The Sultan and the Sultanate: Envisioning Rulership in the Age of Süleymān the Lawgiver (1520-1566)

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


My thesis examines the formation of a uniquely Ottoman theory of rulership during the age of Suleiman the Lawgiver (1520–1566) through an extensive study of political treatises written in this period, most of which are in manuscript form and new to current scholarship. My thesis shows that a paradigmatic transformation took place in political reasoning that in turn led to a new mode of political writing and an extensive reshuffling of political ideals, visions, symbols, and theories in this period that had a lasting impact on the way the Ottoman ruling elite viewed their ruler, government, and society.

The conventional perception of rulership as a continuation of the historical caliphate with the claim of presenting the sultan as the universal head of the Muslim community lost its appeal. Instead, because of the permeation of Sufistic imageries into political theory, the caliphate was defined as a cosmic rank between Man and God, attained in the spiritual sphere. The pursuit of moralism and piety in rulership that dominated the previous political theory gave way to legalism that evaluated governance by the ruler's observation of laws rather than his moral behavior. In this approach, the observance of customs, religious code, and sultanic laws became the touchstone for measuring the quality of government that was previously gauged on the basis of the sultan's piety.

The focus of political analysis shifted from the personality of the ruler to the existing government, its institutions, and procedural practices. In contrast to previous conceptions that reigned supreme in political theory, in the new paradigm, the grand vizier replaced the sultan as the center of government. The sultan was then conceived to be a distant but a legitimating figure for the dynasty while the grand vizier was promoted to the position of actual ruler in the Ottoman state. Consequently, relatively divorced from the moralistic, idealistic, personality-oriented, and sultan-centric paradigm in political reasoning, this realist and empirical approach to the question of rulership promoted such ideas as ‘government by law’ and ‘institutional continuity of the state’ as primary objectives of rulership.

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