Updated: Apr 5, 2021
The Ottomans and Safavids as two distinct dynasties overlapped for the better part of the early modern period, issuing from the same tribal matrix, and displaying strong resemblances in their culture and political structure. In addition to geographic proximity and despite their sectarian differences—the Ottomans being Sunni and the Safavids Shiite—their fate was largely shaped by a common heritage: the crisis of authority in Islam in the post-Mongol period. The main question this paper grapples is what made the Ottomans and the Safavids so different despite these similarities.
The Ottomans were a relatively minor tribal power in Western Anatolia on the fringes of the Seljuk domain, the latter a vassal of the Mongol Ilkhans. They had been a beglik (Turkish principality) for about a hundred years . Similar to the political culture of the time, the Ottomans asserted a charismatic, sacral right to legitimize their rule, which means which means political power bestowed by God and evidenced by piety and military success. Osman Beg, a successful ghazi, waged several wars against local governors of Byzantium, and was the son-in-law of Shayk Edebali, a holy man in on e of the Sufi networks in Anatolia. According to Ashiqpashazade, Osman had a dream in which a holy light appeared from Edebali’s chest, and moved into that of Osman Beg. Aside from sacral kingship, Islamic political culture emphasized the so-called “circle of justice.” Accordingly, the ruler has to protect his subjects, which enables him to collect taxes, which, in turn, he uses to maintain his army . This was most likely the main motivation drove the actions of Ottoman Sultans during their administration. Yet it may be a mistake to observe the Ottomans solely as an Islamic state. The will of Sultan had an upper hand over the shariah for time to time, something related to the Mongolic heritage. Since in time of Genghis and his descendants, the khan was able to enact a law which he sees it fits or is required. Their personal charisma combined with sacral authority was their prime source to maintain a rule. Ottoman Sultan as the Khalifa had this charisma which helped him to create new laws in an extend which they even managed to violate sharia to form their elite shock troops, Janissary corps. Janissaries were the part of Sultan’s personal guards and central army also an instrument to create and sustain a more central state by cutting off the influence of nobility. Yet the reserve needed to create these units was provided by the manpower in the Balkans where Sultan’s non-muslim subjects were dominant. However the problem was these subjects were paying “Jizzya”, a religious tax payed by non-muslim groups to the treasury of the Islamic ruler, and by that they were protected by holy law and cannot be converted or forced to slavery. Janissaries in that sense considered to be the slave of Sultan and recruiting them from the people of Balkans was a direct violation of sharia which Sultans achieved to do elegantly and without any significant unrest.
Safavids were initially a Sufi tariqa rather than a tribe, which had recruits especially from Turkic clans. Originating as a Sunni (or at least Sunni alike) community, they adopted Shiism during the leadership of Shayk Junayd the grandfather of Ismail I. of Safavids. This change was the result of the goal to achieve a new political union in the area of Persia. Yet the one who managed to reach that aim was the Ismail of Safavids. He was considered the Messiah’s , the savior that will create a sacred rule of happiness, himself as some of clergy claimed to see dreams suggesting that. To consolidate his reign, he did follow the concept of circle justice by promoting Shiism in his empire with the exile of Sunni scholars and expansion in Eastern Anatolia, Iraq and today’s Iran. That also helped to create a stable and long-going imperial administration which will be improved by his successors. Ismail just like the Osman I. of Ottomans utilized from tribes, supported him to establish and extend a state. Yet Shah of Safavids, in following ages, concerned about the influence of these Shiite tribes (Qizilbashes) and decided to limit it by the formation of a slave army responds directly to the Shah and relies on his majesty to live on just like the Ottomans. “Ghulaman” (slave men) army of Shah, however, differs from Janissaries in one way as its manpower is supplied from non-islamic population of Caucasia, not from the subjects of Shah. This imperial army of palace recruited by the will of Shah Tahmasp I was a tool to reduce the increasing presence of Qizilbash nobility since the Shah preferred to assign these men to critical offices rather then giving a position of power to those who may resist to him. One other evident similarity of Safavids to the Ottomans is their appeal to the post-Mongol heritage. Shah’s word was the law that was certain but this was not just the case, the tradition of cavalryman and sports like hunting and polo were valued as much as the Ottomans maybe even more. Timurid traditions were surely followed, Shahs did write with Chagatai Turkish time to time and painted themselves to look like Mongols in minatures. In their Persinate empire, a strong presence of Turco-Mongol heritage is always felt.
In many ways the paths went by the Ottomans and Safavids in their creation of state was similar. They both desired to have the godly approval to form a legitimate basis and use Mongolic heritage and relied on the charisma of leader to ease the problems they encounter and enact the laws they need to administrate, centralize and expand their empires. A nomadic interpretation to religion was what enabled sovereigns to rule over religion in both of these empires. The household slave army was crucial to either of empires and reduction of other agents’ autonomy was wanted by both. In the end, they painted parallel portraits of an Islamic empire.