The Early Modern Islamic World


narrated by Chris Gratien
featuring Mohamad Ballan, Joshua White, Zoe Griffith, Aslıhan Gürbüzel, Neelam Khoja, Fahad Bishara, Jeannie Miller, and Maryam Patton
| Across the 14th to 17th centuries, significant political transformation occurred in the Islamic world. Muslim al-Andalus was conquered and largely erased by the Christian kingdoms of Iberia, and the Byzantine Empire was absorbed and conquered by the Ottoman Empire. By the beginning of the 17th century, much of the Islamic world was controlled by three major empires, the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals, who combined a long tradition of Turco-Persian culture and Islamic statecraft with the military organization of post-Mongol societies and new possibilities created by the adoption of firearms. The empires they built laid the foundation for the societies of the modern period. In this episode, we detail the momentous rises and fall that accompanied the early modern period in the Islamic world. Beginning with itinerant scholar-statesmen like Ibn Khaldun, we explore how the Islamic world was changing during the period following the Black Death of the mid-14th century. We cover the gradual erasure of al-Andalus as well as the rise of the Ottomans and their rivalry with the Safavids of Iran. We also detial the life of Babur and the Mughal Empire his descendants built, and we consider the enduring status of the Indian Ocean as a "Muslim lake." We conclude with a reflection on how the intellectual developments of the early modern period built on medieval legacies.


Across the 14th to 17th centuries, significant political transformation occurred in the Islamic world. Muslim al-Andalus was conquered and largely erased by the Christian kingdoms of Iberia, and the Byzantine Empire was absorbed and conquered by the Ottoman Empire. By the beginning of the 17th century, much of the Islamic world was controlled by three major empires, the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals, who combined a long tradition of Turco-Persian culture and Islamic statecraft with the military organization of post-Mongol societies and new possibilities created by the adoption of firearms. The empires they built laid the foundation for the societies of the modern period.  

In this episode, we detail the momentous rises and fall that accompanied the early modern period in the Islamic world. Beginning with itinerant scholar-statesmen like Ibn Khaldun, we explore how the Islamic world was changing during the period following the Black Death of the mid-14th century. We cover the gradual erasure of al-Andalus as well as the rise of the Ottomans and their rivalry with the Safavids of Iran. We also detial the life of Babur and the Mughal Empire his descendants built, and we consider the enduring status of the Indian Ocean as a "Muslim lake." We conclude with a reflection on how the intellectual developments of the early modern period built on medieval legacies.

"The Making of the Islamic World" is an ongoing series aimed at providing resources for the undergraduate classroom. The episodes in this series are subject to updates and modification.





Mohamad Ballan is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Stony Brook University. His research examines the intellectual, political and cultural history of the pre-modern Mediterranean world, with a focus on the classical and post-classical Islamic world between roughly 1100 and 1600. His book project, tentatively titled "Lord of the Pen and Sword," examines the phenomenon of the “scholar-statesman”—litterateurs, physicians, and jurists who ascended to the highest administrative and executive offices of state—in Islamic Spain and North Africa.
Joshua M. White is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean (Stanford University Press, 2017).
Zoe Griffith is Assistant Professor of History at Baruch College, CUNY and completed her Ph.D. at Brown University in 2017. Her research focuses on political economy, law, and governance in the Ottoman Arab provinces from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
Aslıhan Gürbüzel is assistant professor of Ottoman History at McGill University. Her research focuses on Ottoman Sufi orders in the early modern period, with an emphasis on Sufi contributions to the production of medical and philological knowledge in Ottoman manuscript culture.
Neelam Khoja is a transregional and transdisciplinary historian; she focuses on historically marginalized communities whose networks cross imperial boundaries and national borders from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries in West and South Asia. Khoja received her doctorate degree from Harvard and is currently a Postdoctoral Associate for the Inter-Asia Connections Initiative at the MacMillan Center, Yale University.
Fahad Ahmad Bishara is Rouhollah Ramazani Associate Professor of Arabian Peninsula and Gulf Studies at the University of Virginia. He specializes in the legal and economic history of the Indian Ocean and Islamic world, and is now spends his time thinking about dhows, the sea, and world history.
Jeannie Miller is an associate professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at University of Toronto. Her book entitled Al-Jahiz, the Quibbler: Equivocations in Kitab Al-Hayawan and Beyond is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press.
Maryam Patton is a PhD candidate at Harvard University in the joint History and Middle Eastern Studies program. She is interested in early modern cultural exchanges, and her dissertation studies cultures of time and temporal consciousness in the Eastern Mediterranean during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Credits

Interviews by Chris Gratien
Sound production by Chris Gratien
Music (by order of appearance): Aitua - Escape; Chad Crouch - Platformer; Zé Trigueiros - Fast; A.A. Aalto - Side Story; Aitua - Volcano; Chad Crouch - Daybreak; A.A. Aalto - Thereafter; A.A. Aalto - Entonces; A.A. Aalto - Admin; A.A. Aalto - Canyon


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Click to enlarge this map of the three major Islamicate empires of the early modern period: the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals. These empires have often been described as "gunpowder empires" because they were the first such states to make firearms an important component of their military strategy. Source: ballandalus.


Born in modern-day Tunisia during a politically tumultuous 14th century, Ibn Khaldun served no less than five different courts during his long career as a statesman. He also wrote important works analyzing politics and history in the Islamic world that are read to this day. Some of his most influential ideas concerned the rise and fall of states, of which there was much during his own period and more to come as the political map of the Islamic world was remade during the late medieval and early modern period.

Ibn Khaldun's family had left al-Andalus for North Africa some generations prior with the decline of the Iberian Muslim kingdoms. The final such kingdom, the Nasrids of Granada, would last until its 1492 surrender to the united kingdoms of Aragon and Castille, famous for funding the voyages of Christopher Columbus that same year. Over the following century, Muslims in Iberia were forced to convert to Catholicism or flee; even the descendants of converts known as Moriscos would be forced out from the early 17th century onward. Iberian Jews were also forcibly converted or expelled beginning in 1492, giving rise to the Sephardi diaspora. 


Many of the expelled Iberian Jews who comprised the Sephardi diaspora took up residence in the cities of Muslim rulers, just as they had done for many centuries in al-Andalus. Image Source: Wikipedia / Encyclopaedia Judaica

One common destination for both these exile groups was the Ottoman Empire, which by the early 16th century controlled a vast territory in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The early Ottomans were pragmatic rulers who drew on the practices of all the empires that had come before them in the region, and they were military innovators who reconfigured the practice of military slavery through the devşirme system and developed their own firearms. During the 15th century, the Ottomans toppled the last vestiges of the Roman Empire--the Byzantines--in the Balkans and Anatolia. During the early 16th century, they continued to expand to the east and south, incorporating the Mamluk Sultanate of Syria and Egypt. There, Ottoman scholars gained access to vast libraries of Arabic letters and scholarship produced over the prior millennium. Ibn Khaldun would become one of the most important political thinkers of that heritage in the eyes of Ottoman statesmen. 

During their early rise, the Ottomans had two major rivals. The Ottoman dynasty was almost cut short by Tamerlane during the early 15th century, but it survived the shock. Based in Afghanistan, subsequent Timurid rulers would not pose the same threat to the Ottomans. But during the early 16th century, Babur, a descendent of Tamerlane, would create a new dynasty based in South Asia, know to history as the Mughal Empire. Thanks to his autobiography, the Baburnama, we have an intimate look at what it meant to be an Islamic state-builder at the beginning of the early modern period. Over subsequent centuries, the Mughals would build the largest Islamic empire to ever control the Indian subcontinent. 



Under the Mughals, the Islamic illustrated manuscript tradition flourished. This illustration, taken from a Persian translation of the Baburnama from the late 16th century, was produced during the reign of Akbar I. Source: The Met

The other major Islamic empire of the early modern period belonged to the Safavids of Iran. Like some of the other dynasties covered in our series, the Safavid origins were to be found in a Sufi movement that at the beginning of the 16th century, became wedded to the identity of an imperial state. The Safavids were the principal rivals of the neighboring Ottomans, and they adopted a distinctive Shia identity that countered the Ottoman identity as the champions of Sunni Islam and rulers of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Despite the rivalry, there were extensive connections between these empires of the Islamic world, which were crosscut by overland trade networks and shared in a Turco-Persianate cultural tradition.


This 19th century illustration depicts the Shah Mosque, which was constructed in Isfahan after Safavid Shah Abbas I made it his new capital at the turn of the 16th century. Isfahan became a major trade hub in Asia. Image source: RIBA

During this period, Muslim seafarers also dominated the maritime space of the Indian Ocean world. The 15th century Chinese admiral and explorer is one example of this fact. Born in Yunnan, Zheng He was commissioned by the Ming dynasty of China to carry out expeditions in Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and the Swahili Coast of Africa. The fact that Zheng He was born Muslim attested to the prominence of Muslim merchants and sailors in the vast interconnected space of the Indian Ocean. Throughout the early modern period, European explorers and merchants would become new imperial actors operating in the Indian Ocean world. Yet in practical terms, the Indian Ocean remained as it had long been a "Muslim lake." 

There is a vast catalog of episodes on the Ottoman History Podcast that will take you deeper into the experience of the early modern world. Check out our episode list to learn about the many new topics in early modern history that scholars are exploring and debating today. And stay tuned for future episodes of the Ottoman History Podcast on the history of the Ottoman Empire, the modern Middle East, and the Islamic world. 





Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.

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