What are the differences between the Ottoman and Safavid empires in terms of government and religion?

3 Answers

beardian's profile pic

beardian | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

The Ottoman and Safavid Empires, known as "Gunpowder Empires", differed in

First, the Ottomans:

The Ottoman government was an absolute monarchy that lost touch with the people over time.  It also lacked rules for succession, which history has shown leads to political turmoil and a power vacuum upon death of the monarch/leader.  (Other examples of this - Roman Emperors, the prophet and caliph Mohammad of the early Islamic Caliphate in 632, etc.)  The leader was the sultan, advised by a vizier and supported by a bureaucracy.  Leaders such as Suleiman the Magnificent extended Ottoman power through trade dominance; Istanbul was a key trading city in the heart of the Ottoman Empire.  However, the Ottoman declined due to the aforementioned succession problems, instability from a rapidly expanding border, peasant revolts, and economic problems stemming from wars.

Religiously, the Ottomans were very tolerant.  The Ottomans were Sunni Muslims- followers of Islam.  Taking the Qur'an to heart, Christians and Jews were considered people of the book and were highly respected, or at least tolerated. 

Now, the Safavids:

The Safavid Empire formed in modern day Iraq, Iran, and portions of Afghanistan.  Similar to the Ottomans, the Safavids used their military for westward expansion.  The most famous Shah was Abbas the Great, who recruited Persians into his bureaucracy and formed a military made up of conquered troops, much like the Ottomans and their janissaries.  Again in similarity with the Ottomans, the Safavids suffered from a series of weak leaders, and internal power struggles for control of the empire led to even more weakness.  Ultimately, the Safavids fell to Afghan raiders.

Religiously, the Safavids followed the Shi'a branch of Islam, a difference from the Sunni Ottomans.  Religious leaders and teachers helped spread Islam throughout the empire.  They were also not as tolerant of non-Shi'a Muslims.

Direct Comparison


  • Ottomans were more market driven
  • Safavid Empire was land locked, so their trade was limited
  • Ottomans had an absolute monarch, Safavids ruled by a shah
  • Ottomans were Sunni Muslims, Safavids were Shi'a Muslims


  • Oppression and turmoil caused peasant rebellion
  • Both followed branches of Islam
  • Government focused on westward expansion
  • Bureaucracy supported the leader
thetall's profile pic

thetall | (Level 1) Senior Educator

Posted on

The Ottomans were mostly Sunni Muslims. Sunni Muslims observe that leadership should be based on strong qualities of the individual and not blood ties with the Prophet. On the other hand, the Safavids were mostly Shiite Muslims. Shiite Muslims observe that Muslim leadership should be maintained within the Prophet’s family line.
The Ottomans were tolerant with regards to religious diversity. However, they levied a type of tax on non-Muslims. On the other hand, the Safavids were less accepting of other religions and imposed their religion on those they conquered.
In terms of governance, the Ottomans were flexible enough to allow upward mobility of their citizens within government ranks. On the other hand, the Safavids were rigid and only allowed the empire’s nobility to be involved in governance.  In this regard, class distinctions were reinforced in the Safavid Empire.
The Safavid Empire organized its government to ensure financial expansion. The Ottoman government, on the other hand, supported territorial expansion over other objectives. The Safavids’ focused on financial objectives, and this saw them forge alliances with Europeans. This accorded them an opportunity to reduce conflict and enhance stability. The Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, was focused on conquest.
The Ottoman government assimilated what they believed were positive foreign ideas within their practices and policies. On the other hand, the Safavids believed their ideas were superior compared to foreigners. This rigidity forced them to shun any external influence with regards to their government practices and policies.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Religiously, there were at least two major differences between the Ottomans and the Safavids.  First, the Ottomans were Sunni Muslims while the Safavids were Shi'ite.  The Safavids were anti-Sunni to the extent that they would at times massacre Sunnis (as they did in Baghdad) when they conquered a Sunni area.  Second, the Safavids were less tolerant of non-Muslims in their empire than the Ottomans were.  They preferred to use Shi'ism as a unifying force in their empire.

Governmentally, the main difference was that the Safavids were a bit more centralized than the Ottomans.  Safavid shahs kept power more closely to themselves than Ottoman sultans did.