Book Review: Sword of the Caliph

By By Eric Ormsby, WSJ.COM

How the brief but revolutionary reign of Ottoman Caliph ‘Selim the Grim’ transformed an empire and a faith.

 

From the early seventh century, the question of succession became the thorniest, most divisive and indeed the bloodiest issue in Islamic history. Of the first four caliphs, the rulers of the faith after Muhammad, three were murdered. (There has been a persistent suspicion that Abu Bakr, the first caliph, elected immediately after the Prophet’s death in 632, was poisoned, too.) When Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet—and his closest blood relative—was pushed aside in favor of Abu Bakr, to the outrage of supporters who would form “the party of Ali” (shi’at Ali in Arabic, the origin of the term Shiite), the act represented not only a repudiation of Ali but a rejection of a dynastic mode of succession. Ali would become the fourth caliph decades later, only to be murdered by an assassin with a poisoned sword in the mosque in Kufa in 661. But the criteria for accession to the caliphate had been established: individual virtue and demonstrable piety, not lineage or family connections. This sounds reasonable enough but proved unworkable, and in fact the dynastic principle soon re-emerged, usually to murderous effect.

Such power struggles were hardly unique to Islam, though they did take a particularly unsavory twist during the nearly five centuries when the vast empire of the Ottoman Turks held sway. One of the most compelling narratives in “God’s Shadow,” Yale professor Alan Mikhail’s very original and wide-ranging account of the life and career of the Ottoman Sultan Selim (1470-1520), describes the ruthless machinations and cunning maneuvers Selim employed, over two decades, to win the sultanate. Selim was the grandson of Mehmet II, who captured Constantinople in 1453 and sent shock waves through Europe and beyond. Selim won his own throne with the connivance of his formidable mother, Gülbahar, an Albanian Christian whose father converted and gave her as a gift to Sultan Bayezid II, Selim’s father. The alliance of mothers and their sons in political intrigues was commonplace at the Ottoman court; mothers exercised influence indirectly but were no less powerful for that. Much was at stake: The son who prevailed immediately had all his surviving brothers, and sometimes their male offspring, strangled.

This was the fate of two of Selim’s half-brothers, whom he had executed when, after forcing his father’s abdication, in a brazen and unprecedented seizure of power, he was proclaimed sultan in 1512 and caliph in 1517. Selim then became not only the absolute head of state but the divinely sanctioned defender of the faith—in this case, Sunni Islam. His savage ruthlessness in the role, leading to his massacre of some 40,000 Shiites in eastern Anatolia in 1514 (among other atrocities) earned him the sobriquet “Selim the Grim” (Selim Yavuz), the name by which he is still known, and revered, in Turkey.

Selim’s career, from his birth as the least-favored son of Bayezid to his brief but astounding rule—which lasted hardly more than eight years until his death, apparently from plague, at age 49—forms the heart of Mr. Mikhail’s account. Selim expanded Ottoman territories threefold; he crushed rival dynasties, such as the Safavids of Iran (the hated Shi’ites) and the Mamluks of Egypt (his rivals for predominance in the Sunni world), and thus gained control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, not to mention Jerusalem (to the horror of his Christian enemies).

Mr. Mikhail draws on sources in several languages to tell this gripping story; he wields a lucid and fast-moving prose, and his analysis is full of surprises. For like a skilled janissary—one of those elite troops that made Ottoman armies so formidable in the field—Mr. Mikhail has more than one string to his bow. He sets Selim’s accomplishments within an exceedingly wide context, for he views the persistent Ottoman threat to the West and the panicked response to it, following the capture of Constantinople in 1453, as the catalyst for numerous seemingly unrelated events not only in Europe but in the Americas.

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