Islamic Studies Islam in the Ottoman Empire
William Ochsenwald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0155


The Ottoman dynasty’s history can be traced from about 1300 to the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. At its greatest extent, the Ottoman Empire covered an enormous territory, including Anatolia, the Balkan region in Europe, most of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, and all of North Africa except for Morocco. As of the 1510s the empire had possession of Sunni Islam’s three holiest shrine cities—Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The Turkish-speaking Ottoman royal family, the administration it created, and the educational and cultural institutions it eventually favored were all Sunni Muslim. However, subordinate Christian and Jewish sects also coexisted with Islam, which enjoyed the support and favor of the state. While a tremendous amount of scholarly material is available on the history of the Ottomans, surprisingly little of a general nature has been written on the history of Islam in the Ottoman Empire. What has been published is often narrow in scope and frequently not theoretically based. The earliest period of Ottoman history contains the contentious issue of the role of Islam in the spreading of Ottoman rule beyond the small territory in northwest Anatolia where it began. Despite a dearth of reliable sources, several valuable studies have appeared recently that modify the earlier view that waging holy war against Christians was the chief impetus for Ottoman expansion. However, Ottoman sultans did appeal for political legitimacy on the basis of their sponsorship of Islamic buildings, institutions, pious foundations, and judicial institutions. Among the four main legal schools of Sunni Islam, the Ottomans favored the Hanafis. The Ottoman ruling establishment and the general Muslim population also had close links with Sufis (Islamic mystics). Among the main opponents of the Ottoman state was the Safavid Empire, a Shiʿi Muslim empire to the east of the Ottoman lands. Shiʿism and so-called Islamic heresies were major internal issues as well as an external threat for the Sunni Ottomans. One means of curbing Shiʿism, as well as promoting Sunni Islam, was through the patronage of the judicial system that was organized and formalized in a new manner by the Ottomans. The question of how much flexibility was available to judges and legal scholars has been a source of much controversy among scholars. Other Muslim institutions that received government support included schools and numerous charitable foundations, many of which owned extensive properties. The state also had a direct role in the training and promoting of the Sunni religious hierarchy. Even in the production of art, religion played a large role. Outside the Ottoman ruling elite, much is known about the religious conditions of town dwellers, thanks in large part to the archival records of Muslim courts. It is safe to assert that the role of Islam in everyday life was substantial. However, for the majority of Ottoman subjects, who lived in villages, there is less information available, and even less is known about nomadic groups. On the other hand, many fine studies now exist dealing with the history of urban Muslim Ottoman women. Returning to the study of political elites, accounts of the rise of secularism in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire have been heavily revised on the basis of new scholarship. Many researchers now point to a closer involvement of religion in the reforms that tried to save the empire from the destruction that ultimately overtook it at the end of World War I.

General Overviews

High-quality English-language surveys of Ottoman history have increased in number since the 1990s. While several such studies exist, Finkel 2006, a one-volume survey, is a good beginning point for readers. When completed, the Cambridge History of Islam, of which Faroqhi 2006 is one part, will perhaps replace Shaw and Shaw 1976 as the standard multivolume survey. Hathaway and Barbir 2008 deals with the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. These authors, along with many others, have helped demolish the former interpretation that the Ottoman Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries witnessed little change. Few documentary films have been made on the subject of Islam and the Ottoman Empire. While Gardner 2000 is centered on political history, it does include some discussion and footage of religious sites. Overviews of Islam and the Ottomans are often informed by an anti-Muslim and anti-Ottoman bias. Such biased works were frequently written by post-Ottoman nationalists in the successor states of the empire. Two more balanced treatments that both specialize in the early Ottoman or pre-Ottoman period are Inalcik 1968–1970 and Itzkowitz 1972. Scholars specializing in Ottoman-Islamic topics have tended to avoid the politically charged question of the impact of this subject on the period after World War I. One exception to this pattern is Ochsenwald 1996.

  • Faroqhi, Suraiya N., ed. The Later Ottoman Empire, 1603–1839. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521620956Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Part 3 of the new four-volume Cambridge History of Turkey. This volume and the series as a whole do not dwell considerably on the topic of Islam, but they can serve as detailed, multiauthored introductions to Ottoman history in its other aspects.

  • Finkel, Caroline. Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300–1923. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

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    The author has written for a general audience and in a lively style, even while incorporating the results of recent scholarship. She is most informative in regard to Anatolia.

  • Gardner, Robert, dir. Islam, Empire of Faith. Episode 3, The Ottomans. DVD. Washington, DC: Gardner Films in association with the Public Broadcasting System, 2000.

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    A fifty-six-minute film made for American public television, directed and produced by Robert Gardner, with narration by Ben Kingsley. Though this film emphasizes military history, there is some coverage of religious matters, including part of its discussion of Sultan Suleyman.

  • Hathaway, Jane, with Karl K. Barbir. The Arab Lands under Ottoman Rule, 1516–1800. Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2008.

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    An important work on a time period often neglected. For the topic of Islam and the Ottoman Empire, the most significant sections are chapter 3 on the organization of provincial administration, chapter 6 on the men of religion and intellectual life, and chapter 10 on mysticism and the Wahhabi movement in Arabia.

  • Inalcik, Halil. “Islam in the Ottoman Empire.” Cultura Turcica 5–7 (1968–1970): 19–29.

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    Chiefly a review of the pre-Ottoman Turks’ experience with Islam.

  • Itzkowitz, Norman. Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition. New York: Knopf, 1972.

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    Even though published in 1972, this work retains its utility as an outstanding, brief review of the early history of the Ottoman Empire.

  • Ochsenwald, William. “Islam and the Ottoman Legacy in the Modern Middle East.” In Imperial Legacy: The Ottoman Imprint on the Balkans and the Middle East. Edited by L. Carl Brown, 263–283. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

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    Both a sketch of the role of Islam in Ottoman history and an analysis of the subsequent impact of Ottoman Islam on Turkey and the Arab Middle East. This chapter also has been translated into Turkish as “Modern Ortadoğu’da Islam ve Osmanlı Mirası,” in Imparatorluk Mirası: Balkanlar’da ve Ortadoğu’da Osmanlı Damgası, edited by L. Carl Brown and translated by Gűl Gűven, 384–411 (Istanbul: Iletişim Yayınları, 2000).

  • Shaw, Stanford J., and Ezel Kural Shaw. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. 1, Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire 1280–1808. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

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    While heavily criticized by reviewers for its emphasis on politics and administration, this work should still be consulted as an overview of Ottoman history. Volume 2, subtitled Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey 1808–1975, was published in 1977.

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