by Naz Yücel
Jackson J. Spielvogel’s Chapter 8, titled “The Muslim Empires, 1450-1800,” provides a review of the history of three major empires, the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal, which ruled over the region extending from North Africa to the Indian subcontinent. Spielvogel’s narrative builds on the terminology of important scholars: for example, the reference to “gunpowder empires,” put forth by Marshall G. Hodgson and William H. McNeill, introduces a theoretical framework for the readers to think analytically about what enabled these dynasties to assert imperial control. Simultaneously, some of the newly introduced concepts are left unexplained. While Chapter 8 is situated under the heading “The Early Modern World, 1350-1815,” Spielvogel does not identify in depth what factors rendered these empires “early modern.” While it may not seem crucial that the author develops these terms, the audience will not be able to employ them without further deliberation on their meaning.
The structure of the chapter predominantly follows the “rise-peak-decline” schema for each empire, which is increasingly debated among historians. Historians have argued that one of the reasons why the Ottoman dynasty (as opposed to other dynasties in Anatolia) managed to form an empire related to its physical distance from the Mongols—an aspect that Spielvogel fails to mention. Furthermore, historians including Cemal Kafadar and Baki Tezcan have called into question the repeated “decline” narrative vis-à-vis the Ottoman Empire and asked rather what enabled the Ottoman Empire to last over 600 years. These changes in the historiography of these empires provide new narratives for explaining institutional and social changes over the course of centuries. Through relying on recent works, Spielvogel could have given an alternative, non-linear historical narrative that replaces the “rise-peak-decline” schema that prompts readers to think critically about the Ottoman Empire, as well as the shifts that took place during the three hundred years of the so-called “decline” period.
The ruling dynasties in all three empires claimed universal sovereignty and built their legitimacy through Islam, the interpretations of which informed the institutions in each. These dynasties, however, ruled over highly heterogeneous populations—an important aspect that Spielvogel emphasizes. The ethnoreligious composition of their populations called for different imperial policies, which provide for a basis to think of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals in comparative terms. The author’s need to simplify the histories pertaining to these empires thus, at times, results in statements such as “knowledge of science, medicine, and mathematics under the Safavids was equal to that of other societies in the region” (259). Spielvogel’s narrative, while sporadically referring to parallels and contrasts among them, does not push the comparative analysis far enough.
Through relying on recent works, Spielvogel could have given an alternative non-linear historical narrative that replaces the “rise-peak-decline” schema that prompts readers to think critically about the Ottoman Empire, as well as the shifts that took place during the three hundred years of the so-called “decline” period.
Many of the visual aids, such as maps and illustrations, help readers contextualize these empires regarding their territorial extent while introducing various forms of cultural material products including tile works and carpets, which otherwise might be unfamiliar. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand why the chapter is substantiated with digital images in “The Safavids: At the Crossroads of Trade and of History” section. Oddly, there are questions posed in the “Analyzing Visuals” subsection in relation to these digitally reconstructed images as well. Relying further upon primary sources would have been a more appropriate choice in helping readers visualize social, cultural, and economic elements.
While it is a difficult task to deliver a narrative about three major empires in a mere twenty-five pages, it is of utmost importance to convey a historicized narrative that prompts the readers to think analytically about empires in the early modern context. While Spielvogel sets out to deliver a complex narrative, as exemplified by the terminology he introduces, the simplification of the process of empire prevents him from conveying precisely the nuances that turned the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal dynasties into sustainable empires.
Sussan Babaie, Kathryn Babayan, Ina Baghdiantz-McCabe, and Massumeh Farhad. Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2004.
İnalcık, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973.
Kafadar, Cemal. Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Tezcan, Baki. The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Naz Yücel is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at George Washington University. She received her B.A. in International Relations with an Economics minor from Boston University in 2011 and her M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago in 2014. She also attended the American University of Beirut in the summer of 2016 for Arabic language study. Her research interests include Ottoman history, colonialism and post-colonialism in the Middle East, with an emphasis on changes in law and society. Her dissertation will focus on social and economic history of Ottoman Iraq and the British mandate in Iraq in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
 İnalcık, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973.; Kafadar, Cemal. Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
 Kafadar, Cemal. “The Question of Ottoman Decline.” Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review 4 (1997-1998): 30-75.; Tezcan, Baki. The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.