Disasters for Ottoman “Soft Power” in 1579

From the luridly titled “Global Politics in the 1580s: One Canal, Twenty Thousand Cannibals, and an Ottoman Plot to Rule the World” by Giancarlo Casale in Journal of World History 18(2007):277-281 (on Project MUSE):

During the lengthy grand vizierate of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha in the 1560s and 1570s—the Ottomans had pursued what we might define today as a policy of “soft empire” in the Indian Ocean. Under Sokollu Mehmed’s direction, this involved a strategy to expand Ottoman influence not through direct military intervention, but rather through the development of ideological, commercial, and diplomatic ties with the various Muslim communities of the region. Only in a few instances (most notably in the case of the Muslim principality of Aceh in western Indonesia) did Istanbul provide direct military assistance in exchange for a formal recognition of Ottoman suzerainty. Elsewhere, a much more informal relationship was the rule, even in places like Gujarat and Calicut where elites enjoyed extremely close commercial, professional, and sometimes familial relations with Istanbul. Despite this high level of contact, tributary relationships or other direct political ties between local states and the Ottoman empire were not normally encouraged.

In the absence of a formal imperial infrastructure, however, Sokollu Mehmed took steps to align the interests of these disparate Muslim communities with those of the Ottoman state in other ways. Evidence suggests, for example, that he established a network of imperial commercial factors throughout the region who bought and sold merchandise for the sultan’s treasury. And at the same time, the grand vizier also began financing pro-Ottoman religious organizations overseas, especially those in predominantly non-Muslim states with influential Muslim trading elites, such as Calicut and Ceylon. In exchange for annual shipments of gold currency from the Ottoman treasury, local preachers in such overseas mosques agreed to read the Friday call to prayer in the name of the Ottoman sultan, and in so doing acknowledged him, if not as their immediate overlord, as a kind of religiously sanctioned “meta-sovereign” over the entire Indian Ocean trading sphere. As “Caliph” and “Protector of the Holy Cities,” the Ottoman sultan thus acted as guarantor of the safety and security of the maritime trade and pilgrimage routes to and from Mecca and Medina, and in exchange could demand a certain measure of allegiance from Muslims throughout the region.

As long as it lasted, this strategy of “soft empire” seems to have worked remarkably well. During Sokollu Mehmed’s term in office (1565–1579), trade through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf flourished as never before, until by the 1570s the Portuguese gave up their efforts to maintain a naval blockade between the Indian Ocean and the markets of the Ottoman Empire. Additionally, the concept of the Ottoman sultan as “universal sovereign” became ever more widely recognized, such that the Sultan’s name was read in the Friday call to prayer of mosques from the Maldives to Ceylon, and from Calicut to Sumatra. Even in the powerful and rapidly expanding Mughal empire, whose Sunni Muslim dynasty was the only one that could legitimately compete with the Ottomans in terms of imperial grandeur, a certain amount of deference toward Istanbul appears to have been the rule.

But then, in 1579—perhaps the single most pivotal year in the political history of the early modern world—a series of cataclysmic and nearly simultaneous international events conspired to undermine this carefully constructed system from almost every conceivable direction. Most obviously, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, the grand architect of the Ottomans’ “soft empire,” was unexpectedly struck down by an assassin’s blade while receiving petitions at his private court in Istanbul. At almost exactly the same time, in distant Sumatra, the Acehnese sultan ‘Ala ad-Din Ri’ayat Syah also died, ushering in an extended period of political and social turmoil that would deprive the Ottomans of their closest ally in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, in Iberia, the Ottoman sultan’s archrival King Philip II of Spain was preparing to annex Portugal and all of her overseas possessions, following the sudden death of the heirless Dom Sebastião on the Moroccan battlefield of al-Kasr al-Kabir. And in the highlands of Abyssinia, again at almost exactly the same time, Christian forces handed the Ottomans a crushing and unexpected defeat at the battle of Addi Qarro, after which they captured the strategic port of Arkiko, re-established direct contact with the Portuguese, and threatened Ottoman control of the Red Sea for the first time in more than two decades.

All of these events, despite the vast physical distances that separated them, impinged directly on the Ottomans’ ability to maintain “soft power” in the Indian Ocean. Even more ominously, they all took place alongside yet another emerging menace from Mughal India, where the young and ambitious Emperor Akbar had begun to openly challenge the very basis of Ottoman “soft power” by advancing his own rival claim to universal sovereignty over the Islamic world.

Of all these newly emerging threats, the Mughal challenge was in many ways the most potentially disturbing. Unlike the others, it was also a challenge mounted incrementally, and as a result became gradually apparent only over the course of several years. In fact, it may have begun as early as 1573, the year Akbar seized the Gujarati port of Surat and thus gained control of a major outlet onto the Indian Ocean for the first time. Less than two years later, he sent several ladies of his court, including his wife and his paternal aunt, on an extended pilgrimage to Mecca, where they settled and began to distribute alms regularly in the emperor’s name. Concurrently, Akbar became involved in organizing and financing the hajj for Muslim travelers of more modest means as well: appointing an imperial official in charge of the pilgrimage, setting aside funds to pay the travel expenses of all pilgrims from India wishing to make the trip, and arranging for a special royal ship to sail to Jiddah every year for their passage. Moreover, by means of this ship Akbar began sending enormous quantities of gold to be distributed in alms for the poor of Mecca and Medina, along with sumptuous gifts and honorary vestments for the important dignitaries of the holy cities. In the first year alone, these gifts and donations amounted to more than 600,000 rupees and 12,000 robes of honor; in the next year, they included an additional 100,000 rupees as a personal gift for the Sharif of Mecca. Similar shipments continued annually until the early 1580s.

To be sure, none of this ostensibly pious activity was threatening to the Ottomans in and of itself. Under different circumstances, the Ottoman authorities may even have viewed largesse of this kind as a sign of loyalty, or as a normal and innocuous component of the public religious obligations of a ruler of Akbar’s stature. But in 1579, in the midst of the complex interplay of other world events already described above, it acquired a dangerous and overtly political significance—particularly because it coincided with Akbar’s promulgation of the so-called “infallibility decree” in September of that year. In the months that followed, Akbar’s courtiers began, at his urging, to experiment with an increasingly syncretic, messianic, and Akbar-centric interpretation of Islam known as the din-i ilahi. And Akbar himself, buttressed by this new theology of his own creation, soon began to openly mimic the Ottoman sultans’ posturing as universal sovereigns, by assuming titles such as Bādishāh-i Islām and Imām-i ‘Ādil that paralleled almost exactly the Ottomans’ own dynastic claims.

Against this incendiary backdrop, Akbar’s endowments in Mecca and his generous support for the hajj thus became potent ideological weapons rather than simple markers of piety—weapons that threatened to destabilize Ottoman leadership of the Islamic world by allowing Akbar to usurp the sultan’s prestigious role as “Protector of the Holy Cities.” Justifiably alarmed, the Porte responded by forbidding the distribution of alms in Akbar’s name in Mecca (it was nevertheless continued in secret for several more years), and by ordering the entourage of ladies from Akbar’s court to return to India with the next sailing season. These, however, were stopgap measures at best. In the longer term, it was clear that a more serious reorientation of Ottoman policy was in order if the empire was to effectively respond to Akbar’s gambit.

Thus, by the end of 1579, a perfect storm of political events in Istanbul, the Western Mediterranean, Ethiopia, Southeast Asia, and Mughal India had all conspired to bring an end to the existing Ottoman system of “soft empire” in the Indian Ocean. As a result, the Ottoman leadership was faced with a stark choice: to do nothing, and allow its prestige and influence in the region to fade into irrelevance; or instead, through aggressive military expansion, to attempt to convert this soft empire into a more concrete system of direct imperial rule. Because of an ongoing war with Iran, and because the 1580s were in general a period of political retrenchment and economic crisis in the Empire, many in Istanbul seem to have resigned themselves to the former option as the only feasible alternative.

Exactly 400 years later, Saudi “soft power” in the Islamic world would be similarly undermined by the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and it would respond similarly by sponsoring “hard” (violent) countermeasures.


1 Comment

Filed under Africa, Islam, Mediterranean, Middle East, Portugal, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Spain, Turkey

One response to “Disasters for Ottoman “Soft Power” in 1579

  1. Fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing these meaty snippets from reading the rest of us don’t have the opportunity to do.

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