A History of World Societies,
West and South Asia: The Islamic World Powers, ca 1450-1800
In the sixteenth century, three of
the world's great empires surrounded the Indian Ocean. The Ottoman Empire,
the Safavid Dynasty of Persia, and the Mughal Dynasty of India were wealthier
and their governments more powerful than any of their contemporary European
nation states. Each inherited a rich cultural heritage that included Islamic,
Byzantine, Judaic, Hindu, Persian, Mongolian, and Turkish traditions. Each
empire in turn produced a vibrant and distinct cultural tradition that drew
upon this legacy. Although their rulers were Muslim, all three empires were
ethnically and religiously diverse places. Their economies were strong and
dynamic, and many of their merchants, manufacturers, and farmers were highly
integrated into the world economy. Yet by 1800 the Safavid Dynasty had disappeared
and the Mughal Dynasty and the Ottoman Empire had suffered serious decline.
Western European nation states were beginning to dominate each area economically,
and in the case of the Mughal Dynasty, politically. What happened? How did
these Islamic states become strong world powers so quickly and then decline
so precipitously? What influence did they have on world history during their
glory days? You will explore these questions and develop some broad answers
in the following activities.
- You may want to begin by printing this page. As you explore
different sites, use the printout to refer back to the instructions and
questions detailed in each activity.
- On many web sites you can increase the size of the images
by clicking on them. Whenever possible, use the larger images to examine
fine details in photographs.
Before continuing, it is essential
that you learn the geography and chronology of this era.
- Begin by going to a contemporary Map
of the Muslim World c.1500, which shows you the region where these three
great Islamic empires flourished four hundred years ago. All the areas inside
the green line represent places where the Islamic faith was dominant in
- Although they inhabited a large area, Muslims did not
share the same language, ethnicity, and heritage. The World of Islam (Dar-al-Islam)
included Arabs, Turks, Persians, Indians, Malays, Javanese, and Africans.
Many people living with the confines of the Muslim world clung to older
religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. (You might want to
read the web activities in Chapter 9 to review the diversity of the Islamic
world.) Now go to Map
of the Trade Routes. This map should remind you that the same area where
Islam was predominate in 1500 was the center of a vast trading network,
centered on the Indian Ocean, whose origins date back to the first century.
(You might want to review Chapter 6, Activity Six, and Chapter 11, Activity
One, for the origins and development of this trading system.) How did the
the spread of Islam and the existence of strong commercial activities foster
the growth of the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Dynasty, and the Mughal Dynasty?
Did Islam have a strong history of state formation? Did it have a way of
uniting people? How does trade affect a kingdom's wealth? Locate the Safavid
Dynasty, Ottoman Empire, and Mughal Dynasty at Hyperhistory:
Map of the World 1500-1800. How much of the Muslim world do they occupy?
of the Muslim World c.1500.) How connected are they to the trade routes
depicted in Map
of the Trade Routes? How large is their geographical scale and scope
in relation to the emerging nation states of western Europe? (Don't forget
to consider the overseas possessions of these European powers.)
- A common perception among Westerners today is that these
three Islamic world powers were old and well established by the sixteenth
century while European nation states were new and growing. Analyze the Timeline
for Middle Eastern /European History 1300-1500 and 1500-1700.
Does this chronology support this perception? When did Suleiman I, largely
considered the sultan of the Ottoman Empire when it was at the peak of its
power, reign? When did the Safavid Dynasty establish its reign in Iran?
Now go to Asian
Chronology: The Mughal Empire. According to this site, when did the
Mughal Dynasty in India begin? When did Akbar, the emperor who ruled over
this kingdom at the height of its power, reign? After reviewing these sites,
you can see that the perception stated in the first sentence of this paragraph
is inaccurate. In a paragraph, write an accurate description of these three
Islamic powers during the sixteenth century. How old and established were
- As Activity One demonstrated, the Ottoman Empire, Safavid
Dynasty, and Mughal Dynasty were all new political configurations in the
fifteenth century. Each ruled over people of various cultures and traditions.
Each inherited regions with a long history of commercial interaction with
the rest of the world. As a result, each developed a culture that reflected
this diversity and cosmopolitan nature (cosmopolitan means having
sustained contact with different peoples and cultures).
These cultural syntheses can be observed in the art of each empire. For
example, go to Persian
Carpets: A Brief History. Westerners first became fascinated with these
masterpieces during the sixteenth century. According to this article, this
craft was not developed during the Safavid Dynasty in Persia. When did it
emerge? How do Persian carpets represent a rich and cosmopolitan cultural
tradition in Persia? What other cultural groups influenced the evolution
of this craft?
- Finally, go to Mughal
Architecture and The
Taj Mahal. According to these sites, the Mughal rulers where great builders
who left behind one of the most recognizable buildings in the world today,
the Taj Mahal. Why did the Mughals construct so many new buildings and monuments?
How did this building activity enforce their authority and reputation? What
architectural ideas did they use? In other words, which cultural traditions
did their buildings and monuments reflect? How do they reflect the cultural
inheritance of the Mughals?
- Ruling over a diverse people with different traditions
often presents major problems for a central government. In recent times,
multiethnic nations such as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union have broken
apart. Others, such as Indonesia and Rwanda, have experienced major bouts
of violent confrontation between different ethnic and religious groups.
But for much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the rulers of the
Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Dynasty, and the Mughal Dynasty were able to
create strong central governments that promoted stability and order. In
the process, they each developed innovative and unique governing styles.
- Begin exploring the Ottoman style of government by studying
1, which shows the scale and scope of the Ottoman Empire at its height
of power in the seventeenth century. Notice that it spans three continents:
Asia, Africa, and Europe. Within its borders lived Turks, Arabs, Berbers,
and Slavs. None of these ethnic groups was predominant throughout the empire.
Most subjects of the Ottoman sultans were Muslims, but there were also significant
numbers of Jews and Christians. Christians were a majority in the empire's
southeast European provinces.
- Go to The
Ottomans: Origins and read the sections titled "The Ottoman State"
and "The Structure of Government." According to this site, what
role did the sultan play in governing the empire? (Consider both secular
and religious matters.) What other groups exercised political power in the
empire? What major principles guided the Ottoman government? Was the goal
to enrich only Ottoman Turks or only wealthy landowners? To carry out its
functions, Suleyman, who reigned from 1520 to 1566, developed an important
legal code. Go to The
Ottomans: Suleyman and read the introduction and the sections titled
"Suleyman the Just" and "Suleyman the Lawgiver." What
influence did the Islamic faith have on the laws of the empire? What is
the Shari'ah? How does kanun differ from the Shari'ah?
What other legal traditions does kanun reflect? After reviewing these
sites and contemplating these questions, analyze how you feel the Ottoman
system of government and laws promoted order and stability among the subjects
of the empire. Summarize your answers in a few paragraphs. You might want
to read Jewish
History Sourcebook: Islam and the Jews: The Status of Jews and Christians
in Muslim Lands, 1772 CE to learn what the Shari'ah says about
nonbelievers. (You only need to read the section entitled "The Answer.")
- The Safavid Dynasty was less ethnically diverse than
the Ottoman Empire. Although a majority of the people in the kingdom were
Persians, there were some Arabs, Turks, and Armenians. The rulers of the
dynasty were, like the Ottoman rulers, Muslim, yet the Safavid Dynasty used
religion differently to promote order and stability in its realm. For further
information, go to Safavid
Dynasty and read the section entitled "1501 - 1524 Shah Ismail
I." According to this site, Shah Ismail I succeeded in imposing religious
unity on most of his subjects by encouraging conversion to the Shi'a
sect of Islam. To learn more about Shi'ism, go to Shi'ism.
and then read the section entitled "Isma'il at Safavids."
How, according to this site, did Shi'ism promote the authority of
the Safavid Dynasty? How did it strengthen loyalty to the state? What legacy
has it had in this region of the world? What other traditions did the Safavid
Dynasty use to buttress their authority? Summarize your answer to these
questions in a paragraph or two.
- The Mughals faced a different challenge than either the
Ottomans or the Safavids. Like the other two, they ruled over a vast territory
that included ethnically diverse people. Yet the Mughals were a minority
group in their kingdom, both ethnically and religiously. They were Muslim
Turks from Central Asia, whereas the majority of Indians they ruled were
Hindu or other religions. This fact forced the Mughal rulers to seek a different
style of government than did either of their other two counterparts. To
investigate the Mughal style of government, go to The
Mughals: Akbar, which focuses on the innovations of Akbar, the Mughal
ruler of India from 1556 to 1605. According to this site, there were many
similarities between his government and that of the Ottomans. List these
similarities. On the other hand, Akbar differed from the Ottomans and Safavids
in the area of religion. Analyze his policies toward the state and Islam,
and list several policies he pursued to promote harmony between his Muslim
and Hindu subjects. How were these different from the policies of the Safavids
and Ottomans? Now go to The
Mughal Empire. Read this brief essay, paying close attention to the
reign of one of Akbar's successors, Aurangzeb (1658-1701). How did Aurangzeb's
government differ from Akbar's? What impact did these differences have on
Mughal authority in India?
- The world economy, particularly trading zones, was undergoing
dramatic changes in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.
These changes would play an important role in the fortunes of the Ottomans,
Safavids, and Mughals. To understand the nature of commerce in the early
sixteenth century, study Map 2. This map
shows the travel routes of the Polo family, who were Venetian merchants
in the thirteenth century. The paths they took as they traveled across the
Eurasian continent were well-worn and established trade routes, and these
roads and sea lanes were all still busy with commerce as the sixteenth century
unfolded. Review Hyperhistory:
Map of the World 1500-1800 and then try to identify the areas controlled
by the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals on Map
2. Notice how all of these empires controlled vital links in
this vast Eurasian trading system which connected western Europe, the Indian
Ocean world, and China. Through these trade routes passed manufactured goods,
spices, and decorative art. All three of these empires benefited from this
trade, whether through exports or through taxation of the commerce passing
through their borders.
- In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, new players
appeared in this trading system - European Joint Stock Companies. For more
insight into the role of these institutions in the Indian Ocean, go to VOC
- Dutch East India Company and East
India Company, British and Manas:
History and Politics, East India Company. When did these two Joint Stock
Companies form? What was their purpose? What support did they have from
their government? Did they automatically seize control and dominate commerce
in the Indian Ocean? Write a paragraph or two that summarizes your answer
to these questions.
- In the short run, these Islamic empires were not passive
bystanders as European Joint Stock Companies established greater influence
over the trade routes; they were instead active players in the international
arena. Indeed, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman
Empire threatened to capture Vienna, the seat of the Hapsburg Empire.
- To further explore the interaction between Europeans
and the Islamic powers, go to THE
OTTOMAN EMPIRE: The Classical Age, 1453-1600. What was the nature of
Ottoman relations with European powers during this time period? Which European
countries were the Ottomans' allies? Which were their enemies? Now go to
and read the section entitled "Abbas I." What was his policy toward
European merchants? How did he use commerce with European powers to further
his ambitions? Finally, read the section entitled "The Great Moghul
Jahangir: Letter to James I, King of England, 1617 A.D." at Indian History Sourcebook: England,
India, and the East Indies, 1617 CE (scroll down to see this document)
Reign of Akbar, 1556-1605 (pay close attention to the fifth paragraph).
How did the Mughal Dynasty react to the expansion of European merchants
into the Indian Ocean? How did the Mughals use commerce to further their
- After completing these activities, write a brief essay
(2-3 paragraphs) that explains the Islamic powers' reaction to the shifting
nature of trade in the world economy. How did they treat European merchants
and Joint Stock Companies? What kinds of relations did they have with European
rulers? Were these empires passive victims of European aggression, or were
they actively involved in reshaping the global economy?
- As Activity Five demonstrates, the rulers of the Ottoman
Empire, Safavid Dynasty, and Mughal Dynasty were highly involved in international
affairs between 1500 and 1800. Yet by the end of this time period, their
power and greatness had fallen precipitously. One problem was declining
state revenue as trade routes shifted and European Joint Stock Companies
gained more leverage in the Indian Ocean. There were also other reasons.
As you look at the following sites, note how these authors explain the reasons
why these empires began to decline (or even disappear) during the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries: read The
(pay attention to the last section, entitled "decline"), and History of India:
The Mughal Dynasty III.
- After completing the previous task, consolidate your
notes into a list of the sources of the Islamic powers' decline. Try to
develop some general categories, such as "wars with neighbors"
or "financial mismanagement." After reflecting on your list, choose
one category that you think was most responsible for the fall of these Islamic
empires. Defend your choice.