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In a Nutshell: Fratricide, the execution of a prince or his descendants in line to the throne, was regarded as a means of preventing the Ottoman State from fragmenting and ensuring peace in society.


Background

Ottomans did not have a strict succession system as in old Turkic states in the first two centuries of the state. When a prince ascended the throne, where the previous sultan had many children, others would revolt laying claim to the throne believing an old Turkish political tradition stating the right to rule is inherited equally by all sons of the ruler. The resulting civil war would determine who became the next sultan. To prevent them, sultans would execute princes seen as a threat to the throne.

The Code of Mehmed the Conqueror legislated an article to regulate the succession process. Some of the Ottoman ullamas approved its legitimacy by regarding fratricide as a precaution due to the maslaha (common benefit) principle, not as a punishment. They furthermore introduced some Qur’anic verses, the application of the ahadith and the companions’ application as evidence to support their opinion.

When Sultan Ahmed died in 1617 without an adult male heir, there was concern that the usual fratricide could end the royal line because it would have meant the death of all the male heirs except one child, who might have died before reaching adulthood and fathering a son himself.

The Sultan is reported to have said:

"Any of my sons ascend the throne, it acceptable for him to kill his brothers for the common benefit of the people (nizam-i alem). The majority of the ullama (Muslim scholars) have approved this; let action be taken accordingly."

And he began his rule by killing his own infant brother Ahmad! (Tareekh ad-Dawlah al-Aliyyah, p.161).

When Bayezid II died, his son Selim assumed the throne and proceeded to commit fratricide on his two brothers Ahmed and Korkut. The largest practice of fratricide was committed by Mehmed III when he had nineteen of his brothers and half-brothers murdered and buried alongside their father.

Thereafter the oldest male member of the house became the new sultan and the other male Ottomans were confined in the so-called "golden cage" of the palace and harem. Surrounded by officials and insulated from moral and political lessons, later products of the "golden cage" were poor rulers, susceptible to competing factions of corrupt officials. The later Ottoman Empire sometimes had strong grand viziers, but no more outstanding sultans. Given the central power of the sultan, this left the state without a sense of direction.

There is no unanimous agreement on the number and nature of fratricide cases in Ottoman history. According to contemporary research, fratricide was applied to 60 princes:

  • Five princes in the fourteenth century,
  • Five princes in the fifteenth century,
  • Forty-four princes in the sixteenth century,
  • Five princes in the seventeenth century, and
  • One prince in the eighteenth century

Most were executed during the 150 years following the Code of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in sixteenth century. Princes were executed by strangulation in accordance with the old Turkish tradition which forbade the shedding of royal blood of members of the dynasty. Of those executed:

  • Sixteen were executed due to their revolt against the Sultan,
  • Seven were killed for their attempted revolt and
  • Others for reasons of common benefit.

Compared to European dynasties, executing princes prevented the formation of an aristocracy that developed in parallel with the dynasty.

Scholar's Views

The government used to obtain a fatwa by asking the scholars to determine whether a matter was legal or not. This procedure, though not obligatory, was taken seriously because it showed the legality of the government procedures towards the public and was applied until the end of the Ottoman Empire. According to the article in the Code of Mehmed the Conqueror regarding fratricide, the majority of scholars of the time expressed their opinions that fratricide was legal according to each particular case.

Shaykh al-Islam Khoja Sa’d al-din Effendi (d. 1599), Kazasker Tashkopruzadah (d. 1621) permitted it as did:

- Mar’i bin Yusuf of Syrian (d. 1624), a Hanbali scholar, considers fratricide as one of the virtues of the Ottoman dynasty.

- Ibn Abidin (d. 1836), one of the latest prominent scholars of law in the Ottoman Empire, says in the chapter on ta’zeer of his famous book, Radd al-Muhtar,

“It has been mentioned in Nasafi’s (d. 1310) Ahkam al-Siyasah that Shaykh al-Islam Khaherzadah (d. 1253) was asked about the execution of mischief-makers while they are not active. He replied that their business is to incite tumult, even when they are not active. As they are potential instigators of tumult and anarchy, it is permissible to kill them. We understand this from the Qur’an verse (6:28) which declares, “They (mischief-makers) will certainly stick to the things they are forbidden, even if they were to come back to the world once more”

- Dede Jongi Effendi (d. 1567), an Ottoman jurist, writes in his famous book, Siyasah-nama, that to wait for them to commit crimes, in order to punish them, usually removes the possibilities of punishment and sometimes causes tragic and unacceptable consequences. As shown in the course of history, to wait for a prince to revolt in order to punish him, would result in his engagement with enemy countries and having to deal with a person that had won the support of thousands of armed soldiers and had become a threat to the security of the state. It could be too late to seek punishment in such a situation, because it would be too late to do something about it”

- The historians who were also great scholars in law, such as Bosnevi Hussein Effendi (d. 1644) and Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Kemal (d. 1534) declared that fratricide was politically right and legal. Similarly, as a jurist, kazasker (supreme qadi) Bostanzadah Yahya Effendi (d. 1639), author of the book Tarih-i Saf, approves and even praises Sultan Mehmed III for killing his brothers for the common benefit (nizam-i alem). Nishancizadah (d. 1622), Ottoman jurist (qadi) and historian, says Shahzadah Yakub (d. 1389) was executed because the availability of multiple princes enables the public to think about who should become the next sultan.

​​​​Evidences Used

- It is narrated in Qur’an (18:80-81) that the friend of Prophet Musa (Moses) killed an innocent child. Musa had asked him: “Have you killed an innocent person who had killed none?” And he had replied: “The parents of the boy were believers, and we feared lest he should instigate them by rebellion and disbelief. So, we intended their Lord should change him for them for one better in righteousness and closer to mercy.”

- The Prophet Muhammad had a person put in a prison due to the charge of theft and after his innocence was discovered he was freed

- The second caliph Umar exiled Nasr bin Hajjaj and sent him from Medina to Basra, when he was concerned about the possibility of his causing mischief and tumult, though he had not yet committed any offence. He said to him, “You are not guilty, but if tumult appears because of you in the future, I will be guilty”

- If a person unwillingly destroys an item left in his custody, he does not have to repay the damage he has caused. However, Caliphs Umar and Ali had judged that craftsmen such as tailors and launderers would have to repay the damage due to maslaha

- The principle of sadd al-dhara'i is one that dictates that the road to harm should be cut off before any harm takes form as a part of maslaha. For example, the court appoints a trustee to those that are wasteful with their money and those that have debts, does not allow for the testimony of some witnesses, nor does it allow for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and its prevention of none relative men and women to fraternize.

- “The lesser of the two harms is preferred” and “The removal of a harm is better than obtaining a benefit”. These principles also had been reiterated in the articles 26-30 of Ottoman civil code known as “Majallah al-Ahkam al-Adliyah” several centuries later

- Principle of maslaha (common benefit) in Islamic law. This principle means the determination of a legal ruling by considering the public good for the cases for which there is no hukm (ruling) in the main sources of Islamic law: the Qur’an and the Sunna. There are four requirements to determining the validity of a maslaha:

  • First, the maslaha should be decisive and not probable. The prevailing opinion (ghalib al-zann) is used in the same sense as certainty. As a matter of fact, most of the princes who were spared revolted against the Sultan.
  • Secondly, the maslaha should be for the public good, but not for an individual benefit. The execution of princes aims to protect the state and the public instead of the Sultan.
  • Thirdly, the maslaha should not cause any misdeed or at least should be preferable over a potential misdeed. For instance, although lying is evil, it is permissible to tell a lie in war or in order to bring about reconciliation between two persons. Although the execution of princes is a murder, the execution is preferred to the deaths of more people and civil commotion.
  • Fourthly, we should be able to infer from the Qur’an and the Sunna (dalalat al-nass) in order to act according to maslaha. The above-mentioned verses and sahabas' (the companions) practicing maslaha are taken as evidence for these executions, “the sultan’s ruling over the people should depend on the public good”.
  • An example related to this subject is mentioned in books of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence): The enemy captured Muslims and kept some of them as targets on their front line. Under normal circumstances, it is not permissible to kill an innocent person. But if no shooting occurs, in order to avoid killing these captives, the enemy will invade the country and kill the people including those captives. Therefore these innocent captives must be shot. There is a common benefit here.


References

Ekrem Buğra Ekinci, Fratricide in Ottoman law


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