home | 16-17th centuries index


previous | next

Ottoman Decline

Lost trade, Oppression and a Weak Middle Class | Restricting the Development of Printing | Taxes and a Discouraged Middle Class | A Weakened Military and Diminished Empire


The walled city of Vienna (less than 150,000 population). Ottoman armies surrounded the city for two months in the summer of 1683. Christian armies arrived, and with the Battle of Vienna the Ottomans withdrew, their expansion in Europe at its end.

Lost Trade, Oppression and a Weak Middle Class

Map of Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Empire. Click to enlarge. Map of Ottoman Empire, enlarged

World trade shifted from the Mediterranean Sea and from overland routes between the West and East. Piratical violence on the Mediterranean Sea was rampant and hurting economies connected to trade across that sea. The Muslims had been world traders, but the bulk of world trade was bypassing the Middle East and transit across Muslim lands. The British and Dutch were sailing the Atlantic and Indian oceans and taking over trade between northern and southern Europe. Spices from Asia were being shipped by sea directly to Europe, leaving Muslims without a percentage of the profits.

The Ottoman Empire – the greatest of empires in the 1500s – was ruled by a sultan who was commander-in-chief of the military and looked upon his male subjects as soldiers of Islam. In theory he ruled his realm as a trust from God and all land belonged to the state. The Ottoman Empire was a theocracy, with the sultans dedicated to the advance of Islam – the Sunni branch of Islam – through military means. One source of wealth for the sultan had been loot from conquests. Another was the taxing of poor Muslim and Christian peasant families and small-scale manufacturers and tradesmen.

The sultans were less interested in the study of economics for the purpose of advancing their societies economically, or advancing agriculture scientifically. European merchants were scurrying across the globe looking for raw materials, markets and profits, while the middle class in the Ottoman Empire were looked upon by the sultans as a threat to their authority. The middle class in the Ottoman Empire was more interested in commerce than the sultan and more materialistic than the mullahs, and middle class interests received little support from either. The sultans succeeded in inhibiting the growth of their empire's middle class while Europe's middle-class was growing in wealth and influence.

Ottoman society continued with its traditions. Law for Muslims was a matter of interpreting the Koran. Government officials appointed judges and jurists, and jurists with the title of mufti had the right to issue fatwas (opinions within religious law). Legal decisions were based somewhat on a consensus among the Islamic scholars – with various schools of thought in various geographical areas. According to a Harvard Law School scholar, Noah Feldman:

By tradition and logic, the shari'a was an uncodified body of legal doctrines, principles, values, and opinions. It was the province of the scholarly class to use interpretation and discern the requirements of the law. The fact that the law could not be looked up and ascertained by just anybody was precisely what made the scholars into the keepers of the law and its embodiment. (Click here for more.)

Muslim scholars remained conservative. They were convinced of the superiority of their Islamic civilization and of doing things as described in the Koran. And the Ottoman religious establishment was being infiltrated by those with a Sufi point of view, which increased an other-worldliness attitude rather than favor of modernization.  

In the 1500s, Ottoman society had substantial population growth. Poor peasants had been moving into the towns, creating large-scale unemployment, and the unemployed sought relief by joining religious organizations, which brought them little other than spiritual relief. Instances of improvement in agriculture were helping some peasants in the empire – in Romania, Bulgaria, Thrace and Macedonia – where farmers had begun growing crops from the Americas and feeding their animals maze. They were able to export more wheat and cattle. But, in the empire as a whole, agriculture was not developing commercially as it had been among the Dutch and British.


Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.