Mahmud of Ghazni was born in 971 AD and became the greatest ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire which stretched from Western Iran to Northern India. Coming to power in 998 AD, he went on to be the first ever ‘Sultan’, a title he assumed in order to assert his political authority. At the same time he observed the spiritual authority of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, at a time when the Caliph’s authority was significantly less important than before; but Mahmud didn’t necessarily do this out of the goodness of his heart – gaining the religious legitimacy of the Caliphate strengthened his call for a Jihad against the Hindu kingdoms of the Indian Subcontinent.
The booty and riches taken from a total of 17 expeditions to the Subcontinent allowed him to establish Ghazni as an imperial city which could attract scholars such as Ferdowsi and al-Biruni. The latter actually accompanied Mahmud on one of his expeditions to India and was able gain a lot of knowledge in a range of subjects that the Indians had excelled in (e.g. Astronomy and Mathematics), ultimately compiling his knowledge in an encyclopedia of sorts on India.
Mahmud’s invasions of India played a decisive role in expanding Islam in to the Indian Subcontinent (the earlier Umayyads had only conquered up to Sindh). He has since been heavily criticised for his religious policies, especially amongst Indian Hindus. But despite his yearly raids on Hindu kingdoms and stripping the Temples of their materials, Mahmud was much more of a pragmatist than he is often given credit for. His army included Hindus who were allowed to observe their own religion. He didn’t even bother imposing the Jizya tax on his non-Muslim subjects. I mean he even had a male lover! Today he is considered a national hero in Afghanistan, where his capital Ghazni is situated.
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Ibn Rushd or Averroes as he is known in the West was a 12th century Andalusian polymath most famous for his philosophical works. Whilst his talents ranged from geography to astronomy, much of his renown comes from his defence of Aristotelian philosophy. Born in 1126 to a prominent Cordoban family, he received an excellent education. In the 1160s he met Ibn Tufayl (the man who wrote the world’s first philosophical novel), who introduced him to the Almohad ruler Abu Yaqub Yusuf, who made Ibn Rushd the Qadi (chief judge) and later the chief physician. It was actually the Almohad ruler who commissioned Ibn Rushd to write a new commentary on Aristotle, and it’s this work which has subsequently become his defining work.
He was alive during a period when much of the Islamic world was beginning to turn away from the study of philosophy, largely due to the works of al-Ghazali (1058-1111). Al-Ghazali’s pivotal works included the ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers‘ which criticised the role played by Muslim philosophers, e.g. Ibn Sina, during the 8th-11th centuries for what he saw as them rooting their intellectual inspiration in Ancient Greek philosophy. Critically, the book further underlined that each and every event was the will of God; Ibn Rushd rebuked this notion in his book ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence‘ and put forth his belief that God had created the natural law which allowed every event to take place but that every act was not a manifestation of God’s direct interference.
In 1195, many of his books were burned, he was stripped of his position and forced into exile because of public pressure against his ideas. Nonetheless he was soon re-established and died shortly after in Marrakesh in 1198.
After his death, his legacy followed a strange path. He was held in very high regard in the West, even being called “The Commentator” for all of his commentaries on Aristotle’s work. The philosophical school of thought Averrorism was popular through European educational institutions in the 13th century. His works even had a great impact on Jewish philosophers. But amongst Muslim societies his legacy did not gain the same level of appreciation, primarily because al-Ghazali’s ideas about religion’s relationship with philosophy still hold sway over much of the Islamic world.
At the ripe age of 26, Suleiman I inherited the Ottoman Empire in 1520 at a period when it was going through aggressive expansion. He would further this expansion of territory whilst embellishing the state in a manner which earned him the sobriquet “Magnificent”. Domestically, he reformed the judicial system so emphatically that he was referred to as “Kanuni” (Lawgiver) by his subjects. Over the course of a 46-year reign, he left a definitive mark on the Ottoman Empire.
Born in 1494, Suleiman received a high-quality education in the imperial school at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, studying science, history, literature, theology and military tactics. In keeping with Ottoman tradition princes were required to command a certain province, so Suleiman gained crucial experience of governorship when he served in various provinces of the empire. He also learnt spoke four languages Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Serbian. The Ottomans had the tradition of every Sultan acquiring a skill in a certain craft, Suleiman became a skilled jeweler.
In 1521, Suleiman’s mother gave him Aleksandra, a young slave girl from modern-day Ukraine whose father was an Orthodox priest. In time she would become Hurrem Sultan, the favourite concubine and later legal wife of Sultan Suleiman. Sultan Suleiman freed Hurrem Sultana and married her in 1533. He was the first Ottoman Sultan to wed for almost 200 years. He also wrote poems to Hurrem Sultan under the pseudonym Mugib. She went on become super powerful to the discomfort of many in the imperial administration. Perhaps her greatest rival was Prince Mustafa, heir and son of Suleiman through another wife. The power struggle in the Ottoman empire between Prince Mustafa and Hurrem Sultan ended decisively when Mustafa was falsely accused of trying to overthrow his father – he was called to the Sultan’s tent where he was strangled in front of his father in 1553.
Suleiman’s Grand Vizier at the beginning of his reign was Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, who was his childhood friend. Gaining a reputation after crushing rebellions in Syria and Anatolia, Ibrahim Pasha gained too much power and made a fatal mistake when he awarded himself a title including the word ‘Sultan’ which could have been taken the wrong way by Suleiman. His downfall was cemented when he trod on the toes of the Hurrem Sultan after giving his support to Prince Mustafa, he was consequently executed in 1536.
Right from the beginning of his reign in 1520, Suleiman sought to further Ottoman expansion into Europe and when the Hungarians refused to pay tribute in exchange for peace and even cut off the nose and ears of the Ottoman ambassador, he had found his reason for war. First on his list was Belgrade, the key to central Europe; a siege of the city lasted two months in 1521 until the Ottomans emerged victorious. In the summer of 1526 Suleiman gained an even more momentous victory when at the Battle of Mohacs. The Ottoman army outnumbered the Hungarians by 3:1 and had 300 canons. After five hours of battle the Hungarians were heavily defeated and became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.
In a bid to end the Hapsburg Empire’s meddling in Ottoman Europe, Suleiman attempted to strike at the heart of the Hapsburgs: Vienna. But in the end the 1529 Siege of Vienna failed due to bad weather and overstretched supplies lines. Yet it still shows how powerful the Ottomans were that they almost conquered their enemies capital.
Suleiman also established the Franco-Ottoman alliance with Francis I of France in 1526 to counter the Hapsburg Charles V. In order to highlight the supremacy of the Ottomans, look at the letter written from Suleiman to Francis:
I who am the Sultan of Sultans, the sovereign of sovereigns, the dispenser of crowns to the monarchs on the face of the earth, the shadow of the God on Earth… All this your saying having been set forth at the foot of my throne, which controls the world. Your situation has gained my imperial understanding in every detail, and I have considered all of it.
The Ottoman Navy had undergone a tremendous transformation under Selim I but Suleiman expanded this project beyond his father’s achievements. In 1522, he put this newfound naval confidence to the test by besieging the island of Rhodes, the home base of the Knights Hospitaller, the last remnant of the Crusaders who invaded the Middle East 400 years ago. Suleiman used 400 ships and personally led an army of 100,000 soldiers. After heavy casualties on both sides over a five month period, Sultan Suleiman decided to offer generous terms which were accepted by the defenders. The Knights Hospitaller were given twelve days to leave and take with them their weapons and religious icons.
Suleiman was aided in his quest for Mediterranean domination by famous admirals such as Hayreddin Barbarossa. In 1538 at the Battle of Preveza in Greece Barbarossa defeated the Holy League alliance of the Spanish Empire, Portuguese Empire, Papal States and the Italian Republics of Venice and Genoa. The Ottomans even went on to sack the coast of Italy, Spain and Sicily. After Preveza, the Ottoman Navy emerged as the dominant naval power throughout the Mediterranean. The Ottoman fleet also fought for control over the Indian Ocean with the Portuguese.
He did however also suffer setbacks, most notably the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. After four unsuccessful months, the Ottoman fleet pulled back with great casualties after aid from Spain as well as a resilient defence from the Maltese spelled out Ottoman defeat.
In the east, the Ottoman’s main opponent was Safavid Persia and in the year 1533 Sultan Suleiman order his Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha to lead his army into the east. Tabriz was taken without resistance. The scorched-earth policy of the Persians, along with the harshness of winter caused many Ottoman casualties. Yet this was not enough to stop the momentum of the Ottomans, as Sultan Suleiman conquered Mesopotamia, part of Georgia and Azerbaijan from the Safavids.
As well as enjoying a positive military reputation, Suleiman I is often commended for the judicial reforms he introduced, hence his nickname “Kanuni” (Lawgiver). The Ottomans had established themselves as a preeminent power mainly through the sheer force of its military prowess, but the circumstances the Ottomans found themselves in by Suleiman’s reign, a wide array of ethnicities occupying a vast realm, required a more nuanced approach to the maintenance of law and order.
Suleiman’s reign saw the introduction of many vital reforms in the Ottoman legal system. Taxes were streamlined through the establishment of a transparent tax rate based on income; he went further by removing many of the superfluous taxes imposed by his father Sultan Selim I. Bureaucracy underwent a similar process of reform; meritocracy was encouraged to be the standard of qualification for employment, rather than nepotism or personal discretion. In this sense, an overt and conscious attempt was made to hold all Ottoman citizens to the law. In order to compliment the multi-cultural nature of the empire, Suleiman denounced blood libels* against Jews in 1553 and freed Christian farm labourers from Serfdom.
Sultan Suleiman died in 1566 during a siege in Hungary. He was 71 years old and spent over ten years in military campaigns. In a twisted way, his hard-work and success paved the way for a future filled with complacent and incompetent Sultan’s. Future Ottoman Sultan’s would find themselves more intrigued by the pleasures of the Harem or uninterested in leading the imperial army to war or under the influence of other interest groups.
* Blood libels – The belief that Jews would kidnap and sacrifice children for their own rituals.
Check out Kallie Szczepanski’s concise and insightful article on Suleiman:
There aren’t too many historical figures who are held in as high regard as Saladin in the Islamic world. The military leader who set up the Ayubbid dynasty in the Middle East is most fondly remembered for recovering Jerusalem from the Crusader Christians. This single act, more so than any other, is the reason his name is linked to not only prestige but also piety – he has become the champion of Islam. In addition, Saladin’s greatness is enhanced by the fact that his enemies in Christendom respected not only his martial qualities but also his character.
Saladin was born in 1138 near Tikrit (same town as Saddam Hussein)* into a Sunni military family who served the Zengid Dynasty of Syria. It is important to remember that Saladin was not Arab, rather he was Kurdish; yet Arab nationalists in the 20th century appropriated his legacy to bolster their ideology. His significance as a symbol of Arab nationalism can be seen by the presence of the ‘Eagle of Saladin’ on many Arab flags.
Prior to becoming a ruler, his uncle Shirkoh was vital in helping Saladin rise through the ranks of the military. The history books first pick up his career when Nur-al-Din, the Zengid leader who repelled the Second Crusade, sent him and uncle Shirkoh to Egypt to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Crusaders. Egypt was at this time controlled by the severely declining Shi’a Fatimid Caliphate. Once the last Fatimid caliph died in 1171, Saladin, already the Vizier at this point, became the strongest figure in Egypt. He decided to recognise the Abassid Caliph, thereby ending the only Shi’a Caliphate in history. This helps explain why today if there is any group which doesn’t share in the celebration of his legacy, it would be Shi’a Muslims. Once in control of Egypt, his overlord Nur-al-din requested troops and money but was frustrated by Saladin’s consistent stalling. It is likely that an inevitable clash between the two leaders was only avoided by the death of Nur-al-Din in 1174.
The next decade or so, Saladin spent his energy on conquering Syria and northern Mesopotamia. Once the region was centralised under his authority, he sought to undermine the Crusader states in a bid to achieve his ultimate goal: Jerusalem. In 1187 Saladin routed the Crusader forces at the Battle of Hattin, thus paving the way for the capture of Jerusalem. The city which was holy to three religions was finally under Muslim rule after 88 years.
Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem forced Christian leaders around Europe to call for a Third Crusade (1189-1192). Arguably the most prominent of all the crusades, the Third Crusade involved Europe’s most illustrious kings; Richard the Lionheart of England, Philip Augustus of France and Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire. This is an important point because the scale and legacy of the Crusader effort helps to explain the magnitude of Saladin’s fame – not only as an effective military leader but as a chivalrous opponent. This is especially true in Europe where intellectuals as such as the poet Dante viewed him as a “virtuous pagan” similar to Julius Caesar (doesn’t seem like a compliment but trust me it is). Militarily, the Crusaders won every major encounter – their armies imperiously marched down the Levantine coast, followed closely by their ships for supplies and reinforcement. Yet their desire to recapture Jerusalem was stifled and formally accepted in the Treaty of Ramla in 1192 whereby Saladin would keep control of the Holy City whilst allowing entry to Christian pilgrims – which effectively made the contest a draw.
Saladin’s greatest quality did not necessarily lie in an angel-like character who was devoid of any wrong-doings. In this sense, we often conflate romanticisations of events or figures with the evidence at hand. From all the sources, it would seem Saladin’s greatest achievement was the centralisation of authority in the region. His forces consisted of feudal levies (a type of medieval conscription) who fought seasonally. Rather than being shocked at the fact that the great Saladin was defeated in battle, it is more pertinent that even in the absence of a regular standing army, Saladin was still able to force a draw against the finest kings Europe had to offer. After his death in 1193, the unity he fought so hard and long for also died with him. In the year 1227, Jerusalem was handed back to the Crusaders.
* Saddam Hussein, ruler of Iraq (1979-2003), drew comparisons between himself and Saladin to enhance his own image as a champion of the Arabs.