Suleiman the Magnificent

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Suleiman the Magnificent

Suleiman I, in Turkish language Süleyman and in the Arabic alphabet سليمان (nicknamed “the Magnificent” in Europe and “the Lawgiver” in the Islamic World, in Turkish el-Kanuni), (November 6, 1494 – September 5-6,1566) was the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Caliph of Islam from 1520 to 1566, and successor to Selim I. He was born at Trabzon in modern Turkey.

Known as Suleiman the Magnificent but also, especially among Muslims, as Suleiman the Just, Ottoman power reached its zenith and became a world power under his rule. His rule represented one of the most just and orderly periods of Ottoman history. Like most rulers of the time, he was on the one hand ruthless in dealing with those he regarded as a threat to his own plans for success, but on the other hand, unlike many, he had a profound concern for justice. He codified the law to guard against corruption, which he was determined to root out. Many Muslims regard him as an example of the ideal or model ruler. Although the empire continued to expand for a century after his death, this period was followed by a very long decline mainly due to his successors' indifference toward good governance. On the borders of his empire, territorial expansion and hostility with competing powers meant that life was unstable, but for many within the empire, including minorities, the reality was a pax ottomanica. Suleiman can properly be regarded as one of history's more humane rulers who had a dual sense of obligation and responsibility to God and to society.


At the age of seven he was sent to study science, history, literature, theology, and military techniques in the schools of Istanbul. His early experience of government was as governor of several provinces, most notably Bolu in northern Anatolia, and his mother's homeland of Theodosia in Crimea at the age of 15. After succeeding his father after his death, Suleiman began a series of military conquests, starting with the capture of Belgrade in 1521. In 1522, he captured Rhodes after a siege, allowing the Knights Hospitaller (Knights of St. John, originally formed during the Crusades) to evacuate to Malta.

On August 29, 1526, Suleiman defeated Louis II of Hungary at the Battle of Mohács, occupying most of Hungary before giving it to John Zapolya, the prince of Transylvania, to govern. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and his brother Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, retook Hungary, in response to which Suleiman twice tried to re-invade, being beaten twice by the weather after reaching Vienna in 1529 and 1532. In 1533, a treaty was signed with Ferdinand, splitting Hungary between the Habsburgs and Zapolya. On Zapolya's death, Ferdinand was left the Hungarian territories, prompting Suleiman to annex Hungary, resulting in several struggles and peace treaties restoring the status-quo. Martin Luther wrote his tract, On War Against the Turks (1529) as a direct response to Suleiman's siege of Vienna. He responded to the political more so than to the religious threat, as he regarded the Turks and the Pope as “Anti-Christs.” “Just as the Pope,” he wrote, “is the Antichrist, so the Turk is the very devil incarnate” (Schultz, 1967: 181). The Turk was the “body,” the latter the “spirit” of the Antichrist. The Turks were also, however, “people of the wrath of God,” since Luther cautioned that unless Europeans repented of their sins, the Turks would triumph (184). Through the Turks, who were both “God's rod and the devil's servants,” God was punishing Christians for their unbelief (170). Luther also wrote the tract because some Germans believed they might be better off under the Turks than under the Holy Roman Emperor (193). At the end of the tract, he commented that he doubted the book would earn him a gracious reception “should it come” to Suleiman's attention. Later, the sultan is said to have enquired about Luther, “When told that Luther was forty-eight years old, the Sultan replied, ‘I wish he were younger; he would find me a gracious lord’” (205; FN 129). As Bernard Lewis (1993) points out, Suleiman's withdrawal was more of an orderly retreat than a defeat and “initiated a century and a half of stalemate during which the two empires—the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans—battled for the control of Hungary and ultimately of central Europe” (19).

In the following two decades, huge territories of North Africa west to Morocco and all of the Middle East north to Persia were annexed. This quick expansion was associated with naval dominance for a short period in the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf. In 1562, he conquered Transylvania. He was not so successful in 1565 when the Knights of Malta succeeded in lifting the siege of Malta (1565), which began on May 18 and lasted until September 8. Suleiman believed that God wanted Islam to control the whole world and sincerely believed that the world was God's gift to the Caliph of Islam. Writing to the Sharif of Mecca, he stated that God has “brought him to the throne…and to the position of the Caliphate.” The Sharif replied that “By conquering the countries of the Franks and their likes, you are senior to us and to all the sultans of Islam” (Inalcik: 321).

While he may have been seen as dangerous to the outside world, he was known as a fair ruler within the empire who fought corruption and who was a great patron of artists and philosophers. Many Muslims regards his rule as one of the best examples of good governance. He was also noted as one of the greatest Islamic poets and an accomplished goldsmith. He earned his nickname “the Lawmaker” from his complete reconstruction of the Ottoman law system. The laws that he gathered covered almost every aspect of life at the time. He acted against corrupt officials, especially those who overtaxed the population and on one occasion returned an overpayment of taxes to Egypt. He liked to sit in secret on court hearings to ensure that justice was done. Famously, he reversed a death sentence in the case of the Christian Molla Kabiz who had asserted the superiority of Jesus over Muhammad, saying that his arguments had not been disproved although in a later trial, they were judged to have been refuted. He appears to have had a genuine concern for the welfare of his subjects.

Suleiman died in 1566, the night before victory at the Battle of Szigetvar, in Hungary. He is buried in a mausoleum with his wife Roxelana (Khourrem) at the Süleymaniye Mosque, which was built for him by the famous architect, Sinan.

At the time of his death, the major Muslim cities (Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Baghdad), many Balkan provinces up to today's Austria, and most of North Africa were under the control of the empire.

Rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem

By 1517 the Islamic Ottoman Empire under Selim I took Palestine from the Egyptian Mameluks (1250–1517). The Ottomans had a benevolent attitude towards the Jews, having welcomed thousands of Jewish refugees who had recently been massacred and expelled from Spain by Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1492. The sultan was so taken with Jerusalem and its plight that he ordered that a magnificent surrounding fortress-wall be built around the entire city (which was not that large at the time). This wall still stands and can be seen today.

The succession struggle

Suleiman broke with convention by raising two slaves to positions of power. One, Damat Ibrahim Pasha rose to become Grand Vizier for 13 years. The other, a captured Ukrainian and daughter of a Eastern Orthodox Church priest, Anastasiya Lisovska (also known by several other names, including Roxelana and Khourrem (Hürrem)), was to rise through the ranks of the Harem to become his favorite wife, to the surprise of the empire and the international community. By her he had one daughter, Mihrimar(Mihrumâh), and the sons Mehmed (who died young), Selim II, Bayezid and Cihangir (born physically disabled).

In power struggles apparently instigated by Anastasiya Lisovska, Suleiman had İbrahim (a supporter of Süleyman's firstborn son Mustafa) murdered and replaced with Anastasiya’s son-in-law, Rustem Pasha (Rustem Paşa). Later, apparently believing that his popularity with the army threatened his own position, he had Mustafa strangled, leaving the way clear for one of Anastasiya’s sons.

In anticipation of Suleiman's death which, under the ruling practice of fratricide would also bring death to either Selim or Bayezid, the brothers engaged in a series of succession battles, resulting in Suleiman ordering the death of Bayezid, who was killed on September 25, 1561, after he was returned to the empire by the Shah after fleeing to Iran. Therefore it was Selim who eventually succeeded Suleiman, though he was to take little interest in government. Many Muslims regard Suleiman as an example of a Muslim leader approximating the ideal, his reign can also be regarded as a period of revitalization within Islam such as those that occur from time to time within religious and cultural traditions, similar to the Muslim belief that God raises up a reviver for each century. Certainly, his rule seems closer to the ideals of the rightly guided Caliphs than to the more despotic and godless rule of some of his own successors. Luther, the great Protestant reformer, could only see Suleiman's role in negative terms—although Pope and Sultan hated “each other” they yet “stood together against Christ and his kingdom” (1967: 200). However, it could be argued that Suleiman, through his legal initiatives and his stand against corruption, was also a reformer.


  • Lewis, Bernard. Islam and the West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0195090611
  • Inalchik, Halil. “Rise of the Ottomans.” In The Cambridge History of Islam, edited by P.M. Holt, Ann K.S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, 295–332. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
  • Luther, Martin. “On War Against the Turks.” In Luther's Works, vol. 46 (American edition), edited and translated by Robert C. Schultz, 155–205. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.


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