The Islamicate Gunpowder Empires: A Comparative Study

The Islamicate Gunpowder Empires were the most powerful and stable polities of the early modern period.

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 2:1.

Empires have played a significant role in shaping the modern world and continue to influence global politics today. In recent years, a growing number of political scientists have turned to the study of empire to gain insights into how dominant political powers have shaped international relations and global economic systems. In doing so, they aim to uncover the root causes of contemporary political issues and develop the necessary strategies for addressing them.

In this essay, I aim to engage with the study of empire through a relatively new theoretical lens: Karen Barkey’s three conditions of imperial rule. To do this, I will begin by introducing the subject of my comparison: the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires. This will be followed by an explanation of Barkey’s conditions: legitimate sovereignty claims, rule over diversity, and control over elites. Then, I will go through each of Barkey’s conditions, comparing how they present in each empire before concluding with my view on which empire was most successful.

The Islamicate Gunpowder Empires: The Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals

In the early modern period, three empires represented the pinnacle of Islamicate civilisation: the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. Originally coined by Marshall Hodgson, the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires were amongst the world’s most powerful and stable polities, known for their proficiency in using gunpowder weaponry (Hodgson, 1977). Furthermore, all three empires were born of the same Turkic-Persian tradition, inheriting the systems of ‘Turko-Irano-Islamic statecraft’ that came with it (Streusand, 2011, pp. 11-28).

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, was constructed between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Ahmed I.

The first of these great empires were the Ottomans, founded in 1299 by Osman I and lasting over six hundred years. The empire reached its zenith under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, ruling over large swathes of the Middle East and North Africa with a sizable foothold in Eastern Europe. The Ottomans maintained a robust and flexible economy, society, and military until the late 18th century, after which it began to be surpassed by its European neighbours (Faroqhi, 1994, p. 553). Its unravelling occurred during World War One, and the Ottoman Empire soon evolved into the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

The Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran, was constructed between 1611 and 1629 during the reign of Abbas I.

The next great empire, the Safavids, entered the scene two hundred years later, in 1501, under the leadership of Ismail I. Often considered the beginning of modern Iranian history, the Safavids are most famous for establishing Twelver Shia Islam in Iran, spreading its doctrines to other parts of the Islamicate world in the process (Arjomand, 1979). At its height, the empire’s borders stretched latitudinally from the Euphrates to Balochistan and longitudinally from the eastern Caucasus to the Persian Gulf. The Safavid Empire was formally dissolved in 1760 at the hands of the Zand dynasty.

The Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, was constructed between 1671 and 1673 during the reign of Aurangzeb.

The last and most affluent of the Islamicate gunpowder empires were the Mughals. Founded in 1526 by Babur, the Mughal Empire grew to control most of the Indian Subcontinent. Despite being a Muslim dynasty ruling over a majority Hindu population, the Mughals were able to usher in a golden age for the Indian subcontinent. By 1700, Mughal India accounted for 24.4% of the world’s GDP (Maddison, 2003, p. 261). The British formally abolished the Mughal Empire following the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

The Three Conditions of Imperial Rule

Before Barkey’s Empire of Difference, most empire studies followed the familiar rise-decline narrative popularised by Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In short, all empires experience the same periods of rise, apogee, stagnation, and decline (Glubb, 1976, p. 24). Barkey sought to challenge this entrenched historiographical tradition by devising a new analytical framework to engage with the study of empire. She argues that three conditions are needed to maintain the imperial form:

1. Legitimate Sovereignty Claims

Empires must maintain authority over their populations by ensuring the participation of elites. This is achieved by devising a supranational ideology to provide cohesion amongst the upper classes. These ideologies often frame empires as upholders of religion and civilisation or as descendants of notable lineages with a divine right to rule. Regardless, the supranational ideology legitimises imperial sovereignty, encouraging elites to carry out imperial policy (Barkey, 2008, p. 13). For example, the mission civilisatrice doctrine of the French Empire acted as cultural justification for the colonial exploitation of Africa and Asia (Burrows, 1986).

2. Rule Over Diversity

Empires must maintain rule over multi-religious and multi-ethnic populations via policies designed to manage diversity. The purpose of said policies is to institute boundaries of varying permeability between different communities, arranging them according to different classificatory systems. It falls to state makers to meet with various groups to negotiate the terms of separation, difference, similarity, and cooperation (Barkey, 2008, p. 13). For example, the British Raj utilised ‘divide and conquer’ strategies to divide their Indian subjects along religious lines (Tharoor, 2017, pp. 101-148).

3. Control Over Elites

Empires must maintain control over elites politically and economically tied to the centre. Politically, elites are vertically integrated into the empire, dependent on the centre yet kept separate and distinct from one another on the horizontal level. Economically, the structure of elite arrangement determines how an empire provides for its fiscal and military needs (Barkey, 2008, p. 13). For example, the encomienda system of the Spanish Empire provided elites with the right to extract tribute from the conquered populations of South America in return for their loyalty to the Spanish Crown (Batchelder & Sanchez, 2013).

Condition 1: Legitimate Sovereignty Claims

According to Barkey, an empire must devise a convincing supranational ideology to legitimise its sovereignty. The methods through which the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires justified their sovereignty underwent significant changes in response to different audiences.

In the early days of the Ottoman Empire, Osman I had no specific claim to sovereignty; his legitimacy came from his military success in raiding the lands of non-Muslims, earning him respect from followers and opponents alike. However, as former Rum Seljuk officials entered Ottoman service, the Ottomans began demonstrating their legitimacy in Irano-Islamic terms through victory against other rulers, just governance per Persian traditions and the enforcement of Islamic law (Streusand, 2011, pp. 64-65). As the Ottomans expanded their domain, they began articulating their sovereignty in different ways to appeal to the new populations they encountered.

Upon encountering other Turkic polities like the Timurids, the Ottomans began legitimising their sovereignty in Turko-Mongol terms by relying on a genealogy that tied Osman I to the legendary Turkic leader Oghuz Khan (Barkey, 2008, p. 99). According to Turkic tradition, God had designated Oghuz Khan and his descendants as the legitimate rulers of the world (Kamola, 2015). After conquering Constantinople in 1453, Ottoman rulers claimed to be legitimate successors to the Roman Empire to appeal to their former Byzantine subjects. Less than a century later, the Ottomans conquered the Mamluks gaining control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, solidifying their claim as defenders of Islam (Streusand, 2011, pp. 67-68).

During the post-Suleimanic years, the Ottomans began to espouse a more sedentary Irano-Islamic ideology. Rather than basing their legitimacy on martial glory, the Ottoman emperors made the patronage of Sunni Islam the basis of their sovereignty (Peirce, 1993, p. 185). This eventually culminated in the Ottoman claim to the title of caliph, making them the pre-eminent rulers in the Islamicate world (Imber, 1997, pp. 98-112).

Like the Ottomans, the Safavid Empire’s claims to sovereignty also underwent an ideological evolution, albeit a far less complex one. The ideology of Safaviyya, the Sufi order to which Ismail I belonged and led, fell under the category of ghulat: a world view of opposition against mainstream Islamic doctrine and the institutions that supported it. Safaviyya ghulat, in particular, drew upon Turkic shaman-Sufi practices and the lasting tradition of nomadic dissent against settled rule to appeal to its Turkmen followers, who made up the bulk of the Safavid Qizilbash tribes (Babayan, 2003, p. xxiii). Thus, Ismail I presented himself as a revolutionary messianic figure who sought to address two grievances: the nomadic Turkmen against the bureaucratic Aq Qoyunlu Confederation and the Shia against the Sunni ruling elite (Streusand, 2011, p. 160). To further support their claim as harbingers of a new purified Islamic polity, the Safavids claimed descendency from Prophet Muhammad ﷺ through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali (Blake, 2013, p. 23).

Upon conquering Tabriz in 1501, Ismail I chose orthodox Twelver Shia Islam as the state religion over the Safaviyya’s religious teachings. The reasons for this are unclear though I would suspect it had to do with the fact that Safaviyya ghulat did not have the doctrinal capacity to bring law and order to the Safavid’s settled non-Turkic subjects. Thus, the early Safavid Empire espoused a dual religious ideology: Safaviyya ghulat for the nomadic Turkmen and Twelver Shia Islam for the settled population (Streusand, 2011, p. 161). As later Safavid rulers became increasingly accustomed to a settled lifestyle, they began to distance themselves from Safaviyya teachings, becoming patrons of Shia Islam in a similar vein to their Ottoman cousins in the west (Arjomand, 1979).

Like the early Ottoman and Safavid rulers, the Mughals also claimed descendency from a noble lineage as the basis of their sovereignty. In his autobiography, Babur-Nama, Babur claimed to be a descendant of both Timur and Ghengis Khan (Hiro, 2006, pp. 8-9). The early Mughal rulers viewed themselves as a continuation of the Timurid legacy – hence their claim to the former Timurid territory of Hindustan – and continued the standard Irano-Islamic practices of previous Indo-Muslim rulers (Streusand, 2011, pp. 244-245). It was not until the construction of Fatehpur Sikri in 1571 under Akbar that anything resembling a distinctly Mughal ideology started being articulated.

Akbar’s political ideology, known as Sulh-i-kul, had a uniquely syncretic nature unlike anything seen hitherto in the Islamicate world and sought to legitimise Mughal sovereignty in both Muslim and Hindu terms (Habib, 1998). In 1579, he promulgated the Mazhar, an imperial order designating the Mughal emperor as a mujtahid and Amir al-Mu’minin. Doing so allowed the Mughals to occupy the same position as the early Muslim caliphs, who acted as both sovereign and chief religious authority. Analogously, Akbar introduced Hindu practices such as Jharokha Darshan and Rajyabhiseka into the Mughal court to state their sovereignty in Hindu terms. Despite the effectiveness of Sulh-i-kul in appeasing the majority Hindu population, succeeding Mughal emperors gradually returned to the tried and tested ideological customs of previous Indo-Muslim polities, with a complete reversal under Aurangzeb, a patron of Sunni Islam (Streusand, 2011, pp. 246-253).

In summary, all three empires underwent similar ideological evolutions. The basis of each empire’s sovereignty lay in its noble lineage and the personal exploits of its founder. As the empires grew, their legitimising ideologies responded to their changing audiences until, at the height of their power, each empire’s sovereignty was firmly based on religious patronage.

Condition 2: Rule Over Diversity

Barkey’s second condition of imperial rule states that empires must implement appropriate policies to manage their diverse populations. In the case of the Islamicate gunpowder empires, these policies ranged from tolerance to forced conversion.

Overall, the Ottomans practised a policy of religious pluralism best exemplified by the millet system. Under this system, religious groups were divided into autonomous units, called millets, with the right to enact religious law and collect taxes so long as they recognised Ottoman sovereignty. Alongside the central Muslim millet, 16 other millets were recognised by the Ottoman Empire, including the Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Jewish millets, each with their own leading authority and institutions (Rassam & Bates, 2001, p. 103). Thus, the Ottoman Empire was an empire of nations under the protection and management of the central state.

Like the Ottomans, the Mughals also practised a general policy of tolerance for religious diversity. While Mughal attitudes towards non-Muslims varied over time – best exemplified by the abolishment of the jizya in 1564 and its reinstatement in 1679 – non-Muslims continuously played an active role in Mughal politics, making up a sizable segment of the ruling class. The Mughal mansabdari system made no distinction between Hindus and Muslims. As a matter of fact, when independent Hindu rulers, such as the Rajput chiefs, were defeated by the Mughals, they were incorporated into this same system and treated as equals on par with their fellow Muslim mansabdars (Zaidi, 1994).

It is worth noting here the difference in the tolerant approaches of the Ottomans and Mughals. Where the Ottomans demarked boundaries between different religious groups, the Mughals made no such distinctions. I would argue that this is the result of the differing nature of the communities each empire found itself managing. The Greek Orthodox Church religiously led the Greek Orthodox community. Therefore, if the Ottomans wanted to maintain control over their new Greek Orthodox subjects, they had to absorb the Greek Orthodox Church into its governance structure rather than abolish it. Hence, the creation of the Greek Orthodox millet. Meanwhile, the various Hindu communities of South Asia had no such central authority for the Mughals to absorb or abolish. Hence, the Mughal administration’s ‘colour-blind’ approach to religion.

In stark contrast to their neighbours, the Safavids practised a policy of forced conversion so effective that it led to a fundamental change in the demographics of Persia. Before Safavid rule, Sunni Islam dominated Persia, so much so that the Ottomans used to send their ulama there to study (Inalcik, 1973, p. 167). Following the Safavid imposition of Twelver Shia Islam as the state religion, most of Persia’s Sunni ulama converted, while the remainder either fled or were executed. To further their efforts, the Safavid establishment began importing foreign Shia scholars to convert the masses. Ritual cursing, extortion, intimidation, and harassment were also employed by the Safavid authorities to enforce their particular brand of Shia Islam (Babayan, 2003, p. 299). The programme proved successful, and by the end of Safavid rule, the majority of the general population identified as Twelver Shia.

In summary, all three empires took differing approaches to manage diversity. The Ottomans sought to divide their population into discrete groupings so they could be easily managed. The Mughals preferred assimilating new religious communities into the existing structure, keeping everyone equal under the sovereign. Meanwhile, the Safavids ambitiously opted to impose conformity and were successful.

Condition 3: Control Over Elites

As the final condition of imperial rule, Barkey asserts that an empire must devise a suitable structure of elite arrangement to provide for its fiscal and military needs. In the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires, new elites were incorporated into the imperial structure through systems of land revenue assignments adapted from the Abbasid iqta: grants that bestow holders with administrative responsibility over a particular tract of land owned by the state in return for a share of its revenue.

Broadly speaking, the Ottomans incorporated elites into the imperial structure in two stages. Newly conquered elites would start as vassals, paying tribute to the imperial treasury and providing troops in Ottoman campaigns. Given time and the expansion of the empire’s borders, these elites and their land would be incorporated into the Ottoman timar system (Inalcik, 1954). Under this system, new and existing elites would receive land revenue assignments, called timar, in return for their continued military service (Streusand, 2011, pp. 80-81).

During early Safavid rule, the centre had virtually no administrative control over the Qizilbash tribes, who governed the provinces and constantly waged war against one another to assert their dominance over the sovereign (Dale, 2009, pp. 88-89). This situation remained unchanged until the reforms of Abbas I, which significantly decreased Qizilbash influence by breaking them down into smaller groupings and transferring their land to non-Qizilbash tribes. Furthermore, his successors gradually increased the number of khass provinces, land controlled by the state, as opposed to mamalik provinces, land controlled by tribal chieftains (Streusand, 2011, pp. 180-182). The Safavids then distributed khass territory as land revenue assignments, called tuyul, amongst their new non-tribal regiments recruited from the Caucuses (Banani, 1978).

In India, the Mughal mansabdari system integrated the nobility, military and bureaucracy into a single hierarchy based on two numerical representations: zat, which denoted a mansabdar’s pay, and sawar, which denoted the number of cavalrymen they must maintain (Moosvi, 1981). Mansabdars were personally appointed and promoted by the Mughal emperor to carry out any civil or military responsibility. In return, they would receive payment through cash salaries or land revenue assignments called jagir (Rezavi, 1998). Newly conquered elites were often permitted to keep their land as jagir so long as they became mansabdars under the emperor (Streusand, 2011, p. 258).

Despite land revenue assignments playing a significant role in all three empires’ elite structures, there were still some fundamental differences between timar, tuyul and jagir assignments. The Ottoman timariot was a single soldier who could expect to hold the same timar for their entire career and often had family roots in the land they were assigned. In contrast, Mughal jagirdars often retained large private armies and typically shifted jagir every few years (Streusand, 2011, pp. 291-292). Meanwhile, Safavid tuyul could be inherited and were introduced with the sole purpose of creating a new military class to challenge the authority of the Qizilbash tribes (Banani, 1978).

In summary, all three empires employed the use of land revenue assignments to manage elites. Doing so allowed the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires to rapidly expand their territories without sacrificing central authority. A sharp contrast to the European feudal system, which conferred ownership of the land itself, allowing imperial elites to become the de facto rulers of their respective fiefs.


In conclusion, the Islamicate Gunpowder Empires drew from their shared ‘Turko-Irano-Islamic’ heritage, adapting it to their distinct circumstances to maintain Barkey’s three conditions of imperial rule:

1. Legitimate Sovereignty Claims

All three empires underwent similar ideological evolutions, from Turkic-Persian ideas about noble lineage and just governance to the patronage of Islamic institutions. While the Safavids and Mughals maintained their legitimacy as puppets long after the end of their effective governance, the Ottoman ideology was perhaps the most effective. Their claim to caliphate appealed to Muslims the world over; during the Khilafat Movement of the early 1920s, Indian Muslims were more concerned with protecting the status of the Ottoman caliph than with the reinstatement of the Mughal emperor (Qureshi, 1978).

2. Rule Over Diversity

All three empires took differing approaches to manage diversity, from tolerance to conversion. The Mughal ‘colour-blind’ approach allowed for the easy absorption of Hindu elites but failed to assimilate the Hindu masses. Meanwhile, the Safavid conversion initiatives successfully enforced conformity amongst the Persian population but failed to tame the Afghan tribes along the eastern frontier. In contrast, the Ottoman millet system successfully assimilated the elites and masses of religious minorities, solidifying their identity as subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

3. Control Over Elites

All three empires relied on variations of the Abbasid iqta to incorporate elites into their imperial structures. The timar, tuyul and jagir assignments played a vital role in centralising power. Unfortunately, in the case of the Safavids and Mughals, this process of centralisation eventually backfired due to the lax administration of later rulers, causing a collapse of central authority by the early 18th century and the eventual dissolution of both empires. Meanwhile, the Ottomans avoided this predicament by scrapping the timar system in the early 17th century in favour of cash salaries paid directly from the treasury.

All things considered, while the Safavids and Mughals played a significant role in shaping modern Iran and India, the Ottomans were the most successful in maintaining the conditions of empire, having ruled over vast territories and diverse populations for over six hundred years. Unlike its counterparts, the Ottoman Empire was not usurped by another imperial power but instead underwent the inevitable transition from empire to nation-state.


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