661-1008 AH
1263-1600 CE

THE MONGOL HOLOCAUST wasn’t like the Dark Ages of Europe. It didn’t set in slowly and lift gradually. It was a terrible but brief explosion, like the Black Death that swept Europe in the fourteenth century, or the World Wars that wracked the globe in the twentieth.

Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, among others, has taken this to mean that the Mongols weren’t really so bad. Yes, they destroyed whole cities, but look on the bright side: they left whole cities intact. Lewis has even said that “by modern standards,” the destruction wrought by the Mongols was “trivial.” His argument rests partly on the fact that within the Muslim world, Islamic civilization rapidly absorbed the Mongols. The ones who ended up in charge of Persia soon evolved into the benign Shi’ite Il-Khan dynasty. In converting to their subjects’ religion, the Mongols even brought a fresh breeze, a new spirit, a cluster of new ideas into the Islamic world.

This is all very true, but it’s a bit like saying the World Wars of the twentieth century were, in the final analysis, “trivial” because even though millions were killed, millions weren’t, and even though countries such as Russia, Germany, France, and Great Britain were devastated, they quickly rebuilt and look at them now.

Some admiration has even accrued to Genghis Khan and his immediate successors based on the fact that they conducted mass-murder as a canny battle strategy and not out of sheer cruelty, destroying some cities utterly in order to make other cities give in without a fight. Reading such analyses, one might almost suppose the Mongols did their best to avoid needless bloodshed!

It is true that the most famous Mongol conquerors from Genghis to Hulagu look almost good in comparison to their descendant Timur-i-lang (Tamerlane, to the west) who emerged from Central Asia at the end of the fourteenth century and went on a bloody rampage that claimed countless further lives. Timur represented a last burst of the horror that began with Chengez Khan, rather like one of those movie monsters that twitches its tail after it seems dead and with that one final twitch cuts a sickening swath of new destruction.

For Timur, bloodshed was not just a canny battle strategy. He seemed to relish it for its own sake. It was he (not Chengez) who took pleasure in piling up pyramids of severed heads outside the gates of cities he had plundered. It was he, too, who executed captives by dropping them, still living, into tall, windowless towers until he had filled the towers to the brim. Timur banged and slaughtered his way to Asia Minor and then banged and slaughtered his way back again to India, where he left so many corpses rotting on the roads to Delhi that he made the whole region uninhabitable for months. His rampage was too horrific to go entirely unmentioned in any world history, but it doesn’t deserve long consideration because it was essentially meaningless: he came, he saw, he killed, and then he died and his vast empire crumbled at once and no one remembers much about him anymore except that he was scary.

So yes, as an embodiment of pure savagery, Chengez Khan looks good compared to his descendant Timur (at least Timur claimed Chengez as an ancestor, though the line of descent remains obscure). But the original Mongol conquests had greater impact: they altered the trajectory of history.

First of all, they sparked a crisis for Muslim theology, and some responses to that crisis had ramifications that we are still wrestling with today. The crisis was rooted in the fact that Muslim theologians and scholars, and indeed Muslims in general, had long felt that Islam’s military success proved its revelations true. Well, if victory meant the revelations were true, what did defeat mean?

Muslims had never before experienced such sweeping defeats, not anywhere in the world, not even in their nightmares. The historian Ibn al-Athir called the Mongol onslaught “a tremendous disaster” the likes of which the world might never experience again “from now until its end.” Another major Muslim historian speculated that the coming of the Mongols portended the end of the world. According to yet another, the Mongol victories showed that God had abandoned Muslims. 1

The Crusaders had at least been Christians, but the Mongols? They weren’t even “people of the book.” Their victories posed an agonizing puzzle for theologians and tested the faith of the masses in some pervasive way that many people probably felt but didn’t intellectualize. Especially in post-Crusader Mesopotamia, after the sack of Baghdad, where the Muslim community had suffered its most devastating setback, any thinking person who subscribed to the premise that universalizing the Muslim community was the purpose of history might well have asked, “What went wrong?”

The hardest-hitting response was delivered by the Syrian jurist Ibn Taymiyah. His family originated in Harran, a town near the intersection of present-day Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, right in the path of the Mongol invasion. They fled the wrath of Hulagu with nothing but their books, ending up in Damascus, where Ibn Taymiyah grew up. He studied the standard Islamic disciplines with unusual brilliance and earned, at an early age, the standing to issue fatwas, religious rulings.

Intense horrors tend to spawn extreme opinions, and Ibn Taymiyah was rooted in his times. No doubt the anxiety of his uprooted family gave him an emotional stake in puzzling out the meaning of the Mongol catastrophe, or perhaps his personality would have inclined him to the views he propounded no matter when or where he was born—who can tell? But in a Syria so recently crushed by the Mongols and still suffering the residue of the Crusades, Ibn Taymiyah at least found a ready audience for his thoughts. If he had never been born, the audience that embraced him might well have found someone else to express those same ideas.

Ibn Taymiyah propounded three main points. First, he said there was nothing wrong with Islam, nothing false about the revelations, and nothing bogus about seeing Muslim victories as proof of them. The problem, he proposed, lay with Muslims: they had stopped practicing “true” Islam, and God therefore had made them weak. To get back to their victorious ways, Muslims had to go back to the book and purge Islam of all new ideas, interpretations, and innovations: they must go back to the religious ways of Mohammed and his companions, back to those values and ideals, back to the material details of their everyday lives: the earliest rulings were the best rulings. That was the core of his judicial creed.

Second, Ibn Taymiyah asserted that jihad was a core obligation of every Muslim, right in there with praying, fasting, abjuring deceit, and other sacramental practices; and when Ibn Taymiyah said “jihad” he meant “strap on a sword.” The Umma, he said, was special because they were martial. No previous recipients of revelations from God had “enjoined all people with all that is right, nor did they prohibit all that is wrong to all people.” Some of them did not “take up armed struggle at all,” while others struggled merely “for the purpose of driving their enemy from their land, or as any oppressed people struggles against their oppressor.” To Ibn Taymiyah, this limited, defensive idea of jihad was inaccurate: jihad meant actively struggling, fighting even, not just to defend one’s life, home, and property but to expand the community of those who obeyed Allah.

Ibn Taymiyah went to war himself, against some Mongols. The Mongols he was fighting had converted to Islam by this time, which raised a question about Muslims fighting Muslims. But fighting these Muslims was legitimate jihad, Ibn Taymiyah expounded, because they were not real Muslims. He also opposed Christians, Jews, Sufis, and Muslims of other sects than his own—chiefly Shi’is. He once overheard a Christian making derogatory comments about the Prophet, and that night, he and a friend tracked down that Christian and beat him up.

You can see why his aggressive stance might have resonated for some of his contemporaries. Basically, he was saying, “We can’t roll over for pagan Mongols and Crusaders; let’s come together and fight back, finding strength in unity and unity in singleness of doctrine!” This sort of rallying cry has inevitable appeal in societies under attack by outsiders, and by this time the Islamic world had been under fearsome attack for over a century.

Ibn Taymiyah expanded the list of those against whom jihad was valid to include not just non-Muslims but heretics, apostates, and schismatics. In these categories he included Muslims who attempted to amend Islam or promoted division by interpreting the Qur’an and hadith in ways that departed from what the texts literally stated.

Ibn Taymiyah never conceded that he was pressing for his interpretation versus some other interpretation. He maintained that he was trying to stamp out unwarranted interpretation per se and urging Muslims to go back to the book, implying that the Qur’an (and hadith) existed in some absolute form, free of human interpretation.

Some would say that singling out heretics and schismatics had not been the spirit of early Islam. Arguments about the succession, yes; even bloody arguments. But Mohammed himself and the early Muslims in general tended to accept that people who wanted to be Muslims were Muslims. (“Hypocrites”—traitors pretending to be Muslims in order to undermine the community from within—were obviously a different case.) With all would-be Muslims accepted into the group, the group could sort out disagreements about what “Muslim” meant. Ibn Taymiyah, however, insisted that there was one way to be a Muslim, and the main Muslim duty was to ascertain that one way and then follow it. Interpretation did not come into it, since everything a person needed to know about Islam was right there in the book in black and white.

Ibn Taymiyah mythologized the perfection of life in that first community, referring to Mohammed’s companions as al-salaf al-salihin, “the pious (or pristine) originals.” Versions of his doctrines eventually reemerged in India and North Africa as the movement called Salafism, which is with us to this day. The word comes up often in news stories about “Islamists.” It started here, in the shadow of the Mongol holocaust.

In his own day, Ibn Taymiyah built up only a moderate following. The masses didn’t care for him much, probably because he punished Muslims for folk practices they had incorporated into their idea of Islam and also for visiting shrines. Ibn Taymiyah claimed that showing reverence for human beings, even great ones, went against the precepts of the Pious Originals.

The authorities liked him even less because he denounced rulings they accepted as established. When called before a panel of ulama to defend his rulings, he rejected their authority, charging that they had lost their legitimacy by succumbing to innovations and interpretations. On one disputed doctrine after another, Ibn Taymiyah would not go along to get along. The actual points disputed will strike non-Muslims as minutely technical: for example, was a divorce uttered three times merely final or irrevocably final? The establishment said it was irrevocable; Ibn Taymiyah said final but not irrevocable. In this instance, the authorities settled the argument by clapping Ibn Taymiyah in prison. He spent a lot of time in prison. In fact, he died there.

Ibn Taymiyah does not sum up what Islam is, nor even what it was in the thirteenth century—there are so many schools of thought, so many approaches—but the very attitudes that made so many clerics and officials angry with Ibn Taymiyah led many others to admire him. Ibn Taymiyah belonged to the school of Muslim jurisprudence founded by Ibn Hanbal, that Abbasid-era scholar who took a bulldog stand against the primacy and sufficiency of reason. Ibn Hanbal had favored the most literal reading of the Qur’an and the most literalist methods for applying it, for the most part rejecting even analogical reasoning as a way of expanding the doctrines, and so did Ibn Taymiyah. Both men had flinty, combative, unbending temperaments. The fact that both went to prison for their ideas tended to ennoble their legacy quite apart from whatever intellectual merits their ideas may have had.

The identification of courage with truth pops up often in history, even in our day: talk-show host Bill Maher was kicked off network TV for suggesting that the suicide hijackers of 9/ll were brave. Common decency demands that no positive character traits be associated with someone whose actions and ideas are vicious. Unfortunately, this equation enables people to validate questionable ideas by defending them with courage, as if a coward cannot say something that is true or a brave man something that is false. Ibn Hanbal had benefited from this syndrome and, now, so did Ibn Taymiyah.

Ibn Taymiyah reputedly wrote about four thousand pamphlets and five hundred books. With these, he planted a seed. The seed didn’t flourish at once, but it never died out, either. It just lay there, under the surface of Islamic culture, ready to bud if circumstances should ever favor it. Four and a half centuries later, circumstances did.

There was another response to the centuries of breakdown that climaxed with the Mongol holocaust, a more popular and gentler response than Salafism, and this was the efflorescence of Sufism, which was as broad-minded and undogmatic as Ibn Taymiyah’s ideology was literalist and restrictive. Indeed, ecstatic Sufism (as opposed to “sober Sufism”) disturbed Ibn Taymiyah almost as much as pagan invaders, because to him infidels were merely the enemy outside, assaulting Islam, whereas Sufism was the enemy within, insidiously weakening the Umma by enlarging and blurring the singleness of the doctrine that defined it.

Sufism was that characteristically Islamic type of mysticism which had some ideas and impulses in common with Buddhism and Hindu mysticism. Sufis were individuals who, dissatisfied with the bureaucratization of religion, turned inward and sought methods of achieving mystical union with God.

All Sufis had pretty much the same idea about where they were going, but diverse ideas about how to get there, so different Sufis espoused different spiritual techniques. Every time a Sufi seemed to break through, the word spread and other seekers flocked to the enlightened soul for guidance, hoping that direct contact with his or her charisma would fuel their own quest for transcendence. In this way, “Sufi brotherhoods” formed around prominent individual Sufis: groups of seekers who lived, worked, and practiced their devotions together under the guidance of a master called asheikh or pir (both words mean “old man,” the one in Arabic, the other in Persian).

Typically, a few of a sheikh’s closest disciples earned recognition as Sufi masters in their own right. When a sheikh died, one of these disciples would inherit his authority and continue guiding his community. Some others might go off and form new communities, still expounding their master’s mystical method but attracting disciples of their own. Sufi brotherhoods thus evolved into Sufi orders, traditions of mystical methodology passed down directly from master to initiate, down through the years and the decades and the centuries.

Successful Sufi orders might boast of many enlightened sheikhs at any given time, living in different places, often with their mureeds (spiritual apprentices), in lodges called khanqas, where they also offered sustenance to travelers and comfort to strangers. In a way, then, Sufi brotherhoods became an Islamic equivalent of Christianity’s monastic orders which, in medieval times, built monasteries and nunneries throughout Europe, places where people retired to make spiritual effort their main occupation.

Yet Sufi brotherhoods also differed in crucial ways from monastic orders. For one thing, every monastic order had a set of strict rules that monks or nuns had to follow, under the direction of an abbot or abbess. Sufi brotherhoods were much looser and more informal, more about companionship and less about externally imposed discipline.

Furthermore, taking the vows of any of the Christian monastic orders meant renunciation of the world and some commitment to “mortification of the flesh.” That’s because Christianity focused essentially on personal salvation, and saw salvation as something people needed because they were born guilty of “original sin,” the discovery of sexuality in the Garden of Eden. For this sin, humanity had been sentenced to imprisonment in bodies that lived (and died) in the material world.

Monks or nuns joined an order specifically to separate themselves from the world, the emblem of man’s fallen state. Their devotions were aimed at punishing their bodies, because the body was the problem. They practiced celibacy as a matter of course, because Christianity saw spirituality as the remedy for sexuality.

In Islam, however, the emphasis was not on the personal salvation of the isolated soul but on construction of the perfect community. People were not sinners to be saved but servants enjoined to obedience. They were born innocent and capable of ascent to the highest nobility but also of descent to the lowest depravity.2 The mureeds in a Sufi order joined up not to be saved but to attain a higher state; their rituals were aimed not at punishing their bodies but at focusing their energies on Allah alone; if they fasted, for instance, it was not to mortify their flesh but to strengthen their self-discipline. They saw no equation between celibacy and spirituality and did not separate from the world. Sufis and would-be Sufis usually plied trades, bought and sold, married, reared children, and went to war.

In fact, some Sufi brotherhoods evolved into bands of mystical knights, espousing an ethos called futuwwah, which resembled the European code of knightly valor, courtly love, and chivalric honor. Whether the influence ran from west to east, or vice versa, or both ways is a dispute I won’t get into.

In any case, Sufis illustrated futuwwah ideals through mytho-poetic anecdotes about Muslim heroes of the first community. One such story, for example, told of a young traveler arrested for killing an old man. The victim’s sons brought this young man before Khalifa Omar. The traveler admitted his deed. Extenuating circumstances existed, but he refused to plead them; he had taken a life and so must forfeit his own. He did make one request, however: could the execution be delayed for three days while he went home and took care of a bit of business? He had an orphan in his care back there, he had buried this child’s inheritance in a spot no one knew about, and if he didn’t dig it up before he died, the child would be left penniless. It wasn’t fair that the child suffer for his guardian’s crime. “If you let me go today,” the murderer said, “I promise I’ll come back three days from now and submit to execution.”

The khalifa said, “Well, okay, but only if you name someone to act as your proxy, someone who will agree to suffer the penalty in your stead if you don’t come back.”

Well, that stumped the young traveler. He had no friends or relatives in these parts. What stranger would trust him enough to risk execution in his place?

At that moment, Abu Dharr, one of the Prophet’s companions, declared that he would be the young man’s proxy. And so the murderer departed.

Three days later he had not returned. No one was surprised but they did weep for poor Abu Dharr who faithfully set his head on the chopping block. The executioner was just oiling his ax and getting ready to chop when the young man came galloping up on a dusty horse, all covered with sweat. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I was delayed,” he said, “but here I am now. Let’s proceed with the execution.”

The spectators were amazed. “You were free; you had totally escaped. No one could have found you and brought you back. Why did you return?”

“Because I said I would, and I am a Muslim,” the young man replied. “How could I give the world cause to say that Muslims no longer keep their promises?”

The crowd turned to Abu Dharr. “Did you know this young man? Did you know of his noble character? Is this why you agreed to be his proxy?”

“No,” said Abu Dharr, “I never met him before in my life, but how could I be the one to let the world say Muslims are no longer compassionate?”

The victim’s relatives now dropped to their knees. “Don’t execute him,” they pleaded. “How can we be the ones to make the world say there is no forgiveness in Islam?”

Many proponents of Sufi chivalry traced their lineage back to Ali, not necessarily because they were Shi’i but because Ali enjoyed legendary renown as the perfect knight, the ideal combination of strength, courage, piety, and honor. It was said, for example, that in one of those iconic battles of early Islam, a young man came toward Ali, swinging a sword. Ali said, “Don’t you know who I am, you foolhardy youngster? I’m Ali! You can’t beat me. I’ll kill you. Why are you attacking me?”

“Because I am in love,” said the young fellow, “and my sweetheart says that if I kill you, she’ll be mine.”

“But if we fight, I am more likely to kill you,” Ali pointed out.

“What’s better than dying for love?” the young man said.

Upon hearing those words, Ali took off his helmet and stretched out his neck. “Strike right here.”

Seeing Ali’s willingness to die for love, however, set that young man’s heart ablaze and turned his love for a woman into something higher—love of Allah. In a single moment, Ali transformed an ordinary young man into an enlightened Sufi.3 Such were the legends that inspired these Muslim knights.


Although Sufi orders proliferated through the Muslim world, they had the most profound consequences in Asia Minor, also known as Anatolia, the territory that constitutes modern Turkey. It was here that the post-Mongol recovery of Islam began.

In Asia Minor, Sufi orders linked up with merchants’ and artisans’ guilds called akhi (the Turkish word for futuwwah). These outfits cushioned ordinary folks against the uncertainties of the time. Certainly, people needed some cushioning. Asia Minor had long been the frontier between Turkish Muslims and European Christians. The Seljuks and Byzantines had torn the land up, fighting over it. One Seljuk prince had forged a fairly stable sovereign state here called the Sultanate of Rum (Rum being the Arabization ofRome) but then armies of Crusaders crisscrossing the land had disrupted order, and Seljuks fighting among themselves had eroded stability further.

By the time the Crusades were winding down, various Turkish princes more or less controlled eastern Asia Minor, but only more or less; the Byzantine more or less controlled the western parts, but only more or less; and no claim went undisputed by the other. Asia Minor had become a lawless no-man’s land, inhabited by both Christians and Turks and ruled by no one.

The Mongol eruptions drove fresh hordes of Turkish pastoral nomads out of Central Asia. They drifted until they reached Asia Minor, but here finally they felt at home. Why here? Because pastoral nomads tended to like this sort of lawless environment. As autonomous self-ruling clans, they had their own leaders and laws and just felt crimped by the sort of law and order governments imposed. In a disputed frontier zone they could roam where they wanted, graze their herds where they wished, and supplement their needs by raiding settled folks according to the time-tested traditions of the steppes they had once called home.

Christians still lived in this anarchic zone, small towns and villages endured, but no government guaranteed the safety of the roads, no police came to the aid of anyone whose store got robbed, and no agency rushed to help in cases of fire, flood, or other catastrophe. The public sphere had eroded, so one had nobody to turn to in times of trouble except one’s clan, one’s friends and—one’s Sufi brothers.

As the new Sufism proliferated through this region, itinerant mystics began to roam the land. Some came from Persia and further east; some emerged locally. Many were dervishes, men who embraced voluntary poverty as a spiritual exercise. They didn’t work but lived on alms in order that they might free up all their time to contemplate God.

Many of these mystic vagabonds were also eccentrics; if you were living on alms, there was probably some advantage to standing out from the crowd. Kalendar, one of the earliest of these mystic vagabonds, wandered from town to town with bands of followers, all beating drums, chanting, singing, shouting, ranting, wildly exhorting people to come to Allah and urging them also to fight the infidels, fight them, fight! He and his followers had unkempt hair, they dressed in rags, and they disturbed the peace, but they excited fervid passions and strange ideas, and wherever Kalendar went, Kalendari brotherhoods sprouted in his wake.

Almost as a defense against wild men like Kalendar, more respectable people embraced another mystic named Bektash, an austere ascetic. For all his clerical sobriety, Bektash had a disturbing intensity about him, but at least he didn’t shout. He became the favorite Sufi of the ulama.

Then there were the Mevlevi dervishes, darlings of the intellectuals and cognoscenti. They sprang up around a poet named Jalaludin, who was born in Balkh, for which reason, in Afghanistan, he is known as Jalaludin-i Balkhi. He was a boy when Mongol power began to coalesce around Genghis Khan. His father smelled trouble coming and moved the family west to what was left of the sultanate of Rum, for which reason most of the world knows this poet as Jalaludin-i Rumi (“Jalaludin the Roman.”)

Rumi’s learned father founded a school, and Rumi began teaching there once he came of age, for he acquired his own reputation for learning. He wrote conventional religious treatises that gained him great respect and attracted numerous students, who crowded into his lectures and hung on his every word.

The key moment in Rumi’s legendary biography occurred one day when a ragged stranger came into his classroom. The stranger sat in the back but he wouldn’t keep his mouth shut. He kept bursting into song, disrupting the lecture—he seemed crazy. The stories about this stranger remind one of the young Jack Kerouac ceaselessly shouting “Go!” from the back of the room when Alan Ginsberg was reading Howl for the first time in public. Rumi’s students grabbed hold of the beggar and tried to throw him out of the room, but their professor made them stop and asked the man who he was and what he wanted.

“I am Shams-i Tabrez,” the stranger said, “and I have come for you.”

To the astonishment of his students, Rumi closed his book, cast off his scholar’s cloak, and said, “My teaching days are over. This is my master.” He walked out of the classroom with Shams, never to return.

Jalaludin and the beggar became inseparable. These two bonded passionately but on a purely spiritual level, bonded so utterly that Rumi began to sign his poetry with his master’s name: his lyrics from this period have been collected as The Works of Shams-i Tabrez. Before Rumi met Shams, he was a respected writer whose work might have been read for a hundred years. After he met Shams, he became one of the greatest mystic poets in the history of literature.

After a number of years, Shams mysteriously disappeared, and Rumi went on to compose a single thousand-page poem called Mathnawi Ma’nawi (The Spiritual Manuscript). In the famous opening passage, Rumi poses a question: why is the melody of the flute so piercingly sad? Then he answers his own question: because the flute started out as a reed, growing by the river bank, rooted in soil. When it was made into a flute, it was severed from its roots. The sorrow keening in its song is the reed’s wistful memory of its lost connection to the source. In the next thirty thousand couplets, Rumi delivers hundreds of stories in a language thrumming with eroticized religiosity, illustrating how we human flutes can recover our connection to the source. Rumi remains influential, even in the English-speaking world, where translations of his work outsell those of every other poet.4

In short, Sufism had something for every taste and class. Sufis converted the pastoral nomads to Islam, so these tribes imbibed the passions of Islam before absorbing its doctrines. Sufi orders intertwined with artisans’ guilds, with merchants associations, with the peasantry, with aristocratic military groups—like a web, Sufism connected all the disparate groups in this atomized world.

Some Sufi brotherhoods devoted to futuwwah ideals developed into ghazi corporations. The word ghazi meant something like “warrior saint.” Ghazis were reminiscent of the Knights Templar and other Christian military orders spawned during the Crusades, except that no one ordained them, Islam having no pope-like figure to do the ordaining. Instead, ghazis ordained themselves, forming around some masterful knight and taking inspiration from some charismatic sheikh. They adopted special headgear and cloaks and other accessories as badges of membership in their group. They had initiation rituals involving vows, pledges, iconic artifacts and arcane relics, much the same sorts of things boys cook up when they form “secret clubs.”

Members of ghazi orders centered their lives around campaigns into Christian territory to perform great deeds of valor for the advancement of the one true faith. They were very much like an Islamic version of the knights of Arthurian legend.

Hundreds of these ghazi group sprang up, big ones and little ones. In search of fame and fortune, these knights sallied into the frontier “marches,” that ever-growing belt of territory that the Byzantines still officially claimed but where their authority had grown dubious. Once in a while some ghazi chieftain secured enough territory to claim a little state of his own, whereupon he promptly declared himself an amir (also emir) and his little state an emirate. “Amir” was an Islamic title that had once meant “commander” but now meant something more like “prince.”

With eastern Anatolia crystallizing into numerous little ghazi emirates, Byzantine power shrank and the lawless frontier zone receded westward—which posed an ironic contradiction: the frontier marches were mother’s milk to the ghazi states. As the disputed zone moved, so did the ghazi knights; they leaked away from the established emirates and off into the wild west, where a man could still prove himself in battle and incidentally score some plunder.

At a certain point, however, the wild west stopped receding because the frontier was close enough to Constantinople that the Byzantines could make a stand. Ghazi knights draining from the east began to accumulate in these frontline states situated nose to nose with Byzantine power. Knights could find employment here for at least fifty years after fighting had faded out in the rest of Anatolia. The frontline states accordingly grew ever stronger while the eastern emirates grew ever weaker. It was here on this militarized frontier, therefore, that a new world empire was born.5

In 1258 CE, the very year Hulagu destroyed Baghdad, a boy named Othman was born to a leading ghazi family in Anatolia. Othman’s descendants were called the Othmanlis, or Ottomans, as people in the West pronounced it, and they ended up building a mighty empire.

Not that Othman himself built an empire; he only managed to construct the toughest little ghazi emirate in Anatolia. His recent ancestors had been pastoral nomads out of Central Asia, a clan of about four hundred fleeing the Mongols, and he had not moved far from his roots. His palace was his horse, his throne his saddle, and his office his saddlebag. His capital was wherever he camped for the night. All he really bequeathed to his successors was a process. In the fighting season, he would lead his men into the frontier provinces and accumulate booty by fighting Christians. In the “off-season,” he collected taxes from any productive settled folks he found in areas he controlled.

As the Ottomans grew stronger, they began to absorb other ghazi states, sometimes by conquering them, sometimes by out-and-out buying them. Ghazi chieftains who had been sovereign emirs became feudal aristocrats, still powerful in their own right but subservient to an even greater power, the head of the Ottoman dynasty.

The Ottomans profited from the single most crucial bit of luck that makes the difference between success and failure for a family dynasty: it had a series of long-lived rulers, all of them pretty capable. One of them, Murat I, sailed across the Black Sea and began adding bits of Europe to his conquests. By his era (1350-1389 CE) the Ottoman dynasty no longer ruled from horseback but had an urban capital, a palace, a government bureaucracy, a tax policy, a treasury. Ottoman rulers adopted a veneer of high Islamic civilization, not to mention some of the rituals, pomp, and ceremonials of the Byzantine court.

Another Ottoman ruler, Bayazid I (1389-1402) launched a program called the devshirme, which consisted of bringing captured boys from Christian Europe back to his palace, raising them as Muslims, and developing them into crack soldiers. These were really just the familiar mamluks of Islamic history by another name; mamluks were Turkish boys growing up in Arab or Persian courts, these were Christian boys growing up in a Turkish court. The soldiers developed by the devshirme were called janissaries, a corruption of the Turkish phrase Yeni Ceri, which means “new troops.”

Bayazid’s janissaries liberated him from his own feudal lieges, those recently sovereign aristocratic ghazis who traced their descent back to Central Asia. Their troops still provided Bayazid with foot soldiers, but the janissaries gave him a professional corps of officers to lead them.

Bayazid’s raids reached ever deeper into Europe. The kings of France and Hungary got together and organized a force to check him, but Bayazid demolished their joint army in 1396, at Nicopolis, a town in present-day Bulgaria. Now the amir of the Ottomans truly ruled an empire. In fact, Bayazid had outgrown the title of amir. He called himself the sultan, thereby declaring himself the chief executive of Dar al-Islam, a secular version of the khalifa. His military adventures became full-blown campaigns, and every year he launched a new one, striking west one year, heading east the next year to absorb more ghazi emirates and extend his rule into the old Muslim heartland. Back and forth he scuttled, moving at such speed that people began to call him the Thunderbolt. Bayazid acquired the swagger of a Caesar.

Then it all came crashing down. On one of his forays east, Bayazid ran into a warrior tougher than himself—the dreaded Timur-i-lang. Bayazid’s own feudal lieges had called Timur into Anatolia. They resented having lost sovereignty to the Ottomans, and so they sent a message to Timur, complaining that Bayazid was spending so much time in Europe, he was turning into a Christian. Well, Timur-i-lang would have none of that, for along with being a ruthless savage of unparalleled cruelty, Timur was also a Muslim who fancied himself a patron of the high arts, a scholar in his own right, and a devout defender of Islam.

In 1402, near the city of Ankara, these two civilized patrons of the arts set niceties aside and went at each other blade to axe, and may the worst man win. Timur-i-lang proved himself the more brutal of the two. He crushed the Ottoman army, took Emperor Bayazid himself prisoner, clapped him in a cage like some zoo animal, and hauled him back to his jewel-encrusted lair in Central Asia, the city of Samarqand. Despair and humiliation so overwhelmed Bayazid that he committed suicide. Out west, Bayazid’s sons began to war with each other over the truncated remains of his one-time empire.

It looked like the end of the Ottomans. It looked like they would end up having been just another of the many meteoric Turkish kingdoms that flashed and fizzled. But in fact, this kingdom was different. From Othman to Bayazid, the Ottomans had not just conquered; they had woven a new social order (which I will describe a few pages further on). For now, suffice to say that in the aftermath of Timur’s depredations, they had deep social resources to draw upon. Timur died within decades, his empire tattered quickly down to a small (but culturally brilliant) kingdom in western Afghanistan. The Ottoman Empire, by contrast, not only recovered, it began to rise.

In 1452 it jumped to a higher level, a stage that began when a new emperor named Sultan Mehmet took the throne. Mehmet inherited an empire in good shape, but he brought one problem to the throne. He was only twenty-one and tougher, older men circled him hungrily, each one thinking that an older, tougher, hungrier man (like himself) might make a better sultan. Mehmet knew he had do something spectacular to back down potential rivals and cement his grip on power.

So he decided to conquer Constantinople.

Constantinople no longer represented a really important military prize. The Ottomans had already skirted it, pushing into eastern Europe. Constantinople was more of a psychological prize: the city had immense symbolic significance for both east and west.

To the west, an unbroken line ran from Constantinople back to the Rome of Augustus and Julius Caesar. To Christians, this was still the capital of the Roman Empire, which Constantine had infused with Christianity. It was only later historians who looked at this eastern phase of Roman history and called it by a new name. The Byzantines themselves called themselves Romans, and thought of their city as the new Rome.

As for Muslims, Prophet Mohammed himself had once said that the final victory of Islam would be at hand when Muslims took Constantinople. In the third century of Islam, the Arab philosopher al-Kindi had speculated that the Muslim who took Constantinople would renew Islam and go on to rule the world. Many scholars said the conqueror of Constantinople would be the Mahdi, “the Expected One,” the mystical figure whom many Muslims expected to see when history approached its endpoint. Mehmet therefore had good reason to believe that taking Constantinople would be a public relations coup that would make the whole world look at him differently.

The many technical experts now working for the Ottomans included a Hungarian engineer named Urban, who specialized in building cannons, still a relatively new type of weapon. Sultan Mehmet asked Urban to build him something special along these lines. Urban set up a foundry about 150 miles from Constantinople and poured out artillery. His masterpiece was a cannon twenty-seven feet long and so big around that a man could crawl down inside it. The so-called Basilic could fire a twelve-hundred-pound granite stone a mile.

It took ninety oxen and about four hundred men to transport this monstrous gun to the battlefield. As it turned out, the Basilic was too big: it took more than three hours to load, and each time it fired it recoiled so hard it tended to kill more people behind it than in front of it. Besides, at a distance of a mile, it was so inaccurate it actually missed the whole city of Constantinople; but this didn’t matter. The big gun wasn’t an important military asset so much as an important symbolic asset—announcing to the world that this was the sort of weapon the Ottomans brought to the field. In addition to the Basilic they had, of course, many smaller cannons. They were the best armed and most technologically advanced army of their time.



The siege of Constantinople lasted fifty-four days, the city being all but impregnable. Located on a triangular spit of land shaped like a rhinoceros horn, it faced the Bosporus Straits on one side and the Sea of Marmara on another. On these sides it had high sea walls and promontories commanding the narrow straits, from which the Byzantines could bombard any ships approaching the city. On the land side, it had a series of stone walls that stretched across the whole peninsula from sea to sea, each wall with its own moat. Each moat was broader and deeper and each wall thicker and taller than the one before. The innermost wall stood ninety feet high and was more than thirty feet thick; no one could get past that barrier, especially since the Byzantines had a secret weapon called Byzantine fire, a glutinous burning substance that was launched from catapults and splashed when it landed, sticking to flesh. It could not be doused with water—in fact, it was probably some primitive form of napalm.

The Ottomans persisted, however. The cannons kept booming, the janissaries kept charging, the immense besieging army made up of recruits from many different tribes and populations including Arabs, Persians, and even European Christians kept storming the ramparts, but in the end, the battle turned on the fact that someone forgot to close one small door in one corner of the third and most impregnable wall. A few Turks forced their way in through there, secured the sector, opened a larger gate to their compatriots, and suddenly the most enduring capital of the western world’s longest lasting empire was going down in flames.

Mehmet gave his troops permission to loot Constantinople for three days but not one minute longer. He wanted his troops to preserve the city, not destroy it, because he meant to use it as his own capital. From this time on, the city came to be known informally as Istanbul (the formal name change would not occur until centuries later) and the victorious sultan was henceforth called Mehmet the Conqueror.

Imagine for a moment what might have happened if Muslims had taken Constantinople during the prime of Islam’s expansion, if Constantinople rather than Baghdad had been the capital of the Abbasids: straddling the waters linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, possessing all the ports they needed to launch navies across the Aegean and Mediterranean to Greece and Italy and on to Spain and the French Coast and through the Straits of Gibraltar up the Atlantic coast to England and Scandinavia, combined with their proven prowess in land warfare—all of Europe might well have been absorbed into the Islamic empire.

But seven hundred years had passed since the prime of the khalifate. Europe was no longer a wretched continent eking out a meager existence in squalid poverty. It was a continent on the rise. On the Iberian peninsula, Catholic monarchs were busy driving the last embattled Muslims back to Africa and funding sailors like Columbus to go explore the world. Belgium had developed into a banking capital, the Dutch were busy cooking up an awesome business expertise, the continent of Italy was muscling up into the Renaissance, and England and France were coalescing into nation-states. Constantinople (Istanbul) gave the Ottomans a peerless base of operations, but Christian Europe was no longer any pushover. At the time, however, no one knew who was on the rise and who on the decline, and with the Ottoman triumph, Islam certainly looked resurgent to the Muslim world at large.

Istanbul had only about seventy thousand people at the time of the conquest, so Mehmet the Conqueror launched a set of policies such as tax concessions and property giveaways to repopulate his new capital. Mehmet also reestablished the classical Islamic principles of conquest: non-Muslims were accorded religious freedom and left in possession of their land and property but had to pay the jizya. People of every religion and ethnicity came flowing in, making Istanbul a microcosm of an empire pulsing with diversity.6

Now the Ottomans ruled an empire that straddled Europe and Asia with substantial territory in both continents. The greatest city in the world was theirs. Their greatest achievement, however, wasn’t conquest. Somehow, in the course of their fifteen decades of rule, they had brought a unique new social order into being. Somehow, that anarchic soup of nomads, peasants, tribal warriors, mystics, knights, artisans, merchants, and miscellaneous others populating Anatolia had coalesced into a society of clockwork complexity full of interlocking parts that balanced one another, each acting as a spur and check on the others. Nothing like it had been seen before, and nothing like it has been seen again. Only contemporary American society offers an adequate analogy to the complexity of Ottoman society—but only to the complexity. The devil is in the details, and our world differs from that of the Ottomans in just about every detail.

Broadly speaking, the Ottoman world was divided horizontally between a ruling class that taxed, organized, issued orders, and fought, and a subject class that produced and paid taxes. But it was also organized vertically by Sufi orders and brotherhoods. So people separated by their classes might find themselves united in reverence to the same sheikh.

On the other hand, Ottoman society as a whole was compartmentalized into the major religious communities, each with its own vertical and horizontal divisions, and each a semi-autonomous nation or millet, in charge of its own religious rites, education, justice, charities, and social services.

The Jews, for example, were one millet, headed by the grand rabbi in Istanbul, a considerable community because Jews came flocking into the Ottoman world throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, fleeing from persecution in western Europe—England had expelled them during the Crusades, they had endured pogroms in eastern Europe, they were facing the Spanish Inquisition in Iberia, and discrimination hounded them just about everywhere.

The Eastern Orthodox community was another millet, headed by the patriarch of Constantinople (as Christians still called it), and he had authority over all Slavic Christians in the empire, a number that kept increasing as the Ottomans extended their conquests in Europe.

Then there was the Armenian millet, another Christian community but separate from the Greeks because the Greek and Armenian churches considered one another’s doctrines heretical.

The leader of each millet represented his people at court and answered directly to the sultan. In a sense, the Muslims were just another of these millets, and they too had a top leader, the Sheikh al-Islam, or “Old Man of Islam,” a position created by Bayazid shortly before he was crushed by Timur-i-lang. The Sheikh al-Islam legislated according to the shari’a and presided over an army of muftis who interpreted the law, judges who applied the law, and mullahs who inducted youngsters into the religion, provided basic religious education, and administrated rites in local neighborhoods and villages.

The shari’a, however, was not the only law in the land. There was also the sultan’s code, a parallel legal system that dealt with administrative matters, taxation, interaction between millets, and relationships among the various classes, especially the subject class and the ruling class.

Don’t try to follow this complexity: the complexity of the Ottoman system defies a quick description. I just want to give you a flavor of it. This whole parallel legal system, including the lawyers, bureaucrats, and judges who shaped and applied it, was under the authority of the grand vizier, who headed up the palace bureaucracy (another whole world in itself). This vizier was the empire’s second most powerful figure, after the sultan.

Or was he third? After all, the Sheikh al-Islam had the right to review every piece of secular legislation and veto it if he thought it conflicted with the shari’a, or send it back for modification.

On the other hand, the Sheikh al-Islam served at the pleasure of the sultan, and it was the sultan’s code the grand vizier was administering. So if the grand vizier and the Sheikh al-Islam came into conflict . . . guess who backed down. Or did he?

You see how it was: check, balance, check, balance. . . .

Another set of checks and balances built into Ottoman society involved the devshirme instituted by Bayazid. At first, as I mentioned, this was just the mamluk system by another name. Like the mamluks, the janissaries were trained to serve as the ruler’s bodyguards—at first. But then the janissaries’ function expanded.

For one thing, they didn’t all end up as soldiers anymore. Some were taught administrative skills. Others received cultural training. The sultan began appointing janissaries to top posts in his government as well as his armies and navies. He put janissaries in charge of important cultural institutions as well. Sinon, the Ottoman architect most responsible for establishing that characteristic style of Ottoman mosque—a solid edifice capped with one big dome and many smaller mushroom domes and four pencil-tin minarets at the corners—was a janissary.

Originally, the devshirme took boys only from Christian families in newly conquered territory. But Mehmet the Conqueror instituted another crucial innovation: he extended the devshirme into the empire itself. Henceforth, any family under Ottoman rule, Muslim or non-Muslim, high or low, might see some of its sons sucked into this special form of “slavery,” which was, paradoxically, a route to the highest strata of Ottoman society.

Through the devshirme, the Ottomans crafted a brand new power elite for their society. Unlike the elite of other societies, however, the janissaries were forbidden to marry or have (legitimate) children. They could not, therefore, become a hereditary elite. In fact, the devshirme was a mechanism for constantly turning the social soil. It sought out promising youngsters from all sectors of society, gave them the most rigorous possible intellectual and physical training, and then charged them with running the empire. Naturally, they sucked a good deal of power away from the old, traditional, military, Turkish aristocracy, those families whose ancestral roots went back to central Asia, which was all to the good as far as the Ottomans were concerned. It weakened their potential rivals.

And yet the Ottomans did not eliminate these potential rivals, even though they could have. No, the Ottoman genius for checks and balances kept the old aristocratic families in place and left them some power to serve as a check on the janissaries should the latterever get any big ideas.

What power was left to the old nobility? Well, for one thing, they remained the biggest landowners in the empire and the major taxpayers. “Landowner” is a bit of a misnomer, however, because officially the sultan owned every scrap of soil in his empire. He only leased out parcels of it to favored people as “tax farms” (timars in Turkish). A timar was a rural property from whose inhabitants the timar holder was allowed to collect taxes. Those inhabitants were, of course, mostly peasant cultivators living on the land. Tax farmers had permission to collect as much as they wanted from these people. In exchange for the privilege, they had to pay the government a fixed fee every year. Whatever they collected beyond that sum was theirs to keep; and there was no limit on how they were allowed to collect. The government’s share did not depend on how much the tax farmer collected but on how much land was in the “farmer’s” care. It was a tax on land, not a tax on income. If a property produced beyond all expectations, the tax farmer benefited, not the government. If a timar did poorly, the tax farmer took the hit. If he could not pay his tax for a number of years in a row, the timar was taken away from him and given to someone else.

After a successful campaign, the sultan might reward his best generals by giving them timars. Typically, of course, except in newly conquered areas, the sultan had to take a timar away from one person in order to reward another. The fact that people could lose their timars meant that the landed aristocracy was only semi-hereditary. Here then was another mechanism that promoted social fluidity and kept the Ottoman world in flux.

You might suppose that this timar system encouraged Ottoman aristocrats to wring peasants dry. After all, they got to keep whatever they extracted after paying the government fee. But the timar holders were not, in fact, free to do as they wished, because the peasants could appeal to the shari’a courts for justice, and these were a whole separate institution, a separate power base in society, controlled and staffed by the ulama. The nobility had no shortcut into it. If a family wanted to “place” a son in this legal system, the son had to go through the same long process as anyone else for joining the ulama, such a long process, in fact, that by the time he made it, his social ties would mostly be with other ulama. So his interests would be aligned with theirs and shaped by the ancient doctrine more than by his clan or family roots.

Despite its pervasive power, however, the clerical establishment did not own the religious life of Muslims in the Ottoman empire. Sufism continued to prosper as the religion of the masses, with most people claiming at least nominal affiliation with one or another of the Sufi orders and a great many actively belonging to some brotherhood. This is not to say that all (or very many) of the common folks in the Ottoman Empire were practicing mystics. It’s more to say that Sufism, for most people, had come to mean folklore, superstitions, shrines, amulets, remedies, spells, and the veneration of Sufi “saints” alleged to possess supernatural abilities.

Besides, these Sufi orders were intertwined with the akhis, the associations of craftsmen and merchants I mentioned earlier. The akhi guilds had their own autonomous status as social organizations. They set standards for their members, licensed new businesses, collected dues, extended credit, paid out old-age pensions, took care of funeral expenses, offered health care, operated shelters and soup kitchens, gave out scholarships, and also organized fairs, festivals, processions, and other public entertainments. Every guild had its own masters, councils, sheikhs, and internal political processes. Members with complaints could go to guild officials the way modern industrial workers go to their union reps (where unions still exist). If necessary, guild officials represented their members in lawsuits and petitioned the state on members’ behalf. By the same token, the state regulated the guilds, imposing standards of its own and controlling prices in the public interest.

Every craftsman belonged to a guild, and many guild members also belonged to some Sufi brotherhood that might cut across guild lines. The brotherhoods generally had lodges where members could gather to socialize, not just with one another, but also with merchants and other travelers passing through, for the akhi-Sufi lodges actively served as traveler’s aid societies and hospitality centers.

This glimpse into the Ottoman social clockwork does not begin to exhaust its fractal intricacy: look closer and deeper into Ottoman society and you’ll see the same order of complexity at every level. Everything was connected to everything else and connected in many ways, which was fine when all the connections balanced out and all of the parts were working. Centuries later, when the empire entered its decrepitude, all the intertwining parts and intermeshing institutions became a peculiarly Ottoman liability; their intricacy meant that trouble in one place or sphere translated mysteriously to trouble in a dozen other places or spheres—but that came later. In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was an awesomely well-functioning machine.

The Ottoman’s eastward expansion did get blocked by another rising power, the Safavids (about whom more later), but the Ottomans simply headed south at that point and conquered the old Arab heartland from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, then conquered Egypt, eliminating the mamluk dynasty from history, and then went on expanding west along the North African coast.

At their apogee, during the reign of the sixteenth century Suleiman the Magnificent (the title Europeans gave him—among his own he usually wore the honorific of Suleiman the Lawgiver) the Ottoman empire probably ranked as the world greatest power. It straddled Europe and Asia, it possessed both Rome (i.e., Constantinople) and Mecca, not to mention Cairo; and its monarch ruled over more people and more territory than any other. No wonder the Ottoman ruler began to call himself khalifa. No one disputed the title. Of course, that’s partly because no one thought it worth disputing. The title had only ceremonial significance by this time, but still it’s worth noting that the Ottoman emperor claimed the two most important titles of universal authority in Islam: for the first time in history khalifa and sultan were the same man. For the ordinary Muslim citizen, this meant that surely history was moving forward again: the Umma was back on track to becoming the global community.

THE SAFAVIDS (906-1138 AH)

“Khalifa” and “sultan” were not, however, the only titles of universal authority in Islam: there was also “imam,” as understood by that other sect of Muslims, the Shi’i—which brings us to the Safavids of Persia, the ones who blocked Ottoman expansion eastward.

The Safavids came to power in a most unusual way. Their roots go back to a Sufi brotherhood that took shape just after the Mongol eruption. The order coalesced in northern Persia around a spiritual master named Sheikh Safi al-Din and came to be known as the Safavids.

For three generations, this brotherhood functioned pretty much like any other Sufi order of the time: it was a peaceful, apolitical group that offered spiritual companionship and a refuge from the turmoil of the world. But then the order began to change. For one thing, when the third sheikh died, his son became the new sheikh, and when he died, his son, and after that his son, and so on. In short, leadership of the group became hereditary.

Second, somewhere along the way, these sheikhs developed political ambitions. They enlisted chosen initiates into an elite corps who not only learned techniques for refining their spiritual devotions but also learned martial arts. They became the sheikh’s bodyguards, then his enforcers, and then they grew into a serious military caste.

As an emblem of membership in the Safavid guard, these soldier-mystics wore special red hats, and so they were called the Qizilbash, Turkish for “the redheads.” The hat they wore had a distinctive twelve-fold design, which reflected the third and most important change in the Safavid order: their switch to Shi’ism.

The twelve folds stood for the twelve imams of mainstream Shi’ism. As I mentioned earlier, Shi’i felt that absolute and hereditary religious authority belonged to a figure called the imam, who was God’s representative on Earth. There was always one imam in the world; there were never two; and the true imam of the age was always descended from Prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali.

Whenever an imam had more than one son, his death opened up the possibility of disagreement about which of his progeny was truly the next imam. Just such a disagreement over the fifth imam gave birth to a minority sect called the Zaidis (or Fivers.) Another disagreement over the seventh imam had spawned the Isma’ilis (or Seveners).

The remaining Shi’i agreed on the imam all the way to the twelfth generation down from Ali, but the twelfth imam disappeared when he was a little boy. Non-Shi’i assume he was murdered. Shi’i, however, believe he never died but went into “occultation,” a concept peculiar to Shi’ism: occultation meant he could (can) no longer be seen by ordinary people.

Mainstream Shi’i (or Twelvers) call this twelfth imam the “hidden imam.” Shi’ite doctrine holds that the Hidden Imam is and always will be alive, that he is still in direct communication with God and is still guiding the world in some unseen way. The doctrine doesn’t say exactly how the Hidden Imam remains hidden. It doesn’t say whether he has become invisible, donned a disguise, changed form, gone to ground in some cave, or what. Instrumental explanations like these belong to the world of science; occultation is a mystical concept to which instrumental explanations are irrelevant.

Shi’ite doctrine declares that the twelfth imam will reveal himself at the end of history, sparking the perfection of Allah’s community and inaugurating the final Age of Justice, the endpoint sought by all good Muslims. Upon reaching its endpoint, history will end, the dead will be resurrected, and Allah’s judgment will sort all who have ever lived into heaven or hell according to their just desserts. Because of this expectation that the Hidden Imam will appear again at the end of days, Shi’i sometimes refer to him as the Mahdi “the expected one” (a concept that exists in Sunni Islam too, but less vividly.) Most of today’s Iranians adhere to this branch of Shi’ism, making the Twelvers the mainstream Shi’i of modern times.

In the mid-fifteenth century, the Safavids embraced this complex of beliefs. The twelve folds on the red hats worn by the Qizilbash symbolized the twelve imams. By this time the Safavids were a cultlike group headed by an ambitious sheikh with a growing army of soldiers at his command. The soldiers saw him not just as their commander in chief but as their lifeline to heaven.

These politicized Safavids were operating in a context of social chaos. The Persian world, smashed once by Genghis Khan and smashed again by Timur-i-lang, was fragmented into many little principalities ruled by diverse Turkish chieftains. The Turkish chieftains were all resolute Sunnis. Shi’ism, by contrast, had long been identified with Persian resistance to invasive aliens, a pattern that began in the days of Arab dominance and picked up again once Turks took over. Now, in the wake of the Mongol catastrophe, this militant Shi’ite cult known as the Safavids easily linked up with all the antistate, revolutionary activity going on. No wonder the Safavids made local princes uneasy.

In 1488, one of these princes decided to take action. He had the head of the Safavid order killed. Then for good measure he had the man’s eldest son murdered as well. He probably would have done away with his younger son too, a two-year-old boy by the name of Ismail, except that the Qizilbash whisked this little fellow into hiding, just a few steps ahead of the state-paid killers.

Over the next ten years, the Safavids hardened into a formidable secret society. Ismail grew up in hiding, hustled constantly from safe house to safe house. The whole time, the Qizilbash regarded him as the head of their order, and not just a figurehead. They revered the boy and believed he had the spark of divinity in him. Imagine how he must have seen the world (and himself) by the time he reached adolescence, having spent his whole life in secrecy, imbued with a sense of mortal danger, and surrounded, even in his earliest memories, by a shadowy corps of men in red hats who bowed to him, hung on his words, and obeyed his every whim. By chance, the boy bred to such a sense of self-importance, happened to be brilliant and tough.

Around the age of twelve, Ismail came out of hiding with his force of Qizilbash. He disposed quickly of the prince who had killed his father. Other princes rushed to smash him, thinking, how hard could it be to defeat a twelve-year-old boy? Very hard, it turned out.

In 1502, at the age of fifteen, Ismail declared himself Shahanshah of Iran. Shahanshah meant “king of kings.” It was the title the Sassanid monarchs had used, and the ancient Persian monarchs before them. In rejecting the titles of “khalifa” and “sultan,” Ismail was rejecting Arab and Turkish historical tradition in favor of a nativist Persian identity. In calling his realm Iran, he was invoking the ancestral king named in Firdausi’s epic of the Persian people, The Book of Kings. In fact, Ismail’s propagandists said he was related by blood to the Sassanid kings of yore.

Ismail also separated himself from his neighbor by declaring Twelver Shi’ism the state religion. He had his henchman publicly curse the first three khalifas of Islam: Abu Bakr, Omar, and Othman. The state declared that Ali was the Prophet’s only legitimate successor and the imams descended from him the only religious authorities. Ismail’s propagandists spread the news that in addition to being descended from the Sassanids, Ismail was also descended from Ali. They suggested that he was even in direct communication with the Hidden Imam (who was, of course, in direct communication with God). In fact, Ismail came pretty close to declaring that he himself was the Hidden Imam and may well have believed this of himself—how could he not, given his upbringing? Some people say he even thought he was God.

Fortified by his sense of destiny, Ismail sent preachers into the Ottoman Empire to spread his religious message. His agents called upon Ottoman subjects to convert to Shi’ism and accept Ismail as their sole divinely guided leader. He also set to work vigorously persecuting Sunnis under his power. Some saw signs of madness in the king’s conduct and immigrated hastily into the Ottoman empire. Of those who stayed, many were imprisoned or killed.

Well, wouldn’t you know it: the Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim retaliated by locking up or executing Shi’is living in his realm. Inevitably, as Sunnis fled west into Anatolia, Shi’is fled east into Persia. The whole process led to an ever greater concentration of Shi’ism in the Safavid empire (and Sunnism in the Ottoman) and the Safavids did everything they could to promote this trend as well as to fuse Shi’ism with Persian culture. This fusion of Shi’ism and Persian nationalism became the ideological foundation of their new empire, the core of which later became the modern nation of Iran.

As part of this campaign, the Safavids elevated the Tazieh into a national ritual drama. The Tazieh was a cycle of Shi’ite passion plays recounting the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala. The plays came out of a mourning ritual conducted in special buildings calledtakiah khanas. Traditionally, on the tenth day of the month of Muharam (the day of Hussein’s martyrdom) Shi’i got together in these places to mourn communally: the custom had been going on for centuries. During the mourning, anyone who felt an urge to tell a piece of the story would jump up and do so in order to arouse and stoke the grief. Shi’i became thoroughly familiar with every detail of the martyrdom and every story that could possibly be told about it. For the telling of these plays they developed a distinctive style of oration designed to trigger lamentation. The collection of all these stories constituted the Tazieh (many pieces were written down, but there was no single written version) and every year, on the Tenth of Muharram, now that the Safavids held power, Shi’i through the empire took to the streets (not just to takiah khanas) for a cathartic outburst of public lamentation and then made their way to state-funded theaters where government-funded professionals enacted the ritual on stage.

When Ismail was twenty-seven years old, he discovered that he wasn’t God after all. The Ottomans dealt him this lesson by invading his realm. Spoiling for a fight, Ismail rushed to meet them. The two armies clashed on the plains of Chaldiran, near the city of Tabrez. The Ottomans had firearms, but the Safavids thought they had something better: old-fashioned religious fervor and a divinely guided leader. This time, firearms proved more useful. Selim crushed Ismail’s forces, almost killed Ismail, and took his capital of Tabrez.

The battle of Chaldiran was as seminal as the Battle of Hastings, which marked the birth of England as a nation-state. Historians usually score Chaldiran as a victory for the Ottomans, but overall it was more of a draw, because Selim could not hold Tabrez. With winter coming, he fell back to more secure bases deeper inside Anatolia, and by the following year the Persians had reoccupied Tabrez and inoculated it with a scorched-earth campaign that left nothing for invaders to feed on if they wanted to attack again. So the battle of Chaldiran actually ended up defining the frontier between the Ottoman and Safavid realms, which hardened eventually into the border between the successor states, Iran and Turkey, and remains the border between those countries to this day.

Ismail went home from Chaldiran a sad and broken man. Losing a battle made him rethink his identity. He spent his remaining years more or less in seclusion, pondering the cosmos and writing religious poetry. Ismail’s empire not only survived his dejection but prospered, in part because it enjoyed a succession of gifted and long-lived rulers.

With the border more or less firmed up, hostilities between the Ottoman and Safavid empires went into remission and trade began flowing in both directions to the benefit of both societies. The Safavid Empire was always smaller than the Ottomans’ and never quite as powerful, but with its single state religion and its single dominant ethnic group, it was culturally more unified.

This no-doubt-about-it Persian Empire peaked under Ismail’s great grandson Shah Abbas the Great, who died in 1629 after a forty-two-year reign. Abbas equipped his armies with firearms and cannons, and in his era Iran developed booming state-supported textile, ceramics, garment, and carpet industries, which exported goods to places as distant as western Europe, Africa, and India.

The art of painting, and particularly of the “Persian miniature”—exquisitely detailed scenes surrounded by floral and geometric borders—climaxed in Safavid Persia. Calligraphy, regarded as a major art form in the Islamic world due to Muslim reverence for the written Qur’an, also reached perfection here. The two arts came together in illuminated books, the highest artistic products of the age, and the culminating work in this form was a Book of Kings, Firdausi’s epic, produced for a Safavid monarch: it had 258 paintings and sixty thousand lines of calligraphy by various artists—essentially, an entire museum between two covers.

Safavid creativity climaxed in architecture. For example, unlike the monumental Ottoman mosques—those somber mounds of domes bracketed by minarets—the Safavids built airy structures that shimmered with glazed mosaic tiles and seemed almost to float, so that even gigantic mosques looked like they were made of lace and light.

And if architecture was the highest art form of Safavid Persia, then city building was its meta-art. The Safavids kept moving their capital (seeking safety from the ever-looming Ottomans) and every time they adopted a new city as their home, they remade it aesthetically. In 1598, after choosing Isfahan as his new capital, Shah Abbas launched a building program that transformed the entire city into a single integrated jewel: by the time he was done, it abounded in public squares, gardens, mosques, mansions, pools, palaces, and public buildings interlaced with handsome boulevards. Awestruck visitors coined the phrase Isfahan Nisfi-Jahan, “Isfahan, half the world” (their point being that if you hadn’t seen Isfahan, you’d missed half of all there was to see in the world).

The Ottoman and Safavid worlds had distinctive differences and yet, for all the hostility between the governments, a sort of civilizational unity ran between them. They were no more different than, say, England and France, and perhaps less so. A traveler going from Istanbul to Isfahan or vice versa would have felt on more or less familiar ground in either place. It’s quite remarkable that two such powerful and distinctive empires could emerge in exactly the same period side by side. What’s even more amazing is that yet another enormous, distinctive, grandiose, and powerful Muslim empire coalesced in just about this same period: the empire of the Moghuls, which eventually stretched from Burma, across India, to the middle of Afghanistan where it butted right up against the Safavid frontier.


The Moghuls were every bit the equal of the Ottomans in wealth and strength. About 20 percent of the world’s current population lives in the territory they once ruled, including all or part of five modern countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Burma. The man who founded this gigantic empire was an almost exact contemporary of Shah Ismail’s named Babur, which means “tiger,” and in some ways, he was even more remarkable than the prodigious Safavid teenager.

Babur claimed descent from both Timur-i-lang and Chengez Khan. What the blood ties really were, who knows, but Babur took his genealogy seriously; it give him a lifelong sense of mission. His father ruled a little kingdom called Farghana, just north of today’s Afghanistan, and when he died in 1495, Babur inherited this throne. He was twelve years old.

Within a year he had lost his kingdom, which is hardly surprising: he was only twelve, after all! But he regrouped and conquered legendary Samarqand, Timur’s one-time capital—then lost it. He went back to Farghana and took that again. But his enemies won it back. Then he conquered Samarqand a second time, this time with just 240 men—but could not hold it. By the time he was eighteen, Babur had gained and lost two kingdoms twice apiece and found himself on the run through the mountains of Afghanistan with his mother and sisters and a few hundred followers. For three years, he and his band roamed the wilds, looking for a new kingdom: kinging was all he knew, and king was the only job title he was seeking.

I dare say any teenager who holds together a band of adult warriors over many years of homeless exile must have something going for him; and Babur was certainly an intimidating physical specimen. The stories say he could jump across a stream holding a full-grown man tucked under each arm. (They don’t say what the full-grown men thought of this exercise.) Unlike most tough guys, however, Babur was sensitive, artistic, and romantic. He kept a diary throughout his adventures, and late in life penned an autobiography that became a classic of Turkish literature. After his grandson had it translated into the more prestigious Persian, the book achieved a high place in that canon as well. In his book, Babur reveals himself with extraordinary honesty. After a crucial military loss, for example, he tells us he could not help “crying a great deal.” What kind of tough guy admits such a thing? Later he reports on his arranged marriage and his failure to work up any enthusiasm for his wife, despite his earnest efforts. He visits her only every week or two, he says, and then only because his mother nags at him. Then he falls in love—with a boy he sees in the bazaar. “In that frothing up of desire and passions and under the stress of youthful folly, I used to wander bare-headed, bare-footed, through street and lane, orchard and vineyard; I showed civility neither to friend nor stranger, took no care for myself or others. . . .”7 Thus does the future emperor expose his vulnerable adolescent passions to us—and yet this is the fellow who has, twice already, conquered and lost Samarqand.

In the course of his wandering, Babur and his band came over a rise in the hills and saw a charming city tucked into a crack of a valley below. Babur fell in love again, this time with Kabul. And Kabul, he tells us, returned his affection: the citizens hated their own ruler and begged Babur to be their king instead. Does this sound like a conqueror’s implausible propaganda? Maybe so, but I can tell you that Kabul’s affection for Babur lingers to this day. The public gardens he built overlooking the city remain a favorite park, and his grave up there is still a beloved shrine.

Babur was crowned king of Kabul in 1504, and now he had a base. He considered and rejected another attempt on Samarqand. He and his advisers decided to head south, instead, as so many other Turko-Mongol conquerors had done before. Babur entered India with ten thousand men and the sultan of Delhi met him on the plains of Panipat with one hundred thousand. Ten to one odds—the stuff of legends! What’s more, the sultan had a thousand elephants, but Babur had an advantage too: firearms. The new technology trumped the old biology as Babur routed the sultan and took possession of Delhi. Like the Ottomans and the Safavids, the Moghuls overwhelmed their enemies because they were fighting spears and arrows with bullets and cannonballs. The third of the three great Muslim “gunpowder” empires was now on the map.

The Moghuls, even more than the Safavids, benefited from a series of long-lived and brilliant rulers. Just six men saw the empire through its first two hundred years. Most were passionate, romantic, and artistic. At least three were military geniuses. One was a poor administrator, but his wife Nur Jahan ruled from behind the throne, and she was the fiery equal of the best Moghuls—a savvy businesswoman, a poet and patron of the arts, an extraordinary sportswoman, and one of the most cunning politicians of her age.

Only one of the six was a dud, and that was Babur’s son. It took this drunkard ten years to lose the entire empire his father had built. While he was on the run through the mountains of Afghanistan, however, his beloved wife gave birth to a boy who would become Akbar the Great, the most remarkable monarch of his age, a contemporary and equal of England’s Queen Elizabeth. His father managed to win his throne back just in time for Akbar to celebrate his twelfth birthday as a prince. Shortly after that, his father heard the call to prayer when he was standing at the top of a staircase in his library and had a sudden inspiration to reform his life. He hustled down to start living as a saint but on the way down tripped and broke his neck, which put his teenaged son on the throne.

Akbar consolidated his grandfather’s conquests, extended them, and set his whole empire in order. These achievements alone would have made him an important monarch, but Akbar was much more than a conqueror.

Early on, he recognized his empire’s key weakness: a small group of Muslims was attempting to rule a vast population of Hindus, whom Muslims had been sacking, pillaging, looting, and killing since the days of Sultan Mahmud the Ghaznavid, some five centuries earlier. Akbar attacked this flaw with a principle he called sulahkul, “universal tolerance.” To prove his sincerity, he married a Hindu princess and declared her first son his heir.

Akbar opened all government positions to Hindus on equal terms with Muslims. He abolished a punitive tax Muslim rulers of this region had long imposed on pilgrims visiting Hindu shrines. Akbar also eliminated the jizya, the Qur’anic tax on non-Muslims. He replaced both with a land tax that applied uniformly to all citizens, high and low. Virtually no other state in the world at this time taxed the nobility, but Akbar broke the mold. He also ordered his troops to protect the shrines and holy places of all religions, not just Islam.

This great Moghul emperor abolished the standing military aristocracy on which his predecessors had depended and set up an administrative system in which every official was appointed and could hold office for only a specified period, after which he had to move on to a new job in another place. Essentially, Akbar pioneered the concept of term limits, interrupting a process that had produced all too many troublemaking regional warlords in the past.

Born and raised a Muslim, Akbar certainly considered himself a Muslim monarch, but he was deeply curious about other religions. He called leading Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and others to his court to explain and debate their views while the emperor listened. Finally Akbar decided every religion had some truth in it and no religion had the whole truth, so he decided to take the best from each and blend them into a single new religion he called Din-i Illahi, “the God Religion.” The doctrines of this new religion included, first, that God was a single, all-powerful unity; second, that the universe was a single integrated whole reflecting its creator; third, that every person’s first religious obligation was to do no harm to others; and fourth, that people could and should model themselves on Perfect Lives, of which many examples existed—Mohammed provided such a model, said Akbar, and so did the Shi’i imams. Akbar went on to suggest modestly that he himself provided yet another.

Ablaze with fervor for his new religion, Akbar built a whole new city dedicated to it. Constructed of red sandstone, Fatehpur Sikri rose in the desert around the grave and shrine of Akbar’s favorite Sufi mystic. The main building here was the private-audience hall, a single large room that had a high domed ceiling and only one element of furniture: a tall pillar connected by catwalks to balconies along the walls. Akbar sat atop this pillar. People who wanted to petition the emperor addressed him from the balconies. Courtiers and other interested parties listened from the floor below.

It’s a testament to Akbar’s charm and majesty that no one revolted against him for trying to promulgate his new religion, but the religion did not take. It wasn’t Muslim enough for Muslims or Hindu enough for Hindus. Fatehpur Sikri didn’t last, either: its water sources dried up and the city withered.

But Akbar’s ideas had not sprung full-blown out of nothing. Movements to blend the best of Islam and Hinduism had been percolating on the subcontinent since Babur’s days, with mysticism providing the point of intersection. In 1499, for example, a man named Nanak had a religious experience that led him to declare, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim.” Although born Hindu, he reached toward Sufism and devoted his life to rejecting and repudiating the caste system. He launched a tradition of spiritual techniques transmitted directly from master to initiate, echoing both Hindu masters and Sufi saints. Guru Nanak’s followers ended up calling themselves Sikhs, a new religion.

A contemporary of Guru Nanak’s, the illiterate poet Kabir, was born of a widowed Hindu mother but raised by a family of Muslim weavers. He began spouting lyrics celebrating love in a spirit that smacked of both Sufism and Hinduism, and scribes recorded his utterances. The lyrics have survived to this day.

While folk mystics in Moghul India were producing passionate lyrics rooted in oral traditions, court poets were elaborating a complex metaphysical style of Persian-language poetry. At the same time, Moghul artists were developing their own more robust version of the painted “Persian” miniatures and illuminated books.

Moghul creativity reached its apogee in architecture, which managed to combine the solid majesty of Ottoman styles with the airy lightness of the Safavid. The fifth Moghul monarch Shah Jahan was himself a genius in this field. In his time, he was called the Just King, but few today remember his many political or military achievements: what they remember about him is his consuming love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, “ornament of the palace,” who died shortly after Shah Jahan began his reign. The grieving emperor devoted the next twenty years to building a mausoleum for her: the Taj Mahal. Often called the most beautiful building in the world, the Taj Mahal is a masterpiece as singular and universally famous as the Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. What’s astounding is that the artist responsible for this tour de force had a day job running an empire, for while many architects and designers contributed to the Taj Mahal, it was the emperor who oversaw every detail of its construction: his was the master eye.8

Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb, the last of the great Moghuls, had no artistic leanings. Music, poetry, and painting left him cold. His passion was religion, and nothing irritated him more than the tradition of tolerance his family had pioneered in the subcontinent. Toward the end of his father’s reign, he went to war with Shah Jahan and seized power. He had the old man clapped in a stone fortress, where the old emperor lived out his life in a one-room cell with a single window too high for him to see through. After his death, however, his jailers found a small mirror affixed to one wall. In that mirror, it turned out, from his bed, Shah Jahan could view the outside world and the only thing he could see out there through that one high window was the Taj Mahal.

Restoring orthodox Islam to a position of privilege in the Moghul empire was Aurangzeb’s obsession. He was a military genius equal to his great grandfather Akbar, and like Akbar he ruled for forty-nine years, so he had time and power to work deep changes in the subcontinent.

The changes he sought and wrought were exactly the opposite of those promoted by his great-grandfather Akbar the Great. He reinstated the jizya. He reimposed special taxes on Hindus. He had his security forces demolish all new Hindu shrines. He expelled Hindus from government positions and went to war with the Rajputs, semiautonomous Hindu rulers in the south, in order to bring them more firmly under the power of his Moghul government and the Muslim clerical establishment, India’s ulama.

Aurangzeb also tried to exterminate the Sikhs. Guru Nanak had been a resolute pacifist, but Aurangzeb’s persecution transformed the Sikhs into a warrior sect whose sacred ritual objects ever since have included a long, curved knife carried by every pious Sikh man.

Even though the last of the Moghul titans was a grim zealot, this dynasty cut a fiery swath through history, and at its peak, around the year 1600, it was surely one of the world’s three greatest and most powerful empires.

Indeed, in the year 1600, a traveler could sail from the islands of Indonesia to Bengal, cross India, go over the Hindu Kush to the steppes north of the Oxus River and back down through Persia, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor to the Balkans, and then back across or around the Black Sea through the Caucusus region and south through Arabia into Egypt and then west to Morocco, and always find himself in a generally familiar world permeated by a single coherent civilization—in much the same way that a modern traveler roaming from San Francisco to London and all across Europe would find himself in a generally familiar civilization with a German flavor here, a Swedish flavor there, a Spanish, British, or Dutch flavor somewhere else.

Yes, that seventeenth-century traveler through the Muslim world would encounter diverse local customs and come across a variety of languages, and yes, he would cross borders and present paperwork to officials working for different sovereign powers, but everywhere he went, he would find certain common elements as well.

In all three of the great Muslim empires and their satellite regions, for example, he would find that Turks generally held political and military power. (Even in Safavid Persia, the ruling family was actually ethnically Turkish and so were many of the Qizilbash.) Throughout this world, the traveler would find that the educated literati tended to know Persian and the classic literature written in that language. Everywhere, he would hear the azan, the call to prayer, chanted in Arabic at certain times of day from numerous minarets, and he would hear Arabic again whenever people performed religious rites of any kind.



Everywhere he went, not just in the three empires but in the outlying frontier zones such as Indonesia and Morocco, society would be permeated with a web of rules and recommendations that shaded up into law and down into the practices and rituals of everyday life with no border between the two. And every society would have its ulama, that powerful, self-regenerating, unelected class of scholars, and they would have an influential grip on daily life. Everywhere, the traveler would come across Sufism and Sufi orders as well. Merchants and traders would have an elevated status, but it would be lower than that of bureaucrats and officials connected to the court, itself a distinct and significant class in society.

Passing through the public realm, the traveler would see very few women. Throughout this world stretching from Indonesia to Morocco, he would have found society divided to a greater or lesser extent into public and private realms, and women would have been sequestered in the private world, while men exercised near total possession of the public realm.

What women the traveler did see in the public world—shopping, for example, or going from one house to another on a visit—would probably have a garment of some kind at least obscuring and perhaps covering their faces. If he saw women with uncovered faces, he would know that they belonged to the lower classes: they might be peasants, for example, or servants, or laborers of some kind. Whatever the women might be wearing, it would not expose their arms, legs, or cleavage, and they would wear a head covering of some kind.

Men’s clothing styles would differ from place to place, but everywhere the traveler went, men’s heads, too, would be covered, their garments would be loose rather than form fitting, and they would wear something that would not permit their crotches to show when they prostrated themselves in the prayer ritual.

Throughout this world, calligraphy would have prestige as an art form, representational (as opposed to abstract and decorative) art would be rare except in illuminated books, and the spoken and written word would be honored.

Every city the traveler passed through would be like a collection of villages without many big through-streets; none would be set up on the checkerboard pattern of Hellenic cities. Every neighborhood would have its own bazaar, every city its spectacular mosques, and the mosques would always feature domes and minarets and would very commonly be decorated with glazed mosaic tiles.

If the traveler struck up a conversation with some stranger in this world, he would find that he and this stranger shared certain mythological references: both would know the leading personalities of the Abrahamic tradition—Adam, David, Moses, Noah, and so on; both would also know not just all about Mohammed but also Abu Bakr, Omar, Ali and Othman, and they would have impressions of and opinions about these personalities. They would share knowledge of major events in history as well; they would know, for example, about the Abbasids and the Golden Age over which they presumably presided, and they would know about the Mongols and the devastation they wrought.

In 1600, in fact, ordinary folks anywhere in this world would have assumed that the Muslim empires and their adjacent frontier territories were in fact “the world.” Or, to quote University of Chicago historian Marshall Hodgson, “In the sixteenth century of our era, a visitor from Mars might well have supposed that the human world was on the verge of becoming Muslim.”9

The Martian would have been mistaken, of course; the course of history had already tipped, because of developments in Europe since the Crusades.

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