The "military principle" behind the Ottoman Empire helps explain how a tribal society of nomadic mercenary cavalry soldiers from the steppes of Central Asia did so well. The Ottomans were successful conquerors for some good reasons:
First, by comparison with their feudal European rivals, the early Ottoman state and its armies were tightly organized and controlled.
Second, European rulers were divided amongst themselves, even at war with each other.
Third, Turkish armies were constantly reinforced by new waves of "ghazi" warriors from Central Asia, who were motivated by both religion and the prospect of spoils.
Fourth, early Ottoman rule was not unattractive to the mass of its conquered Christian and Jewish subjects. The Ottoman armies faced few threats from revolts in lands already conquered. More about this later.
The dynastic principle
Dynastic rule was the second principle behind the Ottoman state. In this, Turkey reflected medieval practice all over Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. The country consisted of the accumulated conquered lands of the Ottoman ruling house (named after the border lord Osman) and that land was passed down in the family. By the time of the Balkan conquests, the Ottoman rulers were no longer simply tribal "beys" but "sultans" who were full masters of secular life. A state treasury had appeared, distinct from the leader's private purse.
To create a sophisticated state apparatus, the Ottomans freely adopted useful institutions from the societies they conquered. The Seljuk Turks had accepted Islamic religious, educational and legal institutions and thus Ottoman society inherited from the Seljuks a system of mosques, schools and courts. The Ottomans also adopted a whole array of bureaucratic features from the Byzantines: taxes, court functions, feudal practices and systems of land tenure. These institutions were strong tools supporting the dynasty.
The Islamic principle
Islam was the third key principle for Ottoman society. Political, cultural and legal forms followed Islamic law or "sheriat". The Turks were Sunni Muslims: in contrast to Shi'i Muslim societies, religious institutions served the secular state. The sultan was recognized as God's agent in the world. The state had three purposes:
First, the preservation and expansion of Islam.
Second, the defense and expansion of the ruler's power, wealth and possessions. Because the sultan was God's agent, his interests and those of Islam were believed to coincide. These first two purposes acted in full agreement.
Third, justice and security for the sultan's subjects, as foundations of the first two purposes. The sultan was regarded as a shepherd and his subjects corresponded to the flock ("rayah"). In a well-run Islamic state, all elements functioned in a smooth cycle. The government dispensed justice, safe and secure subjects prospered, taxation flowed from their wealth, the state and its military were sustained at necessary strength and good government was preserved to begin the cycle again.
This ideal helps explain the attractions of Ottoman rule in its early days. Jews, Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God. Jews and Christians were penalized only partially for failing to accept God's most recent revelation through the prophet Mohammed. The Islamic conquerors tolerated the other two religions, at a time when toleration was rare in Europe. After the Frankish and Venetian sack of Byzantium in 1204, Orthodox Byzantine Greeks thought that Catholic Western Europeans were as bad or worse than the Turks. In the Ottoman administration, talented men of all faiths could fulfil at least limited roles. For peasants, the finality of Ottoman victory also meant an end to centuries of wars between Serbs, Bulgars, Byzantines and Crusaders and thus offered stability. Ottoman taxes were lower than the taxes of the conquered Balkan Christian kingdoms.
How the principles worked together
These three principles -- Islam, the dynasty and the military -- acted together in the Ottoman Empire. As head of state, the Sultan sat at the top of a pyramid. Just below him was a small ruling class, his direct instruments. The mass of subjects were known as "rayah" or "protected flock." This included both Muslims and non-Muslims. Jews and Christians were entitled to protection, but could not join the military or the sultan's immediate ruling circle. However, if they chose to convert to Islam, men of talent from all religious or ethnic backgrounds potentially could wield great power.
Because of its divine foundation, the power of the sultan had no theoretical limit so long as Islamic law was upheld. The sultan was not just an absolute ruler in an abstract sense: many of his operatives were in fact his slaves. However, we have to distinguish Ottoman slavery from the forms of Western slavery with which we are more familiar. Ottoman slavery was based in the capture of military captives, who became the property of their captor. Once taken in, however and provided that they were loyal, slaves were protected from abuse and enjoyed opportunities for responsibility and advancement as soldiers, statesmen and officials. Slaves were often given their freedom as a reward for service and their children were born free, not into slavery.
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