Noor Cultural Centre

Course | The History of the Islamic Gunpowder Empires

Sep 11th 2012


The History of the Islamic Gunpowder Empires

With Shiraz Sheikh

This 9-week course is designed as an introduction to the history of Islamic Civilization between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. This era is often described as the period of the Gunpowder Empires, a term used by historians to denote the empires of the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals.  These three empires had major military successes due to their use of newly-developed cannons and even small arms, which was revolutionary for this period in history. Beginning with a quick survey of the early history of Islam, this course will recount the catastrophic effects of the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, and the subsequent rise of successor states: the Seljuks, the Mamluks of Egypt, the Delhi Sultanate and the Timurids.  In addition to a discussion of the rise, consolidation and decline of these three empires, several themes will be examined, such as: the reformulation of authority and interpretations of legitimacy, the role of the nomads in state formation, the interaction of Islam with local religions, the different administrative and military structures, socio-economic and class relations, and cultural and artistic developments.

Course Outline

June 24Introduction to the course & Brief Survey of Islamic History to c.1300 AD.
After a brief outline of the method and approach used by the instructor, this introductory session will discuss, in summary fashion, the history of Islamic civilization up to 1300 AD.  This session will also examine the role of the caliphate, the legitimacy of monarchs, and the role and authority of the Islamic religion in relation to power holders.

July 1Canada Day – No Class

July 8: The Rise of the Turks and the Mongol Horde.
The term “Turk” was an ethnonym used loosely to describe the nomadic horsemen of the Central Asian steppes.  The arrival of this group would forever change the course of history of the Islamic world. After a discussion of the empire of the Seljuk Turks, the session will conclude with the destructive period of the Mongol Horde, the rise of the Il-Khan dynasty and the subsequent arrival of successor states in the Middle East and Anatolia.

July 15The Ghazi States and the First Ottoman Empire
This session will examine the ‘ghazi’ states of Anatolia and the emergence of arguably the most powerful Muslim state – the Ottomans.  The Turks who made their home in the Anatolian frontier were characterized as ‘ghazis’ or warriors of the faith, who made their living spreading Islam further into Byzantine territory.  However, recent scholarship has come to challenge this thesis, as new research suggests that these groups were more concerned with survival than spreading the religion.  The second half of the class will discuss the birth of the Ottoman state, its founding family, ‘Osmanlis’, and their rise to power.


Dates*: August 26; September 9, 16, 23, 30

The Interregnum and the Legacy of Timur
This session will examine the reign of Timur (Tamerlane), one of the greatest Muslim monarchs of all time.  Timur’s reign gave birth to a vast empire that ruled parts of the Middle East, Central Asia and India.  The rule of the Timurids is crucial in understanding the subsequent states of the Safavids in Persia and the Mughals in India, as well as the legacy of the Turco-Mongol culture in Islamic civilization.

Muslims in India: from Delhi Sultanate to the Empire of the Mughals.
Turning the attention to the Indian subcontinent, the medieval Muslim presence in India is explored, starting from the Delhi Sultanate and culminating in the rise of the Great Mughals. The Delhi Sultanate is a term used to denote the five short-lived Turkic dynasties that ruled India between 1200 – 1500 AD. As this session will show, the Mughal empire is indeed a continuation of the Turco-Mongol legacy left behind by Timur.

The Reformation of the Ottomans and the Rise of the Safavids.
Perhaps the greatest rivalry during this period of study is that between the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi’i Safavids.  Having their origins in a Sunni Sufi order, The Safavids embraced Shi’ism and established the first Twelver Shi’i state.  The Safavids were the coming together of two important ethnic groups: the Persians and the Kizilbash Turks.  This session will explore the origins of the Safavids, their relationship with other empires, especially the Ottomans and the Mughals, and their unique approach to state legitimacy and authority.

Medieval Institutions: The Ottomans.
This session will focus on Ottoman institutions.  Special attention will be given to the role of the Sultan, the military, the devshirme, the role of the ulama, non-Muslim communities and art and architecture.

Medieval Institutions: The Safavids.
This session will focus on Safavid institutions.  Attention will be given to Shi’i political theory, the rise of the Mullah class, tensions with popular religion, tribalism, as well as art and architecture.

Medieval Institutions: The Mughals.
This session will focus on Mughal institutions. Attention will be given to the role of the jagir system, the din-i Ilahi of Akbar, Mughal society, science and technology, the rise of the Urdu language, literature, art and architecture.

Suggested Textbooks

1) Stephen Dale, The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (2010).
2) Marshal Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vols. 2 & 3 (1974).
3) Douglas E. Streusand, Islamic Gunpowder Empires (2010).

There will also be scanned articles and chapters available to the students via pdf.

Dates: Sundays
June 24;
July 8,15;
August 26;
September 9,16,23,30
Time: 10:00 am – 12:30 pm
Location: Upper Classroom, Noor Cultural Centre
Course Fee (includes handouts): $250 (cash/cheque (preferred), Visa, Mastercard) or $30 per class

Shiraz Sheikh holds a specialist degree in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and a Masters degree in Islamic history, with a focus on Modern Arab religious movements. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in the field of Islamic Intellectual History at the University of Toronto.  His dissertation is on the life and times of the first Ottoman Grand Mufti, Molla Shams al-DinFenari.  For the last five years he has been teaching a course on the history of Islamic Civilizations at the Department of History at York University.

For more information or to register, please email or phone (416) 444-7148 ext. 222.

Please refer to the Noor Cancellation Policy.

* Please note that the class previously scheduled for Sunday September 2 has been cancelled (for Labour Day long weekend)  All outstanding curriculum content will be covered in the remaining sessions.