SUMMARY:It is commonly assumed that Ottoman sultans did not deploy the title ‘caliph’ with any efficacy or intent until the reign of Abdülhamid II (d. 1918), whose interest in the title was diplomatically motivated. Recent studies have demonstrated, however, that there is a much longer and richer history to the notion of caliphate, in its mystical-theological sense, as part and parcel of Ottoman political thought. This panel aims to investigate early modern Ottoman notions of caliphate as an expression of Ottoman political ambition for universal rule. Caliphate, or the notion of divinely ordained rule, was employed by Ottoman authors to argue universal supremacy synchronically and diachronically. Synchronically, the notion of universal caliphate served to claim superiority over contemporary polities. Diachronically, the same concept was employed to compare the Ottomans with preceding Islamic dynasties, intimating both enduring permanence and culmination.
The panel engages with Ottoman political writing on the concept of divinely ordained universal rule in two key ways. First, we aim to show that the Ottoman dynasty grappled with the notion of caliphate from early on. From bolstering claims to superiority over their archenemies, the Safavids, to regulating the realm of law and legitimacy, the title ‘caliph’ had a lot to offer to the Ottoman authorities in the early modern period. Second, and more significantly, we locate an intellectual territory beyond the administrative-pragmatic uses of the title ‘caliph’. Ottoman discussions of caliphate comprised sophisticated discussions about the nature of divine authority and its relation to sacral authority framed in rich mystical, philosophical, and ethical traditions. This panel aims to acknowledge the historical dynamism of the Ottoman notions of caliphate, while showing that questions of caliphate and of divine legitimation were never the realm of the political center exclusively. They were simultaneously the realm of the mystic, the theologian, and the ‘ulama.