Response: Norman Itzkowitz’s “Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition” and Leslie Pierce’s “The Imperial Harem”

BradleyCollege Papers, Graduate Work, Religion, Reviews0 Comments

In Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition, Norman Itzkowitz presents an account of the period traditionally considered to be the rise of the Ottoman Empire. His account is complex, explaining that the ghazis weren’t driven by a purely religious zeal for the conquering of new territories, though that was certainly a part of it, but also for economic and psychological reasons (11). He explains the process by which new areas were incorporated into the empire and ends his book with an explanation of the Ottoman world view at the height of their power, thinking little of Europe and only then as a backward place of no consequence, which Itzkowitz claims resulted in a feeling of complacency reinforced by the Islamic abhorrence for bid’a, or innovation (105-107).

In the reading, I was struck by the fact that much of the land the Ottomans gained in Europe was done through a long process of vassalage and annexation. Even more so, I was surprised to see that many lords offered their allegiance to the Ottomans willingly, as in the case when Stephen Dushan died (14). Obviously there were still wars, but when compared with other empire builders, the Ottoman’s methods come across as more gradual, purposeful and efficient. If local lords were convinced they wanted to be a part of the empire, then there wasn’t as much chance of them quickly rebelling, though according to Itzkowitz’s account, there were plenty of times when land and cities were reconquered multiple times. I also found it to be very telling of the status of corruption in local Balkan governments, that the Orthodox church peasants often preferred Ottoman rule to Christian rule because the taxes were more fair. Reading modern ideas back into Ottoman times, I’ve heard people say that it wasn’t good to be a religious minority in the Ottoman empire, because no matter how good they were treated, they were still considered second class citizens, and treated as such, but if that’s the case, then how much worse were they treated by their governments prior to becoming Ottoman citizens? And was it really a bad move?

I found it interesting that the fact that some families tried to safeguard their positions by converting their lands into waqfs, which the sultan Mohammed II then began confiscating anyway (29). It made me wonder if there were different tax codes relating to property that was in waqf status, and if this was an ancient form of tax evasion that the sultan became aware of and tried to stop. Also, the author characterized Suleiman the Magnificent’s anti-Hapsburg alliance with France in the early-mid 1500s as being in the “ghazi spirit” (34). Was this stated in some primary source document? Or is this the author applying the complicated idea of what ghaza is that he developed to describe behavior in the early Ottoman period to the ongoing conflict for political and territorial gain in the 1500s?

Itzkowitz mentions that the period during which Kosem and Turhan were competing for power was known as “The Sultanate of the Women,” but I think Leslie Pierce would disagree and argue that this period began with Hurrem, almost a hundred hears earlier in the 1520s. Hurrem gained Suleiman’s undivided attention, causing him to break with tradition and give her multiple sons, marry her and move her into his palace.

Pierce’s descriptions of how sexuality and reproduction were used for political purposes was extremely detailed and extremely informative regarding the evolution of the nature of succession practices in the Ottoman empire. I found it extremely interesting that sexual control was exerted not just over women, as is popularly depicted, but also over men, to render them politically insignificant. It’s easy to see an essentially captive male offspring as unthreatening, but I think it was a bad solution to the problem of creating stability, because the confinement seemed to weaken the Ottoman line physically and mentally and almost led to its collapse. It’s odd to think that the Ottoman empire was saved by the sexual ability of a mentally retarded man who was the last living Ottoman male.

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