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A History of World Societies, Sixth Edition
Web Exercises
Chapter 20: 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.

Helpful Hints:
  • 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.
First Activity:

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 1500.
  • 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? (Review Map 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 they?
Activity Two:
  • 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?
Activity Three:
  • 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 Map 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?
Activity Four:
  • 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.
Activity Five:
  • 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 Safavids 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) and The 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 ambitions?
  • 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?
Activity Six:
  • 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 Ottomans, Safavids (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.