In Asia Minor, he was called Kānūnī Sultān Suleimān-i evvel or Suleiman the lawgiver. He was born in the opening year of Islam’s tenth century, AH 900, or by western reckoning, on November 6, 1494. By the time he had reached 13 years of age, Suleiman was governor of three districts. When Suleiman was 26, his father, Selim I passed away and Suleiman ascended the throne as the tenth Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Suleiman was to push the Empire of the Ottoman Turks into its era of highest political and cultural influence. This was the time in history when Europe was in the full bloom of the Renaissance and the Mughal Empire in India was reaching its peak. Islamic historians call the reign of Suleiman I, the most glorious period in Islam. In the West, the sultan became known as Suleiman the Magnificent.
America’s lack of interest in history, and specifically that of the Ottoman Empire is a detriment to our current foreign policy. To understand the yearning and ambition of current and hopeful leaders of today’s Muslim World, a person needs to grasp the importance of the Ottoman Empire at its height.
Selim I had bequeathed to Suleiman a powerful country. The treasury was full and the army was very disciplined. Suleiman took advantage of the lessons for leadership learned during his youth and practiced during his first governorships. His skills in utilizing the admirals, generals, and viziers (executive administrators), enabled Suleiman to play the contests of empire like games of chess.
To understand why Suleiman was both feared and admired in Europe, we need to remember how close he came to one of the major European capitals. The Ottoman Turks captured Hungary from the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Habsburg dynasty. The Ottomans remained in force for more than 150 years, afterwards. The advance of Suleiman’s armies reached to the outskirts of Vienna.
The Ottoman Empire also grew to the South and East. Suleiman’s navy captured every principal North African port city. During much of Suleiman’s time, the Ottoman navy totally dominated the Mediterranean Sea. In the middle east, Suleiman’s armies overthrew the the government of Iraq from the Sufi dynastic Persian family, the Safavids of Iran. Even though Suleiman was not history’s greatest strategist, he was able to effectively mobilize his assets to best advantage.
One of his most noteworthy dealings with the West, was the alliance concluded by him with France. Suleiman and Francis I initiated the Franco-Ottoman Alliance of the 1530s.
Suleiman’s territorial conquests caused a major expansion of economic growth and international trade. In turn, cultural and artistic refinements were enabled throughout the empire. Artisans and artists in every artistic field were encouraged and financed. Fabulous architecture, beautiful ceramics and textiles graced the Ottoman Caliphate. The peak of elegant manuscript painting and calligraphy happened under the watch of Sultan Suleiman.
Suleiman’s most noteworthy architectural contributions are his two major mosques. The Complex of Süleymaniye in Istanbul and the Selimiye in Edirne are the best known. The sultan commissioned additions and repairs to historical monuments like the revetment of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. He is also famous for adding to sites in Medina and Mecca. At a more practical level, Suleiman encouraged and supported marketplaces, schools, soup kitchens, turkish baths, and caravanserais (wayside inns). Wherever the Ottomans went, culture flourished.
Suleiman’s moniker “The Lawgiver” was earned by his efforts in civic legislation. The canonical legislation, or Kanuns, came about by the sultan’s will, alone. He revamped criminal and legal code, vizier tenure, and taxation. He eliminated contradictions and duplications by proclaiming a single legal code. All of his reforms were done with care, in order not to violate Shari’ah Law. Suleiman’s edicts were called “kanun‐i Osmani”. The Ottoman laws remained in effect for three centuries after Suleiman’s death.
In the end, Suleiman the Magnificent had become a major world player. Kānūnī Sultān Suleimān-i evvel died in Szigetvár, Hungary on September 7, 1566 at the age of 71. His burial site is at the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. At the time, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Africa, to Arabia, to Persia, and to Eastern Europe and threatened the whole of Europe.
The sultan’s legacy was long-lived. The strength of the economy and agriculture, along with the “kanun-i Osmani” allowed the Ottoman Empire to thrive until the early 20th Century.
We should not neglect and forget the Glorious Age of the Ottoman caliphate. Much of the world will always remember the shining gem that was the Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent.