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Ottoman Empire, The

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Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition What is This? Depicts the historical development and present state of the world's major religions

    Ottoman Empire, The

    FROM OBSCURE BEGINNINGS at the end of the thirteenth century under a minor Turkish leader in northwest Anatolia called Osman I (hence the name of the dynasty: Osmanli, Ottoman), the Ottoman dynasty expanded from their base around Bursa, and came to control vast territories stretching from eastern Morocco to western Persia. Under Sultan Selim I ( r. 1512– 20 ), the annexation of Egypt and parts of Persia, which were major commercial and intellectual centres of Islam, marked a significant step in the history of the empire. Under Süleyman ( r. 1520– 66 ) the empire expanded further into Europe with the conquest of Hungary in 1526 . Three years later Ottoman forces besieged the Habsburg capital, Vienna. Even though, because of the approaching winter, the siege was lifted after three weeks, it resulted in the continued presence of Ottoman armed forces in the heart of Europe. A powerful navy was also created to oppose the Habsburg power and, under the leadership of the governor of Algeria, the Mediterranean came under Ottoman control.

    Ottoman Empire, The

    1. The Ottoman Empire 1512-1683

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    Under Süleyman the Ottoman administration achieved its classic form, dividing society into two main classes: a very small, basically Muslim ruling elite and a larger class of Muslim and non-Muslim subjects. Members of the elite were either from old Turkoman families, or ‘slaves’ recruited from Christian subjects through the devshirme (levy) recruitment system. This levy, introduced on a regular basis around the mid-fifteenth century, selected young men, carefully trained them for military or administrative service, educated them in Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish, and converted them to Islam. By the sixteenth century, they came to dominate key administrative and military positions. Some non-Muslims were also included in the Ottoman elite: from Greek Orthodox high clergy and wealthy Christian Balkan and Greek families to rich Jewish traders and bankers who had emigrated from Spain as a result of the 1492 expulsions.

    Religion in the Empire

    Muslim subjects were organized into several schools of law and Sufi orders, and, under a complex educational system, the state supported and controlled religious instruction. Sufi organizations were particularly important because of their role at a local, rural and popular level: they inspired warriors in battle, safeguarded travellers and pilgrims in hospices (tekke), and transmitted and kept alive literary and religious culture.

    Two Sufi orders were particularly influential: the Bekhtashis who, during the sixteenth century, were brought under state control by becoming the regular ‘chaplains’ of the Janissari (infantry) corps; and the Mevlevis, who played a principal part in the ceremonial investiture of the sultan. But state control of religious knowledge and Sufi orders eventually led to a loss of autonomy for religious organizations, which came to be identified with the Ottoman regime and its interests.

    Non-Muslim subjects were organized according to religious denomination and granted internal and localized self-government status under their own leaders, subject to payment of a poll-tax. The religious leaders were usually appointed by the Muslim government and were responsible for relations with the authorities but also for community disputes and local taxation. In official documents the main millet (‘religious community’) are identified as Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and, later, Roman Catholic and Jewish.

    Before the Turkish migrations of the thirteenth century, the vast majority of the population in Anatolia was Christian; by the end of the fifteenth century, 90 per cent had become Muslim. This was due to widespread Muslim immigration, but, above all, to the conversion of Christians to Islam. Such a successful rate of conversion can be traced back to the weakening of both the Byzantine state and the Greek Orthodox church. The consequent demoralization of the Christian population, and the breakdown of Anatolian society enhanced the appeal of Sufi missionaries. They presented Islam in terms of religious syncretism, and emphasized mutual beliefs as well as the high status of Jesus in Islam.

    Islam in the Balkans

    By contrast to Anatolia, after the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans during the fourteenth century, the majority of the population remained Christian. A census of 1520–30 reveals that 81 per cent of the overall Balkan population was Christian, with a high percentage of Muslims (45 per cent) concentrated in Bosnia. In a second wave of Islamization during the seventeenth century, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Crete witnessed a high percentage of conversions. At present, Islam is a majority religion in Albania, Bosnia and the Kosovo region of Serbia. Along with indigenous peoples who converted to Islam, Muslims in this area can also be traced back to Turkish-speaking settlers and Muslims from other regions of the Ottoman empire who arrived in the wake of the conquests. The majority of Muslims is Sunni of the Hanafi school, with some Shi'is (Alevis) in Bulgaria. The influence of the Sufi orders is also important, especially the Bekhtashiyah, a syncretistic egalitarian tariqa with strong Shi‘i features.

    Decline of the Empire

    By the 1792 Treaty of Jassy, the empire lost all its territories north of the Black Sea to Russia. In the west, after the second siege of Vienna in 1683 and the Ottoman retreat from an Austro-German-Polish army, the empire pulled back to its 1512 frontiers while, in other areas, many local rulers had become virtually independent.

    Ottoman Empire, The

    2. The Decline of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans

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    From the mid-nineteenth century the disintegration extended to parts of the Arabian peninsula and Egypt; Algeria was lost to the French and the Balkan provinces were fighting for their autonomy. By the end of World War One, as a result of the colonial expansion of Western powers, the Ottoman empire had lost its Arab provinces of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and the Yemen. In 1922 the Ottoman sultanate was abolished and the Turkish republic founded; two years later the last Ottoman caliph was deposed.

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