Citation for Sultanates and Gunpowder Empires

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Lapidus, Ira M. . "Sultanates and Gunpowder Empires." In The Oxford History of Islam. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Apr 18, 2021. <>.


Lapidus, Ira M. . "Sultanates and Gunpowder Empires." In The Oxford History of Islam. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Apr 18, 2021).

Sultanates and Gunpowder Empires


Ira M. Lapidus

The era of gunpowder empires represents a new phase in the development of Middle Eastern and Islamic societies. The term gunpowder empires imputes a great importance to the innovative military technology of infantry armed with muskets, operating in conjunction with siege and battlefield artillery, that allowed the new empires to sweep away their rivals and to establish a dominion that would last until the eve of the modern era. Yet the achievements of the Ottoman and Safavid empires were not merely technological or tactical. Their endurance and their success in deploying new technologies was based on a deeper structure of political institutions. In turn the political regimes must be understood as the embodiment of a comprehensive civilization. The Ottoman and Safavid empires were the umbrellas, the holding companies, for complex societies. They represented novel military tactics, the consolidation of political institutions, and the restoration of imperial political controls over vast territories after centuries of near anarchy. They also fostered important economic and urbanistic developments, new forms of religious organization, and a fresh phase in the history of Middle Eastern and Islamic cultures. Illustrated manuscripts and mosques from the Ottoman and Safavid empires remain to the present day treasures of world civilization. Less well-known but equally brilliant are the achievements in poetry, philosophy, and religious studies in these empires. As comprehensive systems of government, society, economy, and culture, the Ottoman and the Safavid empires represent a culminating phase in the history of Middle Eastern civilization—the high imperial phase, which precedes the nineteenth-century transformations and the advent of the modern era.

Sultanates and Gunpowder Empires

(Left) The Ottoman sultans built great mosque and school complexes to adorn their cities and express their authority. The crowning achievement of Ottoman architecture is the immense domed Selimiye mosque at Edirne designed by the architect Sinan for sultan Selim in 1574.

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The Fundamental Structures of Middle Eastern Societies and the Early Islamic Era

The basic features of these empires derive from the historical past. From ancient times, and even into the modern era, the small community has remained the focus of the deepest loyalties, the basis for widespread, communal cooperation, and the wellspring of common identity. Those who formed a family, a lineage, a clan, or a clientele group loyal to a master—the people of a hamlet, a village, a nomadic camp, a town quarter, living in close proximity to each other—constituted the community for reproduction, for nurturing and educating the young, for earning a living, and for defense and mutual aid. Their story will not be told in this history of the Ottoman and Safavid eras, but nonetheless they were the fundamental entities in the empire systems. Such groups sustained the more encompassing domains of the economy, the religious institutions, and the state, and in turn their well-being was the ultimate measure of the success and the value of the empire systems.

Small communities were the building blocks of larger formations. Three such formations were of particular historical importance: tribal organizations; religious communities; and political regimes, states, and empires. Tribal organizations consisted of various groups—families, lineages, clienteles, and political gangs—that coalesced under the leadership of a patriarch or other political or religious chieftain. Although tribes have commonly been thought of as extended families, in reality they were alliances of families, clientele groups, and bands of warriors who promoted common interests.

The second large-scale communal institutions were religious communities. Since ancient times, family, lineage, and tribal units had been affiliated in common worship and in the shared construction, maintenance, and veneration of shrines and temples. With the emergence of the monotheistic religions, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity, certain beliefs became virtually universal: belief in the transhuman world of spiritual forces, in the sacred quality of all being, and in a supreme divine being, universal, transcendent, and unknowable; belief in the ethical responsibility of all human beings; and belief in a life in the world to come. These religions also taught the brotherhood of mankind and promoted the organization of congregations for worship and parishes for the administration of their educational, legal, and charitable affairs. Jews and Christians in particular, in synagogues and churches, formed strong communal bodies and had a strong sense of shared identity.

The third agglomerating institution—political regimes, states, and empires—was the umbrella organization that ruled over the families, client groups, tribes, and religious bodies within its territorial reach. The ruler was considered to represent the divine plan for order in society. Rulers had a quasi-religious function, in that their good behavior was supposed to ensure the favor of the gods. Empires were supposed to defend the realm of civilization, primarily agricultural and urban, against the barbarians, who were usually nomadic peoples. Internally, the rulers were supposed to protect their subjects against injustice and to secure order in society. In practice, empires represented the domination of the ruler—the ruler's household, courtiers, armies, and bureaucrats—over the rest of the population. Rulers policed, taxed, punished, and subdued their own peoples. At the same time, the apparatus of rule depended on the resources it could draw from the subordinated political, religious, and communal units—revenues and supporting labor from families, legitimation from churches and religious groups, and military support from tribes. Rulers' relations with tribal and religious bodies, however, were always contested. The struggle for power in these societies turned on the state's relations to these partly independent bodies.

Middle Eastern peoples also shared linguistic, cultural, or regional identities, but these identities did not necessarily have political meanings. Thus there were Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, Persians, Turks, and so on and such cultural identities as those of the Hellenistic, Iranian, and Semitic literary cultures, but in premodern times the most important units were tribes, religious groups, and empires. Only in the modern era have ethnicity and nationality become the basis of modern states.

Many technologies (such as those for producing food: agriculture and herding; the techniques for preparing clothing: spinning, weaving, and tanning; and methods of construction) and institutions (such as the institutions of money, markets, and commercial law) also derived from ancient times. These were older and more widespread than either the Ottoman or Safavid empires.

The Arab-Islamic conquests and the early Islamic empires perpetuated the basic constellation of earlier institutions but redefined them in Islamic terms. From the seventh to the tenth centuries the Arab empires created the first Middle Eastern–wide political regime, bringing an overarching unity into the region from the Aral Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Regions that had been part of the Byzantine and the Sasanian empires as well as regions in the far east (in Central Asia) and in the far west (in North Africa and Europe) that had never been part of a Middle Eastern empire were brought under the reign of Islam. The new unified Middle Eastern empire allowed for an expanded international trade and a larger arena for the cooperation of local elites, their integration into the imperial system, and the creation of new elite identities on the basis of Islam and the Middle Eastern high-literary cultures in Arabic and Persian.

Although the new empires inherited the institutional framework of the past, they gave it a distinctly Islamic character. The Arab-Islamic empires built on the administrative mechanics of their predecessors—the ruler's court, which was the empire's command center; the military, which was constituted in part by a central army and in part by tribal auxiliaries; and the bureaucracies developed for tax collection and communication—but at the same time they redefined their political identities. The new rulers were called caliphs, heirs and executors of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as heirs to the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. Through patronage of architecture and the visual arts, philosophy, science, and new literatures in Arabic and Persian, they assimilated the heritage of antiquity into their Islamic identity, creating a new form of Middle Eastern courtly, aristocratic high culture.

In the early Islamic era the new religion was established not only in court and ruling circles but throughout the Middle East. Islam, which espoused religious beliefs analogous to those of Judaism and Christianity, was at first the religion of the imperial elite and of the Arab conquering forces settled in garrison towns and cities throughout the empire. Gradually it became the religion of converts who joined the Arab rulers in their garrison centers. As late as the tenth century, however, Islam was still the religion of urban elites and of only some peasant and bedouin elements. The great masses of the Middle Eastern population had yet to be converted.

From these Muslim populations emerged a new Islamic culture. Muslims generated studies of the Quran and the hadith (verified accounts of a statement or action of the Prophet Muhammad) as well as legal, theological, and mystical studies; they opened up the study of philology, grammar, and history as auxiliary subjects. Muslim holy men, readers of Quran, teachers of hadith, scholars of law, and mystics gathered adherents and followers, and they created a plethora of small communities, sometimes sectarian, dedicated to the study and living out of one or another variant version of Muslim beliefs and practices. By the tenth century a Muslim literary-religious culture and many committed communities were in full bloom. Islam was established in parallel to the previously existing Christian, Zoroastrian, and Jewish populations.

Although the early Islamic era did not complete the process of the Islamization of the Middle East, it provided the critical concepts and social models. The legacies of this early era included the concept of the caliphate and the Islamic state as a unified expression of moral and political interests; the system of beliefs that constituted the Islamic religion; such social organizations as schools of law, Sufi coteries, and Shiite communities; the institutional forms of mosques and colleges; and the authority of ulama (religious scholars) and Sufis, scholars, and holy men as leaders of their people.

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