By Chet Yarbrough
God’s Shadow (Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World)
By: Alan Mikhail
Narrated by: James Cameron Stewart
Alan Mikhail (Author, Chace Family Professor of History, Chair Dept. of History at Yale.)
Alan Mikhails’s “God’s Shadow” speculates on the historic impact of the Ottoman Empire on the rise of the Islamic religion and its conflict with Christianity. His book is well received by the public but panned by some who believe Mikhail’s scholarship is more speculative than factual. That criticism seems well earned when the last chapter of Mikahail’s book summarizes his opinion about Islam’s past and future.
What is surprising to this reviewer is not Mikhails’s speculation about Islam’s future but his failure to explore Ottoman history’s success in diminishing Shite Muslim growth while hugely increasing Sunni Muslim Islamic influence.
When Muhammed, the founder of Islam, dies, he leaves no heir to Allah’s teaching. In not leaving an heir, a split occurs between those who argue only a direct descendant of Muhammed, not a mere follower, can be a leader of the faith.
Shite Muslims believe an heir to Muhammed’s leadership can only be to a male descendant of the Muhammed’ family. Sunni’s argue Islamic leadership is based on any man who demonstrates success and ability to spread the faith.
Sultan Bayezid II (1447-1512, reign 1481-1512.)
The spread of the Muslim religion is laid at the feet of Sultan Selim I. He is one of the sons of Sultan Bayezid II who gains control of what is known as the Ottoman Empire.
“God’s Shadow” recounts the rise of the Ottoman Empire which is the primary cause of Sunni growth in the Middle East. A major part of Mikhail’s book is about Selim I because he is the leader that conquers and combines most of the Muslim world into the Ottoman Empire.
An interesting opinion of Mikhail is the role of harems in the Islamic world. He argues male heirs are a primary function of the harem. Once a male is born to a concubine of a Sultan, Mikhail suggests further conjugal relations cease. Every born male is a potential Sultan.
This naturally leads to a competition and often death of male heirs who are chosen by the acting Sultan to be his replacement. “God’s Shadow” tells the history of a younger son who disagrees with Sultan Bayezid II’s choice and successfully replaces that choice by force. Selim I ascends the throne of Sultan despite his father’s choice of heir. Selim’s road to hegemonic Sultan is through the conquering of nations beyond Istanbul and the Balkans, to Hungary on the north, Egypt on the south, Algeria on the west, and Iraq on the East.
Selim I (1470-1520, 9th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire-reigned from April 1512-September 1520.)
An apocryphal story told by Mikhail is that, in the earlier years of Selim I’s conquests, he is presented a colored map of the then-known world that shows nations beyond the Ottoman Empire. Selim I tears the map in half because he is satisfied with what he has done. Mikhail notes that incident occurs in Selim’s earlier years because when a later map shows the Americas, Selim suggests more is to be done. A fundamental argument made by Mikhail is that the growth of the Ottoman Empire is the precursor of modern governance.
In the final chapter of Mikhail’s book, a step beyond reason or history is taken. Mikhail posits Selim’s reign and the rise of the Islamic religion presages future dominance of Islam in the world. He argues by 2070 Islam will be the dominant religion of the world. That seems hyperbolic when the role of religion in the world is arguably in decline. Mikhail compounds hyperbola by suggesting the world’s reaction to Islam has been a foil to create Christian and democratic nations. The growth of Christianity and democracy are patently more than a reaction to the religion of Islam.
This is an unfortunate digression for Mikhail because he makes a good historical case for the Islamic religion’s tolerance of other faiths in the face of historically murderous Catholic Crusades. On the other hand, many atrocities accompany Selim I’s expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Mikhail notes Selim’s soldiers are compensated by plunder and rape when ordered to invade new territories. And of course, there is the faction of the Muslim faith that carried out the death of over 2,000 people on 9/11/21 in America.
Interestingly, Mikhail offers an encomium to President Erdogan in Turkey by praising him for resurrecting the legend of Selim I in a bridge dedication.
Erdogan is revivifying the Islamic religion in Turkey even though its history was dramatically changed by Ataturk who turned Turkey into a secular rather than Islamic state.
2023 is an important year for Erdogan. He has been President of Turkey since 2014. Some suggest the recent earthquake in Turkey jeopardizes his re-election. To an outsider, it seems Erdogan has reversed some of the secular drive of Ataturk by increasing Islamic influence in governance.
President Erdogan has made his voice heard in the West by initially voting against Sweden’s bid to join NATO. Sweden has been a haven for the PKK, which Turkey characterizes as a terrorist organization that aided an attempt to overthrow the Turkish government in 2016. Sweden’s legislature is voting on March 9, 2023, on a measure that would prohibit recruitment and financing of the PKK in Sweden. One wonders, if that will change Turkey’s “no” vote for Sweden to join NATO.
Erdogan seems an odd choice for comparison to Selim I’s Islamic reign based on a personal perception of this critic’s visit to Turkey. Erdogan seems much less a revered leader by the public than Ataturk, let alone Selim I depicted in “God’s Shadow”.