Turkish
aristocracy had little room in this arrangement; militarily, it was associated
Sepahi cavalry contingents; economically with the iqta'; Sepahi was the
cavalry force the igta' holder was responsible to provide the center in time of
war and it was losing its importance rapidly as modern warfare [with its
emphasis on infantry] made it obsolete.
aristocracy held no real power in this military\absolutist structure; moreover,
the new aristocracy [say the Arab lands] who were allowed to hold iqta' and man
special infantry corps, were used by the Sultan to keep the Turkish Aristocracy
in check; by the 17th century, it almost became a requirement for a high Ottoman
post (apart from Shari'a positions) to be filled by a Moslem who did not belong
to the old established aristocratic families;
This process was insured
legally by the requirement that an official be formally the personal slave of
the Sultan [which legally exempted Moslems by birth]; the inheritance of such
officials was given to the Sultan; but if it was decided that it was to go to
his descendants, then the receiver of inheritance was supposed to enter the
ranks of Ottoman aristocracy and be excluded from government trust; if members
of the old families wanted to rise politically, they had to become the "slave"
of the Sultan, as many did. The state structure explained
above was dominant in the 16th and well into the 17th centuries.
Shari'a & Absolutism:
Shari'a played an important
role in all the Moslem empires. In the Ottoman Empire too, it served to tie
together the imperial court and the more popular urban life [through its
communal (umma) claim] and it became an inspiration of higher cultural forms of
In this arrangement, the Sunni
ulama enjoyed a correspondingly high role. The prevailing ulama had always
tended to accept the de facto military rulers of Islamic societies which often
amounted to outright alliance.
After the fall of the High
caliphate, the ulama legitimized, to a certain degree, the amirs, where as the
amirs in turn were expected to leave the ulama as a body essentially involved
with their own local sphere of operation.
In the Ottoman Empire the ulama
came under state control, but by doing this, the Ottoman state brought the
Shari'a into the center of state life. In this arrangement, the Sultan achieved
a more extensive authority, including a fuller control of the Shari'a aspects of
society, while the Shari'a and its representatives in turn were more fully
recognized and found a solid place in the absolutist order of the Ottoman
The relationship between the
ulama and the state was not as a result of a sudden imposition of a new regime,
but out of slow evolution in which the original differences between Ghazi
warrior [who had strong Sufi tendencies] culture and the bookish ulama culture
were replaced by profound respect for them as holders of communal solidarity.
The Ghazis, and later the Ottomans, fought on behalf of the Moslem umma as a
whole, this the ulama represented. This reality gradually impressed itself upon
the state; e.g. Selim imposing Sunni orthodoxy [Hanafi School] and massacring
the Shi'as before Chalderan in order to enforce communalist conformity.
Under Sultan Suleyman the
Magnificent (1520-1566) or Qanuni, who presided over the empire in its classical
age, central institutions of the Sunni (Hanafi) jurisprudence were most
Under these circumstances, the
ulama gained great prestige and authority. Their training was lengthy, in order
to limit new comers to their ranks; they produced the empire's Qadis
and Muftis. The Grand Mufti of the realm resided in the capital
and was referred to as the Shaykh al-Islam; during period of state
weakness, this position became so strong that at points it was able to interfere
in politics and even dispose a Sultan.
But under normal circumstances,
when the state was still very strong, the ulama were closely integrated into the
state; their organization centered in Istanbul; their head could be dismissed at
will by the Sultan. Entering the ranks of the ulama, became a path of upward
mobility for those members of the old aristocracy who wished to reach high
positions in the state apparatus; this avenue was closed to the slaves.
Sultans issued Firmans
[decree or order] and created Qanun [law from Greek word Canon], but
within the sphere of Urf or precedent and Shrari'a. These laws were
decreed with respect for the Shari'a and Urf. It was to the ulama to certify
the law as consistent with the Shari'a; nevertheless, some of these laws did not
originate from the Shari'a tradition and it was to the ulama to find a way to
During Suleyman's rule, Abdul
Su'ud Khoja Chelabi (1490-1574) was the Shaykh al-Islam (1545 on) and had become
the greatest legal mind of the empire; he worked out a system whereby the
process of Shari'a accommodating the state was justified; of particular
importance in this case was the doctrine that Qadis derived their authority
only from the Sultan, and therefore were bound to apply the Shari'a according to