Ottoman Absolutism and Its Limits (mid 15th to the 17th century)
The paradigm of Oriental Despotism and its critique
Between the 16th and 18th centuries the Ottoman Empire came to be conceptualized by European thinkers as the antithesis of European political regimes. In characterizing the Ottoman regime as an Oriental Despotism, European thinkers especially stressed the absolute ruler of the sultan and his ruling elite of slave background; they also emphasized the absence of an aristocracy and an independent body of law to check the power of the ruler.
There are many problems with this model:
First and foremost, it is a gross simplification of the early modern Ottoman political regime.
Second, it misses sight of the fact that the Ottoman political order was far from static and invented itself several times over during its six centuries of existence.
And third, it reflects early modern European thinkers’ anxieties about the forms of absolutism flourishing in their own polities.
The sultan and the sultanate
The absolute power of the sultan expressed through royal titles: the sultan as the shadow of God (zıllullah) or the deputy of God (halifetullah) on earth
The absolute power of the sultan as expressed in the architectural layout of the palace
The absolute power of the sultan as expressed in royal ceremonial
The expression of the sultan’s power more through his absence than through his presence was conducive in the long run to the withdrawal of sultans from day-to-day governance and to the impersonalization of the office of the sultanate. This trend was already evident in the late 16th century.
The kul elites
Like many other earlier Muslim dynasties the Ottomans resorted to a military ruling class drawn from slave backgrounds in the hope of creating a ruling class that had no political allegiances other than to the sultan. They were arguably more successful int this than earlier dynasties due to a number of innovations. Among them was:
1) their application of the devşirme levy,
2) their subjection of the “recruits” to rigorous training either in the military barracks or (in the case of the more select members) in the Palace School, and
3) their practices of tying in the top ranks of the kul corps closer to the royal family through marriage.
As important as the kuls were for the Ottoman military administration, however, not all members of the Ottoman ruling elite were of slave backgrounds.
Comparison with iqta
Timarlis were kept in check through a variety of different measures, including:
Land surveys (Tahrir)
Supervision by kadis
The learned or religio-legal establishment
Ulema fulfilled many important functions as kadis, müderrises, muftis.
They were also integrated into the state bureaucracy to a much greater extent than in earlier polities. A hierarchical body with the sheikhulislam at the top.
Limits to the bureaucratization of the ulema.
Kanun – two definitions of kanun 1) kanun as expression of royal will, 2) kanun as accretive tradition of the House of Osman.
Conclusion: no formalized legal mechanism to subject the sultans to the rule of law, but Ottoman legal culture, and esp. the shariah acted as an informal check on royal authority.
The transformation of the Ottoman political regime after the late sixteenth century
The demise of the devşirme levy and the civilianization of the kul corps
The decline of timar and the rise of taxfarming
The emergence of ayan or urban notables.
Conclusion: Power became more diffused between different parts of Ottoman officialdom both within the imperial capital and throughout the provinces. The imperial administration ruled the empire through a wide array of intermediary bodies from the ayan to the kuls.