Rise of the Ottomans

The Ottoman Empire expanded under its Sultan Selim I who ruled from 1512 to1520. But it was his son Sultan Suleyman under whom the Ottoman Empire really reached its zenith. Building on the conquests of his father, Sultan Suleyman developed great cities, military machines, a lasting culture and a famous empire. The entire history and greatness of the Ottoman Empire hinges round this one individual who was almost a mythical figure in his brilliance and dignity. Called the 'law-maker' in Islamic history and 'The Magnificent' in Europe, Suleyman ruled with dignity and fairness according to the Ottoman political theory.

In the Ottoman state, the absolute power rested with the monarch whose central function was to guarantee justice, or 'adala' in Arab. 'Adale' here meant justice not only according to the western notions, it meant protecting the poor and the helpless from corrupt officials and predatory governance like unfair taxation or corrupt magistracy.

The Sultan had a central bureaucracy, led by the Grand Vizier, to govern the Empire. But he also had the personal authority to overturn the verdicts of the courts if he felt the decisions were unjust. This absolute authority did not put the Sultan above law - rather he was designated as the keeper of a just and lawful government.

The Sultan was also given the title of caliph, the supreme leader of Islam. This title was claimed by the Ottomans asa the two holy cities of Muslim pilgrimage, Mecca and Medina were part of the Ottoman Empire and the responsibility of protecting the Muslims of the world fell on them.

The Sultan had various methods of keeping a watch on all the officials and ensuring a fair rule. Sometimes it required his personal involvement and he would secretly observe the proceedings of the 'diwan' or the ulama courts. Often he toured the local governments in disguise, but for the most part there was a wide network of spies that reported to the central authority.

Among the other measures was the enforcement of the Siyasa. This was a set of severe punishments, even death penalty, meted out to those corrupt officials who abused their power and took advantage of the common man. Laws and taxes were publicly declared by the Sultan through a 'firman' or notice so that public officials could not arbitrarily levy taxes.

The centralized authority was always accessible to the public so that the Imperial courts could be approached for grievances against government officials. Great importance was also attached to public opinion on the government. The first opinion polls were perhaps conducted by the Ottomans by observing the devotees at the Friday prayers where the people prayed for the welfare and life of the ruler.

The only haphazard aspect of the Ottoman Turkish history is the succession rules. When Suleyman became old, his two sons plotted to overthrow him and gain access to the crown. The crown did not pass from father to son or the next oldest brother but to the most worthy successor. As a result, there was always a struggle for the crown. Once an heir was crowned, the other contenders were killed to restore order and eliminate competition. This barbaric practice was later replaced by making the eldest son the heir-designate and keeping him insulated in luxurious imprisonment. Because of this when the prince finally rose to the throne he was either alcoholic or a lunatic.