A Muslim Leader Whose Death Saved Europe from Becoming a Part of the Muslim World
By Hasmera Ariffin
The victory of Muslims over the powerful Byzantine Empire is mentioned in the Qur’an accordingly: “Lo! We have given thee (O Muhammad) a signal victory. That Allah may forgive thee of thy sin that which is past and that which is to come, and may perfect His favour unto thee, and may guide thee on a right path. And that Allah may help thee with strong help” (Al-Qur’an 48: 1-3).
Al-Fatih was a surname given by Muslims to an Osmanli sultan Mehmet II for his great job in establishing Islam in the European continent. He was the son of Sultan Murad II (r.1421-1444 and 1446-1451). In order to give the best Islamic education to his son, Sultan Murad II had appointed a pious religious man, Shaikh Ak Shamsuddin to teach his beloved son. The young boy was always motivated by the Shaikh that he will become the person who was mentioned by the Prophet (SAW) in his authentic hadith narrated by Imam Ahmad in al-Musnad:
“Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will its leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” Mehmet was wishing to become that person mentioned by the Prophet (SAW). At the age of 21, Mehmet was crowned as the successor of his father. His focus was very clear, liberate Constantinople, the capital city the Byzantium. Significantly, only after the opening of Anatolia to Islam, he did achieve it.
Historically, from the time of the Prophet (SAW), many Muslim rulers have tried to capture Constantinople, and it was only possible under the strong leadership of Al-Fatih, the Liberator. According to Haghnavaz (2013), the Byzantine Empire ended to exist after the capture of Constantinople in 1453, putting the areas between the Eastern Europe and the Arabian Peninsula under the Osmanli patronage. The success of Al-Fatih challenged the supremacy of the Pope in Italy as well.
To strengthen his power and maintain the captured territories, Al-Fatih made several reforms directed to maintain the historical city under the Islamic rule. Hence, this essay discusses the achievements of Al-Fatih in spreading Islam in European Continent through analyzing Islamic architecture, administration and the policies on population in Europe.
The Osmanli architecture in Europe
After opening Constantinople, the name of city had been changed from Constantinople (the city of Constantine) to Istanbul (originally Islambul), a city of Islam. To achieve it, Al-Fatih ordered to built a palace as an official royal residence despite staying at old Byzantine castle. The first things that were built were the Fatih Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. Both were based on classical Osmanli architecture to symbolize his supremacy in the region of Constantinople. Golru Necipoglu (2010) assumes that the Topkapi was the new monument that was built by Al-Fatih to renovate the city of the ancient Byzantium Empire:
The Topkapi Palace, adjacent to Hagia Sophia and the evocative ruins of Constantine’s Great Palace abutting the Hippodrome, took over the terraced site of the ancient acropolis of Byzantium. These meaningful juxtapositions are highlighted on an “updated” version of the Buondelmonti map in Dusseldorf, datable to the early 1480s, which labels the site of the New Palace as “Bizantion” (p. 267).
Basically, the building was used for the Osmanli governmental administration for centuries and then it was changed to the museum. His monumental buildings remarked the beginning of supremacy of Islam in the Eastern European region. As mentioned by Raby (2009):
Whatever the racial origins of the architect of Mehmed’s Fatih mosque, and whatever the displeasure of the Sultan, the result was a monumental testament to Islam. By its position and size alone it invited comparison with Santa Sophia, the newly converted mosque of Ayasofya. A courtier of Mehmed’s described the Fatih mosque as fashioned on the design of Ayasofya but in a new and modern style. This bears out the success of the mosque in integrating the influence of the Justinian church – in scale and the use of the semi-dome into a by now well-established Ottoman architectural tradition (p. 7).
Golru Necipoglu (2010) also noted that:
Constituting the religious and secular foci of his centralized administration, Mehmed’s twin complexes signaled the symbolic refounding of Constantinople, whose conquest by the sultan is emphatically stressed in their foundation inscriptions discussed below. Tursun Bey highlights the paradisiacal iconography of both complexes, which turned the new capital into an earthly paradise, each featuring flourishing gardens (a metaphor for the prosperous state in court poetry), supplied with water from the renovated Valens aqueduct. By engaging in a pointed dialogue with the city’s antiquities, these monumental complexes echoed the uses of the past in Renaissance Italy (p. 266).
Its means that, although Al-Fatih tried to duplicate the Italian Renaissance architecture, he was able to give the new soul to the city and make it more alive for people. Also, the erection of the Osmanli Palace in the old Byzantium land could be considered as a symbol of the victory and Islamisation of the city. Very soon, the Osmanli architecture spread to East Europe, particularly the Balkans.
Increase of Muslim Population in the Balkans and East Europe
Another great contribution of Al-Fatih in spreading Islam in Europe was his policy that increased the number of Muslim population in Europe tremendously. In fact, Constantinople was the most significant Eastern Roman city nearest to the Balkans that became as Osmanli territory since 14th century. When Constantinople was taken, the Islamisation process of the population became much easier as no more interruption of the Orthodox Church happened.
This can be seen from the mushrooming numbers of the Christians who converted to Islam after the opening of Constantinople. It is stated by Compier (2010) that the Christian believers were under the pressure and they were not fully linked to their God spiritually when they stay under the administration of the Frankish Roman. So they decided to stay under the Muslim rule. When Constantinople was liberated, more Christians changed their faith to Islam due to tolerant attitude of Muslims who reflected that Islam came with peace to Christian lands.
Besides that, Braude (2014) also gave a view that, even the Christians in the Orthodox Roman Church, who hated Al-Fatih, after the conquest, became the highest religious advisors in Constantinople. It means that, although Al-Fatih was considered the enemy by the Christian leaders, they still believed that the life under Al-Fatih was better compared to the Roman Church’s supremacy. It is noted that Roman Church was in horror by hearing about large numbers of Christians converting to Islam and opening of many new European lands by Al-Fatih. Therefore, when Al-Fatih died, there was a celebration in Italy and it was said that “The death of Conqueror saved Europe from Becoming a Muslim Land.”
It is true that Al-Fatih’s kind attitude and good manners attracted people to know more about Islam. In our days, Christians would say that Muslims developed the bad attitudes because they do apply Islamic values. But Fokas (2011) stated that when something bad happened, not only Islam or religion, but the believers themselves should be blamed for it. This means that bad attitudes developed by people, and not by religion.
Moreover, one of the reasons for existence of Muslims in Europe today was possible under the protectorate of the Osmanli Sultanate. Most of the Balkan region today, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, all have a significant Muslim population. And Al-Fatih played the fundamental role as the founder of the Muslim society in these countries. As presented by Kettani (2010), in 1950 the percentage of World Muslim population in Europe increased gradually, which from 17% to 26% by 2020. If it is compared to the European population, the number increased to 774 million by 2020 from 548 million in 1950. It means that the population increased from 2% to 6% from 1950 and 2020 respectively.
Osmanli Administrative System and its Role in Spreading Islam
Every state has its own political system to manage its administration and population. Based on readings on Osmanli political system, its administrative system could be divided into two: the central administration and provincial administration. The Osmanli administrative system played a key role in expanding Islam in the Balkans.
According to Agoston and Master (2009), the highest authority in the Osmanli political system was the Sultan. The Sultan had unquestioned ruling power, he was the highest leader of the vast devlet. Divan-i- Humayun or Imperial Council that was jurisdiction court dealing with rule of law was transforming to the main organ for administration of the Osmanli Sultanate. The council played major role as the highest government organ, and during conflict time, as the high command. Vast power and decision were given to the grand vizier (sadrazam) in administrative council by the Sultan. In this council, all prominent officials were gathered and discussed issues related to the sultanate and population. Besides the grand vizier as its member, other important officials were military commanders, religious scholars (ulema), and bureaucrats.
In the provincial level, the Osmanli administrative system was different from the Byzantium. The Osmanli did not practice feudal system, instead, they practiced timar system in which peasants were given freedom and Osmanli officials not allowed to oppress peasants. What can be sum up, due to this peculiarities of Osmanli administrative system, many non-Muslims embraced Islam as they observed that Islam is not the religion of discrimination, but the religion of justice, tolerance and equality.
According to Agoston and Master (2009), Osmanli did not impose force conversion to Islam from other faith adherence or discriminate them; instead, they introduced Millet system. Millet system was the religious tolerance policy in the Osmanli Sultanate and non-Muslims were given some privileges. The leader or patriarch was appointed amongst them and he would be directly put under the Osmanli sultan. The patriarch was given some political power to govern their own society. In millet system, non-Muslims were protected under Osmanli law, but they could use their own law in settling their disputes. This system was the new innovation of the Osmanli administration in spreading Islam to the locals in particular and to Europe in general. From the understanding of this system, the Osmanli wanted the locals feel secured under their rules and embrace Islam voluntarily by whole heart, and not forcibly as how the Christians did in many parts of the world after conquering Muslim lands. In brief, the Osmanli administrative system played a significant role in expanding Islam to the Balkans.
In sum, it was Al-Fatih and his capture of Constantinople, what did possible to spread Islam in Europe. Firstly, his establishment of the Osmanli architecture in newly conquered city was very vital as mentioned by Raby (2009). He was the Muslim Sultan who created the great capital of the world with the Topkapi Palace, a symbol of the Osmanli Architecture in the land of the Eastern Roman Land.
Besides, the building of a new Mosque to replace the old Roman Church also became the stong evidence that Al-Fatih was a significant Muslim leader in spreading Islam in European lands.
Also, the number of Muslim population increased after the conquest as the most of the Christians were searching for protection under the Muslim rule. The natural instinct that exists in man that they had the inquiry spirit about God, but under the Orthodox church, they were not able to be linked to God except through the priests of the church. When Islam came to them, they were attracted to Islam because, based on the concept of Islam, Muslims were directly linked to God and able to make du’a (supplication) by themselves without any help of the priest. At the same time, most of the Christian believers were under the heavy Church pressure at that time as many crises happened between the western and eastern churches.
Moreover, Osmanli administration had been created policies to protect the rights of non-Muslims under the their patronage. By this, the Christians were given the asylum although they were not Muslims. Under the Osmanli authority, all population of Istanbul were treated fairly. Spreading justice and equality was the major point of the Al-Fatih’s administration in Istanbul. So, more people became interested in Islam due to well treatment by Al-Fatih.
To conclude, the first large Muslim settlement in the land of Roman Empire became possible after the Opening of Constantinople to Islam in 1453. Al-Fatih was the one who realized the dream of many powerful Muslim leaders. His contributions as the Muslim leader who spread Islam to Europe can still be seen even today, as the Balkan population kept their religious identity through centuries.
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