Islamic Gunpowder Empires: a comparison

The Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal

Common Elements:

  • Nomadic Turkish conquerers

  • Muslim piety a sign of legitimacy (Sufi influence on leadership)

  • Autocratic rule

  • Imperial family politics often involved deadly competition

  • Influence of women within the Imperial family in spite of lack of public power for women

  • Use of jizya tax on dhimmi (protected non-Muslim) populations


  • Entrenched aristocracy replaces meritocracy.

  • Religious tension: conservativism

  • Economic peripheralization; loss of tax revenues

  • Cost of warfare and bureaucracies

  • Failure, sometimes deliberate, to maintain technological development

  • “Cultural Insularity” and tendency towards chauvinism





1289 – Osman Bey

1501 – Shah Ismail (r. 1501-1524)

1526 – Babur “the Tiger” (r. to 1530)


Wahhabi (Arabian)

Twelver Shiism

Akbar’s “divine faith”
Aurangzeb: Sunni


Anatolia between Black Sea and Mediterranean

Iran (Tabriz)

N. India (Kabul/Qandahar)

Largest Expanse

Yugoslavia/Greece, N. Africa, MidEast to Tigris River, Black Sea

Central Asia, from Tigris river to Gandahar, Caspian Sea to Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean

Most of India, except southern tip

Significant Dates

1453 – Capture of Constantinople; renamed Istanbul

1514 – Battle of Chaldiran (vs. Ottomans)

Military Institutions

ghazi “sword of God”
devshirme slaves in the army

qizilbash (“red heads”)

“slaves of the royal household”

Great Leaders

Mehmed II “The Conquerer” (r. 1451-1481)
Süleyman the Magnificent (or “the Lawgiver”) (r. 1520-1566)

Shah Abbas “the Great” (r. 1588-1629)

Akbar (r. 1556-1605)

Aurangzeb (r. 1659-1707)

Cultural Monuments

Topkapi palace
Süleymaniye mosque complex (Istanbul)

Isfahan (capital city)

Taj Mahal (c. 1650)


Entire Empire
1500 – 9M
1600 – 28M
1700 – 24M
1800 – 24M

1500 – 6M
1600 – 7.5M
1700 – 8M
1800 – 9M

1500 – 5M
1600 – 6M
1700 –
1800 – 8M

1500 – 105M
1600 – 135M
1700 – 165M
1800 – 190M

Religious Minorities

millet system: Christians, Jews.

Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians

Toleration varies: Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians, Christians, Sikhs


Silk, Spices

Silk, carpets, ceramics, crafts

Pepper, jewels, metal craft goods


Tobacco, Coffee


End of World War I (1919)

1722, mostly absorbed by Ottomans

late 18c, mostly absorbed by British

© 2004, 2006 –Jonathan Dresner