The History of the Middle East

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What factors led to the decline and eventual collapse of these Islamic states and did they have any problems in common that would help explain their fall? My text for this is Traditions & Encounters by Bentley and Ziegler.

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The Islamic States of the early modern period--the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire, and Mughal Empires--declined for a few common reasons.

  1. Internal rebellions
  2. Too much territory
  3. European intervention

As the Islamic States grew to power with the use of gunpowder-trained troops (hence their labels as the Gunpowder Empires), they faced...

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The Islamic States of the early modern period--the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire, and Mughal Empires--declined for a few common reasons.

  1. Internal rebellions
  2. Too much territory
  3. European intervention

As the Islamic States grew to power with the use of gunpowder-trained troops (hence their labels as the Gunpowder Empires), they faced the same problems that many empires have had since the beginning of human settled society: the empire grew too large to control. With larger borders came more problems such as incorporating different people into the empire, appeasing and controlling groups that were far from the capital, and preventing attacks from rival civilizations or nomadic groups. The Ottomans built their empire between Europe and the Safavid Empire. During their reign, they faced incursions by both. They also had to deal with growing naval empires, encapsulated at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 against the Spanish. Once the Ottomans lost power over trade in the Indian Ocean, they were on a declining trajectory. This also encouraged internal rebellions as different factions vied for power. Eventually, a powerful group of Turk nationalists known as the Young Turks transitioned power away from the Sultans of Turkey and towards presidential power.

The Safavids faced a different issue. As Shi'a Muslims, surrounded by Sunni Muslims, they faced threats from both their Ottoman and Mughal rivals. They were also the bastions of the old Silk Road trading network, so they were under constant threat from banditry. Unlike the Ottomans, they did not engage in massive oceanic trade nor did they build a naval empire. By the time the great Safavid ruler Abbas I died and his sons took over, weak leaders brought bad decisions and destruction to the Empire. Factional disputes and rebellions brought the Safavids down from within, and coupled with continual invasions from their Ottoman and Mughal rivals, the Safavids dissolved into decentralized factions.

With the Mughals, their territory was won by invading decentralized kingdoms in India. The tension between Muslims and Hindus had characterized the Mughal reign, and internal rebellions from some groups (the Marattas to the West and the Sikhs to the northwest) pushed the Mughals out. What eventually ended the Mughal reign was invasion and colonization by first the British East India Company and later the British crown. In addition, northern and northwestern Mughal India suffered attacks from invaders and anti-Muslim decentralized groups. By stretching their empire from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, their territory was far too large to control with gunpowder troops alone.

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There are a number of factors that help to explain why the Islamic states declined.  These factors were generally caused by the fact that these empires were autocratic and large.  From these two main characteristics arose the problems that led to the empires’ eventual declines.

First, all of these empires were autocratic.  This meant that the most important person in the empire at any time was the emperor.  There were few checks on the emperor’s behavior.  When there were good emperors, the empires were generally strong.  However, all of these empires also had bad emperors, and some of these bad emperors caused the empires to decline.  There was also infighting for power between different members of the royal families.  This tended to weaken the empires.

Secondly, all of these empires were quite large.  As was the case with the Roman Empire, this helped cause their decline.  The military and bureaucratic apparatuses that are needed to hold together a large empire are very expensive.  When the empires stopped expanding, they stopped bringing in new territories to help pay for these apparatuses.  When this happened, the empires became less able to administer their entire territories.  In addition, a large empire is likely to have a large number of different kinds of peoples.  This meant that there would be diversity of culture and religion.  This led to tensions between different ethnic, cultural, and religious groups.

Finally, we should mention that these empires, for whatever reasons, stopped developing new military technology.  This allowed European countries to catch up to them and eventually pass them in military power.  These European countries then attacked and weakened the Islamic states.

For these reasons, all of the Islamic states discussed in this chapter of your text declined.

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