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The history of the Ottomans highlights the tension in Islam between religious and secular law

BBC series explores how the Suleiman the Magnificent submitted Sharia law to his own will

By on Friday, 18 October 2013

Rageh Omaar host the BBC series, The Ottomans: Europe's Muslim Emperors (PA)

Rageh Omaar host the BBC series, The Ottomans: Europe's Muslim Emperors (PA)

I have just watched the second part of Rageh Omaar’s history of the Ottoman Empire on catch up. (You can find it here). It is, I think, a remarkable piece of fairly balanced reportage. We had a lot of experts telling us how wonderful Suleiman the Magnificent was, but this was balanced by the Catholic journalist (and expert on Balkan affairs) Melanie McDonagh warning us not to glamourise the past, as well as Bishop Kallistos Ware telling us that the Ottoman custom of kidnapping Christian boys and forcibly converting them to Islam was an attack on the sacredness of the Christian family. Neither observation is politically correct, but they are both true, so kudos to the BBC and Mr Omaar for telling it like it is, or allowing these voices to be heard.

The programme also dealt with the celebrated defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683 with some sensitivity to varying interpretations. Yes, this was certainly a turning point for Christian Europe, but it was not simply a religious event. Also good to see was the frank admission of the fact that the Ottomans declined because of their failure to embrace the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. They became, as one expert put it, fossilised. One fact, not mentioned here, but surely emblematic, is that though printing was introduced to the empire, it never really took off. The first printing press in the mid-eighteenth century produced a few volumes and then shut down.

What the programme did not do is explain why the Turks failed to modernise, despite repeated efforts to do so. Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, did manage to modernise the country, in a way that the Sultans had failed to do, and he did so through a programme of secularisation. Was it Islam that held the Ottomans back? And if so, why?

An answer of sorts may be found, perhaps, in what the programme said about Suleiman. To his own people he is known as the Lawgiver and he wrote a book of laws called the Kanun (a cognate of our own word ‘canon’). These laws were crafted in a way to supplement the Sharia but never to contradict it, or at least to make sure that no contradiction seemed obvious: but one thing was clear, the force of the law was in the will of the Sultan. So what Suleiman really did was submit the Sharia to his own will – which is a most unIslamic thing to do. In that regard he was rather like Kemal.

This relationship between secular law and religious law is still problematic for Muslims. Catholics certainly believe that God’s law trumps the law of the State, but, except in extreme circumstances, this is not generally a problem for us. It rarely arises that we face the situation that Thomas More faced. But we are all aware that such a situation is possible. Why is it still such a live issue for the Muslims? Why does the word ‘Caliphate’ still resonate with them so much?