Suleyman in his time was regarded as the most significant ruler in the world, by both Muslims and Europeans. His military empire expanded greatly both to the east and west, and he threatened to overrun the heart of Europe itself. In Constantinople, he embarked on vast cultural and architectural projects. Istanbul in the middle of the sixteenth century was architecturally the most energetic and innovative city in the world. While he was a brilliant military strategist and canny politician, he was also a cultivator of the arts. Suleyman's poetry is among the best poetry in Islam, and he sponsored an army of artists, religious thinkers, and philosophers that outshone the most educated courts of Europe.
Suleyman the Just
In Islamic history, Suleyman is regarded as the perfect Islamic ruler in history. He is asserted as embodying all the necessary characteristics of an Islamic ruler, the most important of which is justice ('adale ). The Qur'an itself points to King Solomon as embodying the perfect monarch because he so perfectly embodied 'adale ; Suleyman, named after Solomon, is regarded in Islamic history as the second Solomon. The reign of Suleyman in Ottoman and Islamic history is generally regarded as the period of greatest justice and harmony in any Islamic state.
Suleyman the Lawgiver
The Europeans called him "The Magnificent," but the Ottomans called him Kanuni, or "The Lawgiver." The Suleymanie Mosque, built for Suleyman, describes Suleyman in its inscription as Nashiru kawanin al-Sultaniyye , or "Propagator of the Sultanic Laws." The primacy of Suleyman as a law-giver is at the foundation of his place in Islamic history and world view. It is perhaps important to step back a moment and closely examine this title to fully understand Suleyman's place in history.
The word used for law here, kanun, has a very specific reference. In Islamic tradition, the Shari'ah, or laws originally derived from the Qur'an , are meant to be universally applied across all Islamic states. No Islamic ruler has the power to overturn or replace these laws. So what laws was Suleyman "giving" to the Islamic world? What precisely does kanun refer to since it doesn't refer to the main body of Islamic law, the Shari'ah ?
The kanun refer to situational decisions that are not covered by the Shari'ah . Even though the Shari'ah provides all necessary laws, it's recognized that some situations fall outside their parameters. In Islamic tradition, if a case fell outside the parameters of the Shari'ah , then a judgement or rule in the case could be arrived at through analogy with rules or cases that are covered by the Shari'ah . This method of juridical thinking was only accepted by the most liberal school of Shari'ah , Hanifism, so it is no surprise that Hanifism dominated Ottoman law.
The Ottomans, however, elevated kanun into an entire code of laws independent of the Shari'ah. The first two centuries of Ottoman rule, from 1350 to 1550, saw an explosion of kanun rulings and laws, so that by the beginning of the sixteenth century, the kanun were a complete and independent set of laws that by and large were more important than the Shari'ah . This unique situation was brought about in part because of the unique heritage of the Ottomans. In both Turkish and Mongol traditions, the imperial law, or law pronounced by the monarch, was considered sacred. They even had a special word for it: the Turks called it Türe and the Mongols called it Yasa . In the system of Türe and Yasa , imperial law was regarded as the essential and sacred foundation of the empire. When this tradition collided with the Islamic Shari'ah tradition, a compromised system combining both was formed.
The Sultanic laws were first collected together by Mehmed the Conqueror. Mehmed divided the kanun into two separate sets or laws. The first set dealt with the organization of government and the military, and the second set dealt with the taxation and treatment of the peasantry. The latter group was added to after the death of Mehmed and the Ottoman kanun pretty much crystallized into its final form in 1501. Suleyman, for his part, revised the law code, but on the whole the Suleyman code of laws is pretty identical to the 1501 system of laws. However, it was under Suleyman that the laws took their final form; no more revisions were made after his reign. From this point onwards, this code of laws was called, kanun-i 'Osmani , or the "Ottoman laws."
Suleyman the Conqueror
Western historians know Suleyman primarily as a conqueror, for he made Europe know fear like it had never known of any other Islamic state. Conquest, like every other aspect of the Ottoman state and culture, was a multicultural heritage, with origins as far back as Mesopotamia and Persia, and as far afield as the original Mongol and Turkish peoples in eastern and central Asia.
Suleyman had many titles; in inscriptions he calls himself:
Slave of God, powerful with the power of God, deputy of God on earth, obeying the commands of the Qur'an and enforcing them throughout the world, master of all lands, the shadow of God over all nations, Sultan of Sultans in all the lands of Persians and Arabs, the propagator of Sultanic laws (Nashiru kawanin al-Sultaniyye ), the tenth Sultan of the Ottoman Khans, Sultan, son of Sultan, Suleyman Khan.
Slave of God, master of the world, I am Suleyman and my name is read in all the prayers in all the cities of Islam. I am the Shah of Baghdad and Iraq, Caesar of all the lands of Rome, and the Sultan of Egypt. I seized the Hungarian crown and gave it to the least of my slaves.
He called himself the "master of the lands of Caesar and Alexander the Great," and later as simply, "Caesar." It's hard, of course, not to be slightly humbled by assertions of such greatness, and no ruler in the sixteenth century was more adept at diminishing the egos of all the other rulers surrounding him.
Suleyman believed, however, that the entire world was his possession as a gift of God. Even though he did not occupy Roman lands, he still claimed them as his own and almost launched an invasion of Rome (the city came within a few hairbreadths of Ottoman invasion in Suleyman's expedition against Corfu). In Europe, he conquered Rhodes, a large part of Greece, Hungary, and a major part of the Austrian Empire. His campaign against the Austrians took him right to the doorway of Vienna.
Besides invasions and campaigns, Suleyman was a major player in the politics of Europe. He pursued an aggressive policy of European destabilization; in particular, he wanted to destabilize both the Roman Catholic church and the Holy Roman Empire. When European Christianity split Europe into Catholic and Protestant states, Suleyman poured financial support into Protestant countries in order to guarantee that Europe remain religiously and politically destabilized and so ripe for an invasion. Several historians, in fact, have argued that Protestantism would never have succeeded except for the financial support of the Ottoman Empire.
Suleyman was responding to an aggressively expanding Europe. Like most other non-Europeans, Suleyman fully understood the consequences of European expansion and saw Europe as the principle threat to Islam. The Islamic world was beginning to shrink under this expansion. Portugal had invaded several Muslim cities in eastern Africa in order to dominate trade with India, and Russians, which the Ottomans regarded as European, were pushing central Asians south when the Russian expansion began in the sixteenth century. So in addition to invading and destabilizing Europe, Suleyman pursued a policy of helping any Muslim country threatened by European expansion. It was this role that gave Suleyman the right, in the eyes of the Ottomans, to declare himself as supreme Caliph of Islam. He was the only one successfully protecting Islam from the unbelievers and, as the protector of Islam, deserved to be the ruler of Islam.
While the expansion of European power helps explain Suleyman's conquest of European territories, it doesn't help us when it comes to the vast amount of Islamic territory that he invaded or simply annexed. How does conquering Islamic territory "protect" Islam? The Ottomans understood this as belonging to Suleyman's task as universal Caliph of Islam. This role demanded that Suleyman also see to the integrity of the faith itself and to root out heresy and heterodoxy. His annexation of Islamic territory, such as the annexation of Arabia, were justified by asserting that the ruling dynasties had abandoned orthodox belief or practice. Each of these invasions or annexations were preceded, however, by a religious judgement by Islamic scholars as to the orthodoxy of the ruling dynasty.
Suleyman the Builder
Suleyman undertook to make Istanbul the center of Islamic civilization. He began a series of building projects, including bridges, mosques, and palaces, that rivaled the greatest building projects of the world in that century. The greatest and most brilliant architect of human history was in his employ: Sinan. The mosques built by Sinan are considered the greatest architectural triumphs of Islam and possibly the world. They are more than just awe-inspiring; they represent a unique genius in dealing with nearly insurmountable engineering problems.
Suleyman was a great cultivator of the arts and is considered one of the great poets of Islam. Under Suleyman, Istanbul became the center of visual art, music, writing, and philosophy in the Islamic world. This cultural flowering during the reign of Suleyman represents the most creative period in Ottoman history; almost all the cultural forms that we associate with the Ottomans date from this time.
The reign of Suleyman, however, is generally regarded, by both Islamic and Western historians, as the high point of Ottoman culture and history. While Ottoman culture flourishes during the reign of Selim II, Suleyman's son, the power of the state, internally and externally, began to perceptibly decline. Islamic historians believe that the decline was due to two factors: the decreased vigilance of the Sultan over the functions of government and their consequent corruption, and the decreased interest of the government in popular opinion. Western historians are not sure how to explain the decline after the death of Suleyman. A major factor seems to be a series of eccentric and sometimes insane Sultans all through the seventeenth century. When the Ottomans abandoned the practice of killing all rivals to the throne, they began to imprison them. The Sultanate, then, often fell to individuals who had been imprisoned for decades and, well, there was often no cream filling in those Twinkies. This led to the growth of the power of the bureaucracy and its consequent corruption (this does not fundamentally disagree with the Islamic version of Ottoman history). The decline in the Ottoman Empire in the Western tradition is also considerably determined by the ever-increasing expansion of the European powers. How much this played a direct part in the decline of the Ottomans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is difficult to determine, but there is no question that the last century of the Ottomans (19th), the principle historical factor in Ottoman decline was the hyper-aggressive expansion of European colonial powers. Whatever the reason, the Ottoman Empire begins its slow transformation under Selim II, the son of Suleyman.
Sources: The Ottomans from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission