God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World

September 1, 2020

Alan Mikhail, professor of history and chair of the department of history, has expanded our understandings of the past through his previous three prize-winning books on the history of the Middle East. In his recent book, God’s Shadow (Liveright, 2020), he offers a new history of the modern world through the dramatic biography of Sultan Selim I (1470-1520) and his Ottoman Empire. The MacMillan Center recently spoke with Professor Mikhail about the revisionist account he chronicles in God’s Shadow.

Q: What made you want to write this book?

AM: I wanted to offer a fuller account of our world, of how the last 500 years of history shaped the present. In 1500, if one were to ask any political or religious leader, from Europe to China, to list the most important geopolitical powers of the day, the Ottoman Empire would be at or near the top. Yet, the histories of how our world came to be rarely include the Ottoman Empire. My book restores the Ottomans to their rightful place, focusing on the life and times of a central figure in the empire’s history, its ninth leader, Sultan Selim I. God’s Shadow offers a completely new history of the modern world.

In the United States, we understand that the histories that forged us, however contested and incomplete, derive from Europe, Native America, and Africa. Part of the argument of my book is that the Ottomans and Islam shaped all of these cultures and histories and therefore that to fully and accurately understand the history of America we must grasp these other histories too.

Q: This is a bold argument: that the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim world are at the root of the major events in modern history that have shaped our world. Your case is convincing though. Why has this perspective been overlooked for so long?

AM: The political and military clashes between Christendom and Islam and their many more positive and mundane interactions represented a major geopolitical force of the Old World for centuries. However, at least since the Industrial Revolution, and the so called glories of the nineteenth century, historians have created a myth about “the rise of the west” that somehow stretches all the way back to 1492. Not only does this fantastical history paper over the deep fissures in early modern Europe, it also masks the fact that the Ottoman Empire struck fear into the world for centuries before it earned its derogatory nineteenth-century sobriquet, “the sick man of Europe.” Since the nineteenth century, the idea of the west has indeed come to rely on the absence of Islam. Europe, and then America, overcame this most significant of historical enemies, the story goes, to lead the world forward. This is all historical absurdity. As my book shows, Europe and the Muslim world were never not interacting. Muslims thrust Europe to the New World, crossed the Atlantic in the Spanish imagination to shape the early history of the European colonization of the Americas, and helped birth Protestantism. Even as some Europeans attempted to keep Islam off their continent, away from the Americas, and out of their historical narratives about the modern world, Islam has always been a present formative force.

Q: How does the marginalization or erasure of Muslims and their contributions to world history and development affect our world today?

AM: Cutting Muslims out of the major historical events of the last five centuries cuts them out of our understanding of how we arrived at our modern world. Instead of seeing Islam as the integral and constructive force that it was, we see it as outside, other, enemy. If we erroneously understand Muslims to have always been outside of our history, it becomes easier to keep them outside of our present, more difficult for us today to integrate Muslims in America and Europe. Thus, by weaving the history of Islam back into the events and histories we commonly understand as “our history,” I hope my book can offer some grounds for a more inclusive present.

Q: Where does the title God’s Shadow come from?

AM: “God’s Shadow on Earth” was the moniker of the book’s protagonist, Sultan Selim. It points to his centrality to world history, with his life spanning one of the most significant half centuries ever. Selim was born in 1470, the fourth son of a sultan. Never favored to succeed his father, the best he could have hoped for was a life of leisure and comfort. At seventeen, he became the governor of Trabzon, a frontier town on the Black Sea, as far away from the Ottoman capital as one could go. He, however, turned this posting of weakness into an advantage by flexing his military might against the empire’s many enemies across the eastern border. He then outwitted his older brothers to take the throne, forcing their father’s abdication. As sultan, he expanded the empire more than any leader before him, giving the empire the shape it would maintain until its end in the twentieth century. Selim died five hundred years ago in September 1520.

Selim can claim many firsts. He was the first sultan to rule over an Ottoman Empire on three continents, one with a majority Muslim population. He was the first Ottoman to hold the titles of both sultan and caliph. He was one of the first non-firstborn sons to become sultan, the first to have but one son himself (the well-known Suleyman the Magnificent), and the first to depose a sitting sultan.

Q: What are the sources you used to research Selim’s story?

AM: Given Selim’s global influence, the sources about his life come from around the world. I drew on Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, and French materials. Of course, Turkish sources were indispensable to narrate Selim’s life and the intricacies of his empire’s history. Arabic accounts of Selim’s advances on Damascus and Cairo proved crucial too. As did European sources. Remarkable, in fact, is just how much Europeans and others wrote about the Ottoman Empire, far more than about the Americas, for instance. Spain’s Charles V, for example—the leader most responsible for his empire’s enormous expansion in the New World—uttered not a word about the Americas in his memoirs. What obsessed him were Ottoman advances in Europe and fears about the growing weakness of Christianity vis-à-vis Islam. Similarly, sixteenth-century France produced twice as many books about Islam as it did about the Americas and Africa combined. Overall, between 1480 and 1609, Europe published four times more works about the Ottomans and Islam than about the Americas.

Q: Selim’s mother Gülbahar seems to have been key to his success. Was this typical of the Ottoman sultans and their family roles?

AM: Yes. Within the Ottoman royal family, the mother of every sultan was a concubine. Sultans nearly always chose to produce their heirs with concubines rather than wives. Therefore, the mother of every sultan in 600 years of Ottoman history was technically a slave, though her children were born free. Despite their subjugated status, these mothers of princes held important positions in the politics of the Ottoman dynasty. Once a concubine bore a son, she and the sultan ceased sexual relations. The Ottoman formula was one woman, one son. Not only did this system allow for the rapid production of sons, but it also ensured that royal mothers became the patronesses of their prince’s futures. In the bloody world of Ottoman succession, princes were pitted against each other and therefore needed an entourage of support, first to protect them and then to help them maneuver toward the throne. The mothers of princes were the major strategists in these imperial politics. The incentives for a mother were clear: if her prince succeeded, so would she, to the great benefit of both.

So when Selim was sent off to be governor of Trabzon, as a teenager mind you, his mother Gülbahar went with him, and for many years as he grew into adulthood, she ran the city herself. This sort of thing repeated across the empire. With vested interests in their individual son’s success, women like Gülbahar managed much of imperial rule throughout the Ottoman realm.

Q: Selim tripled the size of the empire during his reign—how did he manage to rule this much land, and such a diversity of people?

AM: Selim’s conquest of the Mamluk Empire in 1517 won the Ottomans all of the Middle East and North Africa, control of the entire eastern Mediterranean, and access to the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea. It also made the empire for the first time in over two hundred years a majority Muslim empire. Before that, most of the people under Ottoman rule were Orthodox Christians. The Ottomans thus had long experience with ruling as minority Muslims over a majority non-Muslim population. Still, Selim’s conquests demanded new modes of governance. New populations accepted Ottoman rule because Selim largely allowed previous practices to maintain. As long as people recognized the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, they were allowed to pay the same taxes, retain their same local leaders, and keep their ways of life. And overtime populations came to see the manifold advantages of Ottoman rule. The imperial court system, for example, gave people a way to adjudicate disputes, record property transactions, and register complaints with the empire. Unlike in Christian Europe, Ottoman policy allowed minority groups religious autonomy to be governed by their own religious laws, to worship as they liked, and to avoid military service through the payment of a tax. The Ottomans understood that the only way they could rule successfully was by winning over their subjects by showing them the benefits of Ottoman rule.

Q: You write that the Ottomans are the reason Columbus discovered the Americas—how did this come to be?

AM: Columbus was born in 1451, two years before the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. The clash between Christendom and the Ottomans and other Muslims was the greatest geopolitical conflict of Columbus’s day, shaping his world more than any other force. Muslims represented a spiritual challenge to the Christian worldview, a political rival for territory, and an economic opponent for trade routes and markets. Europeans turned to the language of Crusade to try to overcome all of this, a belief that only a Christian war to defeat Islam everywhere it existed could bring about European ascendancy.

The Catholic conquest of Granada in 1492, ending over seven centuries of Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula, bolstered the notion that Christianity was marching forward toward the complete annihilation of Islam. Columbus’s journey west was considered the next step in this war. His voyages were at their heart a direct result of Muslim-Christian animosities, a product of Ottoman and Mamluk control of trade routes to the east and the confrontations between the Ottomans and Europe in the Mediterranean. As he bobbed westward on the high seas, Columbus’s mind was occupied by neither a secular passion for discovery nor a calculating commercial vision. More than anything else, he sailed west to open a new chapter in Christianity’s continuing Crusade against Islam. He crossed the Atlantic to fight Muslims.

Q: You also argue that the Ottomans helped to bring about the Protestant Reformation. How?

AM: Selim’s territorial expansion posed a spiritual challenge to Christian Europe, then a tessellated continent of small principalities and bickering hereditary city-states. Individually, even together, they were no match for the gargantuan Muslim empire. Seeking to explain this power imbalance, many Europeans found answers not merely in politics but in what they perceived as their moral failings. In a world where religion and politics were conjoined, reversals of fortune represented judgements from God. Ottoman armies thus provoked in Christians existential introspection, sowing fertile ground for challenges to the entrenched social, religious, and political order.

By far the most extensive and consequential of these critiques came from a young German Catholic priest named Martin Luther. He suggested that Christianity’s weakness against Islam stemmed from the moral depravity of the Catholic Church. God had sent the Ottomans as a productive tool, what Luther called God’s “lash of inequity,” to cleanse Christians of their sins. Luther urged his coreligionists to embrace the bodily pain that would lead to spiritual renewal, for only those with purified souls could defeat Islam on the battlefield. Islam—always an abomination for Luther—served as a potent means of critiquing the graver evils of the church. “The pope kills the soul,” he wrote, “while the Turk can only destroy the body.” In addition to serving as an ideological counterpoint, the Ottomans bought Luther time. Because of their military mobilizations to defend against the Ottomans, Catholic powers demurred from sending a fighting force to quell these early Protestant stirrings. Had they, who knows whether any of us would have heard of Luther.

Q: One discovery of the Ottomans that most of us use daily is coffee. How did they first stumble upon this crop and realize its value?

AM: That’s right—we should all give a nod to Selim as we perk up each morning! Selim’s defeat of the Mamluk Empire in 1517 won him Yemen. Coffee had come to Yemen from Ethiopia and quickly took to the soils and markets of the Arabian peninsula. When Selim’s soldiers first stumbled upon it, they chewed the plant’s berries, enjoying its enlivening properties. It soon spread through their ranks. Thanks to the recently forged political and economic unity of Selim’s empire, the bean spread up from Yemen through the Middle East, across North Africa, and eventually to eastern Europe and across the Indian Ocean. The demand for coffee’s enjoyable and addictive properties soon soared across the world, making it one of history’s first truly global commodities. Yemen cornered the coffee market for several centuries, producing close to ninety percent of the world’s supply, before producers in the Americas and Southeast Asia outpaced it. It’s little wonder that the Yemeni port of Mocha lent its name to the drink.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book?

AM: I hope they see that the Ottomans and Islam are not so distant from their own world or sense of themselves, not so other. Islam is projected to supplant Christianity as the world’s largest religion by the year 2070, so an understanding of Islam’s complex role in world history becomes ever more imperative. We must move beyond a simplistic, ahistorical story of the rise of the west or a facile notion of a clash of civilizations. Islam was central to the history of the last 500 hundred years. It was and is a historical force of the utmost importance to be understood and integrated into our own histories. Without understanding the role of the foremost historical representatives of Islam, the Ottomans, we will not be able to understand either the past or the present. The Ottomans stood, in 1500, at the very center of the known world. The Ottoman Empire made the world we know today. American history contains a deep and lasting imprint of the Ottoman Empire, one overlooked, suppressed, and ignored. My book restores this history.

Alan Mikhail, professor of history and chair of the department of history at Yale University, is widely recognized for his work in Middle Eastern and global history. He is the author of three previous books and over thirty scholarly articles that have received multiple awards in the fields of Middle Eastern and environmental history, including the Fuat Köprülü Book Prize from the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association for Under Osman’s Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Environmental History and the Roger Owen Book Award of the Middle East Studies Association for Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History. In 2018, he received the Anneliese Maier Research Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for internationally distinguished humanities scholars and social scientists. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.


NYT Book Review: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/18/books/review/gods-shadow-alan-mikhail.html

New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/31/summer-antkind-gods-shadow-and-memorial-drive

Air Mail: https://airmail.news/issues/2020-8-15/the-kings-reach

New Criterion: https://newcriterion.com/topic/ottoman-empire

Spectator: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/in-just-eight-years-selim-i-became-god-s-shadow-on-earth

Times: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/gods-shadow-by-alan-mikhail-review-selim-ottoman-sultan-pt39nzfr6

Professor Mikhail wrote the following articles based on materials from his book:

Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/08/20/ottoman-sultan-who-changed-america/

The American: https://www.theamerican.co.uk/pr/ft-Alan-Mikhail-An-Imagination-of-Muslims-and-Native-Americans