Political Legitimacy and Islam in the Ottoman Empire: Lessons Learned
Karen Barkey 14 July 2016

With the rise of Islamist parties and movements in the Middle East, the role of religion in the political legitimacy of rule needs further examination. In the transitions that many countries of the Middle East are undergoing political Islam has assumed an important role in politics, and religion has infused the public sphere. That religion has made a comeback and pushed againt the secularist and top-down impositions in these countries is not surprising or intriging. What is interesting and open for discussion is the degree to which religion is becoming the sole discourse of the transitions. If religion, as we already see, is an important source of political legitimacy in these transitions, then we have to question whether religion will be helpful in forging plural, tolerant democratic societes.

Can religion be an important part of political legitimacy and be at the same time a force for inclusion and pluralism? Can it help forge democratic nations within the context of local traditions and cultures, drawing on the indigenous and usable past that contains both religion and notions of justice and rights. The question is important since the tendency for religion to overpower the discourse and become the basis upon which people participate and obey the government runs contrary to pluralism and democracy. Therefore we need to look for historical examples especially in the Middle East, to rethink the role of religion as a source of political legitimacy, keeping an eye for diversity and its impact upon sources of legitimacy.

The main debates about the role of Islam are discussed in terms of the separation of religion and politics and Islam and plural and democratic rule. Much ink has been spilled on the question of the separation of religion and politics in Islam, especially since current extreme Salafi views display an intransigent and fused vision of shari’a and the state, where they see shari’a as potentially the basis for state law in Islamic societies. As extremist tendencies increasingly crowd the discourse of religion and politics in the countries of the Arab Spring, we need to reassert the historical, philosophical, and intellectual arguments for the separation of Islam and politics. [1] As we know from historians, religion and politics were fused during the time of Muhammed, yet after the Age of the Calips this synthesis disintegrated and was replaced by an increasing separation of the rulers from the legitimation of Islamic Law. Rulers who utilized Islam to legitimate their rule operated in a “secular” political space, while the ulema developed their own religious space where they flourished through their scholarship. Such a differentiation remained in force until the end of the Ottoman Empire, after which increasingly the ulema lost their independence. There is therefore a long history of the separation of state and religion in Islamic socities. Today there is a consensus that any system that emerges in the Middle East will have to forge democratic rule embedded in Islamic traditions and texts. It is therefore imperative to look at past examples of Islamic political legitimation where diversity, pluralism and Islam coexisted and worked together.

This paper is centered around the example of the Ottoman Empire, since its history offers a valuable example where religion was a significant source of the political legitimacy of empire, but in a particularly balanced and constrained fashion, allowing for diversity and toleration to be part of the public realm. That is religion was particularly meaningful to the empire as a source of identity and legitimation, yet it was neither the only foundation, nor the exclusive identity of the empire. As such it functioned as part of a larger set of social and political sources of legitimacy and identity. I explain how this position emerged and developed.

Political Legitimacy in Brief

According to Weber, a political system is legitimate when its participants have certain beliefs with regard to it: “the basis of every system of authority, and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey, is a belief, a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige” [2]. Here, people do not follow rule just out of fear or interest, but because they genuinely believe that they ought to obey. Seymour Martin Lipset uses a similar definition of legitimacy: “Legitimacy involves the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate or proper ones for the society.” [3] Legitimacy is relational. It is about relations between state and society, ruler and ruled and it has to speak to the majority of the people and it needs to be about effective rule.

When applying these concepts to the context of the Ottoman Empire, Hasan Karateke differentiates between normative legitimacy, what a state or a ruler ought to do to be legitimate and factual legitimacy, the actual workings on the ground, by states to foster belief. [4] Normative legitimacy in pre-modern monarchical systems is based on traditional notions of divine rule and heredity. The workings of religion as a source of legitimacy are both in the normative aspects and in the activities that remind subjects/citizens of the religiosity of the ruler or the religious nature of state institutions.

The simplest manner in which Islamic states have asserted religious legitimacy was by claiming ancestry with the Prophet, finding direct linkages between the ruler and the Prophet. The office of the Caliph historically emerged with the most direct and natural claim to the legitimacy derived from ancestry with the prophet. The Caliph was the “successor of the Prophet”, and as such since Muhammed’s death was responsible for articulating his wishes in the world and therefore was separate from the mere political rulers. As such, the Caliph demanded obedience based on his religious legitimacy. The early Islamic empires, the Umayads and the Abbasids emphasized the religious nature of their authority by claiming to be the legitimate heirs of the Prophet. While at the time of the Caliphs, political and religious legitimacy were seen as fused in the person of the Caliph, during the later periods this fusion started to separate into two distinct spheres. Ira Lapidus argues that it was in the 9th century that this separation emerged as the Caliphs started putting more emphasis on their political legitimacy and as the ulema developed into a separate religious class, claiming autonomy from the Caliphs. [5] According to Patricia Crone while the early Caliphs (632-833) enjoyed religious and political authority, when in the 9th century the ulema developed into a group claiming to be the sole interpreters of religious law, the religious claims of the caliphs started to be repudiated. [6]

Ottoman Religion and Political Legitimacy

In the Ottoman context, there was no such claim to the genealogy of the Prophet, though the Sultan claimed the right to rule by divine intervention. Claims to the Caliphate are complicated for the Ottomans since they were not from the tribe of the Prophet and because they started as the rulers of a predominantly Christian population. Even when they conquered the Arab lands and acquired a stronger Islamic identity, they were more interested in the title of protector or “servant of the two sacred cities,” rather then Caliph. [7] In Islamic empires, religion is part of political legitimacy when the ruler is able to expand, maintain and protect the realm and fight the enemies of Islam. In the Ottoman case, the trope of the”victorious sultan” who fought the Europeans and brought dignity and supremacy to the Muslims through Holy War represented an important part of the religious legitmacy of the empire. Beyond enlarging the realm of Islam, the sultan also demonstrated his own religiosity by engaging in public rituals, such as Friday prayers, and care for the subjects’ religious needs by providing services and welfare. A series of rituals inside and outside the palace attested to the religious nature of Ottoman rule and conveyed to the populace the Sultan was following God and His Prophet. Such sources of legitimacy are seen as factual and empirical forms that derive from the actions and the beliefs of the rulers. [8]

While religious imperatives sustained normative and factual forms of legitimacy, religion remained one among different sources of political legitimacy. The Ottoman empire managed to balance the forces of religion and the forces of “secular” political legitimation in a careful coexistence of sorts. The particular trajectory of the Ottomans, the special mixing of Turkic Central Asian and Islamic and Christian traditions, the duality between religious and secular law, the tremendous diversity of religions and ethnicities on the ground as well as the distinct education of the Ottoman official all contributed to the formation of a polity where religion could not become the sole source of political legitimation and where religion was subordinated to the administrative needs of the state. The resulting Ottoman form of political legitimacy was much more expansive; it appealed as much to the Muslim as the non-Muslim peoples of the empire, refraining from the imposition of an absolute creed or understanding of one religion, one completely unified and cohesive system. To understand the particularities of the Ottoman system and how they suceeded in shaping a plural, tolerant and relatively moderate society we need to look at the historical conditions of emergence that forged a multi-faceted legitimacy, the structural conditions of state and religious relations, the established dualities of the system that never allowed a monological form of political legitimacy.

The Ottoman Empire has been labeled an Islamic empire, though neither the shari’a (religious law) nor the ulema (religious learned men) were at the helm of the state. Part of Ottoman legitimacy was obtained through Islam, and Ottoman Islam remained distinct for centuries. In the words of Ocak: “Ottoman Islam bestowed sacredness on the concept of sovereignty and, at the same time, performed an active function by providing a means of governing.” [9] Islam was a source of political legitimacy and the sultans were very careful to both demonstrate their Islamic credentials and use the language of Islam to legitimate their policies and activities. Yet, Ottoman Islam was more then a religion and a religious affiliation; it was an integral part of the system of rule, subordinated to the state, used to develop the institutions of the state and administer the various functions of the state.

The particular conditions of emergence forced certain patterns and institutional behaviors, generating the legal framework and the multiple dualities established into state domination. The legitimacy of the rising state was constructed upon a foundation of incorporation, and istimalet, accomodation for all, Christians and Muslims alike, making a single Islamic framework less likely. The immediate historical conditions of Asia Minor in the 12th and 13th centuries were such that because of rapid expansion and lack of adequate manpower, the Ottoman state was constructed as a hybrid one where Christians were as necessary and welcome as Muslims, and where Islam was one among many other forces of imperial emergence and engagement. [10] The empire builders were as likely to use Islam as their past Central Asian experiences and practices while brokering across religious, ethnic and economic groups. Beyond Islam the Turkish-Mongolian origins of the conquerors with their experience in the vast space from China to the Pontic steppes with all kinds of religions and different ethnicities also shaped their view of inter-group relations. The porous borderlands between Christianity and Islam, the patterns of intermarriage, the common appropriation of religious symbols and imagery point towards fluid boundaries, multicultural settings, and multivocal understandings that Claude Cahen describes as ‘the convictions and the behaviors of the ghazis could co-exist with a religious tolerance superior to anything found elsewhere in Islam.” [11]

Early Ottomans were not boundary conscious and in fact, they exhibited a strong syncretic religious understanding favored by a heterodox form of Islam. They also strategized that conquerors should practice a policy of istimalet, that is an attempt to make the indigenous population look upon them favorably by offering incentives, promising generosity and concessions such as permissions to retain lands and resources.[12] The legitimacy of the early Ottoman state was then based on factual constructions that showed populations more pragmatic, negotiated and tolerant policies, and built their rightfulness by reflecting the peoples on the ground.

Islam gained prominence in the empire only after traditionally Islamic territories were appropriated in the sixteenth century. The Ottoman-Safavid crisis starting in the 16th century drove rulers to increasingly define themselves in more orthodox ways, in terms of Sunni Islam (especially as it meant opposition to Safavid Shi’ism). Selim I (1512-1520) fought against the Safavids, and the Mamluks, incorporating the latter, and in the process acquiring Egypt, Syria, Mecca and Medina, the Holy places of Islam, and thereby securing the transfer of the Caliphate to the Ottoman empire. Yet Selim I was less interested in the title of Caliph then he was in his role as the protector of the two sacred cities, a stronger, more tangible source of legitimacy. The addition of important Arab territory and sites of Islamic culture was to transform the identity and over time, the result would be the construction of “the other” in religious terms and a gradual move away from a comfortable multi-religiosity and the stronger need to demonstrate more Islamic piety, religious commitment and ideology.

Yet, even then, the structure of state-religion relations promoted both diversity and adaptability. The diversity of law maintained multiple sources of legitimacy. The sultanate in the empire wielded supreme sway since absolute obedience to the sovereign meant that in this case, religious law was subordinated to the state. Since Ottomans did not establish the empire within a formal body of Islamic law, initial decision-making was based on the sultan and his immediate associates, the Turkish traditions of Central Asia, the yasa, and customary law, as a repertoire of local knowledge about how everyday business should be carried out.  This was similar to the early application of multiple codes of law by the Umayyad kadis, representatives of the Caliph, who did their best with the existing Islamic legal code as well as those already existing in the areas of conquest, Roman law, and Arab tribal traditions.

By the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Sultan’s claim to legitimacy was that he was the source of law; his power to make law in the empire was closely related to the Ottoman need to ensure justice and order in the realm. As such, the Ottoman system would differentiate itself from other Islamic polities where rulers had no opportunity to legislate beyond the shari’a. [13] Mehmed II (1451-81), initiated and Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-66) ensured that customary laws were codified and strengthened into the kanun —basically the secular laws of the realm that dealt with all the relations between subjects, officials and the state. Every sultan re-enacted these laws and in the absence of a legislative council, these laws were sultanic laws to be enforced by the sultan for the sultan. Therefore, though according to Islam there can be no other law than shari’a, the Ottomans contradicted such a dictate by opening up the way for the legislative power of the sultan to promulgate “secular” law.

Ottoman justice based on both Islamic and dynastic law was exercised by the religious and administrative authorities of the empire and the two were welded together or separated out of local necessity. [14] Shari’a, which Ottomans understood more as a path, a way to apply God’s will as interpreted by different schools of Islamic learning, was mainly used in controlled fields such as family and personal law. The fields of land tenure, criminal law and taxation were much less developed in the Shari’a, making the kanun more appropriate to deal with those cases. In fact, in the kanun we find many places where Shari’a law is reiterated, but we also find independent rulings. One scholar of Ottoman Islam puts it in the following manner: “ It [kanun] is a confirmation of the shari’a, but also in a sense, a violation of it, in as much as the Shari’a is God-given.” [15] In everyday practice kanun and Shari’a worked together used to moderate between circumstances, choose the best available path to peace and security and justice.

The best example of this mélange concerns interest, forbidden in Islam. Ottoman law openly and brazenly violated this and allowed for the charging of interest, and the discussion of such cases in Islamic courts. The kanun of Süleyman allowed charging interest of no more than 10%. [16] In everyday practice, the workings of the Shari’a courts show clearly that magistrates were equally adept at interpreting both religious and sultanic law, press for local custom and precedent when necessary and allow each source of legal wisdom to function as independently from the other. [17] During the reign of Sultan Süleyman, the Seyh-ül-Islam Ebu Suud Efendi went further than any other Ottoman seyh-ül-islam in his incorporation of innovation into the Shari’a. In his fetvas he showed the strong imprint of state aims with regard to the workings of shari’a court and law. For example, the law regarding Islamic endowments (waqf) was that they should not be based on moveable property to ensure their durability. However, the practice of cash waqfs spread throughout the Ottoman empire in the 15th century and this was an accepted practice. When asked to rule on this, Ebu Suud Efendi basically reiterated the point that if this was a widely practiced behavior than it was to be permissible. Similarly a Sufi scholar accepted the practice because “it better suited the conditions of the people of our time in their religious and worldly affairs, as well as the opinions of the majority of the scholars of the time and their predecessors.” [18] As Gerber concludes “…eminent Ottoman religious leaders in the sixteenth century were not primarily detached religious theoreticians, but men of state with public and societal responsibilities and commitments.” [19] The take away from this long period of this balance between religious and “secular” forces of the law is the adaptability, flexibility of the shari’a when it became necessary to adapt to local conditions. Especially, for the historical period under consideration, the diversity of world views that such adaptation implied remains exceptional.

The existence of Christians and Jews from the very emergence of the Ottoman state and the need to incorporate these groups into the polity and society made for toleration, but also ensured that it was not only Muslims that would believe the ruler to be legitmate, but also non-Muslims. We referred to the policies of istimalet (accomodation) and the efforts made by the Sultans to incorporate non-Muslims into the early polity. As non-Muslims made up a large segment of the population of the empire, they were also key to imagining a legitimate Ottoman order. As such, a reliance only on Islamic markers of legitimacy would have been deficient. That the Ottomans were truly aware of the need for a legitimate order beyond Islam is demonstrated by the serious attempts to build a tolerant and just order for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. That is given the principles of the Pact of Umar about how non-Muslims should live in Muslim lands, Ottomans made the effort to incorporate Jews and Christians into the polity. After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II claimed descendance from the Komnenian dynasty, a noble Byzantine dynasty, thereby expanding his legitimacy beyond his Muslim population to the Greeks. [20] Even more, Sultans from then on, claimed to unite plural cultures, and to spread their civilization. They “styled themselves as Kaysar (Ceasar), Basileus (King- the primary title used by the Byzantine Emperors), Padisah-i Konstantiniye (Emperors of Constantinople), and as Padisah-I Rum (Emperors of the Romans), titles which clearly underline a belief in their role as inheritors of universal power.” [21] In 1466 Mehmed II was so hailed: “Nobody doubts that you are the emperor of the Romans. A ruler who controls the center of the empire is the emperor of that empire, and Istanbul is the center of the Roman empire.” [22]

In order to expand on their legitimacy and ensure the continuing obedience of non-Muslims, Ottomans built a diverse and tolerant society based on the simultaneous division and integration of communities into the state, while providing them with internal autonomy to organize and lead their peoples in their own traditional ways. Given these organizational and structural features of rule of non-Muslims (millet system), Sultans engaged in overt, public demonstrations of the importance of non-Muslim communities for the maintenance of a legitimate and just order. Karateke cites a document, for example, that provides some insight into the response by Christians to the visit of Mehmed II visiting a church: “My fellow residents in Pera told me that he [Mehmed II] entered their church (St. Dominicus) and took a seat in the choir to observe the ceremony and the manner of the worship service. At his request they also celebrated a Mass in his presence… He discussed the laws and rites of the Christians with them as well, and, when he heard that the churches were headed by bishops, he even desired that a bishop be appointed for the care of the Christians and promised to do everything in his power to provide his unlimited assitance . But how could anyone who learned from afar of his wars and victories, of the great size of his army, and of his fame and majesty imagine him to possess such simple frankness, or, if he did hear of it, not admire it?” [23] Such statements from various community members and leaders points towards the construction of a larger basis of legitimacy.

Finally, the particular education of the Ottoman kul-servant, the patrimonial subject/official bureaucrat of the empire through the Palace Enderun School and the few other Istanbul schools educated and produced individuals with broad world-views and not just Islamic scholars. The tradition of adab that is not well recognized is at the basis of the construction members of the elite that had the tools and understanding to think much more widely then just Islamic law and legitimation.[24] The particular history of the Ottomans, their emergence from a multi-ethnic setting, their dependence on and compatibility with Byzantine Christians, the relative tolerance of Ottoman Islam as well as the mediated sources of legitimacy helped maintain an institutionally flexible system that provided for domestic and political peace.

Lessons from History

The example of Ottoman statecraft, with the multiethnic, multi-religious pluralism that it allowed, and the delicate balancing act between religious and non-religious sources of political legitimation remains inspirational today. A discussion of contemporary Turkey cannot be conducted without serious attention to the themes of religion, politics, democracy and nationalism, and how this can be done in the context of its Ottoman past. The lessons of the Ottomans are critical for the post Arab Spring nations of the Middle East.

The Ottoman empire demonstrates that there is a usable past, an example of a traditional Muslim culture—an example of a society in the past where although religion was very important, it nonetheless did not operate single-handedly to regulate every aspect of life; it was maintained within a balance of forces that produced both sultanic, non-religious legislation and religious law. Given that religion was one of the main organizing principles of Ottoman society and that Shari’a is based on the notion that God’s will should control all aspects of life, the Ottoman outcome shows that it was possible to have both religious and sultanic laws and principles that governed the conduct of public life. There were at many points in history those who would have wanted the ruler to organize every aspect of life around an orthodox interpretation of the founding texts, yet, the extreme views remained contested and controlled. They never became the sole and the only genuine expression of faith in the Empire. A variety of views were available and representative of segments of the populations. [25]

It is only in the last century of the Empire that views on religious orthodoxy hardened and the loss of international power and legitimacy made the Ottoman Sultan more likely to use Islam as a form of reaffirmation of identity, especially as the percieved threat of the west grew. [26] Even then religion never became the only game in town. Islamism in its more dogmatic and essentialist form was confronted with another reform movement, Ottomanism, faithful to earlier Ottoman principles of multi-ethnic, multi-religious state and society, an Islamic tradition that emphasized pluralism and openness and an attention and connection to the west that was never antithetical to Ottoman politics. The proponents of Ottomanism saw the future in the combination of what was best about the Ottomans and Islam and the best ideas of western thinkers with regard to constitutionalism, parliament, democracy, justifying them, making them their own within the Islamic notions of justice, freedom and consultation. We know that this attempt was fraught with difficulties and collapsed under the weight of increasingly fervent nationalism, wars and the establishement of the modern Republic.

The Ottoman example does not represent the liberal notions of complete equality and representation, but instead represents committed efforts to find a common ground among groups of different religious and cultural background. It represents a past that both the religious and the secular activists can claim and the institutional flexibility that was built into the system that can only facilitate contemporary thinking on democratic institutions.

Karen Barkey is the Haas Distinguished Chair of Religious Diversity at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and a Professor of sociology at University of California, Berkeley. She was previously a Professor of sociology and history at Columbia University where she was the Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life.

A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2013 that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University in May 2013.

The final/definitive version of Karen Barkey’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 40 number 4-5 2014, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 469-478, Special Issue: “From the Erosion of the Nation-State to the RIse of Political Islam: Sources of Political Legitimacy”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2013, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/40/4-5.toc


[1] There have been many reviews of this literature. See for example, Nader Hashemi, “The Multiple Histories of Secularism: Muslim Socities in Comparison,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 2010 36:325-338.

[2] Max Weber. 1964. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Talcott Parsons (ed.), New York: Free Press, 382.

[3] Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Devel- opment and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53 (March 1959): 69–105 (86).

[4] Hakan Karateke, “Legitimizing the Ottoman Sultanate,” in Hakan Karateke and Maurus Reinkowski, Eds., Legitimizing the Order: The Ottoman Rhetoric of State Power (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005), pp. 18-19.

[5] Ira Lapidus, “State and Religion in Islamic Societies,” Past and Present, No. 151 (May, 1996), pp. 363-385.

[6] Patricia Crone, Slaves on Horses: The Evolution of the Islamic Polity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); with Martin Hinds, God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[7] Karateke, “Legitimizing the Ottoman Sultanate”, 30.

[8] Ibid. 118

[9] Ahmet Yaşar Ocak, “Islam in the Ottoman Empire: A Sociological Framework for a New Interpretation.” International Journal of Turkish Studies, 2003: 188.

[10] Karen Barkey, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[11] Claude Cahen, Pre-ottoman Turkey: a general survey of material and spiritual culture and history, c. 1071-1330 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1968): 203

[12] Halil Inalcik, “Ottoman Methods of Conquest,” Studia Islamica III (1954): 103 129; and Halil Inalcik, “The Status of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch under the Ottomans,” Turcica (1991): 407-37.

[13] Karateke, Legitimizing the Order.

[14] Haim Gerber, Islamic Law and Culture 1600–1840 Vol. 9. Studies in Islamic Law and Society, (Leiden: Brill 1999).

[15] Gerber, State, Society and Law in Islam: Ottoman Law in Comparative Perspective (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994) p. 63.

[16] Ibid., 73-75.

[17] Gerber, Islamic Law and Culture.

[18] Ibid.,103.

[19] Ibid, 104.

[20] Karateke, “Legitimazing the Ottoman Sultanate.”

[21] Heath W. Lowry, The Nature of the Early Ottoman State (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), p. 139.

[22] Cited in Halil Inalcik, “An Overview of Ottoman History,” p. 41 in The Great Ottoman-Turkish Civilization vol I (Ankara: Balkan Ciltevi, 2000)

[23] Quoted in Karateke, “Opium for the Subjects? Religiosity as a Legitimizing Factor for the Ottoman Sultan,” pp. 111 to 129 in Legitimizing the Order. Here p. 125.

[24] Tolga Kobas, PhD dissertation, in Progress.

[25] I have written extensively about the alternative religious beliefs and discourses as well as the variety of religious organizational forms in Empire of Difference.

[26] Selim Deringil, The Well Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876-1909 (Oxford & New York: I.B Tauris Publishers, 1998).



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