Part II | The Decline of the Ottoman Empire

Part I | Part II



From the political front unrest was found both in the provinces and in the elite Janissaries. The Janissaries, who comprised of young Christian boys being conscripted into the dervishme system, were trained to be officers, governors and soldiers. This method of strict discipline and rigorous training provided the government with skilled workers and was the key tool in early Ottoman success. However, the Janissaries who were once part of the most revered army in the world had become militarily ineffectual by the end of the 18th Century. The Crimean Tartars served as a support for this decay however as mentioned above, in 1774 when Crimea became independent they left the army.

The success in the Janissaries lied in their strict obedience to the Sultan, however; their ability to live on military salaries faded due to the costs of warfare and inflation. The government could no longer pay them a sufficient salary, which led them to violate the Janissary principle of only being a soldier and celibacy. They integrated into the urban class and became butchers, bakers, porters, craftsman; many owned coffee shops.[21]They married and their children were recruited and replaced the peasant boys in the divershime recruitment rounds, the last of these rounds being in 1703.[22] Thus by the early 18th century the Janissary corps were hereditary and urban in origin, so as Hourani says “their exclusive loyalties had broken down”.[23]

Due to their proximity to the Sultan and their elite status this had a catastrophic political impact. They had the power to make and break rulers as seen when they denied Sulayman the Magnificent’s son Selim the throne until he paid them extra money.[24] Their integration within the urban classes gave the urban class a voice and power to object. Moreover, as the Janissaries became a hereditary corps – precisely what the prohibition of marriage rule wanted to prevent – this created an elite-popular urban class who had power to overthrow viziers and officials on behalf of the popular classes or due to intra-elite quarrels. It was for this reason in 1826 that Sultan Mahmud II killed and captured them to silence their voices and stabilize the Empire.

Unrest also lay within the province itself. The balance of power shifted from the Sultan to the viziers. At the end of the 17th Century the centre of decisions shifted from the Dome Chamber in the Palace to the Sublime Porte which was the vizier’s house.[25]  However; Hourani asserts this could not change the situation, as the vizier’s role was weak and could be easily dismissed by the Sultan, thus no radical changes were possible. Throughout the 17th and 18th Century the power shifted further into the local elites, decentralizing the system further.

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The local elites always played a crucial role in the government and were loyal to the Sultan in providing taxes and recruits for the army. Quartaret claims this was due to the 1695 tax farming system where the government granted the right to collect taxes for a particular land in exchange for cash payments to the treasury. This ensured the central state maintained some control over the local elites as they could remove this lucrative privilege. However, the rising cost of wars and the inability for the government to pay cash back caused the local elites to keep the taxes for themselves. As we saw, above four fifths of the state revenue failed to reach the central government in 1789.

Quartaret emphasizes the lack of economic contingency for the cause of decentralization, but Lieven and Hourani assert this was largely down to ineffective leaders chosen by a hereditary process.[26] It seems that even though the quality of the leaders had declined, they did not simply sit back and watch the Empire fall apart. The leaders tried to modernize the system to try and salvage what was left. For example after the humiliating defeat and the treaties of Karlowitz (1699) and Passarowitz (1718) the Grand Vizier, Damad Ibrahim Pasha, sent an ambassador in 1719 to Paris with instructions to make a thorough study of the means of civilization and education.[27] In 1731, the Grand Vizier, Topal Osman Pasha hired a French nobleman to reform the Bombardier Corps on European lines. In 1734, a new training centre, the school of geometry was opened. The Janissaries found out and forced its closure, however; it re-opened again in 1773.[28] This and many other attempts of reform, such as the Tanzimat and Ghul Hane decree, show that the leaders were not inactive. However; it was the additional external economic factors and the ideological factors which hindered any of these reforms to have a substantial effect.


The Ottomans began with a strong ideology; Islam. Islam was defined against the Christian West; it affirmed its many beliefs, but completed the line of Prophethood hence perfected and cleansed it from its adulteration over time. This view was crystallized with the destruction of the Byzantine Empire and the capture of Constantinople. Therefore the Christian West was inferior from every aspect – militarily, socially and above all religiously. This concept of superiority which at first served well for the empire was by time its ultimate cause of destruction. The sense of pride and fear of adulteration prevented them from taking the Western seeds of discovery and allowing them to flourish in the Muslim lands.

A good example of this was the length of time it took for the printing press to become widespread within the Empire. As Lewis says, “the most important technical innovation from Europe outside the military field was undoubtedly printing”[29] The Turks knew about the printing press since the 14th Century but only adopted it in the 18th Century. The delay was due to religious conservatives skeptical of European inventions and its evil effects in society.

Both the Janissaries in 1826 and the Mamluks in 1805 were massacred by the rulers for this very purpose – to clear the way for reformation. The fact that these brutal massacres had to take place to prevent uprisings against modernization and reform shows the superiority of culture, which was prevalent at that time.

Moreover, loyalty to the Sultan suffered greatly from two movements – Wahhabism and Nationalism. In the 18th Century a more conservative religious strand began in Arabia known as Wahhabism. They believed that the Islam the Sultan protected was not the “true” Islam and thus he was not the “true” leader of the Muslim Ummah. The movement spread with Ibn Saud taking Wahhab’s ideology of “true Islam” and he conquered central Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Karbala and Hejaz.[30] They wanted the caliphate to be an Arab as “the Arabs were more worthy of it than the Turks.”[31]

The ideas of the French Revolution infected the Empire – in particular Egypt, which was invaded by Napoleon in 1798. The French left quickly but not before sowing the seeds of nationalism through their propaganda. They spread the message of the Turks ruining Egypt by their greed and the idea that the French will free them. Napoleon said, “It has been said to you that I have only come to this country in order to destroy your religion. This is a clear lie; do not believe it. Say to the slanderers I have come to rescue you from the hands of the oppressors.”[32] The Egyptians were not pleased with non-Muslim rule, however; the hatred towards the Turks developed. Mohammad Ali came into power in 1805 and while he still gave allegiance to the Sultan and supported him in battles, such as the Greek revolt and the Wahhabi revolt, they controlled their own internal affairs and as mentioned above kept their revenues within Egypt.



In conclusion, militarily, economically, politically and ideologically the Ottoman Empire declined from the reign of Sulayman the Magnificent. These factors were of course intertwined, which was why when reforms were made in one aspect the other factors stifled progress. Due to the influx of wealth from the New World they advanced both militarily and economically with the industrial revolution. Even if the Janissaries had not revolted and adopted their advance methods, the industrial revolution and the shift in global trade would have starved the empire from the financial means to survive. The strong ideology which at one point was the impetus to rival and take over the Byzantine Empire became the very reason not to adapt and take from the “inferior” Christian West. Hence the Ottomans were locked in an inextricable knot, thus divide and conquer were inevitable.


Freeman, Edward. The Ottoman Power in Europe.

Smith, Dan. The state of the Middle East.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age.

Quartaert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire.

J Shaw, Stanford. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey Vol 1.

Mann, Michael. The Sources of Power.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey.

Lieven, Dominic. Empire.

Marcus, Abraham. The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity: Aleppo in the Eighteenth century.

Barkey, Karen. Bandits and Bureaucrats: Ottoman Route to State Centralization.


[21] Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, page 45

[22] Ibid page 45

[23] Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page 35

[24] Donald Quataret, The Ottoman Empire, page 45

[25] Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page 35

[26] Dominic Lieven, Empire, page 146, Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page 35

[27] Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, page 46

[28] Ibid page 48

[29] Ibid page 50

[30] Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, page 37

[31] Ibid page 37

[32] Ibid page 50

22 / View Comments

22 responses to “Part II | The Decline of the Ottoman Empire”

  1. Umm Sulaim says:

    Ok. I deliberately read the whole article this time, eagerly waiting for the blame to be piled on the ‘wahhabis’, which did not occur.

    Umm Sulaim

    • hira says:


      Jazak Allah Khair for your response.

      The discussion surrounding the “wahhabis” is not about the actual doctrine in and of itself (in fact if some people call me a wahhabi due to certain institues I attend! lol). It is to illustrate how certain groups adopted different versions of Islam and more importantly how that created factions within the ummah which ultimately led to the decentralisation of the government and ideology. The main lesson from the “wahhabi” incident is that Muslims should remain united. Doctrinal issues are important but should be put aside when it comes to unity as a whole as it has dire consequences.

      Today there are soo many sufi/salafi conflicts- we need to wake up and realise there are bigger problems than this. We should have healthy debates on these issues and open dialogue but at the end of the day unity must trump all these differences.


      • Umm Sulaim says:

        On ‘adopting different versions of Islam’, how many ‘versions’ of Islam existed at the inception of Ibn Abdul-Wahhab/ As-Saud alliance? Quite many, to the extent there were four different prayers for each Salat at the Masjid Al-Haram, not to mention the grave worship at the Masjid An-Nabiyy.

        None of these got the ‘honor’ of being called distasteful names.

        And if that led to the decentralisation of power, why did I not read a similar obnoxious name for Muhammad Ali’s action?

        Umm Sulaim

      • Mehdi Sheikh says:

        Doctrinal differences is the very reason the ummah split up in the first place. First the Khawaarij, Then the Shiaa, then the Mu’tazilis and so on. The only thing this “wahhabi” group wants is the emilination of doctrines that don’t comply with the one Rasoolullah and his companions were upon.

        How is a believer in Tawheed supposed to unite with someone who is inclined to grave-worship and saint veneration?

        Unity is not a nominal issue, it has to be real.

        • Hira says:

          I completely agree, unity has to be real and not nominal.

          The question is: would you unite with another Muslim who is inclined towards grave worship OR leave him alone (and by default be alone yourself) for both to be easily conquered?

          Secondly, Abdul Wahhab (may Allah have mercy on him) was a scholar and was involved in preaching to the people. However his doctrine was taken up by other leaders for political use and political power. So it is not just doctrinal issues here, politics and power plays a heavy hand in this. Politics and religion is always messy!


          • Umm Sulaim says:

            Do you say that Islam is alien to politics or vice versa? Or that Islam in politics is ‘messy’?

            The more you respond, the worse your comments get.

            Umm Sulaim

          • Hira says:

            Of course Islam and politics go hand in hand. My comment was merely stating that religion and politics is messy as you really have to have fear of Allah in order to be an honest politician and do what is best for the people. Unfortunately nowadays religion is used as a political tool to moblise the masses and legitimise themselves as leaders.


  2. saadi says:

    Would have been nice if this article also studied the empire through muslim eyes (references). There is a very negative light of the ottomans, seemingly influenced by the references to orientalists such as bernard lewis to this study.

  3. Looks like the Ottomans were at their peak under Suleiman the Magnificent, and then immediately floundered. No money (unable to pay the soldiers), no modernization (due to distrust of foreigners), other rising powers and moral decay of the rulers. Sounds very similar to a lot of downfall of civilizations.
    — Mezba

  4. Omer says:

    “The Turks knew about the printing press since the 14th Century but only adopted it in the 18th Century. The delay was due to religious conservatives skeptical of European inventions and its evil effects in society.”

    Any evidence of this? If this is the case the implications are major if we are to learn from our past.

    • hira says:

      Yes this was the reason- it was banned for all at first since it was seen as the “work of the devil” and the rules were relaxed in stages. Firstly only Jews/Christians were allowed to print, then if I remember correctly non-Islamic books were allowed, and then finally Islamic books were allowed. This is written in many history books- I am sure you will find it if you look into the history of the printing press.

      Major implications- Yes! Some historians (and Sh. Y.Qadhi) even say this was one of the greatest errors of the Ottomans as this was the time when the Europeans caught up. They were studying and advancing whilst the Ottomans were stagnant.

      • abu_zuhaira says:

        references please. Seems very odd, that the printing press technology was shunned which would allude that printed materials were not produced from the ottoman empire.

        • mw_m says:

          Sh. Yasir gave a lecture about this recently and he stated the same thing. Under penalty of death, it was illegal to posses a printing press in the ottoman state.

      • Mehdi Sheikh says:

        This is what happens when you leave off ijtihaad and follow the ulema of the Muqallidoon. Sad.

        I can never imagine the likes of Ibn Taimiyya or Imaam Nawawi saying such weird things, when they were so prolific in their writing.

        Truth is that Islaam under the Ottomans was a stagnant thing and it continues to be a stagnant thing among many nations today whose people are dependant on blind-following mullahs and don’t have ulema capable of ijtihaad.

        I remember being told that when the US landed on the moom, some mollah’s warned against this cause “It was competing with Allaah”. This is what happens when you are preoocupied with opinions and not with real knowledge of the deen.

      • Ibn Abdullah says:

        JazakALLAH Khair for your articles. On this point I wish to point out that this matter is not that black and white. While you are correct that the Ottomans (and more importantly, the ‘ulama) were reluctant to adopt inventions by the kuffar, part of the reason for the delay in adopting the printing press was because printing arabic script was much, much more complicated then printing latin script, as was practiced by the rest of Europe. We need to take this into account as well for the reason why the printing press was adopted so late.

        One interesting irony that people need to learn from the decline of the Ottoman Khilafah, and I strongly advise our present day leaders, especially those in the west to take note of, and that is, the more reforms the Ottomans adopted (europeanization if you will, military or otherwise), the decline continued further. One would think that with the amount of reforms that were being adopted, that this would reverse the trend. In this case the opposite occurred. Things only got worse, and worse, the more reforms that were adopted. SubhanALLAH. Rather than turning to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the Ottomans looked to the Europeans for guidance.

        This issue of adopting inventions of the kuffar has been a major issue for this Ummah since the very beginning, and is a problem today. This natural aversion to adopting things from the kuffar is a quality that should be admired, and follows under the concept of wala wal bara. However, in cases where it is of issues of technology, or secular in nature, care needs to be taken such that when we do adopt it, that it is done from a Muslim perspective. The best example where this was done correctly was the adoption of the zero (0) from the hindu culture. The official term for the numbers used today in english is in fact, “Arabic” numerals, because they were introduced to Europe by the Muslims. We took the knowledge from the hindus without them influencing us, teaching us their customs or culture, or put them in a position of power/authority, and were then able to use for not only our own benefit, but for the benefit of others under OUR terms.

        This was not done in the case of the Ottomans. Our ‘ulama were averse to adopt anything from the Europeans, and when things were getting worse, and worse, the Ottomans did the opposite, and started not only to Europeanize our military, but also our governments, our courts, and our laws. We also can’t forget that extreme sufism had also spread through the Ottoman Khilafah, as can be seen to this day with the “whirling dirvishes”. Ataturk himself saw these ignorant people behaving the way they do and could not fathom how such people should be in positions of power, or looked up to with honour and dignity. Such people became the face of Islam, and turned people off, who in turn took from other sources. With the decline in our Deen, with the decline of the quality of ‘ulama we had, unfortunately, everything else soon followed.

        JazakALLAH Khair for these articles, as they are an important reminder that this is the Khilafah is the type of government that belongs to the Muslims (not democracy, monarchy, socialism, etc), and that this is the type of government that the Muslims should aspire for, and live under.

        I thank ALLAH that I was not alive to see the fall of the Khilafah, and I ask ALLAH to allow me to live long enough to witness it’s birth once again. Ameen.


        • Mezba says:

          Do you have any references / resources / proof for what you just said?

          One interesting irony that people need to learn from the decline of the Ottoman Khilafah, and I strongly advise our present day leaders, especially those in the west to take note of, and that is, the more reforms the Ottomans adopted (europeanization if you will, military or otherwise), the decline continued further. One would think that with the amount of reforms that were being adopted, that this would reverse the trend. In this case the opposite occurred. Things only got worse, and worse, the more reforms that were adopted

          • Ibn Abdullah says:

            JazakALLAH Khair for your comment. If you read any book on Ottoman history, you will see that there was a recognition by the elite throughout the empire that something was wrong, and that this trend had to be reversed. Reforms that were introduced into the ummah were of many types:

            1. Military – As the above article points out the military of the Ottomans were declining, and they ended up relying on their European allies for help in this matter. For example, they relied on the Germans to help with this process because the latter became their allies prior to WWI. The reforms included even changes in uniform. Despite all the efforts, the Ottomans did not rebound from their defeats.

            2. Nationalism – One disease that was introduced into the empire was the concept of nationalism. The empire became more and more Turkish-centric, and ignored the needs of non-Turkish elements of the empire. This was exploited by the colonial powers by supporting disenfranchised Muslim populations, e.g. arabs by revolting against the Ottomans in order to be free themselves. This also contributed to injustices committed against non-Muslim minorities within the empire, as can be seen by Armenian claims of recognition for the tragedies they suffered.

            3. Economics – In addition to some of the issues mentioned in the above article, ‘ulama had allowed riba to be used. The unfortunate irony in this, is that this lead to an economic bankruptcy of the Ottoman empire, such that their loans had finally been paid off in the 1970’s by the modern Turkish government.

            4. Judiciary – Laws were derived from sources other than the Qur’an and the Sunnah within Ottoman territories. More and more secularization was occurring from within as a result of their deteriorating political clout.

            The above are examples of the reforms that were introduced into the empire. If you want proof that things deteriorated further, then the answer is very simple. None of these efforts helped, which is why they are no longer around. There is not a single example where such reforms helped. The one thing to note, is that the last autocratic Caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (May ALLAH have Mercy on him), tried to re-Islamize the empire by emphasizing its position in the Muslim world, and tried very hard to unite the Muslim communities within its borders. These efforts SubhanALLAH helped stall the deterioration for a brief period, but it was too little, too late.

            The important thing to remember here is that when the Ottoman empire was failing, people were not standing around and watching the ship sink. They did try desperately to make changes to “stop the bleeding”. The Young Turks movement is an example of this. Unfortunately, they looked at the super powers of their time as role models. As anyone can see, none of these efforts of reformation succeeded, since the Ottomans did not improve in any of the spheres I mentioned above despite their rigorous efforts. Where were the military victories as a result of the military changes? Where was the improved economy? Where was the improved Islamic society? The list goes on and on. As I pointed out, it was as if with each reform, a new hole was introduced into the sinking ship.

            And ALLAH Knows Best.

  5. Ramadan says:

    jazakallahu khayr

  6. Infidelicious says:

    Very interesting article…. and very enlightening. North-europeans like me are barely told about the great Ottoman Empire and its rich legacy. May I commend the author for making a historical view rather than a religoius one. Empires rise and fall. Because times change and they adapt poorly. Not because God is displeased with the people.

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