Jamal Harwood comments on the BBC’s “The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors”
The BBC has rolled out a new three part series covering the 600 years of the Ottoman State with emphasis on its founding, spread, legacy and what it means for the Muslim world today. Having been interviewed for the programme to discuss its Islamic credentials and influences, and having now seen the series and its overtly secular view of the period I am not too disappointed that my interview was cut from the final show. I was however this past week invited to a joint BBC/Islam Channel debate involving the producers of the programme a “Ottoman” specialist academic and a Turkish journalist.
It is laudable that the BBC and others are taking the subject seriously and committing time and resource into presenting a subject which to many represents an ignored period of history. To fill this void requires serious study and reflection. The pros and cons of this rule and its impact upon not only Muslims but also Europe more generally, is now an increasingly important question. The BBC programme adds to this debate in a visually stunning manner. Where Muslims will be disappointed comes from the overtly secular outlook with which Rageh Omar’s commentary is framed. The positives are often put down to tribal, regional or pure militaristic advantages, and the screenwriters are equally happy to attribute the negatives including the state’s decline down to Islam. The second programme very favourably portrays the equanimity and respect afforded to non-Muslims (Jews, Christians and others) within the State, a matter which stands in stark contrast to the oppression of Spanish Catholic inquisition for example, yet the programme makers attribute this tolerance of the Ottomans to a vague notion of “multiculturalism” ignoring the clear Islamic injunctions concerning the fair treatment of non-Muslim citizens of the State. As the Prophet (saw) said: “Whoever harms a Dhimmi (non-Muslim citizen) has harmed me”.
The rules of two Sultans are given greater significance in the second programme. Suleyman the Magnificent (who ruled from 1520 to 1566) is highlighted as al “Kanuni” (the law giver). His reform and consolidation of administrative rules (Canons) within the over-riding authority of the Shariah is somehow heralded to be an early day example of the benefits of “man made” law over “God’s law”. At least according to the BBC. Contrastingly the shift towards Shariah law by Sultan Abdul Hamid the Second (who ruled from 1876 to 1909) in the last years of the state are not put in the context of a state in serious decline (for a number of reasons) but due to the failure of Islam to cure the ills of the State. Muslims will also find it nauseous the way Mustafa Kemal is painted as a saviour of the Turks in the third programme with little reference to the treacherous part the British, French and Russians took in the dismembering of the State and easing his path to rule and in destroying the Caliphate. Kemal’s dramatic secularisation of the nation within a few short years, removing all links to the Arabic language, and as much Islamic culture and practice as possible is summarised as necessary despite its obvious trauma for its peoples not only in Turkey but globally.
It is a real stretch to try and portray the Kemalists (aided by Erdogan’s “Islam very light”) new modern Turkey in any light more favourable then it’s past as the seat of the world’s most influential superpower, a position it maintained over hundreds of years. Its current economic development is exaggerated. Today, despite its abundant resources, manpower and strategic location between East, West and the Middle East, Turkey just manages to scrape into the G20 list of leading economies behind the tiny Netherlands. It is 54 in the global corruption league, suffers under more than $300 billion in state debt and its bi-polar economy fluctuates between high, very high and moderate inflation with an annual trade deficit of $90 billion. Western economists praise it because it is leading the Muslim world into more and more debt and enslaving interest payments. In reality the supposed “sick man” is now the “lonely man” remaining on the periphery of Europe (still black-balled as a member of the EU) and the Middle East – recently soundly rebuffed in Egypt. A strong case can be made for all of Europe to be now labeled as “sick”. Yet because this is the same model the bankers hoist throughout the capitalist world it is held up for great praise. Anyone will look great in the short term after maxing out several credit cards.
This does not mean that Muslims should look back at the Uthmani Caliphate through rose tinted spectacles, or that it was the model state which needs to be emulated today. There were too many excesses by many of the rulers including the misapplication of the bayah to relatives, and the adoption as part of the Tanzimat reforms of secular European laws (while trying to justify them under Islam) was indicative of a state in decline. A decline that was exacerbated when some scholars disapproved of aspects of the industrial revolution and other technological developments as being un-Islamic when they were clearly not, and were sorely needed. The general lack of accounting of rulers which were drifting from implementing Islam also is a great problem, as was the acceptance of division of Muslim lands, apostasy, decline in Arabic (and ijtidad) and so on.
The Uthmani period represents a critical period of Islamic history from which much must be learnt and which ultimately highlights the disastrous implications of losing its leadership and stability when it was disbanded.
Syed Ameer Ali a prominent Indian Politician wrote in the Times of the 5th of March, 1924:
“It is difficult to anticipate the exact effect the abolition of the Caliphate will have on the minds of Muslims of India. But so much I can safely affirm that it will prove to be a disaster to Islam and to civilisation. Suppression of the time honoured institution regarded throughout the Muslim world as a symbol of Islamic unity, will bring the disintegration of Islam as a moral force. It will bring revolution and disorder”.
And how right he sadly was. The destruction of the Khilafah in March of 1924 was a catastrophic calamity for the Ummah and the easy division and colonisation of the Islamic lands was not difficult to foresee as Syed Ameer Ali foretold. The challenge for Muslims today is to understand the vital matter which is the Khilafah system not from a misplaced attachment to history but to the Islamic obligation to live according to the Shariah, with the rules/laws all in accordance with Islam, the security in the hands of Muslims and with one Khaleefah representing all Muslims. As the Prophet (saw) commanded:
“Whosoever dies a death without a bayah to an Imam (Khaleefah) and dies thereon dies the death of jahilliyah (ignorance)” Muslim