The History of the Middle East

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What are the similarities and differences between the reigns of Suleyman the Magnificent, Akbar, Aurangzeb, Shah Ismail and Shah Abbas and what made each of them successful?

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During the Early Modern period, there were three Muslim empires in the Middle East and South Asia known as the Gunpowder Empires.  On the foundations of the Byzantine Empire rose the Ottoman Empire, with great leaders like Suleyman the Magnificent.  Centered on the old Persian Empire grew the Safavid Empire, with strong leaders like Shah Ismail and Shah Abbas the Great.  Finally, in South Asia, we see the Mughal Empire conquering in India and bringing Islam into the subcontinent.

Suleyman the Magnificent was the leader, or Sultan, of the Ottoman Empire from 1520-1566, and during that time he built the Suleymaniye mosque in Constantinople.  Like the sultans who came after him, Suleyman wanted to contribute to the beauty and power of the Ottomans and demonstrate the contributions of Ottoman power to Islamic and human civilization. 

In Safavid Iran and Iraq, a Sufi mystic named Ismail led his band of red heads (Safavid followers named for their red headwear) and conquered the city of Tabriz in 1501.  Once he defeated Tabriz, he declared himself Shah. Much like the Ottomans, who conquered Constantinople to begin their Empire, the Safavid were able to establish a base on top of an old empire.  However, unlike the Ottomans and even the Mughals, the Safavid were majority Shi'a, unlike the majority of Muslims who identify as Sunni.  Shah Abbas the Great ruled from 1587 to 1629, and his main task was to extend the Safavid Empire from its base in modern day Iran and Iraq.  Abbas would use captured Russian boys as members of his army, similarly to the Ottoman's janissaries.  Abbas incorporated Western technology and gunpowder to extend his empire south to the Gulf of Oman, where the Safavids could use a seaport, and north to the Caspian Sea, where they could benefit from trade.

In Mughal India, similarly to both the Safavids and Ottomans, the use of gunpowder and strong, organized militaries enabled Mughal leaders to conquer India.  Of the Mughal leaders, the most well-known leader is Akbar the Great, who attempted social reform, cultural synthesis, and strong administrative systems in India.  Unlike the Ottomans and Safavids, the Mughals conquered a region that was majority Hindu.  As a Muslim ruler in Hindu lands, Akbar tried to synthesize a new religion called Din-i-Ilahi to bind the two religious groups together.  Akbar also tried to ban Sati, the practice where women would throw themselves on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.  Among other reforms, Akbar was seen as a progressive leader for the Mughals.  Later Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was known for being a religious zealot and was against many of the social reforms passed by Akbar and his successors.  Faced with a declining dynasty, social problems, and a decaying administration, Aurangzeb tried to purge India of Hinduism and create an Indian Islamic state.  While he was unable to do so, he did extend the Mughal Empire into its biggest state, pushing deep into South India.


So, as a quick recap of the similarities and differences:


  • Use of gunpowder in the armies to help conquer rival civilizations
  • Built mosques and schools to legitimize and help spread Islamic faith
  • Built monumental architecture - Suleymaniye in the Ottoman Empire, Taj Mahal (by Shah Jahan) in the Mughal Empire, and the blue-tiled Shah Mosque at Isfahan in the Safavid Empire
  • Territorial expansion
  • Ottomans and Safavids - both used captured prisoners of war in their armies (Ottoman Janissary vs. Safavid Red Head)


  • Mughals were Muslims ruling over Hindu lands
  • Ottomans conquered and ruled in a previously Christian city
  • Safavids were a Shi'a Empire (which explains the concentration of Shi'a Muslims in Iraq and Iran today)
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