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Islamic Gunpowder empires

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Islamic Gunpowder Empires

Islamic Gunpowder Empires.jpg
Muslim Gunpowder Empires during the middle of the 17th century
Common languagesArabic, Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, Pashto
Sunni Islam, Shia Islam
GovernmentAbsolute monarchy,
unitary state with federal structure,
centralized autocracy,
Islamic sharia[1][broken footnote]
Khalifa, Sultan, Mogul Imperator, Samrat, Maharaja, Padishah, Shah 
Historical eraEarly modern
• Established
• Disestablished
Mughal Army artillerymen during the reign of Akbar.
Ottoman Armed Soldiers

The Islamic Gunpowder Empires[2][3][4] refers to the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires. The three empires were among the strongest and stablest economies of the early modern period, leading to commercial expansion and greater patronage of culture, while their political and legal institutions were consolidated with an increasing degree of centralisation. They underwent a significant increase in per capita income and population and a sustained pace of technological innovation. The empires were centralised from Eastern Europe and North Africa in the west to between today's modern Bangladesh and Myanmar in the east.

Scholars have used the term gunpowder empires in the belief that technical expertise in the art of warfare was an essential element in the success of the Muslim empires.[5]

Vast amount of territories were conquered by the Islamic gunpowder empires with the use and development of the newly invented firearms, especially cannon and small arms, in the course of imperial construction. Unlike in Europe, the introduction of gunpowder weapons prompted changes well beyond military organization.[6] The Mughals, based in the Indian subcontinent, are recognised for their lavish architecture and for having heralded an era of proto-industrialization,[7] while the Safavids created an efficient and modern state administration for Iran and sponsored major developments in the fine arts, and the sultan of the Constantinople-based Ottoman caliphate, also known as the Caesar of Rome, was the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and thus head of the Islamic world. Their powers, wealth, architecture, and various contributions significantly influenced the course of Asian history.

Recent views on the concept[edit]

More recently, the Hodgson-McNeill Gunpowder-Empire hypothesis has been called into disfavour as a neither "adequate [n]or accurate" explanation, although the term remains in use.[8] Reasons other than (or in addition to) military technology have been offered for the nearly simultaneous rise of three centralized military empires in contiguous areas dominated by decentralized Turkic tribes. One explanation, called "Confessionalization" by historians of fifteenth century Europe, invokes examination of how the relation of church and state "mediated through confessional statements and church ordinances" led to the origins of absolutist polities. Douglas Streusand uses the Safavids as an example:

The Safavids from the beginning imposed a new religious identity on their general population; they did not seek to develop a national or linguistic identity, but their policy had that effect.[9]

Gunpowder weapons in the three Muslim empires[edit]

Ottoman Empire[edit]

The bronze Dardanelles Gun on display at Fort Nelson in Hampshire. Similar cannons were used by the Ottoman Turks in the siege of Constantinople in 1453.

The first of the three empires to acquire gunpowder weapons was the Ottoman Empire. By the 14th century, the Ottomans had adopted gunpowder artillery.[10] The adoption of the gunpowder weapons by the Ottomans was so rapid that they "preceded both their European and Middle Eastern adversaries in establishing centralized and permanent troops specialized in the manufacturing and handling of firearms."[11] But it was their use of artillery that shocked their adversaries and impelled the other two Islamic empires to accelerate their weapons programs. The Ottomans had artillery at least by the reign of Bayezid I and used them in the sieges of Constantinople in 1399 and 1402. They finally proved their worth as siege engines in the successful siege of Salonica in 1430.[12] The Ottomans employed Middle-Eastern[13][14] as well as European foundries to cast their cannons, and by the siege of Constantinople in 1453, they had large enough cannons to batter the walls of the city, to the surprise of the defenders.[15]

The Ottoman military's regularized use of firearms proceeded ahead of the pace of their European counterparts. The Janissaries had been an infantry bodyguard using bows and arrows. During the rule of Sultan Mehmed II they were drilled with firearms and became "perhaps the first standing infantry force equipped with firearms in the world."[12] The Janissaries are thus considered the first modern standing armies.[16][17] The combination of artillery and Janissary firepower proved decisive at Varna in 1444 against a force of Crusaders, Başkent in 1473 against the Aq Qoyunlu,[18] and Mohács in 1526 against Hungary. But the battle which convinced the Safavids and the Mughals of the efficacy of gunpowder was Chaldiran.

The arquebus gun had appeared in the Ottoman Empire at some point between 1394 and the early 15th century.[19][20] The arquebus was later used in substantial numbers by the Janissaries of the Ottoman army by the mid-15th century.[19] The matchlock began to be used by the Janissary corps in the first half of the 15th century,[21] by the 1440s.[22] The musket later appeared in the Ottoman Empire by 1465.[23] Damascus steel was later used in the production of firearms such as the musket from the 16th century.[24] At the Battle of Mohács in 1526, the Janissaries equipped with 2000 tüfenks (usually translated as musket) "formed nine consecutive rows and they fired their weapons row by row," in a "kneeling or standing position without the need for additional support or rest."[25] The Chinese later adopted the Ottoman kneeling position for firing.[26] In 1598, Chinese writer Zhao Shizhen described Turkish muskets as being superior to European muskets.[27] The Chinese Wu Pei Chih (1621) later described Turkish muskets that used a rack-and-pinion mechanism, which was not known to have been used in any European or Chinese firearms at the time.[28]

The Dardanelles Gun was designed and cast in bronze in 1464 by Munir Ali. The Dardanelles Gun was still present for duty more than 340 years later in 1807, when a Royal Navy force appeared and commenced the Dardanelles Operation. Turkish forces loaded the ancient relics with propellant and projectiles, then fired them at the British ships. The British squadron suffered 28 casualties from this bombardment.[29]

Persian Musketeer in time of Abbas I by Habib-Allah Mashadi after Falsafi (Berlin Museum of Islamic Art).

At Chaldiran, the Ottomans met the Safavids in battle for the first time. Sultan Selim I moved east with his field artillery in 1514 to confront what he perceived as a Shia threat instigated by Shah Ismail in favor of Selim's rivals. Ismail staked his reputation as a divinely-favored ruler on an open cavalry charge against a fixed Ottoman position. The Ottomans deployed their cannons between the carts that carried them, which also provided cover for the armed Janissaries. The result of the charge was devastating losses to the Safavid cavalry. The defeat was so thorough that the Ottoman forces were able to move on and briefly occupy the Safavid capital, Tabriz. Only the limited campaign radius of the Ottoman army prevented it from holding the city and ending the Safavid rule.[30]

Safavid Persia[edit]

Although the Chaldiran defeat brought an end to Ismail's territorial expansion program, the shah nonetheless took immediate steps to protect against the real threat from the Ottoman sultanate by arming his troops with gunpowder weapons. Within two years of Chaldiran, Ismail had a corps of musketeers (tofangchi) numbering 8,000, and by 1521, possibly 20,000.[31] After Abbas the Great reformed the army (around 1598), the Safavid forces had an artillery corps of 500 cannons as well as 12,000 musketeers.[32]

The Safavids first put their gunpowder arms to good use against the Uzbeks, who had invaded eastern Persia during the civil war that followed the death of Ismail I. The young shah Tahmasp I headed an army to relieve Herat and encountered the Uzbeks on 24 September 1528 at Jam, where the Safavids decisively beat the Uzbeks. The shah's army deployed cannons (swivel guns on wagons) in the centre protected by wagons with cavalry on both flanks. Mughal emperor Babur described the formation at Jam as "in the Anatolian fashion."[33] The several thousand gun-bearing infantry also massed in the centre as did the Janissaries of the Ottoman army. Although the Uzbek cavalry engaged and turned the Safavid army on both flanks, the Safavid centre held (because not directly engaged by the Uzbeks). Rallying under Tahmasp's personal leadership, the infantry of the centre engaged and scattered the Uzbek centre and secured the field.[34]

Mughal India[edit]

Mughal matchlock.

By the time he was invited by the Lodi governor of Lahore Daulat Khan to support his rebellion against Lodi Sultan Ibrahim Khan, Babur was familiar with gunpowder firearms and field artillery and a method for deploying them. Babur had employed Ottoman expert Ustad Ali Quli, who showed Babur the standard Ottoman formation—artillery and firearm-equipped infantry protected by wagons in the center, and mounted archers on both wings. Babur used this formation at the First Battle of Panipat in 1526, where the Afghan and Rajput forces loyal to the Delhi sultanate, though superior in numbers but without the gunpowder weapons, were defeated. The decisive victory of the Timurid forces is one reason opponents rarely met Mughal princes in pitched battle over the course of the empire's history. The reign of Akbar The Great, Shah Jahan and the Islamic Aurangzeb, represented the height of the Indian history.[35]


  1. Pagaza & Argyriades 2009, p. 129.
  2. The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals By Stephen F. Dale
  3. The Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires, by Kris Lane (2010) ... Once in the Old World, Lane demonstrates that emeralds flowed mostly to the Islamic gunpowder empires of Asia such as Mughal India and Safavid Persia. Lane also follows the shifting cultural meanings of emeralds.
  4. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals By Douglas E. Streusand
  5. Duiker, William J.; Spielvogel, Jackson (20 December 2006). The Essential World History. ISBN 0495097292. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  6. Khan 2005, p. 54.
  7. József Böröcz (2009-09-10). The European Union and Global Social Change. Routledge. p. 21. ISBN 9781135255800. Retrieved 26 June 2017. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  8. Streusand 2011, p. 3.
  9. Streusand 2011, p. 4.
  10. Nicolle, David (1980). Armies of the Ottoman Turks 1300-1774. Osprey Publishing, ISBN 9780850455113 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png..
  11. Ágoston 2005, p. 92.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Streusand 2011, p. 83.
  13. Hammer, Paul E. J. (2017). Warfare in Early Modern Europe 1450–1660. Routledge. p. 511. ISBN 9781351873765. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  14. Ágoston 2005, pp. 45-46.
  15. McNeill 1993, p. 125.
  16. Lord Kinross (1977). Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 52. ISBN 0-688-08093-6 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png..
  17. Goodwin, Jason (1998). Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: H. Holt, 59,179–181. ISBN 0-8050-4081-1 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png..
  18. Har-El 1995, pp. 98-99.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Ágoston, Gábor (2011). "Military Transformation in the Ottoman Empire and Russia, 1500–1800". Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History. 12 (2): 281–319 [294]. doi:10.1353/kri.2011.0018.
  20. Saidel, Benjamin (2000). "Matchlocks, Flintlocks, and Saltpetre: The Chronological Implications for the Use of Matchlock Muskets among Ottoman-Period Bedouin in the Southern Levant". International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 4 (3): 191–216. doi:10.1023/A:1009551608190.
  21. Ágoston, Gábor (2011). "Military Transformation in the Ottoman Empire and Russia, 1500–1800". Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History. 12 (2): 281–319 [294]. doi:10.1353/kri.2011.0018. Initially the Janissaries were equipped with bows, crossbows, and javelins. In the first half of the 15th century, they began to use matchlock arquebuses
  22. Nicolle, David (1995). The Janissaries. Osprey. pp. 21f. ISBN 978-1-85532-413-8. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  23. Ayalon, David (2013). Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Kingdom: A Challenge to Medieval Society (1956). Routledge. p. 126. ISBN 9781136277320. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  24. Pacey, Arnold (1991). Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-year History. MIT Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-262-66072-3. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  25. Ágoston, Gábor (2008), Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire, Cambridge University Press, p. 24, ISBN 978-0521603911
  26. Needham 1986, pp. 449-452.
  27. Needham, Joseph (1987). Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 7, Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic. Cambridge University Press. p. 444. ISBN 9780521303583. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  28. Needham 1986, p. 446.
  29. Schmidtchen, Volker (1977b), "Riesengeschütze des 15. Jahrhunderts. Technische Höchstleistungen ihrer Zeit", Technikgeschichte 44 (3): 213–237 (226–228)
  30. Streusand 2011, p. 145.
  31. Matthee 1999.
  32. Ágoston 2005, pp. 59-60 & n.165.
  33. Mikaberidze 2011, pp. 442-43.
  34. Streusand 2011, p. 170.
  35. Streusand 2011, p. 255.


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  • Burke, Edmund, III (May 1979). "Islamic History as World History: Marshall Hodgson, 'The Venture of Islam'". International Journal of Middle East Studies. 10 (2): 241–64. doi:10.1017/s0020743800034796. JSTOR 162129.
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  • Hess, Andrew Christie (January 1985). "Islamic Civilization and the Legend of Political Failure". Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 44 (1): 27–39. doi:10.1086/373102. JSTOR 544368.
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  • Matthee, Rudi (December 15, 1999). "Firearms". Encyclopædia Iranica. Retrieved February 1, 2015. (Updated as of January 26, 2012.)
  • Matthee, Rudi (2010). "Was Safavid Iran an Empire?". Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. 53 (1/2): 233–65. doi:10.1163/002249910x12573963244449. JSTOR 25651218.
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