The Strange Practice of Ottoman Primogeniture

Below was an article from 1909 which has played a vital role in my novel The Monk’s Curse. It pertains to Ottoman primogeniture – or, the succession or inheritance practices. As to its veracity, I cannot comment, but, whether you are interested in that novel or not is irrelevant. Either way, I have decided to make this accessible to all my readers, not just subscribers to The Sandbox, as I believe that inheritance in the Ottoman culture was a fascinating aspect of the Muslim world which still pervades Western understanding today.

The Strange Practices of Ottoman Primogeniture: 

The shocking inheritance practices that still stand tall in the divide between the East and the West, Islam and Christianity, Europe and the Ottoman world.

As the era of Sultan Abdülhamid II comes to a close, we here in the Oxford University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies have undertaken to understand the succession practices that are utilised by the sprawling Ottoman Empire.

At present, His Imperial Majesty, The Sultan Abdülhamid II, Emperor of the Ottomans, Caliph of the Faithful, has been forcibly deposed and replaced by his brother Reshad Efendi as Mehmed V. It is at this moment, after a long, autocratic, and oppressive rule under Abdülhamid II that we analyse how he has been succeeded.

Abdülhamid II has been sultan since 1876, thus presiding over thirty-three long years of decline. His rule has been marked by his autocratic style, despite some modernisation of the Empire. To the layman, it would seem natural that his son would take control of the Sultanate. After all, if His Majesty The King were to die at this moment, English law would dictate that his eldest son, His Royal Highness, George, The Prince of Wales would become the next king. As such, it would be expected for Şehzade Mehmed Selim, Abdülhamid’s eldest son, to become the thirty-fifth Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

A scholar of the Orientals, and more specifically of the Ottomans, would recognise this to be false for the Ottomans follow what is called succession based on agnatic seniority. This would effectively mean that the eldest male in the entire dynasty would succeed the previous Sultan. This also meant that no women could ever ascend the throne as Empress in her own right. As such, Reshad Efendi’s ascendance of the throne is most proper in accordance with Ottoman succession practice.

Interestingly enough, this has not always been the case. In fact, this is where the Ottoman Empire differs more substantially to other European monarchies. Most European monarchies have laws in place which dictate succession practices. In contrast, the autocratic style of the Ottomans has ensured that no such fixed law was ever enforced. As such, it was the practice between the fourteenth and the late sixteenth centuries for brothers to fight to the death to succeed their recently deceased or deposed father – survival of the fittest if you will. Later, politics shifted to the harems of the Sultans and the consort who achieved seniority as Chief Consort, or Haseki Sultan, would secure her son’s place as heir apparent. However, such practices often led to fratricide and deep familial divisions. As such, succession by agnatic seniority proved most useful for the Ottomans, eliminating fratricide – mostly – as well as the role of women of the court in politics.

Now, the East (the Ottomans) and the West (Europe and the Americas) have always had matters over which no agreement could be achieved. The succession practices are one such issue. In Britain, it is accepted, generally, for a woman to ascend the throne if no other alternative is available. This is what led to the ascendancy of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The Ottomans have effectively prevented this from happening. Other matters of disagreement pertain to the ruling style of the Sultans – something most characteristic of Abdülhamid’s rule – being autocratic. The West, in moving more toward democracy, frowns upon such methods of governance. Furthermore, the secularism which the Ottomans lack is most pronounced and highly unfavourable to Western nations. Considering His Majesty’s position as head of the Church of England as well as the high Catholic presence in continental Europe, this European attitude can be seen as most hypocritical. It is nevertheless a view that is held firmly. The West vehemently oppose ‘the sick man of Europe’s’ (the Ottoman Empire’s) position at the forefront of the Islamic world, as well as the Sultan’s position as Caliph of Islam.

With so much disagreement, it is thus the hope that the new Sultan will provide some much-needed reform especially after the long and dark shadow which his brother has cast over the entire civilised world for over three decades.

Contributors: Nathaniel John Morrison, Jonathan Humphreys, David Henry Mortimer.

One Reply to “The Strange Practice of Ottoman Primogeniture”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *