DURING THE HEIGHT of its power, the Ottoman Empire (1517-1924), which is largely recognized as the last Sunni caliphate, dominated much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa and the Horn of Africa for a period of almost seven-hundred years until it drew it’s last few breaths through a series of reforms to the extent that Mustafa Kemal (d. 1938) proudly proclaimed:
The situation now is that the Islamic Caliphate in Turkey is dead and will never rise again, because we have destroyed its moral strength, the Caliphate and Islam.
These reforms, usually referred to as the “Tanzimât,” (which meant “reorganization”) was a series of strategic reforms which laid the groundwork for Turkey to be the secular democratic state that it is today. The Turkish historian, Kemal Karpat, described the reforms, which emerged from the minds of reform-minded sultans such as Mahmud II (d. 1839) and Abdulmecid I (d. 1861), as:
The beginning of modernization, the dawn of secularism, the formal acceptance of Western superiority, the final breakdown of the oriental way of life, and the like.
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The reforms were driven by political as well as social factors in that the Ottomans, who were once as powerful as the Persian Safavid Dynasty, by the mid-1750s, became unable to compete militarily with the European powers of the age which included Russia and the Hapsburg Empire as Europe was in the midst of the “military revolution,” with their armies becoming more sophisticated through the aid of newer technologies and tactics. Ottoman armies, on the other hand, were by this time considered backward and complacent. As a result of this deterioration, European powers began to slowly dismember the Empire thereby causing the Ottomans to gain an increased dependency on European balance of power.
Part of this dependency implied a substantial shift within the perception of Ottoman subjects and government circles towards banking and finance wherein it was alarmingly argued that Islamic principles were responsible for preventing economic development. Perhaps due to this mind-set, merchants were openly known to utilise financial artifices (hiyal), to the extent that there were lawyers who specialised in them, in order to circumvent the prohibition on impermissible transactions. Given that forbidden transactions were seen as a ‘fact of life,’ their use was generally overlooked due to the commonplace perception that such economic activities had a positive effect in increasing the wealth of a state which was already suffering from a lack of liquidity.
Initial reforms led to the development of the New Order (Nizam-i Cedid), a series of reforms carried out by Sultan Selim III (d. 1807) during the late 1700s. It was motivated by the need to increase Ottoman political and military strength. After this attempt largely failed, the Ottoman government came to recognize that there needed to be fundamental change in government and society in order to develop the financial means and technology to defend itself against the growing strength of the European Kingdoms. The Tanzimât reforms thus came after a realisation that the nineteenth century Ottoman economy was “stagnant and unprofitable.”
The reforms of the Tanzimat initially began by implementing a system of standardised taxation. Prior to the compilation of the Ottoman Majalla, or Mecelle, in 1877, jurisprudential rulings and legal precedents from within the Hanafi School were never classically canonised, standardisation was thus perceived as a positive change which had the power to place Turkey on par with her Western counterparts. The new system also implied that taxes were administered non-discriminately as there was an abolition of the capitation tax on non−Muslims. Irrespective of this new sense of equality, the change, rather interestingly caused an upheaval on behalf of non-Muslims citizens of the State due to them now having to pay more taxes under the new system than they had ever done in previous times.
Within Europe, the late 18th and early 19th centuries were thus dynamic periods of social development, whilst great powers such as Britain were immensely benefiting from their global empires to the extent that they were able to grow and dominate global trade. But the Ottoman Empire failed to match in comparable developments as their production methods and military technology and strategies did not substantially change in the Ottoman Empire to extent that they had in Europe. Secondly, the Caliph and his government sought to preserve their rule by ending their utilisation of the millet system; it was assumed that by doing so, they would be able to directly control all citizens through the formation of a more centralized government.
Given that this was the case, the Ottoman bureaucracy regularly intervened in all aspects of the economy as its main focus appeared to be towards enriching the Caliph and his Treasury in addition to ensuring social stability and the welfare of the people. Thus, Provisionism, that is, “the maintenance of a steady supply so that all goods and services were cheap, plentiful and of good quality” underpinned Ottoman economic policy. In line with this thinking, the Ottomans intervened to ensure that the price for goods was fixed and affordable to even the poorest, thus surrendering a degree of free-market competition in pursuit of extensive economic security.
Fiscalism, “the endeavour to maximise the public revenues at all times for other than economic purposes,” was another economic policy utilised by the Ottomans, in the context of the Caliphate. It provided that the economy be managed in order to provide the Caliph with the finances he required in order to centrally administer the country. This was especially important with regard to financing the army and navy, as the aim of this policy was to ensure that the ruler had adequate economic resources to defend the Empire. Notwithstanding potential benefits, such a policy failed to spread wealth to lower classes or even beyond elites within the state as the willingness to do so was “corrupted through the influence of revenue-minded scholar-administrators.”
Despite the fact that fiscalism offered little or no economic opportunities for common individuals to enrich themselves in this tightly controlled system, it is arguably possible to contend that the greatest failing was the nature of the system itself which was grounded in traditionalism; the overcautious need to maintain the economic and social status quo obstructed the flexibility and broad-mindedness needed to adapt to newfound developments and challenges, especially with regards to those that could compete with Europe’s overwhelming dominance of international trade. It was embodied in –and apparently even drew it’s inspiration from– the motto “kadimden olagelene aykiri iş yapilmamasi,” which alluded to the belief that one should not work against an established mode of achieving outcomes.
As a result of this rationale, the Ottomans refrained from taking any part in financial innovations such as credit operations and central banking which were introduced by the Dutch and English. Innovation thus did not prove to be a major foundation of the Ottoman’s economy as the Industrial Revolution began to the extent that the government not only prevented innovation, but also became hostile to any form of economic or technological innovation due to a prevailing and outwardly contemptuous belief that attempts to match European powers should be derived from their own ideas and techniques. Thus technologies such as the telegraph and rail were adopted much later in the Ottoman Empire than in Europe.
In this context, the Tanzimât was essentially a response to the inability of the Ottoman state to provide the necessary finances and technology to defend the Empire militarily, for despite their many original victories, the Ottomans were overstretched by war on many fronts, and by 1916, were subject to a British invasion within the Arab provinces wherein the Ottomans simply did not possess the resources to succeed. From this perspective, the Tanzimât was a long-term plan geared towards the “wholesale modernization” of the army and economy so that the state could generate revenue for the realm and thus maintain a more advanced army to capably defend it. This is highlighted by the fact that among the earliest of priorities headed by Mahmud II and the Tanzimât was the organisation of a “western style army.”
In terms of economic activity, the Tanzimât implied a reformation of the finance system according to a “very authoritarian interpretation of the French model.” Doing so facilitated many ambitious reforms, among them was the replacement of guilds with larger and much more organised factories. Guilds, by and large, had survived thus far “due more to the exercise of their social functions than to economic logic.” They were perhaps utilised for so long due to their products being so specialised as to face no competition and to enjoy a stable market demand, so much so that “there was even an effort in the 1860’s by the government to revive the guilds and to rescue the embattled surviving craftsmen under a corporatist framework of cooperative ventures.” Initially, guilds afforded the Ottomans a degree of stability with regards to prices, with prevailing market forces driving down prices however their significance deteriorated, especially with the loss of the Janissaries as their financial supporters.
Similarly, with free trade, the right to private property and changes to the tax system. These were all designed to develop a rise in the economy by stimulating more trade, greater production and for the purposes of encouraging investment. These changes were intended to “tie land, its products and its owners more directly to the state, cutting off intermediaries” or in other words, to enable burgeoning growth. It was believed that by transplanting the policies of Western governments, the Turks could seek to become as powerful as those Western governments were becoming.
As the values of the Tanzimât were inspired by the social mores and political values of Western Europe, which were in turn inspired by French radicalism and liberalism, the Ottomans, much like the Russians, found themselves in a situation where increasingly individual liberty along with economic developments threatened their survival. As both states suffered from a lack of national unity and were held together by force, neither would necessarily adjust well after regularly encroaching upon civil society and individual liberty.
Countering Islamic Norms
The Tanzimât began to centralise authority in concert with regulations “aimed at the subordination of the judicial system to the centre and the weakening of local forces with vested interest in the provincial system” in order to ensure that the Tanzimât reforms succeeded despite opposition from the ulema and other members from the majority Muslim population. Bulmus, Perry, Cooper, Goodwin and Burbank demonstrate that the economic reforms, regardless of how well-intentioned they may have been intended, faced major social and religious challenges as they were contrary to well-established Islamic norms, and as Agoston, Masters, Batou and Bragg have indicated, these reforms went against what the people were familiar and comfortable with.
Nonetheless, as Vogel indicates, there were those from amongst the ulema who were unable to fully comprehend the ideological challenges posed by the Tanzimat and thus “failed to mount an ideological opposition,” whilst seeking only their “old privileges.” Ermiş, Aksan, Mansfield and Masood concur that the impact of the Tanzimât reforms on Ottoman society was fairly limited. In summary, whilst the Tanzimât succeeded in importing newer ideas and strategies into the state, it was perhaps unable to fully modernize perceptions within society, in particular religious values, thus making it less popular to implement as a result.
Control of the Ulema
Prior to the reforms taking place, a local scholar, or alim, was theoretically able to intervene in commercial affairs in order to ensure that whatever action undertaken was in accordance with Islamic law out of “a universalistic conscience transcending local political administrative considerations.” The tension which existed between the sultans and the ulema during the time of Suleyman was essentially resolved by incorporating an Islamic insistence of justice into kanun legislation, and this is evidence of the potential power which the ulema swayed. In order to ‘harness’ this power and to mitigate the risk of such positions being misappropriated upon a standard not to their political liking, the Ottomans carefully selected and remunerated the legal scholars that they would appoint throughout the Empire and were known to closely ally themselves to them. This is evidenced by the fact that by the mid-seventeenth century, the ulema were primarily seen as “blind careerists, pursuing office more than learning.”
Some of the ulema, particularly the higher-ranking ulema of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, comported themselves in such a manner as to indicate that they “were clearly invested with the official trappings of a patrimonial bureaucratic state.” Accordingly, they generally interpreted the law in a manner that was favourable to the policies of the State and as such placed the State’s interest above anything else. This development was referred to openly and rather scathingly in a poetic evocation by Mustafa Ali (d. 1600), an Ottoman bureaucrat and historian, wherein he claims,
The ulema, too, do well: they’ve reaped the great rewards of hush-money; each one stands dumb-struck, as if his mouth were bound shut.
As well as legitimising the supremacy of the State, the Ottoman-Hanafi ulema similarly legitimised, in some cases, the acceptability of transactions which were typically forbidden by the Hanafi School, and by doing so even tried to reinterpret ribʿa and other Islamic precepts which prohibited unlawful and unethical forms of capital formation and investment –or at the very least sanctioned the use of juristic tricks (hiyal) such as devr’i sar’i which indirectly entailed the prohibited.
It would be highly improbable to suggest that the ulema themselves were not aware as to what such transactions truly implied, and for this reason there was always some doubt amongst the ultra-orthodox as to the true legitimacy of the Sultan’s imperial decrees, believing it to be the duty of the ulema to maintain integrity. “Beyond this they kept a discrete silence – discrete because the implication is plain that the Sultan, if he thinks it necessary in the public interest, can pass a law which violates the law of the Koran.” Thus, in their dealings with courts, Ottomans, in general, felt no need to conceal interest provided it was within the legally allowable ratio of ten to twenty per cent.
 Karpat, K.H., Studies on Ottoman Social and Political History: Selected Articles and Essays, Brill, 2002, p. 345.
 Bragg, J., Ottoman Notables and Participatory Politics: Tanzimât Reform in Tokat, 1839-1876, Routledge, 2014, p. 176.
 Inalcik, H., An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 44.
 Ermiş, F., A History of Ottoman Economic Thought: Developments Before the Nineteenth Century, Routledge, 2013, p. 165.
 Bragg, J., Ottoman Notables and Participatory Politics: Tanzimat Reform in Tokat, 1839-1876, Routledge, 2014, p. 4.
 Batou, J., Between Development and Underdevelopment: The Precocious Attempts at Industrialization of the Periphery, 1800-1870, Librairie Droz, 1991, p. 168.
 Cooper, F. & Burbank, J., Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, Princeton University Press, 2011, p. 343.
 Bragg, J., Ottoman Notables and Participatory Politics: Tanzimat Reform in Tokat, 1839-1876, Routledge, 2014, p. 44.
 Fleischer, C.H., Bureaucrat and Intellectual in the Ottoman Empire: The Historian Mustafa Ali (1541-1600), Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 266.
 Fleet, K., & Faroqhi, S.N. & Kasaba, R., The Cambridge History of Turkey, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 211.
 Caldarola, C., Religion and Societies: Asia and the Middle East, Walter De Gruyter, 1982, p. 174.
 Fleischer, C.H., Bureaucrat and Intellectual in the Ottoman Empire: The Historian Mustafa Ali (1541-1600), Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 266.
Originally posted 2016-08-31 08:00:54.