For Five Centuries, Muslims Dominated the World

A mighty empire and how it grew.

By + More

Meanwhile, another Muslim power was beginning to stir in what is now Turkey: the Ottomans. Descended from the nomadic tribes that crisscrossed Turkey's Aral Sea steppe, the Ottomans had served as mercenaries to their Arab predecessors in their defense against the Mongol invaders and eventually became converted to Islam.

The Ottoman Empire traced its origins to Osman Bey, a 14th-century Turkish warlord whose conquest of Bursa, a formerly Christian Byzantine city, effectively ended his ancestors' nomadic tradition and laid the groundwork for what would become Islam's longest-lived dynasty. Taking a page from their Abassid predecessors in ninth-century Baghdad, Osman and his successors' conquests of Christian Byzantium left the previous regime's clerks and bureaucrats in place. They channeled the taxes they collected to line the sultans' pockets and to produce some of Islam's most impressive mosques and palaces.

Their expansion was aided, in part, by their pragmatic take on Islamic society, in which the Ottoman state took precedence over all other institutions, even family and religious affiliation. For example, at a time when Islamic fiefdoms in Turkey, Persia, and elsewhere were vying for power in the region, the Ottomans decided against recruiting military leaders and bureaucrats from the ranks of their Muslim brethren and instead created a new institution: the devshirme.

Composed of young Christian boys taken from newly conquered territories, they were essentially slaves to the Ottoman sultans. They were indoctrinated in Muslim religion, culture, and languages, then given the best possible education and channeled into the empire's highest bureaucratic and military ranks. The result was the creation of a social caste free of conflicting loyalties.

"The system was so beautiful in that they only had one allegiance—to the sultan," Islamic historian Esin Atil explains in the PBS documentary Islam: Empire of Faith. "No family, no region, no other ties. . . . Those who were brainy went to the palace schools and graduated into different levels of [political advisers] and governors....Those who were brawny went to the [military]."

With what was now the toughest, most disciplined army in the world, the Ottomans moved to expand their empire. And in 1453, Osman's heir, Mehmet the Conqueror, seized the Ottoman's ultimate prize: Constantinople, the capital of the dying Byzantine Empire. Within hours of breaching the city's walls with the innovative use of gunpowder, Mehmet laid claim to the Hagia Sophia, the city's—and, perhaps, Christianity's—greatest church. He transformed the church into a mosque and renamed the city Istanbul.

Mehmet's successors further expanded the Ottomans' reach, adding Syria, Egypt, and Islam's holiest Arabian sites, as well as portions of Eastern Europe. By the time the sultan Suleiman came to power in 1520, the Ottoman Empire was at its peak. The 10th descendant of Osman, Suleiman was named for the Old Testament's King Solomon, and he set about to reign in a manner no less grand.

In addition to his military conquests in Belgrade and Hungary, Suleiman took advantage of his great wealth to refurbish the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem. He also commissioned his chief architect to create what remains one of Islam's greatest architectural legacies: the massive Suleymaniye mosque overlooking Istanbul, a vast domed complex that included a hospital, school, and library. When it was completed, Suleiman was so overwhelmed, he boasted, "Oh, Solomon! I have surpassed thee."

Yet for all his power, Suleiman ultimately failed to carry the banner of Islam into the center of Europe. His siege of Vienna in 1529 ended in retreat. And although he vowed to return, he never did. Instead, he became consumed by the same sort of succession battles that had long undermined the Ottoman Empire; one of his four wives, Hurrem, claimed to have learned of a plot by Suleiman's first-born son and heir, Mustafa, to take over the throne. (Hurrem favored her own son, Selim II, for the sultanate.) Suleiman ordered Mustafa's execution and then descended into melancholy. He himself died in 1566, leaving the throne to Selim II, who soon squandered his legacy with sex and alcohol and left the empire to slowly crumble.