Recommended Readings on the Ottoman Empire

In response to an informal enquiry about the Ottoman Empire, Sidi Firas Alkhateeb of Darul Qasim, provided the following brief response and permitted sharing it with our readers. Keep in mind, that this is not a formal write-up and was intended only to give some basic guidelines and resources. The question emerged from Sidi Firas’s wonderful series on the Ottoman Empire (linked here).

Question: (abbreviated)

I’ve been wanting to delve into Ottoman history for a while now, and the recent decision regarding the Ayasofya has really sparked my interest.
I’m wondering if there are any books you can recommend that provide an Islamic history of the Ottoman Empire. It is such a well-studied topic, with many books written on it, so I am hoping you can recommend whatever resources you have found beneficial. 

Answer (also abbreviated):

There is of course a ton of resources, both academic and otherwise on Ottoman history that are available. Navigating them is a bit of challenge, particularly keeping in mind the various shifts in historiography over the past 50 years or so.

Some general guidelines I would offer are:

  • Recognize that historical writing is entirely dependent on one’s framework. An economic historian will analyze his subject through the lens of economics and present it as the primary factor in answering why historical events occurred as they did. Similarly a social historian will prioritize social history, and same for intellectual, political, and military historians. Any book you read is only giving you a part of the picture.
  • Ottoman history is particularly problematic because of the languages necessary to study it. Ottoman Turkish was heavily influenced by Persian and Arabic and most Ottoman historians don’t really do their due diligence in studying those languages, so their readings can suffer. Furthermore, in the realm of Ottoman intellectual history, almost everything written by Ottoman ulema was written in Arabic proper, which many historians are not proficient in.
  • Recognize the gap between popular history and academic history. Popular history is mostly what you will find on the bookshelves at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon. It’s usually written by non-specialists and exhibits a very rudimentary (and often plainly incorrect) understanding of historical events and processes. On the other hand, academic history is written by experts in the field but can be overly specialized, and aimed at other experts to the point that it is mostly nonsensical to those not in the field.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, you should never accept any conclusions about the religion of Islam itself from non-Muslim academics under any circumstances. Western academia has an entirely divergent framework that is directly at odds with our tradition and beliefs. It is designed to be secular and atheist. It should never inform your own beliefs. Unfortunately even many Muslims who work in academia are heavily influenced by this framework and their conclusions about Islam are not to be trusted. At the end of the day, you have to take your deen from the scholars of Islam whose job it is to preserve the religion.

With that as a length disclaimer and introduction, I believe the following books can serve as a good introduction:

  • Halil Inalcik’s The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age – Not a perfect book, and outdated in some regards (particularly his analysis of intellectual history), but it can be a good starting point
  • Caroline Finkle’s Osman’s Dream – A pretty length overview narrative of Ottoman history from beginning to end. Focus on the political administration and sultans.
  • Abdurrahman Atçıl’s Scholars and Sultans in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire – This is a more academic book and perhaps can be a bit much for a beginner, but he does a great job of illustrating the importance of ulama on the early Ottoman state.
  • Hüseyin Yılmaz’s Caliphate Redefined – Also academic, with an emphasis on the idea of Ottoman political sovereignty. I find it to be a useful tool in understanding how the Ottomans may have conceived of their political project as being pretty different from everything before them.

Insha’Allah, this serves as a good introduction. As always, more important than studying history is learning a proper academic understanding of Islam itself, which should be the framework through which you understand the past anyways.

Firas (Alkhateeb)

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